Sermon, Acts 17:22-34, Critical Differences, Dr. Philip W. McLarty


Acts 17:22-31

Critical Differences

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Acts 17:22-31

Critical Differences

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Our series on Acts continues with Paul in Athens.  He got there after being run out of Beroea, and that’s what makes the story of his experience in Athens so compelling: Here he meets resistance of a different sort.  Up to now, he’d appealed to the Jews to accept Jesus as the Promised Messiah of the Jewish faith.  That got him into trouble time and again.  While some believed, others were openly hostile.  They’d drive him out of town and, on one occasion, they stoned him to within an inch of his life.

Not so in Athens.  Here Paul makes his appeal, not to a Jewish audience, but to the most learned, well-educated, sophisticated scholars of the day.  Their response is telling: They’re cordial. They listen with great interest.  They don’t argue with Paul or try to confute him in any way.  If anything, they’re curious to know more, but here’s the catch: They have no interest whatsoever in committing themselves to any higher authority than the gospel of enlightenment.

And that’s what I’d like for us to think about this morning – how the gospel calls us to decide between the wisdom of the world and the love of God made sure for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  To be more specific, I can think of at least three critical differences:

• The difference between being religious and being faithful;

• The difference between knowledge and knowing; and

• The difference between curiosity and commitment.

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First, let’s be clear about what happened.  Luke says that Paul got to Athens by way of escape from Beroea.  Actually, the Beroeans were receptive of Paul.  It was the Jews from Thessalonica that caused the troubled.  They’d run him out of Thessalonica and, when they heard that he’d gone to Beroea, they came after him.  They weren’t going to rest until he was out of the country altogether.  Paul had little choice but to pack up and leave.  So, he got on the first ship to Athens.

Now, it’s not hard to imagine why Paul wanted to go to Athens.  It was the cosmopolitan center of the world in that day.  Here’s how it’s described in Wikipedia:

“Classical Athens was a powerful city-state. A centre for the arts, learning and philosophy, home of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, Athens was also the birthplace of Socrates, Pericles, Sophocles and its many other prominent philosophers, writers and politicians of the ancient world. It is widely referred to as the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy ….”

Going to Athens in Paul’s day would be comparable to our going to New York City or London or Paris today.  It was where the action was.

When he got there, the first thing he saw was that it was full of idols.  There were statues and monuments inscribed to every known Greek god and goddess of the day, and, if you know anything about Greek mythology, there were a bunch of them: Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares and Athena, to mention a few.  If that weren’t enough, Paul noticed that the Athenians had even erected a statue to an “unknown god,” just in case they’d left one out.  They wanted to cover all the bases.

I got a taste of this when I went to Athens a couple of years ago.  One of the streets was lined with statues of the Titans.  I could just imagine Paul’s first impression when he walked down the Panthanean Way.  For someone who believes in “God, the father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” it must have been culture shock.

Not to be dissuaded, Paul began to preach openly, both in the synagogue and in the marketplace.  The agora in every Greek city was a popular gathering place, and it wouldn’t have been hard for Paul to get the attention of bystanders milling around.

Among those who heard Paul were some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.  Understand, these were not priests or rabbis or religious men in any way.  They were philosophers.  Their business was to mull over and debate the great mysteries of life.  For example: If a tree falls in the forest, but there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  That’s the world of philosophy. So, when they heard Paul expounding what sounded like a new theory of salvation, their ears perked up, and they invited him to speak at the Areopagus.

Now, the Areopagus was the intellectual forum of Athens.  It was situated on a craggy hill overlooking the city and named after the Greek god, Ares, known in Latin as Mars.  That’s why you often hear it referred to as Mars Hill.  For Paul to be invited to speak at the Areopagus was the opportunity of a lifetime.  Think of it as a musician being invited to give a recital at Carnegie Hall.  It was show time.

He began as a seasoned diplomat.  He said, “I perceive that you are religious in every way,” referring to all the idols down below.  But it was the truth – the Athenians weren’t heathens.  If anything, they were overly religious.

Then, referring to the statues and monuments, Paul pointed out that one was to an unknown god.  This gave him the chink in the armor he needed.  He proceeded to give that god a name.  He said,

“What therefore you worship in ignorance,
this I announce to you.
The God who made the world and all things in it,
he, being Lord of heaven and earth,
doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands,
neither is he served by men’s hands,
as though he needed anything,
seeing he himself gives to all life and breath,
and all things.” (Acts 17:23-25)

Then he called the great philosophers to repent and accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, lest they be caught short on the Day of Judgment.  And notice how he put it.  He said,

“The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked.
But now he commands that all people everywhere should repent,
because he has appointed a day
in which he will judge the world in righteousness
by the man whom he has ordained;
of which he has given assurance to all men,
in that he has raised him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

The Greek philosophers were hardly ignorant or stupid or ill-informed.  Paul’s words must have stung them like a slap in the face.  Not surprisingly, this is where his little diatribe ended.

Some were polite: “Very interesting.  Come back sometime and tell us more,” they said.  Others scoffed and mocked Paul for proclaiming such nonsense as the resurrection of the dead.  To their minds – and this is the wisdom of the world speaking – this was impossible, illogical and totally out of the question.

And that’s the crux of the matter: The gospel of Jesus Christ flies in the face of common sense, so that you have to decide whether you’re going to follow the wisdom of the world or walk by faith in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

I said up-front, there are critical differences.  The first has to do with being religious, as opposed to being faithful.  The Greeks were overly religious.  They bowed down to many gods, but they were oblivious to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

In his lifetime, Jesus had little to do with religious people.  In fact, it was the religious people of his day that gave him grief.  He showed mercy on prostitutes, lepers and tax collectors; he even referred to Samaritans and Gentiles as models of faith; but he had nothing but harsh words for the religious people of his day.  He said,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin,
and have left undone the weightier matters of the law:
justice, mercy, and faith.”
(Matthew 23:23)

A Ford Explorer passed me on the Interstate the other day.  Covering the entire back window was a larger-than-life picture of the head of Christ with a crown of thorns.  I took it as a witness of faith, but I felt a little offended.  I’m not comfortable putting Jesus on parade like this.  It made me wonder about the people in the car.  My hunch is, like the Athenians, they were religious in every way.  But were they faithful?  Would they cut me off in traffic if I got in the way?  That’s the question.  Amos said it best, when he told the religious folk of his day,

“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I can’t stand your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like rivers, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

Another critical difference between the gospel and the world is the difference between knowledge and knowing; between knowing about something and having first-hand experience.  One of my favorite little sayings goes like this:

“Tell me, and I forget;
Teach me, and I remember;
Involve me, and I learn.” (Benjamin Franklin)

With the technology available to us today, it’s altogether possible to know more about Jesus than Jesus knew about himself.  Seriously, you can read volumes about every miracle he performed and every word he said, but that’s not the same as knowing him as the Lord of your life.

To know Jesus as Lord and Savior is to have a relationship with him.  It’s to experience his presence through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit; it’s to see him in the faces of others; it’s to speak and act in his name.  In the words of a great old hymn:

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling in my ear, the Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.” (Austin Miles)

God calls us, not simply to know about Jesus, but to know him as the Lord and Savior of our lives.  That’s the second critical difference, and the third is this: There’s a difference between curiosity and commitment.

If the Greek philosophers were anything, they were curious.  They said, “May we know what this new teaching is, which is spoken by you?” (Acts 17:19)  Given time, they might’ve developed a whole course of study about Jesus and the atoning nature of his death and resurrection.  But they were unwilling to yield to the authority of his grace and love, and that’s the difference.

Listen: Only as you’re willing to surrender your will to God’s will and follow the leading of his Spirit will you ever know the power of his grace and love.

I had a seminary professor who knew more about theology and the Bible than most, but he was as mean as a junk yard dog.  He was cold, calculating and sarcastic.  Then, something happened.  I never knew what it was.  But when I came back after a few years to work on my doctorate, he was changed man.  He was sensitive, compassionate and understanding.  I could hardly believe it was the same person.  However you explain it, it was obvious to me that this Jesus he’d come to know so well in his studies was now a living reality in his life.

In many ways, Paul left the Areopagus with egg on his face.  He was no match for the mighty philosophers of the day.  But he didn’t fail entirely, and that’s the thought I’d like to leave you with.  Luke says,

“(Some scoffed)…But certain men joined with him, and believed,
among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite,
and a woman named Damaris,
and others with them.” (Acts 17:34)

To be generous, let’s say Paul convinced a half-dozen listeners that day that Jesus was the Christ.  Big deal.  Yet, here’s the significance: Dionysius happened to be one of the most revered men of Athens.  He had a home on the Areopagus!  And so, after Paul left and went on to Corinth, it was Dionysius who took Paul’s message and, in time, brought the whole city to faith in Jesus Christ.  A plaque standing on the Areopagus today reads:

“Some time in the middle of the first century, A.C., the Apostle Paul is said to have converted a number of Athenians by teaching the tenets of a new religion from the summit of the hill.  Among the converts was Dionysius, the patron saint of the city of Athens, who, according to tradition, was the city’s first bishop.  Remains of a church in his honor are preserved on the northern slope of the hill.”

Paul dared to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in opposition to the wisdom of the world and, at least on that day, you’d think he failed.  But he didn’t.  He planted seeds that continue to grow and bear fruit, to this day.

And this is what I hope you’ll take home with you: There are critical differences between the wisdom of the world and the truth of Jesus Christ, and when you recognize those differences and consciously choose to walk by faith, God will not only bless you, he’ll use you to bring others into a saving relationship with his son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Copyright 2009, Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.