A sermon on Acts 17:16-31
The Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A) 29/05/11
Pastor Heath Pukallus Katanning-Narrogin Lutheran Parish
Acts 17:16–21 (ESV) Now while Paul was waiting for them (Silas and Timothy) at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 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. 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. 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.
God caused Paul to stop, sit around, and wait in his ministry. So he waited there in Athens the Greek city of many remarkable structures built for a pantheon of gods. We might think of temples like the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of the city. Or the Acropolis where it and other temples stood above Athens.
No doubt visitors to Athens are overwhelmed by these massive temples raised up out of the city's centre. But as Paul sat around seeing these monolithic monuments to the idol gods of Athens agitated and irritated him. And so after he witnessed and absorbed so much idolatry he could be quite no longer. Paul began to ask questions. He began speaking and preaching to the Jews and the devout believers in the synagogue. And amongst the pagans in the marketplace.
What makes this all a bit of a surprise to us is Paul was supposed to be just waiting in Athens after being banished from the northern Greek trading city of Thessalonica and pursued west through Macedonia by militant Jews to the city of Berea. This caused the believers there to take Paul, by sea, south to Athens, to escape false allegations and punishment whipped up by the jealous Jews of Thessalonica. And yet Paul being Paul, embittered with passion for the Gospel starts speaking with the Jews and locals of Athens. And soon after finds himself addressing the men of the city at the Areopagus, a lesser hill overshadowed by the Parthenon and other pagan temples.
This brings us to the text set down for today, where Paul address the thinkers of Athens. These Greek men were Epicurean and Stoic philosophers among others. All Greeks viewed the human being through the eyes of Plato, in that people were both physical and spiritual beings. But they separated and distinguished these two as a dichotomy — two parts mutually exclusive of each other.
The Epicureans therefore viewed life to be enjoyed since the physical life on earth was to be left some day for the higher spiritual life. Although not just pleasure seekers, Epicureans held the mindset of many today whose belief it is to, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die!" They sought to gratify the desires of the emotions. They thought they could do whatever they wanted with the physical body as it would have no consequence for the spiritual body of the next life. This led to many living immorally and it's the lifestyle Paul denounces at Corinth. We hear his attack on their orgies and sexuality written in First Corinthians.
Then there were the Stoics who under the same platonic dualism, sought a higher life of stoicism by denying the emotions and rising above them through dedication to moral and intellectual perfection. Many today still operate with the same stoic ideal that the body is evil and must be punished. And in doing so they believe they make themselves better people by denying any sort of emotion outbreak — good or bad.
It seems as if Paul has been taken from the frying-pan and put into the fire! But this doesn't stop Paul from honouring Christ the Lord as holy, and making a defence before the men of Athens as the reason for the hope templed in him. (1 Peter 3:15)
So Paul addresses them in the Areopagus saying, "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 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. 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." (Acts 17:22–31 ESV)
Paul addresses the men as religious. He sees they are overwhelmed by what is around them. Paul uses a strong word for religious here which comes from two Greek words equivalent to delirious and demon. Negatively he said they are deliriously demonstrous, or overly superstitious. After all, Paul was agitated in his spirit by the idolatry around him! But since they don't react negatively to being called religious men, they probably took his words in the positive sense of being devout adherents to their pagan efforts. Or, perhaps being men who like open discussion on philosophical matters they neither saw being demonic nor delirious as negative as we do today.
Nevertheless, Paul finds an opening to proclaim God the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth, to these religious men. They believing in many gods, allowing Paul to tell them about this "unknown god" whom they had no name and to whom they had an altar. He even shrewdly and eloquently uses the words of pagan poets' to convince them about the truth of God announcing to them that we are God's offspring, and we live, move, and have our being in him.
We must notice here with these words, Paul is moving them towards Christ. Humanity did live move and have its being in God, yet sin has corrupted these things in us and Jesus was sent to bring us back to the Father, by moving us once again into God's presence by his way, by giving us and showing us our being in his truth, and healing the way we live through his life. We live, move, and have our eternal being in Jesus Christ.
However, Paul doesn't even get to mention the cross or Christ to these men. He calls them out of their ignorance to repent of the images of their imaginations for which they have built temples in their idolatry. But their ears became sealed at Paul's mention that a man will come in righteousness to judge the world whom God has raised from the dead.
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. (Acts 17:32–34 ESV)
Why did some mock Paul? Because it was foolishness to a Greek to hear of returning to a physical body in resurrection after attaining the higher spiritual body. To them this was ludicrous and inferior.
Perhaps the events of being chased by jealous Jews and mocked a mad man were in Paul's thoughts when he later wrote to the Corinthians saying…
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:22–25 ESV)
There are still many religious people today, inside and outside the church. A mixture of those within and without Jesus Christ and the faith the Holy Spirit seeks to give in the preaching of God's Word. There are some whose righteousness sees them seeking to staunchly do the right thing. They think that because they're good people and law abiding citizens they have earned the right to a higher life.
Then there are others hell-bent on having a good time, living life with the misconception if God is a god of love he won't hurt me. Yet both are idolatrous acts of self-righteousness, and trusting these delirious delusions destines one for a date with the devil on judgement day, regardless of church attendance or not.
It's God's wish for you not to be religiously righteous in its delirious deceptive way, in church or in any part of your life. Rather than being religious he calls you to be Christian instead. This happens when you stop and let Jesus religiously serve you through his death and resurrection, through your being buried with Jesus in baptism and raised through faith by the Holy Spirit as you continually hear the Word, repent, and believe in him whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.