Being a Gospel Witness
Sermon Text: Acts 17:16-34
Sermon Theme: Four essentials for being a gospel witness in the world: Meet people where they are; When possible, find points of agreement; Explain the gospel; Call for a response.
Athens was then famed for polite learning, philosophy, and the fine arts; but none are more childish and superstitious, more impious, or more credulous, than some persons, deemed eminent for learning and ability. It was wholly given to idolatry. The zealous advocate for the cause of Christ will be ready to plead for it in all companies, as occasion offers. Most of these learned men took no notice of Paul; but some, whose principles were the most directly contrary to Christianity, made remarks upon him. The apostle dwelt upon two points, which are indeed the principal doctrines of Christianity, Christ and a future state; Christ our way, and heaven our end. They looked on this as very different from the knowledge for many ages taught and professed at Athens; they desire to know more of it, but only because it was new and strange. They led him to the place where judges sat who inquired into such matters. They asked about Paul’s doctrine, not because it was good, but because it was new. Great talkers are always busy-bodies. They spend their time in nothing else, and a very uncomfortable account they have to give of their time spent in this way. Time is precious, and we are concerned to employ it well, because eternity depends upon it, but much is wasted in unprofitable conversation.
Here we have a sermon to heathens, who worshipped false gods, and were without the true God in the world; and to them the scope of the discourse was different from what the apostle preached to the Jews. In the latter case, his business was to lead his hearers by prophecies and miracles to the knowledge of the Redeemer, and faith in him; in the former, it was to lead them, by the common works of providence, to know the Creator, and worship Him. The apostle spoke of an altar he had seen, with the inscription, “to the unknown god.” After multiplying their idols to the utmost, some at Athens thought there was another God of whom they had no knowledge. And are there not many now called Christians, who are zealous in their devotions, yet the great object of their worship is to them an unknown God? Observe what glorious things Paul here says of that God whom he served, and would have them to serve. The Lord had long born with idolatry, but the times of this ignorance were now ending, and by his servants he now commanded all men every where to repent of their idolatry. Each sect of the learned men would feel themselves powerfully affected by the apostle’s discourse, which tended to show the emptiness or falsity of their doctrines.
The apostle was treated with more outward civility at Athens than in some other places; but none more despised his doctrine, or treated it with more indifference. Of all subjects, that which deserves the most attention gains the least. But those who scorn, will have to bear the consequences, and the word will never be useless. Some will be found, who cleave to the Lord, and listen to his faithful servants. Considering the judgment to come, and Christ as our Judge, should urge all to repent of sin, and turn to Him. Whatever matter is used, all discourses must lead to Him, and show his authority; our salvation, and resurrection, come from and by Him.
[From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary]
- Can you imagine what Paul, steeped in the Old Testament and with his sound knowledge of the true God, must have thought of the Athenian philosophy? We read that when he saw the Athenian idols he had an inner violent emotion experience, but he must have been bothered by Athenian philosophy too. Are we similarly bothered by the faulty philosophies around us? Does it bother us that people are living for the present moment only and do not seem to have the faintest idea that they are eternal beings and must one day face God? As believers, our hearts should ache and our eyes blur at what we see around us — ignorant souls denying the one God and giving allegiance to false idols. If we experience no inner paroxysms, we either have not truly been redeemed by Jesus Christ or we have become apathetic to the things of God. Paul could not be indifferent or detached — nor should we. For our community, like Athens, is full of idols. But our temples and shrines are 4-wheel vehicles and 2000+ square foot homes, ball fields and bars, golf courses and gun ranges. And the idols are comfort, rest, wealth, health, peace, quiet, and space. Be on guard to know that so often our hearts easily turn God’s good gifts into false gods which we end up serving.
- Does the nonbeliever have any excuse in not recognizing that God exists? It is obviously impossible for those who deny God’s existence to know Him, since “he who comes to God must believe that He is” (Hebrews 11:6). No one will search for a path to a destination they believe does not exist. The Bible reveals powerful and convincing evidence for God’s existence. Externally, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1). Internally, “that which is known about God is evident within [people]; for God made it evident to them” (Romans 1:19). In addition, let us look at the law of cause and effect which argues for God’s existence. Common sense dictates that every effect must have a cause. Yet there cannot be an endless chain of such causes. Therefore, there must be an uncaused first cause. The Bible acknowledges the principle of cause and effect as the writer of Hebrews asserts: “every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God” (Hebrews 3:4). A house requires an efficient cause; it would be absurd to put a pile of building material in the path of a hurricane and expect the storm to assemble a house. How much more absurd is it to imagine that the immensely complex universe in which we live had no efficient cause?
- How do we come to know the unknown God? To the unbelieving world, rife with skepticism, anti-supernaturalism, rationalism, mysticism, and the hopeless despair each produces, Jesus offers the only message of hope. Man is not a cosmic accident, a personal being trapped in an impersonal universe. There is a God, who is both the creator of the universe and its sovereign ruler. Not only does He exist, but He is also knowable and has revealed Himself to man. God created men to know Him (John 17:3) and through that knowledge to glorify Him (Matthew 5:16; Romans 15:6; 1 Corinthians 6:20). For the believer, the highest level of spiritual maturity belongs to those who “know Him who has been from the beginning” (1 John 2:13). Knowing God is the key to contentment (Philippians 4:11), happiness (Psalm 33:12; Psalm 144:15), and peace (Isaiah 26:3; Romans 8:6). Faced with a crisis, it is “the people who know their God [who] will display strength and take action” (Daniel 11:32). For Paul affirmed that God made the world; God gave all people life; God controlled the nations; and God revealed himself so people would seek him. Paul emphasized a personal relationship with God. Idolatry was wrong; God could not possibly be like gold or silver or stone. God makes people — people do not make God. Ignorance must end because God had revealed himself not only in Old Testament Scripture, but also in the life and death of his Son.
- How can the Lord of heaven and earth need anything that his creatures can give him? Intellectuals need to learn a basic fact: God is God and they are not God! Invariably, intellectuals sit in judgment on God, as if He were an idea that they are free to bat around and leave on the table when they’re done. But Paul begins, as the Bible does, by declaring, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Since He created the universe, He is Lord of it. Furthermore, intellectuals need to be humbled by realizing that they have nothing to offer God. He is not served by human hands, as though He needed anything. He has gotten along just fine all of these centuries without their astute intellect, and He will do just fine in the centuries to come whether they offer Him their services or not. While He graciously gives His redeemed children the privilege of serving Him, He does not need any one of us to accomplish His purpose. The minute we start thinking that we are indispensable to God, we are in big trouble. God is able to raise up children for Himself from the very stones, if He wills (Luke 3:8). Paul is also confronting the racism of the Greeks, who called everyone who could not speak Greek “barbarians.” No nation or race is superior, because God made us all from one common ancestor. Any form of racism stems from sinful pride. God in His sovereign wisdom determined the appointed times and boundaries of every nation’s habitation. He raises up world powers and He takes them down again, according to His purpose. No nation or ruler can boast that we are what we are because of our own intelligence or power. We are what we are only by the grace of God.
- Do we have an insight today that idolatry is a basic problem of our society? Are there too many so-called Christians today, who are zealous in their devotions, yet the great object of their worship is to them an unknown God? We read about a breakdown in moral values; lack of commitment by people to people, causes, or standards; dishonesty in many forms; irresponsibility. But do we realize that the reason for the breakdown is spiritual? For our idea of God (or denial of God) will always give shape to what we think. If people have a concept of the true God that is noble, they will find it ennobling and will do better. But if we lose sight of the true God, then we lose sight of the only thing that can lift up civilization. For we can see that how Christians live is directly related to their concept of God. No one expressed that truth more clearly than A. W. Tozer: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God… Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?” we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man… A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.” [The Knowledge of the Holy]
- What approach to preaching the gospel did Paul use on the Athenian? Paul did not try to coerce them. He did not hit them over the head with the Bible. Sometimes we think that in order to witness effectively all we have to do is shout louder. Sometimes we even try to compel people by threats. Paul did not do any of those things. He reasoned with them as he explained the gospel, trying to find points of agreement when possible and appealing to their own existing beliefs and values as he tried to win them to his side. That is, he doesn’t quote Scripturedirectly. Instead, he quoted their own poets. Paul knew their culture and he pointed to the shadows of Christ that already existed in their culture. But he didn’t leave them with shadows. He turned the spotlight towards Christ and cast out the shadows. He did not try to entertain them. We need to hear that fact today especially since we live in an entertainment age and evangelical Christianity is very often caught up in the entertainment business.
- Are you doing your part in proclaiming the gospel and letting God do the rest? Peter wrote, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). We want to be able to do that. But generally, the problem is not in the nature of our reasoning or explanation but rather in the rebellion of the human heart. The problem is the hearer. Paul’s solution — indeed, the solution of Christian preaching generally — is proclamation. It is declaring who God is and what he has done and allowing God to bless the declaration. What happens is that God takes the truth of his Word and by the power of his Holy Spirit carries it to the heart and brings conviction.
- What was God’s purpose in arranging time and place so providentially for men and women’s well-being? If God has revealed himself to us in creation, as he has, and if God sustains creation (including ourselves), and if God has determined the bounds of our habitations and our destiny, which Paul declares to be the case, it follows that we have a purpose and an obligation to seek God out and find him. For Paul states that ever since the creation, the things that God has made have pointed clearly to “his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20). If human beings, beguiled and confused by false worship, have failed to perceive the nature of God in the works of creation, they are without excuse.
- Are we greatly concerned about the truth of what we heard in the gospel? If ignorance of the divine nature was culpable before, it is inexcusable now. Let all people everywhere (the Athenian hearers included) repent therefore of their false conception of God including the consequent flouting of his will and embrace the true knowledge of Jesus Christ now made available in the gospel. God has been patient, overlooking ignorance for a time. Pay attention, and let God’s patience lead you to repentance. For God commands repentance. For Christianity does not begin by saying, “You’re a very good fellow” and “everything is going to be nice for you if you will just get in touch with God.” Christianity says, “You have failed to seek after God. You have gone your own way. You are willfully ignorant. Therefore, God commands that you repent of that ignorance.” As we repent, God holds out the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ. For through Christ, God had dealt definitively with the problem of sin. But for that very reason, God as laid humanity under a new accountability. The offer of salvation in Christ carries with it the threat of judgment if that offer is refused. Judgment and salvation go hand in hand; both are vested in Christ; both give expression to the righteousness of God. For God the creator of all is also God the judge of all. Already in his sovereign counsel He has fixed a day in which He will “judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31; cf. Psalm 96:13).
Additional Notes on Epicurean & Stoic philosophies:
The Epicurean school of philosophy, named after its founder Epicurus (342-270 BC), taught that pleasure is the chief goal in life, especially the intellectual serenity that is achieved by overcoming disturbing passions and superstitious fears, especially the fear of death. They were materialists, who, while not denying the existence of the gods, believed they did not intervene in the affairs of men. They taught that, at death, the body and soul (both composed of atoms) disintegrate ― there is no afterlife.
Stoicism was founded by Zeno (340-265 BC) and took its name from the “painted stoa,” a colonnade in the Athenian Agora where Zeno commonly taught. Stoics thought that the good lies in the soul itself, which through wisdom and restraint delivers a person from the passions and desires that perturb ordinary life. The Stoics tried to live in harmony with nature and put great emphasis on man’s rational ability, his self-sufficiency, and his obedience to duty. This emphasis on their own ability also filled them with pride. They were pantheistic, regarding God as the World-soul.
Both philosophies, different as they were, demonstrated the secular alternatives for dealing with life’s problems and issues which sums up the futility of man’s existence apart from God. F. F. Bruce writes: “Stoicism and Epicureanism represent alternative attempts in pre-Christian paganism to come to terms with life, especially in times of uncertainty and hardship, and post-Christian paganism down to our own day has not been able to devise anything appreciably better.” [The New International Commentary on the New Testament]
Instructions for saving audio file…
To save audio to your local disk, click on the SAVE button above, then use the right mouse button on the AUDIO (MP3) and finally click on Save Link As to specify the target directory.