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Addressing Athens

Date 27 Aug 2023

Sermon Text: Acts 17:16-34

Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong



27Aug23 Herald
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TRANSCRIPT

Love the Lost.

Picture Paul in Athens in the Agora - the marketplace. Here’s what it would have looked like. The marketplace is a center of trade and commerce, but it is also the place where civil discourse and philosophical dialogue took place.


The Agora the financial centre, and also the intellectual hub of Athens. The pulsating heart of the city. And what we see is that its heart is filled with idols. Everywhere Paul turned, there one appears.


And as a result, the text says, Paul’s spirit was provoked within him. He’s provoked for two main reasons:

  1. Every idol is an affront to God. Every idol represents a violation of the first commandment, that there is no God besides God and none to be worshipped but him. That’s the first reason why Paul is provoked. He is indignant, he is jealous for God’s glory.

  2. It is equally obvious that Paul is provoked at the fate of the pagan Athenians. Each idol is a reminder that these people are lost because these idols cannot see, cannot speak, cannot move, and they definitely cannot save.


Paul is provoked by false worship and provoked for the false worshippers. He is angered by the presence of idols, and he is grieved by fate of the idolaters. For love of God and neighbour, Paul is provoked.


Picture yourself in Orchard Road. The Agora of Singapore. Like the agora at Athens, it is also a place of commerce and learning. Every movie you watch is a discourse on romance and heroism and justice and morality. Why do you think every show in recent years has a LGBTQ character? Every advertisement seeks to communicate values and a narrative about what life ought to be. Watch an Apple advert, do you ever recall it telling you about the product per se – about its specifications and technology? The marketplace today is much like it was two millenia ago.


Picture yourself standing in the marketplace, the heart of the city, feel its energy, imagine the crowds, take in the sights and sounds.


Then answer this: when was the last time you were provoked in Orchard Road? More importantly, what provoked you?


Was your coffee and bagel date late? Did you forget to bring your receipt you needed for the refund? Was the movie you wanted to catch sold out?


When was the last time you stood in Orchard Road and you were upset because the city has cast God aside, and your heart was broken for the lost all around you?


But you might say, yea, but Paul felt that way because the idols were so conspicuous, the statues were in his face. You’re right. And some of the idols he might have come across in Athens were statues of Nike the Goddess of victory, with her wings outstretched. Eros, the god of love. Bacchus, the god of wine.


If we only opened our minds our eyes would be able to see that these idols are as ubiquitous in Athens back then, as it is in Singapore today.


Nike continues to offer victory if you sacrifice to her. Sex, lust, Eros continues to feature prominently on the billboards and LED screens all over town. Bacchus still has his altars established in every bar, nightclub and mall today. Oh, how many lives have been sacrificed on his altars to this day.


Given the reality and ubiquity of idolatry all around us today. Is your spirit provoked within you?


If not, then it is futile to proceed any further. Because if you do not have spirit that is provoked by the idolatry you witness, provoked for the idolaters you see, then learning about what Paul does in the rest of the passage today would be purely academic, whereas the purpose is to shape our Christian practice.


So that’s the first call of our text: Love the lost. Love the lost.


Paul loved the lost,

17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.

He loved them, so he proclaimed Jesus Christ to them. To Jew and Greek alike, in the synagogue as well as in the marketplace. To anyone and everyone who happened to be there.


18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”

Now love requires sacrifice. And I want us to see that what Paul is doing is sacrificial. By putting himself in the marketplace, he is putting his well-being on the line. Because we see him taken from the Agora to the Areopagus.


On screen, you will see an artistic reconstruction of the Agora and the Aeropagus in Athens back in the day. The Aeropagus was an amphitheatre where a council of Aeropagites sat and examined a teacher for his teachings.


In the first century, the Council of the Areopagos seems to have been 'the effective government of Athens and as well as its high court. As such, it could interfere in any aspect of corporate life – education, philosophical lectures, public morality, foreign cults.


Athens may have subscribed to religious pluralism, but that does not mean it’s a free for all system. It does not mean that they are willing to accept any and every god that some babbler proclaims.


Some 400 years ago, in Athens, lived a philosopher called Socrates. The most famous philosopher in history. If you haven’t heard of Socrates, you may have heard of Alexander the Great, the Great Greek conquerer. Alexander the Great’s personal tutor was Aristotle. Islamic scholars revere him as the “First Teacher”. One of Christianity’s greatest theologian, Thomas Aquinas refers to Aristotle simply as “The Philosopher”. Aristotle was a student of Plato, one of the world’s most widely read and studied philosopher even till today. Plato was a student of Socrates.


This Socrates of Athens died by capital punishment. Executed by the city of Athens. Sentenced to die by forced suicide by drinking a poisonous concoction of hemlock. Why did Athens execute their foremost philosopher, if Athenians were so delighted with learning and philosophy?


The official reason, the official charge for which Socrates was found guilty and deserving of death – the official charge was impiety against the pantheon of Athens.


What does that mean? Impiety? The accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: (1) "failing to recognise the gods that the city recognises" – that is, Socrates didn’t believe in the Gods that the Athenians worshipped. (2) He was impious because he was “introducing new deities into Athens".


Are you feeling the heat for Paul? Now we see the underlying reason they summoned Paul from the Agora to Aeropagus. The name meaning the Hill of Ares. Ares being the God of war, which is perhaps an apt description for what is taking place in that venue. There is a war of theologies taking place, and Paul is fighting for his life. He is willing to do so because he loves God enough, and he loves the lost enough.


18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”

This isn’t an innocent request in the name of Athenian curiosity. Like Paul, the Athenians too were provoked by his theology. And they took him – not invited him – they took him and brought him to the Areopagus to examine him, to see if he is guilty of impiety towards the Athenian Pantheon of gods.


We already know that Paul survived the examination. But how? Because Paul doesn’t merely love the lost, he also knows the lost.


Know the Lost.
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.
23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’

What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.


Note how Paul avoids the charge of impiety. He is introducing to them a God whom they have not heard about and do not know about. And they are trying to determine if he’s guilty of introducing a “foreign God” into Athenian society.


Paul evades that charge by prefacing his sermon with reference to a statue to “the unknown God”. In effect, Paul is saying, “I’m going to tell you about a God whom you do not know. But he is not a new deity. He’s not a foreign God, he’s a God whom you Athenians have acknowledged and whom you already worship, you have a statue for him right in the city. You call him “the unknown God” – this God, whom you worship as unknown, I will make known to you; this God, I proclaim to you.”


He’s found a loophole you see. He’s introducing a new God, as the Athenians have suspected, but he cannot be charged with impiety, because Paul is introducing Christ into the Athenian Pantheon via the “unknown God”. He is smuggling Christ into a pagan worldview through their “unknown God”.


And the reason he is able to do this is because he knows how the Athenians think. He is familiar with their theology, he is informed about their worldview. And he is even acquainted with their writings.


28 Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

These statements are in quotation marks because they are quotations. They were quoted from Greek literature.


“In him we live and move and have our being”, is likely a quote from Epimenides of Crete.
“For we are indeed his offspring” is a from poem written by Aratus of Cilicia.

So Paul accomplishes two things at the Aeropagus.


First, he has defends himself from charges of impiety in a way they can accommodate, because of their “unknown god”.


And second, he is teaching them true theology in a way they can understand, because he is quotes their poets.


Paul is able to legitimately and coherently address the Aeropagites because he knows Athens, he is acquainted with their worldview. Paul knows the lost. He both loves the lost and knows the lost.


Here’s the question: do you know the lost?


Do you see how important it is to know the lost? It gives us a standing place in the market place of ideas. It grants us a hearing in a crowd of skeptics. It makes us comprehensible in our proclamation to a world of unbelievers.


So do you know the lost? Are you familiar with the main atheistic arguments held by your friend in your Calculus 101 class? Are you acquainted with the key doctrines of the major religions in Singapore – to which 80% of Singaporeans subscribe? Are you aware of the various worldviews commonly held by people today?


You might say, how am I supposed to know these things? Well, the same way we know anything, the same way Paul knew things – by learning, researching, studying.


If you want to be a good doctor, you study formally for many years, and you never stop reading the latest journal articles published on your specialisation. If you want to be a good software developer, you keep reading open source codebases and technical books on coding. There’s no two ways about it. If you want to be a good pastor, you have to keep reading the bible and commentaries and books on theology.


So we know this: if we want to do a good job of what we’re called to do, we have to learn, we have to study. There’s no escaping it.


In the same way, it takes work, it takes effort, it requires undertaking that dreaded activity – reading. A number of people have said to me, Luwin you must enjoy reading quite a bit. No, I hate reading. I dread reading. But I read anyway.


Because I love God, and I am called to love him with all my mind. I read because I love the church, and I must know the word well to preach the word well. I read because I love the world, and I want to know how to better proclaim Christ to them in their worldview.


Now, what are we trying to achieve by knowing the lost? The goal is proclamation. We’re trying to move them to the right. If we love the lost, we’ll seek to know the lost. If we know the lost, we can effectively teach the lost. And the reason we need to teach the lost is because like Paul, we want to say, “this unknown God; the God you do not know” – this I proclaim you.


Here’s how knowing the lost helps our gospel proclamation.


Paul says that God made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,


27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.

God has ordained human societies and civilisations, so that they should seek God.


In other words, there is some element, some revelation, some truth in every culture that prompts, that impels a person to seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.


Which means that there is a starting point in every worldview that would ultimately lead us to the Gospel.


So here’s a picture of our proclamative task to the world.


WORLD – BRIDGE – WORD


This is what Paul is doing: taking the statue of the “unknown God” in their World and making Christ known through the Word.


And the better we know their world, and the better we know the word, the more opportunities we will find to bridges between the World and the Word. And to move them from the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light.


We do all this to teach the lost; to take the unknown God and make him known.


But Ps Luwin, there’s literally a statue in Athens with the inscription “to the unknown God”. That’s a big help. That’s convenient. We don’t have that today.


Yes, but we have enough.


At Lystra, Paul told the people that “God has not left himself without witness”. We simply have to find the evidence embedded in our culture and use it to reveal Christ.


Here are some examples:


Science textbooks write about the beginning of the universe, how did it begin? That is not known to science. But the bible tells us. And that’s one starting point to speak about the The God who made the world and everything in it.”


Morality is another common ground. Why speak of good and evil in a universe of blind, unconscious, pitiless indifference? If the universe neither knows nor cares, do we human beings care so much? Perhaps its because the universe is created good, and mankind was created very good, until sin came into the picture? Perhaps the Gospel has better answers for our morality.


Or how about this: the stories that capture our imaginations, the fairy tales that we pass down from generation to generation. How do they end? With a happily ever after. That’s the ending that resonates with our hearts, it’s the ending we desire. But why, when, as far as this present world is concerned, there is no such thing as a happily ever after, it cannot be found here. Here, everything ends in death and decay. Yet human beings yearn for a happy ever after. Could the Gospel be the story that all our cultural stories are foreshadowing and pointing towards. Could it be the story that all our hearts are longing for? Isn’t it good news that the story happens to be true?


There are many ways to bring the World towards the Word.


The unknown god remains present in the world today. We simply have to look.


Teach the Lost.

And what do we teach the world about God? What ought to be the content of our proclamation?


Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill is by no means exhaustive, but it does reveal key ideas that ought to be prominent in our evangelism.


24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

First, God is creator all things and therefore the rightful Lord the universe. And contrary to popular belief, God does not need our worship to survive, he does not need our money to feed himself, we does not need mankind – he is the self-sufficient Creator of the world.


And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,
27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.

Second, this all-sufficient Creator, may not need us, but he desires a relationship with mankind. He desires that we should seek him, perhaps feel our way toward him and find him.


27b Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
29 Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.

Third, this all-sufficient Creator who desires a relationship with us is closer to us than we think, he is not somewhere out there in unreachable outer space. No, he is present with us, we owe each breath to him. In fact, we are made in his image – that is, we are his children.


30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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.”

Fourth, if we are not acknowledging this all-sufficient Creator, who made us in his image and desires a relationship with us. If we are not acknowledging him as God today, we must change our ways and turn to him. Because there will come a judgment day for our neglect to worship him as God.


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.”

Finally, this judgement will be enforced by Jesus Christ who has risen from the dead. He one who has passed from death to life has been appointed to judge the living and the dead on that day.


The proclamation of the Gospel declares the God who is there, and calls everyone to turn around and come to him today, before that day.


That’s the summary of Paul’s address to Athens.


And how did they respond?


Well, some with skepticism about the Resurrection. Which is understandable. Like today, people back then also didn’t think that the dead could come to life again.


Others were intrigued and wanted to hear more before they made up their minds.


But some men believed, amongst whom was Dionysius the Areopagite. Now, being an Areopagite, Dionysius would have to be a learned man, intelligent, capable of reasonable judgement. Paul’s proclamation was able to persuade him, not least because Paul knew how to communicate the gospel intelligibly for his audience.


And the gospel saves, even in a society which prided itself on its philosophy and committed itself to idolatry. The preaching of the Word works. It always has, and it always will.


May that encourage each one of us to follow in Paul’s footsteps, to step into the marketplace, to love the lost, to know the lost, and to teach the lost about the God who came to seek and save the lost.


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