The Unknown God
Acts 17:16 – 34
The Unknown God
I wonder if you’re familiar with the term “couch commerce”? Some of you I know are very experienced in this!
“Couch Commerce” is a new term, which describes the phenomenon, of people sitting at home in the evenings, watching TV, but at the same time, shopping online, using their tablet or smart phone.
It is the research suggests, an online retailer’s dream, helping to propel Amazon.com’s Christmas sales to a record 21 billion dollars last year.
And for a shop that started out selling books out of a garage, this week I noticed that “Religion and Spirituality” section alone, includes 1 million, 81 thousand, 296 different titles.
If you’re looking for a book to tell you something about God,
Or to feed your desire for spiritual connectedness,
You can choose from Eckankar, Scientology or Rastafarianism,
Reincarnation, channelling and visionary fiction, whatever that is!
And of course there’s Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam,
645 thousand books on Christianity,
And in amongst all of that, there’s a book called “Ina May’s guide to childbirth”, which for some reason, is listed under the occult!
We’re surrounded by religious options
From Amazon to Littlehampton, we’re surrounded by a huge diversity of religious beliefs.
And even though our region here is fairly monochromatic, culturally, even on our streets, we see people in different kinds of religious dress.
We’ll find are shops with a little shrine behind the counter,
And as we drive through our region you’ll see signs beside the road and in shop windows promoting all manner of self-help programs, that promise to connect you with the true Spirit, or Creator, or Life-force or whatever it is that you might be seeking.
And in that respect, our world is remarkably similar to 1st Century Athens.
When we read the passage, did you notice how Luke captures the religious diversity of the city?
Verse 16, While Paul was waiting for them, that’s Silas and Timothy, in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
Verse 21, All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.
And again 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.
If you followed any of the US Presidential election last year, or if you watch The West Wing , you’ll know about the significance of the state of New Hampshire in the election process, because they’re the first state to vote in the primary elections, choosing delegates for the party conventions.
Because they’re the first, an inordinate amount of media coverage is given, and it’s thought that a good result for a candidate in New Hampshire, can give the equivalent of a 27 percent boost in the polls later on.
And the New Hampshire residents are very proud of their status as the “heart of democracy” as they like to say. They defend their role and their decisions vigorously.
Well that’s the Athenians, they know they’re at the heart of religion and culture, very determined to stay that way, and very determined that they do everything necessary, to be the capital of religious devotion in the known world.
So it’s no surprise that that Athens was famous for its temples, for its altars, for the 30,000 statues of different gods in the city.
The historians end up having to resort to metaphor to try and convey the religious enthusiasm of the city. They describe Athens as a “forest of idols”, that the marketplace was “lined with idols.”
One historian noted that on the streets of Athens, it was easier to find a god, than a man.
The Athenians were pretty sure that they could teach you a thing or two about how to do things properly with regard to the gods.
Paul has a concern for lost people
And yet, what does Luke tell us about the Apostle Paul’s response when he observes this religious fervour in the city?
Does he see a city, on their way to spiritual enlightenment?
Is he thrilled at a community of people, so devoted to every possible religious expression?
No, he’s not, is he?
He sees lost people.
When Paul sees people pursuing all these various religions, and devoted to the multitude of gods, his heart breaks for them.
He was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols verse 16.
Literally, we’re told Paul’s spirit was “stirred up within him”,
He’s devastated at the spiritual condition of these people,
There’s anguish that people are debasing themselves by bowing down to things made by their own hands,
But there’s also anger, the worship that is due to the living God who’s made himself known in Jesus, is being given to others, to false gods, to metal and stone idols.
Some friends of mine had a member of their church round for dinner one night. It was a cold night, so they had the fire going, and our friend noticed their guest glancing uncomfortably at the fire.
She thought “he must be cold”, and loaded it up with wood. The husband of this couple was a cabinet maker, so there was quite a large pile of wood next to the fire, all the spare timber from his workshop.
As the evening went on, the young guest was looking more and more uncomfortably at the fire, And every time the host noticed him looking at, she’d get up and put on another piece of some exotic wood!
This went on and on, until eventually the guest cried out “Please stop!” He said “I teach woodwork in the local school, and some of these species of timber we could never dream of getting our hands on, I can’t bear to see it all getting burnt up!”
So they stopping stoking the fire, and at the end of the evening they sent him home with a car-load of timber from the workshop!
I can’t bear to see that, being used like this.
I can’t bear to see people, entangled in idolatry.
That’s Paul’s heart for lost people.
People who were created to know and worship the living God, are so far from their maker’s intentions.
Interestingly, the word that Luke uses to describe Paul’s distress at what the sees of the pagan life of Athens, is the word that’s used in the Old Testament to describe God’s response to the idolatry of his people.
Paul’s response to people chasing after false and empty gods, is God’s response.
So what about you and me?
Does the idolatry of our age, distress us?
The idolatry of our age is different, isn’t it?
The gods and idols are more likely mental than metal, aren’t they, but they are gods and idols none the less.
Does that distress us?
Would it be said of us, that as we look at the countless thousands of people far from God, pursuing their own ideas of God, would it be said that we were greatly distressed?
When I was working at the Anglican Church in Magill, we started a new evening congregation, and the way we worked with the members of the church, to get them excited about this new opportunity, and for them to think about how they might become a part of it, was to use as our motto, of you like, the phrase “Lost people matter to God.”
Lost people matter to God, so we wanted to create a new opportunity for them to hear about Jesus.
Lost people matter to God, so 3 years ago a group of Christians started meeting here,
Lost people matter to God and so this morning a new church has started in Colonel Light Gardens.
Lost people matter to God, so we’ll prepare ourselves with answers to the questions our friends are likely to have,
Lost people matter to God, so we’ll look for opportunities to speak of the hope we have in Christ.
Paul has a message for lost people
Well, we see what Paul’s concern for lost people does, he starts talking to them about Jesus.
Without a doubt Paul said much more than what Luke’s recorded as a summary for us. Paul’s speech in the Areopagus is less than 300 words. If I was preaching that, it would take me less than 2 minutes!
But he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.
Teaching the Athenians about God, would seem a bit like, selling ice to Eskimos, or whatever other politically incorrect metaphor you can come up with!
And so 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.
The Epicureans were materialists, who taught that either there was no such thing as gods, or that if they did exist, they were so far removed from the lives of ordinary people, that they could have no impact on human life. They pursued pleasure, and in fact there are significant parallels between Epicureanism and Buddhism as we see it practiced today.
The Stoics taught that reason was the answer to understanding the universe, and they were pantheists;, “god is in everything”.
Their great goal in life was self-sufficiency. God was just a cosmic unity encompassing the whole world, think of The Force, in Star Wars, but less helpful! There was no “Use the Force, Luke” in Stoicism, so you had to do everything yourself.
The Epicureans didn’t believe in any kind of existence after death, and the Stoics thought that only the soul survived beyond the grave.
And when they accuse Paul of being a babbler, the word they use describes a bird pecking around in the dirt picking up seeds. A bit here, a bit there, they have absolutely no concept of the message he’s bringing them, and so they think he must have just picked up a few scraps of teaching from various sources and is trying to pass them off as his own, new philosophy.
Today we’d say “Oh, he’s just done a “cut and paste” job.
Paul’s message is just completely different to their philosophies.
And they thought that Paul was talking about two gods, Jesus, and the resurrection.
The Athenians, like so many of the people we spend our time with every day, have absolutely no idea, of the truth of gospel message, and so Paul spends his time in the synagogue, in the marketplace, day by day, talking about Jesus.
Eventually, these strange ideas, verse 20, become so perplexing to the people, that they bring Paul to a meeting of the Areopagus.
The Areopagus was a hill in Athens, and on the hill, or nearby, a council met, which served as a civil and criminal court, and also it had some jurisdiction in religious matters.
Did you notice Luke’s rather disparaging comment in verse 21, (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
They don’t seem to be at all interested in the truth.
They’re not particularly eager to work out if something in their lives needs to change in the light of what Paul’s saying.
They’re keen to hear, because what they’re hearing is a novelty.
There’s no earthquake moment, like we saw in Philippi a couple of weeks ago, where the power of God suddenly impresses upon people the urgency of considering how they live in God’s world, and whether they’re giving God the honour due to him.
Like I imagine, many of your friends, and certainly many of my friends, the Athenians are happy, not knowing the truth about God,
They’re not searching for God
Lost people need to know the truth about God
And yet Paul isn’t happy for people to just be intrigued by the message of Jesus,
He’s not content to just offer some religious thoughts for people to slot into their framework.
See verse 22, Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “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.
The Athenians were so desperate to please any and every god, and so worried about inadvertently missing out some god, they erected this altar inscribed to “an unknown God”
The Athenians had every god and then some covered.
So when Paul finds himself before the philosophical and religious leaders of Athens,
What does he do?
Does he congratulate them on their sincerity?
Does he say, “Well, you’ve got off to a good start, let me give you some tips on how to improve your religious practice?
No, he doesn’t does he?
He says, “Let me tell you the truth”, “Let me make known to you, what you don’t know.
Paul says sincerity is no substitute for truth,
And while you have plenty of religion,
And plenty of sincerity,
You don’t have the truth, and I want to share the truth with you.
I wonder if we’re ever tempted to think that being interested in Jesus, is an adequate substitute to trusting in Jesus, for forgiveness for our rebellion against God.
Do you ever think that some religion is better than no religion?
Well the Athenians had all the religion in the world, didn’t they, and Paul knows they have nothing before God.
The error of idolatry
See he points out for them, doesn’t he, the error of idolatry,
Verse 24, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live
If you’ve been with us in the last few weeks, you’ll have noticed something of a pattern in Paul’s preaching when he’s in the synagogues, speaking to Jewish people; He starts by explaining the Old Testament Scriptures.
Here, of course, the people have no understanding of the Old Testament, no familiarity with it, which makes them exactly like the people we spend our time with every day, and so he doesn’t quote the Old Testament, but he very clearly speaks in the language of the Old Testament, doesn’t he?
The God who made the world and everything in it,
Lord of heaven and earth,
does not live in temples built by hands.
God who is creator, and lord over all, why on earth would he live in temples built by hands?
God made everything, including people, so why would God need people, to make him somewhere to live?!
No, God doesn’t need anything from us. We get everything from him.
There’s no way we can make God owe us,
We don’t get involved in ministry,
Or come to church,
Or give money, to put God in our debt!
God doesn’t need our time or money any more than he needs us to make him somewhere to live!
The Athenians were so devoted to making houses for God, that it never occurred to them, that if their gods were any kind of gods at all, they wouldn’t need their creatures to build a home for them!
We’ve got pet turtles at home, their names are Esther and Mordechai, We don’t depend, on Esther and Mordechai, for anything!
And yet the Athenians were the turtles, thinking that their gods, depended on them
A friend of mine was at home once, and he heard this muffled cry, “help me, help me, help me.” So he went to investigate.
It sounded like it was coming from the lounge room, “help me, help me, help me”, but he couldn’t see anybody there! When he got closer “help me, help me, help me”, it was coming from inside the couch!
This couch was a sofa bed, and it turns out the older brother in this family had tricked his little sister into getting into the sofa bed, and then he’d folded it back up and put the bed away, with her inside!, “help me, help me, help me”
Lots of people today, think that’s what God’s like!
We’ve got him confined in a church building somewhere,
He’s under house arrest, we won’t let him out,
“Help me, help me, help me!”
Maybe we don’t think God’s trapped in a building waiting for us to let him out, but we might be tempted to try and confine God to some particular area of our life:, This bit here is God’s domain, but not this other part of my life.
God isn’t just the God of Sundays, but not the rest of the week,
He’s not the God of my money, but not my relationships,
He is the Lord of heaven and earth, he determined the times set for mankind, and the exact places where they should live.
God has something to say about every aspect of life.
God is Lord, of everything we do.
God has something to say about how we spend our money,
How we use our time,
How we assess our priorities,
Our politics, God has something to say about that.
We can’t try and keep God confined to one tiny part of our life, like a little kid with a jack in the box, trying to squish it back in, and keep the lid shut.
The error of idolatry is the same whether we’ve made our god out of stone,
Or whether we’re trying to convince ourselves that God is somehow different to what he really is.
The person who says, “Well, I believe in the God of the Bible, but I don’t think he is Lord over this part of my life, has just as much a false picture of God as the person who worships a block of wood.”
A gracious encouragement - God is close!
God is Lord of all, but also Paul has a word of gracious encouragement:, God is close by!
He’s not far away, unreachable and uninvolved like those Epicurean philosophers thought.
he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
In the 4th century, a man named Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. He was one of they key contributors to the writing of the Nicene Creed in 325 AD, with which we and millions of other Christians affirm our faith when we gather.
During his life there was a huge amount of upheaval in the Christian world, false teachers were trying to distort the truth of the gospel, and get their false gospel recognised as truth.
And because he defended the true message about Jesus, Athanasius had to, from time to time, flee for his life. And there’s a story that on one of these occasions, Athanasius was on a boat travelling up the Nile River, and the soldiers working for one of these religious heretics were in another boat, which came from behind and pulled up along side.
The soldiers obviously didn’t recognise Athanasius, and so they called out to him across the water, “We are looking for Athanasius of Alexandria, do you know where he is?”
Athanasius thought for a minute, more godly than I, he didn’t want to tell a lie at that point, so he called back to the soldiers, “He is not far from you, and if you keep going, you will soon pass him!”
Well same words, different intention!
The reason God has acted the way he has in the world, is so that he might be found,
He’s made himself known, so that men and women would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him though he is not far from each one of us.
What words of comfort those must have been to the Epicureans who pictured God as far off and removed, and to the Stoics who thought they had to be entirely self-sufficient,
Not to mention the average Athenian, who just didn’t know who God was!
“God is within arm’s reach” Paul says, because he’s brought himself close!
God isn’t far off, in fact he’s broken into our world.
You’ll never find him on your own, you need to turn to where God has made himself known.
But you can find God,
You can know him,
And in fact, you need to, Paul says,
Because God makes a gracious command: “Repent!”
A gracious command – repent!
See verse 29, 29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
Right through this episode, it’s the Athenians’ ignorance of God that Paul’s been engaging with, isn’t it?
He picked up on their own admission, “There’s a god we don’t know about, the “unknown God””,
He’s pointed out the evidence of their ignorance, of course God doesn’t depend on us,
And here in verse 29, further evidence just how far they are from the truth:, If God has made people, then how on earth, could something that people make, be considered an adequate reflection of God?
My 18 month old daughter Abby, she’s just getting into finger-painting! If you say to her, “paint a picture of Daddy”, she’ll do it!, But please don’t think that’s an adequate representation of me!
You want to know what I’m like, please come and talk to me, don’t rely on Abby’s fingerpainting!
And so having summed up their ignorance, Paul now says, verse 30, this ignorance is culpable.
Before God’s great revelation of himself in Christ, God didn’t bring down on human sin the judgment it deserves.
It’s not that God approved of it,
Or thought it didn’t matter,
But that in his kindness, he held off on that judgement, the necessary judgment for sin and evil, and let’s be honest, we want God to judge sin and evil in its various forms.
We want just judgment!
The last time you submitted an assignment to be marked, you were counting on just judgment, weren’t you?
The last time you played sport, and you appealed to the referee, or maybe you were watching sport, and were yelling at the referee through your TV, you do that because you demand just judgment.
Well that judgment is coming!
And so God issues a gracious command: “Repent!”
“Gracious” and “command” are not words that we generally put together, are they? And yet God’s command to all people everywhere to repent, flows directly from his grace, his undeserved kindness to us, because verse 31, sin is going to be judged, he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
My son Jamie, loves riding his scooter on the footpath. What he’s not so good at is stopping at roads. And so sometimes I find myself, commanding him, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Jamie, stop!”
That is a command, no mistaking that, yet it’s a command that is filled with love.
That’s God’s command to repent.
Turn from ignorance,
Turn to the God who has made himself known in Jesus, because he is the one who has been appointed as the judge of sin, and the resurrection proves that.
God reverses the human verdict on Jesus, and says, this is the one to whom everyone must give account, all people everywhere.
Before we were married, my wife Kathy went to work with a mission organisation in South Africa for a year, and as she was preparing to go, people she knew said to her, why not just leave the people in Africa to their beliefs?
Why bother telling them something new about God?
God commands all people everywhere to repent.
Not people who have grown up in a “Christian country”,
Not people who went to a church school,
All people everywhere, must repent, which just means to turn to God.
I’m sure you’ve seen those signs on the Freeway exits, “Wrong Way! Go back!” Actually, I hope you’ve only ever seen them in your rear-view mirror!
Do they say? “Go back, unless you’re driving a white Commodore”
Go back, unless you have more than 3 people in your car.
Go back, unless it’s between 3 – 4 PM on a school day.
It’s just “Go back, you’re going the wrong way.”
God graciously commands all people everywhere to repent
Don’t die of ignorance
In 1986 the British Government launched a massive public information campaign to combat the spread of AIDS, which it was thought at the time would kills tens of thousands in the UK. The campaign slogan was “Don’t die of ignorance.”
Don’t die of ignorance, it’s Paul’s message, isn’t it?
God has made himself known in the person of Jesus, don’t keep living in ignorance.
God will judge our rebellion against him, even polite rebellion, living in God’s world as if God doesn’t exist.
And the penalty for that is death and separation from God.
Don’t die of ignorance.
It’s seen as a sign of humility, isn’t it, to say, “Well, I don’t know much about God, I’m a bit agnostic really, don’t want to be too definite about these things!”
But it’s not humble to be ignorant of God, not when God’s made himself known.
If you and I have never met, but we’re chatting after church, I don’t expect you to know my name.
However, if you’ve been with us every Sunday for the last 3 years, and after all that time, you still refuse to learn me by my name, it’s always just “that guy, or what’s his name over there”, I would justifiably, be offended, I think.
God broke into the world that he made, he sent his Son to die in our place, so that he could be known. How much greater the offence, to say of God, “I’m quite happy to stay a little bit agnostic, that Noel Coward line, “God? we’ve never been properly introduced.”
Paul’s sharing the good news of Jesus ends with some people believing, some people scoffing, and some wanting to hear more.
Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to the altar, “to an unknown God”
Maybe they ripped the plaque off, and put on something else,
But they can’t legitimately speak of the “unknown God” can they?
Even if they want nothing to go with God, to have any integrity, they really need to rename the altar, something like “to the unacknowledged god.”
Because God has introduced himself, so that no one needs die of ignorance.