Acts 17: 16 – 34.
The word “apologetic” is an interesting word. “Apologetic” has two meanings. And these two definitions are practically opposites.
The more common meaning of “apologetic” describes a person’s tone or attitude as being remorseful or regretful for having said or done something to harm another person. In this sense, to “apologize” or to be “apologetic” means to be sorry for something you have done or caused.
The other meaning of “apologetic” comes from the Greek word apologia, which means to defend your point of view. This is the opposite of being remorseful of something you have done. Instead, it means to develop a carefully argued position to defend what you believe. There is even a discipline within Christian theology known as apologetics. In Christian apologetics, theologians use reason and philosophy to defend the core beliefs of the Christian faith.
As Christians, our preaching should never be “apologetic” in the first sense. We should not feel remorse over preaching the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. However, our preaching should be “apologetic” in the second sense. We preach Jesus and defend the truth claims of the Christian faith.
In the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday, I am preaching from New Testament examples of ways to tell others about Jesus. This is a part of our emphasis on One Focus. Our goal is for every member of our church to identify one person to pray for, to love, to invest in spiritually and to share with them how they can become a Christian. If you have already identified your One Focus, I want you to begin looking for a way you can witness to them about Jesus…AND, I want you to invite them to come to church with you on Easter Sunday, March 31…Five weeks from today.
The New Testament gives us more than one example for sharing the Christian faith with others. One reason it gives us several examples is the fact that we are all different. Christians have different spiritual gifts, different personalities, different life experiences and different passions. If we are not all exactly alike, then we should not try to share our faith in the same way. Another reason the New Testament gives us several examples is the fact that as the Gospel spread around the world, it went into different contexts. The people sharing the Gospel were different, and the people hearing the Gospel were different.
In the Scripture we read today, we read about the Apostle Paul preaching an “apologetic” message. He was defending the Christian faith in a culture that was much like the culture we live in today.
Acts 17: 16 – 34.
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 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. 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. 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.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 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. 23 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.
24 “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. 25 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. 26 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. 27 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.28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “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. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 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.”
32 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.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 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.
Athens was an interesting city in the ancient world. It was known as a cultured city with political influence. It was a university town with some of the brightest philosophers of the ancient world. It was a religious city. No matter what religion you belonged to or what god you worshipped, you could find a place to worship in Athens.
In many ways, it makes sense that Paul would want to preach the Gospel in Athens. However, this was not a planned stop on his missionary journey. In the previous verses we read about how Paul ended up in Athens. When Paul preached in Thessalonica, a riot broke out in the city. The mob threatened to kill Paul, and he barely escaped to Berea. The mob followed Paul to Berea, so some of the Christians there helped him find safety in Athens. Paul was supposed to enjoy a few days of vacation in Athens, seeing the sights, until the rest of the missionaries could catch up with him.
In the first verses we read this morning, we found Paul doing the touristy things. He rested and relaxed. He took leisurely strolls around the city. This vacation did not last long for Paul, because he was “greatly distressed” by all the idolatry in Athens. Everywhere Paul went he saw shrines, altars and statues of false gods. Since Paul was a Jewish Christian, he was doubly distressed by what he saw. As a Christian, he knew these people were worshipping false gods. As a Jewish Christian, he recognized these people were in violation of two of the Ten Commandments—no other gods before me, and do not make false images.
Paul was not supposed to preach in Athens. But, he could not stop himself. He had to share the Good News of Jesus with the people of Athens. Paul started out preaching, just like he always did, in the Jewish Synagogue.
Identify with Audience
Paul’s first sermon in Athens was probably a lot like his earlier sermons in Acts. He was in a Jewish Synagogue. So, he probably used the Old Testament Scriptures and showed how those promises were fulfilled in the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.
Whenever Paul preached to the Jews, he used the Jewish Scriptures as the entry point. The Jews recognize the Old Testament as God’s Word, so this is the obvious place to start talking about Jesus. The Law points to Jesus. The prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus. The sacrifices have come to an end, because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
The Greeks did not accept the Old Testament as God’s Word. And, that is a problem for Paul. The Old Testament was common ground for Paul and the Jews. Now, if Paul wants to speak with the Greeks about Jesus, he needs to find common ground with them. He cannot start quoting the Old Testament. He needs to find another way to talk with them about Jesus. He needs an entry point to begin talking about Jesus.
Ironically, Paul found an entry point in all the statues to the false gods. Ancient writers refer to Athens as a “forest of gods.” It was the cultural intersection of Roman and Greek religion. They had statues representing all of the Greek gods and all of the Roman gods. Paul even found a pedestal with the inscription “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” (More than likely, this was their attempt to cover all their bases. They didn’t want to accidentally leave out any gods…And, they certainly didn’t want to face the wrath of this unknown god.)
This is ironic, because their idolatry demonstrates the fact that there is an innate human desire to seek after God. Paul took their desire to seek after God and used it to explain to them who God truly is. The One, True God sent his only Son, Jesus to be the Savior of all who believe in him. Jesus offers forgiveness of sin, relationship with God, and eternal life.
Paul sets an example for us anytime we try to bring the message of Jesus into a new culture. This is what modern-day missionaries do in the beginning of their work. They learn the language, and they study the culture.
This has not always been necessary in the United States of America. Fifty years ago, we lived in a culture that knew the Bible and often accepted it as the Word of God. Billy Graham could preach sermons in packed football stadiums and use his famous expression, “The Bible says…” And, people would take his word for it. Sadly, this is no longer the case in our culture. People today neither know the Bible nor recognize the Bible as an authority for their lives. Just like Paul, we need to find an entry point to introduce the message of Jesus.
A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to talk with a man from New York State about church and faith. He was a salesman and spent the first few minutes of our conversation getting to know me. He asked about my family, and I asked about his family. I told him that I am married with three children. He told me that he was engaged to be married. Eventually, I was able to ask him about church and faith. He told me that his grandmother goes to church every week, but he goes once a year to be with his grandmother. He said he more inclined to believe what science could prove and therefore didn’t believe in God. I asked him why he was getting married to his fiancée. He said it was because they love each other. I asked him if that was something he could prove with science.
Love became the entry point to talk about faith. How do you prove that you love someone? How do you prove that someone loves you? Love does not exist in the realm of science and empirical observation. Love is a matter of faith. You believe that you love someone, and you trust that they love you in return.
We could make similar arguments about beauty and morality.
For example, how do you know that a sunrise, a sunset or a mountain landscape is beautiful? Beauty is not about scientific discovery. Beauty is an experience which affects something other than our rational side.
What about morality? Some argue that there is no such thing as an objective morality. Morality varies from person to person, from situation to situation, from culture to culture. If that is true, then there is no explanation for what happens almost every day on the school playground. Children playing on the playground will often get into a disagreement, and one child will say, “That’s not fair!” If there is no such thing as objective morality, then there is no such thing as fairness. And, by the way…Who taught that child what is fair and what is not fair?
Any of these entry points can be used to talk about Jesus. The innate human desire to seek God…Love…Beauty…Morality… But, the entry points are not sufficient. We must move the conversation beyond the entry point to share the Good News about Jesus.
Speak the Good News
Some interpreters have been critical of Paul’s approach in this sermon. They don’t like that Paul did not use the Bible as his entry point. They criticize the fact that there weren’t many converts in Athens, and there wasn’t a widespread Christian movement which came as a result of this sermon. Some even point to the fact that this is the only time Paul used this approach in the entire New Testament. (But, I would point out this is the only time Paul addressed an entirely secular audience in the entire New Testament.)
I am not critical of Paul, because I believe Paul never compromises his message. Even though he never quotes from the Bible in this sermon, Paul does present a biblical theology of God and salvation.
Notice Paul’s theology in verses 24 – 31…
God is the Creator of Heaven and earth. If God created us, then we did not create God. If we did not create God, then we cannot control God or even contain God in images or temples or anything made by human hands.
God is the sustainer of all life. God did not create the world and then step aside to let the world work out its own problems. No. God is intimately involved in the affairs of the world, working out his purposes for what God has created.
God created human beings with an innate desire to seek after God. This is not a pointless pursuit. God wants us to seek after him, and God wants to be found. God is not far away from us. He has entered into his created order in a way that God can be found and experienced by anyone who truly seeks God.
God calls all people to repentance. The world we live in (and all the people who inhabit this world) is mired in sin and rebellion against God. But, God sees the world as worth redeeming! Another way to say this is to say… God loves you just the way you are. When we were unlovely and unloveable, God still loved us. But, God will not allow you to stay the way you are. God wants to redeem you and change you. He calls all people to repentance.
God will one day judge the world with unquestionable justice. This is not to say God cannot be questioned. It is to say that God’s judgment will be based on an objective and unchanging justice. God’s justice is based on the Resurrection of Jesus. No one will be held to a different standard. The standard will be the same for all people, all generations, all races, all religions…What do you believe about the Resurrection of Jesus? The One who rose from the dead will be both the judge and the standard for judgment.
Paul never compromised the Gospel. This Gospel is Good News for all people. In one sense, this is an exclusive Gospel—Salvation is only for those who believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. In another sense, this is an inclusive Gospel—Salvation is available to all who believe…all people, all races, all nations…
Again, I believe Paul sets an example for us in sharing our faith. He found an entry point to begin talking about Jesus and the Resurrection. And, once Paul began talking about Jesus, he presented a thoughtful and intentional argument for the Christian faith as a viable alternative in a culture with many different religious options.
Leave Conversion to God
It seems to me that Paul’s audience was divided when he began to talk about the Resurrection. They were agreeable to everything Paul said about creation, God’s presence in creation and the human desire to seek after God. But, Resurrection was a different story. As soon as Paul began talking about Resurrection, the sermon was over.
Verses 32 – 34 tell us that the audience divided into three groups. Some (perhaps most) of the audience “sneered” and rejected the message about Jesus. Some of the audience was curious and wanted to hear more about the Resurrection. And only a few people believed and became Christians.
Again, there are some interpreters who use this to criticize Paul’s approach. I do not criticize Paul, because this is the way the message of Jesus is always received. Some refuse to believe. Some become curious and want to seek after God. And some make decisions to become Christians. I do not criticize Paul, because I believe salvation is God’s work. Paul could not make anyone become a Christian that day or any other day. I cannot save anyone either. All I can do is faithfully present the Good News about Jesus and leave salvation in God’s hands.
Truthfully, the best we could ever hope for is that someone will hear our testimony about Jesus and experience a small change in their lives. Sometimes, we have the opportunity to share with someone and see them become a Christian on the spot. But, that does not always happen. Other times, we share with someone and watch as they make the next step in their spiritual journey. We share the Good News about Jesus so that an atheist can become an agnostic, an agnostic can become a seeker, a seeker can become a Christian, or a Christian can become a disciple.
There is no pressure on you and me. Our job is to tell the story. It is God’s work to make that change in a person’s life.
Last Sunday, I shared a CD (The Invitation) with you. On that CD is an “apologetic” presentation by Lee Strobel. Lee Strobel described himself as an atheist and was happy. That all changed one day when his wife became a Christian. He wanted to prove that his wife had made a terrible mistake and set out on a two year investigation into the claims of Christianity. At the end of his two year investigation, he wrote out a list of pros and cons—why Christianity is true and why Christianity is not true. As he looked at his list, he made the decision that it would take more faith to be an atheist than to be a Christian. He describes his journey to faith on that CD.
I want you to have that CD for two reasons. (We have more CD’s if you did not get one last Sunday.) First, I want you to listen to it as a way to help you present a thoughtful and intentional argument for why Christianity is true. Second, I want you to give it away to someone you are praying for…Someone who needs to hear a thoughtful and intentional argument about the truth of Jesus.
You and I cannot make someone else a Christian…And we certainly cannot debate someone into a relationship with God. But, what we can do is present the truth of Christianity and clear up misunderstandings in order that God can change their lives.