This morning we are finishing up our series “What is a disciple?” Let’s quickly review what we have learned so far. So far we have seen that a disciple spends time with Jesus, a disciple loves Jesus supremely, a disciple loves every other disciple, a disciple obeys Christ continually and last we week saw that a disciple uses their gifts to serve others. The final characteristic of a disciple that we will be examining this morning is: a disciple passes on the good news.
I came across this hilarious story this week about how a 4-year-old girl got involved in passing on the good news. Like many girls, this girl was really into Barbies. I guess this little girl engaged in long conversations with her Barbies as she walked around the house. So her dad, searching for common ground with his little girl, suggested that she teach her Barbies about Jesus. The little girl then went back to her room for a few minutes, gathered all her Barbies in a circle around her and told them that they needed to believe in Jesus in order to go to heaven. A few minutes later, she came out of her room and proudly announced that all of her Barbies were now believers. Her dad then asked her how it happened that they all become Christians so quickly. With a big grin on her face, the little girl said, “It was easy. I just sat on each of them until they said yes!”
While this method sure sounds effective, it’s probably much better to communicate the gospel in other ways. This morning we’re going to look into God’s Word in order to find out how the Apostle Paul passed on the good news. If you have your Bibles, turn to Acts 17, beginning in verse 16. Let’s begin by getting a little bit of background to this passage. This incident takes place in Athens. When Paul was there, as part of his Second Missionary Journey, he did what most people do when they go to a beautiful city ¬ he went sightseeing. But instead of being impressed with what he saw, verse 16 says that he was distressed to see that the city was full of idols. One ancient writer tells us that at the time there were 30,000 gods in Athens! In fact, one historian has said that it was easier to find a god than a man in the downtown area. Paul’s spirit was moved when he saw all these idols. The Greek helps us here because it shows how strongly Paul was distressed – it literally means that he was provoked by a storm of protest within his inner being.
Instead of leaving the city or complaining to the officials, verse 17 shows us that he went to work. He spent time both in the religious centers and in the marketplace. The text says that he did it every day. We see in verse 18 that some philosophers wanted to debate with him. The Epicureans were atheists; they denied God’s existence. They didn’t believe in the afterlife. They were content to just live for today ¬ we might call them materialists. Their motto was, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” There are still plenty of Epicureans around today right here in Port Hardy. The Stoics were pantheist’s, they believed that everything is God, and that He does not exist as a separate entity, but is in the rocks and trees and every material thing. Their attitude toward life was one of ultimate resignation they prided themselves on their ability to take whatever came their way. Their motto was, “Grin and bear it.” Apathy was regarded as the highest virtue in life. Do you know anyone like that today?
Now, look at the last part of verse 18 through verse 21: “Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ [Those were the Epicureans.] Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ [These were the Stoics.] They said this because Paul was preaching 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 want to know what they mean. (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”
The Epicureans, who were atheists, treated Paul with utter disdain. The word “babbler” is literally a “seed-picker.” They saw Paul as one of the little birds in the marketplace going around pecking at seeds here and there. In their minds, Paul was little more than a collector of fragments of truth ¬ and they dismissed him. But the Stoics were interested. In their theology, they had some room for additional gods. They were intrigued. I love Luke’s commentary “the people spent their time doing nothing but talking and listening to the latest ideas” – sounds like Talk Radio today, doesn’t it?
These people brought Paul before the Supreme Court of Athens. As the only Christian in the city, he was asked to explain what he believed. This is one of the most dramatic scenes in the New Testament ¬ Paul preaching the gospel in the intellectual capital of the world. His words are clear, concise, and very much to the point. More than that, they show what it means to become “all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22). We know that Paul as a Jew could speak to his own people. But here we see him before an audience of Gentiles who have never heard of Jesus Christ. Standing on their turf, at their invitation, he starts where they are and uses this opportunity to preach the gospel to them.
As we walk through the text this morning, I want us to see Paul’s approach as a model for us as we mix it up with the Epicurean and Stoic people in our own lives. I see four things that Paul did which we need to emulate – all of them begin with the letter “C”. If we want to follow Paul’s lead, the first thing we need to do is: Be Courteous. Look at verse 22: “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious…” What a great approach. Paul started right where his listeners were. He didn’t denounce them or attack their idolatry. In fact, he paid them a compliment. He basically said, “As I’ve been walking around your city, I’ve noticed one thing about you: You are a very religious people.” First words matter. If he loses his audience—either by boring them or insulting them—he’ll never get them back again.
To Paul, the Athenians were like blind men groping in the dark towards a God they did not know and could not find. But no kind person makes sport of the blind. Write this down in large letters: You cannot insult a person into the Kingdom of God. Were not the Athenians idolaters? Yes they were. But he didn’t begin by saying, “I’ve come to expose your sins, you dirty, wretched, hell-bound, idol-worshipping, heathenistic pagans. Thank God I’m here because I’m going to lead you to Jesus.” They wouldn’t have given him the time of day if he had said that.
The questions we need to ask ourselves are: Am I courteous when I spend time with people who are not followers of Christ yet? Or, am I secretly angry with them because of some of the things they do? If so, we need to remember that people without Christ are going to sin. In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised when people without Christ act like people without Christ. We also need to ask ourselves: Am I kind and gracious or am I abrasive? People without Christ in their life yet can and will pick up on our attitudes so we need to be careful.
I think the Early Church had a good handle on this. They were so thankful for the grace of God in their own lives, that they extended this same grace to others. I’m intrigued by what we read in Acts 2:47 when it says that the believers were praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. That tells me that Christians were fun to be around. They were winsome. Upbeat. Full of grace. People without Christ wanted to hang out with these followers of Christ. We need to ask ourselves: Do people with out Christ in their life feel that same way about us? If not, we need to work at being more courteous.
Secondly, we learn that we need to be contemporary. Paul was courteous when he dealt with people operating within a different worldview. We see in the first part of verse 23. He established some common ground with his listeners. Here’s another way to say it: When he was courteous, he broke down barriers; when he was contemporary, he built bridges to the heart of his audience. Notice verse 23: “For as I walked around and observed your objects of worship, I found even an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD…”
Paul was out where the people lived and worked. He hung out with people. This is important for several reasons. First, it would tell the Athenians that Paul had taken the time to get to know their city. This is a key principle, isn’t it? You’ve got to get to know people if you want to talk to them intelligently. Second, this statement tells us that Paul found a natural point of contact. As he walked around, he looked for connectors, or bridges, from their world to the gospel. In missions, these are called “redemptive analogies,” which are cultural or traditional beliefs that the missionary can use as a springboard to explain the gospel message. As he strolled through the city, he saw altars to every conceivable deity. Historians tell us that the Athenians built altars not only to their main gods—such as Zeus and Aphrodite, but also to abstract concepts such as justice, modesty, energy, and virtue. They were trying to cover all the bases, so to speak.
As Paul toured the city, he came upon an altar with a strange inscription: “To an unknown God.” There were a number of these in Athens. Here’s the background: Several centuries before this, a plague had hit the city and a man from Cyprus advised them to take a flock of black and white sheep to the Areopagus and let them go. Wherever a sheep stopped, they would kill the sheep and offer it on the nearest altar. If there was no altar nearby, they built one and dedicated it to “the unknown God.” The plague eventually lifted and the altars stayed. They attributed their deliverance to one of the “unknown gods.” Evidently, Paul found one of these altars and used it as his opening illustration.
Think about this for a moment. 30,000 altars in one city and still they weren’t sure they had enough. When you don’t know the true God, you always turn to idols. And not just one, but too many of them, because one is never enough. Some of our friends and neighbours have idols as well ¬ though they might not be the kind you can see on a shelf in their house ¬ they might be a little more hidden than that. We need to ask ourselves: are we spending enough time with people who don’t know Christ yet? Do we know what their interests are? Do we know what they are concerned about? Do we know those things that make them happy? The things that make them cry? Have we discovered any idols in their hearts? We need to be contemporary, up-to-date with our neighbours, co-workers and extended family members.
Not only was Paul courteous and contemporary, he was also courageous. We don’t have time this morning to mine the depths of this passage, but I want you to notice how bold Paul was in verses 23-30. Look at the last part of verse 23: “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” The phrase something unknown really means “in ignorance” though the hearers wouldn’t have taken it that way. He tactfully tells them they don’t know what they are talking about—which is literally true. It’s as if he is saying, “You admit there is a God you don’t know. Very well, then. I happen to know that God and I will now proclaim him to you. I will begin where you end.” This is tremendous evangelistic strategy. How could they be offended when he starts by quoting from one of their own altars “To the unknown God?”
By admitting there is more to God than they know, they have opened the door for Paul to preach the gospel boldly. This is what I mean by finding common ground. It doesn’t mean compromising our values in order to share the gospel. Paul here isn’t compromising anything. He’s just finding a way to gain a hearing with these highly intelligent people. And how did he find it? The same way we will in our own passing on of the good news—by listening, by reading, by watching, by observing, by paying attention to what people say and do. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has set eternity in every human heart. Sooner or later, that longing for eternity will express itself in one way or another. We need to pay attention and we’ll see it when it happens. That’s our common ground.
We need to keep our eyes open and our ears tuned in because sooner or later, we’ll sense the “God-shaped vacuum” inside the heart of those who don’t know Jesus yet. And when the door opens, we need to be courageous and just step in. That’s what Paul did and we can do it, too. In verses 24-25, Paul gives them a theology lesson, courageously speaking of God as the Creator and the Giver of all things: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”
Paul then establishes the fact that God is near enough for us to reach out to Him and find what we’re looking for in verses 26-29. Verse 30 shows us the depth of Paul’s courageousness: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” Paul is mincing no words here. When I think about the need to be courageous, I’m helped greatly by something Bill Bright once said: “Instead of assuming that people don’t want to hear the gospel, try instead to assume that they will be interested in the good news.” Our friend may have just gone through circumstances that have prepared their heart to receive Jesus Christ. God may have been leading them into an awareness of their need for truth. Perhaps they have felt especially alone — or in need of love.
As Paul moves from being courteous to being contemporary, to being courageous, he comes to the final phase of his speech: he was Christ-centered. You see, it’s not enough to just be nice and spend time with people. Nor is it enough to just be bold. We must look for ways to talk about Jesus. Look at verse 31: “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” Paul was not afraid to speak of an inescapable day of judgment. He did not shrink from speaking the truth about the resurrection of Jesus, even though he knew that many of his listeners would not want to hear it.
We too must not shrink from speaking about Jesus. He is the only way to peace with God and people have to believe in Him in order to be saved. Paul said it strongly in 1 Corinthians 1:22-23: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.” As God gives you opportunity, speak boldly for Christ. Tell people about His death so they understand that Jesus died in their place and that they can be forgiven for all the sins they have committed. Tell them about His resurrection so that that they can have hope for eternity. Tell them about the love and peace and joy that will be theirs once they surrender to Christ.
Let’s now look at how the people responded to Paul’s message. I see at least 3 reactions – people have the same sort of responses today. Response #1 is found in verse 32. Some were contemptuous. When they heard about the resurrection, they sneered. A second response is found in the last part of verse 32: Others were curious. Their appetites were whetted and they told Paul that they wanted to hear more. Verse 34 gives us the encouraging news that a number of others were convinced. This is what we can expect when we are involved in the lives of lost people. Some will become agitated and contemptuous. Others will be curious. And some will become convinced and commit themselves to Christ.
As I think about how Paul mixed it up with the intellectuals of his day, a couple thoughts come to mind: (1) How people respond to the gospel is God’s responsibility. Remember the words from Acts 2:47, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” It’s God who brings people to Himself. Some will be upset, others will be interested, and still others will come to Christ. That’s up to Him, not me. (2) How I respond to God is my responsibility. As we wrap up this series called, “What is a disciple?” I’m struck by the fact that my responsibility is to become completely committed and totally sold-out to Christ. We can do that by spending time with Jesus, loving Jesus supremely, by loving every other disciple, by obeying Christ continually, by using my gifts to serve others and by passing on the good news.
Let me give you some action steps as we conclude this morning to help us apply these truths to our relationships. They are really simple and pretty easy. First we need to pray. Pray for neighbours as you walk around and drive through your neighbourhood. Pray for your co-workers by name. List 3 or 4 people and pray for them everyday. Second, we need to care. Seek ways to show people you care and offer to pray for their needs. Be courteous and contemporary. Organize a block party or have someone over and have a BQQ. Reach out with random acts of kindness. Pick up trash. Put your neighbour’s paper by the front door. Invite a neighbour in when they stop by. And finally, we need to share. This is where being courageous and Christ-centered come in. Look for natural opportunities to share your faith. Be ready to tell others about how you came to Christ.
In the 1850s, some people discovered a tremendous amount of gold in a riverbed in Montana. But, because they didn’t have any tools and some members of their team were sick, they realized that they had to go back to town for some supplies and to rest up. Before they left, they decided to make a pact to not tell anyone where the gold was. They then went to the city for a couple weeks. Early one morning, as they all got up to leave the town and head back to the riverbed, over 50 of the townspeople walked out of town with them. They asked each other, “Did you tell them about the gold?” No, did you? They finally asked the people why they were coming along. This is what they said; “We knew you found gold by the smiles on your faces.”
Question: Do our neighbours know that we’ve found gold? Can they tell just by looking at our face? Do they see a bit of Christ when they look at us? If so, they’re going to want what we have. Are you ready to pass on the good news? Believe me, this is much more effective then trying to sit on them …