140525 Acts 17:22-31

Last Updated on Tuesday, 27 May 2014 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: Acts 17:22-31
Theme: Apologetics With No Apologies

Has this ever happened to you? You were planning a trip to a place you had never been before, maybe a vacation destination that brings in visitors from all around the world. In this place you hoped to see things you had never seen before and do things you had never done before. You were excited. You couldn't wait. Your anticipation grew and grew and grew...

But when you finally arrived it was nothing like what you expected. You had built up in your mind this idea of what you thought would be an almost magical place, but what was supposed to be so great didn't turn out to be so great. And when reality set in you weren't just mildly disappointed. You were crushed.

Something like that happened to me on my second missionary journey. It was my first trip to Greece. In Philippi I was thrown into prison. In Thessalonica I was accused of starting a rebellion. In Berea things started out a little better. The Bereans listened to what I had to say. They studied the Scriptures every day to see if what I was saying was true.

I would have stayed in Berea longer, but some men came from Thessalonica looking for me. They tried to stop me from preaching the Word of God. They stirred up the Berean people against me, and I was forced to leave the city in the middle of the night.

From Berea it was a short trip to the great city of Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the home of Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. In the first century AD Athens was no longer the center of Western civilization, but it was still a center of wisdom and culture.

Even today the Acropolis remains a must-see destination in Athens, and it was no different in my day. Standing high above the city, its stone structures glistened as they reflected the light of the sun. The centerpiece of the Acropolis was the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, with its classic lines and massive columns.

The sights of Athens are impressive, but when I surveyed the city for the first time I wasn't impressed. I was actually distressed because everywhere I looked there were idols. It has been said that there were more gods than men in Athens, and I was deeply troubled because none of those men knew the true God.

I could have booked a ticket on the next ship out of town, but I decided to stay and do something about what I saw instead. First I went to the local synagogue and explained to my fellow Jews that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but I didn't forget about the Gentiles. When I wasn't in the synagogue I was in the market place preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. And the response to my message was mixed.

Some skeptics called me a babbler, but others were intrigued. What I was saying sounded unlike anything they had ever heard before, and if Athenians loved anything it was anything new. Before I knew it I was invited to speak before the Areopagus (a group of men who gathered together to discuss the latest ideas).

It was an amazing opportunity, but it was also daunting. I was not a skilled orator. I don't consider myself to be a very persuasive speaker (I Corinthians 2:1-4). And the gospel doesn't make sense either, at least not logically. If you were inventing a new religion would you choose a crucified criminal to be your leader? You don't have to be a scholar to know that dead men don't come back to life either, and yet that was the message the Lord had given me to proclaim.

My name is Paul, and as we revisit my two thousand year old sermon this morning, I hope my words encourage you to speak with boldness and confidence when the Lord calls upon you to defend what you believe. There is a technical name for that. Explaining and defending the Christian faith is called apologetics, and my sermon today is an example of...


Being surrounded by so many idols made my skin crawl, but I couldn't let my hearers know that, at least not at first. First I needed to earn their respect. First I needed to get their attention, and so I 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" (22,23a).

There were many different gods and goddesses in Greek mythology (Zeus, Hera, Ares, Poseidon, to name a few), but even with all the temples and all the altars, there wasn't quite enough. One day I discovered another altar dedicated to "Agnosto Theo," "to an unknown god." The first time I read that inscription I was dumbfounded, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that God was giving me a golden opportunity.

I asked myself: Why would these people dedicate an altar to an unknown god? To cover their bases? To make sure that they didn't miss any deities? Sure, but it went deeper than that. That altar told me that deep down the religion they practiced was rooted in fear. Fear of the gods, fear of angering the gods, fear of what the gods might do to me if I don't do enough for them.

You and I know that the God of the Bible is radically different. You and I know that the message of the Bible is a message that removes fear. The people of Athens needed to know that too. And so I told them: "What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you" (23b).

And with the power of the Spirit and words given by the Spirit I spoke about the God who created and rules over all things. He doesn't need people to build him temples. He doesn't need people to bring him offerings. He doesn't need us to give him anything because the truth is that he has given all of us life and breath and everything else.

From one man (you and I know him as Adam) the one true God created every nation of men. He determined where they would live. He determined when they would live. In other words, the God who created all things remains in control of all things, and his divine fingerprints can be seen all over the place.

If I were a theology professor and not a missionary, I would say that I was appealing to their natural knowledge of God. When we look at the world around us, when we look at us and the amazing way our bodies work, we get a sense that there has to be something else, something besides us, someone or something bigger than us.

King David identified that someone as the Lord when he declared: "You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13), but I didn't quote any Bible passages to prove my point. Instead I quoted classical Greek literature: "'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring'" (28).

With these quotes I wasn't trying to show off. I wasn't trying to prove to these wise and learned men that I was their intellectual equal. The point I was making was quite simple: "If you accept the conclusions of these pagan poets that we are all God's offspring, then you have to ask yourself: Is it really possible for creatures to recreate their Creator? Can human hands fashion precious metals into God?

No. It's not possible. It doesn't make sense. In my sermon I went so far as to call it ignorance, but I wasn't trying to be rude. To be ignorant literally means "to not know," and these people didn't know the true God. In their minds the gods were to be feared, not loved. The focus of their faith (if you can call it that) was on what they had to do for the gods, not on what God had done for them. They knew some things about God, but their understanding was distorted. Their knowledge was incomplete. In order to come to a knowledge of divine truth, that truth had to be revealed.

And so I continued: "Now he (the one true God) commands all people everywhere to repent. 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" (30b,31).

When I looked at the people who were listening to me, I didn't see foreigners. I didn't see pagans. I didn't see adversaries. I saw souls, precious souls, lost souls. I saw people who were groping around in a deep pit of spiritual darkness, and I had the rope. I had the one message that could save them from death: "Put your trust in the man God raised from the dead, and he will give you eternal life."

That is what I wanted to say. That is what I would have said, but I wasn't allowed to continue. The Bible's teaching of the resurrection was too much for them. Some sneered. Others were more polite and pretended that they were interested in hearing me again, but according to the written record in Acts I was never given the chance.

Luke reports that a handful of people came to faith that day, but the Bible makes no mention of a congregation in Athens. Nowhere does it say that I ever got back to Athens. Because of that some people might conclude that I failed. Some may suggest that I should have avoided talking about repentance or judgment or the resurrection in order to reach out to this sophisticated audience.

But if I had to do it all over again, if I was given another opportunity to speak before the Areopagus, I wouldn't change a thing. I have no regrets. I make no apologies. When called upon, I gave the reason for the hope that I have. I spoke with gentleness and respect. And when (not if, when) the Lord you puts you in the same position I pray that you will do the same.

Maybe the idea of talking in front of people makes you uncomfortable. Maybe the thought of talking about your faith scares you to death. Maybe you are afraid that you won't know what to say or that you will say the wrong thing. Maybe you are afraid that people will sneer at you too. I can't tell you how other people will react, but perhaps my example can give you some direction when you are asked to explain/defend what you believe.

First, it is important to meet people where they are. My message in the marketplace was different from my preaching in the synagogue. When I was talking to Jews, I pointed them to the Old Testament. When I was speaking to Gentiles (who didn't know the Old Testament), I didn't. Instead I used things they could relate to (like the unknown god and well-known poetry) to take them from what they did know to what they needed to know.

Second, don't give in to the temptation to change the clear message of the Bible. I wasn't shocked when my intellectual audience rejected the idea of the resurrection, but that didn't stop me from proclaiming it. Without the resurrection there is no salvation. Like I told some other Greeks, if Christ has not been raised our faith is futile; we are still in our sins (I Corinthians 15:17).

You might not be very popular if you talk about sin either, but without a recognition of sin, without an admission of guilt there can be no forgiveness. When you talk about sin, confess yours first. Speak as a dying person speaking to dying people. Remind them that we are all sinful. We all deserve divine judgment. Without the grace of God, none of us would have any hope of heaven.

Finally, don't be afraid. Your Savior lives. Your sins are forgiven. Because of Jesus your eternal future is secure. Don't be afraid because your Lord is with you and he has equipped you with everything you need for no apologies apologetics. You have God's powerful Word, and you have God's wonderful promise that the Word works. God's Word will always accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sends it. Amen.

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