Unstoppable Impact

| Acts 17:16-30

 

Week of November 20, 2016.

The Point:  The Gospel of Jesus Christ can impact any culture.

Paul in Athens:  Acts 17:16-34.

[16]  Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. [17]  So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. [18]  Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”–because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. [19]  And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? [20]  For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” [21]  Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. [22]  So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. [23]  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. [24]  The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, [25]  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. [26]  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, [27]  that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, [28]  for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ [29]  Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. [30]  The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, [31]  because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” [32]  Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” [33]  So Paul went out from their midst. [34]  But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. [ESV]

There is something enthralling about Paul in Athens, the great Christian apostle amid the glories of ancient Greece. Of course he had known about Athens since his boyhood. Athens had been the foremost Greek city-state since the fifth century BC. Even after its incorporation into the Roman Empire, it retained a proud intellectual independence and also became a free city. It boasted of its rich philosophical tradition inherited from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, of its literature and art, and of its notable achievements in the cause of human liberty. Even if in Paul’s day it lived on its great past, and was a comparatively small town by modern criteria, it still had an unrivalled reputation as the empire’s intellectual metropolis. Now for the first time Paul visited the Athens of which he had heard so much, arriving by sea from the north. His friends, who had given him a safe escort from Berea, had gone. He had asked them to send Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible [17:15]. He was hoping to be able to return to Macedonia, for it was to Macedonia that he had been called [16:10]. Meanwhile, as he waited for their arrival, he found himself alone in the cultural capital of the world. What was his reaction? What should be the reaction of a Christian who visits or lives in a city which is dominated by a non-Christian ideology or religion, a city which may be aesthetically magnificent and culturally sophisticated, but morally decadent and spiritually deceived of dead? There were four parts to Paul’s reaction. Luke tells us what he saw, felt, did and said.

  1. What Paul saw [16]. First and foremost what he saw was neither the beauty nor the brilliance of the city, but its idolatry: the city was full of idols. There were innumerable temples, shrines, statues and altars. In the Parthenon stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena. Elsewhere there were images of Apollo, the city’s patron, of Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana and Aesculapius. The whole Greek pantheon was there, all the gods of Olympus. And they were beautiful. They were made not only of stone and brass, but of gold, silver, ivory and marble, and they had been elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors. There is no need to suppose that Paul was blind to their beauty. But beauty did not impress him if it did not honor God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, he was oppressed by the idolatrous use to which the God-given artistic creativity of the Athenians was being put. This is what Paul saw: a city submerged in its idols.
  2. What Paul felt [16]. His spirit was provoked within him. The word Luke used for provoked meant to irritate, provoke, rouse to anger. The verb is in the imperfect tense, which expresses not a sudden loss of temper but rather a continuous, settled reaction to what Paul saw. So Paul was provoked by idolatry, and provoked to anger, grief and indignation for the honor and glory of God’s name. So the pain which Paul felt in Athens was due neither to bad temper, not to pity for the Athenians’ ignorance, nor even to fear for their eternal salvation. It was due rather to his abhorrence of idolatry, which aroused within him deep stirrings of jealousy for the Name of God, as he saw human beings so depraved as to be giving to idols the honor and glory which were due to the one, living and true God alone. Moreover, this inward pain and horror, which moved Paul to share the good news with the idolaters of Athens, should similarly move us. Incentives are important in every sphere. Being rational human beings, we need to know not only what we should be doing, but why we should be doing it. And motivation for mission is especially important, not least in our day in which the comparative study of religions has led many to deny finality and uniqueness to Jesus Christ and to reject the very concept of evangelizing and converting people. How then, in the face of growing opposition to it, can Christians justify the continuance of world evangelization? The commonest answer is to point to the Great Commission, and indeed obedience to it provides a strong stimulus. Compassion is higher than obedience, however, namely love for people who do not know Jesus Christ, and who on that account are alienated, disorientated, and indeed lost. But the highest incentive of all is zeal or jealousy for the glory of Jesus Christ. God has promoted Him to the supreme place of honor, in order that every knee and tongue should acknowledge His lordship. Whenever He is denied His rightful place in people’s lives, therefore, we should feel inwardly wounded, and jealous for His name.
  3. What Paul did [17-18]. Paul’s reaction to the city’s idolatry was not negative only (horror and dismay) but also positive and constructive (witness). He did not merely throw up his hands in despair, or weep helplessly, or curse and swear at the Athenians. No, he shared with them the good news of Jesus. He sought by the proclamation of the gospel to prevail on them to turn from their idols to the living God and so to give to Him and to His Son the glory due to their name. The stirrings of his spirit with righteous indignation opened his mouth in testimony. We observe the three groups with whom Luke tells us he spoke. First, following his usual practice, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and reasoned there with both Jews and God-fearers. As in Thessalonica, so in Athens, he will have delineated the Christ of Scripture, proclaimed the Jesus of history, and identified the two as the heaven-sent Savior of sinners. Secondly, he went into the agora, which did duty as both marketplace and center of public life, and argued daily there with those who happened to be there. He seems deliberately to have adopted the famous Socratic method of dialogue, involving questions and answers. Thirdly, Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him, and he with them. These were contemporary but rival systems. The Epicureans considered the gods to be so remote as to take no interest in, and have no influence on, human affairs. The world was due to chance, a random concourse of atoms, and there would be no survival of death, and no judgment. So human beings should pursue pleasure, especially the serene enjoyment of a life detached from pain, passion and fear. The Stoics, however, acknowledged the supreme god but in a pantheistic way, confusing him with the ‘world soul’. The world was determined by fate, and human beings must pursue their duty, resigning themselves to live in harmony with nature and reason, however painful this might be, and develop their own self-sufficiency. To oversimplify, it was characteristic of Epicureans to emphasize chance, escape and the enjoyment of pleasure, and of the Stoics to emphasize fatalism, submission and the endurance of pain, In Paul’s later speech to the Areopagus we hear echoes of the encounter between the gospel and these philosophies, as he refers to the caring activity of a personal Creator, the dignity of human beings as His offspring, the certainty of judgment and the call to repentance. One cannot help admiring Paul’s ability to speak with equal facility to religious people in the synagogue, to casual passers-by in the city square, and to highly sophisticated philosophers both in the agora and when they met in Council.
  4. What Paul said [22-31]. Paul’s evangelistic dialogue with Jews, God-fearers, passers-by and philosophers may well have continued for many days. It led to one of the greatest opportunities of his whole ministry, the presentation of the gospel to the world-famous, supreme council of Athens, the Areopagus. How did this come about? The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers reacted to Paul’s message in two ways. Some of them insulted him. What does this babbler wish to say? Others took him and brought him to the Areopagus. Formerly this was the place where the judicial court of ancient Greece met. By Paul’s day, although cases were sometimes heard there, the court had become more a council, with its legal powers diminished. Its members were rather guardians of the city’s religion, morals and education. So Paul was brought before the council to explain further this new teaching … that you are presenting [19]. Paul took as his point of contact with them, the anonymous altar he had come across with the inscription, To the unknown god [23]. Paul was not ready yet to challenge the folly of Athenian idolatry, but he did take up their own acknowledgement of their ignorance. How then shall we interpret his statement that what they were worshipping as something unknown he was about to proclaim to them? Here Paul’s emphasis in on their ignorance of what they are seeking to worship. Paul made the bold claim to enlighten their ignorance, I proclaim to you, insisting thereby that special revelation must control and correct whatever general revelation seems to disclose. He then went on to proclaim the living and true God in five ways, so to expose the errors, even horrors, of idolatry.

First, God is the Creator of the universe: The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man [24]. This view of the world is very different from either the Epicurean emphasis on a chance combination of atoms or the virtual pantheism of the Stoics. Instead, God is both the personal Creator of everything that exists and the personal Lord of everything He has made. It is absurd, therefore, to suppose that He who made and supervises everything lives in shrines which human beings have built. Any attempt to limit or localize the Creator God, to imprison Him within the confines of manmade buildings, structures or concepts, is ludicrous.

Secondly, God is the Sustainer of life: nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything [25]. God continues to sustain the life which He has created and given to His human creatures. It is absurd, therefore, to suppose that He who sustains life should Himself need our supply. Any attempt to tame or domesticate God, to reduce Him to the level of a household pet dependent on us for food and shelter, is again a ridiculous reversal of roles. We depend on God; He does not depend on us.

Thirdly, God is the Ruler of all the nations: And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being” [26-28a]. Although God cannot be held responsible for the tyranny or aggression of individual nations, yet both the history and the geography of each nation are ultimately under His control. Further, God’s purpose in this has been so that the human beings He has made in His own image might seek God and might feel their way toward him. The verb for feel denotes the groping and fumbling of a blind man. Yet this hope is unfulfilled because of human sin, as the rest of Scripture makes clear. Sin alienates people from God even as, sensing the unnaturalness of their alienation, they grope for Him. It would be absurd, however, to blame God for this alienation, or to regard Him as distant, unknowable, uninterested. For he is actually not far from each one of us. It is we who are far from Him. If it were not for sin which separates us from Him, He would be readily accessible to us.

Fourthly, God is the Father of human beings: For we are indeed his offspring. Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man [28b-29]. Although in redemption terms God is the Father only of those who are in Christ, and we are His children only by adoption and grace, yet in creation terms God is the Father of all humankind, and all are His offspring, His creatures, receiving their life from Him. Moreover, because we are His offspring, whose being derives from Him and depends on Him, it is absurd to think of Him as like gold or silver or stone, which are lifeless in themselves and which owe their being to human imagination and art. Paul quotes their own poets to expose their own inconsistency. These are powerful arguments. All idolatry, whether ancient or modern, primitive or sophisticated, is inexcusable, whether the images are metal or mental, material objects of worship or unworthy concepts in the mind. For idolatry is the attempt either to localize God, confining Him within limits which we impose, when He is the Creator of the universe; or to domesticate God, making Him dependent on us, taming and taping Him, when He is the Sustainer of human life; or to alienate God, blaming Him for His distance and His silence, when He is the Ruler of nations, and not far from any of us; or to dethrone God, demoting Him to some image of our own contrivance or craft, when He is our Father from whom we derive our being. In brief, all idolatry tries to minimize the gulf between the Creator and His creatures, in order to bring Him under our control. More than that, it actually reverses the respective positions of God and us, so that, instead of our humbly acknowledging that God has created and rules us, we presume to imagine that we can create and rule God. There is no logic in idolatry; it is a perverse, topsy-turvy expression of our human rebellion against God. It leads to Paul’s last point.

Fifthly, God is the Judge of the world: he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead [31]. Paul reverts at the end of his address to the topic with which he began: human ignorance. The Athenians have acknowledged in their altar inscription that they are ignorant of God, and Paul has been giving evidence of their ignorance. Now he declares such ignorance to be culpable. God has revealed Himself through the natural order, but human beings by their unrighteousness suppress the truth [Rom. 1:18]. In the past God overlooked such ignorance. It is not that He did not notice it, nor that He acquiesced in it as excusable, but that in His forbearing mercy He did not visit upon it the judgment it deserved. But now he commands all people everywhere to repent [Acts 17:30]. Why? Because of the certainty of the coming judgment. Paul tells his listeners three immutable facts about it. First, it will be universal: God will judge the world. The living and the dead, the high and the low, will be included; nobody will be able to escape. Secondly, it will be righteous: he will judge the world in righteousness. All secrets will be revealed. There will be no possibility of any miscarriage of justice. Thirdly, it will be definite, for already the day has been set and the judge has been appointed. And although the day has not yet been disclosed, the identity of the judge has been [10:42]. God has committed the judgment to His Son, and He has given proof of this publicly to everybody by raising him from the dead. By the resurrection Jesus was vindicated, and declared to be both Lord and Judge. The mention of the resurrection, which had prompted the philosophers to ask to hear more [18], was now enough to bring the meeting to an abrupt end [32]. Some mocked, others wanted Paul to come back at a later time, while still others joined him and believed.”  [Stott, pp. 276-291].

 Questions for Discussion:

  1. Briefly describe what Paul saw [16], felt [16], did [17-18] and said [22-31] in this passage. What was the primary motivation for Paul to act the way he did? Apply this to yourself. Do you notice all of the godless words and actions of our worldly culture? How does it impact you? Are you motivated to act by the same concern as Paul?
  1. Analyze Paul’s message in the Areopagus. How did he start? What did he emphasize? What five things did Paul proclaim about the true God? Why do you think Paul focused on these five truths about God? Should we also focus on these truths when witnessing to unbelievers?
  1. Verses 22-31 have repeatedly been used as an example of using a “point of contact” in proclaiming the Christian faith to someone who has little or no knowledge of Christianity. Paul’s point of contact with the Athenians was their need to worship. Note how Paul moves quickly from this point of contact to the reality of who the true God is. Read Romans 1:18-23 for how God created mankind with an innate knowledge of Himself and a need to worship Him. Even in their lostness, mankind seeks something to worship or to devote themselves to; something that will give them meaning to this life. Think and pray about how you can use Paul’s example in presenting the Gospel to those who are antagonistic to the truth and beauty of the Gospel.

References:

Acts, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.

The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Pillar, Eerdmans.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.