It's true isn't it - we live in a world obsessed with all kinds of things which aren't God. And if we're honest it's hard to imagine it being any different. How can God get a hearing in a world like ours?
That's the beauty of a bit of history – it gives perspective on our time. And that's one of the great things about coming back to Acts this term. As it turns out the world of the 1st C wasn't so different to ours, it was full of false gods too – they were arrogant and greedy, cynics, lovers of money, fame, power, sex, etc. etc. etc… and yet the gospel cut a swath through false religions and all kinds of ideas that held pretentions to look down on God, and the gospel remains, and the church that it started continues - but the false gods and idols and philosophies of those days are long gone.
Tonight we see a monumental clash of ideas as the gospel comes to the home of philosophy, and in the next few weeks the gospel goes to the homes of trade, commerce, sports, sex and many rival religions. What impact will the gospel have? How can God get a hearing in those places, well that's what we're going to find out …
So tonight our big idea is that Paul brings the gospel to the philosophers by gently confronting their ignorance and declaring the command to repent. I want to talk you through the action in three parts and the first sets the scene for us.
1) Paul is offended by their idols; and they're intrigued by Paul's preaching (vv16-21).
Read verse 16:
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the market-place day by day with those who happened to be there.
Remember, Paul brought the gospel to Europe for the very first time, and been run out of Thessalonica andBereaby the hostility of the Jews from Thessalonica. He's inAthensen-route toCorinthwhere he hopes to pick up the preaching tour. But while inAthenshe is so put out by their rampant idolatry that he feels compelled to preach, not just in the synagogue but even in the marketplace.
Pick it up in verse 18:
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. 19Then 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? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Word gets around that some 'foolish babbler' has been talking about strange but interesting ideas, so the great minds ofAthensask him to explain his philosophy.
What's going on here? We really need to know this context for Paul's famous speech. The clear emphasis is Paul's condemnation of their idolatry. He's just passing through, not there for a mission, but he can't help but speak because he is so stirred up by their rampant idolatry. And what is his message? The good news of Jesus and the resurrection. These will be the themes that he will expand on in when he stands before the Areopagus in the following verses.
So we need to ask why is Paul offended at their idolatry? And the answer of course is that God alone is worthy of honour and glory etc. Anything that is given glory and honour in God's place is an idol and offensive to him, worthy of wrath and condemnation. So the Athenians have been ripping God off – giving what belongs to him to idols instead. God's anger at idolatry resonates in Paul (look up Isaiah 42.5-8 for a good summary – God says I alone am God and I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols'). But as well as ripping God off, idols rip off those who worship them. So Paul isn't just a grouch on God's behalf, but he speaks a message of release to the captives (see Isaiah 42 again). It's not right to say idols don't do any harm, everyone is having a nice time… God says idolators are trapped in darkness and captivity to their idols and only the light of the gospel brings freedom.
So what's this like? Paul's trending in the social networking site of Athens – read the marketplace – and he local cool hunters – read the philosophers – want in on the action; Paul's preaching hits a nerve like some sort of viral campaign and everybody is talking about this guy with the new gods Jesus and Resurrection. Like our twitter verse they want to just add him to their list of 'followers' but they're going to find out that Paul has a new message that is totally at odds with all their philosophy and religious ideas. He's not interested in trending, but in exposing the utter bankruptcy of their intellectual games… We'll look more at that in just a moment, but first let's pause to think about a couple of implications from this opening sequence.
We've seen how stirred up Paul was when he saw the cities idols. What do you think Paul would say if he had to spend a few weeks in 21st C England?
What idols would he notice: shopping, sport, good looks, money, sex, power, consumption, freedom, constant entertainment, gadgets, cars, houses, career, success, relationships the list goes on and on and on…
Can we look at our society, our own culture with that same sort of outsider's eye and see that we too are surrounded by idols and should be offended by them? We need to re-tune our hearts to see the absolute glory of God and his absolute claim to all praise, all honour, all worship. Papisse Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa might be very good at putting a football in a net, Apple might make beautiful gadgets, Money might make the world go around, sex might make us feel wonderful… but none of those things makes them worthy of sharing in God's glory – remember Isaiah 42.8
Paul is offended on God's behalf by their idolatry, but he doesn't go into a rage and smash the idols, nor does he go into a sulk and hide in the corner declaring God's disgust at the things he sees – his disturbance motivates him to announce the news that brings release for the oppressed, the news that idols are enslaving, but there is an escape in Jesus. It's a cliché, but can you see that we need to see things like that, and we need to be motivated to share the gospel too? God's glory is trampled underfoot, and everyone lives in deep darkness and terrible slavery. Can we keep the truth to ourselves?
Paul's response to the idolatry he sees all around him is a model for us, so let's look more closely at his famous speech. I'm going to break this into two sections, parts II and III of this passage.
So part two:
2) Paul gently confronts the philosophers with their glaring ignorance (vv. 22-29)
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. 23 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.
These verses are the introductory hook – Paul meets them where they are. But notice that he doesn't say their religiosity is a good thing, in fact what he says is that they admit they're ignorant, even putting up altars for gods they don't know. But Paul is not ignorant, he has a message for them, a definitive message, a declaration of the truth of which they are ignorant. Paul is gentle and gracious, but his task is to proclaim the message.
And so we come to the guts of this section of his talk:
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. 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. 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. 27 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. 28 `For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said,`We are his offspring.' 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.
Do you see what he's saying here? The truth about God is to an extent visible and accessible to them – it's clear from creation that God isn't an idol, he isn't containable in temples built by human hands; as creator he must be greater than us, he gave us life – so he can't be dependant on us or containable by us, instead we must depend on him, be contained by him…
Paul argues that they already know this, at least to an extent, because even some of their own poets have talked about it (vs.28); they know it, but they don't live by it. In fact they live as the precise opposite were true – treating idols as God, and so treating God as if he is dependant on them and containable by them; so they are culpable before the God who made them.
Now Paul's critiquing them for failing to live by the revelation they had, but notice that the substance of Paul's critique doesn't come from their religious artefacts or practice, nor from their philosophical works, nor from any sort of 'first principle logical deductions'; rather his critique follows direct biblical lines.
Paul's argument here depends on God's revelation of himself. God has revealed himself as the personal, all powerful creator of the whole world (Gen 1&2, Ex 20.11 etc.) What's more God has declared his distaste for religion that treats him as a piece of wood, or stone or jewellery, the product of mans skill (Ex 20.1-5). We've just been looking at the things in Exodus over the last term. But more than that God has revealed himself fully in Jesus and Paul is his witness. He knows their religion is false because he knows the true God.
So Paul declares the weakness of their religion and philosophy, but he doesn't engage with it directly in a frontal assault with their ideas, but rather tells them what God has said. He doesn't really address their world view and philosophy, simply tells them what God says (Prov. 26.4,5 'Answer a fool according to his folly lest he be wise in his own eyes. Do not answer a fool according to his folly lest he be wise in his own eyes.')
So this is Paul's critique of their idolatry, it explains the revulsion that rose within him when he went through their streets and saw their great proliferation of idols – they were giving glory to that which was not God and failing to honour the one who made them and sustains them day by day.
So Notice there is an implicit critique of all religions here (or perhaps, since they were so hyper-religious we could say this is a critique of all religions in the world at that time!). As in Romans 1.18ff they had a measure of revelation, not enough to know God personally, but enough to know that God is infinitely bigger than us… and the revelation of God that they had they ignored and mistreated and twisted around to make it domestic and controllable.
Their ignorance was no excuse because they knew enough to know that they weren't treating God as God, but were not even true to what they knew, they went astray from the revelation they received.
What is this like? Debating Richard Dawkins and declaring him a simpleton, and then demonstrating it to be true. Picking a point of contradiction within their own system and pulling the threat until the whole thing unravels. But notice that he does it in terms they might not recognise as true – they probably didn't worship at the altar of an unknown god; but their religion and philosophy were all confused at this point of how men are to relate to God. Their philosophical systems didn't have space for a single God who created all things and sustained all things, they thought there were many gods, and that the world was eternal, not created. But Paul declares the truth to them out of his biblical world view. It appears he is speaking at cross purposes to them and their philosophical interests, but the call of the gospel challenges all those pretentions, it presents something solid they need to deal with – the resurrection, and we'll come to that shortly… But first let's think through the implications of what Paul has said and how he says it.
Firstly notice that Paul exposes the foolishness of their religion with a biblical answer. Men can not find their way to God – though the evidence is there for us all to see we deliberately misrepresent it to our selves so that we can continue in our rebellion against him (Romans 1.18ff). Nonetheless, God reveals enough so that we are without excuse…
Second - the wisdom of our age seems formidable – but in fact the wisdom of our age isn't even as good as the philosophical reasoning of the ancients. They were far ahead of us in engaging with how to live, the meaning of life etc. etc. they were very sophisticated thinkers about things that mattered – whereas we tend to look to science to do things as an alternative to thinking about what we should do or what is worth doing. Science can enable us to do new things and to make new things and to understand how things work, but it really is hopeless for the higher order thinking of what matters, how we should use the things we're able to make, whether we should experiment in the various ways we do etc. etc. Richard Dawkins and his team congratulate themselves on being so sophisticated and intelligent they've done away with God. But the bible and their senses confront them with reality that they can not do away with – no matter how sophisticated their evidence and reasoning, God stubbornly refuses to be erased in a puff of logic – because he is actually there, and because he is actually in control of all things.
The truth is that Richard Dawkins will pass away and so will our technology and all our greatest thoughts, but the gospel goes on into eternity.
The gospel is the answer to all our critics – God's word is powerful. Biblical wisdom doesn't have to be supported by chapter and verse quotation to be true and powerful. Because it is true and powerful it finds a resonance within us, we know it is true, we recognise it as the truth that we've been suppressing all our lives (like the 'splinter in your mind' of the Matrix). Sin may work in us to continue to suppress it, but that doesn't mean that it's not true.
[In our current world homosexuality is the obvious example – forty years ago it was almost universally shunned and considered, not just immoral, but disgusting, abhorrent. Today the mood has changed and we're told it's natural, wonderful, to be encouraged in schools and all the rest. But when we say that it's wrong we speak the truth that everyone knows deep down, even the activists who've worked so hard to change public opinion. The same is true when we challenge the rampant consumerism of our culture, or materialism or any other idol – we all know deep down that the new ipad is not the answer, but we feel like it is… when the truth is spoken it can break the spell expose the emperor's new clothes. ]
Link – Paul exposes the ignorance that is at the centre of their thinking about God, but he doesn't stop there, he goes further to call for a response, this is the gospel, not just a theoretical lecture, but a call to repentance and to a life of obedience and honour to the one who made us. So we come to part III
3) Paul Declares that the Resurrection Starts a New Era and Commands All People to Repent (vv30-34)
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.30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 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."
This is the main idea of the sermon, where Paul has been heading all along. Before now God overlooked ignorance – he didn't call it into direct judgement there and then (cf. Rom 3.21-26). But the time of overlooking is now past. Something has changed, a new era has begun. In this era God commands repentance from all people everywhere (notice: God commands it!) Repentance is commanded because their ignorant failure to serve him is offensive to God, and repentance is urgent because judgement is coming. Paul says that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead simultaneously announces that the Day of Judgment is coming and identifies Jesus as the man who will judge the living and the dead.
Where does this argument come from? Well behind this is the understanding of the cross and resurrection that we have been looking at over the last three weeks for Easter – Jesus died as the sacrifice for sins, once for all, and in so doing he began the judgment of God against sin. [If you weren't here or don't know about that listen again through our Easter series, starting with Easter music through to last week, or read this little pamphlet]…
Jesus' resurrection is seen here as the end, the climax and completion of his work on the cross. Therefore it was the beginning of The Resurrection, God's Judgment Day. As such it guarantees the judgement day (there is life after death, Jesus is already living it; there will be judgment of any sin, Jesus has already endured it). I think we're relatively familiar with that part of the argument – Paul works it over pretty fully in 1 Cor 15, have a careful read of that chapter if you want to see it worked out.
But there's a second strand to Paul's argument here. Because he says that , in addition to guaranteeing the judgment day, Jesus resurrection is also the sign that Jesus is the one who will be the judge on that day. Where does that argument come from? Well I don't think this comes from first principles – as far as I can see there is no obvious, intrinsic, logical link between Jesus being raised from the dead and his role as judge of all men. So Paul probably doesn't expect the Athenian Philosophers to be nodding along at this point. The link needed to be revealed by God, and it has been revealed. There is an intrinsic link, but not one you could work out in advance by naked logic without revelation.
So where do we see this in scripture? The classic passage is Dan 7.9-14. We heard it read earlier – Daniel sees a vision of the Judgement day – the Ancient of Days, God, the creator, takes his seat on his throne in his heavenly majesty and the heavenly Court opens and the books of judgement were opened. God sits in judgement on all people, and the books are opened – a metaphor for the record of our lives – the good and the bad that we've done, the things that will be weighed in the judgement. And (in verse 13) into the throne room of God, into the court sitting to judge all men, comes one like a son of man and this one like a son of man is ushered into God's presence and given all authority, glory and sovereign power. So this 'one like a son of man' is ultimately the one who sits to judge. Jesus alludes to this passage often, he consistently calls himself the son of Man, and in John 5 he makes the connection with judgement clear clear –
John 5.25 I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man.
Jesus starts the judgement day, just as the OT said that he would because by his death he endures judgement, and by his resurrection he is declared to be the one who will judge, he is the Son of Man, the one who enters God's presence and receives all power and authority to rule and to judge the nations. Therefore we are now in a new age, an age of repentance because Judgement is on it's way.
What is this like? For those of you like me old enough to remember this is like the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled a new world order, took a while for the full implications to be clear, but the event so enormous, so significant it was obvious from the beginning that it would change the world. Millions of people living in Communist countries were dramatically released from oppression into freedom. There are clear parallels here. But Perhaps an even better illustration would be another cold war illustration, one that never happened, but that was perilously close – I'm talking about the launching of the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that would have signalled the beginning of a nuclear powered third world war.
The US and the USSR had matching auto defence systems that triggered automatically. So if either of them had launched just one offensive missile the other would have immediately retaliated with vast batteries of missiles. We're talking thousands of missiles and millions of times the destructive force of the explosions that wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The destruction that would have followed is hard to conceive of. That would have been an event that had unavoidable consequences for all people's on earth, whether urbane intellectuals inNew York andLondon, or primitive tribesmen in the Amazon and the Kalahari. All men everywhere would have been affected by the fall out – literally, that term comes from Nuclear fallout, the damage that follows from detonation of Thermonuclear devices – world would probably have descended into Nuclear winter and life would have been irretrievably changed for all peoples everywhere. The point of the illustration is that the consequences of nuclear destruction would have been massive and inevitable if anyone had launched just one nuclear missile. That would have set in train a chain of events that was well known in advance and utterly predictable. Within minutes world wide destruction would have followed (that's the principle reason no one any missiles off – they called it mutually assured destruction). In a very similar way the death and resurrection of Jesus starts off the biblical chain of events that we know as the Judgement Day… the big difference is we don't know how long the process starts, it's all in God's will and timing, not in the physics of missile deployment, thrust, power and all that sort of thing,.
So what does this say to us? Well it's right to mark all time from Jesus' death and resurrection. Paul declares on behalf of God that that is exactly what God intended, the history of the universe is divided into two epochs – before Christ and the now time, the day of the Lord. Now is the day of salvation, when Repentance and forgiveness is declared in Jesus name in advance of the judgement day. Time is short, repentance is commanded, judgment is coming.
But more than that, the gospel calls all people everywhere to repent because we are culpable for our rebellion against God. All people everywhere includes everyone of us, so if you've never repented and turned away from living for idols to living for God I urge you to hear the command of God and repent, now, tonight. You may not have a lifetime to make up your mind, you may only have tonight. Not meaning to be alarmist, but Paul is quite clear that God has commanded this and that judgement is on it's way and there's nothing any of us can do to stop it, all we can do is to prepare for it's immanent arrival. So stop rebelling against God and repent, turn and put your trust in Jesus death and resurrection for you, and live as if God is bigger and more important that you, or than anything else, because he actually is.
And for those of us who have already repented and put our trust in him there are many more implications. The first has to be this: Prepare for the coming Day of Judgment and live as if it were a present and coming reality – like the bombs were in the air and it's just a matter of God's call when they land, because that is the truth. If God's judgement is coming then the things we live for are suddenly put into perspective aren't they?
And if God's judgement is coming another implication must be this: Love your neighbours and pray for repentance, pray for bold proclamation of the gospel and for opportunities to share it
You could put that into practice by grabbing a handful of Christianity Explored fliers and sticking them in your pocket and trying to invite people, and praying that the very act of inviting will prompt questions and discussions and opportunities that might lead to repentance.
Or by praying for world mission and giving money towards it.
Or by praying for the mission of this church and giving money towards it.
I'm sure you can think of many more ways that your life should change if Jesus is coming back to judge.
I need to finish. Let me remind you what we've seen. The gospel is the message of God that brings life and light, and it is the command of God to all people everywhere to repent. Paul was compelled by the content of the gospel to preach it where ever he went, no matter who he met. The gospel cuts through all our pretentions to knowledge to reveal to us the deepest realities of life. That is how it prevailed in ancient times, through proclamation. The gospel prevails when we believe it enough to live by it, to live consistently by it –and so to shout it so that people can hear it. Pray that we would, because God knows we need it, and God knows our world needs it.