The Unknown God Made Known (Acts 17:16-34)

September 23, 2012

Book: Acts

The Unknown God Made Known (Acts 17:16-34)
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Scripture: Acts 17:16-34


Sermon Notes

Paul in Athens, waiting for Timothy and Silas to catch up with him.

He noticed idols all over, and his spirit was provoked.

Athens had a 1,000 year long history, the foundation of democracy – very famous place. Literary, artistic, philosophic center.

Socrates, Aristotle, and others…
A long heritage of philosophy.

Romans conquered Athens, but they were so impressed, they fostered Athens continued philosophy, education, etc.
But, before Paul, it had long since lost its wealth, reputation, etc.

Its population at that time was only 10,000, compared to Thessalonica at 200,000.

It’s proud of its pagan heritage, full of idols, tons of religion.

William Barclay “more statues of the gods in Athens than in all Greece put together – it was easier to meet a god than a man”

Paul enters the synagogue and begins to reason with them, as was his pattern.

On the weekdays, he went to the marketplace and reasoned with the Gentiles there. This was the center of Athenian social life, where goods were bought and sold, and philosophers exchanged their ideas.
Paul challenged them there, soon he encountered Epicurus “pleasure is the chief goal of life – freedom from pain, superstitions, etc” Different from Hedonism – “physical pleasure” Epicurus taught friendship and mind pleasure were the greatest.

The Epicureans had little motivation to seek God or fear him “gods are far off, they don’t care, let’s just live our lives as best we can”
Actually, Thomas Jefferson was an Epicurean – “all men are created equal…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Stoic school of Phil – founded by Xeno – emphasize human rational abilities, reason, logic (Spock – Star Trek)

The gods of popular mythology believed to be expressions of this kind of thought.

So, these two schools of thought were competing with each other, then Paul comes along with the gospel.

Thoughtful people want to cope with the world of suffering using one of these two schools of thought. So, the two schools tried to show them how to cope without God. But the gospel questions the usefulness of these two philosophies because it depends on God.

This from Paul sounded dangerous and upsetting to them. “Who is this babbler?” (bird pecking at food – scrap-peddlers – people who sold religious ideas without understanding them)

Paul is dismissed as ignorant, foolish.
1 Corinthians 1:23 – “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block, to the Greeks, foolishness, but to us who are being saved, salvation”

Others, more polite, said they’d listen again.

He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods – because he preached on Jesus and the resurrection (maybe this was TWO gods? Jesus AND the resurrection god?)

They took him to the chief judicial body of the city – 30 members – they overlooked the religious, phil, moral, stuff of the day. Areopagus still means “judicial body” in Greece today.

There’s an implied threat here, though nothing formal – yet. Josephus talked about many who were executed by insulting the Greek gods. Paul might be in trouble here….

In Athens, the introduction of strange gods was a capital offense IF the state gods were denied.

So, here is Paul, before the council, giving answers to their questions – gotta be quick on his feet, speak to the culture.

Paul points out the weaknesses of idolatry, by relying on their OWN insights (from phil of their own). Some pagan phil have ideas of gods that contradict idols. Paul says it doesn’t go far enough, and then he presents the gospel.

Paul quickly takes the side of his hearers (flattering them, making him sound like one of them) – He said they are “religious” – could be devout or superstitious.

He saw an altar to an unknown god, (God’s providence), so that he was able to say “Let me explain this unknown god to you.”

In this way, we can also see how Paul “became all things to all people, so as to win some.” Paul became as one without the Jewish Law in order to win them over. He had to become like them, become like the culture, empathize with the culture, before he was able to preach the gospel to them.

He informs them that God is the Creator of all – not detached from the universe, but caring, loving – so loving, he sent his own son to die in their place for their sins. The world did not come about by chance, but by design, God himself is the designer.

William H. Williams – in reasoning from the natural world toward faith in God, Paul borders on natural theology as a forerunner to faith. How can one look up into the stars and deny something or someone created them? Yet, atheists still do – ALL THIS STUFF just “looks” cool, just “looks” designed, but “oops! coincidence!” But to those who know better, there is no coincidence in this intricacy.

First, Paul needed to establish WHO the one true God was – and that he could be glimpsed through nature. He had to break them away from their idolatry before they could fully understand God.

“God doesn’t live in temples built by human hands.” Even Stephen – the first martyr – said that in a Jewish context. “He lives in hearts that are open to him.”

Interesting, pagan AND Jewish temples are placed in the same category. Even churches are not where God lives. If the beautiful temples in Jerusalem could not contain the true God, how much less could lesser temples (and churches) contain him?

“God is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, but he gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”

Our common humanity has a single source. From one man, God made all the nations, he marked their appointed times and lands (Adam and the scattering during the Tower of Babel). Paul insists, God has a purpose in the rise and fall of nations and their geographical locations – WHY? so that men would seek Him, and reach out to Him, though He is not far.

Ps. 145:18 – the Lord is near to ALL who call out to Him in truth.

God is not far away, he wants to be found, he wants to be discovered. For IN God, “we live and move and have our being.”

He quotes one of their own poets:
“Phenomenon” – “let us begin with Zeus, let us never leave him unmentioned, the marketplace, harbors, everywhere has him. For everywhere and in everything we have our being in Him.” So, Paul uses their own understanding and culture in order to give them the gospel.

“Since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold, or silver, or stone – in the past, God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

This speech is not just a dream or philosophy, but the call to repentance is very serious, because God has set a day for judgment.

At the end, he focuses on Jesus’ his cross, and resurrection.

From the introduction (focusing on the culture), to the conclusion (focusing on Jesus), Paul speaks well.

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some sneered, some wanted to hear more. The idea of a person’s body being resurrected was absurd to Greek thoughts. They believed in the immortality of the soul, but not the body. But at least no charges were brought against him, and some became believers.

In some ways, Paul’s work in Athens ended in an anti-climactic note – no church was established there. But the next city, Corinth, had a large number of acceptance.

But for those few that believed, it was NOT anti-climactic. Jesus died for the ONE person, just as much as he died for the multitudes.

It’s important that Paul made known the living and true God.

A time is coming when each of us will appear before the one true God, and Jesus will have to say to some of us, “I never knew you…”

Do we know we’re saved? Examine our own hearts and know we’re saved.

I’m a sinner, I need salvation by grace, God is not far off, he forgives sin, he cleanses from unrighteousness, we need the Lord.

Let’s pray.