Sermon in a nutshell: “To an unknown God!” (Acts 17:16-34)
When I go around the college campus and meet students, many of them say to me that they are spiritual but not religious. They want to seek God freely and do not want to be given answers by those in authority.
In many ways, college students are like the people in Athens during Paul’s time. Paul’s contemporaries believed in spiritual realities. Those spiritual realities, however, did not include a personal God. They were either principles of the universe, philosophical theses, or moral laws.
For example, Epicureanism was a philosophy that argued that “pleasure” was the main goal of life. Those who believed this said, “Whatever brings pleasure is good and whatever diminishes pleasure is bad.” The meaning of pleasure is, however, not hedonistic. “Pleasure” is obtained through the combination of modest living, knowledge of the universe, and the limits of one’s desires. This leads to a state of tranquility (ataraxia) and freedom from fear, as well as an absence of bodily pain (aponia).
Another example was Stoicism. Stoics sought the “calmness of the emotion” in every situation. They wanted to be free from anger, jealousy, envy, and all kinds of destructive emotions in order to attain virtue (will power) so as to live according to the law of the universe (logos). They believed that emotionless and logical calculation would lead to the most reasonable (so, the happiest) decisions in every situation.
Do you see many parallel teachings practiced in modern times? Paul proclaimed the Personal God and Lordship of Jesus, who died on the Cross for our sins and was raised from the dead to give us eternal life! Do you see how strange this sounded to them?
When they heard about this, some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. In this situation, how should Paul approach them? When Paul stood in front of the Areopagus he said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” First he praised the Athenians. Then he supported his praise with facts. “For when I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’”
(1) One of the ways to start a relationship with strangers is to observe them and to find something for which you can give them praise. “You have a good sense of humor!” “Your words do make sense!” “You have good taste in the arts!” “You have a good deal of knowledge about religion!” That can break the walls between us and allow us to have a conversation.
Then Paul built up his speech based on that observation. Paul was quoting one of the poems that they knew. Paul shared ideas that they could easily agree with: the concept of creation and a creator, the concept of a common origin of humankind, ideas about searching for God and the God within us. All these ideas were known among the Greeks and shared by many of them. So, Paul approached to them in a way that let them feel that he was not that strange. This is how this works:
(2) If you talk to a Presbyterian, emphasize that we are all ________________.
If you talk to a Catholic, emphasize that we are all ______________.
If you talk to a Muslim, emphasize that we are all ______________.
If you talk to an atheist, emphasize that we are all ______________.
(3) Then from this common ground, Paul now added his own proclamation to a statement that they could not oppose.
“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Judgment and repentance were not foreign ideas. People believed that gods judged mortals and sent souls to places. That was why they wanted to discipline their emotions and behaviors. Repentance was also a familiar concept because they all wanted to change their human condition through deeds. The only new idea that Paul added was the reality of a personal judge who demonstrated his divine nature through resurrection. They had a general idea of cycle of the life, such as the seasons or the interchangeabilities among lives; however, a resurrected human being who claimed to be God, the Creator was a new belief!
(4) Actually, that was all that Paul could do. He had to trust God and the leave the rest of the work to the Holy Spirit.
That is also what we do when we share the Gospel. We do our best; however, it is God who reaps the harvest. From this speech, Paul gained some disciples, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
This is encouraging. When we share the Good News, there will be some people who will respond positively. Many people say that they do not want to have a religion but there are also many people who want to belong to a family in God. Brothers and sisters! Let us go out and share the Good News with everybody. Some will be saved because of our prayers, words, and actions. May God bless all of us!
- How would you use Paul’s approach when you talk to the person in your mind?
(First, observe them and praise them based on facts. Then, find common ground. Thirdly, based on the statement that they agree with, add the Gospel. Finally, Trust God and leave it to God’s hands.)
- What result do you expect when you talk to the person in your mind?