A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Ministry of Paul, Part I

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:


In the previous blog, we examined the public ministry of Peter and John in order to develop an understanding of the public theology presented in Acts. As most readers of this blog know, the primary figure in the narrative of Acts switches from Peter to Paul after Acts 13. In this blog, we will begin our discussion on the public theology of Paul as presented in Acts. In particular, we will focus on four events during Paul’s first and second missionary journeys.

Paul at Lystra

We begin by examining the events surrounding Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas. In Acts 14:8-18, Luke records the account of a lame man being healed by the hands of Paul (much like the healing of the lame beggar in Acts 3). However, the major difference between Acts 3 and Acts 14 was the audience. In Acts 3, Peter is largely addressing a Jewish audience who has the same essential worldview that he does; however, in this scene, Paul is addressing a Gentile audience whose worldview is thoroughly influenced by the religious pluralism of the Roman Empire. The miracle astounded the crowd and the crowd believed that Hermes and Zeus have appeared in the likeness of Paul and Barnabas, respectively (v. 11-12). This illustrates that the Lycaonians were not intellectual philosophers like the Athenians, Corinthians, or Romans. They were most likely simple villagers who gave a spontaneous instinctive response consistent with their adherence to Greek mythology and superstitions. Based on the belief of the crowd, the priest of Zeus brought animals to Paul and Barnabas (v. 13). As individuals who believed in strict monotheism, Barnabas and Paul found this to be blasphemous and idolatrous. Paul used this example of clear paganism and heathenism to preach to the crowds.

Paul directly confronts the Lycaonians by calling their gods, nothing more than vain idols (v. 15). Here, we see that the preaching of Christ directly conflicted with the religious worldview of the Lycaonians. In other words, Paul’s preaching confronts the idolatry of the Lycaonians and calls them to repentance. Instead of give obeisance to Zeus and the various other gods accepted in the Roman system, Paul calls them to turn to the living God – the Creator of all things (v. 15). Here, we see the general pattern of Paul’s message: the call to repentance and the call to faith in Christ.

Paul at Athens

Some readers may think that Paul’s approach to the Lycaonians is based upon the pretext that he is addressing a religiously primitive people, which would be very dissimilar to a 21st century post-Christian culture. When Paul enters Athens in Acts 17, he enters a city which is renowned for its learning, philosophy, and fine arts, which would be much more similar to our culture today. However, he also observes that the Athenians are functionally just as superstitious as the Lycaonians because the city was wholly given to idolatry and philosophical speculation. In other words, the Athenians fit the description of fallen man as described in Romans 1:22-23

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

As Paul observes the idolatry around him, his spirit was provoked within him, until he could not forbear to speak any longer (v. 16). He immediately begins to reason and debate with Jews, devout persons, philosophers, and all others who would hear him concerning Jesus and the resurrection (v. 17-18). When he was finally brought to the Areopagus, he now gets to opportunity to address the seat of the venerable supreme court of Athens.

First, he directly addresses their superstitions since they have an altar built to the “unknown god” (v. 22-23). Second, he proclaims to them the one, true living God as the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Third, he directly confronts their folly in believing that “the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” (v. 29). In each of his points, Paul is directly assailing their worldview of the Athenians. He then calls them to repentance because of the testimony of the resurrection. In many respects, Paul’s commentary to the Athenians (who are known as highly educated and philosophically sophisticated) is not much different than his address to the simple Lycaonians.

Paul at Philippi

Not only did Paul’s proclamation of the gospel confront the idolatry of his day, but it also interrupted the commerce in the cities that he visited.

One of the first cities that Paul visits in his second missionary journey with Silas was Philippi. After receiving the Macedonian vision in Acts 16, he begins to preach the gospel in Philippi, which is a major city in Macedonia and a Roman colony. Paul initially preaches the gospel on the Sabbath to god-fearing women who had come together for a time of prayer and the Lord opened the eyes of Lydia in order to pay attention to what was said by Paul (v. 13-14). At this point, it appears that Paul’s preaching did not disrupt the normal activities of Philippi. However, Paul’s consistent preaching of the gospel in this town eventually interrupts commerce in the city.

While preaching in Philippi, Paul and Silas were met by a slave girl who possessed by an evil spirit. Because the slave girl was disrupting the preaching of the gospel, Paul commands the unclean spirit to come out of the girl. This is important for at least two reasons: (1) The casting out of evil spirits is evidence that the kingdom of God is present among the Philippians (cf. Luke 11:20) and (2) The slave girl was believed to have a spirit of divination, which implies that she brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling (cf. Acts 16:16). In other words, men could tolerate varieties of worship or the speculations of philosophers, but they were roused to madness by that which threatened their business. Consider Albert Barnes’ notes on this section:

The charge which they wished to substantiate was that of being disturbers of the public peace. All at once they became conscientious. They forgot the subject of their gains, and were greatly distressed about the violation of the laws. There is nothing that will make people more hypocritically conscientious than to denounce, and detect, and destroy their unlawful and dishonest practices. People who are thus exposed become suddenly filled with reverence for the Law or for religion, and they who have heretofore cared nothing for either become greatly alarmed lest the public peace should be disturbed. People slumber quietly in sin, and pursue their wicked gains; they hate or despise all law and all forms of religion; but the moment their course of life is attacked and exposed, they become full of zeal for laws that they would not themselves hesitate to violate, and for the customs of religion which in their hearts they thoroughly despise. Worldly-minded people often thus complain that their neighborhoods are disturbed by revivals of religion; and the preaching of the truth, and the attacking of their vices, often arouses this hypocritical conscientiousness, and makes them alarmed for the laws, and for religion, and for order, which they at other times are the first to disturb and disregard.  

Paul at Ephesus

The above commentary from Albert Barnes also explains the events which occurred during Paul’s missionary journey in Ephesus. When Paul arrived in Acts 19, he initially preached the gospel and the kingdom of God in the synagogue and due to the opposition of the Jews, he was forced to continue preaching in the hall of Tyrannus (v. 8-10). Unlike many other regions in which he traveled, Paul stayed in Ephesus for two years, which means that the Word of God (accompanied with various signs and miracles) went forth throughout the entire city for an extended period of time. God used the preaching of the Word to bring many of the Ephesians to faith (v. 21). At this point, there is no controversy concerning Christianity within Ephesus; however, as Luke narrates, a number of believers who formerly practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all (v. 18-20).

The preaching of the word of God not only affected the private lives of believers, but it also affected the local commerce in the area. In particular, the spread of Christianity in Ephesus affected the craftsmen who profited from religious pluralism of the day (v. 23-27). Consider Matthew Henry’s commentary of the section:

Persons who came from afar to pay their devotions at the temple of Ephesus, bought little silver shrines, or models of the temple, to carry home with them. See how craftsmen make advantage to themselves of people’s superstition, and serve their worldly ends by it. Men are jealous for that by which they get their wealth; and many set themselves against the gospel of Christ, because it calls men from all unlawful crafts, however much wealth is to be gotten by them. There are persons who will stickle for what is most grossly absurd, unreasonable, and false; as this, that those are gods which are made with hands, if it has but worldly interest on its side. The whole city was full of confusion, the common and natural effect of zeal for false religion.

The threat of the gospel to the business of the merchants eventually leads to a riot in Ephesus (v. 28-41).

Concluding Thoughts

What might we conclude about Paul’s interactions with the public on his first and second missionary journeys? First, we must realize, as Henry van Til famously quipped, that culture is religion externalized. In other words, the conscious or unconscious relationship to God in a man’s heart determines all of his activities, such as philosophy, morality, aesthetics, and other cultural activities. This means that we should observe the culture around us as it truly is – as implications of a society’s religious worldview.

Second, we should reject the notion that any culture (or sub-culture) is religiously neutral and we should engage and confront the people of any culture with Christian truth and the worldview that is consistent with Christian truth. Whether we live in a primitive culture (like the Lycaonians) or a philosophically sophisticated culture (like the Athenians), the preaching of Christ challenges all human cultures because ultimately all human cultures have the same existential problems, which is sin and depravity.

Third, we should note that when God transforms and saves any person, it does not simply affect one’s personal, private life, but it affects the whole person. In other words, we expect that when the word of God transforms the individuals inside of a culture, it cannot be fully contained within the private life of the individual, but rather it will affect his cultural activities and how he relates to a given culture. It’s important to note that Paul did not have to preach on all of the various cultural issues of his day in order for there to be discernible changes within a given culture (such as commerce within Philippi and Ephesus). Paul focused his attention on the preaching of Christ and it was through this preaching that the private life of individuals and the social life of various cities were changed. Therefore, we should not be naïve to believe that public opposition to Christianity is based purely upon philosophical or intellectual reasons. If Christians live in the Kingdom of man as salt and light, then it will have a direct effect on public affairs (with a direct emphasis on dishonest businesses).

LBCF of 1677/1689 – Chapter Thirty, Of the Lord’s Supper

1. The supper of the Lord Jesus was instituted by him the same night wherein he was betrayed, to be observed in his churches, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance, and shewing forth the sacrifice of himself in his death, confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits thereof, their spiritual nourishment, and growth in him, their further engagement in, and to all duties which they owe to him; and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 1 Corinthians 10:16, 17,21 )

2. In this ordinance Christ is not offered up to his Father, nor any real sacrifice made at all for remission of sin of the quick or dead, but only a memorial of that one offering up of himself by himself upon the cross, once for all; and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God for the same. So that the popish sacrifice of the mass, as they call it, is most abominable, injurious to Christ’s own sacrifice the alone propitiation for all the sins of the elect.
Hebrews 9:25, 26, 28; 1 Corinthians 11:24; Matthew 26:26, 27 )

3. The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed his ministers to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to a holy use, and to take and break the bread; to take the cup, and, they communicating also themselves, to give both to the communicants.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26, etc. )

4. The denial of the cup to the people, worshipping the elements, the lifting them up, or carrying them about for adoration, and reserving them for any pretended religious use, are all contrary to the nature of this ordinance, and to the institution of Christ.
Matthew 26:26-28; Matthew 15:9; Exodus 20:4, 5 )

5. The outward elements in this ordinance, duly set apart to the use ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that truly, although in terms used figuratively, they are sometimes called by the names of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ, albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.
1 Corinthians 11:27; 1 Corinthians 11:26-28 )

6. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, commonly called transubstantiation, by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense and reason, overthroweth the nature of the ordinance, and hath been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions, yea, of gross idolatries.
Acts 3:21; Luke 14:6, 39; 1 Corinthians 11:24, 25 )

7. Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
1 Corinthians 10:16; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 )

8. All ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Christ, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table, and cannot, without great sin against him, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto; yea, whosoever shall receive unworthily, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, eating and drinking judgment to themselves.
2 Corinthians 6:14, 15; 1 Corinthians 11:29; Matthew 7:6 )