“Making Known the Unknown God” (Acts 17:16-31)

Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 17, 2020

“Making Known the Unknown God” (Acts 17:16-31)

The reading today from the Book of Acts is the story of Paul preaching at the Areopagus in Athens. There Paul was preaching not in a Jewish synagogue where he could assume some biblical literacy. Rather, he was speaking in a Gentile, pluralistic marketplace of ideas. And so this text has great relevance for us today, for this is the world we live in. Thus our theme this morning: “Making Known the Unknown God.”

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.

Paul’s usual approach, when speaking to a Jewish audience, is to say that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the fulfillment of our Hebrew Scriptures. But here in Athens, when speaking to Gentiles, Paul takes a different approach. He does not use the “Jesus is the fulfillment of the Scriptures” approach, since his pagan audience did not know the Bible. The Jews knew there was only one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But these pagan Greeks 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.”

Friends, 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.” Our culture believes there are many roads to God, however you may perceive him–or her, or it. Just, let’s all get along. Coexist. Pluralistic, polytheistic, post-modern America, where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs can hold “interfaith” prayer services–as though there were such a thing as “interfaith,” because there isn’t. And then in the last ten or twenty years, America has seen the rise of the “nones,” that is, people who adhere to no religion at all. Oh, they still have their idols, whether it’s environmentalism, fitness, football, sex, video games, or their own “spirituality”–whatever that means. Whatever people worship and hold as their highest good, that is their god, their false god, their idol. And that is America in the twenty-first century.

Well, that was Athens in the first century. It was the religiously pluralistic society Paul found himself in. Our text continues: “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 thought this Jesus fellow 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 a female foreign deity. The Greek word for “resurrection” is “anastasis,” a feminine noun–we get the name “Anastasia” from it. They may have taken that as the name of a goddess of resurrection. Many of the Greek gods were like that, an abstract concept personified as a god or goddess. See, they really don’t get what Paul is talking about with “Jesus” and “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.”

So now Paul has to cut through that fog. How does he go about it? “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.’”

So 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. It seems they wanted to have all their bases covered. But this is just groping around in the dark. All people who do not know the one true God in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ–oh, they may know that there must be a God. Nature, reason, and conscience can tell you that much. That’s what’s called the natural knowledge of God. But that is not saving knowledge. It is not to know God in a way that will save you. The natural man, that is, man without the Holy Spirit, is just stumbling around in the dark, groping around in the blindness of our fallen human nature.

Only when God reveals himself to us, which only happens in the gospel of Jesus Christ—only then do our eyes become opened and we begin to see the light. Only in Christ, the one Savior for all of mankind, do we know God as he wants to be known. There is no other way. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus says. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Peter declares: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” St. John writes: “This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Here in Athens, for these Greeks to have salvation and eternal life, Paul makes known the unknown god. He proclaims the true God who created the heavens and earth: “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 preaching the gospel to pagans. It is the doctrine of Creation. Paul is saying: There is only one true God, the Creator of all. There are not many gods, as you think, the creation of your 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 kind of preaching should lead these pagans to think to themselves: “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. Then he will reveal to them the answer to their sinful blindness, namely, Jesus Christ, their Savior.

And so this is where Paul takes it next: “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 God for all mankind. He now is commanding you to repent, before it’s 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 going 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’s where Paul is going with all of this.

And that’s where our reading today stops. But in the next couple of verses you would 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 others believed. That sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? Some reject the message, some believe. And so it goes to this day. Some people respond positively to the preaching of God’s Word. Other people do not. Some who hear the gospel will repent and come to faith. But others will not. We shouldn’t be surprised by this.

How about you? Do you know that Judgment Day is coming? There will be a day when 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 here is what Paul didn’t have a chance to get to, in the brief excerpt we have 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 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. You and I, baptized and believing in Christ–we share in his victory over death. This is the good news that God has for all people everywhere.

Friends, from the Areopagus of Athens to the Lead Belt of Missouri, the message is the same: Christ crucified and risen from the dead, calling all people to repent of their sins and to trust in him for salvation. The goal of our preaching does not change. To both Jews and Gentiles, to Jerusalem and Athens and Bonne Terre, Missouri, our message is ultimately the same: We preach Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God, the one hope for all mankind.

Published in: on May 16, 2020 at 10:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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