“Making Known the Unknown God: Paul at the Areopagus” (A sermon by Pr. Charles Henrickson, on Acts 17)
“Making Known the Unknown God: Paul at the Areopagus” (Acts 17:16-31)
“Witness” has been a major theme running through the readings from the Book of Acts that we’ve had this Easter season. We’ve heard the church bearing witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world: Peter and the apostles speaking boldly before the Sanhedrin. Peter preaching Law and Gospel on the Day of Pentecost. Stephen bearing witness to Christ and becoming the first martyr of the church in the process. The church giving verbal testimony to the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, calling people to repentance and faith in his name–this is what we see in these readings from Acts.
But all of those examples that I just cited involved the early Christians bearing witness to their fellow Jews. We have not yet seen how the church bore witness when speaking to Gentiles, that is, to non-Jews, pagans. Today, we do. It is the story of Paul preaching in Athens, moving from the Jewish synagogue to the Gentile, pluralistic marketplace of ideas. And so this has great relevance for us today, for this is the world we live in. Thus our theme this morning: “Making Known the Unknown God: Paul at the Areopagus.”
So Paul is in Athens, the great intellectual center from Greece’s glorious past. This was the city of the philosophers–Socrates, Plato, Aristotle–great names from the golden age. Athens was Greece’s “University City.” And the Areopagus was the place where the professors and the intellectual avant-garde would gather, always eager to hear the latest thing.
But that’s not where Paul goes first. Our text says that “he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews.” Remember, the Jews had been scattered throughout the Mediterranean world for centuries. In every city of any size, there was a Jewish synagogue. And so the first stop in most any city Paul went to was the synagogue. “To the Jew first and also to the Greek,” that was Paul’s pattern. Why? Because at the synagogue Paul found a ready-made audience for the gospel. They were already familiar with the Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. What Paul then did was to show how Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of those Scriptures, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah promised from long ago.
For example, earlier in Acts 17, Paul was in Thessalonica, where, it says, “there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded.”
This “Jesus is the Christ, the fulfillment of the Scriptures” approach worked when you’re dealing with a Jewish audience. They knew what you were talking about. That the Messiah had finally come, and that it was Jesus, of all people, whom their leaders had crucified but God had raised from the dead–this was the missing piece of the puzzle. But the basic look of the puzzle was already in place. Now of course, many of the Jews rejected the gospel, even though they were familiar with the Bible and knew something about that guy Jesus. It was the repentance-and-faith part that they resisted, and thus many of the Jews rejected the gospel. Many of them, though, did believe the message that Paul brought to the synagogue.
So here in Athens Paul goes to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles. But notice, Paul takes a different approach when speaking to Gentiles than when he speaks to Jews. He does not use the “Jesus is the fulfillment of Scripture” approach, since his pagan audience would not know the Bible. Now he will get there eventually, but he doesn’t start out that way.
The Jews would take for granted that there is only one true God, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not so the Greeks. They were open to there being many gods, many religions. Paul takes note of this, and it troubles him: “his spirit was provoked within him,” it says, “as he saw that the city was full of idols.”
This is the world we live in. The American idols are everywhere, all over the map. Any goofy, nutty religion will do, as long as it is “your truth.” Many roads to God, however you may perceive him–or her, or it. Let’s all get along. Pluralistic, polytheistic, post-modern America, where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs can hold “interfaith” prayer services, as though such a thing were possible. That’s America in the twenty-first century.
That was Athens in the first century. That was the religiously pluralistic society Paul found himself in. Our text goes on: “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.’”
You see, they perhaps thought this Jesus fellow that Paul was talking about was just another local god from another land, one god among many. And the resurrection, it seems, they thought of as the name of a foreign female deity. The Greek word for “resurrection” is “anastasis,” a word in the feminine gender–we get the girl’s name “Anastasia” from this–which they could have taken as the personification of the concept of resurrection. Many of the Greek gods were like that, an abstract concept personified as a god or goddess. They really don’t get what Paul is talking about.
Continuing: “And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
So now Paul has to cut through that fog. How does he go about it? Back to our text: “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 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.’”
The Athenians had many idols around, images of various gods. They even had one dedicated “To the unknown god,” just in case they might be missing one. They wanted to have all their bases covered.
But this is just groping around in the dark. Pagans, all people, really, who do not know the one true God in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ–they may know that there must be a God–nature, reason, and conscience will tell you that much–but they don’t know him, really. The natural man, that is, the man without the Holy Spirit, is just stumbling around in the darkness, groping around in the blindness of our fallen human nature. Only when God reveals himself to us–and that only happens through the gospel of Jesus Christ–do our eyes become opened and we begin to see the light. Only in Christ, the one Savior from sin and death for all of mankind, do we know God as he wants to be known. There is no other way.
Here at the Areopagus, Paul is making known the unknown god. It is the one true God who created the heavens and the earth. Paul says: “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. 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, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. 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.’ 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.”
So here is Paul’s entrée into his preaching of the gospel to pagans. It is the doctrine of Creation: That there is only one true God, the Creator of all. There are not many gods, the creation of our own imagination. Man does not create God in his own image. No, it’s the other way around: God has created man in his image.
Now this preaching is telling these pagans: We blew it. We were kinda stupid. We really don’t know who God is, since we have all these silly idols. Paul is preaching the law here, to convict sinners of their sins, before he reveals to them the answer to their sinful blindness, namely, Jesus Christ, their Savior.
And so this is where Paul takes it. He declares: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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.”
Paul is saying: “What you people did by worshiping everything but the one true God–that was ignorance. But now I am making known to you the God you missed, the one true God of all mankind. He is now commanding you to repent, before it is too late. Judgment Day is coming. You will be judged. There will be a reckoning. Your only hope is in the one I’m now about to tell you about. The one who will be your Judge, this one is also your Savior. It’s this man Jesus Christ I’ve been telling you about, the one who rose from the dead.” That is where Paul is going with all of this.
Now this is where our reading today stops, but if you look at Acts 17, in the next couple of verses we see the reaction to Paul’s preaching. It says: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
So some mocked, but some believed. Gee, that sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? That was the same sort of mixed reaction that Paul got from the Jews at the synagogue. Some rejected the message, some believed. And so it goes to this day. Some will respond positively to the preaching of God’s Word, some will not. Whether Jews or Gentiles, some of our hearers will repent and come to faith, and some will not. We shouldn’t be surprised by this.
How about you? Do you know that Judgment Day is coming? You will stand before your Creator, and you will be judged. How will you fare? If you rely on yourself, it will not go well. If you rely on Christ, you will be saved. For this is what Paul did not have a chance to get to, in the brief excerpt we have here from his preaching at the Areopagus: This man Jesus, whom God raised from the dead–the reason he died was to save you from your sins, to save you from the judgment and eternal condemnation. That’s why he died, in your place, as the sacrifice for your sins. He did this for all men, for Jews and Greeks and people from Missouri. Your sins are forgiven, covered, paid for, by the blood of Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world. God raised this man Jesus from the dead, on Easter, to show that life is the result of what Christ has done. Baptized and believing in Christ, we share in his mighty victory over death. This is the good news that God has for all people everywhere.
Friends, from the Areopagus of Athens to the Heartland of America, the message is always the same: Christ crucified and risen from the dead, calling you and all people to repent of your sins and trust in him for salvation. To the Jews, our witness may start with the Scriptures. To the Greeks, we may start with the doctrine of Creation. But the goal of our preaching, the destination, does not change. To both Jews and Greeks, to Jerusalem and Athens and Bonne Terre, our message is ultimately the same: We preach Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God, the one hope for all mankind.
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