Engaging the Word – Acts 17:1-15

by Roger McCay
16 August 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 17:1-15
Link to Audio Version

The story is told of a fellow, who was sharing, with his next-door neighbor, about a speaker he had heard the night before. He told the neighbor, “That guy said something that has really stuck in my mind. He said that all of the world’s problems could be summed up in two words: ignorance and apathy. What do you think?” The neighbor replied, “I really don’t know, and I really don’t care.”[1]

It’s a sad commentary on society, when we realize we fully understand the neighbors position. We see it all around us: complacency, indifference, apathy, “Who cares?” But this is just a defensive position. It’s a defense against anything that might affect a person’s personal peace. It’s a defense against change. It’s a defense against anything that might threaten the idol of comfort.

Perhaps this explains the position many nominal Christians have towards the Scriptures. They’ll acknowledge the Bible is important, that it is God’s Word, maybe even that it is vital for life. Yet, they don’t read it. They don’t study it. They may open their Bible on Sunday, when the pastor is preaching, but they don’t during the week. They don’t seek out opportunities to learn, when God’s Word is taught. And they don’t dig into the Word on their own.

Such apathy, such a laziness towards the Word of God, in personal study or in the various forms of its proclamation, is, in a way, a defense. It is a defense against the transformative nature of the Scriptures. Rather than have their world turned right-side up by God’s Word, they prefer to be ignorant, living in an upside-down world. This preference is expressed in apathy and laziness towards God’s Word, keeping their idol of comfortableness secure. For when one digs into the Scriptures, he finds them alive and personal. She finds herself in an encounter with the living God, disturbing worldly personal peace. Such an encounter casts down idols, like the idols of comfort and affluence.

God’s Word brings change to one’s life and even transforms one’s very being. Thus, safety is sought from the threat of change, finding security in the answer, “I really don’t know, and I really don’t care.” But such security is an illusion, a delusion, and a fantasy, providing no security at all. Indeed, it is an exceedingly precarious position.

In our passage today, we find Paul and Silas, with Timothy, moving on from Philippi. They passed westward through Amphipolis and Apollonia, along the Via Egnatia, coming to Thessalonica. The journey was about 95-miles, and they likely stopped over in each city. It would have taken them about three days by horse, or a little longer if they were on foot.

Coming to Thessalonica, they found a synagogue. There, Paul proceeded with his usual pattern: first going to the synagogue; proclaiming the gospel; and then expanding from there, with the result of many and various people coming to faith in the Lord Jesus. The Thessalonian church was planted. But, persecution quickly raised its ugly head, which was also usual, forcing the missionaries to flee the city.

From Thessalonica, they went south to Berea, where they went through all that once again. This time Paul was sent off to the coast, to then travel to Athens, likely by ship.

Our focus today, in these accounts of Thessalonica and Berea, is upon the healthy environments portrayed of active proclamation, study, and the hearing of the Word of God. From these accounts, we find some insight into the duties of the preacher and teacher of the Word, along with the duties of the hearers of the Word. We also have a testimony as to the transformation that happens in such environments and its impact upon the world.

Verses 2-4:

And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.

In vv. 2-4, Luke describes elements of Paul’s proclamation of the gospel in the synagogue (which would have been consistent in both Thessalonica and Berea). In the synagogue, there was an advantage, as the people had some knowledge of the Scriptures (the Old Testament). Hence, Paul’s preaching and teaching consisted of utilizing God’s Word to illustrate the truth of the gospel.

From a Christ-centered point of view, Paul gave the proposition that Jesus is the promised and hoped for Messiah, and that he had to suffer and be resurrected. This would have also included other elements of the gospel, such as the cross, ascending into Heaven, and the fact that Jesus rules as King (v. 7)). Paul then reasoned, explained, and proved this Christ-centered proposition, from the Scriptures.

In reasoning, Paul did not just quote Scripture verses to them and simply expect the Holy Spirit to make all the logical connections for them. Paul walked them through the steps of thinking about the connections in the Scriptures. “This points to this. And, if this, then that. And because of that, then this.” He pointed out a verse or passage, and he helped them think about it. “What does it say? What does it imply? What does this say about Jesus?”

In explaining, Paul opened the Scriptures for them with simplicity and clarity. He helped them with the connections he had shown them in reasoning. “Can you see how this points to Jesus—who he is, what he went through, what he did for you? Think about it, what does the Scripture say about Jesus? Here are the logical points of connection, do you see the truth?” He removed the fog, shining the light of Jesus on the Scriptures, pointing out how they pointed to Jesus.

It is what Jesus did on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. In vv. 25-27, Jesus responded to a couple of disciples lamenting his death by explaining, opening the Scriptures for their hearts and eyes to see:

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Then vv. 31-32:

31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

Through reason and explanation, Paul proved his stated proposition that Jesus is the Christ promised in the Scriptures, and that he had to suffer and be resurrected. Paul placed these claims, showing the people where they were found in the Scriptures (perhaps in Hosea, Isaiah, the Psalms, and the Pentateuch, among other places). He led the people along the path of reason to come to the verdict of truth in Christ. He proved the gospel, by showing them where the Scriptures pointed to Christ and explaining how Jesus fulfilled them in his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation.

Notice, too, in all this, Paul took his time to preach and teach with patience and care. He didn’t use showy evangelistic tactics. He didn’t threaten them with Hell, using scare tactics in order to coerce them. He didn’t try to entertain them, seeking an emotional response to an invitation. He didn’t sit and play “Just as I Am” over and over until someone finally came forward. He didn’t just quote Scripture at them. He didn’t hit them over the head with the Bible. Rather, he talked with them, reasoning in a clear way, interrogating the Scriptures with them, trying to “win them to his side.” He wanted them to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ based on a true understanding of God’s Word.

So, we have it that the Lord, through his Spirit (John 3:3-8) … The Lord brought many people in Thessalonica and Berea to a saving knowledge and faith, establishing his church, as a result of Paul’s patient preaching and teaching.

As to the Bereans, Luke makes a statement, in v. 11, that highlights their particularly noble response concerning God’s Word:

11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

You may remember my exhortations, at various times, to “Be like the Bereans!” This is the passage to which I’ve been referring. When I say “Be like the Bereans,” I’m encouraging you to be noble, to embrace and display the illustrious and outstanding qualities that were found in the Bereans, by eagerly digging into the Scriptures to verify or deny whatever it is I’m preaching and teaching.

Notice what made the Bereans noble. They received the Word with all eagerness. They examined the Scriptures daily. They examined the Scriptures to verify and understand the message of Jesus Christ that Paul was reasoning, explaining, and proving. There was no hint of apathy and laziness in these people, when it came to the Lord’s Word. They fought against ignorance. They went the extra mile for true knowledge. And, they were willing and hopeful to be transformed by what they found in God’s Word.

Such nobility is the standard raised for the hearing of the Word of God, as it is preached and taught, particularly for members of the Lord’s royal household—believers. When it comes to the preaching and teaching of the Word, you, as believers, have an obligation to engage the Word, as part of hearing. This is not a passive thing. Your participation is required. The Westminster Confession lays out that obligation in the WLC, question 160 (which you’ll find on the front of your bulletin along with supporting Scripture references). Flip over there with me.

It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, (Prov. 8:34) preparation, (1 Pet. 2:1–2, Luke 8:18) and prayer; (Ps. 119:18, Eph. 6:18–19) examine what they hear by the scriptures; (Acts 17:11) receive the truth with faith, (Heb. 4:2) love, (2 Thess. 2:10) meekness, (James 1:21) and readiness of mind, (Acts 17:11) as the word of God; (1 Thess. 2:13) meditate, (Luke 9:44, Heb. 2:1) and confer of it; (Luke 24:14, Deut. 6:6–7) hide it in their hearts, (Prov. 2:1, Ps. 119:11) and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives (Luke 8:15, James 1:25).[2]

I wonder how many folks here at MPC are doing these things, at least to some extent? It is a high standard, after all. As it is, I know many of you spend regular quality time in the Word. Nevertheless, we must not forget that, when it comes to receiving of the Word of God preached, our engaging the preached Word of God, as the catechism explains, is an essential part of discipleship—following Jesus.

Hearing a sermon is not a passive thing, my friends. The command of the Lord in James 1:22 is clear, “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Hearing a sermon is an activity that involves effort and diligence on your part, as the congregation, in the harmonious process of being and producing fruit of the Word in your lives. It involves much more than simply sitting in the pew, or listening online, while the preacher does the work.

This means you are to consciously and deliberately prepare to receive the sermons brought to you in the pulpit. It means that you are to mentally engage with the sermon, wrestling with it, going to the Word yourself and digging deeper into it, meditating on it, hiding in your heart the preached Word of God, as it becomes a part of you. This is also true, to an extent, when it comes to the other means we, as a church, provide for you in order to engage God’s Word—Sunday School, evening service, Bible studies, and so forth. Are you eager to engage the Lord’s Word? What do your actions say?

Let the preaching and teaching of the Word cause you to truly evaluate your life in such a way that fruit is brought forth in your life from it. The Word of God is transformative, and the Lord uses its proclamation to those ends. Don’t short yourself on this. If you truly engage the Word of God, the Word of God engages you. The Spirit of God works in you through the Word, sanctifying you, honing you, as one of his people, after the image of Christ. Take advantage of every opportunity to receive this blessing.

Now, v. 6 of our passage speaks to what happens to the world around us when the people of God are transformed by the Lord’s Word, according to the Lord’s will. You become instrumental, in harmony with the Lord’s Word and Spirit, in turning the world right-side up, to the consternation of the Lord’s enemies.

From the world’s perspective, transformed believers turn the world upside down, upsetting the applecart of worldliness and idolatry. But woe to them! Isaiah spoke of such a perspective in Isaiah, ch. 5, vv. 20 & 27:

20 Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

27 Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

Can’t you see when you look around at the world how upside down it is from what God has called good in his Word? Everything is in shambles or twisted: marriages, relationships, the family, community, government, commerce, and love. The world’s version of right-side up is easy divorce; hatred; cancel culture; do “whatever it takes to get ahead” ethics; do whatever feels good, no matter the consequences, morality; and me first idolatry. That’s why, from a Christian perspective, it’s so bizarre. We wonder, “What is wrong with these people? What is going on?” The Lord’s Word answers us: sin, rebellion against God, demonic influences, idolatry, and darkness.

But God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105). It shows the twisting paths away from the path upon which the Lord Jesus leads us. Our walk with Christ is right-side up from God’s perspective, and we affect everything we touch along the way. Some people hear the gospel and believe; they then spread the light, and on and on. Others hear the gospel and they scream in anger and rage.

“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor. 2:15-16).

Thus it is, that a true believer, a disciple of Christ soaked in God’s Word, is a force for good in the world, a light shining bright in the darkness for Jesus, affecting everything in some way or another for God’s glory.

My friends, hold those of us, in the church, who are teachers and preachers, accountable to the faithful proclamation of the Word. You should see the elements Paul used here in Acts 17 in our messages, as we preach and teach: Christ-centered, propositional and relevant, reasoned from the Scriptures, explained from the Scriptures, and proven from the Scriptures. If we’re not doing that, call us on it.

Likewise, hold yourself accountable, as you receive the Word of God preached and taught. Be doers of the Word, showing fruit, as you follow Jesus faithfully, according to his revealed will. This will mean witness, at times, and you’ll find yourself reasoning, explaining, and proving from the Scriptures. Like Peter said, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). How you get prepared includes how you engage the Word on any given day.

Now, concerning the Sunday sermon, you might be thinking, “I just can’t remember enough of the sermon to do all this.” Well, first off, turn to the relevant passage in Scripture, and meditate on the passage. You’ll be amazed at what will come to you as you sit with the Word open and your mind engaged with it. Another thing is that, as your pastor, I’ve gone to some lengths to make sure your ability to engage the sermon is easier than just trying to remember what I said. Too many times I’ve gotten the whole, “I enjoyed your sermon. It really spoke to me, pastor.” To which I reply, “What spoke to you about it?” With the answer of “I don’t really remember what it was, but it spoke to me.” So, I’ve tried to provide a way to rectify such memory lapses, by putting it all out there for you. The sermons are posted online at my website (rogermccay.org), and I’ve been posting the actual sermon manuscripts right along with them. It’s all there for your use. Take advantage of it!

Furthermore, check me! Question what I say. Verify it. I make no claims to perfection in my preaching and teaching. If you disagree or don’t understand, dig in the Word, research, put your thoughts in order, as to what the Scriptures say concerning the issue. Talk to someone else in the congregation about it. Do this, at least, for your own edification. Even more, come to me to discuss it for both our edification. The main thing is that you are coming to better understand God’s Word and how it applies in your life and the world. Do this prayerfully and with a humble heart. The Spirit is within you, listen for his voice.

Additionally, discuss the sermon and whatever teachings are going on as part of our church life. Discuss these things with other folks in the congregation. It’s amazing what insights other people will have, as they meditate on the same Scriptures you are meditating upon, insights that you would have never considered. If the whole congregation is going about engaging the Word in the way we’ve looked at today, can you imagine how much insight and understanding is out there? Seek it out. We learn and grow more effectively, in our knowledge and understanding, together.

These are the type of practices done by people, who are eager concerning God’s Word, going the opposite direction from ignorance and apathy.

The Lord has lifted the standard before us, when it comes to the preaching, teaching, and hearing of his Word. Let us be eager to expand our knowledge and understanding, as we delve into his message to us. Then, when we see the world turned right-side up, as our transformed lives interact with it, give God the glory!

Because the gospel of Jesus Christ turns the world right-side up, through transformed lives, we must diligently engage the Word of God.



[1] Guy McGraw, “Ignorance and Apathy,” Sermon Central, last modified June 28, 2011, https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon-illustrations/79324/attitude-general-by-guy-mcgraw?ref=TextIllustrationSerps.

[2] The Westminster Larger Catechism: With Scripture Proofs (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996), 160.