Acts 15:36-18:22; 1 and 2 Thessalonians
Paul’s second missionary journey.
Paul’s second mission was truly epic in scope. He traveled much further to the west than he had on his first mission, from Antioch on the Syrian coast as far as Berea in Greece, preaching in the great cities of Athens and Corinth before returning to Caesarea after a period of about three years (see Bible Map 13).
Barnabas, Paul’s associate, wanted to take Mark along. But Paul “thought it not good” to take him, because Mark had abandoned them on a previous mission (Acts 15:37-39). Mark was apparently young and fearful of the challenge of missionary work (Acts 13:13), but he eventually matured in the faith (Col. 4:10, 2 Tim. 4:11; Philemon 24) and wrote the Gospel that bears his name. According to tradition, he was martyred at Alexandria.
Paul thus chose Silas as his missionary companion, one of the “chief men” among the brethren at Antioch and known for his gift of prophecy (Acts 15:22, 32). The journey falls roughly into two phases: (1) Paul’s work “confirming” the churches he had already established in Asia or what is now Turkey; and (2) his first preaching efforts in Greece. As Paul and Silas traveled, they were joined by the renowned disciples Timothy and Luke. The account of these travels demonstrates the importance of faithful and trustworthy companions in the work of the mission.
After visiting and strengthening the branches of the Church there, they were “forbidden of the Holy Ghost” to preach anymore in Asia. A vision appeared to Paul in the night: “There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (Acts 16:6-9). Concluding that the Lord had called them to preach in Macedonia, they “came with a straight course” across the Thracian Sea to Philippi. Paul and his associates thus became the first missionaries to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ on the continent of Europe. Their first convert was a “certain woman named Lydia . . . which worshipped God . . . whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto things which were spoken of Paul” (Acts 16:14).
The missionaries were cast into prison at Philippi for undermining some local diviners who made money from duping the public. “At midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God.” Suddenly an earthquake shook the prison doors open, but Paul and Silas remained in place as the law required. The jailer was so impressed by this that he asked Paul to teach him the Gospel. The jailer’s entire household was baptized that very night.
After their release from prison, the missionaries went on to Thessalonica, where they preached at the synagogue for three Sabbaths. Paul’s teaching method was to come to the pulpit, as was the right of any Jewish man, where he “reasoned with them out of the scriptures, opening and alleging that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen from the dead,” and that Jesus is Christ (Acts 17:2-3). Some accepted the Gospel, “but the Jews which believed not” created uproar. “Moved with envy,” they gathered a mob and dragged the brethren to the rulers of the city, claiming that Paul was preaching “contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, one Jesus.” But the rulers let them go and Paul and Silas journeyed on to the nearby town of Berea.
How did the people in the synagogue in Berea receive Paul’s teachings?
Berea was a small city compared to Thessalonica, and the little synagogue there apparently more humble and more teachable. Paul probably approached the synagogue in his usual way, teaching from the scriptures about Christ crucified and risen from the dead. His reception at Berea differed significantly from his reception in Thessalonica. “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
The Greek term prothymia translated here as “readiness of mind” is translated elsewhere as “a willing mind” (2 Cor. 8:12). In other words, the Berean Jews were different in that they were “ready and willing” to receive the mind and will of the Lord. They tested Paul’s teachings against the scriptures and found that he spoke truth; “therefore many of them believed.” But the Adversary was not far behind, and some of the Thessalonian Jews showed up in Berea to persecute Paul and stir up the people.
How can we develop a “readiness of mind” for learning the gospel?
Like the Berean saints, we must be ready and willing to accept the instructions of true prophets. “Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind,” says latter-day scripture (D&C 64:34) “and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion.” What were the Bereans ready and willing to do? To receive the word of the Lord and to act upon it.
Also, the Berean saints followed the sound practice of testing the teachings of Paul against the scriptures. They “searched the scriptures daily” in order to verify the words of Paul. The Greek term translated here as “search” actually means “to scrutinize closely, to examine”; apparently, a key difference between the Thessalonian and the Berean Jews was this habit of closely examining the scriptures in search of truth. Latter-day Saints must also make a habit of scrutinizing the scriptures on a daily basis if we wish to be attuned to the voice of truth as the Bereans were.
What did Paul teach the Athenians about God?
Paul escaped the troublemakers from Thessalonica, leaving Silas and Timothy in Berea to strengthen the church there. Traveling southward, passing the great Mount Olympus, Paul arrived at the very center of Classical Greek civilization, the city of Athens. Renowned for its schools of philosophy and its majestic pagan temples, Athens presented an irresistible challenge to the missionary Paul. He taught the gospel openly in the synagogue there and in the marketplace.
In this forum, the revelation of Jesus Christ ran headlong into the philosophies of men. “Certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say?” And they brought him to the Areopagus, or hill of Mars, a traditional setting for public debates and speeches, “for all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:18, 21). The setting was remarkable, for the Parthenon, the grand temple of Athena, looks directly down on Mars’ Hill (see Bible Photo 29).
In this center of ancient learning, the great philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had taught. The Athenian philosophical schools were world renowned, and here men had reached the highest achievements of human reason. But by the time of Paul, much of this tradition had disintegrated. Hugh Nibley describes the situation in Athens this way:
“An army of brilliant and high-powered talkers, having caught the public fancy as traveling virtuosi, opened schools which in short order got a monopoly of public and private education.” These popular talkers propagated “a mock philosophy whose aim is not knowledge but the appearance of knowledge.” Even Socrates had been wise enough to point out that “honest study has no more chance of competing with this sort of thing than a conscientious doctor would have of keeping his child patient in competition with a pastry cook who prescribed nothing but dessert”(1)
In contrast to the popular theorizers of the day, Paul announced revelation from heaven to the men of Athens: “I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”
The key principles Paul taught the Athenians in Acts 17 can be summed up this way:
- This great unknown God is Lord and creator of heaven and earth (v. 24-25)
- God has created “of one blood all nations of men” (v. 26)
- If we are willing to find him, he is not far from every one of us (v. 27, JST)
- We are his offspring (v. 28)
- As his offspring, we should not think that the Godhead can be represented by idols (v. 29)
- During the times of ignorance, God “winked at” the ill doings of men, but now commands all men everywhere to repent (v. 30). The term “winked at” is more properly translated “overlooked”; God is merciful to those who through no fault of their own do not know his laws.
- He will judge the world in righteousness by “that man he hath ordained,” Jesus Christ, whom “he hath raised from the dead” (v. 31)
When the crowd heard Paul teach the resurrection, some mocked him, probably loudly enough to end the speech. Others who wanted to hear more “clave unto him, and believed.” Apparently, most of the Athenians were willing enough to listen to Paul’s ideas–up to that point he was just another preacher–until he started to make claims about a real resurrection from the dead; they could not go along with that. “Whatever merit philosophy might have in the search for God has been superseded by a revelation from heaven,” (2) and the crowd was not willing to give up the philosophical game for the revelatory reality.
Why is it important to know that “we are God’s offspring”? How does an understanding of God’s true nature and his role as our Father help us love and worship him?
In his Mars’ Hill speech, Paul makes it perfectly clear that all nations of the earth are created of one blood and all are the “offspring of God.” Some have interpreted this saying to mean that we are adopted children, not truly “offspring” except in the sense of being adopted into the household of faith if we believe. However, the Greek term translated as “offspring,” genos, literally means “kin” or “family.” This word is the root of modern English terms such as genus and genealogy.
Modern revelation verifies Paul’s teaching. The Prophet Joseph Smith testified, “By him, and through him, and of him [Jesus Christ], the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:23-24).
The importance of this revelation is unparalleled. To know that we are literally of the same nature and even of the same family as the great God of the Universe–this is inestimable knowledge. Where the philosophies of men teach that we are either the result of some cosmic accident or the worm-like creature of a Creator who is forever and utterly different from us, Paul and Joseph teach that we are literally the children of a loving Father in Heaven. At once the solicitude, kindness, and loving attention of God himself become understandable–he loves us as we love our own children, care for them, nurture them, correct them, and take pleasure in their growth and progression. And of course, his perfect parental love for us far exceeds the love we are capable of.
To know that we are the offspring of God also opens up new and infinite perspective on our own potential. For as the parent is, the child can become (D&C 132:20).
Ultimately, to know that we are the offspring of God helps us understand the true meaning of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. To be saved through the Atonement is not to be politely invited into the kingdom of God as an adopted stranger but to be restored to the bosom of our Heavenly Father and Brother to whom we are quite literally kin. An understanding of this relationship gives warmth and power to the promise that “mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircle [us] in the arms of safety.” To be “at one” with God literally means to be embraced by our very own loving Father in Heaven–an embrace which all will enjoy who believe on his name and practice faith unto repentance (Alma 34:15-16).
What does Paul teach the Thessalonians about how to teach the gospel to others?
“After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth.” While at Corinth, he stayed with a Jewish refugee named Aquila, who like Paul was a tentmaker. To support himself as a missionary, Paul worked alongside Aquila and taught in the synagogue every Sabbath. In Corinth he had time to write his first great epistles, those addressed to the church members in Thessalonica. Here he laid out the key principles of missionary labor, the signs of power by which the gospel can be recognized in a world obsessed with covetousness and the philosophies of men–a world very much like our own.
First, he reassures the members that he is not just another wandering teacher, of which there were so many at that time: “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost” (1 Thess. 1:5). The witness of the Holy Ghost is the distinctive seal of gospel truth and sets it apart immediately from the teachings of mere men. To modern missionaries, the Lord unequivocally commands, “If ye receive not the Spirit, ye shall not teach” (D&C 42:14); and “unto what were ye ordained? To preach my gospel by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth” (D&C 50:14).
Additionally, missionaries must be bold. “We were bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God with much contention [better translated as “striving” or “earnestness”].” The mark of a true messenger of God is the bold declaration of truth without equivocating. “Ye are not sent forth to be taught, but to teach the children of men the things which I have put into your hands by the power of my Spirit” (D&C 43:15).
To teach the gospel effectively, we must ourselves have clean and sincere hearts: “Our exhortation was not of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile . . . neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness: nor of men sought we glory.” (1 Thess. 2:3-6).
Perhaps most significantly, the hallmark of the effective gospel teacher is charity. “We were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children: so being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us” (1 Thess. 1:7-8). It is only through this kind of unfeigned love that the power of the Atonement of Christ can be fully realized in the lives of people. How do we develop the kind of love Paul speaks of? “Pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” (Moroni 7:48).
Paul knew that great tragedy would engulf the Church if these signs of power were lost. He warned that the Spirit of the Lord would withdraw from the Church, that the gospel would no longer be declared in charity and boldness, and that because covetousness, flattery, and unrighteousness would overtake even the house of God. “There shall come a falling away,” he prophesied, “and that man of sin be revealed . . . with all deceivableness of unrighteousness” (JST 2 Thess. 3, 10).
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast,” Paul pleads with the saints of his time and of ours, “and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle. Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work” (2 Thess. 2:15-17).
1 Nibley, H. The World and the Prophets. Deseret Book, 1987, pp. 109-110.
2 Nibley, p. 43.