Preacher: James Armstrong
Scripture: Acts 17:16-34
My sermon today is an introduction to a series of sermons on Acts called Church on Fire that Pastor Allie will begin next week. Acts tells the story of the early church and reveals much about the ministries of Peter and Paul. This morning, I will be talking about Paul’s visit to the city of Athens in Greece, who and what he encountered there, and how he responded.
But before turning to the sermon text, I want to ask if you often feel that we live in a post-Christian society, a society where Christianity is no longer considered relevant and important. I do. People don’t take God and God’s Word seriously as they go about their daily lives. The message of God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice falls on deaf ears. This is particularly true in a cosmopolitan city like Washington. The story of Paul in cosmopolitan Athens has a lot to tell us about how we as Christians can carry the good news of Jesus to a world that is reluctant to hear what we have to say about God.
Athens wasn’t on Paul’s original itinerary through Greece. He was brought there by believers who wanted to keep him safe from harm. His preaching had caused unrest in the cities of Thessalonica and Beroea, and he needed to get out of town. So Paul found himself in Athens, and he did what he normally did when he came to a new city. He went to the synagogue and brought the message of Christ to the Jews and other devout persons who worshiped with them. He also walked around the city.
Now, if I were able to visit ancient Athens, I would be excited to view the Parthenon and the famous statues that define the classical style. I think it would be a real pleasure to see a culture that is foundational to Western civilization. That’s not what Paul saw, however. His eyes did not take in the beautiful art; instead, he saw idols, and the idols were everywhere. He was not excited by what he saw; he was distressed and outraged, and that led him to the marketplace. This was the famous Athenian Agora, where he argued and debated with those he met. Now among those he encountered were some Epicureans and Stoics.
I bet you think you already know what the Epicureans believed. They were hedonists, right? Followers of pleasure for its own sake. In fact, that’s not the whole truth. Epicurean philosophy was far more serious, and it is surprisingly modern. It was based on science, on what could be known for certain. For the Epicureans, what could be known was what could be experienced through the senses. Their philosophy was materialist, much like the materialism that dominates Western culture today. They believed that the gods, if there were any gods, had nothing to do with human existence. Humans were on their own in the universe. And most importantly, this life was all there was. Death was final, and there was no life after death.
The Stoics, too, sound remarkably up-to-date. They frequently referred to their god as Zeus, but they didn’t believe that this god was personal. Rather, their god was a spirit that was present in everything there is. To use the theological word, their god was immanent. Today we would call them pantheists, people who believe that god exists in and through all things.
These were the people Paul was arguing with in the market. Some called him a “babbler.” Others said that he seemed to be proclaiming foreign divinities. Note the plural – they misunderstood what Paul was saying, apparently thinking that he was talking about two new gods, named Jesus and Resurrection. In any event, Paul made an impression, and they took him to the Areopagus, the Council of Athens, to give him the opportunity to make his case more clearly. They addressed him politely, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.”
Paul’s speech before the Areopagus is the heart of this morning’s message. I want you to especially notice how he addresses his audience. He opens by saying, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” He’s talking about all those shrines and idols, of course. But where’s his outrage? Paul, we know, was distressed to see that Athens was full of idols. Where’s the word of judgment and damnation? Where’s the list of all the Athenians’ sins? No, Paul begins with a compliment. Based on all their shrines, they seem to be very religious. Despite his distress, Paul sees that, behind their idols and their modern-sounding philosophies, the Athenians are searching for something real; they are searching for God.
Among all the altars in the city Paul has found one dedicated “To an unknown god.” With this inscription Paul seizes the opportunity to introduce Jesus: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
Do we recognize that among the people around us, there is a lot of searching going on for something real, something true? How do we approach them with the gospel? Paul’s example may be helpful. Like him we must begin with where people are now and seek to find common ground. For example, you might ask a person who says they are non-religious, “When you see the myriad stars at night, do you ever wonder what or who is behind the vastness of the universe? Do you ever wonder where you fit in all that immensity?” If the answer is yes, you have created a way to introduce the message of Jesus.
Notice that Paul uses language familiar to his audience. I do not have the time to explain in detail, but Paul utilizes Stoic ideas. He quotes two Greek poets when he says, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “For we too are his offspring.” Paul knows Greek philosophy and Greek poetry. He knows his audience, and he’s prepared to talk with them in ways that are easy for them to understand. He does not begin with the Old Testament, as he would in a Jewish synagogue. The Old Testament means nothing to his audience. Still less, does he tell them that they need to come to the synagogue to hear him preach there. He meets with his listeners where they are, in the marketplace. And he begins his message where their hearts and minds are. We would do well to copy his example.
Now, if Paul ended his message at this point, the Stoics would be happy, but we’d have a problem, because Christianity is not Stoicism. Yes, Paul is willing and eager to meet his listeners where they are. As he says in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel . . .” But as he looks out upon the lost citizens of Athens, he is compelled to move on to the heart of the gospel. And we must follow Paul there as well.
Unlike the Stoic god, our God is not only immanent, but is also personal and transcendent. As Paul says, God is the “Lord of heaven and earth,” and “Does not live in shrines made by human hands,” and “. . . we ought not think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Paul also tells his listeners that God is actively involved in human history: “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places they would live.” He is speaking here especially to the Epicureans, who believed no such thing. Paul certainly risks giving offense, but it is necessary for him – for us – to tell the whole truth about God.
Paul also introduces the concepts of repentance and judgment, ideas alien to Greek philosophy: “. . . now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a date on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.” The “man,” of course, is Jesus, the Son of Man.
And finally Paul talks about the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that what he has said is true: “of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Till now the Greeks have apparently listened politely to Paul’s words, but when he mentions “the resurrection of the dead” they can no longer keep silent. Some, probably Epicureans, who didn’t believe in life after death, mocked Paul and his teaching.
In this Easter season, we need to remember that the resurrection is central to the Christian faith. And we, like Paul, cannot pull our punches. Jesus rose from the dead, and that must be part of what we tell others about him. He was not just a great teacher and an intensely moral man. We need to be clear about this: Jesus is the Son of God, and his resurrection is our assurance that this is true. However, we should not be surprised if we get a negative reaction when we make this claim.
Ridicule was the first reaction of the Athenians to Paul, and if we follow Paul in telling the truth about Jesus, we also must be ready for the rejection of our message. This is hard to experience, but notice that scoffing wasn’t the only response Paul got. Some said, “We will hear you again about this.” Whether a second meeting took place, we don’t know. But we should be prepared for this response, as well. These are big ideas and need careful thought. Serious people might well require more time and more conversation to understand fully the implications of the gospel. Finally, there were some who “joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” Even in cosmopolitan Athens, where people scoffed at the gospel, there were some who believed.
Several of the commentators I consulted consider Paul’s appearance before the Areopagus to have been a failure. I don’t agree. We see a faithful Christian ministering to people who didn’t think they needed to hear what he had to say. Does that sound familiar? The Stoics and Epicureans already had their answers to the mystery of the universe, and Paul was challenging their beliefs. This was a tough crowd. But the response was not uniformly hostile. People listened, and some believed. I count that a success.
However, the success is God’s, not Paul’s. Paul was serving as God’s instrument to reach out to the Athenians. The success or failure of the undertaking was not Paul’s responsibility. He did his best, and that is where his responsibility lay. So, too, with us. Like Paul, we are instruments – we are messengers carrying a message on God’s behalf. So don’t worry about success or failure. Our call is to be faithful to God and to love God’s children. Such faithfulness and love compel us to minister and to carry God’s truth to those who need to hear it. And as Paul shows us, the best way to do this is to meet people where they are.
Paul’s message to the Areopagus serves as an excellent model for us to follow. He did not carelessly or unwittingly offend his listeners. He complimented them and used the best examples from their own lives in order to encourage them to listen to what he had to say. He was not judgmental; he did not focus on their sins. His focus was squarely on the good news of Jesus and the resurrection. He used language and cultural references – in this case poetry – that the people were familiar with and understood. And when the time came, he clearly and decisively spoke the truth about Jesus. Paul tried to be “all things to all people,” but never at the cost of watering down the gospel.
We need to listen carefully in order to understand Paul’s approach to bringing the gospel message, but there may be some of us here today who need to hear the message itself, that Jesus died for our sins and rose again as the assurance of our salvation. Do you want the life-changing certainty that God will always be with you? Then, if you have never done so before, I invite you to accept Jesus as your Savior and Lord. If you would like to talk further about this, it would be my privilege to meet with you after the service, or you can speak with Pastor Allie when she returns next week.
As “we go out to be God’s people in the world,” let us commit to sharing the good news of Jesus – and it is good news – with those who need to hear it. God will certainly give us opportunities to share, but it is up to us to take advantage of them. And, like Paul, may we, “for the sake of the gospel,” meet people where they are and minister to them where we find them. Amen.