God’s Claim on All Peoples - Part 1
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 17:16–17:34
Many Idols & Competing Worldviews
I once attended a workshop in Plano. The goal was to learn how to engage unreached peoples in DFW. Our table was assigned several places to meet people who embrace Hinduism: an Indian restaurant, an Indian market, a Hindu temple.
Two things were common to every encounter. One, an abundance of idols: on our table, on the walls, one for the cash register, another for the entrance, hundreds for sale. The other was a worldview vastly different from Christianity. Jesus could be one among millions of gods. The historical veracity of Jesus’ resurrection didn’t matter; all that really mattered was the religious experience. Or, take the word “born again.” A Hindu steeped in the concept of reincarnation understands the new birth very differently.
An abundance of idols; competing worldview. Our society is no different. Rachel and I went out to eat for our anniversary. We couldn’t help but notice TVs on every wall—all different sizes, each showing a different sport, all vying for your attention, displaying idols of a different sort—not to mention the folks gloating over the new sports car, or the American Nationalism plastering the news, or various ads promising security, satisfaction, life, and everything else only God can provide.
It’s also not difficult to encounter competing worldviews. A worldview is your all-encompassing perspective on everything that matters: where’d we come from; why’re things so bad; what’s most valuable.[i] Just listen to the news, or read a New York Times bestseller, or engage people at the coffee shop; talk to your neighbors. Islam, Mysticism, Postmodernism, Secularism, Marxism, New Age Spirituality—we live in a culture teaming with competing worldviews to Christianity.
The next two weeks, we’ll be looking at Paul’s ministry in Athens. Athens was a city with an abundance of idols. Athens was also known for its propagation of ideas. Philosophers debated daily in the marketplace, each trying to one-up the other. Luke offers a picture of the gospel entering this context, a context very similar to the one we live in. How will it fair? What can we learn from Paul’s engagement? What idols does his theology confront in our own lives? Let’s find out. Verse 16…
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 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. 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’re presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you’re 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. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t 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. 26 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. Yet he’s 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. 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.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
The Context Paul Faces
Let’s take this in three parts: the context Paul faces, the message Paul proclaims, and the effect on the people. First, the context Paul faces.
Full of idols
To begin, the city is full of idols. Even outside sources confirm this about Athens: the temple of Demeter, the statue of Poseidon; the gymnasium devoted to Hermes; a house to worship Dionysius; images for Athena, Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite. Idols swamped the city.
But notice Paul’s reaction: “his spirit was provoked within him.” The same word describes the Lord’s reaction to Israel’s idolatry in the Old Testament.[ii] Israel’s idolatry provoked the Lord to anger. God is jealous for his glory; he doesn’t tolerate false worship.[iii] The same jealousy for God’s glory is in Paul. He knows how holy and worthy God is; and the people’s idolatry breaks him inside. So much so that he can’t wait for Silas and Timothy to show up; he must share Christ now.
The motive of Paul in evangelism isn’t simply love for mankind; it’s also, and more fundamentally, a jealous passion to see God worshiped rightly among all peoples.
The city is also full of competing worldviews. There are Jews and devout persons. They’re biblically literate. They attend synagogue. The Scriptures shape their outlook on the world. But even then, within their worldview, they don’t see how those Scriptures point to Christ. Paul is there to show them.
Then there’s also Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. These are people who’re biblically illiterate. They don’t know Scripture; their culture hasn’t been shaped by the categories you and I often assume other people have. Epicureans were materialists. No creation. Nature has no purpose. Gods were permissible but seen as refined atoms. No future life. No future punishment; the soul was material and perished without any ongoing sorrow.[iv]
Then there were the Stoics. Their goal was to make people self-sufficient. They taught pantheism: god is equal to everything. They believed the world is fire in a variety of forms. History isn’t linear; it’s an endless cycle of rebirth by fire. Nobody lasts forever. Despise the pursuit of pleasure.[v]
Paul converses with these educated philosophers. Some of them scoff at him: “What does this babbler wish to say?” The word-picture is that of a scavenger. They mock Paul as a scavenger-like bird just picking up scraps of information and passing it off like he knows something. It’d be like calling someone a cocky plagiarist. Others say, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities.” They’d heard of Zeus and Apollo and Hermes and Aphrodite before, but nothing like what Paul was preaching.
Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. Jesus—that’s Luke’s way of summarizing the good news. Jesus’ perfect life, his death in place of sinners, his resurrection, his present reign, his future return. Paul also preached the resurrection—which doesn’t refer only to Jesus’ resurrection; it’s also the bodily resurrection of all people at the end of history.[vi] Epicureans and Stoics had no categories for Jesus and the resurrection—sounds like foreign divinities.
Which highlights one more aspect to Paul’s context: Gentile ignorance. Notice how Luke emphasizes ignorance. Verse 19, “May we know what this new teaching is…For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know…what these things mean.” He also describes how they spent their time in verse 21: “[doing] nothing except telling or hearing something new.” They’re lost in their ignorance. Then there’s the altar to the unknown god in verse 23; the “times of ignorance” in verse 30.
What’s the point? The point is to highlight that the Gentiles are sitting in ignorance of God’s special revelation. No Scripture. No Christ. They’re sitting in a darkness cut off from God’s truth.[vii] Idolatry. False worldviews. Ignorant of God’s truth. All these aspects are interrelated, aren’t they? When you’re ignorant of God’s truth, you’ll have a false worldview. When you have a false worldview, you’ll exchange the glory of God to worship idols. When you worship idols, you rob God of the glory due him. That’s the context Paul faces in Athens. It’s the context we face today.
The Message Paul Proclaims
And that context prepares us to hear the message Paul proclaims. But I should first clarify a few things. Don’t assume this is everything Paul said. Luke is often selective with speeches. There’s also no need to accuse Paul of missing the full gospel. Just because the cross is missing here doesn’t mean he didn’t find it essential. Not only is he interrupted in verse 32, but he spends more time with those willing to listen. And since he was preaching Jesus, it’s safe to assume he elaborated the cross.
You’ll also notice that Paul doesn’t quote Scripture directly. He usually does with those who’re biblically literate. But he doesn’t assume these people know Isaiah and the Psalms. That doesn’t mean he’s being unbiblical. Everything he says you’ll find taught in Genesis 1-2 and Isaiah 40 and the Psalms. But what’s peculiar is how he also borrows from various sources in their culture. He affirms where those sources align with biblical truth. He finds common ground and then sets that within the biblical worldview.
So when he quotes a pagan poet, don’t think he’s gone off the deep end. In the Lord’s common goodness, pagans can observe truth about the world, even if only in part. It’d be like quoting a pagan scientist, who observes the intricacy of the human eye and concludes, “Intelligent design!” For all we know, he may mean an intelligent alien; but there’d be a way to borrow his conclusion and then point others to the true God.
With that said, let’s jump into Paul’s speech. He begins like this: “Men of Athens, I perceive in every way you’re 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.”
In other words, they’re so religious that, should there be a god they don’t know yet, they want to be sure he gets an altar too. Paul meets them right there and basically says, “You’re right. By your own admission, there’s a god you don’t know. That unknown God, I proclaim to you.” Of course, the God Paul proclaims isn’t just one among many others. He’s the only God, period, and he deserves all their worship.
God is the universal creator and Lord
He explains first that God is the universal creator and Lord. VBS folks, you’re starting here this week; you’re giving children a biblical worldview by beginning here. Verse 24, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t live in temples made by man.” Everything fits one of two categories—the Creator or the created. God is in a category all to himself. He’s not equal to creation. Right away, that rules out pantheistic views of the Stoics.
Creating everything also means he rules everything—nothing outside his sovereignty. So he’s not like Roman gods who ruled only limited domains like the skies, the land, the seas; or over limited realities like war, agriculture, fertility. Also, he isn’t a god limited to a local ethnicity; Paul didn’t proclaim a foreign deity coming to compete with Roman deities. He proclaimed the only Deity, whose rule is comprehensive.
Which also means his presence isn’t limited to human temples. God once manifested his glory in a temple. But never such that he was limited to that temple. Never such that people controlled him by a temple. He’s far greater. Again, Paul separates the one true God from more false gods in Athens.
God is the sustainer of everything
Second, he teaches that God is the sustainer of everything. Verse 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.” The 5-7 year olds learned this last fall: only God is self-sufficient. God is the God of aseity. He exists “from himself,” he’s not dependent on anyone for anything. God does not need us.
That’s another shot against polytheism. The gods in polytheism are dependent on temples and sacrifices to keep them going, keep them happy. The true God doesn’t need our worship to be complete and happy. He doesn’t need anything. As A. W. Tozer once put it, “…God is not greater for our being, nor would He be less if we did not exist.”
God made humanity to cover the earth and seek him
Third, God made humanity to cover the earth and seek him. Verse 26, “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…” So he’s not like the foreign deities that favor only one ethnicity. No, this God created everybody from one man; and the goal was that all peoples created from Adam might know God.
He says, “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he’s actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’” He’s transcendent over all; yet he’s near enough to know. As Paul explains in Romans 1, God has made known his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, in the things that have been made. Creation points people to the Creator. He made people to look at the world and seek after God. But instead of acknowledging the true God, they replace him with idols.
God shouldn’t be replaced by idols
That’s where Paul heads next. Fourth, God shouldn’t be replaced by idols. Verse 28, “as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we’re 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.”
There’s one sense in which only the redeemed can rightly be called God’s offspring. We’re sons and daughters only by our union with Christ. Without Christ we’re children of the devil, children of wrath. But there’s another sense—along creative lines—in which all people are God’s offspring. This audience knew what Paul meant; they understood him to mean that people were this God’s workmanship. He crafted them, and in that sense, fathered them into existence.
If even their own poets recognized this about human nature, then why in the world would they reduce God to an idol? You see the logic? If people are God’s workmanship, there’s no way God can be their workmanship. “Your worldview is illogical, people. Not only that, it’s led you into a bunch of false worship. And false worship has consequences.” They were right to see something of God’s nature revealed in humanity. But they were wrong to turn him into an idol of their own making.
God will judge everyone by Jesus Christ
Idolatry means judgment. That’s his last point: God will judge everyone by Jesus Christ. They’re accountable. Verse 30, “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.”
For centuries, Israel benefitted from God’s special, self-revelation in Scripture. God didn’t give this to all nations. He wasn’t unjust in doing so. He was perfectly just to leave everybody lost. If anything, we have to say God was merciful to give his special revelation to anybody. He chose Israel; and there was a time when he let the nations walk in their own ignorance. But Paul presents that situation as a thing of the past.
Hear it again: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent…” It’s not that nations everywhere all of a sudden stop walking in ignorance, but that God now has a mission not to leave them in their ignorance. The death and resurrection of Jesus shifted redemptive history into overdrive. Rather than dealing with Israel alone, God has commissioned the church to take his special revelation into all the earth. Paul gives Gentiles that special revelation here.
For the Epicureans and Stoics, there was no afterlife. There was no punishment. History was cyclical without end. Not so according to Paul. Or, more accurately, not so according to Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection guarantees a future reckoning. He will raise everybody from the dead and judge them in righteousness. The risen Jesus is leading history there; and nobody can stop him. The proper response is to repent, to renounce your idolatry now. Paul doesn’t want the Areopagus simply to tolerate his message; he wants them to repent from all idolatry.
The Effect on the People
And what are the results? Some mock; others believe. That’s the effect on the people. Verse 32, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We’ll 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.”
Paul didn’t win a bunch of converts on the spot. He had to tell them again and again. Over time, a few join him and believe. He names two: Dionysius the Areopagite—he’s one of the key judges; also, a woman named Damaris. Even some of the very educated, trained in philosophy, believe.
Draw courage from how the gospel saves people amidst idols & false worldviews.
What does all this mean for us? There’s so much, I had to extend application to next week also. Here’s what I want to talk about next week. Evangelism; the resurrection in evangelism; how Paul models the way to reach people in biblically illiterate contexts; and then a bit on what Paul’s words imply for racism and refugees.
But today, let’s close with these two. Draw courage from how the gospel saves people amidst idols & false worldviews. Our culture is teaming with idols and false worldviews. If not careful, we begin to think, “There’s no hope for anybody. How can anybody ever believe in a context like ours?” But Luke wants to convince you otherwise. By naming a member of the Areopagite, by naming another well-known woman, Luke shows the gospel is powerful to save in this context too. Not only is it an intellectually respectable message; it’s the power of God for salvation.
You may have heard of Rosaria Butterfield. “In her late twenties, allured by feminist philosophy and LGBT advocacy, she adopted a lesbian identity. Rosaria earned her PhD from Ohio State University, then served in the English department and women’s studies program at Syracuse University…Her primary academic field was critical theory, specializing in queer theory. Her historical focus was 19th-century literature, informed by Freud, Marx, and Darwin. She advised the LGBT student group, wrote Syracuse University’s policy for same-sex couples, and actively lobbied for LGBT aims alongside her lesbian partner.”[viii] Rosaria was like the educated philosophers Paul faced.
Would you be tempted to underestimate the gospel’s power in her case? Would you think, “How could the gospel ever change her?” Well, the gospel did change her; and it all began with a man named Ken Smith who wrote a response to one of her articles, and then patiently, for two years, showed her hospitality and answered her objections. The gospel wrecked her old way of thinking; and now she writes and speaks very boldly for Christ. Draw courage from the fact that the gospel is able to save amidst idolatry and false worldviews.
Repent from all your idolatry & false gods.
Then second, repent from all your idolatry and false gods. God commands all people everywhere to repent. A person repents when he reorients his will, his desires, his whole purpose around Christ. Doing so means renouncing idolatry.
Idolatry isn’t simply external. It’s not simply bowing to statues. Idolatry is ultimately a matter of the heart. Arrogant self-reliance can be idolatry—Habakkuk 1:11. Presuming on God’s grace is as idolatry—1 Samuel 15:23. Colossians 3:5 equates greed with idolatry. All idolatry comes from the same place, which Paul explains in Romans 1—exchanging the glory of the immortal God for creation, exchanging the truth about God for a lie (Rom 1:23, 25). Idolatry grows out of a heart that refuses to worship God for who he is and doesn’t know God as he truly is.
As one pastor put it, “If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it’s an idol.”[ix] So how do we walk out repentance from idolatry?
Most fundamentally, we need a heart like we see in Paul. We need a heart that’s jealous for God’s glory; a heart that breaks inside when he’s ignored and dishonored and traded for a pack of lies and fleeting pleasures. You won’t and you can’t forsake idolatry as long as there’s no passion for God’s glory. You must be made new from within; and God must do it. Yes, God gives means like his word and prayer and the church; and we can wait expectantly in those pathways. But they’re not mechanical. The Holy Spirit must produce change. Cry to God, “Make me jealous for your glory!”
Also, equip your mind to discern idols. Paul says in Romans 12 that we’re transformed by the renewing of our mind. He’s seeking to renew the mind of these Athenians by speaking objective truth. We have to think differently, if we’re going to discern idols and god replacements. Sometimes we can’t discern idols, because aspects of our worldview are still too influenced by our culture and subcultures.
Ask someone to give up their smart phone to help break some bad habits. It’s not uncommon to hear, “But I need my smartphone.” Says who? Has the culture taught us to see it as a “need”? Is that really true? Or, how about living as if God needs us. Even Christians talk this way about evangelism, as if God is just wringing his hands not knowing what to do without us. You hear it at funerals, “I guess God just needed him more in heaven than he did on earth.” No, friends, that’s paganism. God does not need us; and that’s actually liberating. We serve not because God needs something, but because he gives us the privilege in Christ to draw from his fullness.
Or, how about the way people forsake rest and don’t care for their family all in the name of productivity. It even gets cloaked with “Just being a good employee,” “Just want a good future for my kids,” when really we assign such a high value to productivity and financial security that we’re willing to disobey God’s commands to rest and care for your family. Or, identity politics and tribalism have their influence too. We assign such value to our hero, to our team, to our situation, to our position that we even stoop to dishonesty and slander while refusing to be objective. That too is idolatry.
Beloved, these things must not be so. In order to discern idols, we need to equip our minds. We need to study truth and shape our worldview with a proper doctrine of God. That’s what Paul lays out; and one by one, the false gods of their culture are exposed. Study the word to understand what values to assign things in God’s created order; and by doing so we’ll keep ourselves from elevating created things above the Creator. As long as false gods remain disguised, we won’t know to flee. Pursue truth. Study hard. Make God-centered evaluations so that you’re not duped by idols.
Then lastly, walk with the church closely. Men and women joined Paul, and he furthered their understanding of the truth. Surround yourself with brothers and sisters who help you identify idols and love you enough to help you turn from them. We exist to know and enjoy worshiping the one true God. He deserves all glory, honor, and praise.
[i]One of the best summaries that I’ve heard on “worldview” is by James Anderson. The wording here comes from the lecture found at the following link: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/what-are-worldviews-why-do-worldviews-matter-how-does-one-change-worldviews/.
[ii]Those who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek used the same word that appears here (e.g., Deut 9:7; 32:16; Ps 78:41; Isa 65:3; Hos 8:5).
[iii]Exod 20:5; 34:14; Deut 4:24; 5:9; 6:15; Josh 24:19; Nah 1:2.
[iv]Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 348-56.
[v]Ferguson, Backgrounds, 333-47.
[vi]See esp. Acts 17:31-32.
[vii]Paul describes Gentiles this way in his letters. Ephesians 4:18, “They’re darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them…”
[viii]Taken from https://rosariabutterfield.com/biography.
[ix]Keller, Counterfeit Gods, xxi.
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