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The X Factor

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The X Factor

Acts 17:16-34      November 5, 2000


Scripture Reading: Romans 1:18-25


          How many of you have been in the dark at some point in your lives?

          But then, how would you know if you are in the dark unless you were able to pick up some kind of clue.

          You get those kind of clues from other people – like when your slip is showing or your fly is open – by the muffled reactions people have when they notice what you don't notice, but are "too polite" to tell you directly because of your potential embarrassment.

          Those clues are like the "X" factor in mathematics.

          Remember high school algebra?

          You are given an equation with an unknown factor and are told the process by which it can be discovered.

          Let me give you an example: 10x"X"=200. What number is the unknown factor "X"? It is isolated by dividing 200 by 10 which equals 20. "X"=20. 10x20=200.

          In every problem there are mathematical clues by which the unknown can be found.

          You see, God has created an amazingly well-ordered universe in which things fit together.

          He has left a number of unknowns for us to discover – only to discover that the answer to every unknown is the same.

          That's what this message is about this morning in Acts 17:16-34.


          My wife, Joan, has a job as human resource manager where she works.

          One of their long-term employees became ill with lung cancer this year and steadily deteriorated.

          She seemed to have little desire for God in the first years Joan knew her, but then she told here earlier this year that she had started going to church and seemed to be developing faith in Christ.

          Then she got sick, but the company was more than fair with her in allowing her to work at home, extending benefits, and attempting to keep her job for her in hopes she would recover.

          When it became evident recovery was not possible, they had to let her go, but tried to put her on disability.

          This was successful, and Joan found out late last week that the life  insurance company was willing to extend benefits to her on disability even though she was not employed by the company.

          This came right before her last day of employment last Saturday which was the last day she would have been covered by her company sponsored life insurance.

          This insurance was important because of the children she would leave behind, having no husband in the home.

          She died that Saturday, the last day of her employment when there was no way that life insurance could be contested in spite of the disability approval.

          Coincidence, you say?

          Not really. This is an example of the "X" factor, the unknown that can be deciphered by any of us if we look for the clues.

          I shared this true account with Bill Udrow before he went into surgery to remove his cancerous kidney this last Tuesday.

          After listening to it he said, "Sounds like God is in control of everything about our lives, even in our death, and that God is always on time, even in our death."

          I told Bill that he was "right on". He had made the connection. He had solved the equation. He had discovered God in this woman's situation and he would discover God in his.

          I picked up Joan from work Tuesday evening to go vote.

          Going down the Adams Street downramp to get on the expressway, the traffic was stopped.

          There was a car alongside the railing right where the light is that spaces oncoming vehicles.

          A woman was outside the car asking for gas money because they had ran out of gas.

          There was room to go around, but I didn't.

          I gave her the $10.00 I had in my pocket.

          She looked disappointed and when I asked why she said that the deposit on the gas can cost that much.

          But I told her truthfully that was all I had.

          Was she telling the truth or was I being taken?

          How was I to read the clues?

          I decided to find God in it and give her what I had rather than believe I was being taken.

          If she was that desperate to park a car right there in rush hour to beg for money, she must need it.

          I must leave the details up to God.

          It is the same thing with our national elections this last week that we still aren't sure of.

          But we can be sure of God.

          We must still set our hearts on living as Christians no matter what state our government is in.


Big Question:

          How is it possible for Christians to reach a pagan culture with the truth about Christ?

I.       Cycle One

          A.      Narrative (vv. 16-21)

          Paul came to Athens primarily to escape persecution in Macedonia at the hands of the Thessalonian Jews who followed him to Berea.

          It was the Berean believers who spirited him away to Athens by way of the sea.

          It seems to be no part of his original plan to preach at Athens.

          It seems likely that Paul intended to continue on by way of the Via Egnatia all the way to Rome.

          But the present diversion as well as the recent expulsion of Jews from Rome by Claudius was reason enough to try and make the best of it while he was there.

          Silas and Timothy were to later meet up with him in Athens, but Paul could not be silent about the gospel for long, especially in the face of the seeming forest of idols he encountered in Athens.

          Athens had an impressive cultural history, but Paul's sense of Jewish and now Christian godliness was appalled by the degree of idolatry displayed in the city.

          Athens had a particularly high level of cultural paganism and was named in honor of the goddess, Athena.

          It was said to have been founded by Theseus, the hero of Attica, who slew the Minotaur and conquered the Amazons.

          It reached it height of glory under Pericles in 495-429 B.C. when all the splendid structures like the Parthenon were built.

          Literature, philosophy, science, and rhetoric flourished, and Athens attracted intellectuals from all over the world. Politically, it was a democracy.

          The Peloponnesian War with Sparta in 431-404 B.C. ended its greatness, but it remained culturally and intellectually supreme for centuries with philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle living there.

          In 338 B.C., Philip II of Macedonia conquered Athens and spread Greek culture and learning around the world through his son, Alexander the Great.

          The Romans conquered Athens in 146 B.C. and fell in love with everything Greek.

          Under Roman rule, Athens continued as the cultural and intellectual center of the world.

          Rome left the city free politically to carry on her own institutions as a free city within the empire.

          When Paul came there, it had long since lost its empire and wealth. Its population was probably no more than ten thousand, yet it had a glorious past on which it continued to live.

Its culture was indeed thoroughly pagan and thoroughly repulsive to Paul who was distressed by such idolatry.

          What is pagan? It is anyone who doesn't serve and worship God.

          Judaism without Christ is pagan because they don't believe in the fullness of God.

          We have "Christian" churches in Chicago that are pagan.

          Anything without Christ is pagan.

          How distressed are we because of the idols in the lives of those around us?

          The relationship between the Epicureans and the Stoics was analogous to that of the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

          The Epicureans pursued pleasure and were countered by the Stoics who opposed it.

          The Epicureans were hedonistic pleasure seekers.

          The Stoics were humanistic pride promoters.

The Stoics were more popular because of their realism.

It was to the Stoics that Paul primarily preached.

          The Athenians were "always learning but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth". (2Tim.)

          B.      Implication

          We must dialogue with people where they are.

          C.      Illustration

          D.      Application

II.      Cycle Two

          A.      Narrative (vv. 22-23)

          The unknown factor in evangelism is the point of tension in the culture.

          B.      Implication


We must discover points of contact with their common experience and felt needs.

          C.      Illustration

          D.      Application

III.    Cycle Three

          A.      Narrative (vv. 24-31)

          This is Paul's encounter with cultured paganism.

          There was in Athens a blend of superstitious idolatry and enlightened philosophy.

          What Paul was doing was to side with the philosophers, and then demonstrate that they did not go far enough.

The Areopagus Speech:

          vv. 22-23    Introduction designed to attract audience attention.

          vv. 24-25    God is the Lord of the world; he does not need a temple or human cultic ritual.

          vv. 26-27    Man is God's creation; he needs God.

          vv. 28-29    God and man are related; therefore idolatry is foolish.

          vv. 30-31    Conclusion calling on men to abandon their ignorant ideas of God and to repent.

          B.      Implication

          We must demonstrate how Christ enters into their experience and meets those needs.

          C.      Illustration

          D.      Application

IV.    Cycle Four


          A.      Narrative (vv. 32-34)

          Note three responses to the unique gospel presentation Paul has made to this pagan inquisition:

                   1)      Abrupt rejection

                   2)      Polite withdrawal or deferral

                   3)      Acceptance

          B.      Implication

          We must not be discouraged with minimal success when idolatry is deep.

          C.      Illustration

          D.      Application


Big Answer:

          How is it possible for Christians to reach a pagan culture with the truth about Christ?

          We must dialogue with people where they are.

          We must discover their felt needs.

          We must demonstrate how Christ meets those needs.

          We must not be discouraged by minimal success.

The world today needs someone like Paul to tell them how to do the math. They may have an inherent desire for God, but they need specific revelation.

          Where or to whom might we be called to present the truth of the gospel?

Timeless Truth:

          The correct solution to the spiritual equation in any culture is always Christ.

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