Standing on Mars Hill

Israel/Greece 2019 Day 16

Today we took time to tour the ancient history of Athens. Although it was a cold and windy day with a little rain, we were able to see the most important sites in the city: the Areopagus (Mars Hill), the Parthenon, and the Agora (marketplace).

The view of the Parthenon from Mars Hill

The Parthenon is a temple to the goddess Athena (wisdom) built on the acropolis of Athens. It’s not only the temple on the acropolis, it’s simply the most prominent. Among others there’s also temple to the goddess Nike (victory).

Next to the Parthenon, just a little lower and to the west sits the Areopagus. It was the place during the first century that the leadership of Athens would discuss ideas and even hear trials, especially regarding religious matters.

Steps up to the Areopagus

At the foot of the Acropolis lies the marketplace and administrative center: the agora. When the Apostle Paul arrived at Athens on his second missionary journey he spent time in the marketplace. Everywhere he looked he would have seen a temple to another god or goddess… Apollo, Nike, and of course Athena.

It was in this context that Paul was summoned to the Areopagus to give his presentation of Christianity. His address on Mars Hill is one of the most powerful moments in the book of Acts, made even more powerful when the context of Athens is taken into account.

I was truly impacted by reading Acts 17 on Mars Hill. Paul’s faithful presentation of the same gospel he preached in other towns while being aware of his specific cultural situation is noteworthy. By God’s grace a few souls responded to the gospel. On the whole, Athens was too smart for its own good—Paul moved on to Corinth and Athens continued debating.

Corinth Day

Israel/Greece Day 15

Just as Paul did in Acts 18, we traveled from Athens to Corinth. Corinth lies on an isthmus that facilitates travel and trade between lands east and west of Greece. It was a highly strategic location in ancient times. Today a canal slices through the isthmus, but in ancient Corinth slaves would pull ships on land for 4 miles to save time and danger on the journey by sea. The Corinthians enjoyed taxing all the goods that passed through.

The Corinth of the New Testament was still known for its licentiousness and was home to many temples for many gods and goddesses. The temple of Aphrodite sat atop the fortress guarding Corinth, and sadly facilitated false worship and sexual immorality simultaneously.

The temple of Aphrodite sat on the acropolis to the left. The pillars on on the right are the temple of Apollo.

On his second missionary journey Paul stayed at least 18 months in Corinth, helping with the newborn church there. At one point he was accused by part of the Jewish population of crimes against the city. He was brought before Gallio at the exact place pictured below in the Corinthian agora. It was here God provided protection for the fledgling church in the form of Gallio’s common sense.

So much in Corinth lends clarity to images in 1 and 2 Corinthians, including treasures held in jars of clay (note the Corinthian jewelry box pictured below on the right), our bodies being made of many members, and our bodies being a temple of the Holy Spirit. This site reminds us of the need for believes to follow Christ despite a pagan culture.

We ended our day with a visit to Mycenae, the seat of the Mycenaen kingdom from 1650-1200 BC. These early Greeks may have been ancestors of the Philistines, but this is far from certain. Their artistic skill was highly advanced for their time, and they enjoyed a tremendous view from their city.

Headed South to Athens

Israel/Greece Day 14

Today was largely a travel day. Last night we drove south from Macedonia to the region known as Thessaly. Our journey probably paralleled Paul’s third missionary journey, but we can’t know his route for sure.

We started our day with a visit to Meteora, a stunning display of God’s glory in nature. These rocks testify to the creativity and majesty of our creator.

Atop many of these rocks are monasteries that date back to the 16th century (some even earlier). Originally monks lived in caves in the rocks, but as more came to the area they were forced to move on up. We saw remarkable reliefs in a 16th century church. They reminded us of the dire need for the clear explanation of the Word of God.

From Meteora we continued south. We took time to stop at Thermopylae, the site of the incredible battle between Greek and Persian armies in 480 BC. The Spartan king Leonidas held the line with 300 Spartan and 700 Thespian warriors, allowing the remaining Greek soldiers to withdraw for another day.

At long last we arrived in Athens, looking forward to visiting Corinth and Mycenae tomorrow and then Athens on our final day of touring.

The Gospel Advances

Israel/Greece Day 13

We started our day in Thessaloniki (Thessalonica) in northeastern Greece. Today Thessaloniki is a large, important town in northern Greece just as it was in the first century. As a harbor town on the Aegean Sea, Thessaloniki had natural prominence as a trading post and connection point with Asia Minor.

In Acts 17 Paul visited Thessalonica with his companions to spread the gospel. In the first century Thessalonica had a large Jewish population, so Paul began his time there by teaching and preaching in the synagogue:

As usual, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and rise from the dead: “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah.”

Acts 17:2-3

The response was favorable—Jews and Greeks responded, including leading women of the community. That favorable response was quickly followed by jealousy from some unbelieving Jews. They brought some of those first converts to the agora to face accusations. Their charges were both false and true—they accused them of disturbing the city which they had not done. They also accused them of saying there is another king—Jesus. That part was certainly true. Most of ancient Thessalonica lies under the modern city, but a portion of agora is visible today.

Due to the tension in the city, the new believers in Thessalonica sent Paul and Silas away in the dark of night to Berea which wasn’t far to the west. The Bereans were notable because of their response to Paul’s preaching:

The people here were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, since they received the word with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

Acts 17:11

Many Jews and Greeks once again believed, but persecution found them in Berea. Silas and Timothy stayed behind to help the infant church while Paul sailed to Athens. There are no 1st century remains excavated today at Berea, but it was still sweet to be in another place where the gospel spread so many years ago.

Not far from Berea is the town of Vergina, famous for being the burial ground of Macedonian royalty in the 4th century BC. It is the resting place of Macedonian king Phillip II, the father of Alexander the Great. While this stop didn’t have direct biblical relevance, it was a good reminder of some of the ways God prepared the world to receive the gospel through the spreading of Greek culture and the Greek language. The tomb of Phillip was found undisturbed which makes him a Greek king Tut of sorts. None of his treasures made it to the afterlife with him.

Jumping Continents

Israel/Greece 2019 Days 11-12

We said a bittersweet goodbye to part of our group as they headed home. The rest of us followed in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul traveling from Israel to Asia Minor— modern day Turkey. Paul didn’t fly Turkish Airlines, instead he used Roman roads.

After a very quick stop in Istanbul we caught a short flight to modern Thessaloniki (biblical Thessalonica) in northeastern Greece. Our luggage didn’t make the transfer, so we had to make due with the same clothes for an extra day!

Our first day of touring in Greece focused on Paul’s travels east of Thessaloniki. We stopped for an overlook of Neapolis, the port town in which Paul and his companions landed in Acts 16:11. This was the first time the gospel was proclaimed in Europe. The Lord specifically directed Paul to Macedonia/Greece, and the Roman roads and ports made it possible for this journey to continue. The main Roman road running east/west was called the Via Egnatia and is visible in Neapolis at the bottom of the photo below.

From Neapolis Paul traveled to Philippi. Philippi was a Roman colony in the first Roman district of the region called Macedonia (Amphipolis was the capital of the district). We read in Acts 16:13-15 about Lydia and her household hearing the gospel, believing, and being baptized. These first European believers were made disciples somewhere on this river.

Paul also was used by God in Philippi to deliver a demon-possessed slave girl in Acts 16:16-22. The girl’s owners filed a complaint, and Paul and his crew were brought before the magistrates at the agora—the city municipal center and marketplace pictured below.

Paul and Silas were thrown in jail for the night. While they were singing songs of worship and praying, God sent an earthquake. In Acts 16:23-34 we read that Paul and the other prisoners didn’t leave. The jailer and his household believed the gospel and were baptized, likely in the same spot Lydia was.

In Acts 16:35-40 we read that the magistrates ordered them to be released, but Paul had a strategic reason to decline. He informed them that he and Silas were Roman citizens, and therefore the magistrates needed to come and release them publicly. Roman citizenship was a central component of life in Philippi. Roughly 90 years before Octavian and Mark Antony defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi (42 BC). This was the most important battle in Roman history as it marked the transition of Rome from a republic to an empire. Paul wanted to be sure the magistrates at Philippi knew they had done wrong so they would allow the newborn church some breathing room.

The Philippian focus on Roman citizenship also sheds light on Paul’s later letter to the Philippian church. In Philippians 1:27 Paul writes, “Just one thing: conduct yourselves as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ…” In essence he is saying, your Roman citizenship must be secondary to your heavenly citizenship (see also Philippians 3:20). Citizenship entails a set of shared values and responsibilities. Paul calls the Philippians, and us, to allow the gospel to set our priorities for how we approach life.