So diving in:
At the beginning of this section, Paul goes to Corinth. I read a very interesting series of articles lately asserting that in Corinth, Paul really starts preaching the fullness of the good news of Jesus. You can see some of this even in the events leading up to Paul's traveling to Corinth.
In Thessalonica, Paul (again) gets into trouble with the Jews. In Berea, they get a much better reception. In Berea, Paul has reached the apex of his appeal to the Jews. He leads them into the Scriptures (Acts 17:11) and many of them come to believe. This is the most successful appeal to Jews that we have recorded in all of Paul's journeys. I can imagine Paul using every tool of his wisdom, his education, his life as a Pharisee, and his knowledge of the scriptures to persuade them that Jesus is the Messiah. But the troublemakers from Thessalonica come down the road to stir things up against Paul and Silas. Paul, the crux of the trouble, gets shipped off to Athens to prevent rioting and violence. He is not successful in planting a church in Berea.
In Athens, Paul has to make a totally different kind of an appeal. Here he has no Jews to talk to, but philosophers who are totally Greek in their thinking. Paul taps into his secular education and his knowledge of Greek customs and teachings. He uses their religious monuments. He quotes their Greek poets. He mentions several philosophical ideas that were keys to Greek thinking. Yet for all the excellence of his appeal on Mars Hill (and Paul's methods here get lifted up and imitated in many churches) Paul is unsuccessful in planting a church in Athens.
Have you noticed that in the New Testament we don't have a letter either to the Bereans or to the Athenians?
I can imagine Paul wandering on down the road from Athens, step by step feeling like he's pounding his forehead against a wall. Why isn't this working? Why did my best Jewish wisdom and scripture, my best Greek knowledge and reasoning, fail to bring people to Jesus?
I believe Paul did have a sort of epiphany -- probably a very humbling one -- between Athens and Corinth. We get just a hint of this in the letter Paul wrote to the church he planted in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 1-2, Paul makes clear that the church is not about his gifts or his abilities. "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).
Paul sets aside his lofty wisdom, his great reasoning, to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified. What were the results? We have not just one but two letters in the New Testament to the church at Corinth. Apparently proclaiming Jesus Christ alone was more successful than Jewish wisdom or Greek intelligence. Paul said, "Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).
What does this mean for us today? Churches and church leaders are constantly scrambling for the latest method, the latest tool, the latest strategy to create successful churches. However, successful churches are not those who use the best technology or the niftiest small group program. Living, vital churches know Jesus Christ and him crucified.
This is why it's so important at Central that we know what is central -- that it truly is about "Making Jesus Known" -- not in the sense that we know a lot of intellectual information about him, but in the sense that we know him crucified for us and risen from the dead for our sakes, that this is the central event that shapes and forms our lives.