Reading Acts 17:16-33
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 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.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[a] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[b]
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 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 everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council.
Before Coronavirus, every year Alison & I and other friends from Coleraine would go
on a long weekend break to a European city. I remember one of our most recent
trips to Dubrovnik in Croatia. And on the first day arriving, like most tourists you take
a dander round the city to get your bearings. The old city which is walled is beautiful
and looks relatively clean and new. All the roofs are new tiles of the same colour. It
truly is a beautiful city. As we walked on that first day I can remember spying many
holes walls, and places where repairs had obviously been done to the streets. And
this was because of the massive artillery attack that took place on the city in 1991 wit
the breakup of the former Yugoslavian republic and the formation of Croatia and
Slovenia. We took some time to go up onto the adjacent mountain ridge overlooking
the city and seeing where the artillery strikes were coming from. But what a change
today, very much a transformed city after a dreadful siege.
We do take those moments on holiday when we arrive in a new place to peruse and
wander for a while. And I’m guessing as we pick up again our readings in Acts, that
Paul is doing that very thing in Athens as he waits for Silas and Timothy to arrive.
Our reading opens with him observing what is all around him, and it says he is
greatly distressed with what he sees – a city full of idols.
Have you ever observed a situation around you, and you were deeply distressed by
it? It might be something you have seen on the news. But these things for me
generally compel me to do something about it.
As a Church when we see need, we do something about it – we don’t just sit back.
Now, if we are stirred to support the need but that’s it, then all we are is another
caring community organisation.
We must go beyond just meeting a physical need and to reach the hearts of people
with the Gospel message. We are Gospel carriers, all of us.
Paul here was grieved by what he saw. But he didn’t just keep his concerns to
himself. He reasoned it says in the Synagogue with Jews and God fearing Greeks.
But, he also goes into the marketplace everyday to have conversations. For us what
does this mean? Well it means I’m not just going to talk about Jesus in church; I’m
going to talk about Jesus in the marketplace, at work, in the shop down the street.
Wherever it may be, it is not just restricted to while I’m at church or in a small group.
If we claim to be followers of Jesus, and I know many of you say you are, then we
must be committed to taking the Gospel outside these walls and share it.
In this year to come I am going to be thinking a lot about our value of Reaching out,
but from the perspective of reaching out with the Gospel. It’s down to you and me,
every single day, being committed to being faithful to boldly and courageously speak
the name of Jesus, not just in church, but in your home, in your neighborhood, at
your office, wherever it may be having the courage to make Jesus known.
Remember what 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to
everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this
with gentleness and respect”. What will that look like for you this week?
And Paul applies this gentleness with the Athenians because he understands that for
many, the Gospel may seem strange. Our reading talks about the Epicureans and
the Stoics. The Epicureans were concerned with pursuing happiness and
contentment. They worshipped many different things and were committed to keeping
their religion separate from daily life. Is that not a familiar categorisation for many
today. Don’t mix faith with politics they say. All of this is totally unbiblical. God is Lord
of all. We can’t separate our faith from life. He is life.
The Stoics, on the other hand, sought to live in harmony and peace. They believed
that God is one with the Universe. They would say that they could find God in the
trees and in every day nature. There’s nothing wrong with that when you consider
that God created everything but God is a distinct person in himself. He is not simply
nature. We see this style of belief in many new age movements. Again none of these
are biblical. And so these folks can’t except the strange message Paul is giving,
labelling him as a babbler.
We’ve got to be ready for rejection, and even the great Paul received that, but it
didn’t hamper him from continuing to discuss matters with those who wanted to hear
him. I was in a prayer gathering the other evening in our church in which someone
prayed, “Lord we have a good news to proclaim. Why would we ever want to hold on
to it if it’s good news to share”. And that is so right. We’ve got to expect rejection like
that of the Epicurians but we continue to share it, no matter what.
As John Piper said, it’s Breaking news that God came to earth in the form of His
Son, Jesus. He lived. He died. He rose again, so that we can be in right relationship
and in good standing with the Creator of the world. Because of that, should not be
more willing to live with rejection than live with the regret of doing nothing.
So let’s now look at verses 22 to 28.
Have you ever wondered where the Areopagus is. It’s a prominent rock located
northwest of the Acropolis in Athens. The Romans referred to the rocky hill as “Mars
Hill”, after Mars, the Roman version of the Greek God of War. In ancient times, this
was the place where they would come and have great debates, or significant trials
would take place here. In fact, even Socrates was tried and condemned here for
showing a lack of reverence. This would have been like our Supreme Court in
London. where people would come to discuss and debate, try something, and give a
definitive answer on what is right, what is wrong, and what is true. So, I think it’s
significant to note that Paul now is invited to this place.
Paul’s approach is something we can all learn from. He begins with trying to find a
place where they can all agree, a place of common ground. And so he remarks that
they are very religious. He’s going to take their religious attitude toward embracing
many gods as an opportunity for him to teach that there really is only one true God.
For many of us as Christians witnessing to people around us, we have got to find the
common ground. There was no point in Paul talking about the scriptures, or the
Torah – the Law, because for his audience they wouldn’t have a clue what he was
talking about. So where is the common ground from which you can have a
conversation with someone else? Don’t just assume that people today know the
spiritual churchy language that you use. Allow God by his Spirit to direct you to
where the common ground is for a conversation with another person.
The conversation that Paul had didn’t start by saying, “I was walking down this road.
I was going to go kill some people because they were Christians. This big, shining
light hit me, and I had this encounter with Jesus, and it changed my life forever.” He
didn’t even say that.
He pointed them straight to God Himself. He just talked about God. He had seen a
sign that said “To an unknown God”, and therefore he knew he could start there. In
verse 24, he says “God does not live in temples built by human hands”. And then he
goes on to say “he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” He
knew he could talk about a God who wanted to be known.
You see when we meet others and we don’t know what to say we might think we are
having to go into a battle or a debate, to justify our values and beliefs. But it’s not a
matter of winning an argument. It’s not about convincing someone through logic and
reason. We just need to point people to God, the Creator and sustainer of life, the
giver and the breath of everything in creation and let people see Him for who He is.
And we do this by looking at the life of Jesus. We act as an instrument of the Holy
Spirit and we allow the Holy Spirit to do what only he can do.
Paul is using common ground to essentially help them realise the hope that comes
from the living God and nothing else, not some statue made of stone or some
objects or symbols that organisations may use to point people to a higher force. He
like us should want people to latch onto the hope only found in Jesus Christ, that
they will see that he is the anchor that will sustain them in life, not because they are
strong, but because He is strong, and He can hold them up. What an important
message to proclaim in these tough days for our country.
But when God’s Word is presented, it demands a response. So when Paul gets to
verse 29, it’s like, “I’ve been telling you about Jesus. I’ve been pointing you to the
Gospel. I’ve been talking about Jesus and His resurrection. This is who God is, and
now it’s time for you to do something about it.”
For Christmas Alison and the boys bought me a new watch, and it has fitness
settings on it. One in particular is quite funny. It will buzz on my arm and display the
message ‘MOVE’. It’s trying to get me to not sit in a seat for too long. There is a
need to be active and fit. And Paul in this last section of our reading is doing the
same thing. It requires a response one way or the other.
He’s cutting right to the heart of the Stoics who say that, “Well, God is just one with
nature, and I can connect with Him that way.” He’s cutting right to the heart of the
Epicureans, who say, “Well you know, what I do every day doesn’t matter. I can go
to church and have some God-conversation, and that ticks the box”.
No, God is a personal God who is with you all the time, walking with you, guiding
you, knowing you. Hebrews 11:6 says that ‘without faith it is impossible to please
God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he
rewards those who earnestly seek him’. This faith that we want people to have must
be relational and it must be active. It’s not a faith at all if you think it’s marked by an
attendance each Sunday or a popping of money into an envelope. Trust me that is
not faith. That’s called membership.
And so not leaving it there, Paul in verse 30 calls people to repent. I know I repeat
myself on this one all the time, but it’s that important. Repentance is this idea that I’m
going one direction, and I see my need to change. I see my need to turn from my old
ways. I see that I need to turn from these false idols and these other priorities in my
life and towards this one, true God. I see my need to change and repent. It’s like I
mentioned last week about the Scottish pastor – if there are things in life that take a
priority, if the Bible is not your main book you read, if worship is not a part of your
daily routine, if God is not receiving the first fruits of your income, if things like this
become a greater priority than seeking God then be very aware – they are your idols.
And Paul marks this occasion as he stands on Mars Hill in Athens to all these
learned philosophers that there is a time coming when Jesus will return. Ironically
Mars Hill would have been a place where judgments would have been made over
what was considered true, and now Paul uses it as a place to confront them about
the judgment that would come through Jesus. And yes some sneered but others
wanted to know more. But that’s as far as Paul takes it. It says in a very short verse,
verse 33 ‘At that, Paul left the Council’.
When we tell others about the good news of the Gospel, we must decide when our
job is done. As I said before it is not our job to do the work of the Holy Spirit. And yet
I don’t believe however that Paul walked away from the Council and did nothing. I
suspect his mind was placing before God in prayer all those that he had talked to,
remembering names, remembering faces, but he laid it before God. And that is what
we need to do. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians Chapter 3 these words
which show the place that we have as co-workers in God’s Service, “I planted the
seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who
plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each
be rewarded according to their own labour. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service;
you are God’s field, God’s building”.
Everyone of us today needs to examine whether in our own context, whether in
work, or at home with our family, or whatever it is, whether we cherish the message
of the Gospel enough that we want to share it. If we don’t want to then can I ask you,
have you received the message of the Gospel at all? In this year ahead we are going
to be thinking much more about the Gospel that we proclaim, and that it truly is good
news to all. Pray that God will give you opportunity to share it in this week ahead,
and if you are listening but can’t declare it for yourself, then seek God today who
created you, and wants a relationship with you – a real living every day relationship
which will be your anchor for everything.
Take a moment at the end of our time together, a bit like my trip to Dubrovnik, to find
your bearings. What’s your context today where God wants you to share his Good
News? Now do something about it.