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Presenting the Gospel in Athens

As most of you know, for that last several weeks we have been following Paul on his second missionary journey. Although Paul had begun this journey with just Silas as his partner, their missionary team had grown as their journey progressed. In Lystra, they picked up Timothy – a young disciple who had come to know and follow Christ during Paul’s first missionary journey. Then later, they were joined by Dr. Luke in the city of Troas – just before they entered Macedonia.

But then, in the city of Philippi – their team began to shrink again. Luke stayed behind in Philippi – quite possibly to be the first pastor for the newly planted church in that city. And now in the city of Berea, trouble-makers from Thessalonica had stirred up the city against Paul – and so the believers whisked him away to the city of Athens – while Silas and Timothy stayed behind (at least for a little while) – presumably to continue ministering to church in Berea just a little bit more before they moved on.

So now in our passage today, we find Paul all by himself in the city of Athens – waiting for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him. And we don’t know exactly how long Paul was waiting… Based on distance and travel times from Berea, we’d guess probably somewhere between a week to a month – although it could have been even longer!

But of course, Paul didn’t spend all that time just waiting around doing nothing! While in Athens He continued preaching to both Jews and Gentiles – pointing them to Jesus Christ and urging them to trust in Him for salvation!

Of course, this is exactly what we would expect from Paul, but it’s HOW he does this that is of particular interest for us today. 

Our passage today is Acts chapter 17 and we’ll be starting at verse 16.

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. Acts 17:16

Now I’ll pause here for a minute – I don’t want to dwell on this for too long, but I thought this was kinda interesting.

First of all, it’s not surprising that Paul would be deeply troubled by all the idols that he saw throughout the city of Athens. As a Jew, he was intimately familiar with dangers of idol worship. The jewish nation had long struggled with idolatry – right from the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai when they first became a nation – all the way through the time of the judges and the Kings – until finally God had to deal so severely with them that they were nearly destroyed and they spent decades in exile. It was a long and painful process for Israel to finally break free from the iron grip of idolatry.

However, throughout the rest of the Roman world – idols were everywhere! Idols that supposedly kept away famine and disease and foreign invaders – idols that promised prosperity and fertility if worshipped properly. These idols could be found in temples, in public spaces, and even most families had their own household idols that sat upon the shelf waiting for the daily sacrifice of food to be set before them. Idols were very common in almost all non-Jewish cities.

And in Athens, it seems they had taken things to an extreme! In some of the literature of the time, it was said that in Athens, there were more gods than men – which is quite something for a city of about 30,000 men! They had idols everywhere and for just about everything! And this deeply troubled Paul. As Paul would later note, they were a very religious people – but unfortunately, their religion was worthless – because, for all their many idols, they didn’t know the One True God!

And like Paul, we too should be deeply troubled at the many idols we see around us. Of course, in our modern culture of western civilization, we might not have those carefully sculpted images of monkeys or birds or whatever else might represent our gods – but our world is filled with idols none the less… Our idols might just look more like television screens or dollar signs or trucks or quads or skidoos or the opposite sex. There are a whole host of idols around us that our friends and neighbours worship and sacrifice to daily! (And again, I don’t mean by literally bowing down or saying a prayer to – but they certainly sacrifice huge amounts of time and money and effort to these things – in hopes that these idols will give them happiness, inner peace, or a sense of security.

But the Bible is very clear that true happiness, peace, and security is not found in any idol – it’s found only through a right relationship with the One and only God of heaven. Isaiah 45 says..

16 All craftsmen who make idols will be humiliated.
They will all be disgraced together.

17 But the Lord will save the people of Israel
with eternal salvation.
Throughout everlasting ages,
they will never again be humiliated and disgraced.

18 For the Lord is God,
and he created the heavens and earth
and put everything in place.
He made the world to be lived in,
not to be a place of empty chaos.
“I am the Lord,” he says,
“and there is no other.

What fools they are who carry around their wooden idols
and pray to gods that cannot save!

21 Consult together, argue your case.
Get together and decide what to say.
Who made these things known so long ago?
What idol ever told you they would happen?
Was it not I, the Lord?
For there is no other God but me,
a righteous God and Savior.
There is none but me.

22 Let all the world look to me for salvation!
For I am God; there is no other.

23 I have sworn by my own name;
I have spoken the truth,
and I will never go back on my word:
Every knee will bend to me,
and every tongue will declare allegiance to me.”

24 The people will declare,
“The Lord is the source of all my righteousness and strength.”
And all who were angry with him
will come to him and be ashamed.

25 In the Lord all the generations of Israel will be justified,
and in him they will boast.

Isaiah 45:16-18, 20b-25

The Scriptures are clear – salvation and eternal life are only found in the one true God of Heaven! He is God and there is no other! And so, like Paul, we should be deeply troubled when we see people wasting their lives – chasing after things that do not satisfy – things that do not last for eternity! We should be deeply disturbed in our spirits knowing that some of our friends and family are facing an eternity separated from God and all of his goodness.

In fact, we should be so troubled that we do something about it! We need to tell them that their is One God and there is no other – and that all of us will one day kneel before Him and acknowledge Him as King! We need to point them to Jesus – the only source of eternal joy, true peace, and absolute security. 

And of course, this is exactly what Paul did in Athens.

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. 17 He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there. Acts 17:16-17

As we’ve seen before, Paul begins his missionary effort by going to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles. But he didn’t stop with that. We also see that he went to the public square to talk with anyone else who happened to be there!

And this is where Paul’s visit to Athens takes a slightly different turn from what we’ve seen in most of the other cities where he’s visited. In most cities, we read about how Paul presented the Old Testament Scriptures to the Jews in the synagogues and showed them how Jesus was the Messiah that was told about by the prophets. This usually resulted in some Jews believing and other Jews being jealous – the jealous ones then cause a bunch of trouble for Paul until he gets thrown into jail or he escapes out of town. That’s sorta been the pattern thus far…

But we don’t see that happening in Athens. While Paul did spend some time at the synagogues reasoning with the Jews, the bulk of the story revolves around his interactions with the non-Jewish population. He hangs out in the public square – preaching about Jesus to anyone who would listen. And in fact, in verse 18 it says…

18 He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”

19 Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. 20 “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.” 21 (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)

Acts 17:18-21

So now Paul has this wonderful opportunity to speak about Jesus to all these philosophers, the city council, and everyone else who was there to listen – and there was probably quite a few!

As this last verse tells us, it was a favourite pastime for the people of Athens to discuss all the latest ideas – and Paul – talking about the resurrection of the dead – certainly had some new ideas to present to them!

But of course, his presentation of the Gospel to all these Gentiles would have to be much different from his presentation of the Gospel to the Jews. You see, the Jews were already convinced about the truth of the Old Testament Scriptures, they believed that Jehovah was the One true God, they already believed that God had spoken through the prophets regarding the Messiah – and so Paul really just had to show them from the Scriptures how Jesus was that Messiah.

But for these Gentile believers – he didn’t have that firmly established foundation to begin with! He really had to start from scratch! And so these next few verses summarize Paul’s Gospel presentation to these folks who were very religious, but yet really knew nothing about God. 

And this can be quite helpful for us too. There are some good principles in here that can help us as we share the Gospel with the people around us – since many folks we know today are probably in a very similar place as these ancient Athenians – perhaps they’re religious – perhaps they are not – but either way, they really don’t have an accurate understanding of who God is, what He has done, and what He expects from us.

So let’s take a look to see how Paul put this all together. starting in verse 22

22 So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.

24 “He is the God who made the world and everything in it.

Acts 17:22-24a

Now I’ll just pause here for a minute. First of all, notice that Paul is building his entire presentation specifically for the people of Athens. This is not a sermon that he could have preached anywhere else because he begins with his observations about these specific people in their specific city. We know Paul spent some time getting to know these folks – he talked with them daily in the public squares – He spend time looking around the city – noticing all their idols – and specifically noticing this altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God”. 

And so it’s this information – this understanding of these people and their city – that gives Paul his starting point. He uses this knowledge as a sort of common ground with them. In effect, Paul is saying “Hey, I’ noticed that you’re very religious – I’m a bit religious myself.” Oh, you worship an unknown God – well, I happen to know this God quite well – let me tell you about Him!”

And I think that’s a good principle for us to remember when sharing about Christ with our friends and neighbours. When two people are coming from two totally different places, it can be pretty tough to arrive at the same conclusion. But if we can find some sort of common ground to begin with – then it’s a lot easier to move forward together. 

And so as we talk with people – even though our understanding of God might be miles apart – we need to ask: where is the common ground where we can begin? What beliefs do we share? Or what common experiences have we had? Or even what struggles do we have in common? I think common struggles are a great starting point, because that becomes such an open door for us to share how Christ has made the difference in our struggles.

Paul even said in 2 Corinthians 9:22…

“When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. ” 2 Corinthians 9:22

If you can find that common ground with someone, it becomes so much easier to move forward together towards Christ. 

And so that’s the first principle we see in this passage – Identify your common ground. The other thing I noticed is that, even though Paul was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw in their city – He doesn’t immediately condemn them for their idolatry – or point out how foolish they are to try worship a God they don’t even know.

Certainly, later on, Paul will point out quite clearly the falsity of idols and the sin of idolatry – but even when he does that, its not in a spirit of condemnation, but more as an earnest warning – pleading with them to repent and turn to God.

And I think there is an important principle in that as well.

We are never instructed to condemn anyone – but rather to speak the truth in love. Now that doesn’t mean that we should avoid saying hard things or skirt around issues of sin – we’re not to turn a blind eye to someone’s sin because it might offend them…. No, we need to speak the truth in love, but we need to do that with as much grace and love as we possibly can!

I think the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is a wonderful example of this. Even though Jesus knew full well that the woman had five husbands before and was now living with a man who wasn’t even her husband – you’ll recall that that was far from the first issue that came up in their conversation. And even when it did eventually come up – Jesus didn’t condemn her for it – he actually just acknowledge the truth of it.

And I think that’s because people don’t often need to be told that they are sinners. Most people have a pretty good understanding of that. Besides, according to John 16:9, it’s kinda the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of sin, righteousness, and judgement! But what people do need to be told – and what they need to hear from us – is that there is a Saviour who loves sinners and who died so that they could be forgiven!

And I again, I want to stress that I’m not suggesting that we minimize or ignore the reality of sin in people’s lives – but when sharing the Gospel with unbelievers, our approach needs to be one that’s not just truth, but a whole lot of grace as well!

Colossians 4:6 sums it up nicely.

6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Colossians 4:6 NIV

And I think that’s just what Paul was doing in Athens. He certainly spoke the truth, but his conversation was full of grace.

So having identified that common ground with his listeners – and speaking the truth in love – with thoughtful and gracious words, Paul continues speaking to the crowd:

One of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.

24 “He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, 25 and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. 26 From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.

27 “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 28 For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” Acts 17:23b-28

Basically, Paul is explaining who God really is and what He is really like – in contrast to the many other so-called gods of the Athenians. Where their gods lived in temples and demanded that the people provide for their needs – the God of Heaven has no needs! In fact, all life and breath comes from Him in the first place – and He is the one who ultimately satisfies every need!

And then Paul goes on to explain that God’s desire and purpose for everyone is that they find and know Him. Not that God is hidden – but most times we’re just oblivious to His presence! (Isn’t that the truth!)

So now, having established who God is and what He’s like – Paul then prepares to make his main point. He continues in verse 29

29 And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone.

30 “God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. 31 For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17:28-31

Now it’s at this point where I’m sure Paul intended to launch into a much more detailed explanation of who Jesus Christ is and what He had done for them on the cross. Now that the people knew who God is and why they shouldn’t think of God as just another idol – Paul tells them that a time of judgement is coming, so they need to repent and turn to Him for Salvation.

But then, just as he begins to get into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we read this in verse 32:

32 When they heard Paul speak about the resurrection of the dead, some laughed in contempt, but others said, “We want to hear more about this later.” 33 That ended Paul’s discussion with them, 34 but some joined him and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the council, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Acts 17:32-34

It quickly became apparent to Paul that most of the people listening to him were not actually interested in knowing the truth. They loved discussing all the latest ideas – philosophy, poetry, and even religion – but their hearts and minds were closed to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. And so naturally, that kinda ended Paul’s discussion with them and we don’t hear of any further public discussion with Paul.

However, there were at least a few few people who were prepared to hear about Jesus – and in the end, they gave their lives to Christ and became believers.

And that brings up the last point that I want to mention today.

All those people heard the exact same message – but only a few were actually ready to listen to and accept the saving message of Jesus Christ.

And that’s a reality that we will all face as we share about Jesus with the people around us – the majority of the people we share with will not listen – they just won’t be ready to hear and accept the truth. But some will!

And that’s the exciting part! There are people out there who are ready right now to hear and accept the Gospel message! They are ready for someone like you to tell them about Jesus Christ and how they can be saved! They are ready to have their lives totally transformed by Christ – and you get to be a part of that!

So don’t get discouraged when you share about Jesus with someone and they choose not to listen. That doesn’t mean that you’re a failure – or that something was lacking in your message. Chances are, they just weren’t ready to listen. So don’t give up sharing the Gospel with people even when you face repeated rejections. Even Jesus had many people walk away from Him without believing.

And so I would encourage you this morning, to keep speaking the truth in love – find that common ground with people and share honestly and graciously with them who Jesus is and what He has done for them – and what He’s done for you! Don’t get discouraged when most people don’t listen – because somewhere along the line, someone will!

And for that person, your willingness to share the Gospel with them will have made all the difference.

Let us continue to be a faithful witness for Jesus Christ – where ever we go – and to whom ever we can – in hopes that’s through the grace of God, more and more people will come to know and love our Lord Jesus Christ.

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