How should we speak about Jesus in the 21st Century - Acts 17:16-34

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 23rd April 2006.

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Aims: (1) To encourage Christians to follow Paul’s example as we live in a culture where most people do not follow Jesus Christ. (2) To challenge non-Christians to repent from their idolatry. 

Theme: Whilst waiting in Athens, Paul proclaims the gospel to as many people as possible. Luke, however, focuses our attention on Paul’s dialogue with a group of Athenian philosophers.

Ever since they made their debut appearance at the end of 1963, the Daleks have been one of the most popular enemies of Doctor Who. I remember as a young lad being absolutely terrified and baffled by these strange creatures, who, I thought, obviously needed some throat lozenges and a slightly wider vocabulary. But, despite the fact that they had a sink plunger on one side and a lethal exterminator gun on the other side (what’s all that about?) they have continued to be one of the publics’ favourite Doctor Who monsters. At first they struggled to climb stairs, despite being able to travel through time and space – which I always thought was slightly odd. Because, surely, if you can master the technology to travel to any point in the history of the universe and if you have the ability to travel to any place in the vastness of the universe then a few stairs should not be an insurmountable problem. But, of course, as many of us know, this lack of stair climbing ability gave the Doctor and his companions a frequent escape route from these deadly exterminators. Until that is, and I still remember the episode, we saw a lone Dalek hovering up a basement staircase to attack the Doctor, who was trapped at the very top. 

I discovered this week that the word monster can be traced to various Latin words all connected with education. For example, the word monstrum means ‘that which teaches, while monstrare means ‘to show.’ And those who know these things tell me that both of these words derive from the word monere, which means to warn. So the role of a monster is not just to frighten us or to send us running behind the sofa but is to show us something. Monsters often fulfil a prophetic role in our society. They warn us and teach us about uncomfortable truths. Or to put it simply, they often symbolise the current fears of a culture.

So, take the Daleks, for example. The description of their home planet Skaro as a planet devastated by atomic war came only a year after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. And then in 1975, the BBC showed a six-part Dalek extravaganza, called The Genesis of the Daleks. And it’s very obvious when you watch it who the Daleks are supposed to represent. They are portrayed very clearly as the end product of a Nazi philosophy. Now if you have been following the most recent series of Doctor Who you will know that the Daleks have made a reappearance. But what I find interesting, ignoring for a moment all the new gadgets they have been given, is that today’s Dalek has been repackaged to reflect today’s culture.  In 2005, the current scriptwriter, Russell Davies, turned the Daleks into a bunch of religious fundamentalists, blindly worshipping their Emperor Dalek and referring to The Doctor as the great Satan. Now, I think, the reason for this transformation is quite simple. Remember monsters often symbolise the current fears of a culture. And what is one of the biggest fears in today’s western world? Fundamentalism. And I don’t mean just Islamic fundamentalism but all sorts of fundamentalism. I’m talking about any belief system that claims to be the truth that everyone else must believe. Increasingly, in our tolerant western world what is the one thing that cannot be tolerated? A belief system which teaches that someone else’s beliefs are wrong - not just different but fundamentally mistaken. 

So here is our question for this morning: Given our current situation, how should we speak about Jesus to the people of 21st century Britain? How can we communicate what we believe is the best news in the world in a society which refuses to tolerate exclusive truth claims and which is largely ignorant about the authentic story of Jesus? Where can we find wisdom for such an enormous task?

Have a look at verse 16. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens.” Athens was and is famous for many things. Today it is a popular tourist destination, despite the almost continuous traffic jams and the horrendous pollution, and in 2004 it had the privilege of hosting the Olympic Games. But in the past it was the city, which produced men like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, which first experienced democracy and which was famous throughout the world for the sheer splendour of its architecture. Now, admittedly, by the time of the apostle Paul it had lost some of its former glory but, nevertheless, it still had the reputation of being an intellectual centre. Have a look at verse 21. “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” So you could say Athens was a very ‘spiritual’ place. You could always find someone to engage you in a religious discussion. Go to the local taverna and you would not find a polite notice above the bar which said, “No religion or politics to be discussed on the premises.” Not at all! The Athenians loved talking about religion and politics all the time. If you were on a ‘spiritual quest’ then Athens was the place to visit. It was so open-minded. All the latest ideas were thrown into the melting pot of discussion.

But let me tell you two facts about the people of Athens.

First of all, they despised exclusive truth claims. Like so many people in the Roman Empire, they tolerated diversity but were very intolerant of anybody who claimed, not just to have an idea, but who claimed to have the Truth. 

Secondly, they were completely ignorant about the authentic story of Jesus Christ. For all their philosophical reasoning, they would have been out of their depth if they had spent even a few minutes in our holiday Sunday School. Verse 18. “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with Paul. 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.”

So where can we find wisdom to share the good news about Jesus to a culture which refuses to tolerate exclusive truth claims and which is largely ignorant about the authentic story of Jesus? We need to go to Athens. And we need to learn how Paul communicated the gospel to a society very similar to our own. We start by asking the question…

1)      What did Paul see? (Verse 16) 

Verse 16. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” I’ve never been to Athens but I am assured that if I did go to the city, clutching my Lonely Planet Guide, there would be much for me to do and many attractions to visit. Now, 2000 years ago, Paul did not have the luxury of a Lonely Planet Guide, but, nevertheless, as a newcomer to the city, he decided to wander round. It was the natural thing to do. He was on his own in a strange city. He was currently waiting for his friends, Silas and Timothy, to join him from a place called Berea. So what was he to do? Well, Paul decided to do a bit of sightseeing. He wandered round the city with his eyes open and observed his surroundings. And what did he see? A city full of idols. So as he wondered around looking at all the shrines and buildings he did not think to himself, “Wait until Silas and Timothy catch a glimpse of this. What a truly amazing piece of craftsmanship.” Instead, we are told he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.

An idol is anything which takes the place of the true and living God. It can be a physical object or it can be an all-consuming passion. It is anything a human being devotes himself to instead of the true and living God. It can be family, fitness, finance, friends, fast cars, you name it, human beings can make it into an idol. Something they sacrifice their time for. Something they day dream of. Something they put their hope in. Something they find their identity in. In fact, anything which comes at the very top of their priority list. Anything which knocks God off his rightful position.

Athens was a city full of idols. One ancient historian estimated that at one point in the city’s history there were 10,000 people who lived in Athens. But at the same time there were approximately 30,000 idols. And when Paul saw them he was deeply distressed. So concerned was he with the rightful adoration of God that when he saw human beings diverting their worshipping energy to a vast number of idols he was angry. He wanted God to get the glory he deserved.

There are many reasons to tell someone the good news about Jesus. First of all, the gospel is good news. In fact, that’s what the word gospel means – really important, really exciting, good news! And in a world that so frequently hears bad news, hearing some good news makes a pleasant change. So we should tell people the gospel because it is good news. Secondly, we should tell people about Jesus because we love them. If we love a person we have their best interests at heart. And so who would keep back the wonderful news of how we can know God personally, of how we can be forgiven, of how our lives can be transformed from the inside out and how we can receive eternal life – who would hold back such wonderful information from someone they love? People have a need for Jesus and if we truly love them we will make sure they hear everything they can about the man who can change their lives forever. But what about for the glory of God? Are we ever motivated to tell people about King Jesus because of a passionate desire for his honour and reputation?

Paul was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. Do we ever feel like this? I know in our busy lives the temptation is to rush from one activity to the next but can I encourage us all to slow down this morning and to observe what is currently happening in our culture? In this multi-faith, ever so tolerant society, do we fail to see what is happening to the name of Jesus? Or is it more the case that although we do observe what is happening to the name of Jesus, we have lost our passion for defending his glory? My friends, if we are to share the gospel in the 21st century we must recover a desire to see Jesus treated in the way he deserves. So, for example, when we hear of another ‘spiritual option’ in the supermarket of ideas, where Jesus Christ has no part to play, we must not say, “Well, that’s a beautiful alternative that seems to work for you.” No, we must be distressed that Jesus Christ has been replaced by an idol of human invention. And the same should be true whatever the idol in question. So, the next time a young lad or girl drives past us in their zooped up sports car, with it’s alloy wheels, big spoiler, darkened windows and thumping music, what are we to think? Well we could say, “tut, tut, young people today. I wish they would turn down their music and give the rest of us a bit of peace.” Now, of course, we could say that, but wouldn’t it be more godly to be distressed because a metal idol has taken the place of Jesus Christ in the life of that particular human being?

What did Paul see? He saw a city full of idols.

2)      What did Paul do? (Verse 17) 

Verse 17. “He reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” So, yes he did get distressed about the rampant idolatry in the city and, yes, it would be good for us to ask God to give us the same passionate desire for his glory that he gave to the apostle Paul. But feeling without action is not a biblical combination and so Paul decided to do something about the idolatry that he saw.

He reasoned with as many people as he possibly could. So, as was his custom, he went into the synagogue to persuade the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks that their promised Messiah had finally arrived on the earth, and his name was Jesus. But it wasn’t just the synagogue that received a visit from the apostle Paul. It was the market-place, where, according to the end of verse 17, he reasoned day by day with those who happened to be there. Now the market-place was not only a place to buy your groceries. It was a place to buy your food but it was also the great city square of Athens, as much a centre of social and intellectual life as commercial activity. And it was here where Paul reasoned, or more literally, dialogued with those who happened to be there. So let’s be clear about this. Paul’s example in the market place does not justify the lonely street preacher shouting at people who have no interest in what he is saying. No, Paul dialogued with people. This was no one-way communication. There was interaction. There were questions and answers. Sometimes Paul would speak, sometimes his listeners would speak. There was a healthy dialogue between the two.

Paul was not frightened of debate. He was absolutely convinced about the intellectual credibility of what he believed. Otherwise, why would he have gone to the market-place in an attempt to persuade other people to believe it too? If he was not convinced of the intellectual foundations of his message, then why on earth would he engage in dialogue with anyone? I know from personal experience that it is much more nerve racking to face questions about your beliefs than it is to merely talk about your beliefs. Religious dialogue is not for the faint hearted. And so therefore, when we read that Paul deliberately went into the market-place to start debating with as many people as he possibly could we are being reminded of the intellectual credibility of the good news about Jesus.

Now before we discover what Paul actually said to the people of Athens let me highlight two practical lessons from his behaviour.

First of all, it was unplanned. It all took place when he was waiting for his friends to arrive. He had not planned any of this but, trusting the Lord, he seized this God-given opportunity to share the gospel with the people he encountered. Now it’s perfectly clear that we don’t all have the make-up of the apostle Paul. We don’t all have his intellect or his boldness but, my friends, we do trust in the same God, who in his sovereignty still brings about unplanned opportunities for us to make a difference for Jesus Christ.  So let me encourage you to take them when the Lord brings them before your eyes.

Secondly, Paul went to where the people were. So yes he went to the synagogue but he also went to the market-place. And the reason was simple. The people in the market-place would never have walked into the synagogue. But they still needed to hear the same message. The gospel is not only for the religious people. It is for the outright sinner. It is for the spiritual seeker. It is for the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist. The person of Jesus is needed by everyone. But as Paul says in Romans 10:14-15: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” One of the reasons we run Men at the Top in the Pearson Park Hotel is because there are many men who would not dream of coming into the church building. And so why should they be excluded from hearing about the wonderful things that Jesus has done for them simply because they will not walk into this building? The answer is simple: they should not be excluded. Surely it is our responsibility to bend over backwards for people so that they can hear the message that may change their life forever. So can I ask us all to pray persistently and to think creatively about how we, as a group of Christians living in Hull, can get the gospel out to the people who will not come to us? Paul went to where the people were. 

3)      What did Paul say? (Verses 18-31) 

So what did he say when he got there? Verse 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.” Now in preparation for this sermon I did a bit of research and so let me tell you something about the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who were listening to Paul.

The Epicureans followed the philosophy of a man called Epicurus, who had been a teacher in Athens about 300 years before Paul came to visit. They were essentially what we would call materialists. They were convinced what you could see and touch was everything. There was nothing beyond the physical. In fact, everything was by chance and once you were dead you were finished. And so therefore can you guess what they thought the purpose of life was all about? Pleasure. You had one shot at life and so the wise person packs in as much fun as possible. Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s just what the majority of people in our country believe but with a slightly more intellectual title.

The Stoics, on the other hand, were a very different breed altogether. They followed the teachings of a man called Zeno, who was alive in Athens at the same time as Epicurus. But instead of pursuing pleasure these people thought the best way to live was to keep a stiff upper lip. Reason must rule over the emotions. Have you ever heard of someone stoically bearing with the pain? The idea goes back to these philosophers. They were essentially what we would call pantheists. That is, people who believed god was everywhere and everyone was basically god. It was the ancient equivalent of modern day nature worship and much of what is referred to as the new-age movement. They did not believe in a personal god and they did not believe we had any control over our destiny.

Fate ruled the world.  Your destiny was predetermined. And so therefore whatever card you had been dealt in the game of life was yours to stoically endure. As you can imagine, these people were not invited to many parties!

But along with the Epicureans, these were the people who keenly debated with the apostle Paul in the great market-place of Athens, as he preached the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Now let’s get this clear. Paul was not preaching the good news about Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. The good news about Jesus included his resurrection from the dead. No, what Paul was preaching was the whole story of Jesus and the event at the end of the world when everyone who has ever lived will be raised from the dead to face the judgement of God.

Now it’s interesting to notice how people responded to what he had to say. Some people thought he was an idiot. Verse 18. “Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Whereas, “Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’” And “they said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” So, on the one hand, Paul was confronted with in your face mockery, and, on the other hand, complete misunderstanding. So what was he to do? Well, thankfully, some of the people who were listening to him wanted to find out more, so they took him to a place called the Areopagus. Verse 19. “Then 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.””

Some of you may know the Areopagus by its other name, Mars Hill. That’s what the word Areopagus literally means, the Hill of Ares, that is, the Greek equivalent of the Roman god Mars. The Areopagus was originally a criminal court capable of handing out the death sentence to Athenian citizens and they used to meet on the Hill of Ares.

But all this had changed by the time Paul visited the city. The Areopagus was no longer a criminal court, it had become much more like a council. With its legal powers diminished, its members concentrated on defending the city’s religion, morals and education. And, instead of meeting on the Hill of Ares, they normally met together in the market-place where Paul was already speaking. So what would Paul say to them? Remember here was a group of people who liked diversity but who were intolerant of exclusive truth claims, and here was a group of people who were completely ignorant about the story of Jesus. So how would Paul tell them the gospel in a way that made sense?

Verse 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.”

Now, can we please notice two things straight away about the beginning of Paul’s sermon? First of all, he is very polite and, secondly, he starts speaking about something they already know about. So let’s think about how he could have started. We already know Paul was very distressed about the rampant idolatry in the city, so, I guess, he could have begun his sermon something like this: “Men of Athens, I know that in every way you are evil, wicked, rebellious, idol worshippers, who are currently standing under the condemnation of God.” He could have begun like that. He certainly believed it was true. But it’s not a great way to get people on your side is it? Especially if you are speaking to a group of strangers. So what does Paul do instead? He demonstrates that he has been paying attention during his visit to the city. Verse 23. He tells his listeners that as he walked around he looked carefully at their many objects of worship. And so therefore, he is able to make a point of contact with them.

He is able to say that in every way they are very religious, which, of course, they were. It’s a great start to his sermon, isn’t it? Can you just imagine what they were thinking to themselves? “Hey, this guy says we’re very religious. Well, he seems to understand the culture of our city. So maybe we should listen to him after all. Maybe he has something worthwhile to say.” And that’s when Paul rattles them. Verse 23. Because not only does he tell them he has observed their many objects of worship but he also reveals he has found an altar with an inscription to an unknown god. An altar to an unknown god. What a load of nonsense! For all their religious zeal these people are clueless about the God who made them. They even have a statue dedicated to an unknown god just in case they have missed anyone out. They have lots of ideas but absolutely no certainty. Their many statues are not a sign of wisdom but a sign of ignorance. And so therefore Paul takes his opportunity to teach them about the true and living God.

Verse 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.” So point 1 of Paul’s sermon – God is the creator of the world. He is not everywhere and everyone. He is distinct from the creation and responsible for it. And if we don’t believe this we will never understand sin. So in our present culture we must teach people that God is the creator of the world. Secondly, we must teach them that God is the sustainer of the world. Verse 25. “He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” I hope we realise that everything we have is a gift from God. Even our very next breath is given by him. And if we don’t believe this we will never understand sin. So in our present culture we must teach people that God is the sustainer of the world.  Thirdly, we must point out that God is the planner of the world. Verse 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.” And why did he do this?

Verse 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.’” The evidence for God’s existence is all around us. Are we really to believe that everything around us is simply one giant cosmic accident? We don’t believe the dictionaries we read are the end result of random explosions at printing factories, do we? And, as far as I’m aware, we don’t believe the cars we drive are the end result of freak winds blowing through scrap yards around the world. So why do so many people believe the universe we inhabit is just a chance occurrence? Paul says the evidence for God’s existence is not far from each one of us. God is not trying to hide himself. He is not playing a gigantic game of hide and seek. He wants us to find him. But what’s our problem? By nature we want nothing to do with him. And so we actively suppress the truth we know about God.

Which leads me on to point 4 of Paul’s sermon: God is the judge of the world. Verse 31. God “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.” There is a day coming when everyone who has ever lived will stand before Jesus and be judged by him. And God has given proof of this by raising Jesus from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates that everything he said on earth was true and so, therefore, we can now be confident that in the future our judge will be the one who endure the judgement of his followers in their place.

So how are we to prepare for judgement day? Verse 30. God commands all people everywhere (notice how comprehensive this language is) to do what? To repent. God commands all people, everywhere, to give up their idols and to hand over control of their lives to Jesus and receive him as their King. If they want to survive the day of judgement this is what you and me must do. There is no other way to be saved for eternity.

4)      How did people respond? (Verses 32-34)


So how did people respond to Paul’s message? Verse 32. “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”  33 At that, Paul left the Council.  34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”

So we have three reactions to Paul’s message. Some people still thought he was an idiot. Others wanted to hear more and a few people even decided to receive Jesus as their personal King.

Next week we are starting a Christianity Explored course on Thursday evenings at 7.30pm in the Newland Christian Centre. It’s an ideal opportunity to find out more about the Christian faith. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Over five weeks a few people meet together to explore what Christians really believe about Jesus. We don’t pray or sing or do anything churchy. Instead, we give people an opportunity to ask their questions and hear more about the most important person who has ever lived. So can I encourage you if you are either someone who wants to become a Christian or someone who wants to find out more about the Christian faith to ask me for an information card at the end of the service? I promise you: You have nothing to lose but everything to gain.

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