Selected highlights from this sermon.
Athens was full of idols when the Apostle Paul arrived there. But he challenged the Athenians’ ideas concerning the nature of God and man, and told them that they needed a Redeemer. The reaction he received was mixed—much as it is today in our idol-saturated culture.
Pastor Lutzer shows us how Paul used the beliefs and culture of the Athenians to explain the real God, the real essence of man, and the very real need of salvation Christ offers.
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As all of us know that atheism is growing in Europe, but it’s also growing here in the United States of America. Somebody gave me a Chicago Tribune article that showed a bus with a slogan “In the beginning man created God.” Now that slogan would be correct if they had changed the last word–if they had put it in lower case and then pluralized it. I hope there is a word like pluralized. At least there is now.
In the beginning, man created gods. That would be true. It’s like the great theologian Calvin who said that man’s mind is like an idol factory. It is always developing idols and every time we preach the Gospel we have to confront the idols of our culture. In a few moments we’re going to see how the Apostle Paul did it, but first of all in context, you remember that Paul began in Philippi. Remember this is a series of messages entitled Light Shining in Darkness–How the Gospel Impacts Culture. Paul preached the Gospel in Philippi in my last message, and there were three people at least who were converted there in Philippi, and then he came to Thessalonica, and now it’s the seventeenth chapter of Acts. Would you turn to it please? It says, “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.” You see, when the Apostle Paul went to a city, he went to those who were already seeking God. He went to them first.
When we share the Gospel it is easier to share it with those who are open on the Godward side, and you know, those who were in the synagogue were open to the possibility of knowing God better and so he went there, and he reasoned with them from the Scriptures. Of course he ran into problems with the law. You’ll notice it says in verse 7 there was a riot that was breaking out and they were all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus. You’ll notice Caesar decreed; there’s only one, and that is Caesar, and they cannot tolerate another God by the name of Jesus.
Someday I am going to speak of the role of law in America, and give you some examples of how the church is being marginalized simply because of laws that are being enacted. When we were gone recently we saw something on the national news that said that there was an area of California in which parents did not have an option. Their children were taught about homosexuality at the age of 5. They were being force-fed that agenda and it was against the law to take them out of school. Watch laws. Show me your laws and I will show you your God.
Well anyway, Paul then goes to Athens and that’s the story right here in the sixteenth verse. Paul leaves and he goes to Athens and you’ll notice it says, “While Paul was waiting for them (that is, for Silas and Timothy) in Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” You and I, as we walk the streets of Chicago or any other American city, should have hearts that are burdened because we’re living in a nation filled with idolatry (filled with idols). There’s the idol that we could call the god of my health and wealth that exists in order to give me money and to make me happy. There’s that god. It’s an idol of the imagination. There’s also the god of my sexuality, and no matter what I do, God comes and approves it, because after all I know better than God, and no matter what His Word says, I have my own idea, and by the way, who are you to say that God doesn’t approve of what I do? And so you have the god of your sexuality, who allows you to do whatever your desires dictate.
We also have the god of my self-authentication, because I am basically my god. I’m thinking, for example, of Eckhart Tolle who wrote the book entitled The New Earth, in which he says, “You are the way and the truth and the life. When Jesus spoke those words, he meant all of us;” and Rhonda Byrne, in her book entitled The Secret, which was so heavily promoted says, “You are God in the flesh.” And so there we are with the idols of our culture. Self is God. It’s the oldest lie. It’s the oldest idol one could ever imagine, but men always make idols. In the beginning, man created gods.
So the question is how did Paul confront these folks? Now let’s look at the text. It says in verse 17, “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day.” So he’s in the synagogue and he’s talking to those who are open to God and who are more open to God than those who are in the marketplace.
One time I was flying from Regina, Saskatchewan, all the way to Toronto, and I intended to rest because I was tired, and I wanted to read a little bit, but in God’s providence, next to me sat a very well-educated articulate Hindu, so we talked for more than three hours, and I found that he was more open actually to the Gospel, and more open to spiritual things than the businessman that I normally sit next to who just wants to know how he can earn his next buck and could care less about God. Yes, there are people who are open, and what we need to do is to recognize that they are more likely to believe the Gospel. But Paul also would go to the marketplace and there he would dialogue. That’s wonderful. And lo and behold he comes across two kinds of philosophers–the Epicureans (verse 18) and the Stoics. The Epicureans were materialists. They didn’t believe in spirit. They didn’t believe in miracles. As far as they were concerned, the entire world was nothing but molecules. They would have loved Charles Darwin and the implications of Darwinism. They were the materialists of their time, but you also have the Stoics and they were much more spiritual. They were Pantheists. They believed that the highest good of man, of course, is to deny the existence of the empirical world, which has so much pain. They have a great deal in common with Hinduism, and a great deal in common with the New Age Movement that says that God is found in the depths of our soul. So you have these two kinds of philosophers, and the Stoics, of course, in denying the existence of the external world (something like Plato did) or downplaying it, believed that the best that you could do is to learn to endure, and so today we even talk about a stoical approach to life. And Paul is going to preach to these two kinds of philosophers, and by the way, essentially today we stand on Mars Hill, don’t we? On the one hand are the materialists–the atheists who don’t believe in any kind of revelation or any kind of miracles (all that exists is matter), and then on the other side you find those who are into the new spirituality and they are much more akin to the stoics, and we join Paul on Mars Hill and preach the Gospel to the idols of our culture.
How did Paul do it? First of all, notice how he connected with them. You’ll notice it says in verse 22, “Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus (that’s Mars Hill…” By the way, you can go to Mars Hill today; you can climb to the top of Mars Hill. It’s also possible that the Apostle Paul preached on the other side of the hill, which is where oftentimes philosophers met. We don’t know exactly where it is, but if you ever visit Athens and you are there, you know that close by it is here that Paul preached this very powerful and important sermon, which models for us how to confront the philosophers of our day. He said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’” Actually in Greek it is agnōstos theos, and, of course, you know that’s where we get our word agnosticism, so you see, the Athenians had all of these idols and they thought that possibly they had left out a god and they didn’t want to offend the god that they had left out, so they had an altar to an unknown god, and that was for their agnosticism because they weren’t sure whether or not they had spoken and acknowledged all of the gods.
So Paul picks up on that, and says, “You have an altar to the unknown god, the one that you were agnostic about, and that’s the one I’m going to proclaim to you.” What a wonderful way to begin a sermon, and so the Apostle Paul connects with them because he knows that they are now going to dispute with him, and the whole question will be about whether or not they are able to receive this message.
So first of all, he connects with them, and then secondly he explains to them. Now what is it that people need to know in our culture? There are three or four things, and Paul covers all of them in this wonderful sermon.
First of all, they need a more accurate conception of God, and that’s where Paul begins. He says in verse 24, “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 you’ll notice he continues by saying, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.”
First of all, what he needs to do is to help them to understand who God is, and he begins with God as creator. He’s saying, “God made you. You didn’t make God. Look at all of the idols around here. They are manmade, but the God that I am proclaiming to you is not manmade. As a matter of fact, he is the creator of all things that exist, and because of him you have your existence. That’s the God I proclaim to you and that’s the God who can redeem you.” So he begins by saying, “Yes, indeed, God is creator. God is omnipresent. He doesn’t exist in temples made by hands.” In other words, you can’t build a temple and say, “I’m building this temple for God and God is going to dwell there. No, no, no. In the Old Testament Solomon said, “The heaven of the heavens cannot contain God; how much less this house I have built.” Oh yes, in Old Testament times, God was localized for the purpose of people connecting with him, but God pervades the entire Universe, and is everywhere and He’s not limited to a temple or to an idol that is made with hands.
And then you’ll notice Paul says, “You need to have your doctrine of God and also your doctrine of man straightened out.” That’s the next part of his sermon. You’ll notice it says in verse 26, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods (that could refer to the seasons) and the boundaries of their dwelling place, so that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him (one of the translations say grope their way toward him) and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have one being’, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For indeed we are his offspring.’”
I read it quickly. We have to go through now and understand it in a little bit more detail.
The Apostle Paul is saying, first of all, that God created man from one person. And by the way, I had lunch with someone who is an astronomer whose name most of you would know, about a month ago, and he said that now science continues to have evidence that we all descended indeed from one set of parents. And of course we believed that long before science caught up to us. You know, I remember one time Time Magazine had an article about the City of Jericho, and it said, “Score one for the Bible,” and then it talked about how recent archeological discoveries actually confirmed the biblical record, and I thought, “No, no, no, score one for Time Magazine. They finally got it right.”
So the Apostle Paul here, in speaking to them about human beings said, “God determined the seasons, and God determined where all of the various tribes would live.” If you ask the question why did Ham go into Egypt, and Japheth go into Europe, and Shem stay in the Middle East, it is attributed to God that “men might grope after God.” What he is saying in the text is that as people moved out into different areas, and they began to understand that the earth was created for man, and that’s why they were able to live in different parts of the country through agriculture and what have you, they should have said to themselves, “Surely God created this world. Surely this is all of him because of the light of history, because of the light of nature, because of the light of conscience,” but they grope after God hoping to find Him. And everybody gropes for God. They don’t know it. They have all kinds of substitutes. The man who is involved in addictions and sexuality and ruining his life trying to find fulfillment and some reason to live is groping for God, but he doesn’t know it. He thinks that he can get by, by filling his life with all sorts of substitutes. People grope for God.
And then you ask if God is difficult to find. Well, there’s a sense in which God is hidden, but there’s also a sense in which He has revealed himself. He is hidden but He can be found. Paul says that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward Him and find Him, for He actually is not far from each one of us. And then Paul quotes two of their philosophers. He says, “‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ even as some of your own poets have said, for we are indeed his offspring.”
I discovered this week that the phrase, “we are indeed his offspring” comes from a Greek poet by the name Erastus, and he was actually referring to Zeus. It’s a poem about Zeus, and then he ends by saying, “We are his offspring.” And the Apostle Paul pulls that line out and says that the philosopher (the poet) was right in what he said. He just had the wrong god, but we live in the God that I’m proclaiming to you and we move and we have our being in Him and He’s not far from any one of us.
I can imagine that someone has come here today and you have had such a difficult week. You are in the midst of tragedy. You are in the midst of heartache, and you’ve come today perhaps with a conscience that is cluttered with all kinds of sin added to it, and you say, “Where can I find God?” Well, the answer is this: He is not far from you. You can find Him even where you are seated. You can find Him if you are listening today on the Internet in any one of the 80 countries of the world that we’ve heard from. You can find God there because he is not far from any one of us.
Now what do people need to know today? They have to have the correct doctrine of God, the correct doctrine of man, and the correct doctrine of sin. That’s why Paul speaks about judgment, and notice he says, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, or an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” God is not the idols that you can see as we walk through the city of Athens, Paul was saying.
The times of ignorance God overlooked. You know, in a time of idolatry, it is not as if God comes along and forgives those people and says, “It doesn’t matter what god you worship,” but God has always been fair and always judged people on the basis of what they did with what they knew. Now the bottom line is, of course, that nobody lives up to what they know, so on that basis they are going to be judged. That is also true regarding the final judgment. Jesus will not say to those who have never heard of Jesus, “Well, you are condemned because you didn’t believe in Jesus.” No, no, no, they never had that opportunity. That would be unfair. God will say, “You are condemned because you had the light of conscience and the light of nature, and you didn’t live up to what you knew was right,” and that will be the basis of their judgment.
So, in times past, God was more lenient not in terms of His eventual justice (people knew less), but now that Jesus has come, things are much more stringent as far as God is concerned. Grace increases responsibility. It never decreases it. The more light, the more responsibility, and so you’ll notice that Paul says in verse 30 that, “God overlooked those times, but now he commands 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.”
Look in just that verse at all the things said about final judgment. First of all, it is a fixed day you have to appear in court. You can’t send your attorney. You can’t say, “I’m busy that day, Lord. I can’t show up.” You’ll be there. It’s compulsory, and you’ll notice he’s going to judge us according to a fixed standard of righteousness, and it’s God’s standard, and it’s not yours, and it is a terrifyingly holy standard that none of us can meet on our own. And that’s the standard by which God is going to judge you and me. And then you’ll notice it says also that this judgment is going to be for the world, and of course, even though it mentions the word world, he’s talking generally. It’s an individual judgment. You are going to stand before God individually with nobody to hide behind.
This past week, as God is my witness, somebody told me that he was speaking to a woman and helping her to see that she was a sinner, and she said she had never sinned, and then she said, “Well, let me correct that. I told a lie one time, but it was my husband’s fault.” That’s not going to work. There will be individual judgment, and then he says, “He’s going to judge by the man that he appointed (that is Jesus) and of this he has given us assurance by raising him from the dead.” Jesus is the one who is both redeemer and judge, Paul says, and He’s the one with which you have to deal. He is Lord, and therefore repent of your sins and trust Him. And God confirmed that Jesus had the ability to forgive because, after all, He was raised from the dead.
“Now when they heard about the resurrection of the dead (verse 32), some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius (who apparently was responsible for the Areopagus–Mars Hill), and a woman named Damaris.”
Now there are the three responses you always have when the Gospel is preached. If you were to walk down Clark Street here in Chicago you would come to the Newberry Library, and in front of the library you have that park known as Bughouse Square. On one Saturday in July they have soapboxes, as it were, upon which you can stand and you are given a bullhorn, and then you can preach whatever you like. People gather around you and heckle you and stop you in the middle and tell you that you are crazy and perhaps also some other things, and that’s the way in which you speak. Now I’ve been speaking there for three or four years, and again, they’ve already asked me for this summer, and they want to have the title and I agonized over the title. Of course, they want something controversial, and I’m very happy to supply that (laughter), but this summer I’ve chosen the topic, Why Every Honest Historian Should Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. (applause) So that should give some controversy. Imagine doing that in fifteen minutes with hecklers in between. It’s the closest that I get to be able to preach on Mars Hill. And do you know what? I’ll have the same three responses.
First of all, some mocked. I can already hear it–not based on historical evidence, but it can be. God doesn’t raise people from the dead. The Epicureans mocked because they were materialistic. Miracles don’t happen. How do you know? It’s just that we know.
The Stoics didn’t want to believe because after all the soul gets absorbed into the one and disappears. There’s no physical resurrection from the dead. Some mocked, and some listening today possibly mock, and the reason that you mock is not because the evidence is wanting. It’s because you do not want to believe. You have made up your mind, and you came in advance knowing that when you listened to this sermon you would not believe. But the Bible says God is not mocked.
I’ve been praying for you this week that God would overcome that mocking spirit. And then the Bible says some procrastinated. “We’ll hear you again. We want to do more comparative shopping, and we want to see if we can come up with a religion that is more in tune with where we are at.” Can’t you just hear it, and you know the Bible warns in the book of Proverbs about what will happen if we delay, and it was Dr. Sweeting who liked to say that the road marked tomorrow leads to the town called never.
The bottom line (I can tell you this) is that if you delay today you’ll delay tomorrow and you’ll delay the next time you hear the Gospel, and the next time, and you know many people who intend to accept Christ at 12:00 midnight actually die at 10:30. If you are here today, do not delay in believing in Jesus. Don’t fall into the trap of the procrastinators.
And then finally, some believed, and I’d like to think that in the audience here, and those listening on the radio and on the Internet, there may be some in whom the Holy Spirit is working. I was thinking this week of Lydia, whose heart the Lord opened, and God is opening your heart. You are open to the truth, and there is enough conviction of sin in your life for you to know that you really do need a Savior, and Jesus is the only one out there. And so what you need to do is to believe on him, to trust him. The Bible says to repent because a day is coming in which God is going to judge the world, and because He is not far from you, in Him you live and move and have your being. That means he’s there in the balcony with those of you who perhaps sat there because you wanted to be a distance from what is being done today. I don’t know, but it could be. God is there, too, you know, and God is here, and what you need to do is to reach out to Him, and put personal faith in Jesus as your sin bearer, and remember God raised Him from the dead as proof of the fact that He was the Son of God who came to redeem sinners. And as I hope to show, every honest historian must believe in the resurrection of Jesus. My question is do you believe and if not what is your excuse and how will you explain that to God in the day He has fixed to judge the world?
Let’s pray together.
Father, we pray that in a day of idols, in a day when people believe in whatever god they want and think that they have the true one because they like the god that they have created in their minds, would You, Father, lead us to the true one, the one who knows and sees and created, and the one also who redeems through Jesus Christ? Take this message, however given, and I pray, Father, that You might work in the lives of many that right now they might believe.
And I do need to ask you today, my friend, have you believed in Jesus? If not, you can trust Him right there because He’s there with you where you are seated.
Father, we thank You for this message from the Apostle Paul. Thank you that it still rings in our culture with our idols. Use it mightily, we pray, and help us to be able to explain the Gospel to a culture that has lost its way. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
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