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

Sermon by Derek Thomas on April 22, 2007

Acts 17:16-34

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The Lord’s Day

April 22, 2007

Acts 17:16-34

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

“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.

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 paroxysmInstitutes 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
–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

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
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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