Summary of Paul’s ministry in Athens. Don Richardson tells this story about Paul’s ministry to an unknown God in a book Eternity in Their Hearts:
In the 6th C. Athens was the subject of a terrible plague and the city elders were at a loss to know how to abate it. They believed the city was under a curse because they were guilty of treachery against the followers of Cylon, who were slain after they had been promised an amnesty. They had tried sacrificial offerings but to no avail. Turning to the Oracle for wisdom, the priestess said there was another god who remained unappeased for their treachery. Who was this unknown god? The priestess did not know but advised that they should send a ship to the island of Crete and fetch a man called Epimenides who would know how to appease the offended god.
Epimenides advised the elders to seek a sign from the unknown god. He told them to graze a flock of healthy sheep of different colors, some white, some black on the grassy slope of Mars Hill. He then prayed something on the lines of…
“O thou unknown god! Behold the plague afflicting the city. And if indeed you feel compassion to forgive and help us, behold the flock of sheep. Reveal your willingness to respond, I plead, by causing any sheep that pleases you to lie upon the grass instead of grazing… And those you choose we sacrifice to you – acknowledging our pitiful ignorance of your name”
Although it was early morning when the sheep were at their hungriest and therefore unlikely to stop grazing, before long some sheep settled down to rest and these were separated from the remainder of the flock for the sacrificial offering. Epimenides ordered stonemasons to construct altars on each animal’s resting place. On each, following Epimenides’ instructions, they inscribed the words “agnosto theo” meaning “to an unknown god”.
Within a week, the Athenians stricken by the plague recovered.
1. Paul was well educated, trained in argument and rhetoric.
2. Athens was full of philosophers, intellectuals,
“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:16–21, ESV)
3. Paul was greatly discouraged by the lack of response in Athens after giving one of the greatest reasoned and passionate presentations of the Gospel using the tools of rhetoric and argument.
4. He comes to Corinth, where he isn’t having much success either with his own people, who know the word of God but refuse the Messiah.
Ac 18:5–11. (In Corinth) Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”
His fellow Jews were well versed in the Scriptures, argument and debate. And Paul had ALL The Credentials. He studied under the revered Rabbi Gamaliel, the Grandson the famous Rabbi Hillel.
It was under the tutelage of Rabbi Gamaliel that Paul developed an expert knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul’s educational and professional credentials allowed him to preach in the synagogues wherever he traveled , and his grasp of Old Testament history and law aided his presentation of Jesus Christ as the One who had fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17).
It was like having a PhD from Harvard or Dallas Seminary. Acts 17:2 said he would regularly reason with the Jews from the Scriptures on the Sabbath days. He used his best gifts and natural talents, but found them NOT WORKING! Ever been there??? His best STRENGTH was not working!! He is ready to give up his ministry. God has to speak to him to encourage him, And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
The Compression of Scripture: Paul’s ministry takes over 14 years but we see it as one great event after another. We forget the months of the MUNDANE. Paul had to work for a living in Corinth. He had to make tents and spend many hours just working without doing ministry. He would argue on the Sabbath days. What did he do the most of the week? Dye Leather. BTW, it was considered an unclean profession for a Jew because you had to tan with blood and urine.
5. He changes tactics after recognizing the failure of reason to persuade…
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach THE MESSIAH crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:21–25, ESV)
He decides instead to rely upon the Spirit and the Anointing of God rather than his own strength… to become a fool, as it were, for Jesus.
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1–5, ESV)
6. What is Paul’s Weakness? Paul faced a real issue of credibility EVEN within the Churches he founded. He was not one of the original 12 disciples. He had not walked with Jesus. He may not even have ever seen Jesus before he was blinded on the road to Damascus. Plus his manner was so gentle that he did not present himself with commanding authority as did his enemies. No putting on airs or using titles.
“I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!— I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh.” (2 Corinthians 10:1–2, ESV)
“For even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be ashamed. I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters. For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” (2 Corinthians 10:8–10, ESV)
7. So what happens when others come in to his churches from Jerusalem and say he is not one of the true disciples and that his teachings are heretical, in error?
Background: Men from James, called Judaizers believe that for Gentiles to be saved, they must also follow all the Hebrew laws, be circumcised, keep kosher food laws and keep the Hebrew calendar feasts. They are confident, legalistic, and self-important. And they are throwing fear into the hearts of Paul’s converts that they have missed God and God is not pleased with them.
Paul’s response is a defense of his “weakness!”
“I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.” (2 Corinthians 11:1–6, ESV)
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel (Greek: angelos – messenger) of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” (2 Corinthians 11:13–15, ESV)
“For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that.” (2 Corinthians 11:19–21, ESV)
What is More, he compares God’s “weakness” to the might of men:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men 1 Co 1:25.
“For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.” (2 Corinthians 13:4, ESV)
8. Paul’s use of the word Weakness is always in relationship to other men. It isn’t a confession of being sick.
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger (Greek: angelos – angel) of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, ESV)
Paul knew the OT and the use of “thorn in the side” as a term used for war.
Numbers: 33: 55-56 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as y barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. 56And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.
Ezekiel 28:24 And for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the Lord GOD.
9. His Thorn, I believe was that everywhere he established churches, the Judaizers would come an attempt to undermine his ministry. What was the result of not having the thorn removed? Out of his weakness, we have a major portion of the New Testament written for our benefit! He is forced to defend the Gospel of Grace in his letters to Corinth and Galatia.
10. Paul’s character was one of humility and gentleness, not one lording it over others. He gave an example of how we should be towards one another, and to be aware of others who would take advantage of us by religious legalism, pride in position (like being a pastor or boss or rank) or abusive put downs. His weakness led to charges that he lacked God’s authority. Yet he had to live that way to be an example of Jesus.