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To the End of the Earth (41): Worship, Piccadilly Style in Ancient Greece or Jerusalem and Athens: What do they Have in Common?

Series: To the End of the Earth

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Apr 22, 2007

Acts 17:16-34

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The Lord's Day Evening

April 22, 2007

Acts 17:16-34

To the Ends of the Earth
Worship, Piccadilly Style in Ancient Greece

or, “Jerusalem and Athens: What Do They Have in Common?”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now to The Acts of The Apostles, as we've been studying this great book together on these last number of months now; and we come this evening to Acts 17 and the section that deals with Paul's visit to Athens. Acts 17, and beginning at verse 16. Before we read the passage together, let's come before God in prayer. Let us pray.

Father, we thank You for the Scriptures holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. So help us again, O Lord, to read and mark and learn, and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's holy word:

“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, ‘What would this idle babbler wish to say?’ Others, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’–because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.’ (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.) And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through an examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring.’ Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.’
“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’ So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”

So far God's holy and inerrant word.

Now we left the Apostle Paul last week having to leave the city of Berea. You remember Thessalonian Jews came and caused something of a stir in the city of Berea, and they took Paul by land to the coast and got him on board a ship that would make the journey–oh, about 300 miles or so–back to this great city of Athens.

It looked unplanned. Indeed, from one point of view it looked like Paul needed a cruise, a holiday, a break. When you think of all the things that the Apostle Paul had been through in the last months in Lystra, Derbe, Iconium and Philippi, in Thessalonica, in Berea…Paul surely was in need of a break. And he comes to this great city of Athens, the capital of what was once an empire, a city that began — birthed — what we call “the classical era.” In the fifth century B.C. it was a magnificent place, and then came the Spartans. In the third century it was conquered by Macedonia; in the second century B.C. it was conquered by the Romans, who are here now. It was the cultural center of the world.

The Romans viewed Athens with some suspicion. The Romans had a great deal of suspicion about philosophy, generally. This was the city of the philosophers: of Plato and Aristotle, his disciple; and Socrates, and Pericles, and Sophocles and others. It was the center of music and the theater, and ethics, and medicine. It was the cradle of Western democracy. Some of you have been there, and you can bring to your minds, I imagine, right now the Parthenon and the Acropolis, and some of the magnificent architecture that to this very day remains a wonder of the world. You can imagine the Apostle Paul in verse 16, when Paul was waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him. He's doing what any tourist in this great city does. You take in the sights! And evidently the Apostle Paul took in the sights. He viewed the Acropolis, he viewed the Parthenon, he read the marble obelisks, he viewed the carved statues of deities. He got a little bit of culture. Isn't that what life is all about? Getting a little bit of culture, a little bit of art, a little bit of music, a little bit of learning and philosophy? It's what civilizes us, isn't it? And yet that's not what impressed Paul. It's astonishing. He tells us nothing about what a tourist might have felt in a city.

What Luke tells us is that he began to have…well, the word, the Greek word is the word paroxysm; it's like a convulsion. As the Apostle Paul walked around this great city of Athens with all of its learning and all of its culture, the greatest city in the world, he must have pinched himself. Imagine being in Athens, of all places! And what Paul saw was idolatry all around him. What he saw was a testimony to the lost-ness of mankind. What he saw was despite all of the learning and despite all of the culture and despite all of the finesse, at heart they were just idolaters who did not know the one true and living God, and it upset him. Calvin says in his Institutes a very famous line: “Man's mind is a perpetual factory of idols.” And nowhere was that seen in more human glory than in the city of Athens.

So much for his holiday, because Paul is now driven to evangelize, to debate, to engage in the synagogue and in the agora, the marketplace where people gather, with whoever happened to be there. That's what evangelism is, by the way. It begins with a burden for the lost-ness of mankind. It begins with a desire that God be given the glory. It begins with this intense burden that the apostle feels. And there in the marketplace, in the agora, especially he meets two kinds of people: Epicureans and Stoics. Epicureans, the followers of Epicurus in the fourth century B.C., were essentially materialists: God, if He existed at all, was so far away and so removed from this life, you might as well live your life as though He wasn't there at all. And the purpose of life is pleasure and the enjoyment of the “now.” We can think of the Epicureans as almost…not exactly, but almost like the deists of the eighteenth century.

And then there were the Stoics who worshiped at the foot of reason, and who believed that reason — divine reason — was embedded and enmeshed within mankind, so that in a sense they were opposite of the Epicureans: God was everywhere, and everything in a sense was God. The universe, for the Stoics, was divine. The Epicureans lived for chance and pleasure. It appealed especially to the upper classes. And the Stoics lived for submission, and especially to tradition, and appealed to the lower classes.

And they listened to Paul. As Paul debates and as Paul speaks, and as Paul begins to reason with them, they call him a seed-picker, a babbler…the word means a seed-picker, like a bird just pecking randomly here there and everywhere. He wasn't an intellectual. He wasn't schooled, they thought, in the great philosophies and traditions of the classical era of Athens. He was just a Jew, after all. And some of them began to sneer at him. And as they listened to him, it appeared to them that he spoke of two deities, one called Jesus and another called Anastasis. (Anastasis is the Greek word for resurrection, of course.) But it wasn't a familiar word to them. Anastasis was the name of a woman…it was what you might call a woman in Athens. And as they heard him speak of Jesus and Anastasis, it appeared to them that he was speaking of strange deities. They were polytheists, after all, and here is Paul advocating two new deities, and they bring him to the Areopagus to inquire as to what he had to teach them.

Perhaps as Luke is recording this he is reminding his readers of another one who was brought before the Areopagus, namely Socrates, accused of corrupting the youth, and accused of impiety; a man who had to stand trial for his ideas; a man who was asked, of course, by the Areopagus to drink that fatal cup of hemlock. And maybe in the background Luke has that in mind. And here is Paul in this great center of learning, and what does he say? And it's a blend of reason and rhetoric. He's speaking to the cultured elite. I suppose it would be something like giving a lecture at Harvard or Yale, or Oxford or Cambridge, or something of that nature. And what does he say?

He says three things.

I. He says first of all, you are surrounded by the revelation of God. You are surrounded by the revelation of God.

He mentions in verse 23 something that caught his eye. Among the plethora of deities that he had beheld in the city of Athens, there was one with a plaque that read “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” It was a point of contact. It was a place to begin. “Him you ignorantly worship, I declare to you,” Paul says. Now he's not for one minute advocating, do you see, a common ground in the sense that he is giving validity to the polytheism of Athens. He's not saying that this unknown God is a true God, and that there are many ways to God, and that Jesus and the resurrection is just another way, and perhaps a better way. He's not saying that. Already from the moment that he begins to speak, Paul is always bound on a collision course with the Epicureans and the Stoics. He doesn't say, you see, “Turn to Genesis 1:1,” because they didn't have a Bible. These people didn't know the Bible. These people were Greeks. They’d never heard of the Bible. They’d never heard of the contents of the Bible, perhaps. They were unfamiliar with it. How do you preach the gospel? How do you preach Jesus and the resurrection to a people who don't know the Bible? Who've never read the Bible? Who don't have the book of Genesis or the book of Psalms, or the prophecy of Isaiah? He doesn't do the equivalent of what Thomas Aquinas did, giving five so-called arguments for the existence of God in his famous book, the Summa Theologica–arguments that are still utilized and debated and argued over to this very day. Paul doesn't do any of that. He says to them, ‘You are surrounded by the revelation of God.’ He speaks of the Creator, and the fact that they are created, that they are creatures made by God; that every atom and molecule in the universe bears the stamp of deity. As Bavinck says, there is nothing that is atheistic. The creation itself, the world in which we live reflects the being of God Himself. He points to creation and says to these cultured Athenians, ‘Look around you, and what you see are the autographs, the personal autographs of God.’

It was said during the French Revolution in the Post-Enlightenment era…the charge was made that they would pull down the steeples of the Christians and rid themselves of their superstitions, and to which the Christians replied, ‘Yes, but you cannot rip the stars from the night sky.’ The very stars reflect the being and the existence and some of the attributes of Almighty God. There is, Paul is saying to these cultured elite pagans who knew nothing of Jesus, who knew nothing of the Old Testament, who knew nothing about Abraham or Moses or David or the story of redemption, he's saying to them there is a commonal memory that lies within the heart of every natural man and woman that goes all the way back to Eden.

There's a wonderful line in Calvin's Institutes, in an older translation, and it goes like this:

“Their stupefaction is never so complete as to secure them from being occasionally dragged before the Divine Tribunal.”

Every now and then the natural man without the Bible who has never heard the gospel…every now and then that natural man is dragged before the Divine Tribunal and he has to say there is a God. You are surrounded, Paul is saying, you are surrounded by the revelation of God.

What might Paul say if he were in the Athens of today–our modern universities? He might say something like this:

“Men and women of the university, I see that in every way you are religious. As I walked around the university I observed carefully your objects of worship. I saw your altar called the stadium, where many of you worship the sports deity. I saw the science building, where many place their faith for the salvation of mankind. I found an altar to the fine arts, where artistic expression and performance seem to reign supreme, without subservience to any greater power. I walked through your residence halls and observed your sex-goddess posters and beer can pyramids. Yet as I walked with some of you and saw the emptiness in your eyes, and sensed the aching in your heart. I perceived that in your heart is yet another altar: an altar to the unknown god who you suspect may be there. You have a sense that there is something more than these humanistic and self-indulgent gods. What you long for as something unknown, I want to declare to you now.”

He might say something like that. You are surrounded by the revelation of God.

II. Secondly, he says to them ‘You actually perceive this revelation. You’re not just surrounded by it. You actually get it. It actually gets through. It's not just ‘out there.’ You understand it despite yourselves.’

I’ll never forget reading an account of the funeral of Kingsley Amis, the novelist who had a part in writing the Flemings “James Bond” books. And he was speaking to Yevgeny Yevtushenko during the time of the Soviet Union–raised of course in communism and in an atheistic country. Yevtushenko was speaking to Kingsley Amis (an avowed atheist, of course), and Yevtushenko said to Amis (this was being told at his funeral by Amis's son) and Yevtushenko said to Amis, “You are not a Christian. You are an atheist, and yet you live in this country.” You see, he made the false conclusion that living in a so-called Christian country made you a Christian. “You are an atheist!” And Amis replied, “Oh, it's more than that. I actually hate Him. I actually hate Him.” He didn't believe in God, but he said, “I actually hate Him despite Himself.” He got it, you see. It got through to him. The revelation wasn't merely outside, it got through to his mind and heart and conscience.

Paul quotes two Stoic poets, Aratus and Epimenedes:

“In Him we live and move and have our being, and we are indeed His offspring.”

He threw little snippets of two different poems by two Stoic poets. In their own context, these statements of course don't even remotely say anything that's Christian. “In Him we live and move and have our being” was for the Stoics a statement of God's immanence, but the logos, the mind of the universe, was to be found everywhere. “We are indeed His offspring” was another statement of Stoic belief, saying that as humans we are, as it were, indwelt by reason itself, the Divine Reason; we are part of the Divine. And yet Paul uses these two snippets…changes their meaning, perhaps…statements…. It's not for Paul, I think, so much a common ground, but rather a stepping-stone that gives him, as it were, an opportunity for him to be heard. By citing these two Stoic poets, it grants him an opportunity now to go further: that not only are they surrounded by revelation, but that this revelation is actually perceived.

There is what Blaise Pascal so famously said, “a God-shaped void in the heart of every natural man.” He can't help it, you see. He was made for God. He was made for worship. Every man, every woman, in this world–if they've never heard the gospel, they were made for worship, and worship they will. They will form their own gods, a multiplicity of gods. For what can be known of God, Paul will say when he writes to the Romans, “What can be known of God is plain to them, and they are clearly seen, so that they are without excuse.” Paul is on a collision course. ‘Him who you ignorantly worship, let me declare who the true and living God is, and you know Him! And yet you don't know Him. You know Him and you pervert Him. You know Him, and you twist Him. You know Him, and you form another god out of your own imagination, and you bow down at the feet of that god.’

III. Which leads Paul to a third premise: Not only are they surrounded by revelation, and not only do they perceive this revelation, but Paul then begins to say that this revelation, unless they bow down and worship the true God, their religion will actually damn them. Their religion will actually damn them.

He speaks of the Day of Judgment, you notice, in verses 30 and 31:

“Having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

Now whatever Paul has been saying up until this point, trying to establish perhaps something of a rapport and something of a hearing, everything that Paul is now saying is counter-cultural, and now he is warning his hearers that there is coming a day of judgment, a day of accountability when the secrets of men's hearts and the secrets of men's minds will be revealed, and judgment will be made on the basis of this Man, this Jesus of Nazareth, in His life and death and resurrection. And it's all, you see, so exclusive that there is salvation in none other than in Jesus of Nazareth, and through His death and through His resurrection.

It must have sounded very strange to his hearers, because in Greek thought the very idea of a resurrection was an abhorrence — that mind and spirit, or matter and form in Plato's terms, could never co-exist together. The Epicureans, and for that matter the Stoics to some degree, had taught that the best thing in life in order to prepare for death is simply that–to face up to it and realize that it's a fact and a reality, and then there is nothing. And Paul preaches Jesus. And he preaches, presumably, the cross; and he preaches the resurrection, and he preaches judgment.

And the response…well, the response is predictable. Some mocked him. They mocked him. Just as Richard Dawkins mocks in his latest book that if you believe in creation, then, Dawkins says, you are stupid. And they mocked him. And some said, ‘We’d like to hear more about this.’ And perhaps the beginnings of a work of the Holy Spirit had begun to evidence itself in the hearts of some of those to whom Paul had been addressing, and some believed. And Luke names two of them, Dionysius and Damaris.

And it's always the same. It's always the same. Whenever the gospel is preached, in whatever form it is preached, tailored as it was here to the cultural elite of Athens, to be sure, when it comes down to it, it is all about our response to Christ and His death and His resurrection, and His coming judgment. And just as in Athens, so I imagine in this auditorium this evening there are some perhaps who may mock. It isn't clever enough. It isn't sophisticated enough.

And some are intrigued. And some whose void in their heart aches to be filled wonder if truth is to be found in Jesus Christ. And others…praise God, others believe, and they put their faith and their trust in Jesus and in Jesus only.

Paul went to Athens perhaps for a holiday and a vacation. But in one sense Paul could never have a holiday or a vacation, because wherever he found unbelievers, no matter who they were or what their background was, he couldn't help, you see, but preach the gospel.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You from the bottom of our hearts for this undying message of Christ and the resurrection. We thank You that the empty tomb declares everything that Jesus said and did to be true. When He claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father but by Him, He was vindicated by the resurrection. It is by His resurrection that we are justified. It is by His resurrection that we see who He actually is: the divine Son of God.

Lord, we pray this evening as we come to the close of a Lord's Day not only for ourselves here, but throughout this land wherever the gospel, wherever the word of God, is preached and proclaimed, to whatever audience that may be, there are some no doubt who will mock, and there are some intrigued and want to hear more. And we thank You, Lord, for those who, by Your Spirit are drawn to embrace the Savior and believe. Receive our thanks, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Please stand, receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.