A Great Debate – June 30, 2013

Genesis 33:1-16, Acts 17:16-34

June 30, 2013

We’re moving forward in Acts. And at this point, Paul has “taken his show on the road.” After traveling through Asia Minor, that region we now know as Turkey, he has now come to some very prominent places in the world. He has come to Athens, and after that he will go to the city of Corinth. And Athens and Corinth are two of the major centers of the country of Greece. And Greece was a very important place in the world.

At the time of Acts, Rome was in power. But before Rome, the power that controlled most of the known world was Greece. And the ruler of the Greek empire was the man we’ve come to know as Alexander the Great. The Greek influence under Alexander was so great, that when Rome was established as a world empire, they “borrowed” much from Greek culture. You know that if you remember your history. They borrowed the Greek governmental structure, their science, their architecture, their literature, even their gods! If you remember the names of the gods in those days, there were both the Greek names and the Roman names. For example, “Ares” was the Greek god of war. Under Rome, his name was (?) “Mars.”

So, when you think Rome, you have to think Greece. Greek influence was so predominant in the Roman empire that historians refer to that time period as the “Greco-Roman world.” Even the language reflected that. The official language of the empire was Latin, but the predominant language was Greek. You’re probably aware that the main language of the original New Testament was Greek! (Much to the chagrin of seminary students everywhere!) We preachers refer to things in “the original Greek” so much, it almost goes without saying.

So, Gus was right in the movie “My big Fat Greek Wedding.” Greece, its language and culture, were a major factor in the history of the Western world! “You give me any word, and Ill show you how it comes from the Greek!”

Well, before we leave this history lesson, (which my good wife would say has probably gone on long enough!) I want to say one more thing about the Greeks. In the Greek society, one of the major social pursuits was philosophical debate. That was huge in that culture. In Topeka Kansas, it was yard sales and softball. But in Greek society it was philosophy and debate.

Has anybody ever been on a debate team? Has anybody had any kids that were into debate? My son Paul was a debater. And that meant I got to be a judge at a number of tournaments! And actually I liked that! It was great fun listening to those kids, and helping to hone their debating skills!

Well, in the Greek culture, debate was huge! I went to a conference once at the North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. Actually, I was there to run the Chicago Marathon, but I also went to a great conference! And it was a conference about the book of Corinthians. And there the speaker talked about this whole thing. He said that debate was such a big thing to the Greeks that it was like the Olympics. There were many teams and many different schools of thought. And there were different kinds of tournaments throughout the region. Debate was such a huge thing, that the best debaters would even have their own sponsors!

Well, Paul had a reputation as a great debater. (Thats the Apostle Paul, not my Paul – though my Paul was pretty good, too!) And maybe that reputation is why God wanted him on his team! (Thats pretty shrewd, if you think about it!) Paul was good! And we can point to a number of places in the New Testament where it’s evident that the people wanted to “take him on” when he came to their town. That’s especially true in these two Greek cities of Athens and Corinth. That’s why in First Corinthians Paul said, “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. (In other words, debate!) Instead, I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:1-2) Well, they wanted him to give them lofty words and wisdom! They wanted to see him in action!

So, in chapter 17, we find Paul in Athens. And very quickly we find him in the middle of this whole world of philosophical debate. And he is about to “take them all on!” So he starts out by walking around the city doing “research.” He looks around at all the things in their culture, and then later he would use those observations when he spoke to the people.

And speak to the people he did! We’re told in verse 17 that, “He argued in the synagogue and in the market place.” It seems he started out by “taking on” anyone who would listen to him. And that caught peoples attention. Because it then says, “Some also of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers met him.” The Epicureans and the Stoics were two prominent schools of philosophical thought – two of the various philosophical teams They took him to the Areopagus. And no, that was not a Sesame Street character! That was the debating place – the arena, if you will. And they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you present? For you bring some strange things to our ears. And we wish to know therefore what these things mean.”

Well. I see that as both a challenge and a curiosity. It was a challenge because they had him there, and they were ready for the debate. But, it was a curiosity, because I believe that deep thinking people have a deep curiosity. So I think it was both. Then verse 21 says, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing new things.” There’s that picture of their world I was giving you before. Talking new philosophies and debating them back and forth was a huge thing for them. And for some of them, what Paul was saying was very interesting. At the end they said, “We will hear you again about this.” Yes, it does say “some mocked.” But others were definitely interested.

I think one of the reasons they were interested was that Paul did his research. And he used his research. He used his “forensics,” if you remember that word. He talked to them about their “unknown god,” saying that’s the God they should be looking to. It was an interesting approach. And notice, he didn’t disrespect their religion, he used it. Notice also that he said nothing about Judaism. He said nothing about those religious roots that were near and dear to his heart! That wouldn’t have helped here. Instead, he was willing to speak and debate with them on their terms.

I think we need to learn that lesson. We need to be willing to debate with people – to have dialogue. And you know, sometimes I think that’s the downside of preaching. There is no debate here. It’s just me giving you my side. So if you want to debate me on anything I say on a Sunday morning, I would like that. That’s how we learn together! Thats how the Holy Spirit works! (But talk to me later, please.)

I think we need to be willing to debate others, or to let them debate with us. And we need to know that they might not accept what we believe – especially if we leave no room for debate! We need to “embrace” the debate. We need to hear what people have to say. I believe they want to talk to us about such things! And that might mean allowing people to question us, which can be uncomfortable, can’t it?

It can also mean that we might become frustrated, feeling that we’ve gotten nowhere with them. So in the end, the best we might be able to hope for is that a seed has been planted. And we are left with trusting God that the seed will be nurtured so that it might possibly grow. And that’s ok!

So we need to be willing to engage people. We need to be willing to talk to them about what we believe. But remember also that we have to be careful of what we say. We need to leave people wanting to hear more. And, if we leave people not wanting to more, that could be worse for some than if we had said nothing. People’s lives around us could be changed both by what we say to them, and by what we don’t say to them!

Remember also, that when we reach out to others, when we talk about our faith, we want to be sure to share what’s important to us, like I said last week. We don’t want simply to give them “information,” we want to give them “inspiration.” We want to share our hearts with them, or we won’t ever touch theirs.

At the same time, though, we need to allow them to share their hearts with us. And that won’t always be easy, either! Sometimes they might highly question what we believe. Sometimes we might hear some strange things. We might even hear how someone was turned them off to our faith by what was said to them or how they were treated. And that’s sad to me! Sometimes Christians themselves can be the ones that do the greatest damage to the cause of Christ!

Well, the bottom line in all of this is, of course, that before we can let anyone know what’s in our hearts, we need to know what’s in our hearts. Does all of this that Paul was saying that day make sense to us? Do we know that the God of all creation loves us? Sometimes we think that goes without saying. But it can’t. We need to know. We need to remember. And when we do, people will know.

So, people of Athens, do you know the God who you seek? Is he an unknown God to you, or do you seek him with all your heart, and do you know him?


Eternal God, indeed we seek to know you. We know that you have given us your grace and your mercy and your love. Help us to know those things in our hearts, and by our lives to seek to touch the lives of others. For this we pray in Jesus name, Amen.