Scripture Reference: Acts 17
Witnessing For ChristDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | August 2, 2015
Scripture Reference: Acts 17
Selected highlights from this sermon
When the Apostle Paul entered Athens, the religiosity of the ancient city of knowledge was on full display. Paul proclaimed the news about Christ in public both to the Jews and the Gentiles of the city.
His message unveiled the Supreme Creator, God, and dwarfed the petty idols that saturated Athens. Some mocked Paul’s message, but some believed. Let that be an encouragement to us, as we receive the same reactions as we witness.
We live in a very pluralistic world, don’t we, here in America? Yesterday I googled spirituality and discovered that there is no clear definition of what spirituality really is. And the reason for that is because we have today so many different views as to what might be entailed in spirituality, and there is no given core of doctrine or belief that unifies the idea.
There are so many people who say (and some of you may be saying), “I’m into spirituality but I’m not into religion. I don’t like anything formal, but I am a spiritual person.” So today in America what it is popular to do is, like a smorgasbord, you take a little bit of Hinduism, you like a few things from Ekhart Tolle, you throw in some angel theology, and of course, some sayings of Jesus. And you have a concoction that is just right for you filled, of course, with your own ideas.
You may be here today thinking that. You may say to yourself, “I’m content with my own view of God, with my own view of who I am, and I don’t need anything else.” You know, the Apostle Paul, when he was in Athens, encountered a culture just like that. It’s Acts 17, and this happens to be number three in a series of message titled The Legacy of a Converted Man. Here was a man steeped in Judaism, but he ends up being the most grateful and most powerful man to spread Christianity in the early century. And we have to, for time’s sake, not speak too much about the context, but to plunge right in. We’re in Acts 17. He has been in Thessalonica. He stirred up a number of people there. He had to leave. They took him to Berea. Some people who hated him came to Berea, and so he ends up in Athens.
Acts 17, verse 16: “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens (there were others who were going to join him), his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” Let’s stop there.
Our task as apologists, that is, defending Christianity and defending the faith, has to begin with concern. Paul was provoked as he saw this city full of idols – the great city of Athens. A Roman once said that it was easier to find a god in Athens than it was to find a man. Paul seized the city, given over to idolatry, and his heart is deeply moved within him for two reasons. First of all, it was because he was concerned about the people themselves. I mean these were people who really didn’t know God. They didn’t know His forgiveness. And they certainly did not understand grace, and that should really trouble you and me today also in our culture. There’s a second reason undoubtedly, and that is, to quote the words of Henry Martin who was a great missionary among Muslims, who said, “I cannot live unless I see Jesus glorified.”
So as Paul surrounded himself with the Athenians and saw what was happening, he knew that this was a culture that wasn’t glorifying Jesus, and he was deeply moved. It was a culture something like a waitress that Rebecca and I encountered last week who said that yes, she believed in Jesus. She read the New Testament, but she also read the Gnostic Gospels, and she believed in that Jesus too. And she had her own little religion, but Jesus, the Jesus of the New Testament was not exalted. I ended my conversation with her by telling her, “Someday when you are overwhelmed with guilt and you don’t not know where to turn, it’s the Jesus of the New Testament that you’re looking for.”
Are our hearts concerned about our city, and our community that does not know Jesus as Savior and Lord?
And then Paul had a two-prong strategy. You’ll notice it says in verse 17: “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons.” And how did he reason? He reasoned from the Scriptures. That’s exactly what the previous verses say. When he was in Thessalonica and elsewhere he reasoned from the Scriptures, but that wasn’t the end of his strategy. You’ll notice it says that he also met people in the marketplace everyday - with those who happened to be there. Now, in that context, he did not begin with the Scriptures, as we shall see in a moment. And you and I have to understand that when we are in church, there is one strategy and that is the proclamation from the Scriptures, believing that most people who attend here, and probably most people who listen, have respect for the Bible and believe the Bible, so every Sunday here at The Moody Church we preach the Bible. But if you go to the corner of State and Madison, and you begin to ask people there what they think about Jesus or God, and you quote the Bible, they may dismiss it and say, “You know, it’s a book of fairy tales. Why should I believe it?”
So the Apostle Paul had a different strategy for folks like that. It’s interesting that this month at Moody Church happens to be Outreach Month. And what we must do is to begin to think in terms of the marketplace – where you work, the people you encounter on the train or in a restaurant or on a plane. Wherever you may be, you represent Christ, and there are people out there that we need to be able to graciously encounter their experience and where they are at, and then eventually, as God helps us, to get to Jesus.
Now you’ll notice that there are two kinds of philosophers there in Athens. Verse 18: “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.” The Epicureans believed that matter was the final reality. When you died there was no existence beyond the grave, so naturally they would think, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” So Epicureans are generally identified with pleasure, though they did emphasize the higher pleasures. But they did not believe in the existence of spirit or God in any meaningful sense.
The Stoics believed that there was a spirit world. Their god was the world. Pantheism! They’d have felt very comfortable with various views that are found in the eastern religions, with views such as Hinduism. When you die, your soul is absorbed in the great oneness of the universe, and you disappear, but you may appear later. But the point is that there is a spirit world. And they believed that the highest duty of man is indeed duty. You do your duty. That’s why we speak about being stoical. You are committed to duty whether you feel like it or not. So here you have two opposing views in Athens, and they listened to Paul, and they don’t get it.
Look at what happens. They say (and now I’m still in verse 18): “‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’ — because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus (which is Mars Hill), saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears.’”
My fellow Christians, you and I have the responsibility in this culture to bring strange things to people’s ears, things that they are not hearing anymore since we live in a post-Christian era – no longer a Christian consensus. And that’s our calling, and unfortunately we’re oftentimes so intimidated.
This past week I preached ten times. Now what were you doing last week? (laughter) Don’t worry. It was a “piece of cake.” I preached the same message every morning – the message twice – so that means I only preached really five times because I repeated it in a different location. But there was another speaker there who made this statement. Another Bible teacher said he is more concerned about the church than he is the Supreme Court. Wow!
Folks, we have the treasure of God, and we are so intimidated by our culture and all the various gods that are out there. I hope today that there are skeptics listening to this message. And by the way, if you are an Epicurean, the closest identification we would have with you today is today’s modern atheists. This is such a separate subject that I can’t get into, but if you are an atheist and you argue for atheism, you are assuming of necessity the existence of God. You are stealing all kinds of presuppositions about God as you stand and you argue for it.
But how does Paul approach his culture? And how do we learn to approach our culture? And how do we get this strange doctrine that people need to hear but they find very foreign and very archaic in today’s pluralistic world?
What I’ve decided to do is to just go through his speech there and to delineate some concepts of God that he got across, and then eventually, of course, he did get to Jesus. But how did Paul do it? I’d like to read a few verses of his sermon. Verse 22: “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.’” He doesn’t condemn them for that. Man is incurably religious. He gropes after God, as Paul will point out. “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, (He quotes now two poets of Greek – that is Greek poets) for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”
Just that far for a moment! What are some of these characteristics of God? First, of all God is knowable. He can be known. The Apostle Paul says, “Do you see that idol?” And isn’t it interesting that he who is distressed over the idols found an idol that becomes the touchstone, the jumping off point in his speech? You see, the Athenians had so many idols, but they thought, “What if we’re missing some god and he gets angry with us? Let’s put up an altar to an unknown god, and maybe he’ll be appeased even though we don’t know his name.” And so Paul says, “He’s the one I’m preaching to you, and I’m going to tell you that you can know Him.”
My friend today, did you know that knowledge of God is possible? Even in the Old Testament it said, “The people who know their god shall be strong and do exploits.” Jesus, of course, said, “And this is life eternal that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.” We cannot know God exhaustively, but we can know Him truly. May I commend to you today the fact that the greatest search that you should ever have in your life is to come to know God. And before this sermon is over, you’ll find out how. So Paul says, “You think you’ve overlooked a god? I’m going to tell you about the true God. He is knowable.”
Secondly, He is the creator, the God who created, he says, the world. What is that? Verse 24 says, “and everything in it.” Now, immediately when he mentions creation, that means he’s talking about a unique God. He cuts out all of the idols of the Greek culture, and the minute that you talk about God as creator, immediately you leave behind your own little conceptions of God, and your own little belief in your ideas. God is creator. Did you know that in heaven we’re going to worship Him for that? “Blessed are You for Thou has created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and they were created.” So he says, “This is the God I am proclaiming to you.”
You’ll notice what he says. He says, “He made the worlds,” which immediately means omnipotence. And by the way, “He does not dwell in temples made by hands.” Some of us have had the privilege of being at Mars Hill, actually standing on Mars Hill. And if you ever have the opportunity to do that (and God willing, some of us will be doing that again quite soon), what you do is you look up and there is the Parthenon. There is the great cathedral, the great temple to the goddess Athena. It’s still standing today. I mean, this is a marvel. The Greeks’ ability in art and architecture and philosophy is huge. I mean this was begun 400 years before the time of Jesus, and it’s still standing today. Imagine that!
But he’s saying, “God doesn’t exist there. You don’t go to that temple. Of course, you can pray to God in a temple, but it’s not as if God is localized in this temple. God exists everywhere. He is omnipotent. He created the world, and He’s also omniscient. And He’s omnipresent. He is everywhere, and if you think He’s really hard to find, Paul is going to say in a few moments that “In Him we live and move and have our being.” So Paul says, “God is creator.”
Verse 25: God is independent. Now many of you may not have known this. You’ll notice it says in verse 25: “Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Do you remember a few years ago I think here in Chicago on the bus it said, “In the beginning man created God.”? (chuckles) That should have sparked a laugh from people. Paul is saying that the opposite is true. God created you, and guess what! He didn’t need you. Isn’t that wonderful? God can get along without us quite well actually.
Now many evangelicals will teach you this. Maybe you learned this in Sunday school.
“Why did God create us?”
“Well, it’s this way. God was lonely, and He decided to create some angels and people because He needed that fellowship.”
Actually that’s not true. God has need of nothing. He existed as a Trinity fully and completely satisfied. The Trinity means we don’t believe in a contradiction – three Gods, etc. No, God has three centers of consciousness – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each loved the other and had fellowship with the other, and God was content. Then why did He create? It was kind of an overflow of His glory, and a new way in which His glory would be revealed, which is the ultimate purpose of all things.
So God doesn’t need us. He’s certainly not dependent on us. He was fully satisfied, and now Paul goes on to say, “He is purposeful,” and by that I mean (verse 26): “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods (That has to do with the seasons) and even the boundaries of their dwelling place.” God determined that Ham (one of the three sons of Noah) would go to Egypt, Shem would go to the Middle East, and Japheth would go to Europe. All that was within God’s determined plan.
Why did Paul mention to the Athenians that God created from one man everyone who was born and lives? The reason for that is because the Athenians were very, very proud. They believed that they were unique. Everybody else was a barbarian.
I wasn’t going to tell you this but a little bit of humor sometimes comes to mind. I was in Barbados many years ago, and when you are in Barbados you are speaking to Barbadians, and I called them Barbarians. (laughter) I’ve never been invited back. (laughter) I apologized profusely, and of course they forgave me - I think.
But the Athenians thought they were special people. No, no, no! God created everybody from one man, and we could say one woman, to be upon the face of the earth. So you actually share the humanity of the people that you despise. And God has His hand in human history. He is purposeful in His creation. Obviously He is a personal God. He’s not some kind of impersonal force, as some people believe, but He is rather a personal God. And He’s also a God who reveals Himself, and He did this and a lot of other things that they should seek God (verse 27) in the hope that they might grope (or feel) their way toward Him and find Him.
Now how should pagans find God? First of all, they should find Him in nature. You cannot, for a moment, look at nature and walk out under the stars and see anything about the planets and their accuracy and how, if they were in a different position, we couldn’t live. Surely that tells you there’s a God who has intelligence, design and purpose. Alright?
But there’s another way, and that is conscience. Conscience tells you that there’s a God. That’s why man is incurably religious. You go all over the world and he’s religious because people want to put a lid on it. They want to stifle it. But in your heart you know that there is a God. Even the most committed atheist knows that there is a God.
And then, of course, beyond that, there is the special revelation of Jesus Christ. But Paul here quotes their poets. He quotes Epimenides, who wrote, “For in him we live and move and have our being,” and Aratus, who wrote, “For we are his offspring.” Notice how Paul is willing to make a point of contact with pagan poets. It doesn’t mean that he agreed with everything that these guys wrote, but he snatches something from it (them) to connect with his audience so that they might know that he knows. And really there is sometimes secular evidence for spiritual realities. Paul was not hesitant to use it when it served his purpose.
And then Paul says that God will judge the world. Now he gets to the Gospel. Verse 18: “Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver.” I want to stop. God is not like the conception of God you have in your own mind.
A very immoral man was being interviewed on TV that I saw. And he said, “My god doesn’t mind my lifestyle.” (whistles) Really!? Amazing! How would you know that? That’s the question I’d have wanted to ask him. Did your god reveal himself to you? No! Isn’t it amazing that when we come up with our own idols they are very manageable? And our own idols have this peculiar characteristic of always agreeing with us. If you have a god who always agrees with you, I can tell you, you don’t have the true God. I can assure you of that.
So Paul says He’s not like the imagination of man. You’ll notice it there. “The times of ignorance God overlooked (In other words, Jesus had not come. It doesn’t mean that it was all forgotten, but there’s no doubt God was more lenient, because remember that responsibility is based on knowledge.), but now he 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; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” The man Jesus!
You say, “Well why doesn’t he mention Jesus’ name? Earlier, when he’s at the Areopagus in the marketplace it says he preached Jesus and the resurrection, but it’s clear that he’s referring to Jesus whom God raised from the dead.
And God has fixed a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness. Now notice when Paul says this he is going against the Epicureans who believed that when you die, you die like a dog. There’s no existence beyond. Oh yeah? You’re going to meet God. As it says in the book of Hebrews, “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment.” And then to the Stoics, you know, “Oh my soul is going to be absorbed into the grand pantheistic divine,” whatever that means.
Uh-uh! You are going to stand before God and you are going to be judged by Him. Immediately we think of a problem that we have, and that’s called sin.
Now, you know that I stay out of politics, but I do know what’s going on. I don’t know what you think about Donald Trump, and I also know that this sermon may be listened to in years to come, so I need to explain that while it is being preached, Trump is making headlines. I never thought of saying this before, but you could say that he’s trumping a lot of other people. (laughter)
Did you see the interview that he had with Anderson Cooper the other day? Cooper asked him, “Have you ever had to ask God for forgiveness?” And I’m paraphrasing here. This is not a direct quote but it is the essence. He answered, “Well, you know, if I did something wrong I’d ask for forgiveness, but I can’t think of anything that I’ve done that is wrong. (laughter) I’ve always tried to do the right thing. And by the way, I’m rich.” (laughter) And Cooper asked him, “Have you ever had to repent?” “Well,” he said, “I take the cracker and the wine in church,” but he said, “I’ve always tried to do everything right. You know, if there was something I needed to repent for, I think I would.” Here’s the thought that came to mind:
The larger your ego, the smaller your god!
Alright? Do we have a witness to that? (loud applause)
Now let’s talk about you. (laughter) And let me say this: You who are sitting there, perhaps with arms folded, content with your own private view of God, the reason you can live with yourself is because your ego is so ingrained. And if I might say it, you are so filled with self-righteousness, that you can’t see the forest for the trees. You really can’t.
You know, many people think, “Oh, if God showed up, I’d high-five Him. I would hug Him. I’d say, ‘God, great to see You. What were You doing back there when I was suffering?’”
You look at the Bible. Isaiah in the presence of God said, “Woe is me, for I am undone. For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell within a city of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
I preached messages on the book of Job this past week. That was my series. “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees Thee, and I repent in dust and ashes.”
I don’t want to be too hard on you, but I do want to be clear. Who do you think you are if you can come up with your own conception of God and be satisfied with it? It’s not the God of the Bible.
By the way, this past week a student asked me a very good question. He said, “I know somebody who said that he would receive Christ as Savior, but he won’t because of the problem of evil. He says, ‘How could God see thousands of kids starve, how He could put up with the horrors of the Holocaust and all of that? I can’t believe.’” So this is the answer I gave. It isn’t a total answer, but I believe it’s an answer.
The problem of evil does not call into question the existence of God, but it does call into question what kind of a God exists. What kind of a God is it that can watch all of the evil going on and not intervene? So how do we respond to the fact that God exists and evil exists?
I have a couple of comments. One of the places we can’t go is to say that God doesn’t care. We can’t do that because Jesus is a reminder of the fact, as He hung there on the cross for us, that God cares, and He cares very deeply. So we can’t go in that direction.
If you wonder how come you know that God is love, you can’t look at nature. Though sometimes you see it, you hurry to the cross and you say, “Yes, God is a God of love, for God so loved the world that He gave.”
But then I said this to him.
Actually the problem of evil should drive people into the arms of Jesus rather than turn them away. If God is the kind of God to be able to watch the Holocaust and to see the tremendous evil in the world and not intervene, I think you’d better make sure really fast that you are at peace with Him. That’s what I suggest. If God can put up with natural disasters and blow people away, and all the terrible things that happen and the untold suffering, maybe the doctrine of hell is not as strange or as far out as you think it is. I would say that since the Bible says our God is a consuming fire, run to Jesus really fast because in Him we have protection from the wrath of God. We have complete acceptance. We have complete forgiveness. All that is waiting for you if you believe on Jesus. (applause)
Now when Paul finished his speech there were three responses. Verse 32: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked.” They were saying, “You know we were listening to some strange things, but this is a little too strange,” so they mocked. During the days of Noah people mocked. When Abraham predicted the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, people mocked, the Bible says. But the Bible also says, “God will not be mocked.” If you are a mocker here today, you came to hear the right sermon to bring you to the kind of repentance that ends your mocking, and thanking God for Jesus.
But some mocked. “Others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” I’m going to put it off. Dr. Sweeting, who once occupied this pulpit years ago, liked to say, “The road to tomorrow leads to a town called Never.” It’s the greatest weapon Satan has. Tomorrow!
The Bible says, “If you hear His voice, don’t harden your heart.” Don’t say tomorrow. You’ve heard enough today to know that there is a God, and there is a judgment coming, and Jesus is the answer to your need. You’ve heard enough to know that. Don’t put it off.
And then it says: “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopoagite (Who in the world was he? We don’t know much about him but he apparently was one of the intellectual leaders there at the Areopagus. Someday in eternity maybe we’ll find out the impact that he had among the other philosophers when he believed. He was the great intellectual, and you may think today that you’re the great intellectual. I encourage you to believe the Gospel.) and Damaris (She was a woman that we don’t know much about but again, who knows what kind of a witness she had?) and others with them.”
And today as I preach this sermon and it’s heard here and it’s heard in different places of the world, and heard over the radio, I expect those three responses. Some say, “No, I can’t believe because of pride.” You mock! Some say, “Yeah, I think this could be true but I’ve got lots of time. I’m young.” And then there are those who say, “If God is God, and if Jesus is the only Savior, today I believe.” And you can do that even where you are seated or where you are listening.
If in your heart God has granted you that faith to say, “Today I receive Jesus as Savior,” today is the greatest day of your life. (applause) There is none greater, and if you believe, would you tell a member of the pastoral staff or me or someone? We want to encourage you in your faith because at the end of the day it’s all about Jesus and the resurrection.
Father, we thank You today from the depths of our hearts that the Apostle Paul did not stay in the synagogue, and we pray that we might not stay in our churches, but know that there is a marketplace out there. There are jobs, there are neighbors, there are friends, and we need not be intimidated. We can tell people what Jesus did for us. We can do that much. We can give them a Gospel of John. Help us, Father, to realize that there are people out there that You are calling to salvation whom You intend to save through us. And save people now, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.