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Easter 5A, “Persevere in Proclaiming the Gospel”

Pastor Gary Wong, May 10, 2020

Acts 17:1-12

When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ," he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. 5 But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. 6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus." 8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9 Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. 10 As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

Many of you have probably heard the story of the “Tortoise and the Hare.” The tortoise, tired of this boastful bunny’s bragging, challenged this rascally rabbit to a race. The hare, supremely confident in his superior speed, was sure that he could take a nap during the race and still win. While the tortoise plodded along at a painfully slow pace, he never took a break. When the rabbit woke up, he saw that the tortoise was nearing the finish line. Even though the hare closed the gap in a flash, he was too late; the tortoise crossed the finish line first. One of the lessons from this fable is summarized in the saying “slow and steady wins the race.” Today’s lesson teaches us about the trait of perseverance. As we proclaim the gospel, we can expect opposition. Yet, we don’t have to be discouraged or give up. As we share the gospel, we have God’s promise that we can expect a multitude of blessings for ourselves and our hearers.

Undoubtedly, there is no better example of perseverance in proclaiming the gospel than the Apostle Paul. Our ascended Savior sought out Paul on the road to Damascus, brought him to faith, and then commissioned him to “carry [Jesus’] name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Paul was truly humbled that Jesus would choose him to be one of his apostles. He considered his mission to be a great privilege. He also knew that his work would not be easy. This former persecutor of Christ turned proclaimer of Jesus knew the zeal and lengths to which Jesus’ enemies would go to try to stop the gospel from being shared; that’s what he had been doing when Jesus stopped him in his tracks and gave him a new purpose in life. Jesus warned Paul about the opposition he would face. Jesus said, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16).

Paul, with God’s help, was up to the task. Filled with and guided by the Holy Spirit, Paul traveled the highways and byways of the Roman Empire proclaiming the gospel. How did Paul go about preaching the good news? Luke tells us that Paul’s approach to mission work was to start in the synagogue. There, he would find people who were familiar with the Scriptures. Now, those who came to the synagogue weren’t all Jews. There were also Gentiles (non-Jews) who believed in and worshiped the one true God. At the synagogue, Paul connected Jesus to the OT prophecies concerning the promised Savior. Paul did not limit his preaching and teaching to the synagogue; that was his starting point. From there he branched out to the marketplace. He shared the gospel with whomever, wherever, and whenever the Holy Spirit gave him the opportunity to do so.

Paul followed this approach to mission work when he came to Thessalonica, the bustling capital of the province of Macedonia. What were the results of his preaching? Luke tells us that “some of the Jews were persuaded to join Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4). Note that the Holy Spirit converted both Jews and Gentiles. God’s will is that all people be saved. The gospel cuts across all lines. It doesn’t matter to God the color of a person’s skin, what language he speaks, how old he is, whether he’s rich or poor, a king or a commoner; a man or a woman; there is no difference—all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and therefore all need a Savior. Paul’s pattern was to preach God’s law to convict people of their sins and share the gospel that assures that all who believe in Jesus are saved.

What happened on Paul’s missionary journeys and specifically in Thessalonica is a great example of how we can go about sharing the gospel, and also what we might expect as we proclaim the good news. God promises, “My word that goes out from my mouth …will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). It is God’s express purpose and desire to save all people; just as importantly, his gospel is the only way by which we can be saved. Yet, as powerful as the gospel is, human beings have the power to resist it. As crazy as it sounds, we can actually say “No” to Jesus. To put it another way, when we share the gospel, there are two possible outcomes. One is that the Holy Spirit will create faith in the heart of an unbeliever or strengthen the faith of one who already believes; the other possible effect is a hardening against Jesus and his Word.

Both of those things took place in Thessalonica. Some Jews and many Gentiles accepted Paul’s message; at the same time, some of the Jews rejected the gospel and opposed Paul. What did their opposition look like? The Jews who rejected Paul’s message didn’t just say, “No, I don’t believe you” and walk away; they went after him with a vengeance. These jealous Jews rounded up some thugs from the marketplace who stirred up the crowd. The mob then went to the house of Jason, a recent convert who had offered his hospitality to the apostle. Failing to find Paul, they dragged Jason in front of the city officials. Among the false accusations leveled against Paul, these agitators said, “They are defying Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king, one called Jesus” (17:7). In other words, they were accusing Paul of treason and that Jason was equally guilty because he had welcomed Paul into his house. Not able to get to Paul directly, these enemies of Christ did the next best thing. They forced Jason to post a bond, thus making him responsible for anything that Paul did. If Paul showed up and opened his mouth to share the gospel, Jason would lose his money (and probably worse).

So how did Paul and the Thessalonians respond to these tactics designed to intimidate and silence? Paul, as you know, wasn’t one to back down. However, knowing that the Holy Spirit had blessed his proclamation of the gospel with a solid core of believers, and realizing that his continued presence would expose this fledgling congregation to persecution, Paul went away to Berea. What did Paul do there? Did he lie low, hoping that the opposition would leave him alone? No way! Paul followed his same pattern and boldly proclaimed the gospel. What were the results of his preaching? The Holy Spirit blessed Paul’s proclamation to an even greater degree than in Thessalonica. What was the difference? It wasn’t that Paul had changed his message; Luke tells us that the Bereans were of a more “noble character.” They received Paul’s message with great eagerness; more than that, they “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (v.11). They didn’t accept Paul’s message just on his say so; they accepted it only after they had tested it against Scripture. That’s what the Bible tells us to do. We are to test what anyone says and compare it with God’s Word. That message must agree in every respect with God’s Word; if it does not, that message and the messenger must be refuted and rejected.

Our text ends with Luke telling us that in Berea, “many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (v.12). But that isn’t quite the end of the story. Remember the Jews who went after Paul in Thessalonica? When they heard that Paul was in Berea, they went there to stir up trouble for Paul. Not satisfied with running the apostle out of their home town, they wanted to do the same in Berea. While they succeeded in forcing Paul to leave, they weren’t successful in silencing him. To the contrary, their opposition led Paul to have more opportunities to share the gospel in Athens and beyond.

As we hear about all that Paul accomplished, we cannot help but praise the Lord for this great gift to his church. Yet, while we admire Paul, we are sometimes reluctant to follow his example. We might think, “I could never do what Paul did. I don’t have his gifts. Besides, Jesus made Paul his apostle to the Gentiles; not me.” Friends, I beg to differ. More importantly, God’s Word doesn’t agree with those sentiments. When Jesus told his disciples to “go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mk. 16:15) he was also talking to you and me. Like Paul, we have experienced God’s grace firsthand. While all of us are sinners who deserve God’s wrath and condemnation, God saved us by his grace. Even though we didn’t deserve it, God gave us the gifts of forgiveness, faith, and eternal life at our baptisms.

We now have a desire to serve the Lord and share the gospel with others; the Holy Spirit equips us to do that. Among the many fruits of the Spirit he gives are patience, faithfulness and perseverance, a quality that we need as we are opposed by those who reject the gospel. The opposition we face probably won’t be as severe as Paul’s enemies. It’s not likely that we are going to be beaten within an inch of our lives if we tell someone that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. It is likely that we will be laughed at when we say we believe that God created the world in six days; we will be accused of being a bigot if we stand for the biblical view of marriage and against gay marriage, and accused of being narrow minded when we say that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Jesus says that there is a cost to being his disciple. It can cost us friendships; it can cost us money. It might even cost us our lives. Yet, it is better to lose our lives for Christ than to lose our souls for eternity.

In terms of a race, proclaiming the gospel is more like a marathon than a sprint. So, in some ways, it’s good to be like a tortoise. We want to be consistent and persistent in sharing the good news. At the same time, we don’t want to be like a turtle that pulls its head in at the first sign of danger. God wants us to stick our necks out for the gospel; yet, he doesn’t leave us defenseless. He gives us his Word that is stronger than any turtle shell. The gospel protects us from all harm and is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. We shouldn’t be surprised if experience opposition to our message; however, we can also expect God to graciously bless us and our hearers. Therefore, let us persevere as we boldly and joyously proclaim the gospel. Amen.

“Lord Speak to Us that We May Speak” (CW 561)

Text: Frances R. Havergal, 1836-79, alt.

Lord, speak to us that we may speak

In living echoes of your tone.

As you have sought, so let us seek

Your straying children, lost and lone.

Oh, lead us, Lord, that we may lead

The wandr’ing and the wav’ring feet.

Oh, feed us, Lord, that we may feed

Your hung’ring ones with manna sweet.

Oh, teach us, Lord, that we may teach

The precious truths which you impart,

And wing our words that they may reach

The hidden depths of many a heart.

Oh, fill us with your fullness, Lord,

Until our very hearts o’erflow

In kindling thought and glowing word

Your love to tell, your praise to show.

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