This is a copy of my ‘sermon’ preached at our Virtual Service at Emmanuel, Billericay, on Sunday 17 May 2020. The Bible Reading is Acts 17:16-34. If you didn’t get a chance to watch this when it was released, you should be able to catch up at Emmanuel YouTube or FaceBook.
If there is one struggle that is common to every Christian, then it must be the struggle with peer pressure. It can be hard standing firm when everyone else around us is going in the other direction. Whether it be at work or at home or at school or Uni, it’s hard work ‘going against the flow’.
The battles will be different for each of us: an unwritten work policy where everyone cheats on the expenses claims’ or the pressure amongst a group of friends to reject God’s teaching on sexuality. You name it, at every stage of our Christian lives, young or old, there will be pressure on us to go the way of the world and not the way of the Lord.
We’re always under pressure to keep quiet and not say anything which is why this passage in Acts 17, is such a wonderful encouragement to us. So how does Paul stand firm in Athens, the most intellectually important city in the ancient world, when everyone is going in the opposite direction?
A bit like Elijah in 1 Kings 17, God is directing Paul to think outside the box. I want to suggest that Paul demonstrates three qualities in this passage which will be helpful to us if we are to stand firm for Jesus today. He had:
1) A Passion for the Glory of God vs16-17
Paul is in Athens a city past its prime – Rome is now the new dominant force – but Athens is still the centre for all things cultural in the ancient world. It was the home of democracy, philosophy, architecture, theatre, and many other intellectual pursuits. It was a modern-day Venice, Paris and Oxford all rolled into one, but slightly fraying at the edges. And if you were a tourist wandering around, you probably couldn’t fail to be impress
Even today, Athens still boasts major attractions: The Parthenon, the temple of Athena, still dominates the city – which in Paul’s day would have been even more impressive. The Temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Inside there was an enormous statue of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, covered in gold and ivory. Not only that, there were majestic civic buildings everywhere including the Agora, the famous business centre of Athens.
According to Pausanias, a sort of Bill Bryson of his day, who produced his own Rough Guide to the Mediterranean, Athens had 30,000 statues of gods and goddesses in its midst. An extraordinary fact given that there were only 10,000 people living in the city. No wonder Luke said the city was full of idols.
Now, what would you do if you were Paul with a few days to spare? You’d probably get out your Rough Guide to Athens and start ticking the sites off on your map. We’d take a few photos and selfies so you could say you’d been there. Here’s me in front of Athena. Here’s Paula standing next to a statue of Aphrodite! And so on!
But not Paul, vs 16: “While Paul was waiting … he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” In fact, he’s more than distressed, he’s deeply moved with anger and outrage by the blatant idolatry that exists in Athens and he’s livid that God’s glory and honour is being given to another. And that should be our reaction wherever we see idolatry, too. We should be distressed by people bowing down to the gods of materialism, sex, money, career – even family.
Paul doesn’t just grind his teeth and stamp his feet. His passion for God’s glory causes him to act. Vs 17: “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.”
There is a direct link between Paul’s distress and motivation for his evangelistic activities. He reasons in the synagogue and meets people in the marketplace. In other words, he chats with the religious people where they are, and he chats with the pagans where they are – the marketplace. For us that could be the pub or the coffee shop or the gym or the hobby group or ?
You’ll often find me in both of those – well not recently! It’s a simple but brilliant strategy. And it flows from his passion for God’s glory. But there’s a second characteristic Paul demonstrates here, which was:
2) An Understanding of the Character of God vs18-28
The more we understand who God is, the more we will have a passion for his glory and the honour of his name. And that is precisely what Paul explains as he is brought before the government of Athens to explain his actions and his beliefs. Let’s pick up the story in vs 18: “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”
Some of the philosophers are greatly intrigued by what Paul has to say. The ancient Greeks didn’t believe in an afterlife, but they are keen to hear more. So, Paul agrees to meet them more formally in the Areopagus (Mars Hill) a bit like the House of Lords today. It would have been a very intimidating place to speak as they accuse him of bringing in foreign gods and strange ideas.
But notice what he does. Let’s read from vs 22: “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at 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.”
Paul begins by catching their attention and giving them a backhanded compliment. Yes they are very religious, but Paul isn’t saying they all worship the same God or that all roads lead to God. They may be religious, but they are ignorant. They don’t understand and they cannot see.
So, Paul says to them: “Look, I’m going to tell you about the God you don’t know.” He uses their religiosity as a way in to explaining the true and living God and he gives them four characteristics about God and destroys a number of their misconceptions in the process:
a) God is the Creator. Vs 24: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.” The Athenians, who had so many stories about gods sleeping with other gods to bring the cosmos into being, had to be told about the one true creator God.
b) God is the Sustainer. Vs 25: “And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” The Greeks spent much of their time appeasing the wrath of their gods by giving gifts. The gods in Greek mythology thrived on human sacrifices. But Paul says the true God doesn’t need anyone. We cannot take one breath without him giving it to us. And were he to have a break for one second, the universe would be destroyed.
c) God is the Ruler. Vs 26: “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” It is God who determines the course of human history. He is the one who rules over our lives. And, contrary to what many people think, he’s not distant. He is near, a God who is involved in the world.
d) God is our Father. Vs 28: “’For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” Paul is making a more general point that God is the Father of the human race. We are his children and totally dependent on him.
So, as Paul stood in that very intimidating atmosphere with the intelligentsia of the ancient world looking on him, he simply told them about God and his wonderful character, that he is the Creator, the Sustainer, the Ruler and the Father. And it was these truths that were the bedrock of Paul’s passion for God and this gave Paul:
3) A Confidence in the Gospel of God vs 29-34
Paul has concluded his sermon and does he say: “Well Athenians, it’s for you to decide – take it or leave it. It’s only my opinion anyway, and you are very intelligent and wise!” No! He tells them that God commands them to repent. To turn back to Him.
Let’s read from vs 29: “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
Paul would have said how Jesus showed by his life and teaching that he was God in the flesh, how he died on the cross for our sin. But here Luke just tells us the bare bones. But at least he shows how the resurrection guarantees that Jesus defeated death and sin and is alive and has the authority to judge the world.
If you are reading this, and you not yet trusted in Jesus, then you need to hear what Paul is saying. Because one day, the Bible teaches, all of us will be judged to account for the way we’ve lived our lives but, most importantly, what decisions we made about Jesus. In Paul’s day some trusted in Jesus, whilst others scoffed and sneered.
But it’s worth noting that Paul, in the face of this intimidating crowd, simply explains the gospel. He didn’t change it to suit his hearers. He may have come at them from a slightly different angle, but he didn’t change the message. He had confidence in the gospel that it was the gospel for all people at all times.
Where, I wonder, is your confidence?
What governs your decisions: your politics, your security, your family, your denomination, your views of God? As soon as one of these becomes more important than walking with God, you will have your own shortsightedness challenged.
If you have a passion for God’s glory, then you will hate idolatry. It will drive you to explain God’s character and works to those who need to hear it. You will have confidence that God’s gospel is the only gospel that saves. And you will be able to stand when all around are falling, you will ‘keep going against the flow’ because you know you serve the true and living God. And to him belongs all glory, honour and praise. save.