Monday 11 February 2013

Mission to Mars (Acts 17:16-34)

1. Full of idols

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
Acts 17:16

Paul’s trip to Athens wasn’t planned. That’s important to remember because people draw a lot of comparisons between Athens and Cambridge today: both are famous for their architecture, both are centres of great learning and thought. And we soon see how Paul was the perfect kind of speaker to invite for the Main Event at Cambridge because he spoke their language and connected with his audience.

But we need to remember that Paul didn’t plan a trip to Athens to evangelise all these potential leaders of the modern world and influence their thinking. In Chapter 16 he was kicked out of Philippi for causing a riot. In Chapter 17 he is on the run from religious Jews chasing him through the cities of Thessalonica and Berea. The reason he is in Athens is because everywhere Paul went he preached the gospel about Jesus and every time he did that, Paul got into trouble.

And verse 16 reminds that when Paul finally did arrive in Athens, he didn’t start taking photos and going on tours of the museums, rather he was “distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Athens didn’t impress Paul, it disturbed him deeply.

So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 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.
Acts 17:17-18

It is interesting to see what the intellectuals thought of Paul’s preaching. The Epicureans with their “Let’s eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,” approach to life and the Stoics with their logic and self-controlled approach in overcoming their destructive passions - think Star Trek with Kirk on one end and Spock on the other - they are both mentioned here as disputing with Paul. Both of them have problems with what he is saying.

Some of them call him a babbler. The word describes a bird that is pecking at seeds and what they were implying was that Paul was unoriginal. He was pecking at scraps of ideas - stuff he had read in a Reader’s Digest - and pulling them together claiming that they were his own.

But others thought Paul was advertising two brand-new gods like he was selling two new flavours of ice-cream to complement the 99 other flavours on offer. That’s because of verse 18, “Jesus and the Resurrection,” or Anastasis in the Greek. It sounded to them like Jesus had a companion named Anatasia.

Even so, the Athenians and their philosophers were intrigued.

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? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean. (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Acts 17:19-21

The Cambridge Union recently hosted a debate between Richard Dawkins and former Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams. The proposition was “This house believes religion has no place in the 21st century.” Presidents and Prime Ministers and Olympic legends have addressed members of the Union in the past. Then again, I see that this term’s calendar includes football captain Fabio Capello, magician David Blane and actress Pamela Anderson.

On the one hand, it was a great honour for Paul to be invited to speak at the distinguished members of the Areopagus, a gathering which included academics, philosophers, professors and politicians. They obviously thought he had something to say. Then again, verse 21 tells us that the Athenians and foreigners who lived there did nothing else but listen to the latest ideas. If Paul had turned up in Athens dancing Gangnam style they still would have given him a slot. They were looking to be impressed with the latest and the coolest fads.

Paul’s intention, however, was not to dazzle his hearers. His aim was to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2 .The unknown God

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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 17:22-23

Paul frames his argument in terms of religion and worship but remember who he is speaking to. This is not Sunday morning at StAG. These are the students and professors in the university, the philosophers of Athens, and Paul says to them, “I see that in every way you are very religious.” He isn’t saying that, “A lot of you still go to temples and bow before idols,” though many of them in Athens did. That’s not his point.

What Paul is engaging with is, for want of a better word, their world-view. Where did we come from? Is there a God? Can we know for sure? What is our purpose in life?

It is how you understand and interact with the world that is around you. Whether you are a Christian or not, whether you are university or not, whether you believe in God or you think otherwise, all of us have a view of life, a view of each other; all of us have a worldview.

And Paul says, “What I am going to tell you is something you could never ever work out for yourselves. I am going to tell you about the God of the bible.” And what he does next is establish five basic foundations about God from the bible.

Firstly, Paul tells us, God is God.

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

You cannot contain God in a universe that he has created, much less in a temple that we have built.

Secondly, God does not need us, we need him.

And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.
Acts 17:25

Thirdly, God is the determiner of history.

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.
Acts 17:26

Those of us who know our bibles ought to be hearing echoes from Genesis at this point. God created humanity but also determines the course of human history. “The times and the exact places they should live,” is an allusion to Daniel Chapter 2, verse 36 onwards, on the rise and fall of kingdoms.

Fourthly, God wants us know him, not just generally, but personally.

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.’
Acts 17:27-28

Let me pause for a moment because I want you to notice how Paul has done his homework. He has just arrived in Athens, yet he says to them, “I walked around your city and looked carefully at your objects of worship.” And here, he quotes back to them one of their own poets, “We are his offspring.” He is quoting Michael Jackson, “We are the world, we are the children.”

I want to be careful to say that this isn’t some kind of trick, whereby you go on the Internet and search for funny jokes and illustrations. No, all Paul did was pay attention. What do people enjoy doing? What do they think is their purpose in life?

Such that when you do talk to your friends about God, about Jesus and about the bible, you are talking to them, not at them. The way to tell that someone is really listening to you is if they are able to say the things you have been saying, even better than yourself.

Fifthly, God calls us to repent of our ignorance.

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.
Acts 17:29-30

In “repentance,” we’ve finally come to a word that needs explanation. So far, Paul has been using everyday language to talk about God. But “repentance” is a word from the bible that, I think, most people misunderstand.

God is not telling us to be sorry. To repent is not cry your eyes out and feel horrible on the inside for all the awful things you’ve done, “I’m sorry, I’m awful, please forgive me.” That’s not what he means when Paul says that God commands all people everywhere to repent.

To repent means to turn. Paul says in 1 Thessalonians, verse 9, “They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.”

Previously, you were going in one direction - worshipping idols, worshipping success, worshipping your intellect. Previously, you were walking away from God but now you have turned to face him as the true and living God. That’s repentance.

Paul says that in the past, God overlooked our ignorance. That’s not saying that it’s OK to ignore God but rather God hadn’t made it clear what were the consequences of ignoring him. Now he has. Now, says Paul, God has revealed Jesus as the man who were judge the living and the dead.

3. The resurrection of the dead

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.

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council.
Acts 17:31-33

Paul ties his entire message back to Jesus and the resurrection. That was what he preached at the marketplace but they didn’t understand him. But that’s the same message he preaches here in the Areopagus - Jesus and his resurrection from the dead - and some of them sneered at him.

As if to say that everything you think about God hangs on just one issue: Whether Jesus really rose from the dead. Because if God really did raise Jesus from the dead, it means two things. Firstly, God will judge the world through Jesus Christ. And secondly, we who one day will all of us, die, will be raised from the dead to face his judgement.

A lot of people here today are going to a problem with what I’ve just said. Let me be honest, I have a problem with what I’ve just said. Part of me is going, “Should the gospel be about God’s love shown to us on the cross?” Part of me wants to say, “Paul didn’t get a chance to talk about John 3:16, or that what we have here is an abridged version of his message that cut out the bit on salvation.”

But as I wrestle with this text, which is God’s word, I am not at liberty to add to or subtract from what all of us can see is right there in front of us. The resurrection is bad news for those who continue in their ignorance of God.

But at the same time, verse 18 clearly says that Paul was preaching the good news of the resurrection. How can that be? If you look back to verses 31 and 32, Paul was able to clarify one thing about the resurrection - one thing that confused his hearer in the marketplace. This was a resurrection from the dead.

You see, Christians understand that salvation is not an escape from judgement, it is an escape through judgement. That’s the good news. Jesus Christ died on the cross to take our judgement which we rightly deserved. If you are a Christian, you deserve to be punished. You were just as ignorant as the world. You were just as idolatrous as the world. But God in his great mercy, took you judgement and put in on Jesus. He died your death. And because he died your death, he was raised for your resurrection.

Paul clarified that his gospel was not about two additional new gods - Jesus and the resurrection. No, his gospel was the death of the one and only God, the God who made us, the God who sustains us, the God who judges us, took our judgement, he took our death, so that in him we might be raised to new life.

4. Three implications for our gospel witness

Let me sum up what we have seen today under three implications for our witness to the gospel, our response to the gospel and the end result of the gospel.

4.1 Our witness: Clarity not impressiveness

Paul used illustrations. Paul spoke to intellectuals. Paul reasoned with the philosophers. But each time he spoke about Jesus, he aim was to be clear, to be persuasive even. It was never to be impressive.

4.2 Our response: Radical not incremental

Paul was calling for repentance. Repentance is something that is radical and not incremental.

In our efforts to be relevant, we sometimes think that contextualisation means bridging the gap to such an extent that non-Christians can simply skip over into the Kingdom of God.

Paul outlines a worldview that is radically different from anything the world knows. He is calling his hearers to give their whole lives to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith.

4.3 The result: People not philosophy

But finally and perhaps, most importantly, the preaching of the gospel results not in a new philosophy, but a new people. It results in conversion. Men and women transformed by the gospel and living for Jesus, not themselves.

A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
Acts 17:34

These names are written down because they are real people. Whenever names of newly-converted Christians are mentioned in Acts - Lydia in Philippi, Titius Justus and Crispus in Corinth - these are names of believers who eventually led gatherings in their homes. In other words, it’s saying that a church was planted.

Similarly, when we preach the gospel through something like the Main Event or even in our gathering here today, the way to know that the gospel has truly taken hold and borne fruit, is not more events, is not more activities, is not a change in policy or influence in the way the world looks at the bible and Christians - though these are all good and godly things to be praying for.

No, the end of the gospel is the gathering of men and women transformed through the gospel as the body of the Christ. It’s the church. Paul preached in Athens and the result was a new church.

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