City of Idols — Part One
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City of Idols — Part One

The city of Athens was engrossed in idolatry when Paul visited. Paul was consumed with compassion for the people of Athens, so he did not condemn or ridicule them but engaged the culture with the truth of Christ. Alistair Begg encourages us to view our communities with the compassion of Paul while clinging steadfastly to the truth of the Gospel.

Series Containing This Sermon

When the Church Was Young

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 26401

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, thank you for the immense privilege of taking such good words and super tunes and employing them in order to give glory to you, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And now we pray for the work of the Spirit of God to bring the Word of God home to our lives in such a way that we might understand its truth, trust in it, obey it, and live it. And to this end we seek your help in Christ’s name. Amen.

I invite you to turn to an Old Testament reading, if you would—to the prophecy of Isaiah, and to Isaiah and chapter 44. I’m reading this as further background to the portion that was read for us earlier by Pastor Aquilino. And I’m going to break into the reading. God has said through his prophet in verse 6, “I am the first and I am the last; [and] apart from me there is no God.” And then he challenges anyone to step forward that would seek to be his rival. And then he speaks to the issue of idolatry—its futility—and he describes the absolute nonsensical nature of the fashioning of idols. And in verse 16 we’ll pick it up. We won’t read it all: “Half of the wood”—and that is the wood that he has cut down from the tree—

Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
 over it he prepares his meal,
 he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
 “Ah! I[’m] warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
 he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
 “Save me; you are my god.”
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
 their eyes are plastered over so that they cannot see,
 and their minds closed so [that] they cannot understand.
No one stops to think,
 no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I use for fuel;
 I even baked bread over its coals.
 I roasted meat and I ate.
Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
 Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him;
 he cannot save himself, or say,
 “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

A City Full of Idols

Now, from there turn over to where we were in Acts chapter 17, and we follow Paul as he arrives in Athens following his time in Thessalonica and in Berea. He has been ferried some three hundred miles and has arrived now in the city of Athens, Luke tells us. And since the city was not exactly on his missionary program, and since he’s waiting, as we find in verse 15, for the arrival of his friends Silas and Timothy, he does what we might expect him to do in that context: he does some sightseeing.

And as he moves around this city, Luke doesn’t remark on his response to its architecture. Presumably, he was struck by the immensity of it and its stature. But Luke actually tells us, gives us an insight into, what was happening in Paul’s psyche—if you like, what was going on in the core of his being. We sometimes look at someone—it may be a public figure; it may be someone with whom we’re familiar on a personal note—and as we see them in a certain context, we look at them, and then we say, “I wonder what they’re thinking,” or “I wonder what they’re feeling right now.”

Well, Luke tells us exactly what it was that Paul was feeling, and presumably, he knew as a result of Paul telling him. Paul was absolutely consumed. “His spirit was provoked within him.”[1] In the NIV, in verse 16, it reads, “He was greatly distressed.” And the source of his distress was the city being “full of idols.” The word that is used here is a word that would be used to describe the luxuriant undergrowth of, for example, an equatorial rainforest. And if you’ve been in the equator and you’ve been in those rainforests, you know that it wouldn’t be a good place to lose a golf ball, because if it went in there, you would probably never find it again. It is impossible to walk through it. At its most dense and intense, you would need something to hack your way through. The undergrowth is so luxuriant, it consumes the place. That is the word that is used here for the impact of idolatry in Athens. It was said that it was easier to meet a god than to meet a person in Athens.

And Paul, we’re told, couldn’t look at this and say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” but he was actually consumed in the core of his being. The Greek word is the word which gives us our English word paroxysm. And we can go into paroxysms of laughter, or we can have a paroxysm that overwhelms us, bringing us in deep distress. But the word, we understand in English, is indicative of something that is affecting the core of our being.

And that is exactly what Luke tells us is happening here. Paul looks at all of these shrines and all of these altars. He knows that he’s in the cultural capital of the world. This is where Plato and Socrates plied their trade and developed their philosophies. This is where both of them were born, and this was the adopted house and home of Aristotle—a city that was, and remains to this day, aesthetically magnificent. It was philosophically sophisticated. It was, at the same time, morally decadent, and it was, without question, spiritually deceived.

If Paul wanted to seize upon one city in particular that would embody what he wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians chapter 1, Athens would be the city. You remember when he writes to the Corinthians, and he says to them, “In the wisdom of God the world [in] its wisdom did not know him.”[2] This was part of the wisdom of God. This was not something that has taken God by surprise, but God has ordained that there is, if you like, no ultimate intellectual road to God—that the way a man or a woman comes to know God is as a result of God’s self-disclosure, as a result of the fact that he has revealed himself, he has made himself known. And he has done so in his world, and he has done so in our moral beings, and he has done so by setting eternity in our hearts and minds,[3] and he has done so in his Word, the Bible, and he has done so finally and savingly in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, as the Alpha and Omega,[4] brooks no rivals and is not like any other religious leader on the board of human history.

Paul is distressed. He was a Jewish boy. He grew up in a Jewish home. He knew the Ten Commandments. He knew that God had given them to his people: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” And he could then go on and recite them: “You shall have no other gods before me.” It was in the core of his being. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything [either] in heaven above or on … earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”[5] And he comes into the city of Athens, and what does he discover? That the glory of God is dragged down amongst the machinery and the mechanisms and the philosophies of this immense city. And instead of him, as it were—anachronistically I say it—you know, snapping a few pictures and saying, “I’ll need to take this home and show them to my family,” he almost doesn’t have time to see the magnificence of it, because he is so stirred by the perplexity of the people represented in their confusion.

He, as a Jewish boy, had his mom and dad say to him routinely, in Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord [your] God, the Lord is one. [And you shall] love the Lord your God with all your heart and … all your soul and … all your strength.”[6] And they said that to him when he went to his bed at night: “Saul, as you go to bed at night, God fashioned you. Saul, God is the beginning and the end of your life. Saul, you were made by the creator God. Saul, God made you for himself.” And as he would go to sleep of a night, it was drummed into him. And yet this was a God that he didn’t know—until he meets the risen Christ on the Damascus Road, and he suddenly sees it all, and the pieces of the puzzle all come together, and the picture forms up on the front of the box, and he says, “I get it now.” And once he had got it, he was intolerant of everyone and every other thing that would be opposed to that message. Not for Paul, the pluralism of the Roman Empire. Not for Paul, a willingness to put Jesus up amongst the idols of Athens or the idols of Rome. But no, he looks at it, and it breaks his heart, because he sees the lostness that is represented in the religious panorama of the vastness of this place.

Oh, I wonder how long it will be before I learn to feel that when I view the cities of America. I wonder how it is that I can snap so many photographs and think so many other things and fail to see the idolatry of twenty-first-century America. Because don’t let’s think for a minute that this is so long ago and far away that it is irrelevant to us. The high streets of our neighborhoods are filled with shrines: shrines to ourselves and shrines to materialism and shrines to sex—the great god of sex—and shrines to the god of sport. Nothing represents it more than Super Bowl Sunday. I know you hate it when I say that, but I’m telling you that it is the great idol-worship day of the year in America. If we were to realize how much money is expended, how much money is generated, in that one event—leading up to it and in it—it could deal with vast areas of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. It could radically make an impact on some of the diseases that are completely left untouched because for the drug companies, there is insufficient funds in them to do anything about it and so on.

But still we bow down before this great god. And young families are driven all around the communities, rushing to soccer, and rushing to softball, and rushing to swimming, and rushing everywhere. Why? Because it is an idol. And there are children in camps learning to hit tennis balls at the age of three, and children learning to hit golf balls at the age of four, bowing down before the idol not simply of sport but of all that sport might bring if they happen to be one of the rare prodigies that may emerge.

The truth of the risen Jesus has the power to tear down strongholds in individual lives, in families, in communities, in cities, and in nations.

No, I say to you again, the idols of our day are not simply represented in the Buddha that you can find in the high street and buy one and rub his tummy, not simply in the things that we may hang from the windows of our cars, but it is represented in the great idolatry of my own life, whereby I’m stuck on myself, and I think about myself, and I worship myself. And God says, “You shall have no other gods before me. Who is like me? Nobody. Who do you think you are, putting yourself at the center of the universe?”

And people say, “Well, I will maybe respond to the gospel. I need a little purpose in my life.” That’s not the issue. The issue is you are your own god, and God brooks no rivals. And until you are prepared to get off your throne and bow before the living God and see his Son enthroned in his rightful position, then any interest you may have in the benefits of the gospel or the effects of religion or the passing fancies of so much that is on offer in our contemporary culture will just leave you ultimately cold and empty.

The Power and Efficacy of the Gospel

So, what does he do if his reaction is to be greatly distressed? You’ll notice that his counterreaction, his counteraction, is not to curse the darkness. This doesn’t go into a great diatribe now: “And he was greatly distressed when he saw the idols in the city, and so he said, ‘Man, I hate these idols in this city!’” And we would expect the speech to go on from there. And then he got a group of people to put banners together: “We are against the idols in Athens! We are opposed to the idols in Athens! We don’t like the idols! We don’t like the idols!” Then the other people: “We love the idols! We love…” No, he doesn’t do that. He doesn’t suggest that they reestablish the structure of the courts. He doesn’t determine that they will infiltrate the political systems. No. Somehow or another, this little converted Jew actually believes that the truth of the risen Jesus, about whom we’ve been singing—that that truth has the power to tear down strongholds in individual lives, in families, in communities, in cities, and in nations. He actually believes that. If he didn’t believe that, it would be stupidity for him to do what he did. And since he does believe that, it would have been a violation of everything he understood to do anything other than that.

Listen, my friends, and listen to me carefully: I am as committed as you are to the privileges of democracy. I hope I am as concerned as you are about the issues that face us in relation to life, and the right to life, and the systems of justice and jurisprudence, and the impact on our family and on our education. I am as consumed with that as I think it is right to be. But I do not believe for a flat-out nanosecond that any one of these things, ultimately—ultimately—can or should take the place of our devotion to what Paul tackles here in dealing with the idolatry of Athens.

And I think—and I may be wrong; I often am—I think that many of our commitments to these other things may be tied to the absence of a conviction about the power and the efficacy of the gospel message itself. Not in every instance. It’s not a blanket generalization judgment. It’s not said to induce guilt in any of our hearts. It is said simply as an observation. As I look at the emphases of contemporary evangelical Christianity, and as I meet people from other parts of the world, and as they observe things objectively, they have virtually assumed, because of what comes out from us, that what we’re really concerned about has to do with our lives, our lifestyles, our family, our children, our futures.

“Well,” you say, “but aren’t we concerned with those things?” Yes, but not ultimately. Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciple, then take up your cross every day, and die to yourself, and come follow me. And if you don’t want to do that, then don’t come and follow me, because only those who are prepared to do that will be my disciples. If a man seeks to save his life, he will lose it. If a man loses his life for my sake,” says Jesus, “he will find it.”[7] That’s radical terminology.

And it was that which underpinned Saul, now Paul, as he counteracts what he finds in the city. He doesn’t curse the darkness. He doesn’t head into the hills. He doesn’t run away and hide. He doesn’t establish some little enclave where he can all go and feel comfortable and safe, with nobody ever coming knocking on the door, nobody interfering with him. He doesn’t do that at all. No, he actually heads for the synagogue, Luke tells us in verse 17. He starts off in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks—those whom we mentioned last time, who had come around the monotheism of Judaism without entering into all of its rites and rituals. They were known as God-fearers. They wanted to know God, and they were interested in what the Jews were saying, but they had not themselves converted to Judaism.

Paul goes into that group, and he speaks to them. Presumably, in Athens, he followed the pattern previously established. That pattern, Luke tells us, is for us there in verses 2 and 3. If you let your eyes look up the page, you will see that when he went into Thessolonica, he, “as his custom was, … went [to] the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days,” you will notice, “he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.”[8]

In other words, he did the hard work of biblical exposition. He didn’t just go in there and tell them, “You know, Thessolonica needs a good shake,” or “Let me tell you what happened to me when I was down the street in another place. Let me share some experiences I’ve had of the Holy Spirit.” All of those things would’ve been interesting and marginally profitable, but he knows that’s not what he’s called to do. That’s not what he’s called to do. No, he’s called to make much of Jesus and to explain the gospel. And so what he does is he reasons with them. He’s not unreasonable. And he says to them, “What I want you to do is to look at your Bibles, at the Old Testament.” And then he takes the Old Testament, and he explains and he proves “that the Christ”—that is, the Messiah—“had to suffer and rise from the dead.” That was his strategy. “Let’s look here,” he must have said, “at Leviticus,” which, of course, is the Day of Atonement.[9] “Let’s look at the Day of Atonement and see what has happened there.” And what has happened there on the Day of Atonement? That a substitute has died in the place so that a sacrifice for sin may be offered for those who are sinners.

And he would have gone on through there, and he would have shown his listeners that the Messiah that they were waiting for was a Messiah who actually had to suffer. Yes, he was a King who would reign. Yes, he was a Prophet who would speak God’s Word. But he had to show them that he was also a Priest who would himself die to bear the sins of his people. And the light started to go on in the eyes of certain people. They would have said, “Oh, oh, oh!” And that’s what he did. He said, “Are you getting this? Do you realize that what the Old Testament is saying—that the Messiah, when he comes, must suffer and rise from the dead?” And when one or two of them said, “Yes, we understand that,” then the coup de grâce: then, Luke tells us, he said, “This Jesus I’m proclaiming to you is that Messiah.”[10] He doesn’t start off about Jesus. He starts off with the Old Testament.

And we’re going to see that it is remarkable what Paul does here in Athens. We won’t see until this evening at the soonest, but it is remarkable what Paul does here in Athens. When he gets the ears of the intelligentsia, he doesn’t start with the doctrine of the atonement. He starts with the doctrine of creation. We’ll see that later on. Most of us are afraid to start with the doctrine of creation because we’ve already given up on the idea that God could create the world in seven days if he wanted to. I’m hard-pressed to find anybody who would actually believe that. You say, “You don’t possibly believe that.” I’m very happy to believe that, yes. “Well, how did it get as old?” Well, I’ve seen you antiquing things. Don’t you think God can antique things? He can make something new look old? You do it. I’ve been in your houses. I’ve been in my house; I don’t need to go in anyone else’s house. But that’s for another time.

And when he’s done that in the synagogue, then he moves out into the marketplace with those who just happen to be there. That’s verse 17. And he talked with those who happened to be there. In other words, he didn’t have appointments. He just engaged people in conversation.

Now, some of us are better at this than others. Some of us are raconteurs. Some of us can talk about anything. Most of the time, nobody wants to listen to us. Other people have difficulty engaging people in conversation. Not everybody is able to do it in the same way. But if you’re introverted and you’re not good at starting these conversations, that’s okay, because people are looking for people like you, because they don’t like extroverted people who are, like, in their face all the time. And so God knows what he’s doing in putting people together. And Paul, given his temperament, given his personality, is out in the community, in the mainstream of life, down in the marketplace, and he just seizes the opportunity to speak with those who happen to be there.

And the people who were listening… And there were a group of eggheads who were there—the intelligentsia. They look like tadpoles: huge, big heads and tiny little bodies. They were intrigued by him. Some of them said, “He seems to be bit of a birdbrain. Seems to be a bit of a babbler, picking up scraps of information”—that’s what the Greek means—“and just spitting them out.” Somebody else said, “No, I’m not so sure you’re right on that. He seems to be speaking about some foreign gods.” And Luke says the reason they said that is because he was speaking about Jesus and the resurrection—the resurrection being Anastasia. And so the possibility is that in their minds, they said, “Oh, we got the kind of male-female deity thing going on here.” Anyway, there was enough intrigue for them to say, “Why don’t you come to a meeting of our philosophical society? A group of us meet together routinely, and we speak about the really important things of life.” Verse 21, Luke parenthetically says, “[And] all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing”—actually, not “doing nothing,” but “doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”

Now, there are groups of people like this everywhere. You can find them different places. In the ’60s, it was kind of trendy to, you know, have this kind of Bohemian perspective on life and to suggest that we knew the things to talk about. Paul Simon puts his tongue in his cheek and writes about it when he says,

Yes, we speak the things that matter
With words that must be said:
“Is analysis really worthwhile?”
“Is the theater really dead?”

And you read your Emily Dickinson,
And I my Robert Frost,
And the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs
In the borders of our minds.[11]

Now, that’s not all gone. We’re three decades on from that, at least, but you can find these people. You’ll find them in coffee shops around America. You’ll find them in Starbucks. Schultz wanted them in Starbucks, and he has achieved what he set out to do. If you’ve read Pour Your Heart into It… If you’re a business student and you haven’t read Pour Your Heart into It, then I commend it to you; it will be exceptionally profitable—the story of how Schultz gets the whole concept of Starbucks up and off the ground, his design not simply to sell coffee at exorbitant prices but actually to, by his own testimony, restore the street corners to America. And Schultz says in his book that he was brought up in a community, I think in New York, where people were out on the stoops, and they were out on the corners, and they smoked cigarettes, and they talked to one another, and they shot the breeze with each other. And he says at the end of our twentieth-century society and into the twenty-first, no one’s out on the corners, no one’s on the stoops, no one’s shooting the breeze. Everyone’s in their cars, it’s an atomized society, the culture is disintegrated from one another, and everyone is isolated. So he said, “What I want to do”—having been in Italy and gone to the piazzas and the coffee shops—he said, “What I want to do is restore the street corners to America. I want to create places in America where people can sit down and actually talk to one another.” And you know what? He’s done it. He’s done it.

And I don’t know about you, but I have discovered in just about every city in America that if you go into this place, or a generic version—you know, like when you get drugs, you say, “Would you like the real thing or a generic?”—you can go to Starbucks or a generic, and you’ll find that there are people in there. And you can play chess with them, or checkers, if you happen to be so inclined. There’s some person that has all kinds of things attached to him—not least of all an iPod—and he’s in his own cyberspace world listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” or whatever it might be while at the same time prepared to engage you in a conversation regarding metaphysics. And you don’t have to do anything except say, “Hello,” and you’re off to the races! “What do you want to talk about?”

Well, that’s what Paul was doing. I’ve a sneaking suspicion that if we would just scatter into these communities and into these places, intentionally thinking about opportunities for the gospel, we’ll actually fill Parkside up two or three times over with people who are just interested as a result of our conversations—not because we’re going in there to try and hammer them with something, not because we’re going in to try and infiltrate the culture, as it were, but just because we’re going in as human beings that like other human beings and are interested in what other people are reading and what they’re saying: “What is that book? I haven’t read that book. Tell me what that book’s about.” And if you ask that question, they’re liable to ask you, “And what’s your book about?” And you can tell them what your book’s about. And if you happen to be reading the New Testament, you’re off to a flying start:

“Oh, this is a good one here. I was just reading a bit in Acts 17. My pastor was trying to explain it—didn’t do a very good job. So I thought I would just come in here and read it for myself, see if I can make some headway in it.”

The person says, “Well, what’s it about?”

You say, “Well, it’s Paul.”

“Who was Paul?”

“Well, Paul…” And so on. You’re off to the races.

I mean, you’re not sitting down with a little thing, you know, waiting for the chance to press button A so you can press button B and so on and get to wherever you’re supposed to get to because your head has been wired for a certain methodological approach to communicating the gospel. No, they were there, and they were there in good numbers, and they loved to talk about these things.

And as a result of that, he did receive an invitation—verse 19—on account of the fact that he had intrigued them. And they took him and brought him—verse 19—to a meeting of the Areopagus—that is, the assembly of the people. And if you’ve been to Athens, you will have seen the site on Mars Hill, and you will have seen the plaque there with Acts 17, beginning in verse 22 and running through to verse 31. I went there with a group of people, and I looked at the plaque on the wall. And it’s written entirely in Greek. And so I stood, and I looked at it for a little bit, and I said, “Aha!” I said, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you’re very religious, because…” And I began to apparently translate it. But I wasn’t translating. I was just quoting Acts 17 from memory. But they were thoroughly impressed—for a moment.

One Foot Planted in the Culture

So, brought up to the meeting of the Athenians and the Areopagus—the intelligentsia of the day—he’s going to begin his dissertation for them in verse 22. We’re not going to be able to get there before this evening, but let me just set the context for you as we draw this to a close. What we’re saying at Parkside, in both our teaching from the Bible—whether it’s here or in any of the contexts—and in our communicating of the gospel within our place of influence and involvement, is that two things are essential. One: we need to have one foot planted firmly in the culture. And the other: we need to have one foot planted firmly in the Bible. Somebody might say, “Well, you need both feet in the Bible.” Okay, okay. But you understand what I’m saying. Leave him aside for the moment. One foot firmly in the culture and one foot firmly in the Bible, so that we can fuse the two horizons.

The dominant philosophies that are represented in first-century Athens are still essentially dominant in twenty-first-century America.

It’s not unusual to find people who have got both of their feet firmly in the Bible and their heads in the Bible. They’re wonderful teachers of the Bible, but when it all comes to the end, the people are sitting there going, “So what? I don’t understand how this intersects with anything.” And there are other people who are so brilliant at establishing an understanding of the cultural context that, having set the context very clearly, everybody’s sitting there saying, “What does this have to do with the Bible?” And the real challenge is being able to read, as it were, the New York Times and the Bible and to show how the New York Times and the Bible intersect. No, it doesn’t have to be the New York Times. I just say that to annoy my Wall Street readers who are here and who are very concerned for me. But it’s all right. I need to read what the enemy is saying in order to understand them and fight against them.

And what I’ve discovered is that the dominant philosophies that are represented here in Athens are still essentially dominant in twenty-first-century America. At the risk of oversimplification but in the interest of time, let me summarize them for you. He, we’re told, encountered a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

The Epicurean philosophy can be summarized in terms of words like chance, indulgence, and escape. It’s the kind of thing that you find in Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams—a form of existentialism, really. It is represented in all kinds of contemporary lyrics, and even in ancient lyrics. The idea for the Epicurean was that you really only have the moment. You seize the moment, grab the gusto, do your best. From Wayne’s World, it would be “Party on, dude,” and in the words of Kris Kristofferson—either written, but certainly sung—it would be

I don’t care [what’s] right or wrong. …
I don’t try to understand.
Let the devil take tomorrow,
[’Cause tonight I’ll take your hand.]
Yesterday is dead and gone,
And tomorrow’s out of sight. …
Help me make it through the night.[12]

Now, when you run up against somebody, if you’re dating, in the dating game, and you begin to pick up the fact that they are Epicurean, you’d do well to grab your car keys and make a run for it.

For those of you who did poetry at school and loved it, then Swinburn gets this whole philosophy in “The Garden of Proserpine” when he writes,

From too much love of living,
 From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
 Whatever gods may be…

And what do we thank these gods—whatever they are, whoever they are—for? Well, we thank them

That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
[And] that even the weariest river
 Winds somewhere safe to sea.[13]

It is, in the words of the Liverpool soccer supporters, chanted routinely:

Que será, será
Whatever will be, will be.
The future’s not [mine] to see
Que será, será.[14]

It is aptly summarized in the teenager’s flippant response to everything: “Whatever. Whatever.” It is alive and well. Do you understand that many a young person in in suburban Cleveland today, if pressed, that actually is their summary statement of their worldview? “Whatever.” “Well, do you know this?” “Whatever.”

In contrast, and yet in comparison, the Stoic philosophy can be summarized in terms of fatalism, submission, and the endurance of pain, perhaps best summarized in Henley’s “Invictus,” if you remember W. E. Henley, if you did him at school. Henley had polio as a boy, had his leg amputated. Henley’s amputation gave inspiration to Robert Louis Stevenson when he created the captain with the peg leg in his novel, whatever it was. But Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw and those kind of people were all sort of hip together. And Henley grabs this Stoicism and encapsulates it for all time in one stanza that most people know, but the rest of the poem we had to learn at school as well. It’s known as the “Invictus.” Do you remember it?

Out of the night that covers me,
 [And] black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be…

That’s the same line, you will notice—“whatever gods may be”—as we have in Swinburn.

 For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
 I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
 My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
 Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
 Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
 How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate.
 I am the captain of my soul.[15]

The Epicureans believed that death ended everything; there was nothing beyond and therefore no judgment to be feared. The Stoics said, “Bring it on. Bring it on. Show me what you’ve got.”

“Under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody and unbowed.” Who, in the last decade, facing the death penalty, quoted as his final words “Invictus”? That’s right. Timothy McVeigh. And it was his Stoicism, at the very core of his being, that allowed him to lie down on that gurney and scream at death. And it is the Epicureanism of convincing oneself that it’s all over when you die, and you go to nowhere, and it doesn’t matter that allows people to proceed wholesale towards eternity without hardly a passing thought for what it may mean. It is this philosophical framework that Paul is confronted by, and it is to this group that he then begins his address. And to his address we will come on the next chance we have together.

Father, I thank you for the Bible. I pray today for us to become students of your Word so that we might learn to share it with others in a way that, like Paul, is reasonable and compassionate and interesting and vibrant and related. I pray for some who are listening to the Bible being taught today and who, with their friends, are thinking issues through: some who have been tempted to think with the Epicureans that death ends it all, but deep inside them, they know that isn’t true; some who have been raging against the machine, playing Pink Floyd on their iPod—“Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone! I’m just another brick in the wall”[16]—and yet, inside of them, they see the emptiness of the world. They sense their own fears and incapacities. They know that they cannot conquer their demons nor triumph over their sins. And that, of course, is where the message of a loving God and a wonderful Savior and a terrific Friend and Guide and Counselor comes in. So we pray that there will be those who, before the day is out, simply bow in childlike trust and turn from their empty and futile way of life and trust in Jesus, and that others of us will plan on going out into this week, compelled by the love of Christ to make much of Jesus.

And now may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one of us, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Acts 17:16 (ESV).

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:21 (NIV 1984).

[3] See Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[4] See Revelation 1:8; 22:13.

[5] Exodus 20:2–5; Deuteronomy 5:6–9 (NIV 1984).

[6] Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (NIV 1984).

[7] Matthew 16:24–25; Mark 8:34–35; Luke 9:23–24 (paraphrased).

[8] Acts 17:2–3 (NIV 1984).

[9] See Leviticus 16.

[10] Acts 17:3 (paraphrased).

[11] Paul Simon, “The Dangling Conversation” (1966). Lyrics lightly altered.

[12] Kris Kristofferson, “Help Me Make It through the Night” (1970).

[13] Algernon Charles Swinburn, “The Garden of Proserpine” (1866).

[14] Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Será, Será)” (1955).

[15] William Ernest Henley, “Invictus” (1875).

[16] Roger Waters, “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” (1979). Lyrics lightly altered.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.