Faithlife Sermons

"Let Me Tell You About Your Unknown God"

Acts  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Acts 17:16–34 ESV
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. 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. 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. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 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 God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 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, and perhaps 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’; as even some of your own poets have said, “ ‘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. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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.” Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
           We left off last week with Paul being shipped off to the south to Athens to avoid those who were seeking to cause him harm in Berea. That wasn’t primarily from the Bereans, but rather troublemakers who had gone there from Thessalonica. To continue edifying the church in Berea, though, Paul’s partners, Timothy and Silas stayed behind there. We’ll hear next week how the group got back together in Corinth, but today we are in Athens with Paul.
           Brothers and sisters in Christ, one of my favorite parts of our church Council meetings is the beginning time of devotions. I typically lead that time with Scripture and a short reading related to something on our agenda or that could be beneficial for our leadership to talk about. Then we spend time together in reflection, discussion, and prayer.
           At this past week’s meeting, the focus was on ways for Christians to make contact with people outside the church. As our discussion went on, we ended up talking about different challenges that we face close to home and elsewhere. We talked about how people have tied up their schedules with sports and outings and entertainment, that’s what some fill their time and minds with and put their money and commitment to. Whereas in the past, especially in rural areas, the church was both a religious and community center, there are now other places and avenues people can turn to for socializing and finding news. For some people, there’s a lack of desire for God and anything religious. So, rather than just attending and being part of a church because it’s the thing they’re expected to do, they’ve put it aside completely. For others, there’s either no real desire to make meaning or purpose of their lives—they’re content with shallow living, while others are finding purpose in social movements that we see in protests and petitions and things like that.
           As much as all of us want easy answers and strategies that are guaranteed to convert people to God and the Christian faith, to have some others join our congregation, to see Christ and his purposes exalted by more people around us, there are not easy answers. Council didn’t solve things and come up with a foolproof game plan.
That people are content apart from the church and seemingly apart from God is discouraging and sad. An idea that has crept into my mind, and I shared, is what if there are 3,000 people who aren’t predestined to salvation by God in our town of 4,000? What if there are 3,000 people or more who God knows aren’t going to come to faith? If that’s the case, the reality, that shouldn’t change whether we share Jesus with as many people as we can. Yet looking at our communities, especially for some of you who have seen the growth and the changes, it’s worth remembering what Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14, “‘…For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’” What if the number of all who genuinely profess faith and are saved is smaller and narrower than we might hope or think?
           That’s not a pleasant idea, and yet I think it helps us understand a bit of what Paul was going through. Our first point today is god-filled but God-less surroundings. In verses 16 through 21, we read, “[Paul] was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him…They took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus…(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”
           There’s a lot to unpack there. First of all, “The city was full of idols.” Paul makes clear in verse 23 that he was looking at their “objects of worship” and, verse 29, these were made of “gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill.” Statues, carvings, monuments—these are the idols.
If you’ve been in my office, you may have noticed that I have this wooden statue. It’s a carving of a shepherd and a sheep. It’s a gift that someone who went to the Holy Land some years ago gave to me. I keep it in my office because of the meaning wrapped up in it. I’m a sheep, and Jesus is my shepherd. I’m a shepherd, under God, tasked with loving and leading and protecting the flock of sheep that is the congregation I serve. Along those lines, it also reminds me of certain passages like Psalm 23 and John 10. While this is an object made of wood, a material that is part of creation, and it’s a carving “made by man’s design and skill;” it’s not an object I worship. It’s not an image I bow down to or assume is the image of God or anything like that. That’s what defines idols, which frequently show up in places and times throughout history.
This was an ancient Greece. For the most part, these were not Jewish or Gentile Christians when Paul came to them. If you’ve ever heard of or read or studied Greek mythology, they had all sorts of gods, whether there were statues to them in Athens or not. Remember back in chapter 14, in Lystra, Paul and Barnabas were thought to be Zeus and Hermes. Those are Greek gods. There’s also Poseidon, who you sometimes see rides named after at waterparks—he was the god of water and storms. There was Ares, god of war, and Dionysius, the name of a member of the Areopagus who was converted, that’s also the name of a Greek god. This polytheistic, many gods, culture was not unique to Athens, but it takes center-stage here.
Maybe that all seems silly, but this was how these people made meaning of the universe, creation, life, blessings, troubles, conflict, death. If that’s all not enough to show what Paul was up against in wanting to share the good news of Jesus and see people believe in the one true God, they also had various groups who held to popular philosophies about what life is and what should our pursuit and meaning ought to be. Where do we find pleasure? The Athenians seem to have loved the smorgasbord of ideas and religious practices.  
           We may not have a temple with all different statues that get worshiped or have sacrifices to them here in Baldwin like they did back then, but idolatry is around us. In our Council meeting, one of our deacons pointed out how many people watch the show, “American Idol,” a contest which tries to pick and show the next big singer doesn’t even try to hide how we view celebrities. There are still philosophers today, promoting ideas and worldviews, both academic and what we see spun on social media platforms and on blogs as well as in books and magazines. Everyone can say what they want. We’re not supposed to really condemn or challenge what anyone says about how they think or feel or see things. It’s personal experience that matters most. Life and faith less and less accept absolute truth or a particular set of beliefs because we shouldn’t change each other. There seems to be parts of Athenian culture that are similar to today.
           We don’t know how long exactly Paul was in this city for, but we do know he traveled in different circles, different surroundings. He went to synagogue—the religious place. He went to the marketplace, a common public gathering area. He ended up with the Areopagus, which may either refer to a place that was used for hearings and cases, or it means this council of thinkers. Paul was meeting and mingling and trying to evangelize anyone and everyone. We don’t know the exact cause of him being greatly distressed, but he had plenty of things stacked against his mission.
           Into those circumstances back then and to our culture and society today, preaching the “unknown” God—the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not only challenging, but true preaching challenges everything. I could be wrong, but I think Christians tend to believe that people who don’t know our God, who don’t believe in him, or haven’t accepted Jesus yet, are like empty slates or empty vases. They’re just waiting to be filled with words of truth and Living Water. As soon as we tell them the right things or they get a taste, they’ll soak the Christian faith up like a sponge. That sometimes can happen.  
But it’s not always the case. The ideas, beliefs, and views of unbelievers—those challenge God. They challenge his character, his authority, his redemption. They are in conflict; they cannot coexist. I won’t read it all again, but as we heard Paul’s sermon, especially in verses 24 through 29, he set before his audience truths about God, which required a shift in how they understood things. Here’s his message: there aren’t multiple gods who each created part of what we know as the universe. It wasn’t chaos or conflict as several myths refer to. No, Paul preached there is one God “who made the world and everything in it.” He doesn’t need people to build him a house; he doesn’t require a temple to stand in every or any city; that’s because he’s “the Lord of heaven and earth.” Our God is not incapable of providing for himself or lacking unless people serve him and bring him things. No, he has, and he gives everything. He alone knows all, he can determine all, he is near and able to bring us to himself. God doesn’t sit distantly wondering what will happen. Nothing is left up to chance; his will is sure. We’re his children—not just his servants or slaves.
           To most of us, what Paul preached, including the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is normal. We have accepted and believed it. There’s not much that we might go, “Huh? I’ve never thought about that.” Or “I’m not so sure, Paul.” Partly, we’ve been preached to and taught these things over the course of years, even decades. It’s also because we have been given the gift of faith. Our faith trusts that which we find in the Bible, the Spirit tells us this is true, this is infallible.
           But for those who don’t or don’t yet believe, those living in the sinful nature, unconverted, these things don’t necessarily click the way they do for us. The concept that there is only one God, well, why? The concept that we can’t earn our way to something better—that no matter how I live my life for however long—yet it’s all about this God’s grace? What’s the point of my existence? You say God is good, and yet look at all the horrible things we go through—there’s innocent people, they deserve certain things—either God must be cruel, or everything must be left to chance. How can one who is God die? Even if he came back to life, how can that accomplish anything for me? What does God even matter? Shouldn’t we really just focus on getting along, treating others kindly no matter what they believe?
           When we think about and when we share the gospel with someone who may not believe, we have to ask God or at least acknowledge that he must work in their lives. He must reveal his truth to them beyond what we can do. Not only that, but if we see someone converted from unbelief to faith, or someone come back to the fold who was lost, or someone begins to disciple others when we know they weren’t a disciple at some point, we give all credit to God, not ourselves.
           How that happens, though, is in our final point: the gospel message requires the call to and the response of repentance. Verses 30 and 31, “‘…Now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.’” What Paul’s testifying to there is what Christians have long professed in the Apostles’ Creed, “[Jesus] rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
           It wouldn’t do the people in Athens or anyone else any good to just say, “I like what I’m hearing. This Paul guy interests me.” It’s not enough to simply say, “Jesus is cool. I want to be like him in my behavior.” New Testament scholar Mikeal Parsons summarizes these concluding verses to Paul’s sermon with the brief phrase, “The time of ignorance is now over.” “You’ve heard about your sin. You’ve heard of the one who calls you out of your sin and calls you to worship him. It’s not any fallen human or imperfect idol—it is Jesus.” Paul carries the consistent message that weaves through all of Scripture in one way or another, “Repent and believe!” It must be said, and it must be done in order to be saved; in order to be on the right side of the coming judgment.
           That was the call to Athenians. That was the call to everywhere the early church missionaries went. That is the call that the church today must continue to proclaim and publish and preach. It’s not easy or comfortable because it tells someone else what they must do. It puts a mandate, a requirement, an obligation on them—it binds their conscience and their action. It takes away their freedom to live and believe however they’d like. There’s a lot of grace that is offered to believers. There’s a lot of grace that we are called to share with one another. But the only way to get over the distress that surrounds us is to call people to that which God has told us is absolutely necessary. We must repent of our sin—we must hate it, leave it behind, and follow God.
           If we will live by faith, this is the comfort we can hold. Question and Answer 52 of the Heidelberg Catechism, we’re told if you believe in Jesus and trust his return, then, “In all distress and persecution, with uplifted head, I confidently await the very judge who has already offered himself to the judgment of God in my place and removed the whole curse from me. Christ will cast all his enemies and mine into everlasting condemnation, but will take me and all his chosen ones to himself into the joy and glory of heaven.” This is our hope because Jesus died to save sinners. He is the only hope for forgiveness and salvation. There is no God like or as great as or who can do what our God has accomplished and will bring to completion for our good. Amen.
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