Acts 17:16-34: Meet the Unknown God

In 1998 Elton John was knighted. Probably close to the number one recording artist in the world. But as he stood up after being knighted by the Queen. The announcement was made by the Lord Chancellor. Reading straight off his alphabetical list. “Arise Sir JOHN ELTON”. He had NO IDEA who Elton John was!

christianity commuicating to culture Acts 17_16

We can have a bit of a laugh at that. But the sad thing is, when you think about it, a lot of Christians would be in exactly the same boat. How well do you know your culture? What are people watching? Spending their money on? What interests them, or excites them? What books are people reading? What podcasts are the listening to?

Because if you want to SAY SOMETHING as a Christian to the non-Christian world, a good place to start is where THEY ARE. Instead of where WE ARE. Because if you start where WE are, they won’t have a CLUE what you’re talking about.

As far as their mindset, their worldview. Their language. So few Aussies today have ANYTHING to do with Christians/ we’re not even using the SAME WORDS half the time.

Australia used to be a Christian country. At least in the sense that it was informed and influenced by Christianity. Then it moved to POST-Christian – where people reacted against our Christian background. But now it’s more likely we live in a post-POST Christian country, where people aren’t even AWARE of Christian ideas, worldview or foundations. It’s up to US to be building the bridge towards THEM.

  1. Don’t get angry, get moving

To say something to non-Christians, we need to start where THEY are, not where WE are. With words and ideas that they understand. Which is exactly what the Apostle Paul does as he arrives in Athens. Athens. It’s the capital city of Greece. Have a look where it is on the map. Paul’s just arrived there from Berea.

It’s an amazing place, and you might have even been there yourself. One of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, where you can still see the evidence of the incredible architecture; and the artwork. A couple of thousand years later. Except that, what these days we call works of ART, back then were IDOLS. That they WORSHIPPED.

And while tourists today might TAKE PHOTOS as they walk around, Paul did something DIFFERENT. See it there in v16. Paul’s arrived in Athens FIRST. He’s waiting for Timothy and Silas to arrive. And as he wanders around the city, one thing stands out to him. How many IDOLS there are all over the place. And he’s GREATLY DISTRESSED. There are gods for every area of life. For rain and sun. For luck and war. For fertility and love. For protection. For wealth.

And Paul’s distressed because of what this says about the people of Athens. How blind they were. How futile their efforts were. What a wasted life it was to devote themselves to gods they’d made with their own hands.

And because he’s distressed, he HAS TO DO SOMETHING. But notice what he DOESN’T do. When Paul comes face to face with a city full of idol worshippers, his response is not TO GET ANGRY. He doesn’t march around with a placard and start a demonstration. And he doesn’t ABANDON the city to PROTECT HIMSELF. Look at what Paul does. Moved by COMPASSION, he has to SPEAK. He can’t sit back and do nothing. And he can’t move on. So, v17, he goes to the synagogue FIRST. Reasons with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who are there. Not a bad starting place. It’s what he ALWAYS does. In EVERY city he visits. He goes to THE JEWS FIRST.

But that’s not all. They’re not really the ones who are serving all the idols. So where ELSE does he go? The MARKETPLACE. The Agora. In the middle of town. Where the people are. And the noise and the action. And he finds a soapbox, stands up. And begins to SPEAK. Or maybe he just wanders around chatting with people. With sellers and buyers. ut WHATEVER he does, he DOES it. He ENGAGES the CULTURE. Day after day. To ANYONE who’d listen.

What’s the equivalent of the marketplace for US? Where do people GATHER? We provide opportunities to gather with our Movie Nights, and Music Nights. But it’s got to be more than ONE OFF EVENTS. And it’s got to be more than WHAT WE DO AS CHURCH. It needs to happen naturally – SPONTANEOUSLY – as we get to know those people around us. AS a LIFESTYLE, not just at EVENTS. And it needs to happen with INDIVIDUALS as well as what we do as a GROUP.

The most OBVIOUS place is AT WORK. That’s where MOST of us spend MOST of our TIME. And there are LOTS of opportunities there to talk, as you fit it in around your work. Or perhaps if you’re an Aussie bloke, it’s the golf course, or the RSL club. If you’re a woman, perhaps it’s a Mum’s playgroup, or tennis, or the hairdresser. Or maybe it’s waiting to pick up the kids from school. Or the community or volunteer group you’re part of. Or the lunch room at work. Or pushing the kids on the swings at the park. Or sitting in the doctor’s waiting room.  Or working out together at the gym. If we want to be like Paul, that’s where we’ve got to be. Where the people gather.

And we need to fill those places with natural, consistent, God-soaked conversation. Talking that’s a LIFESTYLE thing. Something we do without even planning it.

And day after day. That’s what Paul’s doing. And it doesn’t take long before people start to NOTICE. V18.

18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

He starts getting HECKLED from the crowd. Some Epicureans and some Stoic philosophers. Which is the OTHER thing Athens was famous for. Idols/ and PHILOSOPHERS. Great thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. And in THIS case. Epicureans and Stoics. Who make a strange combination. They almost believe OPPOSITE things. Epicureans believe the goal of life is PLEASURE. And to minimise PAIN. Work out how the world works, and live modestly to enjoy life. That’s not far off the motto of many Aussies today!

On the other hand, the Stoics stressed the importance of REASON and ETHICAL and MORAL DUTY. The blessed life doesn’t come by pursuing pleasure. But by logically thinking through the problems, and behaving ETHICALLY. That’s more important than pleasure.

And perhaps the fact the two groups are opposites explain v21.

21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there SPENT THEIR TIME DOING NOTHING BUT TALKING ABOUT AND LISTENING TO THE LATEST IDEAS.)

They fill up their time debating and arguing with people who think the opposite of them. Trying to win the argument. Like one long episode of Seinfeld, or Friends. Spend your day talking about nothing at all. Sit around and argue about the latest trends in philosophy. And here, they’ve found ANOTHER new idea – in PAUL. And they both join forces in RIDICULING him. V18, “What’s this BABBLER saying?”

  1. Proclaiming the unknown God

But Paul seemed to have an effect on at least SOME of them. Look at v19.

19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”

It was the ultimate compliment. Like being invited to address the National Press Club. Or the National Geographic Society. “Give us your presentation. Make it as clear and well-thought-out as you can” And we’ll let you know what we think.”

This is Paul’s big chance. So how’s he going to do it? Like I said at the beginning, we need to be keeping IN TOUCH WITH OUR CULTURE. Building bridges. Finding common ground. And if you watch Paul in action at the Areopagus, that’s EXACTLY WHAT HE DOES. Notice, first of all, as he talks to a bunch of TOTAL OUTSIDERS, that his message, in verse 22 to 31, is VERY DIFFERENT to what he says when he’s talking to the JEWS.

To the Jews, it’s a bunch of quotations from the Old Testament Scriptures. Matching up THE PROMISES with the MESSIAH. (We saw that LAST week. In Thessalonica and Berea.) But this is different. Plenty of Old Testament IDEAS. But the only things he directly quotes are a couple of lines from THEIR VERSION OF ELTON JOHN. Two of their favourite poets. And the only other thing Paul quotes to them is an inscription off one of their IDOLS.

Now think about that for a minute. The first thing he says. Because when he first sees their city full of idols, you know already Paul’s DISTRESSED BY IT. But when he starts TALKING to them, you wouldn’t guess that, would you? He’s actually gone around READING THE INSCRIPTIONS. Thinking it through. Because in verse 22 and 23, he’s looking for COMMON GROUND. A bridge to cross. “Men of Athens. I see that in EVERY WAY YOU ARE VERY RELIGIOUS.” They SURE ARE! There are gods EVERYWHERE. And they hear it as a compliment. Which I guess it is. They’re interested in the spiritual dimension of life.

  1. Who made who?

But being RELIGIOUS is a LONG WAY from BEING CHRISTIAN. And so Paul goes on. And he quotes from something he’s seen/ that makes the PERFECT BRIDGE for what he wants to talk about. As he’s walked around Athens, he’s spotted AN ALTAR. With an inscription on it. These Athenians, they’re so worried they might have missed making an idol to some god or other, they’ve made ONE EXTRA. To the GOD THEY DON’T KNOW. Just in case.

It’s a bit like at the American War memorial in Washington DC. Where they have a TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER. The remains of an unknown soldier killed in battle who represents the loss of ALL UNKNOWN SOLDIERS. Except in America there was a huge stir a few years ago, because it turned out that the US Army knew EXACTLY who the unknown soldier was. And they hadn’t bothered telling his family. The Unknown Soldier was KNOWN AFTER ALL.

Well, Paul’s going to do the same thing here. The Unknown God was KNOWN AFTER ALL. Verse 23.

“For as I walked around and observed your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something UNKNOWN, I’m going to proclaim to you.

The god you don’t know about, and who you worship along with all the KNOWN ones- I’m going to TELL you about him. And in verse 24 to 31, that’s exactly what he does. A talk with one key idea. He says, DON’T WORSHIP IDOLS THAT YOU’VE MADE. Worship THE REAL GOD. Who MADE YOU! They’ve build their beautiful temples. They’ve carved their incredible idols. They’ve got dozens of mythical gods they have to appease with their sacrifices. But the point is, it’s all MAN MADE. They’ve created their own gods in their own image. To suit THEM.

Paul says the REAL God isn’t like that at all. The God they don’t know is THE EXACT REVERSE. Look at verse 24;

“The God who made the world and everything in it IS THE LORD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, and doesn’t live in temples built by hands.”

You can’t CONTAIN GOD. Just the opposite. GOD CONTAINS YOU. Verse 28; and he quotes THEIR OWN FAVOURITE POET. “IN HIM we live and move and have our being.” Everything we do depends on God ALLOWING it! And then ANOTHER poet. “We are HIS offspring”. He determines US. We are defined because of HIM. Not the other way around.

See, that’s what it’s like when you make an idol, isn’t it? You INVENT A GOD FOR YOURSELF. You figure out the sort of god YOU’D LIKE. A comfortable god. A god in your own image, who doesn’t make too many demands. And you carve it the way you decide it should look; and you build the temple for it. And you say, I’VE DONE A GREAT JOB. So now THIS GOD’S going to do what I want.

And you hear people saying pretty much the same thing TODAY. ‘I’d like to think God is LIKE THIS. Or like THAT. “I think he’s loving and forgives me. That he doesn’t mind what I do. That he’s tolerant.” “I like to think of God as like a WIND. Or a WAVE. Or a FORCE.” “I’m spiritual. But I’m not interested in a god who tells me what to do, or how to live.” Or even, “I don’t reckon God’s there at all. I make my OWN decisions. I control my own destiny”. That’s probably lots of Aussies. But it’s still serving a god. It’s just that YOUR god is LOOKING BACK AT YOU FROM THE MIRROR. Making a god in your own likeness. The way you like.

Trouble is, the REAL GOD; the God they DON’T KNOW – is the God who made THEM. To do what HE WANTS. Worshipping THAT God isn’t about getting what YOU want. It’s about doing what HE wants.

Keep reading from verse 25; he’s not served by human hands as if he NEEDED ANYTHING – because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. And he says in verse 26, he MADE US. And then he SUSTAINS us. He keeps everything going. He put us where he wanted us. And he determines the times and the places FOR US; exactly how he wants it. And he did it all so we might KNOW him. V27 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.

He’s not distant and aloof. He’s PERSONAL, and made us for RELATIONSHIP with him. A very different picture from the sort of tinny little gods in Athens. Even if the tinny little gods looked big and golden.

Verse 29 sums it up. Read what he says. He says THEREFORE, since WE ARE GOD’S OFFSPRING – he MADE US, he designed us in incredible detail. We shouldn’t think the divine being is like gold… or silver… or stone – an image made by man’s design or skill. He points out the inconsistency. On the one hand, they say that humans are offspring of God. And yet they ALSO think THEY made the gods. It’s ignorant to think that hand-made things are gods.

Then v30, (Here’s the sting) In the past God OVERLOOKED such ignorance. (Idolatry isn’t a matter of personal preference. It’s an insult to the one true God!) But NOW HE COMMANDS ALL PEOPLE… everywhere… TO REPENT.

Exactly the same message Paul and the other apostles have been preaching all along. Whether to Jews or Gentiles. He BEGAN very differently, but he’s FINISHED in almost the same place. Turn back to the God who made you. The essence of the Christian message. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. You now know!

And I need to ask, have YOU done that? Or are you serving the god of yourself? A god of your own creation? Are you the centre of your world? Or is GOD?

Because, v31, God’s set a day when everything you’ve ever said or done is going to be JUDGED – with absolute justice. And Paul says, we’re going to be judged by JESUS HIMSELF. And God’s given proof of that. By raising him from the dead.

God’s already got the day picked out. When you’ll face the prospect of being treated by HIM/ in the same way you’ve treated HIM NOW. Whether you’ve spent your life worshipping THE CREATION. Or the CREATOR. Which is where Paul ends his speech.

And the usual thing happens. Some just laugh. Especially the idea of an eternal bodily RESURRECTION. Because, to the Greeks, the physical body is EVIL and CORRUPTED. Why would you want to keep THAT? Only the SPIRIT is good. But others say, WE WANT TO HEAR YOU AGAIN. And keep their options open. And you’ll notice there are some who believe – Dionysius, in verse 34, a member of the Areopagus; a woman called Damaris; and a few others.    Not a huge result. But a start.

Which is not to say Paul’s method was WRONG. Because when you’re declaring the message about JUDGMENT and forgiveness through Jesus, people WILL reject you. Especially when their world-view is so different to yours. But there’ll also be people who DO BELIEVE.

Now just to finish up. ATHENS is very much like Australia today. A melting pot of religions and ideas. Not the sort of blatant idolatry as in Athens… but something very close. People setting their own course. Planning their own futures. Building their own world. A world where THEY are god. Which is just as much a form of IDOLATRY as anything in Athens.

If you think we still live in a CHRISTIAN SOCIETY in a CHRISTIAN COUNTRY, think again. The fact is, we’re back at the start. Where Paul started from. And so maybe we need to learn from his example. People STILL need to be told to REPENT. And TURN BACK TO THE GOD WHO MADE THEM. People still need to be WARNED ABOUT JUDGEMENT. Because it’s REAL.

But in the way we do that, we need to learn what it means to BUILD COMMON GROUND. To go to the market place. And start talking to people IN A LANGUAGE THEY UNDERSTAND. Using IDEAS they relate to. Make contact with the sort of things they’re watching, and listening to, and thinking. So we can bring them from THERE… back to the GOD WHO MADE THEM.

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