Preaching to Pagans (Acts 17:16-33)

Luke, in this chapter, continues his reports of what took place in different places when Paul and his colleagues took the gospel of Jesus to them. We can see that there was a variety of responses ranging from hostility (Thessalonica) to eager interest (Berea) to curiosity and scepticism (Athens). Yet whatever the response of those who rejected the message it is striking to note that there were always some who accepted it. This was the case whether they were Jews or Gentiles, whether they were average or intellectual in ability. So while we can say that the devil was at work trying to hinder the progress of the gospel, it was also the case that God was at work gathering in his people and extending his kingdom.

As we focus on Paul’s address in Athens, we can observe some things about his strategy. As he did elsewhere, he took his message to the synagogue because he knew that they would listen to an exposition connected to the Old Testament and the promised Messiah. Paul also mingled with people in the marketplace, where they gathered daily, and spoke about the gospel to whoever would listen to him. In both contexts, he reasoned with those he was interacting with, explaining the good news in a logical manner, making it possible for them to respond to him. Sometimes they did not understand what he was saying, as was the case in Athens because some thought he was speaking about two different deities, one called Jesus and the other called the resurrection. But at least they responded initially by saying that they wanted to know more about what he was saying.

Two other details come out in Paul’s approach. One concerns his feelings and we see a reference to them in his response to the number of idols in the city. He was disturbed by what he saw, and no doubt a number of reasons caused this response. The denial of glory to God and the blinding of the people by such superstitions would have been two factors in his response. The other detail is his desire to find a bridge that he could use to cross into their world and explain the gospel to them, and he located the bridge in the form of an unusual idol dedicated to what the Athenians called ‘the unknown god’. They did not have the true God in mind when they erected the idol, but Paul realised he could use it to draw their attention to the true God.

Two groups of people are mentioned by Luke – the Epicureans and the Stoics. Who were they? Epicureans did not believe in divine intervention and instead focused on attaining a life of pleasure, albeit within the confines of what could be experienced at that time. Moreover, they did not believe that humans were made by a divine being or that they are accountable to him after this life is over. Stoics were different in that they argued that humans should be self-controlled and not governed by their passions and thus would be able to exist in all kinds of situations without being disturbed or excited. The problem with both sets of ideas is that they were trying to make sense of life without involving the requirements of the true God, and they could not involve him because they did not know about him.

Paul’s task was to introduce them to the true God, who he was, and what he has done. We face something similar in our times. It is common for us to say that people don’t accept the existence of God as if that was a new insurmountable barrier whereas it is the situation that Paul faced. What did he do? He told them the truth. So let’s observe what he said.

Who is God?
The first detail that he mentions about God is that he is the Creator of everything, which means that he is the source of everything, including our existence. If Paul had been asked how God did this, he would have referred to what is said about the activity of God in Genesis 1, of how he spoke the universe into existence, and of the orderly process he followed.

Then Paul pointed out that God is sovereign over everything. Paul mentions that God is the Lord of heaven and earth. Whatever powers exist anywhere are under the authority of God. We know that he governs over human authorities, and if Paul had been asked on this occasion he would have said that God ruled over all angelic governments, including those who were opposed to him. This is a reminder that God is interested in what is taking place in our lives.

Third, Paul pointed out that God is simultaneously everywhere. We are not to imagine that somehow he is confined to a temple or religious place, or even to a location such as a country. Rather the true God is everywhere at the same time. He does not fill space in the way that we do, with part of us here and part there. All of God is everywhere. This means that he is very different from us.

Fourth, Paul stated that God is independent in the sense that he does not need us to serve him. An employer needs his employees, a master needs his servants to do things for him, and a ruler needs subjects to obey him. While God wants servants, he does not what them because they can provide something that he lacks. He is self-sufficient always.

The obvious deduction to make from this description is that God is very big, very powerful, totally competent, and transcendent. He is unique and to have a street full of competitors, as they did in Athens, was to say the opposite. Their unknown God would be a bit different from the others they imagined, but he would not be like the real God whom Paul wanted to speak about to them.

Who are we?
Paul also dealt with another important question, which is ‘What is man?’ He had mentioned God had created humans, but was that all that he had done.

The first detail that Paul mentions in this regard is that we all come from one man. All the nations of the world have a common origin. Why are they divided into different countries and peoples? Paul’s answer is that God arranged this so that they would seek and find him. We know that the vast majority of people did not do this, yet we also know that there are references in the Old Testament to people from different countries who had come to know God. There are Job and his friends, there is Jethro, and there is Melchizedek. Of course, they came to know God through his grace and mercy, but their awareness of God reminds us that people from different places did seek for him and find him.

Then Paul tells his listeners that God is close to each of them, that he is the one who keeps each of them alive. Every breath that they took was evidence of God’s kindness and nearness to them as individuals. In one sense, he is saying that God is inescapable, but in another he is saying that God is good to those who were not thinking about him or worshipping him.

Paul took a statement from a philosopher to help his argument. The philosopher had deduced that humans can be regarded as the children of God. When Paul used this statement about humans being God’s offspring he was not saying that they are God’s children in the sense that all believers are. Yet he was saying that there are ways in which children are like their parents. So since we are made by God it means we are like him, so why should we deduce that he is like an image we create, which is obviously inferior to us? In saying this, Paul showed the stupidity of making an idol. We are meant to worship the God who is seeking us.

Where are we going?
The third question that Paul deals with concerns our future. He states that there will yet a day in which he will judge everyone. The date is already fixed in the divine diary and none will fail to keep the appointment. How do we know that this is true? The answer to that question is the resurrection of Jesus.

This leads us to think briefly of the resurrection of Jesus. Obviously for Christians it is a very comforting doctrine because it assures us of our immortality and that eventually we will have glorified bodies like Jesus has. Yet his resurrection does not only affect his people. One way to think about this is to recognise what it means for Jesus to be exalted. There are four stages in his exaltation, and two of them have occurred, the third is happening, and we are waiting for the fourth. The two that have taken place are his resurrection and ascension, the one that is happening is his rule from the throne of God, and the one that is yet to occur will be his role as Judge on the great day.

Imagine it was tomorrow. After all, there will yet come a day which will be the one before the Day of Judgement. What would you do if somehow you discovered that today was that day? I suspect that you would engage in trying to find out how you should prepare for meeting with the Judge. You would not wish to focus on any other set of activities. The salvation of your being would become your only priority. Of course, the question then becomes why wait and fail to become right with God. After all, there is more than one way of ensuring that we appear unready at the judgement seat, but there is only one way of being ready.

The requirement that falls on us to do before the day of judgement comes is to think about it. God says to us, ‘Do you think that there is ample evidence that Jesus rose from the dead?’ The answer to that question is yes. He then says to us, ‘If you take the resurrection of Jesus seriously, you will repent of your sins and ask for mercy.’ Repentance is a realisation that we have sinned, is accompanied by sorrow for those sins, and is marked by a leaving of those sins. We go to the One against whom we have sinned, the true God, and ask him for mercy.

The response
There were three responses to the message of Paul and those three responses usually occur. The first was derision, the second was delay, and the third was decision. As we think about it, maybe we can change our responses to delay, decision and delight. Those who are delighted are the ones who already have believed the gospel and while it is still an awesome thought to think about appearing at the judgement seat there is still gratitude and joy connected to having experience mercy. The rest of us will be categorised by delay or decision.

Perhaps such can be helped by thinking about the persons Luke mentions at the close of the account – ‘Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.’ Almost two thousand years have passed since they made their decision to believe in Jesus. Where are they now? Their souls are with Jesus and their bodies are awaiting the resurrection and the Day of Judgement when they will be acquitted by the Judge. Do you think that they regret the decision they made that day on the Areopagus when they listened to a stranger tell them about who the true God is and what he has done for sinners?

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