Jeremiah 4:11-17, Acts 17:16-34
September 16, 2007
We’re up to Chapter 17 today in our journey through Acts. I started at verse 16, but I want you to be sure to read what happened in the first part of the Chapter. It’s about what happened to Paul and his colleagues in a town called Thessalonica. As you know, Paul would write two of his New Testament letters to the Church in that town.
In short, Paul had a tough time of it in Thessalonica. As was often happening now, he did make many converts there. But as was also happening now, his detractors stirred up violence against him. And as we saw last time, they were now beginning to follow Paul from one town to the next, and stirring up trouble for them there, too.
However, despite the opposition, Thessalonica became a place where the church grew and flourished. And we can get some of the flavor of Paul’s relationship with that church in those two letters. That would be the legacy of the Church of Jesus Christ. Where ever there was adversity, the message spread and the Church grew. That’s because, as Paul would later write to the Church in Rome, “Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope,, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…” (Romans 5:3-5)
So read the first part of this chapter when you get a chance. You’ll see some of what Paul and his colleagues went through. And that led up to our story for today, which is all about what happened to Paul when he came to the city of Athens!
Remember this is a Greco-Roman world. The capitol of the Roman Empire was in Rome, of course. But the culture of the time was Greek. It was based on the Greek world of Alexander the Great. (Do you remember him?) The Romans pattered their whole society on that of the Greeks. And the center of the Greek world was this city of Athens.
Now, one of the things we need to know about the Greek culture is that they loved debate. Debate and rhetoric were an integral part of their world. These people liked to talk and debate and “philosophize” about almost anything! It was said that the meetings of the great debaters in that world was on a part with the Olympic games! And those who were considered to be the best among them would have had their own sponsors and supporters and fans. Maybe they even had T-shirts and bumper stickers! Or they would have, if those things had been invented!
Well, in that world, Paul was beginning to make a name for himself. He was starting to develop a reputation as being one of the great debaters of his age. That’s why it was a big thing when he wrote to the Corinthians and said, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.” I didn’t play the debate game! “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:1-2) The Corinthians couldn’t wait for him to get to their city. They were ready to take him on! But he knew that. And he knew it wasn’t about the sport of debate. It was about the Gospel. So he didn’t engage them in that way. Paul didn’t want anything to get in the way of that Gospel. And I think we see that in the way he handled himself when he came to Athens.
One of the things we see right away was that Paul chose to speak to the Athenian people in their own language! He knew how important that was. When he talked to Jews he used a lot of references to their scriptures and traditions. When he spoke to non-Jews, he used none of that. And now as he spoke to people in the heart of the Greek world, he spoke using examples from their traditions, their religion, and their culture.
I want us to keep that in mind. Because sometimes we Christians are guilty of speaking to people in language that only means something to us. We use our own familiar expressions and definitions and Christian “jargon” that are second nature to us. But, not only do they mean nothing to people outside the church, but sometimes they even stand in the way of our communication! For example, for us to say, “By Grace we are saved through faith…” is wonderful. It’s very meaningful to us. But those words “grace,” “saved,” and “faith,” may have little meaning to people not in our “culture of Christianity.”
It used to be that when we spoke with our non-Christian friends and neighbors, we could assume that they at least knew the terminology! There used to be at least some understanding or at least some exposure to Christian things! Not any more! In fact, now-a-days, there are an increasing number of people out there who have had negative experiences with the Church, or who have had the influence of others who have had negative experiences. And with some people there is an animosity toward the Christian message. And when we speak to them in purely Christian terms, we’re not getting through!
In this post-modern age, we need to be able to take what’s meaningful to us, and learn to say it in terms that get past that negativity and begin to speak to such people again. We need to speak in their language and their terminology, as did Paul. And of course, we need to be genuine! We need to live the message so that our words and our actions are in sync! People are really looking at our example! I can’t tell you how important that is!
I want you to notice the example Paul uses from their world. He said “As I’ve walked around your city, I’ve seen all sorts of idols.” And that was true they had loads of idols and Gods – also borrowed from the Greek culture. Then he referred to a particular alter with the inscription, “to the unknown God.” And he told them that the unknown God was the creator of all things. And he told them that he could be known.
Now, think about that for a moment. Is there a parallel there for us? Do the idols of our world sometimes keep us from seeing or knowing the “unknown God?” You know the answer to that question! And I don’t need to remind you that “knowing God” is the most important thing! But sometimes the idols of this age – be it the idols of materialism, the idols of entertainment, or the idols of sports, or even the idols of religious structure – those things threaten to take our attention off of knowing God!
That’s true, isn’t it? Sometimes even our religious life and practice keeps us from knowing God himself! That’s a real hard thing to grasp sometimes, but it’s true. Too many people worship the religious system itself, but they don’t give much thought to knowing God! Let that not be said of us. Let it be said of us that knowing God is the most important thing, and that all of our religious structures and symbolism and teaching that we have are there to point us to the knowledge of God! (Amen?)
Now before we leave this story, I’d like us to give just a little thought to the Athenians themselves. Because they are an interesting bunch. Think about their reaction to Paul’s impassioned message? It was pretty weak, wasn’t it? This was a watershed experience for Paul! He was brought to the great center of debate on Mars hill. And there he gave one of his best arguments for the Gospel! And the reaction is negligible! How many converts does he make? The writer tells us – Two! That’s all!! Why is that? Why is their reaction a lot less than we might have expected?
Biblical commentator William Barclay explains it this way. “It was typical of the Athenians that all they wanted was to talk. They did not want actions. They did not even particularly want conclusions. They wanted simply ‘mental acrobatics’ and the stimulus of a ‘mental hike’.” Do you see that about them? They just wanted to talk about it! They didn’t want to act on it or anything. And I ask you, is that ever us? Are we ever just content to talk about faith, without acting on it?
I remember a friend from High School who once said to me, “I’m always up for a good theological discussion, but don’t go telling me about being all religious.” I think we need to be honest with ourselves and recognize that it’s very easy to fall into that mindset. It’s very easy just to talk about faith and yet fail to live it. How often do we “substitute knowing the right things for knowing God?” I remind you of these things again and again. And I ask you, is it making a difference in your lives?
As you leave today, I want you to think about Paul in Athens. And I want you to ask yourself, “How often are you guilty of letting the idols of this age keep you from knowing God? How often are you guilty of concentrating on the religious system, but forgetting the everyday relationship with God? How often are you guilty of being just fine with the talk and the debate and the discussion, but you don’t really want conclusions, actions, or change?
The unknown God describes too many people in this world. God can be known. We know him. That makes all the difference in our lives!
Eternal God, maker of all things, help us to know you, and to live our lives in your presence. Increase in us the joy of your kingdom. Help us to live our lives in ways that can be seen by others and that gives glory to you. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.