16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. 18 And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—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 which you are proclaiming? 20 “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.” 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.) 22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. 24 “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ 29 “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. 30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” 33 So Paul went out of 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…Acts 17:16-34 (NASB)
We have just entered a New Year. This season usually finds people taking stock of the year that has passed and hoping that the year that lies ahead will be filled with new promise. 2020 has been a very difficult time in so many ways. As of this writing, Covid has infected over 20 million Americans and taken the lives of over 400,000; violent protests and unrest fill the headlines; crime is up in many places by over 100% from last year’s numbers with many dying by shootings; over 47.2 million abortions took place worldwide; the destruction of many lives and livelihoods occurred in the midst of lockdowns; the decline of biblical values in America and in the world at large is plainly evident; and the list of troubling stats could go on and on. If there ever was a New Year’s season when we long for more positive developments in the next 12 months than in the past 12, surely January of 2021 is it. For this month’s newsletter, we will look at Acts 17:16-34 (I encourage you to read the passage where printed above or in your Bibles) and see what “newness” came to people who liked to spend their time liking to hear or tell of something “new” (vs. 21).
NEW TROUBLES (vs. 16)…Paul normally traveled with a ministry team of sorts, but at the beginning of this passage he is alone in Athens. Why is he by himself? Because the first fifteen verses of Acts 17 recount the Apostle being run out of Thessalonica and then later on out of Berea by his enemies. Paul’s companions get him down to Athens where he will wait to be reunited with them and carry on the ministry. These sorts of troubles seemed to follow Paul around nearly everywhere he went. He was slandered, received death threats, was thrown in prison, stoned and left for dead, and the list goes on and on of the perils Paul experienced for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, it hadn’t always been this way in his life. Before being converted to Christianity he was esteemed by the powerful, he had prestige and position. Prior to putting faith in Jesus, Paul was the persecutor, not the persecuted. He was at the pinnacle of prominence in Judaism and had the credentials and credibility of the crème of the crop. Then, one day on the road to Damascus to extend the punishment he had inflicted on Christian believers in Jerusalem to yet another city, he was confronted by Jesus Himself. Paul’s natural eyes were blinded by the light, but his spiritual vision was opened wide and he came to an abiding faith in Christ. From that day forward, his life was turned upside down. Those who once esteemed him now took vows to see him put to death. Those who once admired him and hung on his every word now followed him from city to city to stir up the crowds and the local governments against him. Indeed, coming to Christ brought NEW TROUBLES for Paul, troubles that would eventually lead to him being beheaded for the cause of the gospel. However, far from longing for the pleasures and approvals of his past, and far from bemoaning the pains brought about by following Christ and preaching His gospel in the present, Paul powerfully declares that he considers his past prominence and privilege as dung compared to knowing Jesus in the power of His resurrection and in the fellowship of His sufferings (Philippians 3:7-11).
…There are ministers today who preach a message telling people that if they become a Christian, then they will have their best life now, they will be on the fast track to the corner office and the mansion home. Just come to Jesus and you will walk in the favor in every area of your life; you’ll get the promotions others don’t at work, you’ll get the best parking spaces at the places you go, the car you drive will soon be retired and you’ll have the fancy roadster of your dreams, you’ll have the best family relationships you’ve ever had, if you’re single you’ll meet that perfect someone, if you have children they’ll behave better, and this world that may have never known your name will soon acknowledge you and proclaim your greatness! There’s only one thing wrong with this “gospel”… and that is that it’s wrong! I could give many examples here, but the one above of the Apostle Paul will suffice for this newsletter article. He was on the fast track and doing well in the world before coming to Christ. After coming to faith is when he had NEW TROUBLES that he hadn’t previously experienced. Indeed, Jesus taught us that those who follow after Him will be despised by this world, as was He. Our Lord tells us that His gospel can oftentimes cause divisions, even in the most intimate of family circles and closest of friendships. Paul instructs us that those who desire to live godly for Jesus will be persecuted. Coming to Christ and having a new birth truly often brings new troubles and conflicts in this present world. However, those who are genuine believers will have a heavenly peace that passes all human understanding and a wonderful joy that is unspeakable and full of glory which the world did not give and cannot take away. Those who are born again need not be troubled by death, hell, or the grave; for in Christ these things have been conquered for the believer and eternal life that surpasses all worldly sorrow will be their inheritance!
“NEW” TRUTHS (vs. 22-31)…Paul was in the city of Athens, a center (perhaps the center) of academic thought for much of the ancient world. Philosophers would gather there to hear and evaluate whatever “new” propositions would be made by the orators of the day. Specifically mentioned in this passage are two main groups of thinkers, the Epicureans and the Stoics. Epicureans did not deny the existence of God, but they believed that if He did exist He did not get involved in the affairs of men. They thought the chief end of man was to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Pleasure of course had a very subjective definition largely given meaning by the experiences of each individual. This earthly life was all there was so one might as well enjoy it to the full for when a person died they believed both body and soul were disintegrated. Stoics believed that all Creation was God or part of God. The chief end of man was to gain self-mastery, to be guided by one’s reason and intellect, and to have indifference to either pleasure or pain. Stoics pressed toward self-sufficiency and were very proud and independent. Of course, in addition to the thinking of the Epicureans and Stoics, the theology-philosophy of Athens at large from centuries gone by was rooted in Greek mythology and the view that there were many gods. These gods were more like egotistical humans with superpowers than some ultimate being of utmost nobility. Greek polytheism was on full display in the architectural structures of the city as they had Temples erected to Zeus, Diana, and all their friends and even adding a Temple to the Unknown God in case they had left one out in inadvertent ignorance. To these three groups (and to all who were there to hear Paul’s sermon from the Areopagus that day), the Apostle delivered what to them would have certainly appeared to be NEW TRUTHS. Paul tells them that: there is only one God; this God can be known; this God is the Creator of all that is; He is the Sustainer of all that is; He is the ruler of all that is; the human race all descended from one man; God does not dwell in Temples made by human hands; God does not need the service of men; God has sent Jesus to be the Savior to all who will repent and put trust in Him; Jesus is proven to be this Savior by rising from the dead; and Jesus will one day judge the world in righteousness.
…Many in the church today believe that they have to think up new doctrines to be relevant to today’s world, and especially to be received by a largely unchurched world. Many leaders are always trying to create a message that is non-offensive to the world, that doesn’t use words like sin and repentance and judgment, that stays away from “controversial” teachings such as Creationism (especially Young Earth Creationism) and the exclusivity of salvation being found in Jesus Christ alone. These leaders use worldly means of all sorts ranging from preachers coming in on zip-lines to laser light shows to having circus acts perform in the very sanctuary of the church (and I’m not making that up). Yet, in Acts 17 when Paul comes across the Greek culture and the most esteemed academic philosophies of the day, which were unfamiliar with the Old Testament and its promises of a coming Messiah, he used the “foolish” method of declaratively preaching the OLD TRUTHS of Christianity to them—God as Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Savior, and Judge; of all mankind descending from the first Adam and the hope of salvation being found in the Second Adam (Jesus) who has risen from the dead!
NEW TRAGEDIES and NEW TRIUMPHS (vs. 32-34)…The crowd that heard Paul’s preaching that day had varied responses. Some sneered at him, others promised to hear him again concerning these things, and then there were a few who believed. Can you imagine what a terrible tragedy it would be to hear the gospel from the very mouth of the Apostle Paul and then sneer at it in rejection or brush it off saying you’ll think about it for awhile and maybe give him the time of day to hear him again at some point in the future? Whatever tragedy may have befallen those hearers throughout the course of their lives, none would compare to turning away the only lifeline leading out of eternal damnation and into eternal life! That being said, can you imagine the triumphs of those who came to the Areopagus of Athens that day being lost and undone without God and His Son, being spiritually dead in their trespasses and sins, and by the grace of Jesus hearing the gospel and being born again unto a New Life, a New Eternal Life! Indeed, they experienced the Triumph over death, hell, and the grave that had been purchased by Another, by Christ Himself! They were delivered from their false philosophies, from their false mythologies, from their false idolatries, and from their false self-righteousness to walk in the newness of real life indeed!