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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:Christ confronts the clever of Athens
Text:Acts 17:22-31 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Neighbours
 
Preached:2013
Added:2013-07-10
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

NOTE:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 98
Psalm 51:1,2
Psalm 100
Hymn 81
Psalm 79:5

Scripture reading:  Acts 17:16-34
Text:  Acts 17:22-31
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

Our Christian young people face a hostile world.  Growing up in the church, raised in a Christian family, being educated in a Christian school – at some point they suddenly leave the protective environment of their youth and are confronted with a world at odds with their upbringing.  They may be asked questions about why they believe what they do.  They may be challenged to explain why they don’t toe the line.  Some will ask out of curiosity, but others will ask because they want to persuade.  They want you to give up your beliefs and follow the crowd.  After all, you can’t be much fun if you’re a serious Christian.

Many Christian young people will be tested and tried at some point or other.  They’ll often be challenged to rethink their commitment to Christ and the authority of his Word.  They’ll be told that they’re arrogant if they continue to be so certain about what they believe.  People at school or work will think that you’re intolerant and backwards if you continue believing in Christ and live as a Christian.  This can happen to our young people, but it can also happen to all of us.  Young or old, we face a hostile world out there. 

To be a Christian, it is crucially important to know not only what you believe, but why you believe it.  In the words of 1 Peter 3:15, we have to be ready always to give a defense for the faith.  That’s what apologetics is all about.  It’s about training Christians so that they can give a good answer when unbelievers challenge their faith.  Indeed, there are good, biblical reasons to continue holding on to Christ and the authority of his Word. 

We’re going to address this subject with the help of the apostle Paul.  Paul often preached to the Jews, but the real focus of his ministry was the Gentiles.  He often engaged a world where there was no understanding at all of what the Bible teaches about anything.  The apostle Paul was often speaking with people who’d never heard of the Bible, who’d never heard about Christ, and who knew nothing of the gospel.  While he lived nearly 2000 years ago, the world of unbelief that he faced was fundamentally not that much different than the world we often face.  The approach that he took in engaging that world is the approach that we need to take as we engage unbelievers today.

Paul was in Athens.  He was on his second missionary journey.  He had been in Berea and was now in Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him again.  Athens was a world famous city.  It was known as the intellectual metropolis of the ancient world.  As a highly educated man, Paul was well-acquainted with the great minds which made Athens famous.  He had studied philosophy and literature.  However, Athens was famous for more than just intellectual sophistication.  It was also a very religious city.  Someone once said that it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man.  Temples, altars, and idolatrous images blanketed the city.  Paul noticed this soon after arriving and it bothered him.  It bothered him that these people were so far from God.  His missionary heart compelled to speak up and try to persuade Athenians of the gospel.  He went to the synagogue to address the Jews and proselytes.  But he also went to the marketplace and preached the gospel to the Greeks there.  Philosophers heard him preaching and were confused.  They’d never heard anything like Paul’s message before.  Paul preached the gospel about Jesus and the resurrection.  To the Athenians it sounded as if he were preaching about some other gods – and in Athens, that was very much frowned upon.  They were traditionalists.  They had their Greek gods and to introduce new ones was religiously and politically dangerous. 

For this reason, the Greeks brought Paul to the Areopagus.  The Areopagus was a hill in Athens, “Mars Hill.”  A court came to be associated with this hill, though by the time of Paul the court was not actually on the hill.  It was a place for ideas to be heard and judged.  The Areopagus was a court supervising such things as public morality, education, and religion.  The preaching of new gods demanded a hearing before the Areopagus.  That’s where Paul was brought and that’s where we find our text.

Now before we get into the text itself, there’s one more thing I need to mention.  The book is often called the Acts of the Apostles.  You may remember that this is the second of a two-volume work by Luke.  The first volume was his gospel, the gospel according to Luke.  The second volume is Acts.  To understand what’s going on in this book, it’s crucially important that we pay attention to the very first verse.  Luke wrote, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach…”  Did you notice the word “began”?  Volume 1 is about the beginning of what Jesus did and taught.  Volume 2 is therefore about what Jesus continued to do and teach through his apostles by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore what we have in Acts 17 is not only Paul doing and saying these things, but our Lord Jesus saying and doing these things through Paul with the Holy Spirit.  That’s why I’ve summarized our text with this theme:

Christ confronts the clever of Athens

We’ll see that through Paul he proclaims: 

1.      The true view of God

2.      The true view of humanity

3.      The true view of the gospel call

Paul begins his defense at the Areopagus with an observation.  He wants to get the attention of his listeners so he begins with their world and what he sees in it.  Pastors often do that today in their sermons as well.  We want to make a connection with our listeners.  We want to draw them in.  We want them to understand that they have a vested interest in hearing what we have to say from the Word of God.

Paul’s observation is that the Athenians are a very religious people.  Paul chooses his words carefully.  He’s not quite flattering the Athenians, but he’s also not quite criticizing them.  His words are ambiguous enough to provoke curiosity at what he might say next.  He says that he was walking around the city and examined carefully the objects of worship.  Amongst them he found something rather interesting.  There was an altar that had an inscription upon it:  “to an unknown god.”  It’s worth noting that archaeology supports what we read in the Bible here.  Archaeologists have uncovered not just one Greek altar like this, but quite a few.  There’s no doubt that Paul saw such an altar in Athens. 

The Athenians had a multitude of gods.  But they acknowledged their ignorance by building these types of altars to an unknown god as well.  They wanted to cover their bases.  But the key thing here is the ignorance.  There is a God whom they do not know.  They recognize that and Paul seizes upon that fact to draw them in to what he’s about to say.   He is going to proclaim to them the true view of God.  The time of ignorance is over. 

As he stood in the midst of the Areopagus, Paul was faced with two prevailing theological errors.  Verse 18 mentions that amongst the Athenians were two groups of philosophers, the Epicureans and the Stoics.  Each of them had a theology and Paul was well-versed in their views.  The Epicureans believed that the gods were far off, distant, remote, and uninterested in human affairs.  In the Epicurean worldview, chance played a central role.  The Stoics went in the opposite direction.  They were essentially pantheists, believing that everything and everyone has a divine character.  In the Stoic worldview, fate was at the center.  If we use terms from Christian theology, the Epicureans went wrong in conceiving of the divine as exclusively transcendent, far beyond us.  The Stoics went wrong in conceiving of the divine as exclusively immanent, inside and among us, close to us.  But the key thing to realize is that both went wrong and Paul knows this and he addresses it.  Whether Epicurean or Stoic or whatever else, they have false gods and a false theology.  Paul brings them the true view of God from Scripture.  Since we can also have wrong views of God, even views along the same lines as the Epicureans or Stoics, it’s good for us also to listen and be challenged by Paul as he proclaims what the Bible says. 

Now he doesn’t mention the Bible in his speech.  You’ll notice that he doesn’t say that he’s quoting from this Bible passage or that Bible passage.  But he is directly presenting biblical concepts and contrasting what the Bible reveals with the wrong beliefs of his listeners.  For the apostle Paul, the foundation of his message is what the Bible says.  His ultimate starting point is what is revealed in the inspired Word of God.  This is the way it has to be for us as well whenever we defend our faith or challenge unbelief.  I mentioned 1 Peter 3:15 a few minutes ago.  That verse begins by saying that Christians are to “set apart Christ as Lord.”  In giving an account of what we believe and why, we can’t pretend to be neutral and objective.  Christ must be Lord.  He must be the master and ruler here too.  His Word must stand supreme.  That’s the way it was with the apostle Paul as he stood before the Areopagus. 

From the Scriptures Paul proclaimed the true view of God in five distinct ways.  First, he proclaimed God as the Creator of the universe.  Verse 24 says that it was God who made the world and everything in it.  Because he is the Creator, he is the owner, he is the Lord and master, he stands over it all.  This is the view of God that we find in the first chapters of Genesis.  This is the view of God that we find in Psalm 100 and elsewhere in Scripture.  Because he stands over all, he is not going to be limited by his creatures.  The Greeks had their gods and they housed some of them.  They put limits around their gods.  In some ways, they stood over their gods.  But the true God is the Creator.  The true God is sovereign.  The true God will not be dominated by his creatures.

Paul then proclaimed the true God as the Sustainer of life.  He gives all men life and breath and everything.  In Psalm 104, we find a poetic statement of these truths.  The whole creation is dependent upon Yahweh, the true God.  Paul is simply proclaiming that basic biblical truth.  He’s contrasting it with views found among the Greeks.  The Greeks thought that the gods needed human beings in order to exist.  The gods depended on men.  On the contrary, the Bible teaches that it is quite the other way around.  We are dependent on God, not he on us.  Moreover, Paul was also challenging the Epicurean view of God as distant and removed.  Yes, the Bible tells us that God is majestic and exalted, but he is still intimately involved with his creation.  He actively sustains all life on this planet, including all human life. 

Paul goes on to proclaim that there is a true God who is the Ruler of all the nations.  In the ancient world, there was a wide-spread belief that each nation had its own god or gods.  That was seen as proper and normal.  So the Philistines worshipped Baal and a few others, the Egyptians worshipped Ra and others, the Greeks had Zeus and others, and so on.  The gods of the nations were local deities.  However, this is not the view of the Bible.  In the Old Testament, it’s said over and over again that Yahweh is the God of all the earth.  All peoples on earth should worship this one true God and him only.  All nations on earth are under his dominion.  Yahweh doesn’t subscribe to the local deity theory.  Neither did the apostle Paul and that’s why he challenges it here.  He roots the biblical view first of all in creation.  He says that God created the nations from one man.  All nations on earth are descended from Adam.  By the way, this undermines completely any idea that Adam had ancestors.  Paul is not speaking poetry here – he’s proclaiming revealed facts in straight-forward prose.  He proclaims as fact that all peoples came from one man, Adam.  This is another nail in the coffin for theistic evolution and the view that there were pre-Adamite hominids or anything like that.  God created Adam as the first human being.  Adam had no mother or father.  He came into existence when God created him from the dust of the earth, and from that one man have come all the nations of the world.  Because God created all the nations through Adam, he is to obeyed and worshipped by all nations. 

As part of God’s rule over the nations, he’s also determined their history and geography.  The true God stands sovereign over how nations rise and fall.  The true God stands sovereign over where nations are placed.  He put Israel in the Promised Land.  He put Egypt along the Nile River.  The true God put Babylon in the Fertile Crescent.  The living God put China in the Far East.  Every nation was put where it was by the sovereign determination of the true God in heaven.  Again, this proclaims a majestic and powerful God who is at the same time intimately involved with his creation.  He didn’t abandon his creation to chance, the way the Epicureans might view matters.  No, the true God has his hand in everything in history and geography. 

Fourth of all, Paul proclaimed God as the Father of human beings.  We are God’s offspring, he said.  He is the one from whom we have all descended.  Now when we speak about God as Father, we typically think about the special relationship that we have with him through Jesus Christ.  That’s not what is in view here.  What’s in view here is the fact that every human being traces his or her origins back to God.  This is another way of considering God as Creator.  As Father, he has the rights of a father.  As Father, he has the right to demand obedience of his children, of those who owe their origin to him. 

Here Paul quotes from some of the Greek poets.  As I mentioned, Paul was highly educated.  As he studied with Rabbi Gamaliel, he would also have studied Greek culture and philosophy.  He could quote Greek poetry off the top of his head.  Now he uses this learning to advance the cause of the gospel.  He quotes Epimenides, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  He quotes Aratus and Cleanthes, “We are his offspring.”  Why does Paul quote them?  Some have said that he’s doing this to find common ground.  He’s approving of the Greek poets.  They were correct on some things and we just need to add more information to fill them out.  No, that doesn’t fit with what Paul is doing here.  Instead, he quotes the Greek poets to expose the guilt of the Greeks.  While they have said these things in their poetry, their worldview didn’t bear it out.  With their poetry they showed that they understood something of God’s true character, but they typically suppressed this truth elsewhere in their worldview.  What we have here is a powerful illustration of what Paul says in Romans 1.  He says that people have suppressed the truth that they knew about God in their hearts.  Some truths about God are plainly known, because God has revealed them.  Paul says in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”  That’s the key here.  Paul quotes from the Greek poets to leave his listeners without excuse.  Literally, the Greek says that they are without an apologetic, they are without any good reason for staying in unbelief or wrong belief.  God is the Father of human beings and they know it, so why not worship him?  Why not follow him and submit to his Word?

Instead, what people have done, says Paul, is make images of the divine.  They have devised idols of gold, silver, stone.  They’ve created pictures with their human skills and imagination.  In so doing, they have again placed the divine below the human.  The divine submits to the human, because the human creates the divine.  Paul says that this is all backwards, this is all messed up.  The Bible teaches something completely different.

That brings Paul to his last point about the true view of God: he is the judge of the world.  Every human being will have to give account to the true God.  The actions, thoughts, and words of every single person will come under scrutiny before this just and holy God.  In the past, God in his mercy didn’t bring out the full measure of his justice against all this rebellion.  But now the proclamation of the full truth has come and the command is there to repent and believe.  Many of the Greeks didn’t view things this way.  For instance, the Epicureans thought that when you died, that was it.  It was over.  There was nothing after death.  For them to hear of divine judgment with eternal consequences would have been a shock.  That went completely against the grain of everything they had ever held dear. 

You have to see this brothers and sisters:  Paul was completely contrasting the truth with the lie.  He used the Word of God to challenge the false worldview of his listeners.  He used biblical truth to expose the weaknesses, failures, and guilt of his listeners when it came to their theology.  Loved ones, this is what we need to do in our own day as well.  We too need to wield the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, as we interact with unbelievers.  We have to let the Bible inform how we speak and interact with people who are not Christians.  The Bible is what we defend, but it also has to determine how we defend it.  That was Paul’s method, because Christ was speaking through him, and because we are united to Christ, it has to be our method too.    

The true view of God is really the main point in our text.  But coming out of that is also a true view of humanity.  We’ve already touched on that at certain points.  Let’s review:

God is the Creator of the universe – we are his creatures.  Therefore, we owe him worship, we owe him love, we owe him obedience.

God is the Sustainer of life – human beings are dependent on him, not the other way around.  God does not need us for anything.  It’s the other way around.  We need him for absolutely everything. We could not live or breathe or exist without him.  Without him, there would be no foundation for morality.  Without him, there could be no logic, no mathematics, no music.  Without him, there could be no science, no language, no beauty.  All these things that are intimately related to our human existence depend on the existence of God.  All of creation is sustained and upheld by the one true God.      

God is the Ruler of the nations – human beings are the ruled.  All human beings are the subjects of God the King.  Not all people recognize the kingship of God, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are his subjects.  That just makes them into traitors and rebels.  God determined the history and geography of the nations for a purpose.  Paul says that it was so that people would seek him and maybe find him, though he is not far.  God ruled the nations in such a way that they were always without an excuse for their unbelief.      

God is the Father of human beings – all people are in some basic sense his offspring, his children.  We have a Father to whom we owe honour and submission.  Moreover, we are not these big adults who can do things all by ourselves.  We are children before him.  We need his strength and help every day.  Finally, as children, human beings don’t have everything all figured out, but God the Father of all, certainly does.

Last of all, God is the judge of the world – that makes us into those who will be judged.  We are in no position to stand in judgment over God and his ways.  Rather, we have to recognize that we are the ones who will someday face the holy and just Judge.  The true view of humanity says that we all have to give account.  There is ultimate accountability for every single thing we do, say, or think.   

All of this the Bible teaches about man.  All of this, Paul proclaims from the Bible against the philosophers of Athens and their followers.  Every unbelieving worldview has one thing in common when it comes to the view of humanity:  man is elevated.  People get lifted up to a high position.  Pride is the besetting sin when it comes to the doctrine of man in every unbelieving worldview.  It was that way with the Athenians in Paul’s day and it remains that way today.  Paul challenged this pride with the Word of God.  He proclaimed that the true view of man must be humble.  Why?  Because, as Scripture says in Proverbs 3:34 and elsewhere, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  When people exalt themselves, it is ultimately an attack on God.  That attack is always on a God who will judge.  Real humility is to submit to the truth of God and what it says about us.

That’s what Paul was calling his listeners to do.  He said that God was now commanding them to repent.  Here we have a true view of the gospel call.  Through Paul, Christ was calling the Athenians to abandon their wrong views of God and themselves.  In fact, what they were being called to was a 180 degree change of direction in their worldview.  A complete overhaul of their worldview.  This is what we call repentance – a change of mind, a change of heart.   Having heard this message, they were called to say, “Yes, you’re right.  There is a true God who is our Creator and I should worship him.  There is a true God whom I should serve.  I should listen to him.  Please tell me more about him.”

Repentance was the call of the day.  That was a message which included the preaching of Christ.  That Day of Judgment is coming and there is a Judge who has been appointed.  God raised him from the dead, and that is the proof that he will judge.  This Judge has been declared by God to be someone remarkable through the resurrection.  He died and came back to life again.  This Judge is still alive today and he will surely render justice to those who remain in unbelief. 

Notice how Paul doesn’t get into the evidence for the resurrection of Christ.  He simply proclaims it as a fact.  He proclaims it as the evidence for his argument that judgment is coming.  This is all the more remarkable, because his way of speaking about the resurrection would have been shocking to the Athenians.  First of all, outside of Judaism in the ancient world no one believed in a physical resurrection.  The Greeks had no notion of that in their culture either.  The idea that someone would die and then come back to life physically with their body – that was unbelievable to a Greek.  Many Greeks believed in an after-life, but not resurrection.  As I mentioned earlier, the Epicureans thought that death was it.  You lived, you died, you were no more.  That was a common view among the Greeks and the Romans.  In fact, there are many ancient tombstones around the Mediterranean with the epitaph, “I wasn’t, I was, I am not, I don’t care.”  You see, in their view, the dead ceased to exist.  Resurrection just didn’t happen.  So Paul was again going totally against the grain of the culture to which he was preaching.  But despite that, he just preaches it as the truth of God.  He says, “This is what happened and this is what it means.  Christ rose from the dead and that means judgment is coming.  You better repent now while you still can.”    

Now we might read Paul’s address in Acts 17 and think that there’s a lot missing.  We might want a more vigorous presentation of the gospel message here.  There are couple of things that should be said.  First of all, Luke didn’t record absolutely everything Paul said.  What we have is a summary.  Paul would have said much more.  Second, we shouldn’t exclude the possibility that Paul’s message was cut short by the reaction of his listeners.  When he mentions the resurrection, that provokes the crowd to react.  Perhaps he wanted to say more.  Whatever the case may be, some of the basic elements of a good presentation of the gospel are readily evident here in this passage.  God is proclaimed as Creator, King, and Judge.  Man is exposed as a guilty sinner in need of redemption.  Certainly it can be said that Paul was preparing his listeners to hear more, if they would be interested. 

Loved ones, the key thing to see is how Christ worked through Paul to contrast the biblical worldview with that of the unbelieving Athenians.  What we see here is a clear presentation of what we call the antithesis.  Though believers and unbelievers live in the same world, they have different worldviews.  Those different worldviews can’t all be right.  They conflict with each other.  They are antithetical.  As we speak with unbelievers, we need to remember this.  We are not neutral, uncommitted people, and neither are unbelievers.  We all have a worldview and when Christians and non-Christians speak together about ultimate matters, there will be a clash of worldviews.  In this clash, we need to be careful to continue holding forth biblical truth, just as the Apostle Paul did. 

As Reformed Christians, we say that we hold to the principle of sola Scriptura.  The Bible alone is our ultimate authority in everything.  We apply that principle of sola Scriptura to theology.  We apply it to our worship.  We apply it everywhere, across the board in life.  We need also to apply it in apologetics, in the defense of our faith.  The Bible alone is our ultimate authority and starting point, because Christ is set apart as Lord and the Bible is his Word. 

What about results?  We leave that up to the Holy Spirit.  As a result of Paul’s Areopagus address, there were a variety of results.  Some people mocked and joked at the idea of the resurrection.  Others said, “We will hear you again about this.”  That may have been a nice way of blowing Paul off.  But…Luke records that there were also some who believed.  There were some who came to faith in Christ because of Paul’s ministry in Athens.  Luke names Dionysius, he was a member of the Areopagus.  Christ worked through Paul to convince one of the people on the court.  There was also a woman named Damaris – she must have been well-known in the early church, but we don’t find her mentioned anywhere else in the Bible.  Then there were others too.  The point is, the biblical message preached by Paul was used by Christ to gather his church.

Brothers and sisters, when you’re confronted with the arguments of unbelievers, stand fast in Christ.  Standing fast in Christ means standing with his Word and bringing his Word to bear on unbelief and its foolishness.  By doing that, each one of you can be an instrument of Christ to bring his good news to those lost in darkness.  By doing that, each one of you will bring glory to the God of your salvation.  AMEN.

Prayer:

Our heavenly Father,

We thank you that you have revealed yourself clearly to us again from your Holy Word.  We worship you as our Creator.  We acknowledge your claims over us.  We praise you as the Sustainer of life – in you we live and move and have our being.  Everything in this world is dependent on you.  We glorify you as the Ruler of all the nations.  We confess your rule and we want to submit to it more and more.  You are the Father of all human beings.  You have the rights of a Father, and we want to give to you what you are owed.  We love you and want to serve you with our whole heart.  Lord, we also praise you as the Judge of all.  We know you are just.  We know you are sending Christ to come again to judge the living and the dead.  Help us all with your Holy Spirit to trust in what Christ has done, so that we need not fear that coming day of judgment.

 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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