Sermon: Acts 17 - In the Culture to Evangelize the Culture

More than even before, Christians need to be able to make bridges to the gospel. Here, we look at Acts 17 where Paul, being motived by the glory of God, addresses people who didn't have a Christian worldview.

Audio

Transcript

Take your Bibles and turn to Acts 17. We're going to start in verse 16 and by the time we get to verse 44, it might just be 44 degrees outside! We're going to look at the passage and come away with some take away that I'm putting in the category of “being in the culture to evangelize the culture.” Let’s start in verse 16.

“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was greatly upset because he saw the city was full of idols so he was addressing the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue and in the marketplace everyday with those who happen to be there. And some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some of them were asking, 'What does this foolish babbler want to say?' Others said, 'He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (Luke tells us that they said this because he was proclaiming the Good News about Jesus and the resurrection.) “They took Paul and brought him to the Areopagus saying, 'May we know what this new teaching is that your proclaiming for you're bringing some surprising things to our ears and we want to know what they mean.”

What I think is interesting is that Paul is most grieved by the idolatry in Athens. It doesn't say that he saw all the lost people and was saddened, though I'm sure that was the case, we see this in other places. It doesn't say that he just wanted there to be more happiness or good news there. No. What it does say is that he noticed that people were worshiping foreign gods and this grieved him.

Paul Was Motived By The Glory Of God

The first point I want us to see today is that our motivation when we share the Gospel should be an increase of the glory of God. Now that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be concerned for those people that don't know Christ who will ultimately go to hell, we should. There can be multiple reasons why we do something. The primary reason should be to see God get glory, and we see Paul saying in Ephesians 1 that God saves us so that we will praise him for the glory of his grace. So, we see that Paul is motivated by the glory of God.

Paul had a pattern. He would generally go into a new town (indeed we see back in chapters 15 and 16), and go to the synagogue were the Jews would worship. He would speak with the Jews and the God fearing Gentiles and he would reason with them from the Old Testament. That's what he's doing here but today he has a different audience. This audience is comprised of the philosophers - a different type of crowd.

There're two different camps here; they're the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans were followers of Epicurus who died in 270 BC. In Epicurean philosophy the highest moral good was pleasure or perhaps said more accurately: the absence of pain. They also didn't think that God existed or if he did, he was extremely far removed. On an Epicurean philosophical view, the only things that existed were material things. Things that could ultimately be broken down to atoms.

We don't often think about material and immaterial things, but let me give you some examples of immaterial things which they would have said did not exist. There'd be no soul, there's no mind. You're just a brain, you're just a body. You're just comprised of atoms. There's another type of thing that's immaterial. God. Now when you start to analyze what these Epicureans believed, it's starts to sound a lot like modern day atheism. It's not the same but it's similar. This is one group that is in the audience as Paul is reasoning with the Jews and the God fearing Gentiles from the Old Testament.

Well then, there are the Stoics. These were followers of Zeno. This is where we get our word “stoic.” Someone might be going through cancer and we would say, "He's so stoic. He just accepts the circumstances as they come." They didn't have emotional highs and they didn’t have emotional lows. They were just very even keeled. On their view, god was everything. Today, we have a fancy term for that, we call it pantheism; everything being God.

What I hope you see here with just these two brief summaries of these different philosophical camps is they're very opposed to Christianity. They have very little in common. They actually say here, "What does this foolish babbler want to say?" The Greek word used for foolish babbler literally means “seed picker.” They thought Paul was a guy who picked up little ideas from everywhere and just kind of tossed them out. It sounded like nonsense to them. Indeed, reasoning from the Bible seemed like foolishness.

I think sometimes we have that experience today. You might have a co-worker or a friend who's going through a hard time and you say, "You know what? You need Jesus." That's true, but their way they look at the world, their philosophical system, their worldview might be so different from your Christian worldview that that phrase has no meaning to them at all. This is what we see happening here.

Paul says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians that the message of the cross is foolishness for those who are perishing. Indeed, it was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. This is why Paul repeatedly says, "I'm not ashamed of the Gospel.” What was there to be ashamed of? Christians are a group that rally behind the guy who got crucified on a tree. Now we believe he rose from the dead and that sounds like foolishness. It sounded like foolishness back then and it sounds like foolishness today, although it's not.

It's interesting depending on how you read this, it seems like they thought he was proclaiming that Jesus was a god and that the resurrection was a god potentially, but at the very least, they're just confused.

They take Paul to the Areopagus and this is also known as Mars Hill. There was a council that met there. At this point in time, they presided over religion and education. He's going to speak before this council. We're going to read this next paragraph of text and then we'll walk through it together.

Paul stood before the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I see that you were very religious in all respects, for as I went around and observed closely your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription "To an unknown God." Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands as if he needed anything because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone. From one man he made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth. He determine they’re times and fixes the limits of the places where they would live so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him though he's not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move about and exist and even some of your own poets have said, "For we too are his offspring." Since we are God's offspring, we should not think the deity like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human's skill and imagination.

Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he designated having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.

It's interesting when I read this verse where Paul stands before the Areopagus and says, "Men of Athens,” I can't help but have this very serious scene in mind, like from a movie. Picture yourself back in ancient Athens, a council of people in their white robes sitting there and Paul standing before them saying, "Men of Athens ..." I don't know, that just seems to make me a little excited.

He has a very cool opportunity here. He was sharing the Gospel in a way that people didn't understand and they wanted to hear more. Now let's not read into that too much because what we understand from history is that this was a time when people wanted to learn a lot of things and not really come to know much, if you understand what I mean.

As Luke told us previously, this were people who always wanted to hear something new. They wanted to have their ears tickled but it is noteworthy nonetheless that Paul has this opportunity.

When he starts to talk with them, he doesn't start with the Old Testament, he doesn't start with Judaism, he doesn't start with Jesus. Now what he does is he identifies a point they held in common and it's an altar. An altar he noticed in their city that was made to an unknown God. Now, one of the things I think that's very interesting about this passage is there are so many details here that we know more about from outside the Bible. For instance, we actually know about why these altars to an unknown God existed. Here's what happened.

Previously in Athens, there was a great plague and none of the sacrifices to their gods seemed to make the plagues stop. Nothing seemed to be able to abate this plague that was inflicting on the city. One wise man brings a flock of sheep to the top of the Areopagus, to the top of Mars Hill and let them go. He determined that wherever a sheep stopped in the grass and didn't eat but instead laid down, which have been a noteworthy occurrence, they would build an altar to an unknown God and sacrifice the sheep (to teach the other sheep not to lay down on the job probably... I’m kidding) and so they do this. The sheep go out, some of them lay down and they kill the sheep and erected an altar to an unknown God and you know what? The plague stopped. Most likely a coincidence but nonetheless, they added one more god, an unknown god to their list of other deities that they worship.

What does Paul say? "You're worshiping in ignorance but I'm going to make very clear to you who you're actually worshiping." There's an irony here. A few verses earlier perhaps ten, fifteen minutes before, they're calling Paul the foolish babbler, he's speaking nonsense and what's he pointing out to them? The philosophers, the people in the city of wisdom are actually worshiping in ignorance. He's going to make clear to them who the true God is. Our first point was that Paul was motivated by the glory of God but our second point is that Paul built a bridge to the Gospel.

Paul Built A Bridge To The Gospel

Indeed, whenever we share the Gospel or at least the majority of the time, we're going to have to build a bridge, we're going to have to say, "This person is here, this is where our conversation is right now and we need to be able to transition to something of a more spiritual nature." Now, you'll notice Paul doesn't jump right in to Jesus on the cross though that is necessary to actually share the Gospel for someone to come to salvation but he does start building a bridge.

He says that the God who made the whole world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples made by human hands. When Paul starts this proclamation of the Gospel, this bridge, he starts with God. Indeed, anytime we share the Gospel we must start with God. The Gospel should not solely be an emotional appeal like, "Don't you want peace in your life? Don't you want to be happy?" Now, does peace comes through a right relationship with God? Certainly. Paul says that in Romans 6. Can a correct understanding of who God is in our relationship to him and the forgiveness that comes to that bring happiness, joy and peace? Certainly.

People need to understand first and foremost that there is a God who created everything. Now you might say, "Why is it important to understand that God created everything?" That actually has some far reaching ramifications because if we are created by God as indeed Genesis 1:26 and 27 says we're created in his image, that means we are not the determiners of all things. Man is not the measure of everything. Man is not autonomous. Man will ultimately be accountable to the person who created him.

Perhaps said a little more simply, we're actually God's possession, he created us. If I make a table it probably would not look very good but nonetheless, I would own that table. It might be crooked, pens might roll off of it but I created that thing, it's mine. In the same way, God created us for his pleasure and for his glory and that claim, that starting position, needs to be clear when we share the Gospel. We see that Paul makes it clear here.

He actually uses this kind of earthy word that people might “grope around for God.” Isn't this also the irony that once again in the city of wisdom these educated, learned individuals don't really have a clue who God is.

Well, grope is an interesting word. That's kind of like when you come into your hotel room and the lights off and you're like, "Where's that switch?" You have an idea, a general direction perhaps but you could be quite far off and that's exactly how the world is apart from the work of the spirit in their life and the proclamation of the Gospel that we share with them.

If you'll remember, these Epicureans and the Stoics, they didn't think God existed or that he was far off. But Paul is making it clear: First and foremost God created you and secondly God is not far off. He's actually knowable. I'm proclaiming him to you.

Now today, God is not far off either and perhaps he's a little closer than it was in Paul's day in Athens. We have a church on every corner. Hopefully on average, maybe there's a Christian in every workplace. The question becomes: while God is not far off, how far off are we from sharing him with those around us?

We could have the Gospel with us, have the ability to share, have a story of grace like Pastor Luke talked about last week and we could be sitting next to someone day after day at work. The Gospel in a literal sense is not far off from this person but unless we actually share it, it doesn't matter if we're on the other side of the world or not. While God not being far off is true, it also imposes some type of responsibility on us which should not be burdensome though.

It's also interesting to note here that being close to God doesn't cut it. There's been this cultural conversation about if Jews and Muslims and Christians all worship the same God? Well, set that aside. Being close to God, worshiping the correct deity, that's not enough for salvation because Christ is required. Conscious, willful, placing of faith in and repentance to Christ. Close does not cut it.

We actually have to open our mouth and share the Good News with people in order for them to have the opportunity to come to believe it. Paul goes on and says, "For in him we live and move about and exist and as even some of your own poets have said, ‘we are his offspring.’ Since we are God's offspring, we shouldn't think about the deity like gold or silver or something else we've made.”

One thing I really like in this passage is that Paul's quoting their poets. Now we actually know who this poet is from non-biblical documents. We know about the philosophical ideas of the Stoics and the Epicureans from non-biblical documents, and what's noteworthy is that Paul, as is recorded here in Acts, gets all of these details right. You might say why is that important? Paul actually places this biblical document in the time that was written in. We can have confidence that Luke is actually writing these things down in the city he says he is at the time he says he is. This is the way the Bible actually ties in with history.

Paul is actually saying, "You know, you have these poets who say that you live and move about in Zeus and that in him you have life and breath--in Zeus. You're right to an extent. We do live about and move and exist and find our being in God but it's not Zeus.” You see Zeus was a created being. Zeus had parents who were Gods. If your parents were God's, does that make them God parents? That could make for a confusing situation.

We see further evidence here that Paul's building a bridge. He starts out talking about the altar to the unknown God. They're worshiping in ignorance and he's going to make it clear to them who the true God is. He quotes their poets who have expressed something true to an extent: We do live about and move and exist and find our being in God.

As Paul says in Colossians, everything finds it subsistence in Jesus. He literally holds it together. Nonetheless, they are far off because of their conclusion about who that God is but he does make another connection point on his bridge to the Gospel.

He says that:

Although God overlooked such times of ignorance when people didn't really know who he was, he now commands all people everywhere to repent because he set a day on which he's going to judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he designated having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.

When we read that verse, verse 30 there, where God overlooked things. The tendency at first blush might be to say, "Well, God didn't hold people accountable for their sins." That's just clearly false when we read the rest of the Scripture. God did have a special plan, a special covenant with the special people of Israel, but at this point, what Christ came to do was to provide salvation as option for all people. Not as in everyone will go to heaven but that it is for all people without distinction, all types of people, every tribe, tongue, nation, skin color, ethnicity. No one is barred from this salvation and relationship with Christ. He actually provides evidence here. It’s almost as if they're saying, "why should be believe that this is the God that actually exists."

Here's his answer, "Well, this God provided proof by raising a man from the dead." That falls squarely in the miracle category regardless of your worldview. Now, some people might think it's so miraculous it actually never happened. You know what? That's actually what kind of happened here because when Paul said this, when he said that God provided proof by raising a man from the dead, they heard it and some began to scoff.

That's actually how this whole passage started out, if you remember: They said he sounds like a babbler, he sounds foolish. And here, Some began to scoff, some said, "We'll hear you again." Paul leaves the Areopagus as Luke records it. Some people joined him and believed and we have a few names here.

I think there's some interesting things to point out here. First, I've a question for you. Just think about it for a second. Did Paul present the Gospel as it's recorded in this passage by Luke?

I'm going to say “no,” and let me tell you why.

All Paul includes here is the bad news. Now, is the Gospel good news? Yes. Does that mean if you tell someone “good news” that you've shared the Gospel? No. Good news is a description of what the Gospel is, but it is not the content of the Gospel. All Paul shares here is bad news.

He doesn't talk about forgiveness. He doesn't talk about Jesus. He doesn't talk about the cross or salvation. He does speak of God the creator who's going to hold man to account. He does talk about guilt and judgement and sin, all of the bad news. You might be thinking: he did talk about the resurrection. “God provided proof by raising a man from the dead.”

Yes, but the reason he included that here, as Luke records it, is so that they understand that God the Father actually exists. This was God the Father showing his power over nature and the created world by performing a resurrection. He doesn't talk about the extent of that resurrection. What did it actually mean? Did it provide for the forgiveness of sins? He doesn't get in to that.

Now, I think ultimately the fact that Luke records that people left with him and believed means that Paul shared more with them later. Because If we don't tell people about Christ and if they have no knowledge of Christ, there's no possibility of them coming to salvation. That's extremely clear in the Scriptures.

We can't just say that there is an exception made here. The reason I point this out is that in reading this passage, we don't get the wrong idea that it's okay to not talk about Christ and expect people to come to salvation. Paul did share that later.

One thing we spent some time on at Senior Adult VBS was a way to think about the Gospel and what we need to share when we do share it. There are four categories. God, man, Christ and the need for a response. Paul talks about some of this. He talks about God and he talks about man. He doesn't actually talk much here at all about Christ.

Now, he didn't really had the opportunity to, because they kind of cut him off. He talks about a miracle, the resurrection. It doesn't fit in their worldview-how they conceive of the world-and so they call him a babbler.

Paul Was Successful

Here's my third point for us today: while Paul was motivated by the glory of God, while he did try to make a bridge to the Gospel, in spite of him not sharing all of it and in spite of people not coming to believe, Paul was successful. You might think, "You're just redefining the word successful, aren't you?" It's kind of like when the team loses every game and the coach is, "You all were successful. You tried very hard." That's actually not what I mean here. I mean, a correct understanding of evangelization, of sharing the Gospel, would say that whenever we share what we can with the intent of getting and communicating the message of Christ to someone, we are successful.

We can't make someone sit and listen. Paul talked as long as he could and he got a mixed response from scoffing to "I'll hear you again” to believe later on. Whenever we are faithful with the opportunities we have and share in those opportunities with the intent and through the power of the Spirit to communicate the truth of the Gospel, you are successful.

Now, why is this? Saying you're successful requires us to realize a few things. The first is that you do not have the ability to save someone. You do not have the ability to make them believe what you've told them. You have the responsibility to share the truth. There are two sides to this evangelization endeavor. There's you sharing the truth and there's the Spirit of God working on that person. You need to be responsible with your part and the Holy Spirit will be responsible with his.

You Are Responsible For Your part and God Is Responsible For His.

That's our first take away for today: we are fully responsible for our part. If we don't go and tell as Paul says in Romans 10, they're not going to hear and if they don't hear, they can't have faith. If they don't have faith, there's no salvation.

We must be responsible for our part but we must also trust in the fact and rest in the fact that when we share the Gospel, when we are faithful with the opportunities we have, God will take care of his part. This is why I think we can kind of reduce the entry level to evangelism.

You're in a series on being everyday missionaries. Sometimes it's the hardest, isn't it, to share the Gospel with the people you're around everyday? Kind of seems backwards but that's true in my life. I'm guessing that's true in your life. A correct understanding of the power of God in salvation actually can give us great confidence that, "You know what? It's not my job to make them believe. I should try and provide answers to their questions. I need to accurately and effectively communicate the Gospel but at the end of the day, if I've done that or endeavored to do that well, I have done my part faithfully.” I can trust in the fact that the Spirit will work with what I have shared.

We Must Be Prepared

Our first take away from this passage is that we're fully responsible for our part and God is responsible for his. A part of being responsible is being prepared. We must be prepared if we're going to be responsible. We need to be able to make bridges to the Gospel. Being motivated by the glory of God, as Paul was, is good. Making bridges to the Gospel is kind of that next second step. Now, this requires us to understand the culture. To understand where someone is coming from when we talk to them.

The best way to understand where someone is coming from is not to say,” how do you identify on a religious spectrum? Which box would you check on a survey?” The best way to understand where someone is coming from is to ask conversational questions. Someone might identify as a Jehovah's Witness. Be careful that you don't think that you understand exactly what that person believes because not all Jehovah's Witnesses believe the same way.

If we were to take a poll in this room about a topic, a non-essential topic in Christianity, I guarantee you we would have a diversity of opinions. Not all Southern Baptist believe the same way either. The best way to understand where someone's coming from and build a bridge to wherever that is, is to ask them simple questions.

We must be students of what those around us believe. We must be students of the world. This requires us to be in the world but not of the world, to be able to be there in an everyday capacity next to people who need to hear the Gospel but also, in a kind of intellectual sense, to be able to take a step back and say, "What do people believe and how can I make bridges to wherever they are?”

We don't have a lot of time today to focus on some specifics of these but I do have a few little pointers and examples for you.

For The Muslim

For instance, if you have a friend who's a Muslim, a great way to build a bridge to the Gospel with that person is to start talking about Jesus.

Now, that's not just the Sunday School answer, because the Koran actually has more to say about Jesus than it does Muhammad. We actually hold quite a few common beliefs about Jesus: he's born of a virgin, he ascended to heaven, he was a great prophet (we would say more than that), he lived a great life. There's quite a bit of similarity here. Now the differences are striking.

They don't actually think that Jesus died on the cross. They think it was kind of a sham, it was a trick. But if there’s No crucifixion, there’s no forgiveness of sins, so that's an important difference. More so, they don't think he was God. Nonetheless, the closest point between Islam and christianity is this idea that Jesus had something to say for God that he spoke for God. Let's go to the Gospel (Muslims would call it the ingil), and see what it says about Jesus. “You think he was a great guy, you think he was a great prophet.” Let's start with Jesus.

Muslims will actually be very receptive to you inviting them into your home and sharing with them about your Christian convictions. They're one of the groups (as perhaps more groups should be) that actually think if you don't talk about what you believe, you must not believe it very strongly. I think they're on to something there. So, they will be most likely be receptive but it doesn't mean they're going to agree; it means you could have a good conversation.

For The Atheist

Another example and a type of group we could talk with would be atheist. A lot of times today's atheist will be the most vocal about saying something is wrong in the world. Oftentimes, they are the first to say that God did immoral things in the Old Testament or that such and such a crime happening on Wall Street is immoral. Here's the question. Where does morality fit in an atheistic worldview, where there's no creator, where there's no moral law giver? How can you have a moral law with no moral law giver? You can't. This doesn't mean atheists can't behave morally. Some, sadly, behave more morally than those who claim the name of Christ.

Nonetheless, while you can behave morally, you can't explain where morality comes from in an atheistic worldview. You could ask someone when they make a moral claim, “What does it mean for something to be wrong? Would it be wrong if the person didn't think it was wrong? Would it wrong if everyone says it was right? Where do you get your idea of morality being objective?”

For The Hindu

I was in India earlier last year and we went to see what, in English. is advertised as the largest Shiva statue in the world. In Hindi, it’s advertised as the largest Shiva god in the world. They actually think it's a god. They really worship this thing. It's very tall, very fat too. A pastor from my church and I were there training pastors, and we wanted to understand their culture. So I asked the missionary we were with: “Do they really worship this thing? Did they not realize when they made it with their own hands that they were greater than it?" He says, "No. That doesn't occur to them."

That's actually what Paul points out in this passage. Don't think of God like a stone or a silver or a gold thing. That's the wrong type of idea for God. That's too low of an idea of God. If you can make it with your hands, you’re the god of it in a way. It's not the ruler of you.

So, We need to find things in the beliefs of those people around us that allow us to make a bridge to talking about spiritual things, to get to the Gospel, to have the opportunity to share your story of grace.

Sometimes we have to buy some conversational capital before people will listen to us. When you start talking about Jesus and the resurrection, some people are going to think it's foolishness as they did with Paul. We must be responsible for our part in God, and trust God to be responsible with his. We must be prepared and we must be faithful. You can carry around your go bag that's prepped with a lighter and perhaps camping equipment and repelling gear and all of this but if you're never faithful to use it, all that preparedness doesn't count. You actually have to use those tools and abilities you have.

Being equipped is great, having the knowledge to build a bridge to the Gospel is excellent but if you never use it, you have not been faithful.

That's the question for today: what does faithfulness in your everyday missionary context look like? As I've been talking, I've given some examples of types of people but maybe someone has come to your mind. Maybe there's a person that's in your family, that's a co-worker, that's in your retirement community or at your school. Maybe there's a person that comes to mind and you say, "You know what? I know how to address that person. I know how to start a conversation." Let me encourage you to be faithful in that, to take those opportunities to be intentional. One way we pick up our cross and follow Jesus is by making his message our message, by living out his commands.

You know what? A lot of times when we think about evangelism, we’re timid. We have fear. It might feel somewhat uncomfortable. Personally, while I too have those feelings (being honest with you), the thought I have that re-centers me is the fact that, you know what? Jesus wasn't timid about going to the cross for me. He actually paid the price for my sin that I couldn’t, in a heinous and hideous, painful way. And what does he ask from me? Actually not very much by comparison: that I live in light of that reality, that I share the truth of what he did. I'm not the one doing it. I couldn't accomplish my salvation. But what does he ask? That I share the truth of what he did with those around me. That might be a little uncomfortable but that in no way compares to the perfect Son of God taking on himself our sin so that he could credit us his righteousness.

We're going to pray in a minute and I would encourage to think of what being faithful looks like in light of what we've read here, in light of what Paul did in building a bridge for the Gospel. What does it look like in your life to be motivated by the glory of God? What opportunities exist in your everyday situations and circles of life to share with someone in an appropriate way? Would you pray with me?