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May 21, 2017

  

   

5.21.17                              6 Easter                          - Acts 17:22-31ESV

 

16Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “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. 19And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. 22So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23For 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. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26And 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, 27that 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, 28for ‘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.’ 29Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because 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.”

 

TO KNOW THE UNKNOWN GOD

“If life is only matter, what does life matter?”  This play on words sums up a major controversy that divides people all over the world today.  The scientific theory that what we call life is merely a combination of molecules and energy reduces even human life to a rather meaningless chemical reaction.  Without getting into a complicated explanation of DNA and RNA and amino acids which I don’t understand, although some who do claim they reveal amazing intelligent design which requires an intelligent Designer, suffice it to say that I believe this is strong evidence for the existence of God.  Our men’s group is looking at some interesting videos on this subject now.  But what struck me as I studied this text is the parallel between our scientific age and the philosophic age of the Greeks to whom Paul was speaking in these verses.  They believed basically that life is just matter without laboratories to test the theory.  Plato and Aristotle, two of the most famous philosophers, taught there was a special power within material things to turn inanimate objects into living forms.  So in principle the sophisticated intellectuals with whom Paul debated in Athens long ago correspond to the secular humanists of our own time.  Both worship the creature rather than the Creator.  Both have made God in the image of man. 
 
Which introduces what I think could be the theme of Paul’s sermon and what the theme of this sermon is: TO KNOW THE UNKNOWN GOD.  First, look for Him; second, listen to Him. 
 
Athens was the cultural capital of the world for centuries at least for what we call Western civilization today.  The arts and sciences flourished there.  Democracy was born there.  To this day the Parthenon stands there as the most perfect building conceived by man.  (You can a magnificent replica in Nashville, TN, with a 45 foot high statue of Athena gilded in glory.)  For the apostle Paul to teach Christianity in Athens must have been a thrill.  Yet while waiting for his mission partners to get there, he walked around the metropolis sightseeing and was appalled by what he saw.  “The city was full of idols.”  That made a monotheistic Jewish Christian like Paul sick, angry (the word, “provoked” here can mean “spasmodic”).  So he began talking about his favorite subject, “the word of God,” it says earlier.  Not only in the local Jewish synagogue, as he often did, but in the “marketplace,” the heart of the city called the agora in Greek.  This was not so unusual: political orators often went to public places to lecture on their pet subjects.  It could be like a rally at Sibley Park, or maybe an event on the Quad at MSU.  In London there is a section of Hyde Park called “Speakers Corner” where anyone can get up and hold forth whether anyone else is listening or not. 
 
Well, people listened to Paul’s speeches.  It was something new, something different, and we’re told the Athenians loved to lollygag their time away by discussing the latest ideas.  Although some in the audience made fun of Paul, calling him a “babbler,” literally a seed-picker like a bird searching for food, others realized he was talking about “foreign divinities,”  it says.   A few of the most prominent citizens of Athens actually invited Paul to address a meeting of the “Areopagus” – a reference to a rocky knoll known as the “hill of Ares” (the war god) also called “Mars Hill” - where the city fathers met in the past.  Here Paul was given a forum to preach to an elite group of academic scholars and civic leaders.  And he was equal to the task.  It was a masterful sermon – what there was of it.
 
Paul began with an observation he made as a tourist in Athens: “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.”  Everywhere he went he saw temples and shrines and altars and inscriptions to a myriad of gods and goddesses supposedly influential for every situation imaginable.  Indeed, it was said that it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man (giving you a hint at another problem they had).  If you know anything about Greek mythology, you know that many legendary heroes and heroines had been deified and their exploits canonized into a whole system of religious rites and rituals.  It was a virtual potpourri, something for everyone. 
 
Even an altar to “the unknown god.”  This was not so much to cover all bases in case they missed one, but more an admission that there might be a god whom their images could not represent.  You see, there were two prominent schools of thought at the time – Epicureans and Stoics, both  mentioned here.  For the most part, their philosophies had rejected the cult of the deities to whom the masses were devoted.  It was foolish to ascribe supernatural powers to chunks of rock and wood and metal, they knew, but they didn’t offer anything in their place except human reason.  The Epicureans saw no purpose to live except to gratify their pleasures.  “Eat, drink and be merry” is the line associated with them.  The Stoics, on the other hand, stressed self-discipline to insulate themselves from the whims of fickle fate.  “Grin and bear it” might sum up their thinking.  Although oversimplified, these belief systems had no room for an all-powerful yet all-merciful God who actually cared about people and could really do something for them. 
 
So Paul seized his opportunity to make known this unknown God.  He started with the natural knowledge of God implanted in everyone’s mind.  The world exists with incredible intricate order; therefore, a supreme being must have made it.  Something can’t come from nothing by itself.  An accidental coincidental result of random processes to produce the simplest living cell is not only improbable, it’s statistically impossible, as microbiologists have learned today. In his letter to the Romans (1:20) Paul wrote: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For his invisible attributes – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse.”  This God can’t be captured in structures or sculptures.  He doesn’t need anything humans might give to Him or do for Him.  He gave life and breath to all mankind, everything we need.
 
Next Paul uses anthropology to make His case that there is one God over all.  The various races of man, despite distinctive features, derive from one common ancestor.  The events of the past that changed the course of the present – the rise and fall of nations, the coming and going of rulers – all were under the direction of the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth.
 
The purpose for which the unknown god ordered the affairs of mankind was so that He might be known.  That people “should seek God in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.”  It’s not like we have to grope in the dark for Him, because “He is actually not far from each of us,” Paul asserts.  Familiar with Greek classics, he could quote some of their own ancient authors to make his point that they had an inkling of God’s existence, for “in him we live and move and have our being,” indeed, “we are his offspring.”  However, they didn’t acknowledge Him; they tried to mask Him behind marble statues or ignore Him in willful skepticism.  Like children playing hide n seek – “you can’t see me because I can’t see you.”    
 
So silly, God is as close as the air around us, and just as real.  That is the conclusion one must reach as we look for the unknown God.  But this knowledge is insufficient.  It won’t save anyone from the judgment of God.  To truly know the unknown God one must also listen to Him. 
 
In times past God “overlooked the ignorance” of human beings, Paul said.  That doesn’t mean He condoned it.  No, they should have known better.  But God was patient with their superstitions because He was looking ahead to the coming of Christ who would reveal His plan of salvation clearly in the fullness of time, as Paul wrote to the Galatians. 
 
Now was the time, Paul declared.  “Now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”  Everyone should turn away from their dumb idols – whatever they fear, love and trust more than God – confess their sins and beg God’s forgiveness.  “Because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.”  Every person will be held accountable - no more excuses, no plea bargains, no spin zones, no blame game.  The verdict will be rendered by the one (God) “appointed” for this purpose.  Paul doesn’t say His name here, but we know he meant Jesus, because God raised Him from the dead. 
 
Today, too, Jesus reveals the true God to us as He speaks in the Scriptures. The resurrection proves He knows what He’s talking about, the meaning of life and death, as well as the reality of life after death.  If we listen to Him we will know the unknown God. 
 
Unfortunately, as I indicated before, the Athenians on the Areopagus didn’t give Paul a chance to preach about Jesus.  The next verse (32) reports: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked.  Others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’”  Sure, that was a “safe space” only for speech they agreed with.  Don’t confuse me with the facts.  A physical restoration of the body went against their deeply held philosophical bias that they were not accountable to a righteous God in the afterlife.  So they cut Paul’s sermon short.  They didn’t let him get to the good part.  Please, don’t tune me out until you hear this.  To know the true God, look for Him in the world, but also listen to Him in His Word.  Then you’ll understand: Your life matters, it’s not just matter.  Jesus proved it.  Amen.