MARS HILL(ACTS 17:16-34)
In this text, these two worldviews meet head on in a titanic clash, which has reverberated down through the centuries to the present day as Athens hears the gospel: debater meets preacher, Mt Olympus meets Mt Zion, Philosophy meets theology, human reason meets revelation, and Plato meets Jesus Christ.
Why Paul preached (17:16)
How Paul preached (17:17-21)
What Paul preached (17:22-33)
There is nothing more influential in shaping the world and the course of human civilization than ideas. The two ideologies or worldviews that have had the greatest impact on human history are the Western worldview and the Judaeo-Christian worldview. The world we live in is what it is and operates as it does because the beliefs and practices that flow from these two worldviews have infiltrated every nation.
In today’s text, these two worldviews meet head on in a titanic clash, which has reverberated down through the centuries to the present day as Athens hears the gospel: debater meets preacher, Mt Olympus meets Mt Zion, Philosophy meets theology, human reason meets revelation, and Plato meets Jesus Christ.
To give you a brief history lesson, so that we can enter into the context of the text.
· When the O.T is closing out, Babylon has dominated the world and has just been conquered by Persia. Persia will be conquered by Greece, Greece will be conquered by Rome 150 years before Christ. The Roman empire dominated the world for over 500 years. Although Rome conquered Greece politically, Greek culture, language and ideology conquered Rome and was spread throughout the Roman empire and became the basis for Western Civilization.
· The world in which the gospel was first preached was therefore a world dominated by Greek culture, language, and worldview and the epi-centre of Greek ideas was Athens.
· You can turn in your Bibles to Acts 17 as we continue our study through the book of Acts. These few verses have been studied by scholars more than any other section of Acts because they are so valuable in understanding how the gospel confronts Western ideologies.
· This morning we will consider 1) why Paul preaches, 2) where Paul preaches and 3) what Paul preaches. The motive, method and message of evangelism.
Read Acts 17:16-21
WHY Paul Preaches – mOTIVE (16)
While Paul is waiting he goes on a tour of Athens.
· Everyone in the ancient world would have heard of Athens.
· From Athens came Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the fathers of modern Philosophy. And Herodotus, the father of history.
· From Athens came comedy, tragedy, epic and some of the greatest art and literature ever produced.
· From Athens came democracy and Pythagoras.
· Maths, science, the alphabet, the theatre and the library….it’s difficult to overstate the massive impact that Athens has had through Greek thinking and ideas.
· The acropolis, the town’s ancient citadel could be seen for miles around and has been described as “one vast composition of architecture and sculpture dedicated to the national glory and to the worship of the gods.”
· The Parthenon still stands today and has a unique grandeur. One writer helps us see the scene as Paul would have seen it,
“There were innumerable temples, shrines, statues and altars. In the Parthenon stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena, whose gleaming spear-point was visible from more than 60km away. Elsewhere there were images of Apollo, the cities patron, of Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bachus, Neptune, Diana and others. The whole Greek pantheon was there, all the gods of Olympus And they were beautiful. They were made not only of stone and brass, but of gold, silver, ivory and marble, and they had been elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors.” (Stott, Acts 277)
As Paul walks around the city he is not blown away by any of the wealth, and human wisdom and achievement and stature – he’s blown away by the idolatry. The term “full of idols” literally means “under them” the city was swamped in idolatry, drowning in idolatry.
Application: It’s so important that we don’t get intimidated by people’s achievements, or education or wealth or prestige but that we see them as God does – totally lost, hopeless and helpless.
The Greek word which describes Paul’s reaction is where we get the word Paroxysm from. It was used to describe a person who had a seizure or epileptic fit. It means to irritate, to provoke, to arouse to anger. It describes an inward pain, a horror. The word is in the imperfect tense which is used to describe a feeling that grew and remained over time. Paul was seething mad, inwardly pained and horrified by what he saw.
This tells us what was Paul’s main motivation for evangelism – anger…. Anger that all this greatness and learning and wealth and accomplishment would not be used to magnify Jesus Christ.
· There is nothing wrong with being motivated by obedience to the great commission, or by compassion for the lost.
· But that is not what motivated Paul here in Athens. He was overcome with a burning passion to see the gods of Olympus dethroned and Jesus Christ exalted to His rightful place.
· In the words of the hymn we sing, “Glory be, glory be to God alone!”
Is that your burning desire? Glory to God alone. Are you deeply jealous for His honour….
If that’s what motivates us then we will evangelize whether or not men listen and like us, and Jesus Christ will be honoured whether or not men respond.
2: Where Paul Preaches - method
Where does Paul preach?
The synagogue (16), the marketplace (17) the Agora (19).
· Wherever Paul finds himself, in whatever forum, whatever context, to whoever will listen.
· The synagogue: was a place of worship for those who either believed in the God of the Bible or were at least sympathetic to Him. This might be likened to a modern church service or religious gathering. People who are willing to go to a church service have at least some openness to consider what the Bible teaches about God.
· The market place: was just that – the place where people gathered to do their business, to trade, to catch up on important news. Paul didn’t expect everyone to come to church or meet him on his home ground – he went to where the people were, and met them as they were going about their daily business. This is evangelism at the workplace and the shops, at the school and the family gatherings and on the bus and the sports field and at the book club. Friendship evangelism. Getting into people’s lives so you can get the gospel to them where they are at. Look at vs 17 – day by day, every day, with anyone who happened to be there.
· The Areopagus: means literally the hill or Ares which is the Greek name for the Roman god, Mars. So some translations say “Mars Hill.” This was where the supreme counsel of philosophers met to debate ideas and pass judgments on truth claims. This was the highest counsel of the highest academics of the day and Paul was being asked to present his ideas before them. Christians should not only be gossiping the gospel with the ordinary man in the street, but explaining and supporting and defending the faith at the highest levels of academia.
· The gospel can hold its own before all men, in all contexts, in all ages.
How does Paul convey the gospel?
· He reasons (17), He converses (18), He preaches (18), He teaches (19)
· He has conversations about the gospel, gets into deep discussions, has heavy debates and lectures and open air preaching and then follow up conversations over coffee…..
We have to see God’s providence in the opportunities He provides, from those seemingly ordinary encounters at the marketplace to the prestigious public debates….
· Here’s Paul, with the opportunity of a lifetime. The servant of Christ called upon to represent Him before the highest counsel of scholarly enquiry that has ever existed.
· Now remember Saul trained under Gamaliel, one of the leading Jewish scholars of his day.
· Paul was from Tarsus. There were three major centres of learning in the Roman empire. 1: Athens 2: Alexendria in Egypt and 3: Tarsus.
· So when Saul was still blaspheming Jesus Christ, he was already then, being prepared and trained and nurtured for the day that he would be called upon to represent Him with excellence.
Application: We might not have Paul’s skill or range of abilities, but we all have a way that we can get the gospel across if we have the will to do so.
· God doesn’t expect us all to debate scholars on the most technical aspects of the gospel, but He does expect us all to be ready to give an answer for the hope we have in Christ.
· We all have a web of relationships and a context in which we live out our lives and we are God’s ambassadors in that context to those people.
· Our character and education and experiences, in God’s providence, are exactly what He will use to convey the gospel through us.
3: What Paul Preached – Message (22-33)
Read Acts 17:22-33
So Paul doesn’t start his address by saying, “You wretched, hopeless, worthless sinners.” He says, “I see you are very religious.” And the Greek term is as ambiguous as the English term. “I see that God is in your frame of reference, but I also see that you are ignorant when it comes to God.”
Imagine telling Athens that they were ignorant of something, of anything…
And yet that is the reality. The greatest learning of men cannot get them any closer to the knowledge of God. Men cannot reason their way to God, they need God to reveal Himself to them. Men cannot discover the pathway to God, they need God to find them.
So Paul begins by highlighting man’s weakness and ignorance and God’s sovereignty.
A) God is SOVEREIGN AND SUPREME CREATOR (24)
· 24: The Greeks believed in many gods. Paul proclaims the one, true God.
· 24: The Greeks believed that the universe created the gods. Paul proclaims the God who created the universe and everything in it.
· 24: The Greeks believed each god had limited power and dominion. Paul proclaims one God who rules the whole of heaven and earth.
· 24: The Greeks constructed a unique temple for each god or goddess to dwell in. Paul proclaims the God who inhabits the universe and cannot be contained in any temple made with human hands.
In one sentence He has shattered their entire paradigm of God.
The gospel begins with God. It is the good news that God has made a way for sinners to be reconciled to Him through faith in Christ. But that doesn’t mean anything if people don’t know who this God is who is inviting them into relationship with Him.
Paul presents God as the supreme creator and ruler. He alone is creator, all powerful, and pervasive. Omnipotent and omnipresent.
B) GOD IS NEAR AND KNOWABLE(25-27)
· The Greeks believed that the favour of the gods could be won by sacrifice and faithful service to their cause. As Paul points out, they were very superstitious. If something went wrong: an accident or ill health, or something was needed: victory in a battle, or favour in a business deal, then you just had to find the right god and make the right sacrifice. If you needed rain, sacrifice to Thor, if you needed love, make a sacrifice to Aphrodite, if you were losing in battle sacrifice to Athena, the goddess of war or Ares. And if that wasn’t working, you just had to keep going until you found the right god and the right sacrifice. And if you were really desperate you could erect an altar and sacrifice to the unknown god hoping that though you don’t know this god yet he will heed your sacrifice and come to your aid.
Illustration – ATR: Most African’s are very much like the ancient Greeks except the pantheon of gods has been replaced by a pantheon of ancestors. Instead of the oracles the African consults the Sangoma to find out what ritual must be followed, what sacrificed must be offered in order to appease a certain offended ancestor or break some spiritual curse. The African ancestors are exactly like the demi-gods of Greece who are half divine and half human and each tribe or region has their own patron god who is particularly sympathetic to their cause. African Traditional Religion is not interested in pursuing a relationship with God as much as manipulating the ancestors to gain their favour and help for personal problems.
· Paul presents one creator God, who rules over all that He has made. Who cannot be manipulated. He doesn’t need anything from people but people need everything from Him. He is transcendent and yet imminent, above all and yet near all.
· There is not a god of the Greeks and a god of the Jews and a god of Africans but one God who created all men and all nations. God is the one who determined their boundaries and seasons and set the course of their history.
· The Greeks believed in an impersonal force of nature called fate, which ultimately determined the course of history and events. Even the gods were not able to change fate. Paul presents a personal God who rules over people and nations and determines their destiny.
· The universe is not determined by impersonal fate, but by the plans and purposes of a personal and imminent God.
Note vs 27 God’s purpose in creating man. That he should seek God, that he should know God. But Paul is doubtful that mankind by his own efforts will be able to find Him. He uses the “optative mood” in the Greek which is used to express extreme uncertainty. That has been brought across in the ESV by saying “perhaps, they might feel their way toward Him.” Mankind has as much chance of feeling their way to God as a blind man has, of feeling his way to church. The problem, as Paul explains in vs 27 is not that God is far away and difficult to get to. The problem is human blindness – He’s right here, but we don’t have the eyes to see Him.
CHIASM – KNOW GOD
Luke uses a well known literary device to focus our attention on the main point of Paul’s argument. It’s called a chiasm and it’s basically a way of arranging ideas like steps leading up to a high point and then down again. You climb up to the top, A,B C and then you come down in reverse order C,B,A. So the highpoint is in the middle.
· Paul speaks about idolatry in vs 25 and then again in vs 29 – God cannot be known through the work of people’s hands – that’s the “A” of the steps.
· He speaks about God being creator and sustainer of all people in vs 26 and again in vs 28. That’s the “B” of the steps.
· So the centre and high point is found in vs 27. That’s the main thing he is wanting to emphasize. That God created mankind in order to know Him, but mankind hasn’t found their way to Him.
· This is how Paul started His address – let me tell you about this God that you yourselves acknowledge exists, but who you do not know.
· As Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until their find their rest in Him.
So Paul highlights not only the sovereignty of God, but the responsibility of man. We are accountable to God and created in order to know Him. The purpose of religion is not to get something from the god’s but to get to God though it is extremely unlikely that any religion will get a man to His God.
Which lays the foundation for Paul to present Jesus Christ as the only true mediator between man and God.
1) God is sovereign and supreme 2) God is near and knowable 3) God is known through Jesus Christ.
C) GOD IS KNOWN THROUGH JESUS CHRIST (28-31)
In vs 28 Paul quotes some of their well known poets Epimenides and Aratus.
· What Paul is showing is that all truth is God’s truth and that God has left a remnant of truth in every place among every people.
· His argument is thoroughly biblical, but he is not quoting Scripture at this point, because the Greeks knew very little about what the Bible taught. He is quoting from their own writings when they agree with what the Bible teaches.
· So the Bible is not like a magical writing that if people just hear the words of Scripture they will be miraculously converted. The power of Scriptures is found in the truths it conveys, in understanding what it means. If unbelievers already hold to some of those truths – great, we have a point we agree on.
· Where they disagree we need to explain to them what the Bible teaches and the implications of what it teaches.
· Here in vs 29 Paul makes the point. If God created us, then surely He can’t be worshipped through something we ourselves have created.
Then he brings his whole argument to a climax in Jesus Christ. God has made himself known through Jesus Christ and He will hold all men accountable as to how they respond to Jesus Christ.
· When he says, in vs 30, that the times of ignorance God has overlooked, he is not saying that God is overlooking their past sin. He is saying that God put up with men in their ignorance, He didn’t judge them as they deserved.
· But now that He has revealed himself fully and finally in Jesus Christ He is calling all men to turn from their ignorance and idolatry and to put their faith in Jesus Christ and Him alone to reconcile them to God.
· Note the universality of God’s call in the gospel – He is calling on all men everywhere.
· Men no longer have an excuse for their sin and idolatry because God has given them a full and final revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. He has made a way and in the gospel is calling upon all people to turn from all other ways.
· Because he has fixed day by which He will judge the world and there will only be one basis for that judgment – did you turn from idolatry to Jesus Christ?
Paul then grounds the offer of salvation and the warning of coming judgment in the historical events of the death and resurrection of Christ. The resurrection proves that God has spoken finally and fully in Jesus Christ and none other. None other has been crucified and raised to life but Jesus Christ. None other serves as a sufficient sacrifice for sin and mediator between God and man.
Application: So the gospel calls for a personal response. We are not done presenting the gospel when we are finished presenting the facts. We must issue the call to repent, to turn from sin and turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and reconciliation.
The Greeks didn’t believe in a final judgment, they didn’t believe in heaven or hell or a resurrection of the body. So the high point of Paul’s argument sounds like absolute nonsense to them. The whole world accountable to one God through a man whom God raised from the dead and appointed as the judge of all men. All your knowledge and wisdom and progress and prestige means nothing to God, all that matters is, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”
You can understand why the counsel erupts at this point. This is just too much for any reasonable man to accept. Some mocked, some were at least polite about their disbelief – but some joined him and believed. VS 34 explicitly mentions that some from this very counsel believed….
The gospel will always produce a mixed response. To some its folly and weakness and shame, but to those who have been called by God – it is life and truth. We don’t control people’s response, our job is merely to present them with the truth.
Salvation is God’s work and unless God is at work the gospel sounds like babble as vs 18 indicates. But when God opens the eyes of the heart to see, it is glorious
Which is why Paul could say in Rom 1:16 “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, for the Jew first but also for the Gentile. For in it, that is in this simple gospel message” Jesus died, Jesus rose, repent for the forgiveness of sins.” The righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, the righteous shall come to enjoy true life, everlasting life, reconcilluation with their god by simple faith in this simple message.”