Acts 17 Sermon
Lord Jesus, as we heard last week, you are the Way, the Truth and the Life, we long to know your truth, follow your way and discover Life as you meant it to be. As we look at your word may your Spirit of Truth warm our hearts to its meaning that we might grow in love for you and others. And help me as I speak.
Growing up in HK
As a child growing up in Hong Kong I went to school with people from all over the world, from lots of different religions and cultures. One of the girls in my year was a member of a wealthy Hindu family who lived in a beautiful purpose-built home which included a swimming pool. One day she held a party which I attended. She showed us round the house – I still remember some of the magnificence of what I saw. But the thing I remember the most was a room dedicated to worship. There were lots of shrines to the various Hindu gods and then I came to an empty shrine and was told that this was the shrine to the unknown god. I asked about this and was told that it was included in case they had missed a god. Every time I read this passage in Acts 17 I remember that day.
What can we learn from Paul the great evangelist during his time in Athens?
Setting the scene
As we begin I want to set the scene. Paul had escaped persecution in Thessalonica and Berea and arrived in Athens and was awaiting the arrival of Silas and Timothy from Berea. Athens was no longer quite as significant as it had been in its heyday but it was still a centre of learning and philosophical discussion. It was a busy metropolis above which loomed the acropolis covered in temples and with statues of various deities especially Athena looking down on the city below. Also, raised on an outcrop of rock was the Areopagus which had traditionally been the court of Athens but which under Roman rule had lost some of its power although it continued as a meeting place of the council. The very design of this city was awe inspiring. Paul had travelled widely but he was obviously overwhelmed by this place. There were shrines everywhere. The Greeks had gods for everything; I found a list of nearly 130! But this was not all, it was also a hotbed of philosophical discussion. At this time there were two main groups: the Stoics and the Epicureans. Stoicism
- Was a religious materialism which was pantheistic
- It rejected “immaterialism substance” – all that was real was material – including God.
- God was said to exist in everything throughout the universe.
- God shapes Fate and all reality according to divine reason.
- Despite its materialism Stoicism was not atheism, and it could express profound reverence for God and his wisdom in shaping nature.
- The ideal Stoic life was a highly individualistic, self-centred pursuit of “virtue” in complete independence from any external supports.
- Believed in the gods as “blessed and immortal beings,” but tended to live as though religion were irrelevant.
- They explained everything in terms of natural forces and believed everything to be composed of “atoms”. The random collision of atoms was the cause of every natural event and chance predominated.
- They upheld the validity of free will in opposition to fatalism.
- The aim of this philosophy was to free people from all fears or trouble, enabling tranquillity of mind to flourish.
Paul was not unfamiliar with these philosophies as Cilicia where he was from was very influenced by the Stoics and his quotations from various philosophers show that he was well-read in these matters.
And yet Paul was greatly distressed by what he saw in Athens. The place was full of idols including a shrine to an unknown god. As was his habit he went to the synagogue and reasoned with the people there, and then he went into the market- place and preached there. It was here that he came into conflict with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers which led to him being invited to speak to the council at the Areopagus.
The sermon which Luke records must by its nature be a precis of what Paul actually said, Luke simply notes the salient points.
Paul‘s motivation to share gospel
He was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. verse 16
- He cared but did not condemn
- Like Jesus looking at Jerusalem just before he went to the cross. Luke 19:41 As he (Jesus) approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it.
- Are we distressed when we look at our world? Does it break our heart?
- Do we truly believe that our faith has something to offer those around us?
Charles Spurgeon Have you no wish for others to be saved? Then you're not saved yourself, be sure of that!
- What do we see when we look at our world? Especially during COVID 19
- And have we a message that speaks into what is going on?
Fear – So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. Isaiah 41:10
Anxiety – “Cast all your cares upon him for he cares for you” 1 Peter 5:7
Loneliness – God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. Hebrews 13:5
Financial concerns - And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19
Hopelessness – God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13
Lack of purpose – For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11
Weariness - Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
Hunger for success and meaning – Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:10
Death – Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, John 11:25
R. C. Sproul said: The gospel is only good news when we understand the bad news.
- Paul was distressed about what he saw in Athens, but he knew he had a message for them
Paul grabbed their attention by getting onto their wavelength:
‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
And he linked what he said to some of the works of their philosophers
As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.” Verse 28
- Paul did not condemn or chastise – “he spoke their language”
- He started where they were and with what mattered to them
- He could do this because he had spent time trying to understand their culture and what concerned them. Conversation and observation.
Ravi Zacharias: You'll never get to a person's soul until you understand their hurts.
- How do we do that?
- Have meaningful conversations
- Look at what people are reading, watching, listening to (self-help books)
- As you walk past homes can you see what matters to those who live there
- What are advertisements selling? What does our society value?
- What are underlying attitudes
- Great Divorce (by CS Lewis) – observation of what prevents people from accepting God
- Find a way to “hook” someone into talking about God but start where they are
Paul wasn’t afraid of talking about the difficult stuff
Creation: Paul knew that his Epicurean listeners believed that the world came into being by chance but he states; God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth. Creation can be a subject we avoid because people come unstuck at “the world was made in 7 days” argument even though we KNOW God made the world (even if we don’t agree on how!)
Repentance: No one likes to be told they have got things wrong and need to change, but Paul said: now he commands all people everywhere to repent. To repent is to turn away from the old way to a new way. Our society tells us we should not interfere with how others chose to live their lives, but the gospel says that we should!
Judgement: Paul was being judged by his audience after being summoned before them and now he tells them that one day they will face judgement: he has set a day when he will judge the world. Have you ever told anyone they face judgment? Do you think that this is in any way good news?
Resurrection: this belief is central to our faith.
Timothy Keller - If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn't rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.
Paul had already been laughed at and challenged for mentioning Jesus’ resurrection. People were no more likely to believe in resurrection then than they are now. But Paul said: He (God) has given proof of this to everyone by raising him (Jesus) from the dead. Even though he knew that this wasn’t something easy to grasp Paul didn’t make his message palatable, he started where people were but as his sermon progressed he tackled subjects that weren’t going to be so easy for his listeners to hear and comprehend.
The response to Paul’s sermon
- Some of them sneered,
- Others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’
- Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.
If this happened to Paul, the great evangelist, we can know that when we speak out for Jesus the result will probably be similar. People may jeer but some will believe. It is for those people that I want my heart to be broken and for whom I want to risk speaking out for Jesus. What about you?
To sum up …
I think that perhaps the reason we are so reluctant to share the gospel is threefold:
- We look at people who are far from God and we look down our noses at them for the way they live and what is important to them.
- We don’t even notice what matters in other people’s lives – we just accept our world as it is, people’s values are their business and we don’t really care about how they live.
- We haven’t got a message that we think will meet their needs.
In this account of Paul’s time in Athens we see the exact opposite:
- Paul met these people where they were. He didn’t look down at them but met on a shared platform. His heart went out to them.
- Paul spent time finding out how these people thought
- Paul knew that his message would meet their needs, so he was compelled to tell them even if they didn’t accept it.
Charles Spurgeon Oh, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies; and if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay, and not madly to destroy themselves. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.