First Presbyterian Church of Blackwood
21 E. Church Street
Blackwood, NJ 08012
Sermon Notes (Sunday, September 19, 2021)
Rev. Dr. Mouris A. Yousef, Pastor
“Making Known the Unknown God: Paul at the Areopagus!”
Last week we talked about the Church in Berea and how they received the message of Christ with “great eagerness” and “examined the Scriptures every day” to see if what Paul said was true. This was a congregation that valued Scriptures; they saw it as something that deserved their attention. It merited their time and effort. Last week the Holy Spirit challenged us to not only receive the word with joy and excitement, but also to put the message into practice.
At the end of our passage last week we saw the Jews from Thessalonica had followed Paul, Silas and Timothy to Berea and they agitated the crowds. As a result, Paul had to leave Berea while Silas and Timothy stayed there to continue the ministry. Luke captures this in Acts 17:14-15 as he says, “The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.”
So that’s where we see Paul this morning. Alone in Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. Acts 17:16-20 give us this background: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”
Athens was a city full of religions and philosophy. In Athens, Paul was taken to a meeting in “Areopagus”, which literally means “Mars Hill.” He is given the chance to share his faith. “Athenians,” Paul said in Acts 17:22, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” What a brilliant way to share the gospel!
What is the story of the “unknown God?” In short, the story begins sometime in the sixth century before Christ, with the city of Athens was being devastated and decimated by a mysterious plague. When no explanation for the plague could be found, and no cure was in sight, the approach was to assume that one of the city’s many gods had been offended. The leaders of the city sought to determine which of the gods it was and then determine a way of appeasing that god. This was no easy task, since the city of Athens had literally hundreds of gods. When all efforts failed to discern which god had been offended, and which had brought the plague upon the city, an outside “consultant” was brought in from the Island of Cyprus, whose name was Epimenides. Epimenides concluded that it was none of the known gods of Athens which had been offended, but some, as yet, unknown god. An altar was erected where sacrifices were offered to this “unknown god” with the hope that the plague might stop. To the amazement of the Athenians, almost immediately, we are told, the plague began to subside.
Paul’s task to preach the gospel to the people of Athens was not an easy job. Yet, he preached an awesome sermon. Please allow me to highlight two brief things as we look together at Paul’s sermon in Athens:
First: Paul Preached a Personal and Accessible God
At the heart of Paul’s sermon was a personal and approachable God. None of the hundreds of gods the Greeks worshipped was personal and approachable. The Greek gods didn’t live among humans; they lived on the top of high mountains. They separated themselves from mortals. In Acts 17:27-28 Paul said, “He is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.” The God the Greeks didn’t know, the unknown God, was a very personal God. He knows us by name and cares about us individually.
In contrast to the Epicurean and Stoics’ views of impersonal gods, Paul preached a very personal God. He proclaims that the God, the Creator of the universe, is personal and approachable in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. The true God is both transcendent and immanent. In Christ, He dwelt among us. He is set apart from the world, but He is not detached from it. To use the words of German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “He is the beyond in our midst.”
Second: God is our Judge
Paul ends his sermon at Areopagus by a reminder that God is our Judge. This is what Paul said in Acts 17:31, “God has set a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” The Stoics’ and many other Greek philosophers thought history was cyclical, going around in endless circles. But Paul proclaims that history is linear; it is going somewhere and will end in a grand climax when God will judge all nations and set the world right.
The apostle Paul further declares that when a person hears about Jesus, when we hear the good news that Jesus Christ is the way to the heart of God, then we are put in a most responsible position. When we learn the truth about Jesus, we then have a responsibility before God to change our mind, to go on no longer acting as we did before; “to repent,” as Paul says in Acts 17. That is what repentance means – a change of mind. You are responsible to change your mind and lay hold of that which God has provided in Jesus Christ. Why should we do this? Because there is an inescapable day coming. God has fixed a day when He will judge the world. There is coming a day when every life will be evaluated.
Friends, what are you going to do with the gospel today? What are you going to do with the truth the Lord revealing to you today? Many rejected the message that Paul delivered in Athens, but Luke records that some of the people became believers, including Dionysus, a member of the Areopagus council, and a woman named Damaris. The seed of the gospel had been planted, and God caused it to grow in Athens. What are you going to do with the gospel today? People respond to the gospel in one of three ways: rejection, reluctance, or reception. I pray that you will receive the gospel today with joy and readiness to repent, to change. Amen.
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