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Author:Rev. Ted Gray
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Congregation:First United Reformed Church
 Oak Lawn, Illinois
Title:Apologetics: Proclaiming the Truth About the 'Unknown God'
Text:Acts 17:16-34 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Running the race

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Selections from the 1976 Psalter Hymnal, unless otherwise noted:

286 - With Grateful Heart My Thanks I Bring

75 - (Red) - Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners

157 – There Where the Judges Gather

467:1,2,4 (Red) The Vision of a Dying World

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Pastor Ted Gray
“Proclaiming the Truth About the ‘Unknown God’”
Acts 17:16-34

My life, and I’m sure you would admit that your life too, is pretty routine compared to the life and travels of the Apostle Paul. He had an extremely interesting life to say the least!

The background to this portion of Scripture tells about Paul’s experience in Philippi where he and Silas ended up in prison. Around midnight, as they were praying and singing hymns to God there was a violent earthquake which shook the prison so hard that all the prisoners’ chains came loose. The Philippian jailor drew his sword to take his life, knowing full well that if he didn’t take it the authorities above him would. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself. We are all here.” And that very night the jailor and his whole family came to faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul and Silas moved on to Thessalonica, but there they were run out of town. In the cover of darkness they left Thessalonica for Berea. From Berea Paul went to Athens while Silas joined Timothy in Berea and planned to meet Paul in Athens, probably within a couple of days. But while Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive in Athens, he saw something that greatly disturbed him: While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16).

In some ways Athens was unique in its worship of idols. There were idols virtually everywhere, as Paul says in vs 23, there was even an idol dedicated to an unknown god.  But in another sense Athens was not at all unique in its worship of idols. In our defense of the faith - in apologetics - we recognize that every culture is full of idols; the human mind is, in the words of John Calvin, an “idol factory.”

We don’t have the same idols as Athens, but an idol is whatever comes between us and God. Idolatry is a stubborn thorn even for those of us who believe in the Lord Jesus, because we all recognize how easy it is for us to idolize some material thing and place that above our commitment and love for the Lord, whether it be our house, our job, our loved ones or any other good gift that God has given us. Rather than thanking Him for it we can, if we are not careful, turn His blessing into our idol.

Since idolatry is a problem for Christians, one which every honest Christian acknowledges and repents of, imagine how great a problem idolatry is for the person who doesn’t believe in God!  Idolatry becomes for them another tool to suppress the knowledge of God that is all around them.  Instead of acknowledging God and worshipping Him, we have a nation of people who honor everything but God and worship all sorts of idols. I appreciate what Dr. Derek Thomas says Paul might say today, looking at our culture:

"Men and women … I see that in every way you are religious. As I walked around … I observed carefully your objects of worship. I saw your altar called the stadium, where many of you worship the sports deity. I saw the science building, where many place their faith for the salvation of mankind. I found an altar to the fine arts, where artistic expression and performance seem to reign supreme, without subservience to any greater power. I walked through your residence halls and observed your sex-goddess posters and beer can pyramids.

Yet as I walked with some of you and saw the emptiness in your eyes, and sensed the aching in your heart, I perceived that in your heart is yet another altar: an altar to the unknown god who you suspect may be there. You have a sense that there is something more than these humanistic and self-indulgent gods. What you long for as something unknown, I want to declare to you now.” (Dr. Derek Thomas, To the Ends of the Earth Worship, Piccadilly Style in Ancient Greece or, “Jerusalem and Athens: What Do They Have in Common?” (

This passage from Acts 17, like all of Scripture, is so contemporary. We have a culture much like Athens, a culture that seeks to suppress the knowledge of God, which is evident all around us, by making and worshipping idols.

The Content of Our Message

As we witness to this culture, our message in both apologetics and evangelism must include, first of all, the reality of God’s existence which includes His creative work and providential oversight of all He has created.

The first thing Paul speaks about, after saying he will proclaim to them the known God, is that God is the Creator of the universe. He said: “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” (Acts 17:24).

All creation witnesses to the majestic identity of Almighty God, for the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands (Psa. 19:1). Romans 1:19-20 teach the same truth, the truth that God's identity is clearly seen from what He has made, leaving humanity without excuse. But fallen humanity doesn’t want to face the reality that the Creator of the universe is the One to whom they must give an account. The problem isn't that fallen humanity doesn’t know who God is, but that they suppress the truth of who He is by worshipping idols.

But Paul proclaims to them the reality of the existence of the Creator God, and also, how God continues to be active in the world He created. Paul points out, “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” (v. 26).

Paul is showing them and us that God is not some distant deity who is not knowable, but rather that God is known both by His creation and by His providential care of the creation. In other words, He is the God who involves us in His activities. Rather than suppressing the knowledge of who He is we are to be fully involved with Him. In verses 27-28, he says: “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. ‘For in Him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’”

The message of who God is, what He has done in creation and is doing in His providence, is still needed in our world today. That is part of our message in apologetics and evangelism.

A second part of the message that Paul gave is the need for repentance: “Therefore 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” (29-30).

By pointing out that we are God’s offspring, (and Paul did that very cleverly by quoting from two of their own poets in verse 28), Paul points out that all people are accountable to God.  Since He created us, watches over us, even determining the exact places where people should live (v. 26), we are accountable to Him. Since all humanity is accountable to God, and all humanity has sinned against Him by worshiping idols of their own making, as well as innumerable other sins, repentance is necessary. Three incentives for repentance are given:

First, God has been patient. In verse 30 Paul describes the patience of God. He relates God’s patience to the degree of revelation that someone has. Those living before the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ were ignorant of His ministry in the sense that they had the prophecies, signs and types of the Old Testament, but did not know the reality of Christ the way the people in Athens, or the way the people in our world today know that reality. Living in the New Testament era puts a greater responsibility on us.

Second, repentance is necessary. In the last part of verse 30 Paul describes how God commands that we repent.  We are sinners.  He is holy and pure.  Because we have sinned against Him we are separated from Him. Yet He has provided a plan of salvation for us, and that plan of salvation includes repentance.

The third incentive is that the day of judgment is coming for those who do not repent. Verse 31 is crystal clear, “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.”  On Easter Sunday few people contemplate that one of the reasons of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so that He can – and will – judge the living and the dead.

This message incidentally is the very same message that Jesus brought. In Matthew 4:17 we read, Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” And Luke 13:5 echoes His words, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

It is also the message that John the Baptist proclaimed as he prepared the way for Jesus. The third chapter of Matthew begins by saying: In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

It is the message of the Old Testament prophets. It is the message of the New Testament apostles. In Acts 26:20 we find Paul before King Agrippa, and Paul explains his ministry this way: “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. Indeed, repentance is the message of the whole Bible. Ever since the fall of humanity there is that crucial need to repent.

Yet the message of true biblical repentance is often missing in both apologetics and evangelism.  Many professing Christians have replaced the biblical message that Jesus drove home, “Repent or perish,” with a truncated gospel focused only on the love of God.

Along with repentance there must be saving faith. Those are the two elements that true conversion is comprised of: Repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith go hand in hand. Along with the need to repent Paul had been preaching the need to believe in Jesus.  Verse 18d:  Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

Even the day of judgment, spoken of in verse 31, is good news to those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.  That verse says, He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. At Calvary, God’s justice was displayed as He revealed that sin must be punished by the just Judge, yet Jesus was willing to be punished in our place, as God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).

When He judges the world, those who believe in Him need not fear, for there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Rather than looking at the Risen Lord in terror as unbelievers will do at the last day (Revelation 6:15-17), believers look at His resurrection with joy as it is the Father’s “stamp of approval” on all the redeeming work of His Son, who was raised, Romans 4:25 tells us, "for our justification."

Rather than being intimidated by our idol-filled world and our need to present the gospel, we should always remember that we have the divine power to destroy strongholds, as recorded in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5. That passage, among others, teaches that divine power is given to us through prayer and the power of Scripture, which is the sword of the Spirit.

Presenting the Gospel

But how do we do that on a practical level?  Since we are not as experienced as the Apostle Paul how do we present the gospel and defend the gospel in a culture as idol possessed as Athens was?

One way is to use the three words that summarize the Heidelberg Catechism.  Most of you know those three words, and those three words summarize the heart of our faith in Christ: Sin. Salvation. Service. Through the lens of the law and conviction of the Holy Spirit we see our sin and repent of it. By sovereign grace, the Holy Spirit gives us new birth from above as we are brought to saving faith in Christ alone for salvation. And seeing our salvation against the dark background of our sin causes us to serve the Lord gratefully, with joy and gladness.

By building both our witness in evangelism and our defense in apologetics around those three words we can effectively articulate the heart of the gospel. The same is true for the words guilt, grace and gratitude. We can build our message in apologetics and evangelism on those three sections of the catechism as it faithfully follows Scripture.

Another way is to present the teaching of the Apostles’ Creed. Naturally you put it in your own words, but you can follow the format of the Creed: “I believe in the Creator God who upholds and governs what He has created. I believe the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is truly human and divine. For my sake He suffered, was crucified, dead and buried - raised to life for my salvation. He will return again to judge the living and the dead, so it is crucial that we repent of our sin. I believe that God sends His Holy Spirit into our lives to convict, mold, and shape us. Because of God’s work I know my sins are forgiven and that I have everlasting life.”

As you take those truths that are succinctly put before us in the Creed, and shape them in your own words, bring up verses that have been especially meaningful to you. Scripture is the most powerful tool we have, coupled with prayer. Both the summary of the catechism and the Apostles’ Creed make for a clear way to systematically present and defend the truths of Scripture.

In God’s Hands

As the passage closes, we see that the results of our witness are in God’s hands.

Some commentators wonder how disappointed Paul may have been when he left Athens.  Although he spoke to a great number of people, verse 34 says only a few believed. No church was started in Athens, the way churches were formed in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea and other places Paul had witnessed. Yet I don’t believe that Paul left discouraged. He knew that the results were in the Lord’s hands and that God’s Word never returns to Him void.

Although God’s Word never returns to Him void, as the Lord Himself tells us in Isaiah 55:10-11, that doesn’t mean that it always leads to salvation. For a great multitude of unbelievers their rejection of God’s Word will lead to a greater judgment. And when they are judged they will acknowledge the goodness and grace of God. They will acknowledge that He not only revealed Himself in nature, in the world He created, leaving them without excuse, but He also revealed Himself in His Word - the Word that they rejected.  And they will acknowledge both His grace which they rejected, and His justice as He consigns them to eternal punishment.

Because of that reality, Paul had a real concern for these people. When he arrived in Athens he was waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him from Berea. He could have looked at the idols and all the lost people, and said, “It’s all in God’s hands, and I need a break. With all that happened in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and all these other places I’ve been, I need a vacation. Athens is a good place for me to just relax for a few days as I wait for Timothy and Silas to come from Berea.”

But of course, that’s not the way Paul reasoned, and neither should we. Yet often we are tempted to do so. As we see the challenges set before us, rather than tackling them, we are tempted to just stay within ourselves, in our comfort zone, and let the world spin on until Jesus returns. After all, everything is in His hands.

Although the results are in God’s hands, we are His hands, His feet, His messengers here on earth.  He has called us to be light and salt; His ambassadors to this fallen world.  Because of that we are duty bound to be involved in personal apologetics and evangelism, and persuasively so.  Just because the results are in God’s hands doesn’t mean that we simply point people to the Lord and walk away. No, we are to persuasively present our faith.

Those of you who are reading The Battle Belongs to the Lord by Dr. K. Scott Oliphint will run across an interesting example of persuasiveness.  He tells how he has a favorite restaurant and he could simply say, “That restaurant has good food,” which would be true. Or he could describe the way that restaurant uses only the best grain fed black angus beef, has the most succulent steaks with a special steak sauce of their own making. He could describe the ambiance of the place, that just being in the restaurant is an enjoyable experience, as well as having those thick, specially prepared steaks. (Page 164)

Both would be true statements, “The food is good at that restaurant” is a true statement.  But so is the persuasive description of the unique delicacies of that restaurant filled with exquisite ambiance.

The Lord has put before us the greatest delicacy of all. He gives us a taste of it in the Lord’s Supper and assures us that through faith in His Son we will be at the most elaborate, wonderful feast ever imaginable - the wedding feast of the Lamb.

As we look at our idol-filled world and all the people in it who are perishing, may we have the same concern as Paul had in Athens, and then seek to persuasively present and defend the gospel, always relying not on our persuasiveness but on the Spirit’s power as He works through the Word of God and uses people like you and like me to be the hands, the feet and the voice of Jesus on earth.  Amen.

                                          - bulletin outline -
“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.”  – Acts 17:23
                  “Proclaiming the Truth About the ‘Unknown God’”
                                               Acts 17:16-34
I.  In our defense of the faith, we recognize that every culture is full of
     idols (16); the human mind is an “idol factory”
II. Our message in both apologetics and evangelism must include:
     1) The reality of God’s existence, His creative work (24-25) and
          providential oversight of all He has created (26)
     2) The need for repentance (29-31; Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Acts 26:20)
          a) God has been patient (30a)
          b) God commands that we repent (30b)
          c) The day of judgment is coming for those who don’t repent (31)
     3) The good news about Jesus (18, 31)
III. We are to persuasively present and defend the gospel, recognizing
       that the results are in God’s hands (32-34; Isaiah 55:10-11) 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Ted Gray, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2013, Rev. Ted Gray

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