When Paul arrived in Athens, it was the philosophical center of the world and the birthplace of the democratic system. It had discovered many truths, but not THE Truth. Paul changes that!
More Than A Monument
Part One Acts 17:16-23
Mark Bailey’s recent book on Discipleship tells the rather humorous true story of how things and money didn’t matter any more – at least to one woman: let me read it to you:
READ pg. 119 (Include in expanded outline)
Dr. Mark Bailey To Follow Him, Multnomah Books, 1997
I was struck by the message on a woman’s sweatshirt I saw recently at a store – across the front of this middle aged woman’s sweatshirt read the big bold words, “I want it all.”
I could only hope that she discovers before it’s too late that even if she had it all, all of it wouldn’t be enough.
I want to take you this morning to a city that had it all. By the time the Apostle Paul arrived in Athens, it was already world renowned as the philosophical center of the world. It was the home of the worlds’ most famous university.
Socrates and his brilliant student Plato had taught there as well as Plato’s famous protege Aristotle. Athens was the birthplace of the democratic system – it created what we still today follow in our systems of parliament, law and individual freedom.
Everything from hydrostatics to biology were framed for Western consumption from this incredible city of Athens.
What’s more, this city was wealthy, affluent – even the ruins today speak of it’s glory in the sun - it’s Parthenon considered the masterpiece of ancient architecture – the city by Mount Olympus where Homer and Hesiod once lived was the shining jewel in the golden age of Greece.
Athens had discovered many truths – but they did not know the truth.
Athens had it all – but as we’ll soon see, all of it wasn’t enough. They did not have God – they didn’t know who he was.
When Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburg were married, I believe in the 1940’s, King Faisal, the young 12 year old monarch of Iraq was among the dignitaries to visit London for that spectacular wedding. As the wedding march proceeded down the main boulevard in London toward the cathedral, the crowd lined the streets and packed the alley ways hoping to catch a glimpse of the royal couple – King Faisal couldn’t have been less interested – he wanted a glimpse of those prancing horses who pulled the coaches along the road – he, dressed in his eastern garb, pushed his way through the crowd to get a better look – he was grabbed by an officer and told to stay out of the way – what you might tell a 12 year old who doesn’t seem to fit the scene – only after it was discovered that the 12 year old was the King of Iraq did apologies come flying. In the major London newspapers the following day, the headline articles read, “We’re sorry King Faisal – we didn’t know who you were.”
Athens will largely ignore Paul’s introduction of the King of Heaven; just as the nation Israel did a few decades earlier – Jesus Christ didn’t fit the royal scene – He didn’t look like a King – he was born to peasant parents; delivered in a filthy stable and then wrapped in rags. He would grow up, undiscovered by His world and mistreated and ultimately crucified – “We didn’t know who you were!”
To this day, the message can still be heard in our country – especially during this season – “We do not know who you are!”
Not only is this truth seen in our culture, this is becoming more and more apparent in the church – the church today is weak and worldly – it is affluent yet ineffective – it seems out of breath in keeping pace with it’s mission.
The solution is not:
a series of campaigns
it is not pietistic exercises
it isn’t larger contributions
or longer fasts
or smarter methods.
The solution to the ills of the church is a fresh understanding of the nature and character of who God is.
The Puritan writer, Stephen Charnock wrote exactly 200 years ago his classic work, The Existence and Attributes of God. He stated these words, “A God forgotten is as good as no God to us.”
Stephen Charnock The Existence and Attributes of God p. 67 Klock and Klock Publishers, 1997 Reprint
There has never been a generation more desperately in need of an introduction to God than our generation.
And there has never been a church age that has needed a re-introduction to God than our age.
Listen to the words of a Spurgeon who preached to his congregation nearly 150 years ago:
Quoted in Acts Commentary Dr. John MacArthur, Jr. Moody Press
So for the next 2 or 3 weeks we are going to dig deeply into the text of Paul’s sermon as he introduces to the city of Athens The Unknown God and, I believe we will also rediscover for ourselves many things about our wonderful, Sovereign, gracious God.
Would you take your Bibles and turn to the Book of Acts and chapter 17.
We’ve already seen the truth rejected at Thessalonica and then in our last discussion we saw the truth researched at Berea – now we will see the truth ridiculed at Athens.
Let’s return to Paul’s second missionary adventures with verse 16. Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols.
There are two interesting words chosen by the Spirit of God to tell us about Paul.
Here he is in the beautiful city of Athens. He’s only recently escaped from Berea and he’s now waiting for Timothy and Silas to rejoin him. He has idle time on his hands – and how we use your idle time tells us a lot about us doesn’t it?!
I read recently the challenge – “Find your lot in life and then build something on it."
Paul was passionate about building the kingdom of God and you never find him far from his tools.
This latter part of this verse tells us he was “beholding” the city full of idols. You could write in the margin of your Bible beside that word, the word, “theater”. The original word gives us that English word.
Paul didn’t simply arrive and casually notice all the idols – he took the city in – he strolled from street to street – he stopped and watched people – just like you do at the mall when you sit on a one of those benches and just watch the people – aren’t people weird – I’d say more but I’m one of ‘em!
Paul took long walks – and long looks – he saw it all.
And then we read, “His spirit was being provoked within him.” That second key word, provoked, can be translated angered, deeply moved, troubled.
What he must have seen!
One Grecian author who came to Athens 50 years after Paul wrote that it would be easier to meet a god in Athens than to meet a man.
I have read that while Athens had 30,000 statues of gods and goddesses. They literally lined the streets. The centerpiece of the city council building was an idol of Apollo. The building that housed public records was dedicated to the Mother of the gods.
From the Parthenon to the Acropolis Paul was surrounded by idols.
He was angry because they were following a lie.
He was deeply moved because every one of those idols testified to the Athenians hunger to spiritual truth.
I couldn’t help but contrast Athens and America.
The first word that came to my mind was pluralistic. Athens couldn’t have enough gods. It couldn’t follow enough paths.
A poll released a several months ago found that 96% of Americans polled believed in the existence of God. Yet 28% of them also believed in reincarnation; 45% of them thought Jesus probably sinned and 75% percent of them didn’t believe in absolute truth.
On our currency we have the words, “In God we trust”. Trouble is, we no longer collectively know which God that is.
Secondly, Athens like America, was also intolerant.
I found it very interesting that Luke slips in a little personal commentary on the Athenians – notice verse 21. (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)
That sounds very tolerant doesn’t it?
But just let someone come along and declare the gospel of Jesus Christ – Paul is called an idle babbler – a seed picker – he’s taken to the highest court in Athens and after he’s finished half the crowd sneer at him.
I thought they liked hearing something new!
Just so long as that new thing doesn’t convict of sin and remind man that it is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment.
I heard a few days ago that it took a great deal of pressure and wrangling just to have one of our towns schools simply allow a small nativity set to be put on a table that already displayed symbols of other religions in the world, symbols of what other religions did during Christmas.
Hey, would somebody look up Christmas is the Encyclopaedia Britannica; I happen to have it with me:
Get ready for a shocking revelation! It says, “Christmas – the Christian holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ” . . . just don’t remind anybody.
Britannica Junior Encyclopaedia Vol. 4, 1981 p. 992
It is becoming more and more apparent that America is open minded so long as we are close mouthed.
The third word of that comes to my mind is the word uncertain.
It had a deep abiding uneasiness that perhaps it was indeed missing true spiritual reality and so they kept their monument to the unknown God.
And Paul was moved by the sight of monument – he knew he had the answer.
One more word that came to my mind as I compared Athens to America.
It is the word empty.
Athens had heard it all – it was saturated with philosophies and speculations – it was surrounded by spiritualities, and it was empty.
Athens had it all, and all of it wasn’t enough.
Would you have been moved by that – so deeply moved that you move into action – not simply moved to describe the darkness but willing to shed the light.
Many Christians get moved but never get moving. Notice what Paul does next.
17. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles (this is the first category of people – we’ll call them the worshippers), and in the market place (the outdoor mall) every day with those who happened to be present. (let’s call them the shoppers) 18. And also (here’s the third group) some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
Stop here for a moment – I learned more from my research about Epicureanism and Stoicism than you’d ever want to know. But I do want you to know, in fact, write in the margin of your Bibles or notes one word beside each school of thought.
Beside the word Epicurean write the word, indulgent. They believed that attaining pleasure and avoiding pain was the chief pursuit of man. They believed you only lived once, and nothing after that, so squeeze everything out of life that you can, while you can.
Don’t get caught by that little saying I read recently, “You know you’re getting old when you have money to burn, but the fire’s gone out.”
The Epicureans would say, burn it as quickly as you earn it – live it up.
While the Epicureans were indulgent, the Stoics were indifferent. The pursuit of man is to feel neither pleasure nor pain. Self mastery over circumstances, situations, emotions, etc was living.
While they were very different, they were united in their contempt of Paul.
Notice v. 19. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, (the high court) saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? 20. “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.” 21. (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.) 22. And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. (we could learn something here from Paul’s approach here – while he ends his sermon with the threat of impending judgment – he begins by tactfully building a bridge – notice he doesn’t say, “I observe that you are really carried away with idols – I observed how ridiculous you are . . . no, he says “how you are very religious”. Some translations unfortunately render that Greek compound word, “too superstitious” – that interprets more than it translates – the greek compound word could actually be translated to read, “I observe how you have respect for the supernatural” – look further at verse 23) 23. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
600 years before Paul’s visit, history records that Athens had been overwhelmed with a terrible plague. Hundreds were ill and dying and the city was desperate for a cure. A famous poet from Crete named Epimenides came up with a plan to pacify whatever gods were causing the plague. He went to the Areopagus and turned loose a flock of sheep. The plan was to let the sheep roam the city freely. Whenever an individual sheep lay down, they were to be sacrificed to the god of the nearest temple. The assumption was that the angry gods would actually draw the sheep to themselves. When the sheep were turned loose, however, many of them lay down in places with no temples nearby. The people didn’t know what to do so, in order to cover all their religious bases, they built a monument and simply named it, “To the unknown God.”
Paul arrives on the scene and says, “I’m here to give you the missing name – I’ve come to introduce to you that unknown God!”
24 “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.
Paul is saying, “My God is more than a monument. He’s more than an idol of marble and stone. My God is the one and only, living Sovereign – and I want to tell you about Him.”
I’m going to stop here and pick it up next Lord’s day – but I want to close by saying that I thought it was ironic, if not planned for us as students of scripture and history to discover – from the very place Epimenides released the sacrifical lambs, to find their way into the path and wrath of angry gods; from that very spot, the Apostle Paul now declares to golden city of Greece that a lamb has indeed been sacrificed to an angry God – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, voluntarily wandered into the grasp of God’s wrath, and died in order to cure mankind from the plague of sin and the epidemic of everlasting death.
Paul said, “May I introduce to you that lamb who came back to life – his name is Jesus Christ – He is more than a monument - He is the Lord of heaven and earth.”
Would you lose your sorrows? Would you drown you cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in His immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of grief and sorrow; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of [God].