by Roger McCay
30 August 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 17:18-34
Link to Audio Version
When it comes to building, well, anything, it takes quite a bit to get from nothing to the completed goal. Building bridges are no exception, whether physically or metaphorically. Even the simplest bridge consists of laying something over, perhaps, a stream, maybe just a log. Yet, that still requires finding the log and then moving it into place. More complex bridges … well, I don’t have to tell you. Metaphorically, it’s not much different. Building a bridge to reach from one person to the next for the purpose of sharing ideas or even grounding a friendship requires work and finding points of commonality upon which to connect. Indeed, all bridges require a solid place upon which to connect, to anchor, on both sides, in order to support the weight of whatever or whomever would cross or be transported across the bridge.
Such is no different for the bridge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Solid points of commonality exist for both the hearer and the evangelist in the form of truths of reality, “true truths” attested to by the Scriptures. As Francis Schaffer wrote in He is There and He is Not Silent,
The truth of Christianity is that it is true to what is there. You can go to the end of the world and you never need be afraid, like the ancients, that you will fall off the end and the dragons will eat you up. You can carry out your intellectual discussion to the end of the discussion because Christianity is not only true to the dogmas, it is not only true to what God has said in the Bible, but it is also true to what is there, and you will never fall off the end of the world! It is not just an approximate model; it is true to what is there.
As such, we can have confidence to build the bridge upon these points of truth, these foundations of truth common to all mankind, in order to carry the gospel message across to the other side.
Depending upon the situation, and with whom you are sharing the gospel, building bridges for the gospel can be difficult. For some folks the bridge is just a log across a stream, but, for others, it’s a complex undertaking, much like building the 1.4 mile, 3-span, cable suspension Cochrane-Africatown Bridge over the Mobile River down in Mobile. At a minimum, building any bridge for the gospel requires thoughtful work to find the anchor points of common truth and then diligent work to build the bridge. Being so, for some, the effort is too much to bother with, for any number of reasons. Christ, however, remains unsympathetic to such excuses (Mark 8:34; Matt. 28:19).
In our passage today, we see a master bridge-builder for the gospel, the apostle Paul, build, in faithful obedience, a bridge to Mars Hill, the Areopagus, in Athens. Accordingly, we witness Paul’s method of approach along with the content of his message, as he boldly proclaimed the gospel to this esteemed body of intellectuals and leaders in the Athenian community.
Now, you may remember, from last week, how Paul, seeing idols and idols everywhere in Athens, was moved with a great zeal for the Lord’s name to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ.
So, he set to work proclaiming the gospel in the Jewish synagogue and also in the Agora, the heart of the city’s life. It was in the Agora, as he dialogued with whomever would talk with him about the gospel of Jesus Christ, that Paul came to the attention of some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.
Now, who were these people? Well, they represented well-established schools of philosophy, in Athens, whose philosophies were quite different.
Briefly, the Epicureans were materialists who had no use for gods, whom they considered too remote, having nothing to do with humanity or nature. They believed that life is what it is, and when you die you’re dead. Hence, although they were not Hedonists, their goal in life was to pursue pleasure (the chief good) and minimize pain (the chief evil). It was likely the Epicureans who were mocking Paul, in v. 18, calling him a babbler, as one who had picked up a bit of this and a bit of that and was throwing it around like he knew something, but didn’t.
As for the Stoics, they acknowledged a supreme God, but in a pantheistic way, as “the world soul.” They also “spoke of the Logos that designed and governed the cosmos,” and they believed that gods existed who governed the world and cared for humanity’s needs. They believed in fate and felt that humans must do their duty in harmony with nature and reason, whether this meant pain or pleasure (although they associated pleasure with vice and valued enduring pain). They had the attitude that since they could not control the world, they could control themselves. They would just take whatever comes and deal with it. It was probably the Stoics who were bemused with Paul, saying he was proclaiming “foreign deities,” since Paul was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection.”