ENGLISH VERSION - Bulletin Nº 51 September 05, 2021
ANNOUNCING THE UNKNOWN GOD
by Rev. Renato Souza Prates
One of the precautions we need to take when dealing with Mission is its unilateral vision. In Brazil, we tend to confuse Mission with social action. While the mission can and should include assisting those most in need, it is more than that. Mission is the mandate of Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel to every creature, of all races and social and economic backgrounds. In this sense, the mission is not only carried out in needy communities in Brazil, in indigenous tribes, or in Africa. The mission must also take place in cities, whether they are small or large and important metropolises.
This is the missionary profile of the Apostle Paul. When you look at his missionary journeys, you will notice that Paul goes to big cities, important cities! It's going to cause a stir there, so that the Gospel spreads all over the world! And this is the case in Athens!
• Paul arrives in Athens with the help of the brothers from Berea, who made him flee from persecution caused by the Jews of Thessalonica.
• Probably Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy, who were coming from Berea, to start preaching the Gospel in Athens.
• However, he could not stand the prevailing idolatry in the city, and began his ministry there by arguing in the Synagogues and with the Gentiles. The verb used to discuss the Gospel here is διαλέγομαι, which also means "Preaching".
• Athens was a beautiful and cultural Greek city, famous for its glory days, as the cultural capital of the 4th century BC, whose pride and nostalgia was still in the air in apostolic days.
• However, the city of Athens was suffocated by idols! The word “idolatry” (kateidolos in Greek) is an adjective that does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament. Kateidolos literally means “full of idols” (kata, “full” and eidolon, “idol”).
Petronius, a contemporary writer at Nero's court, sarcastically quipped that it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man. It is estimated that the population of Athens during Paul's day was only 10,000. But, there were about 30,000 public statues associated with idolatry. There were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all of Greece. Xenophon refers to Athens as "a great altar, a great sacrifice." Many of these statues were covered in gold, no expense was spared in producing the images.
• The crown of the city of Athens was the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena. Even today, people from all over the world visit the ruins of the Parthenon and admire its magnificent columns.
• Paul's strategy was to preach to the Jews in the Synagogue and where people thronged, in this case in the marketplace.
• He faced a challenge perhaps never faced in his ministry.
GOD ALSO CALLS US TO PREACH IN URBAN CONTEXTS – GREAT CITIES
Athens, at its height in the 4th and 5th centuries BC, was the largest city in the world and has perhaps never been equaled since.
Students gathered to sit at the feet of the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
We understand that just as God sends workers to wild contexts, conflict areas and socially deprived countries, he also sends missionaries to large cities to preach the Gospel, in a context as challenging as an indigenous tribe. The intercultural mission fascinates me, because it has no borders!
John Stott wrote some forty years ago that this biblical passage answers the kind of questions being faced by the postmodern church; questions like: “What should be the reaction of a Christian visiting a city that is dominated by non-Christian ideologies or religions, a city that may be aesthetically magnificent and culturally sophisticated, but morally decadent and spiritually dead? How should we react and respond to non-Christian ideology? As Christians, how are we going to respond to such skepticism?
These are the challenges faced by the church in the urban context.
This biblical text will teach us a lot about how to be a mission in the city of Macaé, which is full of idolatry, spiritualism, mysticism, secularism and evangelicalism!
The Epicureans were followers of a Greek philosopher named Epicurus (342-270 BC). According to Epicurus, the main goal of life is to achieve the maximum pleasure and the minimum amount of pain. Thus, the Epicureans did not believe in the afterlife or even the final judgment. For them, either the gods did not exist or they had no influence in their affairs.
The Stoics were disciples of the thinker Zeno (332-260 BC). The Stoics were pantheists and fatalists and believed that impersonal forces controlled all circumstances of life. So in Stoic philosophy there was no hope. There was nowhere to run. They believed that suicide was better than a life lived with less dignity.
When the philosophers met Paul, they began to argue with him, from the Greek συμβάλλω (To confer). Any some asked: What is this babbler trying to say? The word “contender” (sumballo, in Greek) means “to meet, in a hostile sense, to fight someone”. The word “talker” (spermologos, in Greek) literally means “plagiarist” or “grain gatherer”, and was used in relation to several species of birds that feed on grain. It was used to describe masters who, having no ideas of their own, ended up plagiarizing others, picking up opinions from various authors and forming a veritable patchwork quilt. It is a term of derision equivalent to "hillbilly", or (as Eugene Peterson declared) a "duckhead". It was a great insult!
But they were attracted by Paul's speech which had as its theme: Jesus and the Resurrection. It is likely that the Greeks already knew of Jesus, but not of his resurrection, whose rumors created by the Jews were diverse, including the theft of his body in the tomb.
WHEN PREACHING IN AN URBAN CONTEXT, MANY OWNERS OF THE TRUTH WILL MAKE US fun!
We are going to deal with people who think they are philosophers, who are philosophers and who would like to be philosophers. These will believe any other fantasy, but they will not believe the Gospel. They will scoff and make fun of us and our preaching! What to do?
We will continue preaching, as Paul did, believing that someone will be touched by the Gospel.
Paul's message caused such a stir among the Epicureans and the Stoics that they brought him before the Areopagus, the main legislative and judicial council of Athens. The message caught the attention of Athenian intellectuals and curious people!
Our message needs to get people's attention!
When we imagine Paul standing in front of this courtroom, we must remember what we know about his life. He was a Jew, in fact, a Pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a student of the great teacher Gamaliel. He was an expert on the Hebrew Scriptures. In addition to being a Jew, he was a Roman citizen. And with his Roman citizenship, he had special skill in secular affairs that belonged to the Romans, special knowledge of the military and politics. He was born in Tarsus, one of the three great university cities in the Roman world, the other two being Athens and Alexandria in Egypt. Tarsus was tremendously influenced by Greek culture.
So Paul was a Hellenistic Jew, he was exposed to Greek art and philosophy. And on top of all that, Paul was a servant of the Most High God, full of Spirit and courage. He was the man God called to take the Gospel to the Gentiles.
Paul was strategic in introducing his sermon. It's like he's saying, “We have a common thread. We are religious. Let me tell you about the God I adore and serve.” Then Paul began talking about the true and living God to the Athenians. Having established that God exists and can be known to men, Paul shared some fundamental truths about God.
WE NEED TO INTRODUCE OUR MESSAGE WISDOM
Abruptly and rushing into the presentation of the main point can frighten or create unnecessary resistance to the preaching of the Gospel. Jesus himself used several illustrations of what he intended to communicate. Paul spoke about Greek religiosity to introduce his message. We need this wisdom!
Paul begins by declaring that there is one and only God who created all things. This is the God-given starting point for evangelism - that God personally and purposefully created all things. It is also the logical end point of Christian worship. Romans 11:36 reminds us that creation leads to doxology: "From him and through him and to him are all things."
Paul's bold assertion that God created the world and all things was a powerful and disturbing truth for the Athenians to hear. This was contrary to the Epicureans, who believed that matter was eternal and therefore had no creator, and the Stoics, who, like pantheists, believed that everything was part of God. This was one of the fundamental problems in Athens. They really didn't believe that God created the heavens and the earth.
Paul goes on to say that God is the owner of everything he created.
And that God does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands. A direct assertion to the Greeks, who built dear altars to their gods!
WE MUST ANNOUNCE THE CREATOR GOD IN THE CITY
Urban culture is steeped in evolutionism. For this reason, to announce that there is a God who creates everything, means to be ridiculed academically and particularly by a “THEORY”, which, like any other, needs scientific proof. One of the alternatives for this is another theory called “Intelligent Designer”, which was born in the United States, and which through scientific arguments seeks to demonstrate that there is a creative mind behind the universe. Several schools and universities in Brazil already promote congresses with this theme!
There are also several reasonable arguments in creationism, but belief in God the Creator is above all an act of faith, given by God Himself to the heart that receives His Word! So we need to preach it wisely in any context!
“Nor is it served by human hands, as if something needed; for he himself is the one who gives life, breath and everything else to everyone” (Acts 17:25).
Paul's second point is that God is the sustainer of all things. God not only created but takes care of creation. God sustains his creation. Paul points out the absurdity of imagining that God, the creator and ruler of the universe, should be served by human hands, as if he needed something (cf. Job 22:2-3).
Paul's hearers were in the habit of presenting meat offerings and drink offerings in temples under the superstitious belief that they were devoured by the gods. Idolatry, therefore, is irrational. Without God we can do nothing! But instead of worshiping the Creator God, the Athenians worshiped creation and glorified themselves (Rom. 1:18-25). We cannot serve Him in this way, but He sent His Son to serve us (cf. Mk 10:45)
WE MUST PREACH THE PROVIDER GOD IN THE CITY
Even when we have to deal with situations of social need in the city, along with a plate of food or any donation, we must present the One who provided such a resource!
“from one man made the whole human race to dwell on all the face of the earth, having fixed the previously established times and the limits of their habitation” (Acts 17:26).
God is not only the sovereign ruler of the universe, but also the controller of the affairs and destinies of men and nations. The God of creation is also the God of history and geography! Paul declares that He made all mankind out of one (Adam) to live on all the face of the earth. This statement was a blow to the national pride of the Greeks, who contemptuously referred to non-Greeks as "barbarians."
WE MUST ANNOUNCE THE SOVEREIGN GOD IN THE CITY
It will be difficult to present an all-governing God to minds that watch corruption, injustice and violence every day! In presenting the sovereign God, let us not forget to present the human nature, which is sinful, fallen and lacks divine discipline at all times!
He is the God who reveals himself “to seek God if, by groping, they might find him, although he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).
God's providential activity as Creator, Provider and Sovereign should lead men to seek Him. In all that He did in creating and sustaining the universe, God revealed Himself to mankind. Such self-disclosure should encourage men to grope for Him and find Him. Although sovereign (Acts 17:24), He is also immanent and not so far away that He cannot be found. The natural revelation of God in human consciousness (Rom. 2.14-15) and the physical world leaves all men without excuse (Rom. 1:18), since He is not far from each one of us. Even those who have never heard the gospel are still responsible to God for failing to live up to natural revelation.
WE MUST ANNOUNCE THE GOD WHO REVEALS HIMSELF TO HUMAN BEING
We must preach to the world that God is interested in having a deep and true relationship with each person. This relationship was made possible by the sacrifice of Christ, who tore the veil of religious separation from the temple.
“for in him we live, and move, and exist, as some of your poets have said: For from him we are also a generation” (Acts 17:28).
Most commentators believe that Paul was quoting Greek poets. The Greeks certainly could not plead ignorance. Even his poets recognized God's revelation in nature. The poet Epimenides observed that "we live in it, move and exist", while Aratus, from Paul's native region of Cilicia, added: "Because we too are his children". These quotes illustrate the universal revelation of God as creator, ruler, and maintainer. While Paul could easily have verified these Old Testament truths, he chose instead illustrations familiar to his pagan audience who were unfamiliar with the Scriptures. Paul was using quotes from the Greek poets to refute the Athenian view of the nature of God.
WE MUST ANNOUNCE THAT LIFE IS ONLY POSSIBLE IN GOD
Now try holding the air for 3 minutes....Hard isn't it?
This demonstrates that we are creatures totally dependent on God to live! This is what we have to show the world!
In closing his message, Paul declares that for centuries God has been patient with the sin and ignorance of men (cf. Acts 7:4.16; Rom. 3:25). This does not mean that men were not guilty (Rom. 1:7 9, 20), but only that God withheld his wrath. Over time, men were responsible for the general revelation given to them; now with the worldwide proclamation of the gospel, the Gentiles are also responsible for special revelation. Athenians should repent. Paul uses the word "repentance" in its etymological sense, "change the mind." They should change their minds about who it was God. He is not an idol made by human hands, but the Creator, Sustainer and Lord of all.
Athenians should repent because judgment was near. “For he has set a day in which he will judge the world with justice, by means of a man who destined and believed before all, raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). This means that since God's verbal revelation is now spreading to the whole earth, God's wrath is being poured out on all who reject the Gospel. Paul says that God will judge the world "by means of a man (man) whom he has destined." Who is this man? The Lord Jesus Christ is the judge of all men. Believing in Christ leads to salvation; not believing in Christ leads to destruction. Natural revelation is insufficient to save and serves only to attract men to God. There is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ (Acts 4:2).
WE MUST ANNOUNCE THAT CHRIST IS THE SAVIOR OF THE WORLD!
Whatever our introduction to preaching and development, the conclusion is always CHRIST – THE SAVIOR OF THE WORLD! Be sure to state this, even if your message is rejected, the Word of the Lord will not return void!
Athenians who heard Paul's sermon had three reactions:
Some scoffed, others were interested, and a small group accepted Paul's preaching. The response to Paul's message was predictable, considering the contempt his listeners expressed earlier in calling him a “talker” (cf. Acts 17:18). Paul's desire was repentance, before it was too late.
Among those who converted were Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, obviously he was a man of great influence in Athens. Luke also mentions a woman named Damaris (Acts 17:34). This in itself is fascinating because women were not normally allowed to participate in discussions on the Areopagus. She certainly was a noble woman because she was singled out by Lucas.
Plato told a story about a Greek philosopher named Thales, who lived about a century and a half before him. The philosopher was walking along a road looking up, studying the stars, when he tripped over a well. After hearing his cries for help, a maid pulled him out. Thales said he was so eager to know about the things of heaven that he couldn't see what was under his own feet.
May God help us to declare the Gospel wherever we are - at church, at the market, at university, in our family, and anywhere else. We must take the Gospel to our "Athens". Now, we cannot share what we don't have. So, do you know Jesus personally? Have you ever trusted Him as Savior and Lord? Have you opened your heart to Him?
From this Sunday on, you will enjoy a Revelation Series with Dr. Joel Beeke. It is amazing studies from which we can learn more about this instigating book.
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