First Church – Acts 17 An Insurgent Church
Introduction: Sometime you look up from our small town world and realize how much the world has changed and how suddenly. Since March we have been scared witless by a Pandemic that was predicted to kill millions, we’ve seen our economy turned off like a water spigot, the entire country was put on lockdown, our churches were closed and just when it seemed it was getting better we had protests, riots, lootings and now in one city and the leftists have taken over about 6 city blocks and established their own nation. I don’t know about you but I don’t recognize our country anymore. We seem to be like Moses, “stangers in a strange land.” I look around and realize, there is a lot of sinners out there and a lot of them are completely crazy. So how do we as a church deal with this brave, new world?
Let me share a story with you about how our view point can change everything.
More ducks than you can shake a stick at. A man was showing off his new hunting dog to his friends as they drove down the road in south Louisiana. He stopped the truck and sent the dog out to a pond and when the dog came back it barked once and then sat down. The man’s friends asked what the dog was doing.
“Well, this dog is so smart he is telling me there is one duck on the pond up ahead.” His friends laughed at him but when they checked, sure enough there was one duck swimming in the pond. The man sent the dog ahead to another pond and he came back and barked 5 times. Again, the men were skeptical but when they checked they found 5 duck.
They asked him to do it one more time and there was a big pond a little further up the road. So they drove down and once again sent out the dog, got out of the truck and waited. In a few minutes the dog came back, this time with a stick in its mouth, furiously shaking it and even running up and down hitting the men’s legs with the stick. The friends thought the dog had gone crazy and jumped up in the back of the truck, scared for their lives.
“What is wrong with that crazy dog?”
The man smiled and said, “There ain’t nothing wrong with my dog. He is just telling us that there are more ducks on that next pond than you can shake a stick at.”
Maybe for us today in this brave new sinner infested world of ours, we should be thinking, “There are more lost people to share the Gospel with than you can shake a stick at.”
This sermon, the last in our First Church Series is from Acts 17 where we find Paul a stranger in a strange land when he was in Athens waiting for news from the church in Thessalonica. Here he was in a culture that knew nothing of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They knew nothing of God’s truth, his people or his Word. Yet rather than retreat into a friendly synagogue somewhere, he went on the attack. Paul and those with him like Luke became insurgents, going on the offensive with the Gospel of the Unknown God.
Motivation - Acts 17:16
Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
The Ancient And Old Idolatry
The population of Athens was at least a quarter of a million people and was the seat of Greek art and science. Philo, the Jew, declares that the Athenians were Hellenon oxuderkestatoi dianoian ("keenest in intellect") and adds that Athens was to Greece what the pupil is to the eye, or reason to the soul. –ISBE
The city of Athens was wholly given to idolatry on a scale that we growing up in a Christian influenced world cannot possibly imagine. One ancient wirter, Petronius, says humourously of the city, that “it was easier to find a god than a man there.” –Barnes
This is the city that Paul found himself in in Acts 17 and though we don’t yet have the experience of the same kind of paganism of Godlessness of Paul’s time, still there are things in the culture we now live in that make us realize that this society today may be closer to Paul’s world than to the world our grandparents knew.
The Modern And New Idolatry
Today we find ourselves in a an increasingly non-Christian world and neo-pagan society.
Post Christianity and Neo-paganism in America
U.S. church membership was 70% or higher from 1937 through 1976, falling modestly to an average of 68% in the 1970s through the 1990s. The past 20 years have seen an acceleration in the drop-off, with a 20-percentage-point decline since 1999 and more than half of that change occurring since the start of the current decade.
Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated population, a group also known as religious “nones” – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009.
It has been estimated that the number of Americans that are Wiccans, or White Witches, is doubling every 30 months, and at this point there are more than 200,000 registered witches and approximately 8 million unregistered practitioners of Wicca. There are many other “darker” forms of witchcraft that are also experiencing tremendous growth.
The American Religious Identification Survey gives Wicca an average annual growth of 143% for the period 1990 to 2001 (from 8,000 to 134,000 – U.S. data / similar for Canada & Australia). According to The Statesman, Anne Elizabeth Wynn claims “The two most recent American Religious Identification Surveys declare Wicca, one form of paganism, as the fastest growing spiritual identification in America“.
Wicca is anticipated by some Christian religious experts to become the third largest religion in the United States early in the 21st century, behind only Christianity and Islam.
We now also have the growth of the Satanic Temple. And they were growing, exponentially. Since TST’s founding in 2012, the organization has increased from a handful of members to tens of thousands, with chapters all over the US and the globe, from Stockholm to London and Los Angeles to Texas.
Paganism has its own convention every year as up to 70,000 Wiccan, Satanists, nudists, new agers, sorcerers, earth-worshippers, party revelers and curiosity seekers descend to Black Rock Desert in Nevada for 8 days of debauchery and spiritualism every year around Labor Day weekend. The annual “Burning Man Festival” is the largest gathering of its type in the world, where drugs and debauchery are mixed with paganism and pleasure.
We must admit it, we are a Post-Christian Nation, but even harder to admit is that we seem to also be on the verge of becoming a Neo-Pagan Society as well. Not just at the Burning Man festival, but in our hall of government with the worship of mother earth disguised as a battle against Global Warming. Wherever ecology, the the green dragon comes to power, paganism is marching with it.
In an online article Albert Mohler writes, “In several ways, though, Paganism was waiting for modernity to catch up with it. The emphasis on the worship of nature in virtually all variations of Pagan faith, and the embrace of a female divinity in many, situated the religion to mesh with the environmental and feminist movements that swept through the United States in the 1970s exactly. The resurgence of paganism in our times is not the recovery of ancient traditions simply reasserted in a new age, but a selective New Age embrace of pagan symbols, themes, and practices in order to add "spirituality" to ideological movements such as feminism and the radical ecologists.”
Not only does our society and government worship the earth, they also worship man as his own god. Sexual sin and perversion is looked upon as the ultimate defining experience of life. It is their spiritual experience, their moment of conversion and commitment.
Our society also worships athletes, politicians, entertainers, fame and wealth. We worship debauchery and drunkenness but in all these what we are really worshipping is ourselves. We have replaced the true God of the Bible and even the false gods of the Greeks with an even poorer substitute for worship, ourselves.
This is what Paul said in Romans 1:24-25 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
And you may say, but we have always had these sins and always will and you are right but there is now a cultural difference, a societal difference. In the past we as a society, knew that these sins were wrong and we believed that we would be punished for them. We believed that one day each of us would stand before a holy and righteous God and be punished. Today, however, we actually believe that these sins are not wrong but indeed are right, good and desirable. When a woman says she is proud of her abortion, and marches to encourage others to kill their unborn child, something has changed. We have made ourselves our own god and “the god that is myself” wishes us only to do whatever we want to do. There is no right nor wrong there is only lust and the fulfillment of that lust.
So, the question is, what does knowing that our world is increasingly pagan do to our spirits? Stir them or stifle them.
Paul’s spirit was stirred up and he preached to pagan people in the most pagan city of the Roman world, people who had never heard the gospel. Our attitude should be the same, but notice how Paul preached that message. Let’s look at the medium, the channels he used to tell people of Christ.
Medium - Acts 17:17-21
17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. 18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. 19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? 20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. 21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
Three Channels of Communication in Ancient Athens
The Luke records that Paul disputed with the Jews in the synagogue, the devout persons in the Agora marketplace and with the philosophers and judges in the Areopagus. These were three mediums, three channels of communication that in some cases he chose and in other the medium chose him.
The Agora, the Marketplace -The Channel of Commerce and Social Networking
The Synagogue, the Church - The Channel of Religion and Education
The Areopagus, the Court -The Channel of Law and the Intellect
These were three arenas of battle for the souls of men, where Paul went on the offensive. Paul begin to preach, he began to teach, he began to challenge, discuss and get in people’s faces, minds and hearts with the Good News. He rejected their paganism even at risk of his own life.
Paul preached the message we have in Acts 17 in the Areopagus.
The Areopagus saw that the laws were observed and executed by the properly constituted authorities. The Areopagus protected the worship of the gods, the sanctuaries and sacred festivals, and the olive trees of Athens; and it supervised the religious practices of the people, their moral conduct, as well as the education of the youth. Without waiting for a formal accusation the Areopagus could summon any citizen to court, examine, convict and punish him.
To this high court Paul was summoned, at this time it was probably meeting in one of the porticoes, the porches that surrounded the Agora marketplace. He may or may not have been forcibly arrested. In vs. 19 it says “They took him.” It appears that he was taken but not arrested yet still under the judgment of the Areopagus court Paul could be condemned and killed it was found he was “preaching a new god.” Preaching a new god was in this time a capital offense in both Athens and throughout the Rome empire
It is interesting what the philosophers and judges said as the reason they were interested in what Paul had to say.
First they asked in vs. 18, “What will this babbler say? The word babbler literally means seed-picker. They were liking Paul to one of the little birds in the Agora which would swoop in and opportunistically snatch seeds that had fallen to the ground in the market. It was a common phrase and had the meaning of someone who is grabbing bits and pieces of teaching or truth from others and then trying to present it as their own coherent and systematic beliefs.
Others said, He seems to be a setter fourth of strange gods. This was a serious charge for as we have said to introduce a strange god in this culture and time could be considered a capital offense. The reason they thought he was introducing gods rather than God was because Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. The Greek word for resurrection was anastasis and they thought he spoke of Jesus and Anastasis, two gods.
To Paul it did not matter why they had brought him to court. All that mattered was that he was going to have a chance to sow the seeds of the Gospel in pagan hearts, where it had never been sown before.
Three Channels of Communication in Modern Athens
What we see in Paul’s actions in Athens is that he was willing to use any medium to reach men. In our Neo-Pagan society today, we also must take the Gospel to the lost by all means and mediums possible.
We must dispute with them as Paul did. The passage says that Paul “disputed” with them. The word is the Greek word dialegomai, it means dispute, reason, preach, or dialogue with. The TDNT says it means to “mingle thought with thought.”
In order to do that you have to reach people through the channels that are open to us today.
We must reach them in the arena of religion through our churches, writing and preaching. We must reach them in the arena of the marketplace, and commerce, the places where people congregate and share their thought and ideas. Today that is TV, radio and especially the internet. It may still be a real open marketplace like fairs, festival and community parades or events. We must reach them in the area of the law and the intellect. This is the voting booth, the colleges, the schools and the legislatures of our nation and our state.
In so many ways, we have neglected the channels that God has opened for us and we are losing the battle for souls and our nation because they have not been challenged with the Gospel or the truth of God’s Word. We have forgotten that we are to be on the offensive, we are not the home team here, this is Satan’s world and we should understand that we in a spiritual sense are the invaders, the insurgents.
Jesus declared, Matthew 16:18 “…upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” That sounds like and offensive plan, not a defensive one. We are to be on the attack against the ramparts of Hell.
Illustration: Adonirom Judson
Adoniram Judson, the great Baptist missionary to Burma of the early 1800’s, endured untold hardships trying to reach the lost pagans of that country. For seven heartbreaking years he suffered hunger and privation and preached without a single convert. During this time he was thrown into prison as a spy, and for 21 months was subjected to almost incredible mistreatment. As a result, for the rest of his life he carried the ugly scars made by the chains and iron shackles which had cruelly bound him. Upon his release he asked for permission from the same ruler who had imprisoned him to enter another province where he might resume preaching the Gospel. The godless ruler indignantly denied his request, saying "My people are not fools enough to listen to anything a missionary might say, but I fear they might be impressed by your scars and turn to your religion!"
Adoniram Judson’s Hymn of Faith. – “In spite of sorrow, loss and pain, our course be onward still: we sow on Burma’s barren plain, we reap on Zion’s hill.”
Finally, we must know this that the as important as the medium is it cannot replace the message. No medium no matter how powerful will bring revival or save a single soul but the message Paul shared changed the world and it still can today.
Message -Acts 17:22-31
Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
An Unchanging Message to a Unknowing People
Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, he said, “I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.” The word here for superstitious is the word deisidaimwn it is a neutral word not a negative one (from deidw, to fear, and daimwn, deity). Paul was saying to the Athenians I see you are very religious, very reverent and worshipful. He then began to preach to them the “unknown God”
He tells them as he went through the city he saw altars, places of devotion, inscribed to “the unknown god.” These were pillars or small columns which had been set up at various places in Athens. During a plague, a flock of sheep was let loose and everywhere the flock stopped one of the sheep was sacrifice to the god that was closest to that spot. If there was no god near, then the animal was sacrificed to the “unknown god” and a pillar set up to mark the spot.
Paul preached to them the unknown God, by doing so he could not be accused of introducing a “new god” they already worshipped the unknown God but did have a full knowledge of Him. Paul would now simply fill in the gaps of their knowledge.
Paul then proceeded to preach a masterful message of the one true God, and the man appointed by God, Jesus who will judge all of the world and that man’s resurrection.
He told them that the true God was the creator of all. He was Lord of heaven and earth, He needed nothing from man as He was the giver of all life and breath. The true God is the maker of all nations from one blood. The true God was sovereign. He determined the times and the boundaries of their lives. As sovereign and creator He had made it possible for man to seek after him.
He is the God of life and existence. All man, everywhere are his offspring. How could we possibly think then that the one we sprang from was constructed of gold, silver or stone.
Finally, Paul says God has overlooked those times but now commands all men everywhere to repent. Repent now because God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by that man, the man Jesus Christ, who God has ordained to be the judge of the quick and the dead.
He concludes and says God has given evidence of the truth through the resurrection of Jesus.
An Unchanging Message That Changes The World
When we enter into the arenas of this neo-pagan world we must always carry with us one weapon the Gospel.
Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
John 3:14-15 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
John 12:32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.
You must never underestimate the power of the Gospel. Paul says it is the power of God unto salvation. we must believe that there is a power, unmistakable, undeniable in the good news of Jesus Christ. There is something supernatural in the story of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus that draws men to salvation. We have to believe that and act on that belief. We have to preach Jesus above all other subjects of our sermons and lives.
Paul could have argued philosophy with the Sophist, the Stoics and the Epicureans. It is obvious in his quotes that he was schooled in the philosophies from his time in Tarsus. He often uses Aristotelian logic in setting up his arguments of theology in the book of Romans but he does not try to use these things to win lost souls.
As a good pastor friend of mine has said, “You don’t argue people into the kingdom of God” – David Pittman.
Paul takes only one weapon with him when he enters the arena of the Areopagus, he takes the Gospel of Christ. The message that overcomes the ages, crosses the centuries and pierces the power of sin, is and always will be the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No matter how much this world changes, no matter how alien it may become to us we can only effect it, change it as insurgents taking over Satan’s territory with the Good News, that Christ redeemeth sinful men!
What was the result that day in the Areopagus?
Acts 17:32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. So Paul departed from among them. Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Did all believe? No. Did most believe? No, But did some believe? Oh, yes! And those few changed the world by becoming insurgents in other lands until that wonderful message of hope came to us.
What will be the result or our taking the Gospel to the world around us using every channel and medium God opens? What will happen in our own neo-pagan culture? Will the United States be swept into revival? No. I don’t think it will. Will many be saved? Probably not. But will some be reached? Will some be turned from death and destruction? Will some be brought to repentance and faith? Will some exchange their burden of sin for the joy of a relationship with God their Creator? Yes, yes and yes, and every time it will be worth it.
Let me close with a favorite story that took place about this same time in the Roman Empire and shows the change that the early church had made through the message of the Gospel.
In the days of the Roman Emperor Nero, there lived and served him a band of soldiers known as the "Emperor's Wrestlers." Fine, brave men they were, the best and the strongest of the land, recruited from the great athletes of the Roman amphitheater.
In the great amphitheater they upheld the arms of the emperor against all challengers. Before each contest they stood before the emperor's throne. Then through the courts of Rome rang the cry: "We, the wrestlers, wrestling for thee, O Emperor, to win for thee the victory and from thee, the victor's crown."
The great Roman army was sent to fight in Gaul and no soldiers were fiercer or more loyal than this band of wrestlers led by their centurion Vespasian. Back in Rome, news reached Nero that many Roman soldiers had accepted the Christian faith. Therefore, this decree was dispatched to the all the army and to the centurion Vespasian; "If there be any among your soldiers who cling to the faith of the Christian, they must die!"
The decree was received in the dead of winter. The soldiers were camped on the shore of a frozen inland lake. It was with sinking heart that Vespasian, the centurion, read the emperor's message.
Vespasian called the soldiers together and asked: "Are there any among you who cling to the faith of the Christian? If so, let him step forward!" Forty wrestlers instantly stepped forward two paces, respectfully saluted, and stood at attention. Vespasian was surprised and shocked. He had not expected so many of his best men to step forward.
"I will ask again at sundown. Consider carefully your answer," said Vespasian. Sundown came. Again the question was asked. Again the same forty wrestlers stepped forward.
Vespasian pleaded with them long and earnestly without prevailing upon a single man to deny his Lord. Finally he said, "The decree of the emperor must be obeyed, but I am not willing that your comrades should shed your blood. I order you to march out upon the lake of ice, and I shall leave you there to the mercy of the elements."
The forty wrestlers were stripped and then, falling into columns of four, marched toward the center of the lake of ice. As they marched they broke into the chant of the arena but with a change, "Forty wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee, the victor's crown!" Through the night Vespasian stood by his campfire and watched. As he waited through the long night, there came to him fainter and fainter the wrestlers' song.
As morning drew near one figure, overcome by exposure, crept quietly toward the fire; in the extremity of his suffering he had renounced his Lord. Faintly but clearly from the darkness came the song: "Thirty-nine wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee, the victor's crown!"
Vespasian looked at the figure drawing close to the fire. Perhaps he saw eternal light shining there toward the center of the lake. Who can say? But off came his helmet and clothing, and he sprang upon the ice, crying, "Forty wrestlers, wrestling for Thee, O Christ, to win for Thee the victory and from Thee, the victor's crown!"
What are you fighting for today? What are willing to risk everything for? If not for the Gospel, if not for eternity, if not for the love of Jesus Christ….then what? What could be more important or powerful or needed in this world today than the good news of how God loves us so much that he send Jesus to die for us and then proved that love, that power, that good news by the defeat of death at the resurrection?