The Global Gospel

Acts 17:16-34

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—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 which you are proclaiming? “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.” (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.) And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; and He made from bone, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His offspring.’ “Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” So Paul went out of 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. “

Having preached the resurrection of Jesus throughout Macedonia with amazing results, especially in Berea, persecution has nonetheless pushed Paul into Athens, the hotbed of Greek philosophy. Yet since we are apt to gloss over the text and trust in titles and traditions we tend to miss that once again, Paul went to the Jewish people present, first. Because we don’t carefully consider the context, we often miss this short, but consistent phrase we often see in the Path of Paul to all peoples; “he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles.” Nevertheless Paul was the apostle to the gentiles therefore Luke writes more about the nations because of this and because it was amazing to them still, that men and women of all tribes, tongues and nations were turning to the Lord. This is what Paul preached in Athens. To those of us who are “churched” this is a familiar passage, it’s a favorite of many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers. And honestly, most of them don’t agree on the takeaway from this passage.

Therefore we will do our best to carefully consider the context, utilizing the CAGED method of Biblical hermeneutics, where; context is king, author’s aspirations to his audience are apex, genre is the general, expository exegesis of examples enlightens and dividing rightly the word of truth either confirms or cancels our preconceived notions and presuppositions; ignoring traditions and titles but seeing the sublime string. The first thing we notice considering the context, which has been built on and is continuing from the beginning, is that, at this moment  in history, Paul is all alone. Even those who merely provided Paul with passage have departed. Silas and Timothy are still in Macedonia. Paul is one person preaching to a plurality of philosophies. We have not seen this since Philip went to Samaria and was quickly sent Peter and John. The prescriptive package goes all the way back to the Law of Moses; “by two or three witnesses shall everything be confirmed.” In both a spiritual sense and a legalistic sense, it still exists. The LDS and JW’s still go out in numbers of two or more to proclaim the kingdom of heaven is at hand, even if their view of the kingdom, like the dogmatic dispensationalists, is terribly flawed. We will continue to consider this as we take the long view of history but what we notice first is that Paul is one person against a plurality of people, yet being alone doesn’t negate the necessity to speak the truth, notice:

“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him.” I picture Athens as a bustling city with a bunch of people with nothing better to do than debate stuff in the streets–that is my kind of town. I also think that Paul was overwhelmed but still, in hog-heaven. That is, if he considered himself as the apostle to the gentiles, he has found himself the gentiles of gentiles, here in Athens.

“And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, ‘What would this idle babbler wish to say?’ Others, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’—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 which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.’ (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)”

“Idle babbler,” I guess he would a fan of wordpress. Athens is like wordpress, in that everyone was willing to hear everyone else and also, speak their own minds. Quite unlike Twitter, people could express their opinions without everyone getting ugly. I imagine the man who asked, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Was probably himself, the most prominent idle babbler in all of Athens. After all, that’s usually how it works. Either way, Paul found in Athens an atmosphere of argument and debate. He was conversing with the Epicurean philosophers, who believed in a moderate form of hedonism, and their philosophical, arch rivals, the stoic philosophers who believe that personal pleasure is not to be sought. Ironically, I believe both philosophies can be summed up by; “keep it simple stupid.” Both believed in modest living but the stoics took it to a whole new level. Paul, despite what many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers claim, preached Jesus to them; it’s told in the text. Unfortunately, they only read the snippet of Paul’s sermon on Mars hill, which is only a summary of what he said, and they notice that Paul never says the name of Jesus. That is not considering the context. The fact that Paul was asked again and again to speak, was specifically because he told them about Jesus. We will come back to this. What we notice here, is that the philosophers, who thought Paul was teaching strange deities, namely Jesus, meaning they understood what Paul was presenting, wanted and were willing to hear more. Again, Athens was the opposite of Twitter, no one yelled, “shut up you’re lying, you racist homophobic, misogynistic, sis gendered, narrow-minded fool! They made fun of him, yet still wanted to hear more and Paul took it all in stride. The people present loved to hear new things, Luke tells us, and Paul has something new to preach. We must remember the continuing context and sublime string; this is probably less than 20 years since Jesus was crucified and probably the farthest from Jerusalem that the gospel has been preached. Taking a long view, we see the mustard seed of the kingdom taking root in the region.

“And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; and He made from bone, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, “For we also are His offspring.”‘”

And you thought I could write a run-on sentence. But here is where things get fuzzy for most pastors and preachers,  theologians and teachers–there is much division over whether or not this was a good approach by Paul to reach the people present with the gospel. Notice that Paul quotes some of their own poets; “For we also are His offspring.” Notice that Paul also recited an inscription he saw that read, “To the unknown God,” which he saw written on an altar. Paul used their culture to present the true God. Many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers claim that this was an excellent way for Paul to preach to them because Paul met them where they were and brought them to where he was. Still other pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers claim that this was a poor way to preach the gospel. They, without careful consideration of the context, postulate that Paul never named Jesus as Lord of all and base Paul’s performance on the results. Notice; “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’ So Paul went out of 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.” Because only a handful believed, some pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers claim that this was not a good way for Paul to present the gospel. At least no one was stoning him, beating him with rods, throwing him in prison or chasing him out of town. A sneer was like a smile to Paul at this point. Notice also that many wanted to hear from him again. While this was by no means a solid victory, I don’t think that we can say that Paul failed either. But I am getting way ahead of myself. We have to keep considering the context of Paul’s preaching to best determine how he faired at Athens. The result is less important than the message. Otherwise we could pay people to convert. “I will give you $5,000 to say you believe in Jesus.” Who wants that kind of result?

I have been to youth rallies and certain evangelical events where the gospel is preached and presented so poorly that I cannot help but wonder if any of the people who responded are being born again. Jesus is either presented as a get out of jail free card or a giant crutch for all of life’s problems. “Just say yes to Jesus!” “Jesus just wants to be your best friend.” The only just we should use with Jesus is that he is just. Christians don’t need swear jars, they need “just” jars. But I digress; the point is Paul presented God correctly; many modern evangelists don’t. Consider the context as Paul continues.

“Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” That man is Jesus, just because Paul doesn’t say his name here, and just because Luke doesn’t record him saying Jesus’ name, does not mean that he did not say it. We look back at the beginning; “he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.”

I have seen hundreds come forward to “receive Jesus” after some of the worst gospel presentations and have seen none come forward after the greatest. Now, l am not looking out my window and interpreting what happened to Paul. I am merely suggesting that the delivery, presentation, argument, debate or speech isn’t always the root or reason that people become born again–the Holy Spirit has his role–a gross understatement. But look at the context, Paul said and Luke recorded; “God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent.” And we know that the word “repent,” itransliterated from Greek, “metanoeo” means to change one’s mind. We think of John the Baptist, Jesus and Peter who all preached the same timeless truth, that one must have their mind changed. I find it odd that after a person prays the sinner’s prayer and after 2 years their life looks exactly the same with no change–we are told that they are baby christians. But babies long for milk, don’t they? Babies require sustenance, nurturing and caring and make it obvious that they require these things. Notice that while many men in today’s text don’t run down the aisle to an altar call, or with every head bowed and every eye closed, raise their hands, many people want to hear Paul again. I believe Paul did an exemplary explanation of the gospel in this short story. Some sneered, some were saved and others were carefully counting the cost. In our fastfood form of evangelism, we expect everyone to respond to the gospel rapidly, giving more thought to getting people to raise hands and come down to the “altar,” then we do about discipleship. And then we wait years to baptize them. Paul made sure that the people present understood that following Jesus was life changing. And to those whose culture is partly in line with self sacrifice but still worlds away from needing the Holy Spirit to help, it’s a hard pill to swallow.

This is the global gospel, that God will judge the world through his son, Jesus Christ–Paul tells them this. But everyone has the worldly sense that they can do what is right without God. This is especially true for the Stoic philosophers and the Epicureans, because they base their beliefs on personal sacrifice. It is much the same today, people believe that religion is the path to one saving themselves. That is, all religion, except true christianity, is work based. But the gospel of Jesus is not based on works but based on the grace of God. Yet by God’s grace, we are radically changed.

We see the scenario; Paul is all alone, physically speaking, preaching to people who he himself said were very religious. We forget that Paul preached primarily to people in or around the synagogues–“Jew and God-fearing Greeks.” The Jewish sacred Scripture points to Jesus. These people had their hearts primed by the Scripture and the Spirit. We are always utterly confused by the “partial hardening of Israel.” Partial means a part of Israel was hardened leaving a part of Israel as the foundation of the church. It’s probable at this point that the church was still predominantly Jewish. But Paul has a global gospel to preach and Athens was the first real test because it was the hub of philosophy. And we also are going to see a great shift after Athens as Paul preaches in Corinth. He will truly establish himself as the apostle to the gentiles in Corinth, but I am getting way ahead of myself.

At Athens Paul proclaimed what God has always proclaimed, that God is the God of all nations and this is the global gospel.  People often forget that long before Israel, men called on the name of God. Ironically enough, and I am not making this up, some dogmatic dispensationalists recently revealed their obsession with Israel by claiming that “Enoch was probably a gentile. He was raptured like the gentile church.” Question to these dogmatic dispensationalist who obviously won’t read these missives so that this question is moot–nontheless; what makes a Jewish person Jewish. Enoch was  thousands of years prior to Judaism and wasn’t circumcised. I give up–this is why I call them dogmatic dispensationalists. Enoch’s great grandson was dust before Jacob was a twinkling in Isaac’s eye. And etymologically speaking, Jewish comes from judah–I honestly don’t know where they come up with their dogma. Enoch was not Jewish obviously, not because he was raptured. Elijah was raptured, I guess, does that make him a gentile? The point is that we need to take a long view of Scripture and place things in their historical perspective and context. Therefore Paul proclaimed in the middle of the first century, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

Some believe, more don’t, others want to hear more; the global gospel is going out to all nations. Paul’s tradition of going to the synagogue on the Sabbath dies hard, is it possible that even with a prolific preacher and a powerful preaching that tradition often triumphs? Nevertheless, we have an eternal gospel to preach to the globe.

 

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