City of Idols — Part Two
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City of Idols — Part Two

Acts 17:22–34  (ID: 2448)

In Acts 17, Paul provides a model for the framework of engaging our culture as we share the truth of Christ. Paul witnessed the glory of God degraded by idolatry but did not condemn the people. Instead, he explained the truth of God as creator and sustainer of life who cannot be enshrined by human hands. Alistair Begg encourages us to be relevant in the culture but committed to the truth of God’s Word.

Series Containing This Sermon

When the Church Was Young

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 26401

Sermon Transcript: Print

Let’s turn to the Bible together, in Acts 17.

Just a brief prayer:

Lord, before we come now to you around your Table, we come to your Word. We want to learn it and obey it, and we pray for your grace and your help as we look into it together. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

A Masterful Piece of Rhetoric

I toyed with saving this and coming back to it in the morning, but I won’t have the opportunity to come back to it in the morning for three weeks because of our pastors’ conference and visitors and various things that are happening. And so I determined that we should come to the portion of Scripture where we left off this morning. Those of you who were not here, we essentially made an attempt at the opening section of the story of Paul in Athens. And what we want to do in the brief time that we have together now is at least give ourselves a thumbnail sketch of his address.

And in verse 22, Paul, having been invited to this, essentially, gathering of the philosophical society in Athens, stands up. And there, if you picture him in your mind’s eye, if you visited there, in the shadow of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, this little converted Jew stands to address the intelligentsia of Athens. Luke is careful to let us see that he starts where they are. In one very realistic way, he allows their circumstances to set his agenda. He is conciliatory in his tone. He uses their open acknowledgement of their unawareness of God as a launching pad to proclaim the living and the true God.

It’s a masterful piece of work, really. Rhetorically, it’s skillful. It’s sensitive. It’s adept. It’s everything that we would hope to be in seeking to embrace our culture and speak to them. He doesn’t begin by saying something silly, like “I’ve never seen such an idolatrous place in all my life” or “You people have got to be crazy worshipping all these silly little things”—the kind of stupid introduction that you might expect from someone like me—but he actually starts in this wonderful way. And he makes a statement that, again, rhetorically is wonderful and will get everybody’s ears pinned back: “I … found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” They would have said to one another, “Well, he really did his homework. He was looking around. If he found that one, he must have been paying attention to what was going on.” “I found the altar to the unknown God.” And then here comes his great opening statement: “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”

What a start! And, of course, it’s one thing to have a wonderful introduction and then for it to disintegrate very quickly. But that doesn’t happen here with Paul, and I want just to outline for you what he says in a way that allows us to see the framework of his address. Remember that what we have here is doubtless a summary of what was said on this occasion, because I read from this passage… We read from it this morning, again this evening. The reading from 16 all the way through to the end won’t take more than three and a half minutes. So unless we have concluded that he spoke in Athens on this occasion just for three and a half minutes, we can safely assume that what Luke has done is provided us, if you like, with the gist of his declaration on that occasion and that some of the things that are here in their bare bones, as it were, would have been fleshed out and amplified illustratively and in various expressions of his own insight and understanding.

But he begins, first of all, by telling them that this God “made the world” and can’t be contained in a shrine. That’s verse 24: “The God who made the world and everything in it,” he’s actually “the Lord of heaven and earth,” and he “does not live in temples built by hands.” In other words, he provides for them a very different perspective on the world—a very different worldview, certainly, than the worldview expressed in these two dominant philosophical concepts: the Epicureans, who essentially were living, in their minds, in a chance universe, and the Stoics, who, as fatalists, were living with a form of blind determinism. And he says, “The God that I want to tell you about is not a God that can be localized or limited, encapsulated and enshrined in some way, because, actually, he is the God who is the maker of everything in the world.”

It is a staggering claim, isn’t it? And it is an interesting point of departure—especially when we think about ways in which we seek to speak to people in our day concerning our convictions regarding the good news. He’s quite unashamed, quite prepared, to begin with the doctrine of creation. “Here,” he says, “is the origin of the universe. It begins with a creator God, and he is the Lord of heaven and earth.”

Secondly, in verse 25, he says, “And we also need to understand that this God does not depend on us, but we depend on him.” Isn’t that what he’s saying? “He[’s] not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” In other words, not only did God create life, but God is the God who sustains life. “This God whom I’m declaring to you is powerful, and he is perfect, and he is praiseworthy, and he is plural, in the sense of him being trinitarian.” And presumably, he would have made much of that, moving from monotheism to his trust in Jesus as a Savior and a King. But they need to hear this. They need to think it through, as do our friends and neighbors. He does not depend on us, but we depend on him.

Thirdly, he is in charge of history and geography. That’s essentially the emphasis in verse 26: “From one man he made every nation of men,” and so on. God has acted in this way, he says in verse 27, purposefully, so that human beings, who are made in his image, “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and [actually] find him, though,” he says, “he[’s] not far from each one of us.”

Now, we’re going to have to wait and check with Paul when we see him to find out if he actually cross-referenced himself at this point. I’ve a sneaking suspicion he probably did. Perhaps he then said to them what he was prepared to say when he wrote to the Christians in Rome concerning the disobedience of man, and he may have reminded them that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”[1] So, he would have told them, presumably, that we are the ones who are far away from God; God is actually not that far away from us. “And indeed, if it weren’t for our sin, which separates us from this God that you do not know, then he would be readily accessible to us. Because, after all,” he says—verse 28—“in him we live and move and have our being.” “In fact,” he says, quoting the poetry of the day, “some of your own poets have actually gone so far as to say, ‘We are his offspring.’”

In other words, he makes these declarations which are true whether men and women accept it or not. Here are these people who are standing there in Athens, and they’ve got a view of life. Some of them think they’re just here for a good time and then move on to oblivion. Others feel themselves to be trapped in the forces of determinism and unable to really alter much about their lives. They feel like cogs in a machine. And he says, “I want to tell you about a God who’s not like that at all. In fact, this God is far more accessible than you may ever have realized. And the thing that separates us from him is nothing other than our own disobedience and our own rebellion.”

Fourthly, he is the Father of all men. Verse 29: “Therefore since we are God’s offspring…” We are his offspring. He is the Father of all men and women by creation. That’s the significance, again, of quoting the poetry: “We are his offspring.” Now, clearly, he’s not referring here to the redemptive relationship which men and women enjoy with God by adoption through grace, but he is making reference to the fact that humanity derives its life from God one person at a time; and therefore—and of course, it is in the context, remember, of this rampant idolatry—it is therefore ludicrous to think of the Creator in terms of lifeless, created objects.

See, he’s addressing the issue, but he’s doing it in a wonderfully skillful way. There’s no condemnatory tone here in what he’s saying. He has done his homework. He has researched things. He’s been in the bookstores, as it were, looking in the flyleaf of some of the books. He’s been listening to the poets as they’ve been quoted. He’s been listening to the contemporary songs as they’ve been playing in the bazaars of Athens as he’s had these few days in town. And he’s a fast learn. He’s a bright fellow. And he says, “You know, to think of God as a lifeless object is to think wrongly.”

John Stott, in his wonderful commentary on this, in a purple passage, points out that whenever men and women engage in idolatry, it is an attempt to either… And then he goes on this amazing run. And when I see this happen, I wish, once, I could think this way. But I never can, and I’ll die before I manage it. But anyway, he says, “Idolatry [attempts to] either … localize God” by containing the Creator (we can put God in here, so we attempt to localize him); “or to domesticate” him (in other words, to make “the Sustainer of … life” somehow “dependent [up]on us”); “or to alienate” him by “blaming him for his distance and his silence,” whereas he actually rules the nations and isn’t far from us; “or to dethrone” him by “demoting him to some image of our contrivance or [our] craft,” when in point of fact, “he is [the] Father from whom we derive” all our craftiness, from whom we derive all our imagination, from whom we derive all our creativity. And then we would seek to take our creativity and use it to marginalize and encapsulate the living God. And then he says, “There is no logic in idolatry; it[’s] a perverse, topsy-turvy expression of our human rebellion against God.”[2]

We can say of God’s day of judgment: it is fixed, it is going to be absolutely fair, and it is going to be completely final.

Fifthly, he points out that God is also the judge of the world. God is the judge of the world. “In the past”—verse 30—“God overlooked the ignorance that has produced all of these shrines and idols.” Presumably, what he means is that in the past, God overlooked men’s ignorance in the sense that he did so in view of the perfect revelation that has now been given in the Lord Jesus Christ. But if the ignorance in the past was culpable, it is far less inexcusable now. And here, for the first time, if you like, he begins to let the hammer drop on the minds of these people. They might have been able to follow along with him, saying, “Well, it’s an interesting concept, a creator God. It’s an interesting thought that this God sustains the world. It’s an interesting idea that he’s not localized and that we can’t limit him and that we are his offspring.” And now he says, “And you need to know something else: this God that I’m telling you about is the judge of all the earth, and he has issued a call to all people everywhere to repent of their former ignorance, with all the disobedience to God that is involved in that, and to submit to a true knowledge of God that is provided in the gospel.”

Now, that clearly is not a matter that his listeners or any listeners can casually set aside. The creator God is the judge of the universe. And the day of judgment, he says in verse 31—the day of judgment will be executed fairly. The day of judgment is a day—it is a datable thing—in the economy of God. Therefore, we might say of God’s day of judgment: it is fixed, it is going to be absolutely fair, and it is going to be completely final. “The God who made you and sustained your life, those of you who are listening to me today,” he says, “is the God who has appointed a day when he will judge the world with justice.” And then he says, “And he has given proof of this by raising Jesus from the dead.”

Sneerers, Stallers, and Some Who Believe

And then Luke tells us that it was at that point that the meeting began to break up: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them said, ‘Well, I don’t know about that. I think that’s the silly thing.’” You would imagine the Epicureans would be leading this charge, wouldn’t you? They had been going around trumpeting the fact that when you’re dead, you’re dead; there is nothing after death, and the idea of judgment is nothing to be feared, because there is nothing beyond the grave. So they might have been prepared to listen to Paul for a little while. They might even have been prepared to ponder with Paul the idea of the immortality of the soul. They might have been able to stretch their philosophical thinking to that extent, but as soon as it came to the idea of a literal resurrection of a body and the fact that this Jesus of Nazareth was apparently alive from the dead, then they just started to laugh at that: “I never heard such a silly thing.”

So, the sneers of unbelief were present in some. Others were apparently a little more guarded, maybe a little more polite. They said, “Well, we would like to consider you again on this subject. Maybe we can have you back some other time.” That’s what people say when you’re trying to… If you’re a salesman, that’s what they say to you, isn’t it? “Well, thank you for your presentation. Do leave your card or your number. We’ll try and get back to you maybe.” And under their breath, they’re going, like, “Never.” And so we don’t really know what the response was, but there was the obvious sneering unbelief, and then there was the “Well, we could perhaps have another little conversation about this.”

And after that, that’s the reaction right there: “At that, Paul left the Council.” I’m tremendously encouraged by this. ’Cause if this is the summary of what took place, this was one unbelievably good piece of work. This is the mighty apostle Paul at his best in the cultural capital of the universe. This is him in the shadow of all the majesty of this idolatry. And as he lays it out under the guidance of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit and he says, “Well, that’s where I have to finish my talk today,” then some said, “What a bunch of bunk!” and some said, “Well, maybe we could have another chat about this.” And Luke says, “[And] at that, Paul left the Council.”

Well, what else is there to do? This unsettles some people because there’s no appeal here. Some people’s theology says, “Well, it’s clear there was nobody going to believe. How could anybody believe? He didn’t ask them to put up their hands, or he didn’t ask them to do something! If he’d really been an evangelist, he would have had some mechanism that could have produced the reaction.” Oh, that’s easy. That’s easy. But only God can save.

Paul knew that. Paul would never have been saved if God hadn’t arrested him. Paul would never have been saved if God had not revealed himself to him. Paul was totally opposed to Jesus and the gospel. So he knew he could safely walk away and leave it to God to bring people to faith. And that’s exactly what happened. There’s a little PS, as it were, in verse 34: “A few men became followers of Paul.” They tagged along with him. They began to trot along with him. Presumably, they may have been some of the ones who were interested to do the follow-up. And having become followers of Paul, they “believed.” And Dionysius gets a mention, “a member of the Areopagus,” and “a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.” Think of all those folks that, when they got the chance to read Acts, if they were still kicking around, they looked in to see, “I wonder if I’m in Acts 17?” And they’re in under “a number of others.” That is the lot for most of us, isn’t it? We’re going to be in, consistently, under “a number of others.”

The Message to Our Friends and Neighbors

Well, let me apply this in this way as we finish this up and come around the Lord’s Table. What I said this morning was that our challenge is to be able to understand the Bible in the historical setting in which we find it so that we’re able to make a meaningful application of it in the cultural setting in which we now live, so that first we understand where Paul was, what Paul was doing, what he was saying, and why he was saying it, so that when we make application of it, we don’t just launch off into some flight of fancy.

This is arguably one of the best patterns that we have in all of the Acts for engaging the non-Christian in discussion. There’s much more to this than we’ve unpacked for now. That’s your homework: to go away and think about it.

I wonder if I can just suggest one way of application as illustrative of the kind of thing that we might do with this. Remember a few weeks ago, before Easter, we looked at the sorry circumstances involved in the life of this fellow Jeff Weise, who killed his grandfather and his grandfather’s companion, killed a number of his fellow students in Minnesota, killed a security guard, killed a schoolteacher, and then killed himself. And you may remember the details of his life: living his life in cyberspace, alienated from friendship and from all kinds of things. Admittedly, his actions were extreme. We’re certainly not going to argue that the Jeff Weises of the world are, in terms of at least their activity, a kind of normal, mainstream illustration of the sort of individual with whom we might be spending time.

But actually, you know, although what he did was unusual, how he thought was probably not as unusual. I think that in many ways he was representative of the way in which, in our microchip world, many people have lost themselves in the anonymity of it all, in the friendlessness of it all, and that down in those labyrinths and passages, they have no overarching view of the world. Certainly, by his own testimony and the things that he put on the internet, that would be true.

So, can we just try this outline with Jeff Weise? Here is Jeff Weise. He’s overweight and tall. He wears eye makeup. He has darkened hair. He wears a long trench coat that goes down to the ground. He is alienated from his father, who is dead. He is alienated from his mother, who is incapacitated. He is alienated from his friends, who regard him as bizarre. And he lives in a world of his own making, in an anonymous world where he finds solitude and release in bizarre activities in his cyberspace world.

Well, let’s just try this with him:

“Hey, Jeff, I’m glad of the opportunity to talk with you. I wanted to tell you—and you may not have thought of this ever—but God created you, Jeff. I know your mother told you routinely that you’re a mistake. I know that you have bought into the idea that you exist as a result of time plus matter plus chance. But if you would allow me, I’d like to show you where it says in the Bible, Jeff, that God created your life.

“Secondly, Jeff, I want you to know that the God who created your life is the Lord who has sustained you. Even though your father killed himself in a police shootout, even though your mother is brain-dead as a result of the accident involving the abuse of alcohol as she drove in the car with her cousin, even though you feel yourself forlorn and pushing a gigantic rock uphill emotionally and in every other way, it is God, Jeff, who has been sustaining your life to today.

“And Jeff, the sense of futility that you feel in that emptiness is actually not unique to you. I know many of your friends think you’re stupid because of the way you dress, I know that many of them disregard you, and I know they think it would only be a daft person who would ever do what you do. But I can see, Jeff, that you’re actually very smart. The sense of your futility and despair is not on account of the fact that you don’t understand. It’s because you do understand. And presumably, you would have understood just why it was that Einstein—who’s the man who said, ‘I’ve discovered that the men who know the most are the most gloomy’[3]—why Einstein wrote in his journal in 1932, in a statement, credo, ‘Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here involuntarily and uninvited for a short stay, without knowing the [why or] the wherefore.’[4] And I think, Jeff, what you’re saying, if I understand you correctly, in cyberspace is that you believe that to be the case—that you don’t know why you’re here. You believe you’re here involuntarily and you’re uninvited, but I need to tell you that this creator God who sustains your life is actually not far from you, Jeff. The only thing that keeps you away from this loving God is your own rebellion and disobedience and unbelief.

“And it may surprise you to think about this, ’cause I know you don’t like living in Minnesota. I know you liked it better where you lived before. I know you didn’t want to come and live with your grandparents. But the Bible actually says that God is in control of our history and our geography—that you’re not blown about on the sea of chance, that you’re not held in the grip of a dark force, but actually, God is ordering our steps. The world is not ‘like an apple [spinning] silently in space.’[5] And although the brothers in Oasis think that ‘every road that leads me there is winding, and every light that guides my way is blinding,’[6] there is a way, Jeff, to know God, who is the Father of all mankind. He’s actually established your DNA. You’re not a collection of molecules held in suspension.

“But I need you to know this, Jeff, too… Because you’ve got a lot of chaos going on in your life. You’ve got a lot of anger and animosity in your life. You’ve got a lot of stuff in your life that you know, if you’re prepared to be honest for a moment, is absolutely, flat-out wrong by any standards. You need to know that this God who made you, who sustained you, who cannot be contained—this God is the judge of all the earth, and he has appointed a day when he will judge the world.

“But here’s the amazing news: he sent his Son to die on the cross to pay the penalty for sin. And the amazing thing, Jeff, is that although you feel disenfranchised ’cause you’re not the quarterback in the school football team, although you feel yourself to be marginalized in so many ways, if you would like to meet with me on a routine basis, even just for a few Mondays, I’d love to show you that if you follow the line of Jesus through the Gospels, he apparently was really interested in guys like you. In fact, it seems that he was focused on the least and the last and the left out. And maybe some Monday, I can tell you about the way he dealt with a lady whose life was so messed up—she had a live-in lover, she’d had five husbands, she was sexually out to lunch—and Jesus came and asked her for a drink of water, and her life was never the same again.[7] I could tell you a whole ton of stories. I could tell you about a wee guy who was a dreadful cheat. His life was consumed with all that he could amass for himself. And Jesus called him down out of a tree.[8] I’d love to tell you about that.”

I think that would work, don’t you?

See, our friends and neighbors think of the gospel as some kind of truncated, systematized, one-two punch mechanism. And they have a legitimate right for thinking in those terms, because that is so often the way in which it is presented to them. That’s easy. It’s going be far harder to start with the doctrine of creation, to continue with the doctrine of providence, to get to grips with the doctrine of man and the nature of alienation, to understand that social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, psychological alienation is merely expressive of the great alienation which men and women know because they are alienated from this living God, who is the God who pursues them in the Lord Jesus Christ, even to the cross.

Well, we can leave it there, can’t we? The challenge is for us to know our Bibles and to know our neighbors and to reach out in love to those who are without God and without hope in the world.[9]

I can’t go down this line without thinking of Lennon—and I don’t mean the Marxist (at least not the big Marxist), but John Lennon. I just found another book on Lennon and McCartney—a new book. It was in Borders. Remember, I told you I was there for all of Tuesday, so I went to my favorite places. And his death outside the Dakota building is, you know… Rolling Stone magazine said that with his death, it put a full stop at the end of the straggling era known as the ’60s. And he died in 1980. And he died, as far as we know, without God and without hope in the world. And in his early days, when he’d been prepared to cry out from his heart, he cried out, you know,

When I was younger, so much younger than today,
I never needed anybody’s help in any way.
But now [I’m older, and] I’m not so self-assured.
Now I [found I] changed my mind[, I’ve] opened up the [door].

Help me if you can, I’m feeling down,
… I do appreciate you being round.
Help me get my feet back on the ground.
Won’t you please, please help me?[10]

You know, if we could actually hear what’s coming out of the hearts of our neighbors and our friends, you know, in the way that… If we could hear, as a result of radio waves—which, mercifully, we can’t—but I mean, if we had something inside of us that could tune into all of that, and you could hear that… If we could hear the cries of our friends and neighbors, we would hear them cry. They’re not all defiant. They’re not all self-assured. They’re not all convinced. Because we know about them what they are not prepared to accept about themselves—namely, that God has set eternity in their hearts.[11]

Jesus looked at the crowd, and he was moved with compassion.[12] Paul looked at the city, and “he was greatly distressed.”[13] Will we pray together that we might learn to look with eyes of compassion? Will we ask God to create that kind of distress within our lives so that we might go out to give ourselves—our time, our talents, our resources—to see unbelieving people become the committed followers of Jesus Christ?

Father, help us to this end, we pray. Save us from being the purveyors of secondhand opinions. Save us from spiritual smugness. Stir our hearts, we pray, that we might see as Paul saw, that we might feel as Paul felt, and in order that we might learn to speak as Paul spoke. And to this end, we turn our gaze again to the only thing that has the power to save and to redeem and to transform—namely, the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hear our prayers, and let our cry come unto you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] Romans 1:20 (NIV 1984).

[2] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, and the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1990), 287.

[3] Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, et al., “The Russell-Einstein Manifesto,” Paraphrased.

[4] Albert Einstein, “Mein Glaubensbekenntnis” [My Credo] (speech, German League of Human Rights, Berlin, 1932), quoted in Michael White and John Gribbin, Einstein: A Life in Science (New York: Dutton, 1994), 262.

[5] Michel Legrand, “Les Moulins de Mon Cœur,” trans. into English by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, “The Windmills of Your Mind” (1968).

[6] Noel Gallagher, “Wonderwall” (1995). Lyrics lightly altered.

[7] See John 4:1–30.

[8] See Luke 19:1–9.

[9] See Ephesians 2:12.

[10] John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Help!” (1965).

[11] See Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[12] See Matthew 9:36; 14:14; Mark 6:34.

[13] Acts 17:16 (NIV 1984).

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.