This is another challenging question in the Explore God Series, that over 300 churches are tackling in the Chicago area. It has led to some great discussion for believers and seekers alike. This week turns the spotlight on Christianity. This question is uncomfortable because Christians get labeled as intolerant, even at times arrogant. All because we say Christ is the only way. To address this issue, I will examine how Paul approached this issue with an unconnected culture in Athens.
We will begin where Paul lays the foundation for his argument, at creation and with the Creator. First, an illustration describing how Paul carried out his mission work.
Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962), the world-famous violinist, earned a fortune with his concerts and compositions, but he generously gave most of it away. So, when he discovered an exquisite violin on one of his trips, he wasn’t able to buy it. Later, having raised enough money to meet the asking price, he returned to the seller, hoping to purchase that beautiful instrument. But to his great dismay, it had been sold to a collector. Kreisler made his way to the new owner’s home and offered to buy the violin. The collector said it had become his prized possession and he would not sell it. Keenly disappointed, Kreisler was about to leave when he had an idea. “Could I play the instrument once more before it is consigned to silence?” he asked. Permission was granted, and the great virtuoso filled the room with such heart-moving music that the collector’s emotions were deeply stirred. “I have no right to keep that to myself,” he exclaimed. “It’s yours, Mr. Kreisler. Take it into the world, and let people hear it.” Our Daily Bread, February 4, 1994.
When the apostle Paul arrived in the great city of Athens, he did not come as a sightseer, but as a virtuoso of the Gospel. This famous city was the epicenter of religion and culture. But Paul did not see a great city what he saw was a people lost in their culture of pride and self-reliance, sound familiar? Athens was described by one ancient writer who said, “it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens.” Paul walked in the halls of the Jews synagogue and debated the Jews, but had little impact on their entrenched legalistic system. He decided when in Greece do as the Greeks do. Paul took his message to the market (agora) where the men assembled to discuss philosophy or to conduct business. In the South that would be the equivalent of going to the local barbershop and holding court.
Two main philosophies controlled Athens at that time.
The Stoics were materialistic and almost fatalistic in their thinking. Their system was built on pride and personal independence. Nature was their god, and they believed that all life was gradually moving toward a great climax. We still have that thinking in our society today. People are so committed to nature that they place it in a higher place than human life at times.
The Epicureans desired pleasure, and their philosophy was grounded in experience, not reason. Paul confronted these two extremes in philosophy with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whenever you challenge, the status quo, expect the status quo to push back. The Athenians despised Paul and tried to discredit him by calling him a “babbler,” which means “a seed picker.” Because Paul’s teaching was so foreign to them, the thought he was introducing two new gods when he spoke of “Jesus and the resurrection.”
The Greek word for Resurrection is “Anastasia” the concept of people rising from the dead was not a part of their daily vocabulary. So, it is understandable they assumed this for a proper name of an unknown god. The Greeks led Paul to the Areopagus; their official court also called Mars’ Hill. There Paul preached a great sermon.
Paul respected their culture by commending them for their openness to the divine, “I see that you are very religious.” He used their altar dedicated “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD,” as an object lesson. He used this altar to preach about the True God that they were unaware of His existence. Paul presented in his sermon four great truths about God.
God is the Creator (vv. 24–25).
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. Acts 17:24-25
The Greeks held different theories about creation and even believed in a form of evolution.
Life poses three questions we must all wrestle with the answers to, “Where did I come from? Why am I here? And where am I going?” Science endeavors to answer the first question, of our existence. Philosophy grapples with the second, the question of purpose. But only the Christian faith has a suitable answer to all three.
The Two Differing Views in Athens believed this about the universe:
The Epicureans, who were effectively atheists, believed that all was matter and matter always was. So, there was no creator.
The Stoics said that everything was God, “the Spirit of the Universe.” God did not create anything; He only ordered chaos.
Paul Countered with:
“In the beginning, God!” God made the world and everything in it, and He is Lord of all that He has made. He is not some distant celestial being who is divorced from His creation nor is God trapped by His creation. He is too almighty to be contained in man-made temples. 27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built 1 Kings 8:27! Yet, God is not too majestic to be concerned about man’s most basic needs. It makes one wonder how the great thinkers and leaders of Athens reacted to Paul’s statement about temples, as they are standing on the grand Acropolis were several shrines were dedicated to Athena.
Here is where Paul lays waste to the flawed Greek religious system. The Greeks were convinced that in serving God they could contain God in temples. Paul turns that thinking on its head and says, “God does not live in temples made by man.” In other words, you cannot put God in a box. You cannot contain the power and greatness of God in this tiny temple. He does not serve at your pleasure like some cosmic genie. And to take this a step further, He does not need your service, there is nothing you can provide for God that he does not already have. “Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything.” And here is the final twist, not only does God not need us to serve Him but He, in turn, serves humanity, “since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” This is a radical concept of God is Paul introducing.
It is God who gives to us what we need: “life, and breath, and all things.” God is the source of every good and perfect gift as James points out in chapter 1 verse 17. He gave us life and He sustains that life by His goodness as Jesus points out in. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. It is the goodness of God that should lead men to repentance (Matthew 5:45).
“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Ro 2:4).
But instead of worshiping the Creator as we should, the natural response, and glorifying Him, humanity turns and worships God’s creation and seek to glorify themselves. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Ro 1:21–23).
Paul points them and we back the God the Creator and reminds us is rediscovering Him answers the question of where we came from? We were created by the God of the universe. Why do we exist? To give worship and praise to this God. Where are we going? For those who believe on His Son Jesus Christ, to heaven to spend eternity with that Creator.
Christians are losing their power and influence … because they are losing their separateness.- Charlene Kaemmerling
When Robert Ingersoll, the famous atheist, was lecturing, he once took out his watch and declared, “I will give God five minutes to strike me dead for the things I have said.” The minutes ticked off as he held the watch and waited. In about four-and-a-half minutes, some women began fainting, but nothing happened. When the five minutes were up, Ingersoll put the watch into his pocket. When that incident reached the ears of a certain preacher, Joseph Parker, he asked, “And did the gentleman think he could exhaust the patience of the Eternal God in five minutes?” 
The world outside of God’s sheepfold is fond of playing this game of spiritual chicken. “Come on God prove to me you exist.” As Paul faced the religious skeptics in Athens, he explained a foreign concept to them, the patience of God. People are familiar with the wrath of God, or so they think, but patience is a concept far from the mind of the skeptic. In this post, we will cover the final two ways Paul turned their religious thinking on its head and left the learned spinning in their philosophical seats.
Jesus is the Savior (v. 30).
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. As Paul brought his arguments to a close, he summarized the clear evidence of God’s patience and the power of His grace. For centuries, God was patient with man’s sin and obliviousness.
“This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” Romans 3:25
Let’s not get things confused here. This by no means indicates that humanity was not guilty, as You will see below in Romans 1.
For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So, they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Romans 1:19–23.
What Romans 1, does reveal is that God withheld His divine wrath. Does that fit the narrative of a God who wants to punish all humanity in a whimsical sort of way? It instead exposes a different side of God that we Christians know all too well; God is a God of love. In His time God sent a Savior, and now He commands all men to repent of their foolish ways. This Saviour was killed and then raised from the dead, and one day, Jesus will return to judge the world. The proof that He will judge is that He was raised from the dead.
Paul wipes away the prideful Greek culture by calling it “times of ignorance.” With all their knowledge and learned thinking, and being the height of culture, the Greeks failed to find the true nature of God. If humanity just repents and believes, God is ready and will forgive no strings attached.
Jesus is the Judge (v. 31).
“…because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this, he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:31
There will come a day when God will judge. God has appointed a day of judgment, and the Judge will be His Son, Jesus Christ. Why that should give us comfort is that this is not some distant judge, but one who understands our struggles and our temptations because he has experienced them Himself. For us as believer’s, judgment day is not a day of dread but a time of celebration. If we trust Christ through faith in His death and resurrection, He will save us. However, if we reject Him, tomorrow He will judge us.
The people of Athens responded with three different attitudes toward the Gospel. Surprisingly enough those responses are still relevant today. 1) Some people openly oppose the Word, 2) some will mock it and even openly challenge God to prove His existence as in the opening illustration, and 3) some receive the Word gladly and believe. We cannot control the response. We are not called to, that is all the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit produces faith.
God calls us to be seed-planters and not to grow tired and discouraged.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9
The proof of the pre-eminence of Christ is the resurrection. It is no unknown God but a risen Christ with whom we have to deal. And this Christ has died and risen from the dead for you and for me, and invites us to believe on Him and live forever with him in Eternity. Does it make sense to the learned, NO? It is a message and a gift that we receive by faith alone. The Holy Spirit makes the Unknown Savior, Jesus Christ the God of our Salvation.
All things are possible through Jesus Christ!
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“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!" -John. 14:12-14
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