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The Intellectual Gate: Between Jews and Greeks

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And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures. Acts 17:2.

There are people you would reach through their emotions, and others that are reachable only through the gate of their mind.  Some are more emotional than they are intellectual, but others there are who think it weakness to show feelings, who see the world mostly through the eye of reason.  Paul expresses awareness of this difference among people when he states,

22 For while JEWS [demandingly] ask for signs and miracles and GREEKS pursue philosophy and wisdom,

23 We preach Christ (the Messiah) crucified, [preaching which] to the Jews is a scandal and an offensive stumbling block [that springs a snare or trap], and to the Gentiles it is absurd and utterly unphilosophical nonsense (1 Corinthians 1:22-23, Amplified Bible).

This audience-awareness informed how Paul interacted with respective groups, a position he explained as follows:

20 While working with the Jews, I live like a Jew in order to win them; and even though I myself am not subject to the Law of Moses, I live as though I were when working with those who are, in order to win them. 21 In the same way, when working with Gentiles, I live like a Gentile, outside the Jewish Law, in order to win Gentiles. This does not mean that I don't obey God's law; I am really under Christ's law. 22 Among the weak in faith I become weak like one of them, in order to win them. So I become all things to all people, that I may save some of them by whatever means are possible (1 Corinthians 9:20-22, Good News Translation).

We find a few instances when Paul actually practised what he preached.  In Acts 18:4 when he found himself in a mixed congregation of Jews and Greeks, he took his text from the Jewish scripture, which was appealing to the religious Jews, but his approach was that of reasoning, which provided access to the generally intellectual Greeks.  The outcome was that he “persuaded” them, but it had been as “he reasoned,” not as he threatened.  He persuaded them not with the fearful prospects of brimstone and fire (valid though they are) but with logical demystifications of truths unknown.  He did not harangue them for daring to ask questions and ‘challenging’ his ‘anointing’ when they should have accepted his singular sanctified perspective.  A chapter earlier, he had also had impressive results as he reasoned with them out of the scriptures”; he did that not just for a hurried day but over consecutive persuasive sabbath sessions (Acts 17:2; 18:4).

The preposition “with” in Acts 18:4 throws further light on the nature of Paul’s engagement with his hearers.  He not only reasoned; he reasoned “with them.”  That meant that he listened to them even when they sounded stupid to his spiritual mind (Acts 17:23).  He let them make their points and pose their queries, then he took time to answer their doubts.  It meant that he anticipated or took note of the grey areas in their arguments and endeavoured to shed light there.  It meant that he was very informed about his own position, which also meant that he had given time to properly study and understand that position (2 Timothy 2:15).  In other words, Paul’s persuasion had not been mere fanatical blind faith; there was an intellectual side to it.  He was not one who stood with both legs on the shifty sands of fanciful creeds that dared not be questioned (Titus 1:9; 1 Timothy 4:16).  I envisage that such a speaker would be firm without being rude or pompous and impatient in a way that alienated sincere seekers from his holy island.  He “reasoned with them.”

Any discourse is capable of being taken off course.  How did Paul manage to stay focused?  He reasoned with them “out of the scriptures.”  The scriptures remained the thesis, the basis, the premise, from which other propositions issued.

Signs and wonders might impress the Jew, but not so much the rationalising Greek, and neither group should be judged strictly by the parameters of the other.  Jews might be awed, and probably won, by a miracle, but that same ‘awesome’ sign might only stir queries from intellectualising Greeks who naturally want to know the how’s and what’s and when’s before they can accept something as true; who don’t want to seem cheap and fooled.  Do not be mad at the Greek for the cynicism with which he greets what the Jew promptly celebrates.  He is merely speaking his ‘language’; he will hear those who can speak that ‘language’ with them.

Signs and wonders might be instant openers to the typical Jew, but not so easily the cynical Greek naturally suspicious of what has not been reasoned through.  He is prone to seeing miracles as intelligent ‘manipulations’ by someone behind the scenes, as something ‘faked’ – until he can know otherwise; until there is a logical, ‘reasonable’ side to the ‘Jewish’ wonder (Acts 17:32).  While ‘reasoning Greeks’ might thus dismiss ‘believing Jews’ as simplistic, they themselves are profiled as ‘doubting Greeks’ by the Jew to whom reasoning is audacious ‘faithlessness,’ academic ungodliness, a wasteful mental drift.

If you always call them rebels because they ask questions, the Greeks will soon go elsewhere in search of those answers, and they could get ‘answers’ so ‘satisfactory’ different that you might never find them again; that is, if they do not even become your stout opponents.  If you always call them rebels because they seek to know, you will sooner drive Greeks out of your congregation and be left only with compliant ‘believing’ Jews who one day will start their rebellion when miracle-water ceases from the rock and even manna from heaven begins to taste unacceptably ‘meatless’ and dry.  The same will speedily source for alternative miracle-working ‘gods’ the day they judge their absent Moses too long and lost on the mountains of God in his search for deeper spirituality (Exodus 32:1).

An all-Jews congregation could become a slaughterhouse of Sadducees, a stoning squad, a legalistic Sanhedrin of Scribes and Pharisee, a smokeless shrine of fettering creeds and sepulchral priests (Acts 7:56-59). An all-Greek congregation, also, could dwindle into a dry classroom of fat heads and empty souls, of sense without saints and science without signs if it should seek only knowledge but no miracles (Acts 17:16-21).  Ultimately, that intellectual house will become a decorated cemetery of killed souls, for “the letter killeth” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Times there were when God showed Himself in awesome thunders and fires, and the people “trembled” at the sight (Exodus 19:16), but times there also were when, grieved as He was by their sins, He still adopted the intellectual approach, inviting them to the reasoning table: “Come now, and let US reason together…” (Isaiah 1:18).  That was how Moses once secured a great truce with God, reminding and informing Him that He would have shown Himself weak and wicked if He killed everyone in the wilderness after rescuing them from Egypt (Numbers 14:11-20).  That remains a classic case when intercession by reasoning made God change His mind on something as good as decided already.

In every congregation, there will not only be miracle-seeking Jews but also reasoning Greeks.  You will lose some if your approach is tailored only for the pleasure of either; and fights sometimes erupt in congregations put together without respect to each group’s unique perspective to truth (Acts 6:1).  Whereas there might be pure ‘Jews’ and pure ‘Greeks,’ there are also those who in themselves are a mixture of both, but more of one than the other, because of background and exposure.  These also need to be appreciated, as Paul usually did in mixed congregations of both personalities.

Sense without signs makes one a dry Greek; signs without sense makes one a blind Jew.  The balance is as we find in Jesus, who increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man – who developed or “increased” both spiritually and intellectually, towards God as well as towards men, being both Jew and Greek in a sense (Luke 2;52).  In Stephen also we find the balance; a man of whom it was reported, “And they were not able to resist the wisdom[intellect] and the spirit [anointing] by which he spake” (Acts 6:10).  Finally, back to Jesus:

… and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom[Greek] is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works [Jew] are wrought by his hands? (Mark 6:2).

From The Preacher's diary,

May 23, 2020.