by Roger McCay
23 August 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 17:16-23
Link to Audio Version
You may have heard of the little tract used by Campus Crusade (now calling themselves Cru) … the little tract published by them, concerning “the [so-called] four spiritual laws.” This tract is a very simplified explanation of the gospel, and the pros and cons of it are all protracted out there in cyberspace. There are some helpful images in the tract, though, like the third spiritual law, which illustrates how Jesus Christ bridges the gap between a Holy God and sinners. Also helpful is the image after the fourth spiritual law, of a couple of circles with the chairs in them that illustrate what it means for Christ to be the Lord of one’s life.
Nevertheless, personally, I don’t care too much for tracts. In my opinion, they tend to promote lazy mental and procedural evangelistic tactics, are too impersonal, and sacrifice much for the sake of brevity. I know there are those out there who have found them helpful, and I agree that the Lord can and has certainly used them for his gospel purposes. They are, indeed, one of the various methods that the gospel can be communicated to the lost. However, tracts are very limited, as they oversimplify evangelism into a “one-size fits all,” inflexible, formula.
The Scriptures, praise the Lord, describe a better way, even providing us various, more engaging patterns to use for gospel proclamation. You don’t see the apostle Paul, for example, leaving tracts in bathrooms or sticking them in doorjambs. Rather, the Scriptures paint a picture of evangelism that involves proclamation, person-to-person interaction, and patient and careful reasoning, explaining, and proving. The Scriptures show us that what works for one person or group might not work for another, and each of the ways that work for those groups or individuals won’t work for a third, and so forth. Hence, while there are patterns to proclamation, there is a tremendous flexibility to those patterns based on the situation. Gospel proclamation involves an understanding of various types of people (where they are coming from, and where they are), in order to lovingly build a relevant bridge for the gospel into their lives. Such a bridge consists of reaching out to the “true truths” in their lives, latching on to them with the truth of the God’s Word, and bringing across the message of Christ.
Now, there are difficulties when it comes to making bridges for the gospel, not the least being our own sin, which inhibits our seeing and responding to the world’s cry for Jesus. However, in the Lord, we can overcome, as he shows us the way by the light of his Word and the power of his Spirit.
In today’s passage, we see the Apostle Paul alone in the city of Athens. There he recognized the city’s cry for Jesus, seeing it exposed in their idols. Thus, he responded with a righteous indignation towards their idolatry, by diligently setting to the task of gospel proclamation to any who would listen, tailoring his approach to each situation. As such, he made bridges for the gospel of Christ into the lives of the people of Athens.
So let’s look, first, at how Paul recognized the world’s cry for Jesus. In vv. 16-21, we find Paul arriving in Athens, initially in tourist mode, going around seeing the sights. This is no surprise, considering the nature and history of the city. Athens was a major city in the Greek world, with the height of its glory found long before, around the 5th Century BC. It had diminished quite a bit, after the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, which lasted 27 years, ending in 404 BC. Centuries later, however, even after Rome conquered Greece at the battle of Corinth in 146 BC (and hence, Athens), it continued to retain, as John Stott describes, “a proud intellectual independence,” boasting “of its rich philosophical tradition inherited from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, of its literature and art, and of its notable achievements in the cause of human liberty.”
Yet, by the time the Apostle Paul was sight-seeing, taking in its rich culture, its superb works of art, and its magnificent structures (like the Acropolis), Athens was a shadow of its former self.
As Jim Boice explains, “The master philosophers … were succeeded by men of lesser ability and finally by those who were only imitators of the giants of the past.” And, while Paul, with his great education and intellect, may have been like “the student of a great university, visiting an older but yet a kindred university, surveying it with appreciative admiration, and mixing in its society as an equal conversing with men of like education,” as Sir William Ramsay put it, Paul found himself incensed, provoked, righteously outraged at something he saw—idols and idols everywhere.
It has been said that the idols outnumbered people in Athens three-to-one when Paul was there, with around 30,000 idols to 10,000 people. The town was swamped with idols. You’ve probably all heard of the Parthenon, which had a giant statue of Athena made of gold and ivory with a huge spear that could be seen miles away. There were statues and shrines of every god of the Greek pantheon, and gods upon gods of other sorts, statues made of the finest materials, gold, silver, marble, ivory, stone, and brass, beautifully crafted by the finest sculptors. Yet, Paul didn’t see it as beautiful. The beauty of it all, as Stott puts it, “did not impress him if it did not honour God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Rather than beauty, Paul saw corruption and filth in the idols. Paul’s intimacy with the Lord was such that he could only see the idols as an affront to the Lord, and a glaring beacon as to the need for the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ to the completely blind and lost citizens of Athens. The idols were a cry for Jesus.
How so? How are idols interpreted as a cry for Jesus? You’ve heard of the God-shaped hole or the God-shaped vacuum in our hearts and soul. This concept is attributed to Blaise Pascal, who wrote in his Pensées concerning man’s striving to reach happiness, satisfaction, and goodness through any number of means, but never finding it. He writes:
What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.
Idols are expressions of worship towards whatever it might be with which people are attempting to fill that infinite abyss in the soul. Yet, idols never fill it; they can never satisfy, only corrupt. They are empty and worthless (1 Sam. 12:21; Isaiah 44:9-20). Only the Lord, Yahweh, can fill the need for the living and true God; only the Lord can redeem and make one whole, after his image. The urge towards idolatry is not an active seeking of Jesus, but an expression of unwitting acknowledgment for the great need for Jesus. The world does not seek Jesus; it does not seek the living God (Romans 3:11), yet the world desperately needs Jesus. Idolatry is a corrupt expression of the desperate cry of the lost for the only one who can save, yet a cry directed to ears that cannot hear. It is a blind groping after God, but never finding him due to sin (Acts 17:27-30). Idolatry is a cry for Jesus, not knowing that it is Jesus for whom they cry.
One of our biggest difficulties is recognizing the world’s cry for Jesus, as expressed in its idolatrous ways. In Western culture, idols such as Paul faced in Athens, which are physical images of gods found in temples and shrines, either worshipped as gods or are images of various gods to focus worship upon them … such idols, set out to promote the worship of the gods, whether in public or private, or just put out on public display for that god’s glory, or to remind folks of that god’s power and dominion and such … such idols are not as common as they were in ancient times (except, of course among those who practice Eastern religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism). Such idols are around, but not as blatant in our culture. I’m sure, though, if you looked around, you’d find plenty of idols in form. Whereas they might not be overtly worshipped as gods, they are idols nonetheless, representing gods that are, indeed, worshipped in the heart of man.
Idols take many forms in our world, and idolatry is rampant in the world around us. Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (a good read by the way), helps us to recognize some of the more nefarious idols, shining some light on them, as a help for us to recognize them where they might be found. His insightful definition of an idol is a sure help:
What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.
A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving “face” and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry. When your meaning in life is to fix someone else’s life, we may call it “co-dependency” but it is really idolatry. An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.
In our current context in America, our news feeds are now carrying much concerning the upcoming presidential election. We’ve been watching the violence over race and other issues around the country. There’s the whole Covid-19 thing, which has people scared, angry, and going stir crazy, resulting in anxiety and depression going through the roof. People are out of work; businesses are closing, maybe closed, perhaps, even permanently. People are looking for salvation. Thus, predictably, they are turning to an old religion—politics. Keller writes:
When love of one’s people becomes an absolute, it turns into racism. When love of equality turns into a supreme thing, it can result in hatred and violence toward anyone who has led a privileged life. It is the settled tendency of human societies to turn good political causes into counterfeit gods. As we have mentioned, Ernest Becker wrote that in a society that has lost the reality of God, many people will look to romantic love to give them the fulfillment they once found in religious experience. Nietzsche, however, believed it would be money that would replace God. But there is another candidate to fill this spiritual vacuum. We can also look to politics. We can look upon our political leaders as “messiahs,” our political policies as saving doctrine, and turn our political activism into a kind of religion.
My friends, in the upcoming elections, are you counting on your political messiah? Are you looking to the upcoming elections to exalt your religious sect? Are you hoping the other sect does not gain or retain power, because it means endangering or casting down your idols?
This all ties into the danger of this whole bowing the knee, phenomenon, we’ve been seeing. I’ve asked it before, but consider, “To whom or what are these folks bowing their knee?” Bowing the knee is an act of submission and even worship. To whom are they bowing? It’s certainly not to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Brothers and sisters, it’s important that we have an eye out for idols. Certainly, for the idols in our own lives, which are there, by the way. But we also need to be looking for the idols in the culture, in our community, and even recognize them in other people’s lives. If we don’t see the idols, we can’t see the cry for Jesus. And knowing the idols also helps to find a bridge for the gospel.
For example, as people are calling out for justice and equality, bowing their knee to an ideology, a movement, hoping that the idol to which they bow will bring them justice and equality, we know that Jesus Christ is the only one who gives true justice and equality. The justice and equality in Jesus are eternal in nature, existing even when the world is unjust and discriminating due to sin. Jesus is the solution to their cry. And think about it. If all the people bowing the knee were bowing in submission to and worship of Jesus as Lord, the justice and equality they seek in this life would be much more likely to be found, and certainly in a more satisfactory and peaceful way, as the nation would be transformed. That’s the revival, in our country, we’ve been praying for.
My friends, recognizing idols in our nation is very doable. We just need to pay attention, look around, and ask the question, “Where are the idols?” They’ll start popping out at you all over the place, if you do.
When we recognize the idols all around us, do we find ourselves incensed, provoked, and righteously outraged? Does the idolatry all around us arouse within us“deep stirrings of jealousy for the Name of God, as we see human beings so depraved as to be giving to idols the honour and glory which are due to the one, living and true God alone?”  I pray it does, my friends. I pray our love for the Lord is such that we, as believers, would seek the glory of the Lord’s name above all things. I also pray that we would recognize the cry for Jesus that the world is constantly sending up around us in their idolatry.
Thankfully, God saw the need, heard the cry, and responded in love. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It is because of God’s response to our cry that we have life in Jesus. In the self-giving love of those who follow Jesus, we are also called to respond to their cry, by sharing the gospel.
So, back to Paul, in Athens. Provoked by the idols and with great zealousness for the Lord’s name, Paul responded to the cry for Jesus he heard in Athens. He set to work with diligence and purpose. As such, he ending up proclaiming the gospel in three different locations. At each location, he skillfully applied an appropriately different method, demonstrating the flexibility of gospel proclamation. For him, it was much like he said in 1 Cor. 9:22: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” Paul would do, be, or say whatever was appropriate to the circumstances in order to see the gospel preached and the Lord glorified. This is what he did here in Athens.
On the sabbaths, he was in the synagogue, according to his custom, reasoning, explaining, and proving that Jesus was the Christ (which we have often seen in Acts, most recently in Thessalonica and Berea).
During the week, he took up a spot in the Agora. The Agora was the place at the center of Athenian life with its marketplace and forum. There, Paul seems to have adopted the style of Socrates and the Athenian tradition, dialoguing with all who would talk with him about the good news of Jesus Christ. It was in these engaging dialogues that he caught the attention of two predominant schools of philosophy, the Epicureans and the Stoics.
Coming to the attention of these philosophers, Paul was taken to the Areopagus, Mars Hill, the famous council of Ares. This council is described as “the chief judicial body of the city and exercised jurisdiction in such matters as religion and education.” It was the gathering of the city administrators. They would need to hear about this “foreign religion” and the “new ideas” Paul was proclaiming, for that was their bailiwick. They were the ones in the know, and were on top of what was taught and known.
Paul, now in a completely different forum from the Agora or the synagogue, once again flexed his gospel proclamation in an even different way. There, he did not prove from the Scriptures, nor engage in dialogue. Rather, he gave a speech tailored to the esteemed council, appealing to their intellect and filling in their admitted lack of knowledge with the truth of God (Acts 17:19, 23).
Now, for us, in Monroeville, we have in common with Athens various potential forums for gospel proclamation that require flexibility due to context. The church is our equivalent to the synagogue—hence the teaching of the Scriptures in all our various forums and formats. We must also not neglect regularly sharing the gospel in church. It just might be that in its proclamation, we reach someone in attendance, either in person or online, who desperately needs Jesus.
As for the Agora, for us, this would be where people are going about their lives or at leisure. Such a place might be at The Y, the ballparks, the golf course, the football stadiums, some of the shops around the square, the old courthouse, maybe even Wal-Mart, among other places (like designated smoking areas). The Agora is where the people go and gather with some regularity.
As for the Areopagus, we are hard pressed to find its like. In spirit, however (and, perhaps, in other locales), it’d be places like universities or colleges, where the scholarly intellectuals are found. Reaching those folks might look more like a special event at a location like a bookstore or a coffee shop, bringing people together for intellectual discussions on current events, philosophy, history, and such, with a deliberate apologetic focus.
If we can see the idolatry, we can respond to it. Response requires deliberate work tailored to various circumstances. It requires ingenuity and insight. And, such responses are not just going to happen by accident.
My friends, gospel proclamation involves an understanding of various types of people (where they are coming from, and where they are), in order to lovingly build a relevant bridge for the gospel into their lives. Such a bridge consists of reaching out to the “true truths” in their lives, latching on to them with the truth of the God’s Word, and bringing across the message of Christ. Such an understanding and bridging requires paying attention, studying the world and the people all around you, regularly interacting with them, and coming to know them well.
Lord willing, we’ll see how Paul builds bridges to the culture, with his Mars Hill speech, and a little about “true truths” in more detail next week.
Brethren, do you see the idolatry all around you? Are you looking? Does it make you angry to see what rightfully belongs to the Lord being given to empty idols? Does it upset you that your neighbor is lost, crying out for Jesus in his or her idolatry, and no-one seems to hear? What are you going to do about it? Nothing? Or are you going to respond to the cry for Jesus? Because the world is crying out for Jesus, we must introduce him to them.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 276.
 James Montgomery Boice, Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 294.
 William Mitchell Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), 238.
 Stott, 278.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002), 65.
 Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters (New York: Riverhead Books, 2011), xix–xx.
 Keller, 98.
 Stott, 279.
 Richard N. Longenecker, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John and Acts, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 474.