Bible study: Acts 17 – Greek converts

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

If the city officials were disturbed, why did they let Jason go?

Jason was Paul’s host, putting him and Silas up while they were visiting Thessalonica. But as the jealous Jews searched in vain to bring Paul and Silas to ‘justice’ for causing civil unrest, they end up with Jason instead. Their claim: “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus”. It’s this that the city officials were disturbed about, which is understandable, because no one wants a rival king.What I find interesting here is that despite their concerns they let Jason go.

What I find interesting here is that despite their concerns they let Jason go. So were the officials concerned about Jason, or about the Jews? Jason hadn’t claimed anything, by the way, this was just what the Jews were claiming about them. Maybe the officials read between the lines, realised that the Jews were flustered, and were more concerned about the Jews than the Christians? It’s plausible, I think, because if you were genuinely concerned about what these Christians were preaching you wouldn’t immediately let them out on bail, you’d interrogate them a bit more and keep them locked away until you had some answers, if only to keep the peace. It sounds to me like the city officials were more concerned about the Jews’ reaction to the Christians, rather than the Christians themselves.

What’s the significance of the Greek converts?

I’ve noticed this a few times as I’ve been reading through Acts. Every now and then some people believe what Paul has been preaching and become followers, and amongst them are some Greeks. Why be so specific about their origin? What’s so important about people from Greece that the writer feels they must document it?

We see it perhaps more clearly later in the chapter when Paul is in the Areopagus, but I think it comes down to a national stereotype. The Greeks were known for their philosophy, for their deep thinking, for the way they used their brains. They were a society of thinkers. So the significance that the writer wants to convey is that even the cleverest and wisest of people are coming to faith; it’s not about blind acceptance, it’s not a religion for those who don’t know any better, it’s not the reserve of the unscientific mind.

In my lifetime I’ve met a lot of people who don’t believe in Jesus, and they give various different reasons for their unbelief. For some, they genuinely haven’t made up their mind, and aren’t in any hurry. But a lot will tell me that it just doesn’t make sense, that it’s illogical, that it’s impossible, that it’s unscientific and therefore can’t be trusted. Some even go as far as to say that all religion is a man-made construction to control primitive minds, using that as an explanation for why religions are currently growing in ‘developing’ countries and seemingly dying out in ‘developed’ societies. There’s a definite idea that intelligent people don’t need God, and that only fools would buy into something so ridiculous.

I think that’s one of the reasons the writer of Acts seems so persistent in including these references to the Greek converts. The Greeks are known for being thinkers, an intelligent society that seeks answers and truth. So for a Greek to believe in Jesus is a big deal. It shows us that faith in God is not silly, or weak, or illogical.

Who was Dionysius, and why is he mentioned?

This follows on quite nicely from my previous point about the Greeks. This guy Dionysius works (or possibly lives) in the Areopagus, which is like a discussion forum. He’s a professional debater, a dedicated deep-thinker, a proper full-time Greek. And there is something about that name that must be significant too (otherwise the writer wouldn’t have remembered it) – it’s almost certainly a reference to the Greek god Dionysus.

Right, a little history lesson here (taken from Wikipedia, so it must be right). Dionysus was the god of wine, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy. I won’t go into the details, but I see Dionysus as a slightly drunk but excitable youth, with questionable respect for his elders, who generally enjoys having fun. If you’re going to be named after this god, you’ll be expected to hang around in bars, shouting and laughing a lot.

Paul has been busy talking about the altar “to an unknown god”, and about how Jesus makes God known to us. The Greeks in the Areopagus love nothing more than to hear new ideas; they soak them up avidly, like a university student being offered free beer. But Dionysius, in some way representing the god Dionysus, ends up rejecting everything for Jesus. Instead of drunken melodrama, he chooses truth. Instead of the established multi-god Greek religion, he chooses to follow the (singular) God of all creation. The Areopagean representative of song and dance is now dancing to a different tune. If a Greek Areopagite called Dionysius can become a Christian, anyone can.

For me, this is great news. I like thinking. I like science. I like deep philosophical debates late at night. I like using my brain. And it seems that that is perfectly aligned with a faith in Jesus. It also means that we probably shouldn’t always try to dumb our message down for the unchurched; all too often we simplify the gospel so that non-Christians might stand a chance of understanding it, when in fact these people are no more or less intelligent than we Christians! I’m not saying intellectual debates are the answer to every evangelistic opportunity, but equally there is plenty of room for engaging with people intelligently.

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