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Acts 17:16-34: The Mission and Idolaters Print E-mail

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Even though the gospel never changes, our approach to sharing it often does.  You may not take the same approach with a person who has never heard the gospel as you do with someone who has heard it repeatedly but does not believe.  Making a connection with a Muslim is different from making a connection with an atheist or agnostic.  The content of the gospel does not change no matter who we are sharing with, but the approach will vary.  So let me ask you this question: what approach should you be taking with your neighbors?  What about your co-workers or lost family members?  Do you spend time thinking about the best way to approach them with the gospel? 

Paul did.  He did not approach every person the same.  We saw him quoting Scripture to the Jews and God-fearers in Thessalonica and Berea.  They believed in Yahweh and His Promised Messiah, so Paul began with that to make a connection and then moved to the gospel.  But what about those who do not believe in the Scriptures?  How did Paul share with those who did not believe in Yahweh or a Promised Messiah?  What was his approach in those situations? 

We see an answer in our text this morning.  Paul is continuing on the second missionary journey and he makes it to the city of Athens.  Athens was ďthe cultural capital of the world.Ē 1  It was a place of knowledge and learning.  It was a place of art and architecture.  It was a place where philosophers gathered and discussed the great questions of our existence.  And it was a city of idols and idolaters.  So how will Paul approach this city?  How will he minister in this place to these people?  Luke begins by telling us of his burden.

The Burden for Idolaters (v. 16-21)

As Paul is waiting for Silas and Timothy to get to the city, he walks around and takes in the sights.  Look at verse 16.  Luke tells us the Paulís spirit was provoked.  The word that he uses here is strong.  Paul is angry.  Why is he angry?  What has him so upset?  Luke tells us: the city was full of idols.  As Paul walked the streets of Athens he was overwhelmed by idolatry.  These people were worshipping objects made by the hands of man.  Instead of giving God glory, they were giving their devotion to every god they could come up with.  Such idolatry provoked the spirit of Paul, just as it had provoked God against Israel (Isaiah 65:1-7).  He is jealous for the glory of God in Athens.  He is burdened for idolaters to stop worshipping false gods and to begin worshipping the One True God, who is worthy of all worship.  Godís Name is not being honored in the city and Paul is burdened by that.

So what does he do?  Does he go on an angry rant?  Does he start posting repeatedly on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram?  No, he does what he normally does, namely, he begins sharing the gospel with anybody and everybody that he can.  Look at verses 17-21.  As usual, Paul begins with the Jews, but he does not speak only with them.  Luke tells us that he spoke to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers as well.  These were rival philosophies in the city.  The Epicureans believed that the gods were far removed (if they existed) and that pleasure (peace, contentment) was the highest goal for humans.  The Stoics were pantheistic and focused their ethics on reason and duty.  They were not impressed with Paulís teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, but they were interested and intrigued simply because it was new teaching for them, which they loved to hear about as Luke notes.  So they took him to be questioned at the Areopagus.  Paul was burdened by their idolatry and was jealous for Godís glory, so he began sharing the gospel in Athens.  Now he is given a chance to address the most learned men in the city.  How will he approach these idolaters?  What will he say?

The Gospel to Idolaters (v. 22-31)

Paul begins his address of these intelligent idolaters by making a connection.  Look at verses 22-23.  Paul notes how religious they are.  He has seen idol after idol after idol.  One idol in particular grabbed his attention, the one Ďto the unknown god.í  The people in Athens wanted to be careful not to offend or forget any gods, so they even had an idol, possibly several, to an unknown god.  Beginning with the idea of worshipping the unknown god, Paul makes a connection with the Athenians.  He gets their attention and draws them in: What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  Essentially, Paul is telling them in their scramble to worship all the gods, they have actually missed the One, True God.  He is now going to tell them about this God.

So what does he say about this God?  Look at verses 24-25.  This God, the true God, is the One who made everything.  He is the Creator.  He made the sun, the moon, the earth, the sky, the land, the seas, everything.  And since He is One who made everything, He does not need anything from man.  He does not live in temples made by man like the other gods.  He does not need our money or our service.  He is completely self-sufficient.  There is nothing we can offer Him that He does not already own.  In this way, He is distinct from all of the idols that litter the city of Athens.  They need man, but man needs Him since He gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  Every man owes his existence to this God.  Every day, every breath, every moment is a gift from Him.  He is the One, True God.

After introducing God as the Creator of all, Paul begins to move toward the gospel.  Look at verses 26-28.  God made every nation from one man, namely Adam.  We should note in light of what is taking place in Ferguson right now that the Christian has no place for racism.  God made us all.  We all belong to Him.  We are all His offspring.  The racist, the man who judges others based on the color of their skin, does not believe in the God who made every race from one man.  May we live that truth out in our day, in our city, in our lives.  God created the nations and sustained them that they should seek after Him.  Of course the problem is that our sin prevents us from truly finding Him even though He is not far from us.  Paul supports these statements by quoting from their own poets, which shows that even unbelievers will hold to truth at times and we can use that as a bridge to the gospel.  The sin of idolatry has driven humanity away from God.  We have exchanged His glory to worship everything but Him (see Romans 1:16ff).

Paul outright condemns their idolatry in verse 29.  Look at that with me.  Paul is telling them that if they just think about what they say they believe, then they will see the foolishness of idolatry.  How can we His offspring worship images that we have made with our own hands?  Rather, we should flee from idolatry and such ignorance.  We should repent.  Look at verses 30-31.  Paul comes to the heart of his message with these statements.  Instead of running after foolish idolatry, men should repent of false devotion and worship the One, True God.  This God has appointed a day for judging all who refuse to repent.  And He has appointed the Judge, His Son Jesus Christ, whom He raised from the dead.  The good news is that Jesus, our Judge, is also the Redeemer for all who repent of their sins and believe in His death and resurrection.  His death on the cross paid for our idolatry and His resurrection assures us that we can have forgiveness and new life in Him.  If our Judge is our Redeemer, then who can condemn us?  Thus, we must turn from our sins and believe in Jesus.  This is the message that Paul was teaching to the idolaters.

The Response of Idolaters (v. 32-34)

How did these men respond to Paulís message?  From what we have seen already in Acts, what do you expect?  The regular pattern is that some respond negatively while others respond positively, which is exactly what we see here.  Look at the negative response in verse 32a.  The language is easy to skip over, but Luke is telling us that some of the men laughed at Paul.  They mocked his teaching and dismissed him as a joke.  When people laugh at you for believing the gospel, do not think that you are alone.  In fact, you are in good company.  The men of intelligence in this age are often blinded to the simple truth of Jesus.  But as Paul would later write: Where is the one who is wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe (1 Corinthians 1:20-21).  Men of wisdom may mock the gospel.  They may brag of their knowledge and learning.  But if you cannot know God through their Ďwisdomí, then how wise are they?  If the Ďwisdomí of this world cannot save us from the judgment to come, then why pursue it?  Of course, this does not mean that wisdom or learning is bad, it just means that any Ďwisdomí that leads us away from the One, True God is hollow and empty.

But not all of the response was negative.  Look at verses 32b-34.  Other folks wanted to hear more about this God.  Perhaps some of them believed.  Luke tells us that some in fact did.  Dionysius, one the members of the Areopagus, one the intelligent ones, did believe in Jesus, along with Damaris and others.  Just because some mock, that does not mean that all will reject.  The Lord will open the eyes of others to see the truth of the gospel.  Yes, some will respond negatively, but not all.  Some will believe.

So what can we learn from Paulís ministry to the idolaters?  First, we learn that we should be burdened for those around us.  People are devoted to the wrong things, they are worshipping false gods and donít even know it.  We should be burdened for Godís glory and their good.  Second, we should be committed to making a connection with these people and sharing the whole gospel with them.  We must tell them of the Creator.  We must tell them of their own sin and the judgment that is coming.  And we must tell them of Jesus, the Judge who is our Redeemer.  Finally, we must be prepared for criticism and questions and belief.  Some will laugh.  Some will ask hard questions that we have to do our best to answer and be honest when we canít.  And some will believe.  Some will want to turn from their sins and place their faith in Jesus as their Savior.  We must be ready for them as well.  We must be disciples of Jesus who are laboring to make disciples of all who come, even former idolaters.  Amen.

1 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts TBST (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), p. 276.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Saturday, 06 September 2014 )

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