Knowing An Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31
In 1989, a Presbyterian minister answered his church’s call and moved his wife and three sons to Manhattan to plant a church. It was to be a bible-believing, Gospel-centered, orthodox, evangelical church in New York City. Now it’s one thing to plant an evangelical church in the Bible belt, but NYC? You’re dealing with a whole lot of young skeptics and city sophisticates – it’s not an easy sell for “that ol’ time religion” But Pastor Timothy Keller answered the call and moved to New York.

Timothy Keller wasn’t the first to venture in to the big city to plant a church.
He wasn’t the first to confront a city of skeptics and sophisticates with his evangelical faith.. Two thousand years earlier, Paul of Tarsus showed up in Athens hoping to do the same thing.. It wasn’t part of the original itinerary, but he got chased out of Thessalonica. So he hopped a ship to Athens and waited there for Silas and Timothy to arrive so they could all return to Macedonia.

Athens! This was the city of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It was the birthplace of democracy. How will the Gospel fare in Athens?

I can see Paul walking around the city; He couldn’t miss the Acropolis- a fortress rising high above the rest of the city. And on top of the Acropolis was the Parthenon with the gold and ivory statue of Athena standing 30 feet high holding spear. The gleam on that spear point could be seen from 40 miles away.

No doubt he strolled through the marketplace – the agora. In that marketplace he would overhear the ongoing debates by the clever statesmen and wise philosophers. But Paul, himself, was no intellectual lightweight. And Paul will bring the intellect to bear in Athens.

Paul must have been a little disturbed by what he saw. You see, the city was literally smothered in idols. There were over 5000 shrines dedicated to over 5000 deities. They had gods and goddesses for everything. A god of pleasure, a god for drinking, a god for philosophy – you name it, they had a god for it. There were exquisitely crafted images ,beautiful works of art. One Roman wag said that in Athens it was easier to find a god than a man.

Athens was impressive. But all Paul saw was a city submerged in idols. Yet as rampant as the idols were, Paul also knew that belief in all these gods was starting to wane in Athens. A lot of folks regarded them as myths more than religion. The learned sector was sophisticated and skeptical.

While going through the marketplace, Paul got into a little dispute with some Epicureans and some Stoics. Today, an epicurean is someone who celebrates fine cuisine. But in Athens, the Epicureans were the party animals. They believed that all of creation was nothing more than a random collection of atoms. Everything that happened in the world was the product of chance. And when you die, that’s it. No afterlife.

This is all you get right now. So get all you can. Go for the gusto! Acquire lots of friends. Avoid anything that might upset your tranquility.

Yes, they believed in the gods. But those gods really didn’t take any interest in human affairs. So there is no need to worry about any divine judgment. The goal of life was escape. Do whatever you can to escape the pain of the body and trouble of the soul.

The Stoics were just the opposite. They got their name from the painted porch in the market place which was called a stoa. That’s where they gathered kicked around their ideas. These would have been the Navy Seal types of Athens – they were disciplined, serious, no nonsense types.

The stoics believed that a cosmic force permeated all of creation. This force controlled everything. You get the cards you’re dealt in life and there’s nothing you can do to change them.

So since the world was determined by fate, your job is to pursue your duty. Suppress your passions, reign in your emotions, be self-sufficient.., regardless of how painful that might be. Just resign yourself to live in harmony with nature Que sera, sera. Whatever will be will be.

Epicureans and Stoics – just two of the many religious types to be found in Athens when Paul visited.

How do you reach these people for Christ? Here’s what Paul doesn’t do. He doesn’t run all over Athens tearing down idols. He doesn’t stand on the street corner hollering that they’re all going to hell.

Paul needs an entry point into their way of thinking. He needs a foothold into their thinking to gain their confidence and then open new horizons to them. And he finds one.

Some artisan had erected a shrine to an “unknown God” just to ensure that they wouldn’t incur the wrath of a neglected god. It’s a shrine to ignorance! So Paul uses this shrine-to-ignorance to introduce them to their Unknown God.

He uses what I would call displacement persuasion. Displacement persuasion doesn’t attack false belief, it displaces it with truth. It’s like a scuba diver who is down on the ocean floor and finds that some water has leaked into his diving mask. That water is going to blur his vision and ruin the dive. He can take valuable time to surface, take off the mask and dump out the water. Or else he can stay where he is and displace that water by blowing air through his nose into the mask. He clears the mask by displacing the water with air and clears his vision. Paul is going to clear the mask by introducing them to their Unknown God.
As he stands in the shadow of that 30 foot idol in the Parthenon, he tells them that this Unknown God doesn’t live in shrines. Because this God made everything. He doesn’t NEED anything from human beings.

And because this god made us, we are not the product of a random chance. We are NOT just a random combination of atoms. We are purposefully and divinely planned by a Supreme Creator. He displaces the Epicurean’s belief. But it also challenges the Stoics.

Because this Unknown God is not the impersonal force that the Stoics believed. He wants us to know him. He want us to seek him out.

Moreover, this Unknown God is NOT passively sitting up in his heaven preoccupied with whatever it is that the gods in heaven do. He’s at work sustaining you in your life. Paul says, “He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”

Paul displaces the Epicurean belief that the gods were preoccupied. He pushes out the Stoic belief that we are all doomed to a certain fate. God hasn’t set everything in motion and then left it run on its own. He’s very much an active part of our life.

Now Paul demonstrates his knowledge of their culture. He quotes from one of their own poets when he says: “In him we live and move and have our being.” That was from the poet Epimenides. We are his offspring. That was from their poet Aratus.

He’s engaged them. So now, Paul tells them something that must have started them squirming a bit. This Unknown God is the judge of the world. Well, if there is a judge of the world, there is some accountability in life. Their shrine to an Unknown God declares their ignorance. And in the past, God overlooked such ignorance. But now he will hold all men accountable at Judgment Day.

Paul is doing well and he’s got an eager audience until he gets to the crux of his presentation. He tells them about the resurrection. And that’s when everything changes.

Awhile back, I attended a lecture by a Christian astrophysicist who demonstrated the remarkable congruity of what we’re learning about the cosmos and what the bible says about creation. The next day I went down to the gym and ran into Malcom. Some of you might remember Malcom. Malcom is a Christian and a personal trainer at the gym. He was engaged in some discussion with a skeptic named Tom. When he saw me get out of my car, he motioned me over to join the discussion.

We had a lively give and take and I trotted out all the arguments for God’s existence that I had heard at the lecture the night before. Tom was interested. It was then that I played the resurrection card. I said to him: “Tom, you seem pretty well read and a student of history. And history records that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and buried in a tomb. But it also records that the tomb was empty on the third day and that over 500 people saw him alive. Do you believe that happened?”

It was at that point that the conversation stopped. You see, its one thing to engage in clever philosophical debate. But where the rubber meets the road is the resurrection. Either it happened or it’s a lie. If it is true, then everything Jesus taught about God is true.

And that’s not only important for us to tell people, but for us to remind ourselves as well. Because I think many of us often fall into the trap of the thinking that was going on in Athens that day.

Some might think like Epicureans. They profess to believe in a heavenly afterlife, but live as if this life is all that there is. They forget that there is a God who cares about not only their eternity, but their life today. They avoid anything that might disrupt the comforts of our lives.

Then there are the modern day Stoics. They see themselves as victims of life’s circumstances. I was born this way. I suffered a traumatic childhood. This is the hand the life dealt me and I’ve just got to accept it. They don’t trust in a God who can transform their lives.

We’ve got idolatry going on today. Some people worship false gods. They deify the wrong things. It could be the God called Faith. That god doesn’t demand right belief – just sincere belief.

Or maybe it might be the god called Spirituality. He doesn’t demand a lot of content to your belief. He’s more concerned that you are free to dabble with a variety of ideas.

Then there’s the god called Sentimentality. These folks worship “the man upstairs”. He’s a warm and fuzzy God who doesn’t make any demands on their life or chastise them for their sinful behavior.

But the God Paul preached, the God of the Bible is not some speculative creation of clever philosophers. He is the God who entered history. He is the one who washed dirty feet and bled on the cross, and then walked out of a tomb.

Once Paul brought up the resurrection, the smart, sophisticated Athenians dismissed him. “We’ll hear more of this later.” It stopped them cold in their tracks because they could no longer engage in speculation and philosophical bantering. Either the tomb was empty or it was not. And if the tomb was empty, all the idols of Athens had to fall.

The smart, sophisticated men of Athens dismissed Paul. But there were a few who didn’t. A handful followed Paul and believed. They might not have been very sophisticated or worldly. But they were wise enough to know truth when they heard it.

This little passage in Acts is often held up by seminary professors as a masterpiece of good evangelism. Because Paul did everything right. He walked around the city and got acquainted with “the indigenous population.” He observed their culture to inform his strategy. He saw their shrines to deities as evidence of their seeking answers in this life. He found a touchstone, a point of connection to engage with them – the shrine to an Unknown God. He presented his case using references to their own culture – their poets.

Paul was a brilliant man and you saw that brilliance in how he evangelized some sophisticated urbanites of his day. A masterful example of evangelism. Or was it?

When Paul finished his preaching, he was dismissed by the Areopagus. Just a couple of converts followed him. And of all the cities that Paul visited and preached in, only Athens lacked a new church plant when he left.

I note also, that Paul never once mentioned the name of Jesus. He never spoke of the cross – Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. So was this a masterpiece or a disasterpiece of evangelism? Did Paul goof?

After Paul left Athens, he went on to Corinth. Corinth was the port city, a cosmopolitan city – not unlike San Francisco. And like San Francisco, there was a lot of loose living going on in Corinth.

As Paul entered Corinth to evangelize, he was down right scared. He says he came to them in weakness and fear with much trembling. And, unlike in Athens, he didn’t preach with wise or persuasive words. Instead, he says that he resolved to know nothing while he was with them except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Had he seen Athens as a failure?

It’s a lesson for us today. Everyone in the world is in need of forgiveness. It doesn’t matter what culture, what age group, what level of sophistication. Everyone needs forgiveness and everyone hungers for it.

And the most important message the church offers to the world is not clever apologetics or entertainment to delight the epicureans among us. The most important message that the church offers is the message that of the cross. It’s the message that Jesus died on the cross so that we might be forgiven.

It wasn’t his example that saves us. It wasn’t his philosophy. It was his bloody death and resurrection. It was Jesus Christ and him crucified.

That’s the message the world is hungry to hear and we are positioned to share. It’s not man’s wisdom, but God’s. And when Paul delivered that message, he left a thriving church behind in Corinth.

Did Paul Goof? Did Paul goof in Athens? Was his missionary effort in Athens a masterpiece of evangelism or a disasterpiece? I would answer, “Yes.”

The message we offer must be the unvarnished truth that some might see as foolishness.
God sent Jesus to die so that you might receive forgiveness from God. That’s the message of Corinth.

But, we don’t need to approach our mission like country bumpkins. We need to know the culture. We need to speak the language of those we seek to reach. We need to be as wise as serpents, but with God’s wisdom, not man’s. That’s the message of Athens.

I think Pastor Timothy Keller must have given today’s passage a lot of thought before he trotted his family off to evangelize the Manhattan sophisticates. Because the centerpiece of his ministry has been the doctrine of the gospel. He doesn’t tip-toe around sin to soft peddle it. He doesn’t water down the preeminence of Jesus for all mankind. He proclaims a God who created all that there is. A God who sent His son JESUS to die for us so that we might be forgiven.

Pastor Tim summarizes his teaching in this very simple explanation. “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

Today, Pastor Tim’s congregation in New York City exceeds five thousand souls.