September 22, 2019
Pastor Ricky Smith
We often talk about the importance of being called of God to be everyday missionaries who carry hope to the world. But what does that even look like? What does that look like in our lives? How does that feel? We talk about having Gospel conversations, and we know what conversations are; we’re trying to understand better what Gospel is, and we think we understand.
My experience is that sometimes, that feels like a discussion. There are other times when it feels like a debate. Maybe I’m having a conversation in which someone is pushing back against what I’m professing to be the truth, and they are following a different religion. And sometimes, it may even get heated, and it may even escalate. We don’t want it to, but sometimes it just feels that way, doesn’t it?
We’re going to look in Acts chapter 17. In fact, I invite you to turn in your Bibles to Acts chapter 17. I think it’s important that we see the Scripture as we walk through it. If I may, I’ll use myself as an example of what sometimes a Gospel conversation looks and feels like.
I’m blessed to have wonderful neighbors. I live in a cul de sac in a pretty small neighborhood with wonderful neighbors, and we care for them all. But, we’re closest to the neighbors on either side of us. With the neighbors to our left, we went to a University of Georgia game together recently. The neighbor to our right, he’s like family to us. He’s retired military, lives by himself, and just an incredible man.
These are more than just neighbors that you could borrow an egg from when you need it; these are people we’ve invested time in. We love them deeply, but our neighbor to the right, he doesn’t know Jesus. I’m not going to tell you his name, because I want to respect his privacy, but I just need you to understand what this looks like in our life.
We love him. We have a relationship with him. We’ve spent time with him. He’s spent time with us. He’s done family events with us. He’s come to things that our girls have done at school and come to support them at concerts. I mean, we love him deeply, and the girls have baked him cookies… We’ve tried to express love 1) because we want to be good neighbors, 2) because we know he does not know Jesus.
And he will not come to church. As often as we’ve invited him, he will not come. And so, what this has looked like is a lot of time just being relational, just being a good neighbor. And then, as opportunities have come, being intentional with those conversations. I remember, we were inviting him over to watch a big football game with us. We were driving to be with our extended family, and this was one of those moments I just prepared in my mind, this car ride is going to be a conversation in which we’re going to talk about Jesus.
It was in that moment that I just began to ask him, “I need to know, like, where you are.” And that was the first time, in that conversation that day, that I realized he grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, and some things started clicking for me. Through taking the time to ask him those really deep, hard questions of faith, I began to at least get a better understanding of his perspective, and it allowed me to even more appropriately share Jesus with him.
Pray for him. He still doesn’t know Jesus, and we’re still working on those things, but what I’m trying to demonstrate is, it has been a long, ongoing process of living, loving, sharing, and even having hard conversations with him about where he is with Jesus. Why? Because we love him.
Now, you may have similar stories or similar relationships in your life, and I hope, as we walk through Acts chapter 17, we can see some examples of Paul, to find even greater motivation. For us, our motivation with this neighbor is love, and that’s the motivation we live out.
I. Brokenness that leads to action
Here’s the first thing that you want you to notice when we begin to look and Act 17: There is brokenness that leads to action. Let’s read Acts chapter 17, verses 16 through 21, and I’d love to make a few observations from my study through this passage.
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
A. The Gospel should cause us to grieve
We’re jumping in the middle of the story. You can look back in your own time at the verses prior to this. He’s waiting on Silas and Timothy. Here’s the first thing that I see as I walk in this passage through Paul’s example. I see it in verse 16. It’s that the Gospel should cause us to grieve.
See, while he was waiting for Silas and Timothy, we see that he was actively learning. He was actively observing this community of Athens that he was in. He was making observations. He was spending time being a cultural missionary, who was investigating things.
Be a cultural missionary
The word there is, he was perplexed; his spirit was provoked. It comes from the Greek work paroxyneto, and it literally means to be upset or deeply distressed. Have you ever observed a situation around you, and you were deeply distressed by it, and you were saddened by the circumstance that you saw? Maybe this happens when you’ve seen a storm devastate a community. Maybe this happens when we see someone who just can never seem to get a leg up. Whatever it may be, typically we feel this emotion when we see someone in desperate physical need.
When we see someone who is poor or hungry or malnourished, we have this feeling of grief or distress. You know what this feels like, and that should compel us to do something about it. Certainly, there is a tremendous level at the very practical, physical need that we care for orphans, that we care for widows, that we care for the poor, that we meet their needs, but the step that we have to take is beyond just a humanitarian resource. It’s that we move to the Gospel.
We need to move to the heart behind it. My ultimate motive is not just to make sure that you are fed in your body, but to make sure that you are nourished in your soul. That’s the motive that drives us. There are a lot of things, even practically in ministry, that we do. We will step in and work to meet a physical need, but we don’t want to stop there, because if we do, we’re just any other humanitarian organization. We want to go beyond just meeting a physical need to the heart and the soul level, and this takes on lots of shapes and forms.
In fact, our Columbus Baptist Association is going through the process to become a Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief Center. That could be a way that we are mobilized and positioned when a storm may come through. We could be first responders with chainsaws on the ground or tarping people’s houses or helping to feed people. But it’s way more than just meeting a physical need of someone in an emergency situation. It’s a stepping stone. It’s a platform to express the love of Christ, to point people to Jesus, and to introduce them into a relationship with Him.
So, for Paul here, he was grieved by what he saw. We see that in verse 16. We also see in verses 16 and 17 that he understood that Gospel conversations are not exclusive to the church. Like every other city he went to, where does he begin? He goes to the synagogue. He goes to those who have some presuppositions of a shared language and share at least some component of belief.
But, we see here that he intentionally also goes to the marketplace. I’m not just going to talk about Jesus in church; I’m going to talk about Jesus in the marketplace, at work, in the shopping center, at the ball field. Wherever it may be, it is not just restricted to while I’m at church or in LifeGroup. We must be committed to taking the Gospel outside the walls, and this looks a lot of different ways.
It happens on our campus every day by physically meeting the needs of those who are in physical need or emotional need through the counseling center or educational needs through our school. But even beyond this campus, it goes to sexual assault relief and prison ministry and helping those in Haiti or India, around the world. We’re committed to get beyond our walls.
B. Gospel conversations are not exclusive to church
But we also can’t just rely on what the organizational system of our church structure looks like. It’s you and me, every single day, being committed to being faithful to boldly and courageously speak the name of Jesus, not just in church, but in your home, in your neighborhood, at your office, wherever it may be. -having the courage to make Jesus known.
Here, as Paul interacts with the Athenians, he understands (in fact, it is even written clearly in the script of the text) that they desired knowledge. They were interested to know more. They were intrigued for information. It wasn’t a matter of them not being willing to listen. And I’ll just let you know, by and large, most people are very interested to have conversations about God, if we just have the courage to talk about it. But I do think Scripture gives us a warning in 1 Peter 3:15:
1 Peter 3:15
but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,
C. The Gospel may seem strange
I think we see in Paul that although he knows going into it, he’s grieved. He’s disturbed. He’s saddened by what he sees in the people of Athens. But, he treats them with respect. He treats them with gentleness because he understands that (the third point) for many, the Gospel may seem strange.
For the Athenians, who were listening here, this was just a weird idea. In fact, we even see two philosophical groups mentioned: the Epicureans and the Stoics. I want to describe for you a little bit about what those basic philosophies were, because I think when we look at it, it’s easy to translate; there are a lot of people in our world today who think this way.
The Epicureans were concerned with pursuing happiness and contentment. They were polytheistic, which means they worshipped many gods, and they were committed to keeping their religion separate from their daily life. We hear this all the time, right? “Well, listen, what I do in my time at church has nothing to do with what I do at work.”
Well, that’s not biblical. God is Lord of all. I can’t separate my faith from life. It is life. But that’s part of the Epicurean mindset. So, this Gospel message seems so strange and foreign to them as they hear him talk.
The Stoics, on the other hand, sought to live in harmony and peace. They were pantheistic, which is a phrase to describe religion that says, “God is one with the universe, and I want a self-actualize and connect to that. I want to become one with Him, and I can do that by nature.” Well, that’s very much an idea today, and we have to be aware of the way people believe.
And what did they conclude? We see it in verse 18. “What is this babbler?” they say, “This guy’s just going on and on.” The word babbling literally comes from the idea of a bird that’s just picking up leftover seed. It’s as if to imply, “Who is this guy coming to talk to us philosophers, who really understand things, with these a little leftover, menial ideas? Who does he think he is, anyway?”
Have you ever felt that sense of rejection? Maybe you’re trying to speak truth to somebody, and they’re like, “Okay little kid, why don’t you go over here and just sit down? We’ll have time for you later.” Here, they view him differently. They view him as strange. And I think that largely, the world may look at us as Christians and view us as just weird, strange people.
In fact, if you’ve been around Calvary for a while, we did a whole sermon series on the idea of Weird. You can go to the website, search those sermons, and look it up if you want to review this whole idea of how we’re called to be in the world and not of the world. Some of the basic things about the way that God has called us to live just seem strange.
For example, it’s strange to even think, why would I be content with living off of 90% and giving 10% of it back to God? That doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to say that I’m going to love my enemy or that if somebody hits me, I’m going to turn the other cheek. I mean, this is just weird. And so many times, as we try to be an expression of the Gospel to those around us, we may find that people are viewing the things that we say and do as like, “This is just strange. This doesn’t make sense.”
And Jesus helps us understand (and Paul in 1 Corinthians 1) this reality that the Gospel is sometimes a stumbling block for people. Let’s read verses 23, 24, and 27 of 1 Corinthians 1:
1 Corinthians 1:23–24
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
1 Corinthians 1:27
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
The Gospel maybe seems strange. Paul experienced this. They immediately push back, but I think it’s interesting that although they seem to think his ideas were insignificant and low-level ideas on the level of philosophy, they were intrigued enough, at least, to ask him. Or they were at least open, like, “Okay, let’s hear more about this. We’d like to know more about what you’re saying.” I think this is an important thing for us to understand and even apply in our world. Please hear me out. The world is more amazed by our silence than offended by our message.
The world is more amazed by our silence than offended by our message
Here’s why. I love watching magicians. Penn and Teller, I think they’re an amazing act. Penn Jillette (you can YouTube this if you want), he is a self-professed atheist, but he had a genuine conversation with a Christian. That compelled him to think, and here’s what he communicated in his selfie-style video online: “If you really believe what you believe [these are his words], how much do you have to hate somebody not to tell them what you believe?”
That’s convicting. If I really believe what I say about Jesus, how much do we have to hate somebody not to tell them? John Piper even described Christianity as being breaking news. I mean, this is not just a religion; this is different. Imagine how you’d respond if breaking news popped up on your phone. -breaking news of how UCF lost a football game, breaking news of a storm coming through, breaking news of what’s happening in the political scene… or whatever it is that you’re interested in.
If breaking news comes up, you may share it on social media because you want to broadcast that message. Or, you’re in conversation, and it goes like this: “Did you hear ____? Did you see the other day ____?” -because we want to make sure that people know what we saw. We want to make sure that they’re aware of what we heard.
How much more motivated and compelled should we be to tell of the good news of Jesus? It’s breaking news that God came to earth in the form of His Son, Jesus. He lived. He died. He rose again, so that we can be in right relationship and in good standing with the Creator of the world. Because of that, we’d rather live with rejection than regret.
II. Begin with the end in mind
Let’s continue to look at Paul. The second thing we know today is, as he began to encounter the people of Athens, he began with the end in mind. Let’s read verses 22 through 28.
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Let’s have a little geography lesson. It’s fascinating where God leads Paul to and the place that he allows him to have this conversation. The Areopagus is often more commonly known as Mars Hill. This is a real place in Greece, and it’s a mountaintop that’s made out of marble. In ancient times, this was the place where they would come and have great debates, or significant trials would take place here. In fact, even Socrates was tried and condemned here for showing a lack of reverence.
This was what would be the modern-day Supreme Court, so to speak, where people would come to discuss and debate, try something, and give a definitive answer on what is right, what is wrong, and what is true. So, I think it’s significant to note that Paul now is invited to this place as if the people of Athens are saying, “Okay, this is a babbler. Let’s take you up here to Mars Hill, and let’s really hear this out. We want to hear what you have to say. We’re going to try your ideas to determine, is this really true?”
And there’s a lot that I think we can learn from Paul’s approach to sharing the love of Jesus here to this group of people that really translates well into how we can have Gospel conversations today.
A. Start with common ground
The first one is this: He started with common ground. That’s where he started. He started with common ground. See, Josephus, who was an ancient historian, called the Athenians “the most religious of all Greeks”. They loved to learn. They loved to discuss. They loved to debate.
They were deep in philosophy, and back at the beginning of verse 10, we see that he was provoked; he was disturbed. He noticed all these false gods that they understood, and so he just he started there. He stepped into this moment and said, “Hey look, I can see that you are religious. Let’s start with common ground. You may consider me religious. I clearly see that you are religious. Let’s start with something common.”
And Paul used their polytheism as a catalyst to teach monotheism. He’s going to take their religious attitude toward embracing many gods as a platform to leverage and say, “No, there’s really only one true, living God,” and that was his common ground that he started with.
This is why I think this is important for us: At least for those of us who are around 30 and over, we grew up in an America where there were some general presuppositions that we could make. You’ve heard of God. You’ve heard of Jesus. You probably can even recite the Lord’s Prayer, maybe even be able to sing the first stanza of Amazing Grace. And, you could probably at least quote part of John 3:16.
Well, we’ve talked about this before, but there are people in Columbus, Georgia (I’ve talked to them; I hope you have too), who have never even heard the name Jesus before. So, my starting point needs to look a little different.
Let’s compare it this way: If we look at Acts chapter two, let’s consider Peter’s presentation of the Gospel in chapter two. He’s talking to Jews, and he begins the conversation with language like this: “Hey, you have read in Scripture…” or, “You have heard the Prophet say…”, and he used their general understanding of God, of religion, of prophecy and said, “Oh, but that’s really pointing to Jesus.” And he took them to Jesus and the resurrection.
Now, we compare that to Paul in Acts chapter 17. They have none of that. He can’t say, “You remember in the Bible; you’ve read…” They’ve never or even seen it before, so he had to start at a completely different place. This is important for us to understand.
You may have grown up in an Acts 2 America, but you live in an Acts 17 America. Let that sink in. So, the way we present God, the conversations we have, the way we understand and take the Gospel as cultural missionaries carrying hope to the everyday world, we don’t live in Acts 2 anymore. We live in Acts 17. And how are we expressing the love of Christ? How are we mentioning the name of Jesus? How are we starting with that common ground? God desires to be known, and we are His hands and feet to take Him.
B. See God in His glory
Here’s the second thing we see in Paul’s presentation: He started with common ground, and he desires that they see God in His glory. It’s interesting to notice is what Paul didn’t say. Paul didn’t say, “Hey listen, I’ve been traveling all around the world, and this is what I’ve been talking to people about. I’ve been beaten up, and I’ve been in prison. I’ve had people run me out of town, but I’m okay.” He didn’t even say anything about that.
Paul didn’t even say, “Hey listen, let me tell you how this started for me. I was walking down this road. I was going to go kill some people because they were Christians. This big, shining light hit me, and I had this encounter with Jesus, and it changed my life forever.” He didn’t even say that.
He pointed them straight to God Himself. He just talked about God. In verse 24, he says “God is not made by human hands. He is the Creator.” In verse 25, He is the giver of life and breath. Also in verses 24 and 25, he says that God doesn’t need me; He’s above all things. In verse 26, He’s in control of all things. He is a sovereign God. In verses 27 and 28, God is near. He is always there. He’s close. He’s an ever-present help in time of trouble. He gives and he sustains life. He determines when nations rise, and he decides when nations fall.
He puts all of his attention on God. He points all of their direction and their eyes to God. This mission that you and I are living, it is a mission that is a matter of life and death. It’s not a matter of winning an argument. It’s not a matter of winning a debate. It’s a matter of life and death, and our objective, our hope is not that I tried to swoon you or convince you through logic and reason. I need to point you to God, the Creator and sustainer of life, the giver and the breath of everything in creation and let you see Him for who He is, see God in his glory.
Our mission is a matter of life and death; it’s not to win an argument
C. Step out of darkness and into His marvelous light
Our aim should be to point others to Him, because when we do, we can step out of darkness and into His marvelous light. He refers to this in verse 27, that they should seek God and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet, He’s actually not far from each one of us.
Underline or circle that word feel. I realize that when we see that word, our minds may jump to what I think is a dangerous conclusion, because when we see the word feel, our brain may immediately go to an emotion, and we need to understand, faith is not a feeling. That’s a dangerous path. “I don’t feel so good right now in my relationship with God.” That doesn’t change my standing with God.
This is not talking about emotion. I think the more accurate understanding of the word feel here would be if you imagine someone who is blind trying to navigate, and they navigate by touch and feel, like I’m trying to gain my surroundings. I’m in darkness, and I’m trying to find my way toward light. And the only way that I could do it is by feeling something and grabbing onto what is true.
That’s the idea, and what he’s trying to communicate to them is that “I need you to see the hope of Christ, to step out of darkness and into light. And you can feel your way toward God. What I’m telling you about God is true, and if you can latch onto it, you will see that it is an anchor that will sustain you in life, not because you are strong, but because He is strong, and He can hold you up.” Ephesians 5:8:
8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light
1 Peter 2:9
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
I think Paul would have been a good member of Calvary Baptist Church because, like we say all the time around here, when God’s Word is presented, it demands a response. So when Paul gets to verse 29, it’s like, “I’ve been telling you about Jesus. I’ve been pointing you to the Gospel. I’ve been talking about Jesus and His resurrection. This is who God is, and now it’s time for you to do something about it.”
III. Believe that God is calling
So, he understands that we have to believe that God is calling us. Let’s read verses 29 through 34:
29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
A. Recognize that God is personal
See, Paul understands that, I’m pointing you to God, but He’s calling you to move. And this response, these steps toward Him, Paul lays out what it looked like. In verse 29, he calls them to recognize that God is personal. He gets really specific. He goes back to where he started with this common ground. “I see that you’ve got all these idols. You need to understand, God is not something made out of gold and silver that you can use your imagination to fabricate. That’s not God. He is in Spirit and in Truth. He is a being who wants to have a personal relationship with you. He’s a personal God.”
He’s cutting right to the heart of the Stoics who say that, “Well, God is just one with nature, and I can connect with Him that way.” He’s cutting right to the heart of the Epicureans, who say, “Well you know, what I do every day doesn’t matter. I can go to church and have some God-conversation, and then forget about it the rest of the week.”
No, God is a personal God who is with you all the time, walking with you, guiding you, knowing you. Hebrews 11:6 says this: “And without faith, it is impossible to please Him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.”
Recognize that God is personal, but also recognize, there is a call to repent. “Repent!” he says in verse 30. “He commands all people everywhere, to repent.” Repentance is this idea that I’m going one direction, and I see my need to change. I see my need to turn from my old ways. I see that I need to turn from these false idols and toward this one, true God. I see my need to change and repent.
Why? He even says this specifically. “Now, you know better. You’ve heard the truth, and now you’re accountable for it.” God’s mercy was extended in their ignorance, and now they’re called to experience His greatness. There is no art, no philosophy, no science, no literature, no intellectual attainment or achievement of any kind that will compensate for the ignorance of God.
C. Return of the King
Today, you hear the good news of Christ, and you are accountable for it. And there may be some of you who say, “It’s time to repent. It’s time to change. It’s time to step into His marvelous light.” Why? He’s coming again soon. Paul even points to this when he begins to speak of the resurrection.
There is the return of this king here in this place of judgment, in Mars Hill. Paul teaches of the ultimate judgment of Christ. The message of Christ in His resurrection triggers a response. People begin to hear of His resurrection, and the teaching of the resurrection of Christ triggers a response. “I heard it. I’m accountable to it.”
Notice that the same way he started in verse 18 in the marketplace is the same way he ends here on Mars Hill, proclaiming the truth of who Jesus is in His resurrection. That’s the message of hope. It’s attractive. The uniqueness of Christ’s work, yes, on one hand it’s strange, maybe even offensive. But it’s attractive.
Now, I’ll ask you a question. Reflect back on your journey at the moment like we read in chapter 16 with Lydia, when God opened your heart. What attracted you to Jesus? What was it that you saw in Him that made you say, “I need that”? Was it provision? Was it protection? Was it peace? Was it purpose? Was it longing? Was it a need to be loved? Was it deliverance and freedom? What was it that attracted you to Jesus?
I’ll tell you what. The most attractive thing is His grace. It’s so attractive, because I don’t deserve life. I don’t deserve peace. I don’t deserve purpose. I deserve His wrath. I deserve hell. But out of his grace, He’s given me what I don’t deserve.
From an apologetic standpoint, if you are interested in studying other religions and other belief systems, at the end of the day, that is the thing that is so attractive to a religion. Of all the things I have to do and all the things I have to complete and all the exercises and tasks I have to keep up with…, it’s the grace of God that compels and makes you say, “Oh, that is so freeing!” It’s so attractive.
God, give me this day:
1. An opportunity to share Christ.
2. The wisdom to see it.
3. The courage to take it.
Who are the most loved people in your life?
- Today I have heard of God’s love for me, and I choose to give Him my life.
- I repent of being afraid to speak His name in public, and I commit to share His story this week.
- I submit that God may be calling me to commit to full-time ministry.
- Describe a time when you argued with someone about your beliefs. Read 1 Peter 3:15 and discuss what it means to defend your faith with gentleness and respect.
- Read Acts 2:14-36 and compare Peter’s sermon with Paul’s speech in Acts 17:16-31. How and why are they different, and what can we apply in our advancement of the Gospel?
- Considering the attributes of God that Paul presents in his Acts 17 speech. What characteristics of God speak to you the most and why?