Friday, August 11, 2023

The Vision (8.11.23): Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16-34)

Image: Modern view of the Areopagus (Mar's Hill) in Athens, Greece, where Paul once preached.

Note: I am what is called a “manuscript preacher.” That is, I generally write out a complete manuscript for each sermon I preach, even if I do not always rigidly follow it. Last Sunday the sound recorder malfunctioned, and we did not get an audio recording of the sermon, so I decided to post my sermon manuscript in full.

Paul in Athens

Acts 17:16-34

CRBC August 6, 2023

“Now while Paul waited for them at Athens his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry” (Acts 17:16).

A couple of Sundays ago we completed an extended series of sermons from beginning to ending of the Gospel of Matthew.

Soon we will begin another series through Genesis 1-11.

In the meantime, however, we have been looking at a few selections in the book of Acts.

It makes sense to look at Acts after working through Matthew, because Acts tells us about the growth and expansion of the church founded by Christ after the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus. It was even written by Luke, the beloved physician, who also wrote the Gospel of Luke.

I’ve suggested that Christ’s words to the disciples just before he ascended in Acts 1:8 serve as a kind of outline for Acts, as we see the apostles and those associated with them becoming witnesses for Christ in Jerusalem, and Judea (Acts 2), in Samaria (Acts 8), and to “the uttermost part of the earth.”

In Acts 17 we have a description of the gospel of Christ going to one of those “uttermost” places, the ancient city of Athens in Greece.

The gospel is brought there by Paul (formerly Saul) on what we sometimes call his second of three missionary journeys.

Athens was a city of learning and intellectual life. Many of the great Greek philosophers had lived and taught in Athens, beginning about 300 years before the first advent of Christ (men like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle).

Some of the men of Athens were brilliant thinkers who delighted in doing nothing else but seeking and discussing knowledge. Athens was also a very “religious” city, as were most of the ancient cities of Greece and Rome. Whatever their intellectual or religious life, Paul came to them with a simple message that applies to all men whatever their station in life. He spoke to them of Christ, of his resurrection from the dead, and of his coming again to judge the world in righteousness.

In Acts 17 we get to hear Luke’s account of Paul’s visit to this great city, so that we might consider how the Lord is being pleased to present before us in our times his gospel.

I.                   Exposition:

First: Paul’s arrival and his preliminary ministry in Athens (vv. 16-22):

We begin, “Now while Paul waited for them in Athens…” (v. 16).

Remember Paul is on his second missionary journey. He has earlier ministered in Philippi (ch. 16). Then he had moved on to Thessalonica where for “three sabbath days” he “reasoned with them out of the scriptures” (17:2). After a great uproar in that city (see 17:5-9), Paul had gone to Berea (v. 10), where his teaching was initially well received (vv. 11-12). But soon the same ones who had caused trouble at Thessalonica also came to Berea to stir up problems, so Silas and Timothy sent Paul ahead to Athens (see vv. 13-15).

So, Paul was supposed to be waiting quietly for Silas and Timothy. But Paul apparently could not sit still. Why? In v. 16 it says, “his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.”

As I said, Athens was little different than all the other Greek and Roman cities. They were polytheists. They worshipped many gods. As one wag has put it, “The ancient pagans never met a god they would not worship.” Paul, however, had been raised as a monotheistic Jews, believing in the one God Almighty and true God of the Bible, the great I am. He knew the first commandment: No gods before God. He knew the shema (Deut 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one LORD.”).

Being in Athens no doubt reminded Paul of the depths of lostness that was all around him, and, most importantly, it provoked in him a zeal for the honor of the one true God, of whom these men were ignorant.

I remember when we went to China to add my youngest son to our family. It was one of the first times I witnessed outright paganism as we visited a Buddhist shrine and saw people bowing down to idols! We even saw a mother teaching her small child how to bow to an idol! It was so striking, because I knew we would be “indoctrinating” our child in a very different manner.

Paul could not just sit still in Athens while he waited for his colleagues, so we read in v. 17 of his ministry in two places:

First, “he disputed [dialegomai, discussed or preached] in the synagogues with the Jews, and with the devout persons [this likely means Gentile proselytes or God-fearers, like the Ethiopian Eunuch or Cornelius the Centurion]…” (v. 17a). This was part of Paul’s modus operandi, his way of operating. He would start in the synagogue or Jewish places of prayer (cf. at Pisidian Antioch, 13:14; at Iconium, 14:1; at Philippi, 16:13; at Thessalonica and Berea, 17:1-2, 10).

Second, at Athens, however, he also went into the agora or marketplace, and there were those who met with him daily, and we can assume it likely that many if not most of these were pagan Gentiles (v. 17b). The gospel is moving further out.

In v. 18 Luke mentions Paul’s encounter with members of two different philosophical sects.

First, the Epicureans. These were the followers of Epicurus. They sought to find meaning and purpose in life by the pursuit of pleasure. The English word epicurean (the inclination to indulge in sensual pleasures) has come into our language from them. For the ancients it was wine, women, and song (or today: sex, drugs, and rock and roll). In its more sophisticated forms, however, it focused on intellectual pleasures. They believed that the blessed life was one without pain or fear. This led them to atheism. If there is no God (or gods) to fear their wrath, you will be happy. So they rejected God (or gods).

Second, Stoics. They followed a man named Zeno who had taught in a great lecture hall called the Stoa. They sought to find meaning and purpose in life by overcoming one’s passions. One must show complete mastery over all his emotions and actions and be indifferent to all outward circumstances. One famous Stoic philosopher was a slave named Epictetus, who was often depicted in art as having a crutch, because it was said that his master deliberately broke his leg to test his servants apathy, but Epictetus had such self-mastery that he never uttered a word or cry of pain.

These pagans did not understand Paul’s teaching. Some said, “What will this babbler [spermalogos: one who spits words like seed!] say?”

They thought he was promoting “some strange gods,” because he talked about Jesus and the resurrection.

This tells us Paul was preaching Christ and him crucified and raised (cf. 1 Cor 15:3-5), but these foolish pagans were so ignorant of the truth they thought he was talking of two gods (one named Jesus and the other named Anastasis or Resurrection).

Then in v. 19 we read that they took Paul, almost like a press gang, and compelled him to go to a place called the Areopagus (literally, the hill of Ares or Mars, the god of war, because in their mythology Ares had been tried there for a crime by the other gods), a rock-outcropping still visible today. In those times it was a place for debate or contention.

They wanted to know the “new doctrine” or new teaching [didache] that Paul was bringing (v. 19b).

In v. 20 they express further their curiosity about Paul’s teaching since it arrives as something “strange” to their ears. At first blush this might seem very commendable. They were a curious people. They wanted to learn. They were open-minded.

Luke makes clear, however, in v. 21 that not all of this was spiritually healthy. He says that the Athenians and the “strangers” (or foreigners) in Athens, “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.”

This is the love for novelty. The love for the newest, the latest, the most recent. This spirit drives most things in academics. You don’t get a graduate degree for saying what everyone has already said or believed but by proposing something new.

I heard a missionary once say that an open mind is like an open mouth. If it never clamps down on nourishing food, it will starve the body to death.

Paul once described to Timothy some of the men who were resisting his ministry as being:

2 Timothy 3: Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith.

When one first hears the gospel, it is right to take time to consider and to fully understand and to investigate. But there must come a time when one moves from hearing about the truth to receiving the truth by faith and believing in it.

Someone might read lots of books about fishing and learn about all kinds of aspects of fishing and great fishermen of the past, and various theories of fishing. But at some point, he has to move from learning about fishing to actually fishing!

Second: Paul’s preaching at Mar’s Hill (vv. 22-31):

It begins, “Then Paul stood in the midst of Mar’s hill…” (v. 22). This recalls Peter’s standing to preach at Pentecost in Acts 2:14: “But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice…” And it recalls Philip preaching to the Ethiopian (8:35: “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture and preached unto him Jesus.”).

This is yet another description and prescription of preaching as the revealed means that God is pleased to use to draw men to himself (cf. 1 Cor 1:21: “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe”). It is a fallible and imperfect man—in this case, a man who had once hated Christ and persecuted his people—who now stands to speak of Christ and to commend him to others.

Here Paul addresses the pagan Athenians, “Ye men of Athens.” He is not speaking to Jews, as did Peter, or a God-fearer, as did Philip, but to outright pagans. And so this will to some degree (but not radically) affect his message.

He begins by noting his observations of their outward religiosity or “superstitiousness” (v. 22b). Some render this as, “I see that you are very religious.”

Paul will later write to his fellow Jews in Romans 10:2 that they had a zeal for God but without knowledge. This could certainly also be said of the Athenian pagans.

They had all the signs of religion, all the forms of religion, without any true knowledge of God.

Paul says in v. 23 that as he passed through the city he noticed their “devotions” and he says he found one idol that even had the inscription, “To the unknown god.” They were apparently trying to cover all their bases. We worship all the gods, but in case we forgot one of them or in case one had not yet fully revealed himself to them, we also worship him.

Paul then says, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him I declare unto you.” In other words, I am going to reveal to you, declare to you, this God that you kind-of, sort-of, know is there but cannot identify so that you might know and worship him with understanding.

Paul then offers what we might call a three-point sermon:

First point: God’s creation of the world (vv. 24-25):

Again, he is speaking to men who are complete pagans. Thus Paul begins with the most foundational thing he can. God made the world in the space of six days and all very good. God is other than creation (a rejection of pantheism). He is over creation. He is Lord of creation. We do not worship creation, but we worship the Creator.

So Paul begins, “God that made the earth…” (v.24). He closes by noting that this almighty and powerful creator God does not dwell in temples made with hands.

By first addressing God as Creator Paul is also demolishing the theology and practices of ancient paganism. They thought God could be domesticated and controlled by their actions in the temple. Give him offerings and he has to treat you right, and he is visible in an idol in the temple.

Paul declares, however, that the one true God is too great, too holy, too powerful, too massive ever to dwell in something as puny as a temple. The whole earth cannot contain his glory, much less a pipsqueak temple!

He adds that the one true God is not worshipped with men’s hands (v. 25). He does not need anything from anyone or anything, much less from us. This is what the theologians call the doctrine of aseity, the doctrine of the self-satisfaction and independence of God. He was not lonely when he made this world and all that is in it. He made it out of an overflow of his abundance, not from any need in him.

God does not depend upon his worshippers, but his worshippers depend, for all things, upon him.

Paul asserts God’s aseity, “seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things” (v. 25). We are only living today, drawing breath, because gives it to us, day by day, moment by moment. Every beat of our heart, every breath taken should remind us of how absolutely dependent we are upon him for all things.

Second Point: God made men of all nations to seek and know him (vv. 26-29):

Paul moves from creation in general to the special creation of man (humanity). There is something different about us. As it says of man in Psalm 8:

Psalm 8: For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:

Here Paul stresses that God made from one blood (from the blood of one man, the first man Adam and his wife Eve) all the nations (ethne) of men to dwell on the earth (v. 26). He adds that he has set out the habitations for each of these nations.

Furthermore, he has purposed that they should “seek the Lord, if haply the might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us” (v. 27).

The language of “feeling after” evokes the idea of searching in the dark or with the vision obstructed. Imagine playing a game in the dark and the person you are seeking is right there, but you cannot find him because you do not see him. Then the lights are turned on and there he is, not far from you the whole time.

To further his point in v. 28 Paul quotes two pagan philosophers or poets, as he calls them.

He begins, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being.” This is apparently from the Cretan writer Epimenides.

He then writes, “as certain of your poets have said, For we are also his offspring.” This apparently comes from a man named Aratus from Cilicia, Paul’s home province where Tarsus stood.

Here Paul is using secular philosophers, known to his audience, to convince them of Biblical ideas. Note he did not begin here. He began with Genesis, with creation. But now he says that there are some things even pagans intuitively know. There is a God, and our lives depend upon him. We come from him. He made us, and, in this sense, we are his offspring.

Later Paul will write:

Romans 2: 14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:

15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)

These citations would be examples of men feeling about in the dark, groping after God, even while not fully knowing or understanding him.

He adds that given we have even this rudimentary knowledge that we are the offspring, the creations of this almighty God we should know that he cannot be reduced to the idol or graven image made of gold or silver or stone “by man’s device” (v. 29). The second commandment is written on our hearts.

Third point: The full revelation has come in Christ who will one day judge the whole earth (vv. 30-31):

Paul begins by noting that “the times of ignorance” that his pagan audience has previously lived under with all their mistaken notions of who God is, where he dwells, and how he is to be served, God, in his mercy was willing to “wink at” (literally to hyper-orao, to overlook).

Now all things have changed with the coming of Christ. Now God commands (not requests) that all men every where (Jew and Gentile, universally) must repent (experience a change of mind and heart as they acknowledge sinful ignorance and turn unto God through Christ in faith).

Paul then moves on to judgement (v. 31). I think he does so to grasp the attention of his hearers. God has appointed a day to judge the world in righteous by Christ, the man whom he hath ordained. Christ will come again in glory, and all men will be evaluated based on how they have responded to Christ. Compare:

2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.

Matthew 10: 32 Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.

33 But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.

And God has assured men that this is the way all things will end by raising Christ from the dead.

So ends Paul’s three-point sermon in Athens.

Third: The Response to Paul’s Sermon (vv. 32-34):

Every time Christ is preached there is a response. It is either a response of faith and belief and trust in Christ, or it is a response of disregard, unbelief, and spurning of Christ.

Three responses are described here:

First, those who mocked when they heard of the resurrection (v. 32a);

Second, those not convinced but willing to hear more at another time (v. 32b).

At this Paul departed (v. 33).

But finally we hear of the response of faith (v. 34). Most notably a man named Dionysius the Areopagite (likely one much engaged previously in these philosophical conversations) and a woman named Damaris. Luke is careful throughout Acts to note how the gospel comes both to men and women, and he often provides representative examples of each in such pairs.

These were not all, for Luke adds, “but others with them.” Not all believe but some do. They include men and women. The vast number will not be known or remembered by men but they are known by God. See the Bluegrass Gospel song, “There’s a Record Book” which begins:

To be well known of men
I may not ever be
I'm sure my name will not
Go down in history
There'll be no marble plaque
To tell of my good deeds
Nor any great parades
To honor me

But there's a Record Book
My name is written in
It was recorded there
When I was born again
No one can blot it out
It's sealed for evermore
It's in that Book of Life
Kept by the Lord

II.                 Application:

We today stand at our own Mar’s Hill. Some have been always learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth. Christ has been put before us. Only he can give true meaning and purpose to our existence. What we knew intuitively has been revealed to us and made known. God will one day judge us on how we have responded to Christ. Will we follow in the path of those who mock or those who trust Christ by faith?


1 comment:

Mike Kelly said...

So good to see the structure of your deliberation, thank you.