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No to idols - Acts 17:16-34

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 8th July 2007.

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In 1961 a young assistant professor at Yale University, called Professor Milgrom conducted an experiment on obedience. The aim was to see how far ordinary citizens would comply with an order to inflict pain on another human being. Members of the public were recruited and the experiments began. Two participants were introduced to one another, with one asked to play the role of "teacher" and the other the role of "learner". The learner, who was an actor hired by Professor Milgrom, was strapped into a chair wired to a generator. The person playing the role of teacher was told that the experiment would test the effect of punishment on learning. They were to ask a series of questions, and each time the learner, the guy strapped in the chair, gave the wrong answer, they were to punish him with a jolt of electricity. Starting with 15 volts the teacher was to increase the voltage for every mistake. Now the guy in the chair was just acting. He wasnít actually wired up to a generator, but he acted as if he was being electrocuted. But the teacher didnít know that. To that person, it all seemed for real. As far as they knew they really were electrocuting another person for their wrong answers. So what were the results? Well to Professor Milgromís astonishment over 65% of participants pushed the voltage past the warning level which read "Danger Ė Severe Shock", more than 450 volts, enough to kill someone! All this while they heard the "victim" seemingly moaning, then screaming in pain. Psychologists had suggested only a small group of the population with psychopathic tendencies would go through to this level, yet here were over 65% of people drawn from the general population of North East America acting in ways that most believe are cruel. Now there have been all sorts of debates as to what these experiments actually prove. But at the very least they suggest that it is hard for people to say no. They will blindly obey even when in another context they would never dream of electrocuting another person to death. The pressure of the situation makes people go along with something even though deep down they would probably disagree with what they are doing.

            Well if there is one struggle that is common to every Christian here, then surely itís the struggle with peer pressure. It can be very hard standing firm as a Christian, when everyone else around us is going the other direction. Whether it be at work or at home or at school or college, itís hard going against the flow. The battles will be different for each of us- perhaps a work lottery or sweepstake- everyoneís doing it, they say. Itís just a few pounds. An unwritten work policy where everyone cheats on the expenses claims- Oh, come on, donít be a spoilsport- after all the company deserves it, and itís very big. No-one will notice, everyone does it. Or the pressure amongst school friends to reject Godís teaching on sexuality. Youíll the only one whoís not slept with your boyfriend. Why are you the odd one out. You name it, at every stage of our Christian lives, young or old, there will be pressure on us to go the way of the world and not the way of the Lord. Weíre under pressure in this non Christian society to keep quiet and go with the flow.

            And that is why the passage before us, in Acts 17, is such a wonderful encouragement and challenge. Weíre with Paul again on one his amazing journeys. But this time heís one his own, having been shipped out of Thessalonica and Berea because of persecution. His friends have had to leave him. And heís all alone in a strange city, with no-one who holds his opinions. So what would you do if you were Paul. Well Iíd be tempted to shut up. Enjoy the sights of Athens. Recuperate after a tough few months in the mission field. Go with the flow. But not Paul. No, Paul was never one for going with the flow and keeping his mouth shut. Because he was someone who had such a passion for God, that he would argue Godís case in any and every situation. And that is what we find Paul doing here in Athens, in the most intellectually important city in the ancient world. And whilst Luke has already shown us Paulís tactics with religious people in Acts 13, and total pagans in Acts 14, now he shows us how to deal with non religious free thinkers. In fact we might even say these are 21st century agnostics like many of our friends today. Just wanting to have a debate and interested in othersí opinions, but not really wanting you to change their mind. And certainly it would be much easier to go with the flow and keep quiet. It would certainly mean an easier life. But not Paul. So how does he do it? How does he stand firm in a city where everyone is going the other way? And how do we resist the temptation just to give in in a culture which is going a very different way from the way God intends us to go, to give up speaking out and standing publicly for Jesus? Well Paul was marked by three qualities which we see in this account, and which we need to have if we are to stand firm and keep speaking of Christ.

1) A Passion for the Glory of God (Vv 16-17)

2) An Understanding of the Character of God (Vv 18-28)

3) A Confidence in the Gospel of God (Vv 29-34)

1) A Passion for the Glory of God (Vv 16-17)

So the first quality that Paul has is a passion for the glory of God. And we see that in verse 16: ďWhile Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.Ē So here is Paul in Athens on his own after two missions that had gone well but had ended in persecution. Paul had to be quickly whisked away from his friends to avoid any further trouble. And by the time Paul comes to Athens, it is a city that is past its prime. Rome is now the new dominant force, but that does not stop Athens still being the centre for all things cultural in the ancient world. It was the home of democracy, philosophy, architecture, theatre, and many other intellectual pursuits besides. It was a modern day Venice, Paris and Oxford all rolled into one, but slightly fraying at the edges. And if you were an ancient tourist wandering round the city, then you probably couldnít fail to be impressed with what you saw. Even today Athens still boasts major attractions, if you can cope with the smog that often engulfs the city. The Parthenon on the hill which dominates the city is a huge Temple, which in Paulís day would have been even more impressive. Inside was a huge statue of Athene the patron goddess of Athens, covered in gold and ivory. And her spear was so big it could apparently be seen for 40 miles. The Temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Not only that but there were beautiful civic buildings and the agora, the famous business centre of Athens. But according to one ancient writer called Pausanias who was a sort of Bill Bryson of the ancient world and who produced his own Rough Guide to the Mediterranean, Athens had 30,000 statues of gods and goddesses in its midst. An extraordinary fact given that there were only 10,000 people living in the city. No wonder Luke said that the city was full of idols.

            Now what would you do if you were Paul with a few days to spare. Well no doubt youíd get out your Rough Guide to Athens and start seeing the sites and ticking them off on your map. Youíd take the photos so you could say you had done Athens. Hereís me in front of the Parthenon. Hereís the wife standing next to a statue of Aphrodite! And so on! Surely heís wanting a cultural experience. But notice what happens in verse 16: ďWhile Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.Ē And itís not at all as if this is a knee jerk reaction. For he says in verse 23 that he has looked carefully at the city. This a measured reaction. But just look how strong it is. He is greatly distressed. In fact itís even stronger than that. Literally he is having a paroxysm, that is heís very angry. The open top bus tour of Athens enrages him. He is deeply moved with anger and outrage. But why? The price of the tour? The street vendors hounding him to by their plastic models of the Parthenon? No itís something far more serious. Heís outraged by the blatant idolatry that exists in Athens. Everywhere he looks heís faced by idols.

             And it becomes crystal clear why Paul is outraged when we discover something significant about the word Luke uses for ďgreatly distressedĒ. For that word is used in the Greek translation of the OT and it is used of God being angered by the idolatry of his own people. When they make idols instead of worshipping him, then he is ďgreatly distressedĒ. Itís the same word as here. He is outraged. He is utterly livid that his glory and honour is being given to another. For God is a jealous God. He detests it when his glory is given to another, when his people or anyone else for that matter worship something that is not God. When they bow down to statues and idols that are dumb and made of wood or stone or plastic or anything for that matters, things that can give us no help whatsoever. That drives God to anger and outrage. And it deeply offends his holiness. And that is why Paul is so outraged. Heís outraged because God is outraged. And the reason is that he has a passion for the glory of God. He wants Godís honour to be defended. Heís disgusted when people are trusting in stupid statues rather than the living God. That is why Paul is greatly distressed.

            Now if we have even a small percentage of Paulís understanding of the glory and holiness of God, then we too should be deeply offended by idolatry, both in our own lives and when we see it around us. It should cause to be distressed and angry, to grieve that people are so lost. A year ago, Debbie and I were on holiday in Greece, and we visited a church which was famous for having the relic of some old saint in it. But when we went it, it was very distressing to see that the skull of the saint was being kissed and touched by hundreds of people. People were queuing up to touch the saintís skull because they thought that by doing so their lives would be better. And the whole church building was devoted to this relic of this saint. And my reaction was one of disgust. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I felt physically sick because people were trusting in a dead manís skull rather than the blood of Jesus Christ. It was a blatant example of idolatry. In fact more than that I wanted to blow the whole place up and plead with people to turn to Christ. I couldnít because there was an armed guard and my Greek was a little shaky. But I felt very sad that people were being deceived and that Godís honour was being taken away.

            And that should be our reaction wherever we see idolatry. We should hate it. It should grieve us, if we have a passion for Godís glory and honour. We should be distressed by people in our society bowing down to the gods of materialism, sex, money, career, and even family. We should be distressed and grieved that people are wasting years of their lives watching banal and facile TV instead of hearing from the living God in his word. That idolatry should really grieve us, if we have understood the glory and honour of Godís name properly. But notice what it caused Paul to do. He doesnít just grind his teeth and stamp his feet. His passion for Godís glory causes him to act. Verse 17: ďSo 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.Ē There is a direct link between his distress and his evangelistic activities. Because he is greatly distressed and concerned for the glory of Godís name and his honour, so he reasons in the synagogue and meets people in the market place. In other words he chats with the religious people where they are- the church. And he chats with the pagans where they are- the marketplace. Itís a simple but brilliant strategy. And it flows from his passion for Godís glory.

            You see here is a man so gripped and captivated by his God that he will not be pressured into keeping silent. He will not go with the flow. He acts and is bold and starts talking and chatting with people. And the key to not buckling under pressure and not toeing the line is whether you and I have a passion for the glory of God. Because when he is your delight, when his honour is your primary concern, then nothing is more important. Not the pressure of people in the office, not the friends at school, not the relatives who want you to do what they want. No- you are a man or woman of one thing- namely the glory of God. And that is what drives you. So is that you? Do you have that singular passion which makes you grieve in the face of idolatry which is so rampant in our society? Which drives you on to take a stand for Christ? Or are caving in to peer pressure? Because the first characteristic that Paul had and which we need is a passion for the glory of God.

2) An Understanding of the Character of God (Vv 18-28)

But thereís a second characteristic that Paul had that is an understanding of the character of God. And this also answers the question of how we can increase our passion for Godís glory. And the answer is only by understanding Godís character through his word. The more we understand who he is, the more we will have a passion for his glory and the honour of his name. And that is precisely what Paul explains as he is brought before the government of Athens to explain his actions and his beliefs. So letís pick up the story in verse 18: ďA 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. 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? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas).Ē

            Now Paul has been debating with some philosophers, and they are greatly intrigued by what Paul has to say. The ancient Greeks did not believe in a real after life, and they are keen to hear more. So he agrees to meet them more formally in the Areopagus which was part of the government of the city of Athens, a bit like the House of Lords today. Because they accuse him of bringing in foreign gods and strange ideas. Actually the Athenians were very touchy about anything that might corrupt their young people, so Paul wasnít exactly flavour of the month. It would have been a very intimidating place to speak the gospel.

            But notice what he does. Letís read from verse 22: ďPaul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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.Ē So Paul begins by catching their attention and giving them a backhanded compliment. They are very religious. But the fact is they are ignorant. They donít understand and they cannot see. They even had altars to unknown gods who had helped them in the past. So Paul says to them, ďLook, Iím going to tell you about the God you donít know.Ē Now heís not saying that secretly they all worship God in their own way. They just need a bit of extra light to help them understand. Itís fine for them to worship Athene and Zeus, they just need a bit more help. And some say today that Hindus and Moslems and Mormons and everyone else, all worship the same god. Everyone will get to God in the end by their own means. But Paul is not saying that. He is saying that whilst the Athenians are religious, yet they are ignorant, and they know it! They need the light of the gospel. And without it they are facing judgement. He just uses their religiosity as a way in to explaining the true and living God. For there is only one God who is jealous of all rivals.

            So what does he say about this God. Well he gives them four characteristics about God and in doing so destroys a number of their misconceptions. First God is the Creator. Verse 24: ď 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.Ē Human beings do not build things for God- God builds things for us! He is the creator, the Lord of heaven and earth. So the Athenians who had so many stories about gods sleeping with other gods to bring the cosmos into being had to be told about the one true creator, the living God. And that there is no such thing as sacred space. They thought their temples were holy places. But they are just rain shelters. God doesnít live in buildings. Heís far too awesome and big for that. Heís the creator, and no building can contain him. Which is why this building is a just a convenient place for us to meet. Thereís nothing holy or sacred about this building. We could easily meet in my house if it were big enough. No God is the creator, the Lord of heaven and earth.

            But Paul also says that God is the sustainer. Verse 25: ďAnd he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.Ē The Greeks spent much of their time appeasing the wrath of their gods by giving them gifts and making sacrifices. And the gods in Greek mythology thrived on human sacrifices. But Paul says, thatís another misconception. God doesnít need anyone. Rather we need him. We cannot take one breath without him giving it to us. And were he to have a break for one second, the universe would be destroyed. God is the sustainer.

            Thirdly God is the ruler. Verse 26: ďFrom 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. 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.Ē  Itís God who determines the course of human history. He is the one who rules over our lives. And contrary to what many people think, heís not distant. He is near, a God who is involved in the world. The trouble is we human beings donít want anything to do with him.   

            And fourthly Paul says that God is our Father, verse 28: ď'For in him we

live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his

offspring.íĒ Paul does not mean in the Christian sense that we are Godís children. Rather he is making a more general point that God is the Father of the human race. We are his children in that sense. And we are totally dependant on him.

            So as Paul stood in that very intimidating atmosphere with the intelligentsia of the ancient world looking on him, he simply told them about God and his wonderful character, that he is the creator, the sustainer, the ruler and the father. And it was these truths that were the bedrock of Paulís passion for God. Because quite simply he knew who God is. And when you are convinced in the character and person of God, then it means you can face whatever life throws at you. It means you can stand firm against the tide when the peer pressure is dragging you the other way. For why be afraid of people when you know the creator, the sustainer and ruler of the world. Talk about friends in high places. To know the living God is the best thing in the world. And if you are confident in the God who made you, who sustains you and who rules over you, then you will have courage like Paul did to stand firm and speak of Christ.

            So consider a friend of mine who once did a very brave thing. It was during our time at university and we were planning to have an evangelistic event on the subject of homosexuality. Already in the university newspapers there was quite a lot of debate about it, and we were very nervous about the response. Now one of the university clubs which was the biggest at the time was the university debating society. Along with the Christian Union, the debating society attracted the most amount of students to its weekly meetings, with hundreds attending. And they challenged the Christian Union to a debate on the subject of homosexuality. So we took up the challenge and my friend stepped into the ring and defended the Bibleís understanding of sexuality in front of hundreds of very bright students, most of whom were opposed to him, and most of whom thought he was mad and bigoted. Now what gives you the courage to do such a thing? What gives you the courage to stand firm and go against the pressure of all your peers and take a stand for the gospel. Well only if you understand Godís character and know that he alone is your creator, your ruler, your sustainer, your Father. We answer to him and no-one else. And as we deepen our understanding of Godís character, so we will have a passion for his glory and honour. Is this your God? Well heís the only God, the true and living God. And it was this God that Paul proclaimed that day in Athens.

3) A Confidence in the Gospel of God (Vv 29-34)

But thereís one final thing to see from this passage which Paul had and that is confidence in the gospel of God. Because Paul does not stop here in his sermon. He does not just give a neat assessment of the character of God. He goes on to show that you and I and the Athenians are accountable to this God, and one day we will meet him. So letís read from verse 29: ďTherefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone- an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he 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.Ē So Paul has come to the conclusion of his sermon and what does he do? Does he say, ďWell Athenians, itís for you to ponder- take it or leave it. Itís only my opinion anyway, and you are very intelligent and wise!Ē No. He calls them to repent. He tells them that God commands them to repent. To turn back to God. Why? Because we are all heading for judgement. God has set a day when he will judge the world by the man, Jesus, whom he has appointed. No now doubt, as with all the sermons Luke records, there was more to it than this. Paul would have said how Jesus showed by his life and teaching that he was God in the flesh, how he died on the cross for our sin. But here Luke just tells us the bare bones. But at least he shows how the resurrection proves that Jesus is the judge. For the resurrection guarantees that Jesus defeated death and sin and is alive and has the authority to judge the world. And unless you and I are right with him, unless we have accepted that forgiveness which Jesus offers, we too will stand before the judge guilty and facing his eternal wrath. So if there are any here tonight who have not yet trusted Christ, then you need to hear what Paul is saying. God, as your maker and sustainer and ruler and Father commands you to repent. Otherwise make no mistake. One day you will face your maker as an unforgiven rebel, and that is a fate worse than death. So come to him while there is still time. And in Paulís day some did, whilst others scoffed and sneered.

            But itís worth noting especially that Paul had total confidence in the gospel of God. In the face of this intimidating bunch he simply explains the gospel. He didnít change it to suit his hearers. He may have come at them from a slightly different angle, but he didnít change the message. He had confidence in Godís gospel that it was the gospel for all people at all time. And if that is our confidence then again that will help us to stand firm against the pressure to conform in every part of life. If we are to stand firm and go against the tide going Godís way, the we must have confidence in the gospel. It is the only news that is worth proclaiming and itís the only news that will save. So let me ask you, do you genuinely believe that this news is suitable for your friends and family. Or do you think that they need something different? Do you really believe that God can save them. Paul did and some were, not many, but a few. God was at work.

            So as we finish, let me tell you about two people who came to know Jesus within a few months of each other some years ago. One was a main his seventies, who was brought up on an ordinary housing estate in Oxford, whoíd been on the beaches of Normandy, been a thief, spent time in prison, and hated religious people. When I met him he threatened to kill me. At about the same time, I met another man, who was a student, a very bright young man, but by his own admission, very proud. He knew a lot and had a lot of arguments against Christianity. Two very different people. Both opposed to the gospel. Did we change the gospel for each one. Did me make one very simple and the other very sophisticated. No. With both there were long conversations, much prayer, much pain. But in the end, praise God, both became Christians. The ex con and the rookie lawyer. Thatís the power of the gospel for you. Thatís Godís power for you. He can change lives and heís in the business of doing it today.         

            So where is your confidence? You see if you have a passion for Godís glory, then you will hate idolatry. It will drive you to explain Godís character and works to those who need to hear it. You will have confidence that Godís gospel is the only gospel that saves. And you will be able to stand when all around are falling, you will keep going against the tide. Because you know you serve the true and living God. And to him belongs all glory, honour and power.

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