Weekly Meditation - 21st May 2017

Acts 17:22-31  

Psalm 66:8-20

1 Peter 3:13-22

John 14:15-21

'Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have' (1 Peter 3:15). This was Peter’s admonition to the members of the early Christian Church. He wrote at a time when persecution was becoming severe, and he wanted believers to trust in God and to know that even in suffering 'for what is right' they would be blessed (3:13-14, see also Matthew 5:10-12).  Furthermore, they had no need to fear as did unbelievers who had no hope, but should commit themselves to Christ as their Lord (3:14-15).

Christians who have truly given their allegiance to Christ will be ready to defend their faith, but Peter emphasised that this should be achieved with 'gentleness and respect'. Modern Christians also know the importance of being able to justify their hopes and beliefs, and they will know of the temptation of allowing anger to take control, or of resorting to abusive speech, when they are confronted with hostility, contempt and slander. There are many instances on internet discussions, for instance, where Christians use blistering, contemptuous language in debating emotive issues – even to fellow-believers. Peter advised 'keeping a clear conscience' in order to put to shame the malice of others (3:15-16). The ire that Richard Dawkins has engendered has led to some Christians attacking him verbally with almost unrepeatable language – language that he has gleefully quoted in support of his criticism of Christianity. It is exactly this sort of situation against which Peter is warning; if Christians suffer for doing good, it might be part of God’s purpose, but no Christian should suffer for doing evil (3:17).  

When the apostle Paul visited Athens, he found himself in just the situation that could have led to a hostile confrontation.  While waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him, he was 'greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols' (see Acts 17:15-16). As he was discussing the Christian faith with Jews and 'God-fearing Greeks', some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers joined in and began to dispute with Paul (17:17-18) with the result that Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus (17:19-22).

Paul could have used this opportunity to speak contemptuously of the multiplicity of gods that the Athenians worshipped, and of their superstitious altar to 'an unknown god'. Instead, he commended them first of all for being 'very religious', and then he proceeded to 'proclaim' this unknown God to them (17:22-23).

In addressing the Athenians, Paul leapt over cultural barriers, quoting their poetry (17:28) and demonstrating masterly knowledge of their religion and their philosophy, not contradicting their views but showing them to be inadequate.  Far from being inaccessible or abusive, his speech would have been very relevant to his hearers, including the Epicureans and Stoics.  Paul’s aim was – in Peter’s words – to give an answer for the hope he had.  His ultimate purpose was not to justify himself, or to win an argument, however, but to gain some of his hearers for Christ (see 1 Corinthians 9:21-22).

To give a calm, reasoned answer when faced with jeering abuse (Acts 17:18) is difficult; in fact it requires super-human means.  But Christians have the power of the Holy Spirit within them, to inspire and help them. He is 'the Spirit of truth' (John 14:17) whom Jesus promised to his disciples. Jesus had told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them what to say when they were challenged regarding their faith (see Luke 12:11). If we are confident that the Holy Spirit is within us: therefore we can be certain that we are ready “to give an answer to everyone who asks the reason for the hope we have”.

Susan Thorne