Sunday, October 26, 2008

Acts 17: 16-34 Paul in Athens

How do we tell people about Jesus in our world today? With such hostility, how can we speak about the Gospel? Do we just launch in straight away with Jesus? Tonight, the Apostle Paul will help us. He had arrived in Athens, the centre of wisdom and philosophy.

Had Richard Dawkins lived then, he would probably have been in Athens. It was big on worldly wisdom and education. Every idea got a hearing, ideas were the currency.

We’re taking a whistle-stop journey through Acts, following Paul as he visits each of the major cities on his missionary journeys. You’ll notice that in each place, his message is the same – Jesus and the resurrection – but that it is tailored to his audience.

Two weeks ago we encountered Paul in Philippi, where he went to the place of prayer, and Lydia came to faith. After that, he had been to Thessalonica and Berea, but the Jews had stirred up trouble, so Paul had moved on to Athens, while Silas and Timothy remained to encourage the brothers.

While Paul wasn’t there as a tourist – he had a job to do – he did wander round the city, looking at the sights. Look at verse 16 – ‘his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city as full of idols.’ Paul saw the idols, and how people were worshipping them. And as he saw it, he thought about it, and that led him to be provoked.

Paul was provoked because he saw the people of the city engaged in false religion, throwing away their lives worshipping idols made of stone or wood or gold, rather than the true and living God. Paul was gripped with a godly jealousy – he was jealous for the glory of God.

What about us. There’s no doubt that the people of Northern Ireland are very religious. There are shrines all over the place, where people spend their time, money and effort to appease the gods. Just think of the new cathedral of shopping – the Victoria Square complex.

When we see so much evil and wickedness, and people being led astray in our society, what do we do? First of all, are we provoked? Are we actually concerned for those around us who ignore the Lord Jesus? Or do we just think, well, they have the right to make their own decisions, it’s nothing to do with us?

You see, so often in Northern Ireland, people regard Christians as being always angry, always protesting and complaining. Yes, it’s right that we should seek to show our disagreement with sin in society, but do we at the same time, turn people away from the gospel? You can almost hear them – if this is the type of people Christians are, then I want nothing to do with Christianity.

What does Paul do in Athens? Verse 17 starts with ‘so’ – a direct result of his provocation. 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. How many of us, if we were concerned with something in society would just come to church and complain to other Christians, or to other devout people? Or we might go so far as to write a letter of complaint to the Belfast Telegraph, or maybe sign a petition.

But that’s not what Paul does. First he reasons in the synagogue. That word reasoned doesn’t suggest a full-force confrontation, but more a seeking to understand where the people are coming from, and debating with them. But as well as that, he doesn’t just stay where he was probably more comfortable. He also goes out into the marketplace, reasoning with whoever happened to come along.

As we gather here in St Elizabeth’s, are we comfortable where we are – wanting people to come in and hear? What about our presence in the marketplace? Are we visible in the centre of Dundonald, interacting with people? Do the many people who don’t go to any church in the village know why it is that we gather together? Or is Jesus and the gospel just a big mystery to them, while they pursue their idols of money and sex and power and TV and whatever else? (Glory to God in the High St)

As Paul reasoned in the synagogue and the marketplace, we see that people took notice of him. Verse 18, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him, and brought him to the Areopagus so that they could hear what it was he was saying. Paul had been preaching Jesus and the resurrection, and they, the pagans, wanted to hear more!

Imagine, for a second, that you are Paul. You have been brought to the centre of learning, the place of philosophy, the hub of culture, and they’re going to give you a hearing. What would you say? Ok, maybe that’s a bit grand. What about if you have been telling a friend or neighbour about Jesus for ages, and they sit you down and ask you to explain it all. How do you go about it? Let’s see what Paul does in his proclamation.

First, he begins where his hearers are. He describes things in a way that the audience will understand, beginning with where they are at. So Paul launches into his observation that the men of Athens are religious, with all their altars and idols.

Then, he builds the context to explain about God. It’s no point just launching straight in to a passionate plea about Jesus if our hearers won’t be familiar even with ideas about God and the world. Paul latches on to the altar to the unknown God. It’s as if the Athenians had a wee insurance package going – just in case another god were to surface, well, they could claim they had been worshipping him all along.

Not that Paul says that they had been. Yet he declares that what they thought was unknowable, the living God is actually knowable. Let’s see the framework Paul builds: God made the world, and everything in it. God then made all people out of one person. God wants people to seek after him. God is not an idol. God commands all people everywhere to repent of their ignorance. God has made this sure through the resurrection of the man he has appointed to be judge.

In proclaiming about God in this way, Paul is able to correct the wrong thinking of the Athenians about God, while at the same time, outlining salvation history. You see, with all their idols and altars, the Greeks had mini – gods. They had the god of sun, and god of rain, and the god of war and the god of peace. Lots of wee gods who had a speciality. Paul explodes this by talking about the God who created all things and rules over his creation.

In building the context, Paul also uses illustrations and ideas which are familiar to the hearers from their culture. So in verse 28, he quotes from two Greek poets, to affirm what he’s speaking about. There is so much that is wrong with culture, which is against the gospel, but there are also points at which culture can illustrate or echo the gospel. In using them, it helps us to connect with our audience, and aids the presentation.

But in order to do so, we need to hear and understand the culture we’re living in. Maybe you’ll read a bestseller that your friends have read – then talk about it with them and affirm themes of love or sacrifice or mercy or whatever.

Even as he builds the context, Paul makes it relevant to his hearers. Notice in the framework that Paul shows how God impacts on the people he is talking to – first in the time frame, where his starting point is God as creator, and ends up with the judgement day – from the first Day to the Last Day; and also in the universal scope of the living God – who made all people, who planned where people would live, who is not far from everyone, who commands all people everywhere’ to repent.

Having begun where his hearers are, and built the framework to provide context, notice also that Paul speaks about Jesus, and doesn’t fail to mention the hard things. In one sentence, Paul speaks of the judgement, the resurrection (and therefore, by implication), the crucifixion. Paul tailored his message so that his hearers would understand, but did not ditch the things that sounded foolish or unpleasant to them. How much less that we should neglect to speak of the cross or the resurrection or even of judgement.

As we are presented with opportunities to speak about Jesus, remember the way Paul goes about it here – first, by starting where the people are; building a context of meaning; and by speaking about the hard things.

We’ve thought about Paul’s provocation and Paul’s proclamation, but what was the result? Humanly speaking, perhaps not much. When the so-called wise men heard of the message of the resurrection, some of them mocked. Paul was proclaiming the word of God, but they laughed at him.

What a terrible verdict, when they would at last stand before the judge whom God has appointed, whom God has raised from the dead, the Lord Jesus. They may have laughed at Paul, but they will not laugh then. Dear friends, if it was terrible for the Athenians to have mocked Paul, will it not be more so for us who Sunday by Sunday have sat under the ministry of God’s word and have ignored it? My prayer is that we will not mock God’s word, but rather obey it.

Yet, as the parable of the sower reminds us, there will be some good gospel growth when the seed is sown. Even in Athens, some wanted to hear Paul again, and some came to faith that day – do you see the description of it – they ‘joined him and believed.’ What a pleasure it will be to meet Dionysius in glory, and Damaris too, those who heard the word with joy and believed.

So we’re left with the question – was the mission to Athens a success? If there were just a few people saved, was it worth it? Undoubtedly, yes, for the sake of one person, it is always worth it. But it also appears that God accomplished his purposes in Athens – the wise men of Athens proved their folly by mocking God’s messenger and God’s message. Yet this too was God’s purpose, because, as one Puritan said, ‘the same sun that melts the ice, hardens the clay.’

Even in Athens, God’s word is preached. The living God, who created all things ‘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’ – the Lord Jesus. Tonight we recall Jesus’ death for us, and celebrate that we are right with God through his death and resurrection.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on 26th October 2008.

1 comment :

  1. This was a great read that I stumbled upon while looking for "Paul in Athens" on Google. I'm curious as to what you think of another Church that is trying to live this out.

    They are trying to engage culture like Paul did. What do you think about this?