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Knowing the Unknown God

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Paul was a man on a mission, the Great Commission. (Mt 28:19-20)
he was driven by a great conviction of the saving power of the Gospel and a deep love for the souls of people
he was especially concerned for his own people, the Jews
they in turn were jealous and stirred up the unbelieving Gentiles against him and his team and chased them away
though Paul had not been able to spend much time with them, the Thessalonian church became a model for all the surrounding churches
characterized by works of faith, labours of love and steadfastness of hope (1 Th 1:3)
became an example to other believer by their reception of the word in spite of great persecution (1 Th 1:7)
they were so effective in spreading the gospel that Paul said that he didn’t need to say anything! (1 Th 1:8)
having been smuggled out of Thessalonica and then Berea Paul moved on to Athens where he again boldly preaches Jesus and his resurrection
Athens of Paul’s day much like our own

Athens (vv. 16-21)

In Paul’s day Greece was known for its culture and Athens was its centre.
renowned for its learning, its art and philosophy
several centuries before Paul, Athens had been the greatest city of the world
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle all taught there
so also did Epicurus and Zeno, the founders of Epicurean and Stoic philosophies
Athens was home a world famous university
it was also a religious centre where almost every god was worshipped
public buildings were dedicated to gods and statues filled the city
one of the writers of the time said, “it is easier to find a god in Athens than a man”
our culture may be in the process of banishing the God of the bible from public life but in his place we have substituted many gods: sex, materialism, self
it’s easy for us to wonder why the people of Athens had so many idols
our temptation to think that the more sophisticated we are, the knowledge we have, the more things we have, the higher our standard of living the less people need things like this
the fact about who we are:
we were created for worship (Rom 6:16; 2 Pet 2:19; Ps 119:91)
Romans 6:16 ESV
16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
2 Peter 2:19 ESV
19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.
Psalm 119:91 ESV
91 By your appointment they stand this day, for all things are your servants.
we can’t help but worship something or someone
even the atheist cannot avoid worshipping
they worship themselves!
When God is rejected there is a void, and we always try and fill it with something that leaves us hungry and thirsty for more!
this is what often leads people to foolish choices and enslaving addictions
when Paul came to the awesome city of Athens what was his response?
awe? wonder? amazement?
Luke tells us his spirit was provoked within him because he saw that the city was full of idols (16)
while Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him he had not been sightseeing
Paul saw a city full of lost people worshipping many false gods and doomed to a Christless eternity.
provoked = the Greek word sounds like our English word “paroxysm”
Paul was righteously angry and infuriated
the focus of Paul’s conversations was the rampant idolatry he witnessed
Personal Reflection
what do we see when we think of St Thomas, or London or the GTA?
are we moved by the lostness of people?
do our hearts yearn for their salvation?
are we incensed that God is not known or glorified by so many?
“so he reasoned … every day” (17)
Paul directed his holy anger and frustration into faithful witness.
whenever possible he started with those who had some knowledge of God
they were found in the synagogue = Jews and devout persons
the low lying fruit
he would win converts who would join him and multiply the ministry of the Gospel in the area
he also struck up conversations in the marketplace with whomever happened to be there
v.21 tells us an interesting characteristic of the people of Athens: they were fascinated with telling or hearing something new
being a wise communicator it is likely Paul used that intense curiosity to strike up conversations
an example for us
the thought of doing this sounds very scary and intimidating to many of us
and yet if we don’t overcome our fear we will rarely, if ever, witness
how to strike up spiritual conversations:
ask spiritual questions:
what do you believe about the origin of life?
what do you think happens when we die?
what is the secret of contentment?
where can we find peace?
what do you think of Jesus?
we’re told that some of those with whom Paul spoke in the marketplace were the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers
Epicurean philosophy:
central to their beliefs was that the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain were the keys to life
while they did not deny the existence of the gods they did not have anything to do with them
they were practical atheists, living as if there were no gods
also believed in annihilation, the wishful belief there is nothing after death
Stoic philosophers believed that self mastery was the greatest virtue to seek after
comes from being indifferent to pleasure and pain with the goal of feeling nothing
believed that all things compose an all-encompassing, immanent God
These 2 belief systems sum up the extremes to which people go who do not know God.
they are humankind’s desperate attempts to come to grips with the futility of existence without God
their response:
the critic and the skeptic:
“this babbler” (18a)
babbler = literally: word scavenger (a great quality to have if you like playing Scrabble!)
or seed picker
as a bird pecks here and there for seeds it was used of those who picked up pieces of information here and there and passed them off as if he were a person of great knowledge
the curious (19)
he seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities (18b)
they were listening and trying to understand without success
seeking to understand what Paul was saying they asked Paul if he would share his message with their rulers and political leaders
and so he was given an amazing opportunity to speak at the the Areopagus, the place where the rich, the powerful and the decision makers met
Matthew 25:23 ESV
23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’

Part 2

like all disciples of Christ, we have been given the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20)
to go and make disciples (Acts 1:8)
to baptize them
to teach them all that Christ commanded (what the gathered church does on Sunday mornings and throughout the week in various ministries)
everything we do as a church should have disciple making as its reason for being and doing
as we come to Acts 17 we find in Paul’s example, instruction as to how we can effectively fulfill the first part of the Great Commission: going and making disciples
What is striking about Paul’s witness is how simple his message was and how faithful he was to the scriptures.
Athens a world city, famous for its architecture, its art, its philosophies, its univeristy
a cosmopolitan city made up of the rich and powerful and the poor and the downtrodden
how was Paul to reach this great city?
did he change his message?
Paul was a man who believed in the sufficiency of the Word (Rom 1:16)
he believed it had the power to:
to convict sinners
to convert sinners
to equip believers
to sanctify believers
to preserve believers
contrast this with the Athenians, spending their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new (v.21)
a dangerous thing: to be open to whatever is novel and exciting
a problem in the church today
if we are not grounded in the Word we will be like a ship without an anchor
must remember there is nothing new, just old stuff in a new package!
The more we understand our bibles the more we will be able to discern truth from repackaged error.
although the bible is very old it was written in such a way and inspired by the HS so that it continually speaks to anyone, any place at any time

Areopagus (vv. 22-31)

a prominent rock outcropping where the rich, the powerful and the decision makers met to set policy and judge certain cases
the Romans referred to it as Mars Hill
Paul’s courage and faithfulness in witnessing in the marketplace led to a greater opportunity to testify to the rich and powerful.
Jesus’ parable of the talents in Mt 25:14-30:
those who prove themselves faithful in little are given greater responsibility and opportunity (Mt 25:21)
examples of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin and Paul’s access to the household of Caesar through his imprisonment
the focus of Paul’s message to the Areopagus: how to know the unknown God
consists of 2 parts:
The Emptiness of Man-Made Religion
The Works of God
3 Responses to the Message

The Emptiness of Man-Made Religion

to know the unknown God we must acknowledge that man-made religion cannot help
all man-made religions are built on the principle of man’s pleasing and appeasing a deity on the basis of human goodness and accomplishment
sadly, this attitude is all too often found in the church!
this was also true of the Athenians
Paul said to them, “you are religious but you don’t know whom to worship”
Acts 17:22–23 ESV
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.
the empty religion of the Athenians was illustrated in the philosophies of the Epicureans and Stoics:
on one hand, there is a god but it has nothing to do with us = practical atheism
on the other hand, god is everywhere and in everything = pantheism
God is nowhere vs. everywhere
both these philosophies were spiritual dead ends!
All man-made religions create gods which have no power to change hearts.
what the Athenians believed was unknowable Paul proclaimed to them, the God of the scriptures
how can a person know there is a God, let alone one who can be personally known?
it is true that God’s existence cannot be proven with a scientific experiment or a mathematical equation
his very nature as omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient makes complete understanding impossible!
since he is God he will of necessity be beyond our ability to fully comprehend
this however does not mean that he cannot be known
the reality of God’s existence is ultimately realized through supernatural revelation and faith
such faith is not a blind leap in the dark but based on simple logic and fact, for example:
creation reveals God’s existence (Ps 19:1; rom 1:19)
Psalm 19:1 ESV
1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Romans 1:19–20 ESV
19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Although the beauty of creation, the order of creation and the inherent design of creation clearly demonstrate there is a God, apart from the Gospel there is no possibility of relationship with him.
the beauty, glory and wonder of creation point all people to God
all people innately know there is a Creator because God has put that knowledge within them
such knowledge is enough to lead them to cry out to him to make himself known
the scriptures are abundantly clear that God is ready and willing to reveal himself to all who sincerely cry out to him
how God has revealed himself in the past:
we see the fullest expression of that revelation in the covenant God made with the Israelites
God most clearly revealed himself through Moses in the OT in the 10 plagues and the exodus miracles:
parting of the Red Sea, wilderness feeding miracles, defeat of enemies, conquering the land
the fiery and cloudy pillars
all the surrounding nations were aware of these things
the Jews brought the knowledge of God with them wherever they travelled
people also travelled to Israel
under the NC God revealed himself in the same way!
through Christ and his miracles and then through his church and its witness throughout the world
God’s saving work in the NT is primarily through believers spreading the knowledge of their Saviour, Jesus Christ, wherever they are and wherever they go (Mt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8)
everything about the scriptures tell us that God is intimately involved in the lives of people whether they acknowledge him or not!

Who God Is

having established that God exists and can be known from creation, Paul introduced him to them as their Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Revealer and Judge

God is the Creator

Acts 17:24-25a 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,
in this statement Paul confronted the empty philosophies of the Epicureans and Stoics
The Epicureans believed matter was eternal and therefore had no creator.
The Stoics believed god was in all things, and that all things were a part of god.
in opposition to these empty philosophies is the testimony of the scriptures: God is the creator and the world he created points back to him, and is dependent on him
the witness of the OT:
Genesis 1:1 ESV
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Psalm 146:5–6 ESV
5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, 6 who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, who keeps faith forever;
Isaiah 40:28 ESV
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
Jeremiah 10:12 ESV
12 It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.
Zechariah 12:1 ESV
1 The oracle of the word of the Lord concerning Israel: Thus declares the Lord, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the spirit of man within him:
the witness of the NT:
Ephesians 3:9 ESV
9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things,
Colossians 1:16 ESV
16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.
Revelation 4:11 ESV
11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
arguments for a Creator from what is clearly seen by all:
The cosmological argument: the order that is obvious in the universe shows there had to be an order maker.
the law of cause and effect argues for God’s existence
every effect must have a cause
no thing comes from nothing, one thing points back to a cause
logic tells us there cannot be an endless chain of causes
there must be a first cause
the bible clearly states that first cause to be God
The teleological argument: the universe shows clear evidence of design therefore it must have a designer.
Hebrews 3:4 ESV
4 (For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.)
no one in their right mind looks at a house and assumes it came together by accident
a building naturally demands a builder
who would ever conclude that a hurricane or tornado came through and tossed all the pieces together to form a house!
even more so, creation demands a creator
it is impossible that the order and complexity of the universe happened by random chance or by a process of evolution over millions of years
again, we all know that if we took all of the materials necessary to build a house and laid them all out on the ground and waited for them to come together that it would never happen
rather than come together by some random event, they would decay and rot and disintegrate
even more impossible is the idea that we could take the raw materials from which all the building supplies came and lay them out and wait for them to transform themselves into 2x4s, shingles, wire, electrical plugs, faucets, sinks, plywood etc, and then fall together into a house
this is in fact what evolution would have us believe!!!
Paul is absolutely right when he says those who reject God become futile in thinking and their hearts are darkened having suppressed the truth by their unrighteousness (Rom 1:12-23)
listen to the wisdom of the scriptures:
Psalm 94:9 ESV
9 He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?
intelligence come from intelligence
moral judgment comes from a moral being
in light of these inescapable conclusions, the question arises as to why so many people refuse to believe there is a creator God
God says the reason for atheism is not intellectual or rational but moral and spiritual. (Ps 14:1)
Psalm 14:1 ESV
1 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good.
this “fool” is not someone who lacks knowledge or understanding
the fool is the one who is corrupt, who does abominable things
therefore this is not an intellectual problem but a moral one
atheism arises out of a sinful desire to live as one pleases without judgment (Rom 1:18-23)

God is the Sustainer

Acts 17:25b .... since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
having created all things and all people, God gives them life and breath
the testimony of scripture:
Job 12:10 ESV
10 In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.
the life which animates all living things is controlled by God
in a moment he could take all life away
Colossians 1:17 ESV
17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
he is the “glue” which keeps all things from flying apart
nucleus of atom consists of neutrons and protons
protons should cause it to fly apart
scientists postulate that it is the “strong nuclear force” which overcomes the electromagnetic force which prevents it from blowing apart
the bible tells us that force is God
Hebrews 1:3 ESV
3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
it is the will or purpose or intention of God which sustains life and holds all things together in their proper order
these verses and many others highlight the absurdity that God is dependent on anyone or anything
far from needing anything he is the giver of life and of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17)
Apart from from God’s absolute control over all living things, keeping all things together and in their proper order, and his sustaining power nothing would exist.

God is the Ruler

Having created all things God sustains all things. As such he is the rightful ruler over all.
Acts 17:24b … being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,
Lord = ruler
he is the One calling the shots
Acts 17:26 ESV
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,
One of the ways God exercised his rule over all people was in making all the nations and determining when and where they lived.
he did this when he confused the language of the people at Babel
he determined when each would rise and fall
he assigned them their particular place on the earth
testimony of scripture:
Genesis 14:19 ESV
19 And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth;
Psalm 24:1 ESV
1 The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,
Psalm 103:19 ESV
19 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
testimony of King Nebuchadnezzar after being humbled by God
Daniel 4:34–35 ESV
34 At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; 35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”

God Is The Revealer

because God is the Creator, Sustainer and Ruler of all, everyone should seek him
Acts 17:27–29 ESV
27 that they should seek God, and perhaps 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.
God desires that people seek after him. (Acts 17:27)
“feeling their way toward him”
the image that this evokes is groping our way through the dark
sinful man lives in the darkness of his sin where he likes it
sinful man is kept in darkness by the devil
God has made himself clearly known
although sinner and saved alike cannot see, touch or hear God they are always in his presence
Paul quotes two of their poets
if Paul is right and their own poets are right God can be knowable
as such he can’t be an idol made of gold, silver or stone

God is the Judge of All

Acts 17:30–31 ESV
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.”
what God has done:
overlooked ignorance but now he commands
those who live after Christ have far greater judgment
what God commands:
repentance because he has fixed a day for judgment (30b - 31a)
what God will do:
God will judge by Jesus (31b)
the proof these 3 things are true:
God raised Jesus from the dead (31b)
God has set a day for Jesus to judge all people and the proof of this was God’s raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)

Acknowledgement (vv. 32-34)

3 responses to Paul’s message:
Acts 17:32–34 ESV
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.
some mocked (32a)
Mocking is the natural response of the unconvinced sinner. (1 Cor 1:18,23, 2:14)
1 Cor 1:18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, ...
1 Cor 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles
1 Cor 2:14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
example of the disciples proclaiming the mighty works of God in their own languages (Acts 2:5-13) and being accused of drunkenness
example of Festus in Acts 26:24 yelling at Paul and telling him he was out of his mind!
“we will hear you again”
Curiosity is the response of interested but unconvinced sinners. (v.32b)
their curiosity was aroused but they were not yet willing to commit
example of King Agrippa in Acts 26:28
“some joined him and believed” (34)
Saving faith and discipleship is the response of converted sinners. (v.34)
joined = glued
having been saved the the Word became wonderful and glorious and they joined Paul in order that they might hear and learn more
who was saved?
Dionysius the Areopagite - a ruler
Damaris and others - ordinary people
This is power of the gospel: from the same message, great and small alike heard and believed!
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