Our nation is spiritually bankrupt. Perhaps you are wondering how we will ever make Christ known, and whether we should try new methods? Well, Acts 17 is a good place to go for the answers.
Here, it is roughly AD 50 and Paul is mid-way through his second missionary journey. He arrives at Athens and, as usual, visits the Jewish synagogue. But it is the idolatry of Athens that makes the biggest impression upon him.
It was said of Athens that you were more likely to find a god there than a man; the locals even hedged their bets by worshipping an ‘Unknown god’. The place was ‘given over’ (v.16) to such idolatry and Paul’s reaction provides important lessons.
Note carefully that he doesn’t walk away in despair, but is stirred to the core, ‘provoked’, by what he sees. And, at first, his approach differs greatly from the earlier preaching occasions recorded in Acts.
On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), Peter addressed Jews and proselytes acquainted with the Scriptures, using quotations from the Old Testament throughout his sermon. Stephen, on trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 7), rooted his arguments in biblical history. He cited Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses.
Paul’s Acts 13 sermon, delivered in a synagogue, addressed ‘men of Israel’, familiar with the well-known account of their fathers leaving Egypt and with the words of the Old Testament prophets.
But now in Athens it is different. Here Paul is faced with a people who don’t know about the patriarchs, haven’t a clue about the Red Sea, and are unfamiliar with the prophets and their writings. Paul starts from an entirely different point to the previous occasions.
He says, ‘God, who made the world and everything in it, since he is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands’ (Acts 17:24). He starts at the beginning of everything, at the earliest time God reveals his work to us.
He also begins by declaring the name of ‘God’ authoritatively, by assuming God’s existence. Questions such as ‘Where did God come from?’ or ‘What was there before the world was made?’ are never addressed.
The Bible doesn’t give an answer to everything, nor did Paul, and nor can we. We are to be believers, not ‘understanders’, nor even ‘explainers’ of every detail.
Paul asserts that it is God who ‘made the world and everything in it’. His reasons: ‘Take a look around you and ask yourself, “Where did it all come from? What do I observe and how can I account for everything as it is?”’ God’s invisible attributes are plain and clear for all humans to take note of (Romans 1:20).
And people do instinctively note this evidence and are troubled in their conscience with what they find. They are without excuse, for God is knowable and can through Christ be known.
When dealing with those who have little or no Christian knowledge, creation is the obvious place to start with them. For example, you wander round an art gallery viewing the paintings, or stroll through a fine garden impressed with the arrangement of the borders.
Or you admire a new car and observe its detailed styling and engineering. In each case, the work of an artist or designer is apparent, not because you see the creator (rarely would you expect them to be present with their work), but you see the end result.
We can learn a lot about a person from his or her handiwork. You admire and ask yourself, ‘What does this wonderful work tell me about the artist or maker?’
When we take a long look at the world around us, we ask the same question concerning the invisible God. We need to remind people of this.
People need to be reminded too that there is nothing mundane, robotic or bland about God’s creation, as ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).
Consider, for example, our food. It was, biologically speaking, perfectly possible for God to keep us alive on tasteless, colourless, odourless food. But consider the huge variety of tastes, textures and colours he puts into our food sources, thereby giving us all we need for a healthy, balanced diet. What does this tell us about him?
That God created man male and female for procreation and didn’t make human beings single-sexed creatures tells us volumes about the delight, love and affection with which he made his earth to be replenished and enjoyed by us.
If Paul could point the Athenians to their surroundings, how much more can we do the same with our contemporaries. Never before has there been so much information at our finger tips or so much detail accessible from previously unexplored or unreachable locations.
The depths of the ocean bed; harsh desert and rainforest habitats; far-flung planets, relayed into the comfort of our living rooms; DNA and the recently charted human genome; new discoveries, greater than imaginable even 20 years ago: it has all been present from the beginning of time. It reminds us of the hidden depths of creation and the Creator.
But drawing attention to these things alone will accomplish nothing in turning men and women to God. Belief in a creator is not enough to spare people from the punishment of their sins. Having started with creation, Paul then led the Athenians to consider Christ.
Peter at Pentecost concluded with Jesus as Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36-38); Stephen climaxed his sermon with the death of Christ (Acts 7:52); and on both those occasions the hearers were urged to repent.
Now Paul does the same, even though the Athenians come from a very different religious background.
He says, ‘Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom he has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17:30-31).
Wherever we start with people, we need to do what Peter, Stephen and Paul did, lead them to Jesus Christ. Their preaching led up to, ‘Repent, turn, believe in Christ and be saved’.
For, to acknowledge that there is a God should lead us to confess that we need to seek and find him. We need to be prepared to come into his presence on the judgement day. There can be nothing more urgent than that.
Do we simply lay out the facts, draw upon proofs of a Creator at our disposal and assume all our hearers will be convinced? No! Nor was it different for Paul.
Acts 17 speaks of a variety of reactions among the Athenians: ‘And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, We will hear you again on this matter.
‘So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them’ (vv. 32-34).
Yes, some did believe and were added to the church of Jesus Christ. We pray God will do the same today. He can and is doing so. But we need to start with people where they are, and then lead them to Jesus Christ, the sinner’s friend.