By Pastor David M. Choi
Not only do I love everything about this passage, but the sermon that Paul delivers here has to be one of my absolute favorites. The gospel continues to move among the Gentiles. Most recently, we saw the gospel makes its way through Thessalonica and Berea. Now, it has found its way into Athens, the preeminent location of Greek learning and philosophy.
The pagan philosophers, who love discussing and exchanging new ideas, hear rumors of a new teaching that is going around. Thus, they invite Paul to share his ideas with them, so they, too, can learn about these “strange things” and understand their deeper meaning (v.20). Paul happily accepts their invitation.
Paul begins his sermon by establishing some common ground between him and his listeners, so that they can better relate to what he has to say. He notes that they themselves are very religious, and that upon their pagan altar is inscribed the words “To the unknown god.” Paul says this “unknown god” is actually the one I have come to tell you about (v.23). That is, no longer do you need to keep speculating about who he might be or what he is like, because the living God has now made himself known to you.
Brilliantly, Paul addresses their unknown god with these four things:
- God does not live in shrines made by human hands, because he is Lord of heaven and earth (v.24)
- God does not need anything from us, because he is the one who gives life (v.25)
- God is transcendent but still he is close to his creatures (v.27)
- Human art and imagination cannot depict God, because God’s being transcends all creaturely realities (v.29)
For those who seek to be faithful witnesses of Christ, there is so much we can gather from this passage. First, Paul teaches us to be observant. No matter what time period or geographical location you are living in, everyone is always worshipping something (and in that regard not even the atheists are really true atheists). Even the brilliant, agnostic writer, David Foster Wallace, conceded that “there is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships.” So, we should be attentive to the idols – or, the objects of worship – around us. Second, Paul teaches us to ask what about those idols attracts people to worship them. How are they looking to these things for morality, meaning, and life?
Third, Paul shows us that, instead of coming right out of the gate with the gospel, we should first establish some common ground, and try and meet people wherever they’re at. This will help people to better relate and be more receptive to whatever it is we have to say. In doing so, we can speak more directly to the cultural idols, and clearly demonstrate how our deepest longings point to Christ instead. Fourth and last, we see that not everyone was convinced even by the apostle Paul! Some accepted what Paul had to say; others rejected him outright. So, certainly, we can also expect some rejections down the line. Yet, assuming we’ve been faithful and adequate in our gospel witness, we remember that we’re simply called to give people the invitation to respond. The results are left entirely to God.
Does your evangelism look like this? Does it correspond to that of Paul’s extraordinary example? Think of your friends and family members, teachers and classmates, who have not yet accepted Christ. What are they worshipping? (observe) How can you strike up a conversation with them today about why they look to these things for meaning and life? (understand and relate) Afterwards, how might you demonstrate that Jesus Christ is exceedingly better and far more satisfying? (proclaim) We do what we can, and, in the Spirit, we shall grow along the way. But however compelling or un-compelling we may find ourselves to be, remember to pray, because ultimately the results are the Lord’s.
To the known God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, give me the desire and courage of an evangelist, to carry the light of your gospel into the darkest corners of the world. Like your servants before, would you use me now as your mouthpiece in wherever I am and to wherever I go. Help me, Lord, to persevere in the face of ridicule and rejection. For you only call me to be faithful. But the results are entirely in your hands. Amen.