Acts 17v16-34: the Gospel vs the city - 16th March 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Acts 17:16-34

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This is one of the great world cities. Just its name alone is famous across the globe. Once it was the centre of empire; and while that is no longer true, it’s still a centre of culture, and education. It has the famous landmarks, the great art collections and libraries and one of the longest established political centres to be found anywhere. A few years ago the city went through a big dip in fortunes, but now it’s bouncing back. It’s enlightened, civilised, old fashioned but right up to date. Ideas come from here. Great minds gather here.

The city is of course Athens in 51 AD, although the way I’ve described it could be London in 2014, couldn’t it? There are plenty of similarities. And that’s one reason why this chapter of the Bible can be so helpful to us, as people living in 21st century London. In Acts, we’ve been hearing about how the good news of Jesus has made its way across the world, from town to town. Some of those places have been small, out in the sticks. And when we hear about places like that, small towns of so many centuries ago, sometimes we have to work quite hard to see how that setting can relate to ours. But with Athens it’s much easier. As we’ll see, many features of that city were so like our own that you wonder if any time has passed at all. And so, as we see the Apostle Paul sharing the gospel in Athens, we can learn an awful lot about how to share the gospel in London.  

So let’s walk with Paul as he visits this great city. Let’s see what he thinks and says and does. And let’s also notice how people react to him. My prayer is that as we watch these things closely, God will prepare us for his mission right here. So let’s go.

What does Paul think of the great city? (v16) So impressive, so cultured, so famous. What does Paul think of it? Verse 16: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”

He looks round, and instead of getting the camera out and writing the postcards, he’s upset. Greatly distressed. Athens troubles him, not because it’s so sophisticated, no – because it’s completely lost. This enlightened city is totally in the dark. When it comes to God, they are clueless. All they have is idols; blind alleys that don’t lead to God. Idols which are human imaginings of what God might be like but isn’t.

That’s quite striking, isn’t it? When you visit somewhere new, do you ever put your spiritual glasses on and see how it looks through them? That’s how Paul looked – he saw the sites, of course he did, but the more he looked the more he could see massive aching need everywhere. I wonder, do we ever feel this about London? Because I think that the Apostle Paul probably would. Because it’s all here too, isn’t it? The idols are here. In London we’ve got all the most impressive sites. Knightsbridge and Bluewater; the Shard and Canary Wharf; Wembley and Twickenham; the Tate and the 02. And everywhere around us are people who are shopping and spending and working and amusing themselves to death. Passing their time, as busy as bees, completely oblivious to the fact of their own mortality and the realities of eternity which await them. Building their lives on all these things which will not hold them, getting stuck in all these blind alleys. Sooner or later they will die, and then there will be another football season and another fashion week and another change of government and it’ll go on without them, and they will be left facing judgment and eternity with nothing to stand on. “What did you build your house with?” “I built it with straw.” “How did that work out for you?” “Not so good.” If Paul were walking around London today he’d be distressed.

One of those things about living in London is that you grow numb to it. That’s true of the tourist sites, isn’t it? You forget how impressive they are, because you get used to them. It’s only when someone comes to visit you and you show them and you see it through their eyes that you notice it all again. That’s true of the spiritual need too. We can just forget it’s there, busy in our little worlds while out there a great world city full of precious people is going to hell. Does it ever distress you? I was thinking about this on Friday, when I saw all those men filing up the road to Friday prayers at the Mosque, and then filing back again. Building their lives on another idol. Trying with all their might to struggle through a blind alley. It’s so sad. It’s meant to distress us. Sometimes when Christians look at the Mosques that are growing up around London they feel threatened – we shouldn’t feel threatened. We should feel compassion. More people facing judgment and eternity without the forgiveness of Jesus. Do you ever feel that? Does it ever distress you?

Paul was distressed; he saw the need. So what did he do?

What does he do? (v17) “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the market-place day by day with those who happened to be there.” He just starts talking with people. What is he talking about? Have a look at the end of the next verse – it says he was talking about Jesus and the Resurrection. He just launches straight in. He sees the spiritual need, so he just starts talking about Jesus. Do you remember last week, Matt underlining for us how Christianity is all about Jesus, and how unless we’re talking about Jesus we’re not really sharing Christianity with people? Paul hasn’t forgotten. He’s not overawed by the grandeur of the place, he doesn’t worry about how unsophisticated he sounds with this strange message about a man who rose from the dead. He knows what they need; they need God. Without God they are lost. So he shares the message of Jesus. Of course he does. If they’re going to know God then they need to know Jesus. So he has to tell them.

So that’s what he does, next question: how do the people respond? Let’s have a quick look over verse 18 and 19 again: “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." Do you see that? Some people are interested, aren’t they? Those people want to know more. Others are dismissive. Now that’s no surprise – it’s always like that with the message of Jesus. People are either interested, or else they are dismissive.

Let’s think about the dismissive response for a minute, because I guess when we think about talking to people about Jesus, it’s the dismissive response we’re worried about. Well the form of that dismissiveness changes depending on where you are and who you’re with, but it’s always there because the gospel is always a challenge which threatens the status quo. The gospel message of Jesus demands change, and people have a vested interest in staying the way they are. In Thessalonica that we were looking at last week, the message of Jesus was seen as a political threat, wasn’t it? Look up the page at verse 7 – “They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” In Corinth that will look at in a couple of weeks, it’s a religious threat. In Ephesus in a couple of weeks it is seen as an economic threat. And interestingly, in all of those places it gets met with force. We can probably think of lots of places around the world now where the message of Jesus is seen as a political threat – like in North Korea – or as a religious threat – like in Iran or Saudi Arabia – or as an economic threat – like with the drug barons of Latin America. In all of those places it gets met with force. Here in Athens the message of Jesus is a threat to the culture and the prevailing ideas, and so it gets met with sneering. Look you can see the same over the page in verse 32 – “when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered.”  

That’s very London isn’t it? Sneering. Looking down the nose. In our city we’re not locked up or beaten for speaking of Jesus. But we do get sneered at. In our context that’s the best way to shut people up and make them afraid to speak. Make them feel inferior, that the stuff they believe in is laughable. Embarrassing. That way they’ll go quiet. Have you noticed that? Have you noticed how often comedy is used against the gospel of Jesus in our culture? Either in the media or else just in the way people talk. If you want to dismiss the gospel of Jesus, laughter is one of the most powerful tools you can use. Because you don’t even have to engage with the message at all. All you need to do is laugh. Then people will think it’s embarrassing.

We need to be careful that we don’t start to believe the jokes that get told about us. We must not swallow that idea that our message is laughable and embarrassing. Because if we do that we’ll go quiet, and people will be lost. So yes, expect to be sneered at, to be laughed at. Sophisticated city people have always done that.

But that’s not the only response – there are some people who are interested too, and so Paul has another opportunity, this time at the Areopagus itself, the very centre of the cultural and intellectual life of Athens. It’s like University College London, the Houses of Parliament and the Old Bailey rolled into one. So what does he do now?

What does he say? (v23-31)

He tells them about God, doesn’t he? Pure and simple. He’s not fazed by how much they do know. He’s already seen that they are searching and thinking, so he tells them what they don’t know. Look what he says in verse 22: “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.”

Here’s a big thing we can learn from this:

  • The gospel is news, even to people who think they know it all (v23-31).

These are people who know a lot about big ideas. They’ve all done their “philosophy of religions” degree at university. But Paul is not in the least overawed, because when it comes down to it they’re just another bunch of sinful people in need of God. And notice too that Paul doesn’t treat them as ‘on a different path to God’. He respects them; he observes how sincerely religious they are. But he doesn’t pretend that their religion is valid. As far as he’s concerned all of their learning has got them precisely nowhere with God. Of course it hasn’t. No one ever made it to God by their own cleverness or effort or morality or anything else they can do. The only way for them to get to God is for God to come to them – so Paul tells them the gospel message of Jesus. The good news of the real God who has come near.

You see the good news is always news. And it’s personal news. It’s very different to the sort of thing the Athenians were thinking about God. They thought that the gods were things that they could sculpt and imagine and make little houses for. Look at verse 25. They thought they could have the gods on their own terms. Paul says, no – it’s the other way round. The real God made you; he’s come to you; you’re dependent on him. You see it’s very easy to talk about god stuff in a way that always remains one step removed from us. If we talk about religions or about ideas then we’re just talking about what people think. It’s not too personal; it’s not too uncomfortable. We get to make the judgments about what’s right and wrong, we get to evaluate what we think is true. It’s just mental games. Theological Sudoku. Fun maybe but not life-changing. Talking about ideas. It’s ok.

The Christian gospel is a whole lot more personal, and a whole lot more direct. Through the message of Jesus, the God who made us comes and stares us in the face. That’s not a game. That’s personal.

You can see that in the way that Paul tells the gospel here, can’t you? He doesn’t talk about ideas, he talks about a personal God come near. He starts off by saying that God has made each of us, he’s put us precisely where we are, and he’s done all of that for a purpose – verse 27 – so that we would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him. God has made us for relationship with him. He’s made us to come to know him – not to come up with our own versions of what we think he might be like. And now, through the death and resurrection of Jesus God has broken right into our world – That’s verse 31. Jesus has smashed right through death itself, so that now we know that our future is not just death any more. No, now we know that the big future event is that we will meet Jesus as our judge.

Do you see that? It’s a simple but very personal story, isn’t it? The relational God, making us for relationship with him, then coming right to us in Jesus. In the future meeting us face to face as our judge. It’s personal. And like it always is when someone looks you directly in the eye, it’s challenging. Verse 30 – God now commands all men everywhere to repent. To turn to him through Jesus. That’s the challenge for the Athenians. You’ve been searching for God, give up your search now, because he’s come to you. Give up your agenda and your worldview, however cleverly you’ve constructed it, and go Jesus’ way, because there really is no other way.

It’s not rocket science, is it? It’s a simple, personal story about God acting through his Son Jesus. It’s not rocket science. But it is news to them. They know many things, but they don’t know this. They don’t understand the gospel yet.

The gospel is always news. We can easily forget that if we’ve been Christians for a long time, because it’s become familiar to us. But most people out there don’t know the gospel. They don’t know the Christian message. They might well think they know, but in actual fact they haven’t got a clue. They might know all sorts of snippets about the history of the church, or Christian ethics, but if they don’t understand the good news of Jesus, they really really don’t understand Christianity and they don’t know God. One of the best questions we can ask in conversation is this one – do you know what Christians believe? Would you like me to explain very quickly what I believe? You might well be surprised how many people say ‘yes’. Because they don’t know. Don’t worry about sounding clever; don’t worry about being caught out by them asking you something you don’t understand. That’s bound to happen at some point. You’re not there to explain everything. But you do need to explain the gospel message. You do need to tell people the story of Jesus. Because it’s Jesus that saves people. And they don’t know him.

Paul speaks their language, doesn’t he? He quotes some people who they like, favourite philosophers of theirs. He doesn’t use lots of terms that they don’t understand. It’s quite striking how different this speech is to the sort of things Paul says when he’s preaching to Jews. When he preaches to Jews he tells them lots of detail about how Jesus fulfils Old Testament prophecy. He doesn’t do that with these Athenians who don’t know the Old Testament. He tells the same story, but he uses language that they use. There are things we can learn from all of that. But at the end of it he comes down to this – to the story of Jesus who died and rose again. London, in all of its 21st century glitz and sophistication, needs to know the story of Jesus who died and rose again.

And their reaction? More of the same. Verse 32. Some of them sneer. The resurrection is often a sticking point for people who think themselves intelligent and rational, and it’s the same here. They laugh. Others are interested; they want to know more. But others, just a few, believe. God’s great rescue has come to this religious but godless city. A few people at a time, God is saving people here.

So, putting it together, what have we learned that could help us to know and show Jesus in 21st century London?

Notice the need. London is full of people who don’t know God. We’re not the first ones here like Paul was in Athens. There are others. The church is growing in London, which is wonderful. But there is still so much need. Notice it. People need to hear the gospel of Jesus. They need to hear it from somebody.

This week I was talking to Steve about a conversation he had with someone at the bank where he works. They were talking about where this guy lived, and he told Steve about how lots of his friends followed all sorts of religions. And then he said to Steve “what I think is that all these religions are just different paths trying to go up the mountain to God.” And Steve could say “well what if not all the paths get there. How would we know which one did? I think it would need God to come down one of those paths and tell us which is the way. I’m a Christian, and I believe that that’s exactly what Jesus has done.” Just a simple conversation, in language that this guy used, where Steve could talk about the personal news of Jesus. Who knows what might come of it?

We don’t have to be super clever. We just need to be with people and we need to be unashamed of Jesus. If we can be that, who knows what God might do in this great city through us?