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“Apology to a Restless Culture”

Acts 17:16-34
Bob DeGray
March 6, 2005

Key Sentence

A godly critique of culture builds bridges to restless hearts.


I. Identify and analyze. (Acts 17:16-23)
II. Critique and inform. (Acts 17:24-29)
III. Bridge to Jesus. (Acts 17:30-34)


        Augustine of Hippo wrote his Confessions in 398 A.D., yet the human truths he expressed are timeless, and the Biblical truths he taught are powerful in any age and any culture. One of the great things he says in the Confessions is “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” He sees what is obvious to any careful observer of any culture in any age - that men and women are discontent, seeking, striving, restless. No matter where a culture turns to appease that restlessness, rest is never found until Christ is found. All hearts are restless until they find their rest in Jesus.

        About twenty years ago Don Richardson wrote a book called Eternity in Their Hearts, in which he told stories of different cultures at different times where there was a desire for a transcendent God greater than the gods they worshiped, or a God who would communicate through a book, or a Savior God who could really rescue from their sins. Richardson sees these as examples of the one true God at work preparing people for the Gospel of Jesus. His first example is called ‘The Athenians’, and he describes how some six centuries before Christ, the people of Athens apparently came to have several shrines and altars to an unknown God or unknown gods. Briefly, Athens was being devastated by a plague, and offerings to all her many gods did no good, until a Cretan philosopher name Epimenides came and counseled them to make sacrifices to an unknown God. He himself invoked that God to give them a sign of his interest, a miracle involving a flock of hungry sheep released into the green fields around the city. According to the legend, many of the sheep quite unnaturally rested instead of eating, and wherever one of these sheep rested they built an altar to the unknown God. Later visitors to Athens often noted these altars, and one of those visitors was a man named Paul.

I. Identify and analyze. (Acts 17:16-23)

        This morning we’re going to go with Paul to Athens and watch him as he identifies the restlessness in that culture and critiques that restlessness to build a bridge to Christ. We can do the same thing today, because a godly critique of culture builds bridges to restless hearts. A godly critique of culture builds bridges to restless hearts. Our text is in the last half of Acts 17. Let’s begin by reading verses 16 to 23, in which we see how Paul identifies and analyzes the restlessness of Greek culture. Acts 17:16-23 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

        19Then 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? 20You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." 21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) 22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

        Athens had been the foremost Greek city-state, and even after it was taken over by Rome, it retained a proud intellectual tradition and a good deal of freedom. It was especially known for it’s religious heritage, as a center of Greek mythologically based worship, and it’s unmatched philosophical heritage, in Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. As Paul visited the city he undoubtedly took in the great architecture, the magnificent sculpture, the many schools of philosophy. But what caught his eye was the idols: idols; idols; idols everywhere. Six centuries before, when Epemenides pointed the Athenians to the unknown God, it was said it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Stott says “there were innumerable temples, shrines, statues and altars. In the Parthenon stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena, whose gleaming spear point was visible forty miles away. Elsewhere there were images of Zeus, Apollo, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana and Hera. The word Luke uses to describe all this is kateidolos, which is translated ‘full of idols’ but has the sense of ‘swamped’ or ‘smothered’ with idols. That was Athens.

        Paul’s response seems to be focused on how dishonoring all this was to God. The NIV says he was greatly distressed, translating the word ‘paraxymo’, originally a medical term for a seizure, which had carried into the emotional realm as a deep and heart felt anguish. This Greek word is used to translate from the Hebrew God’s attitude toward idols, as in Isaiah 65:3, where God says that the people of Israel “provoke me to my very face, offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on altars of brick.” Paul was similarly provoked by this display of idolatry and he responded in the only effective way available to him - by sharing Jesus.

        So Paul went to the synagogue and shared with Jews and God fearing Gentiles, but he also went to the marketplace, the agora, which was a forum for all kinds of discourse. Paul’s message was unique enough that it caught the attention of the philosophers, both Epicureans and Stoics. Stott says the Epicureans focused on chance, escape, and the enjoyment of pleasure, while the Stoics emphasized fatalism, submission and the endurance of pain. Both groups had somewhat distanced themselves from mythical idolatry, but neither was very close to Biblical monotheism. These philosophies, Luke says, typified Athenian culture. He says they spent their whole time doing nothing but exploring the latest ideas.

        So we see two key areas of restlessness in this Greek culture. One is the idols themselves, the endless variety of Greek gods and mythical figures that demanded an endless cycle of sacrifices. The second is their philosophies, the endless discussion of new ideas in some vague attempt to replace those gods. Paul steps right in the middle of this restlessness and examines it. Notice carefully that his analysis begins with the positives he sees in the situation. Paul is trying to make a connection with these people, and when given an opportunity to speak with the philosophers in their meeting place on Mars Hill, he says “I see that you Athenians are ver religious. All these idols. All these ideas. It’s obvious that you’re seeking after the truth.’ He’s already bringing out their area of restlessness. He then bridges to a specific example that has intrigued him: “I’ve even seen one of your altars that says ‘to the unknown God?’ Now did Paul know the legend of Epimenides and the altars? We can’t be sure, but it’s likely he did, because he quotes Epimenides later in this message.

        So Paul establishes that their restlessness is seen in their philosphy and religion. He tells them ‘you worship an unknown God, but I know who he is.’ Paul is a little like a fisherman here: he has figured out what bait these fish are seeking, and he’s put just that bait on his hook: ideas, idols. He’s talking about what they’re pursuing; speaking their language; he knows what drives them. Obviously I think we should do the same thing in our culture. The key is to recognize those areas in which our culture is restless: what are people caught up in and consumed by? Now to some extent this varies from individual to individual, as it must have in Athens. But there are certain overriding themes: I think our culture is restless materially, driven by the next thing we need to spend money on, to buy, to fix, to throw away. This is partially the result of an advertizing media that constantly bombards us with the next innovation, the next fashion, the next taste sensation. And something deep inside responds ‘yea, I’d like one of those - that would be better than what I have’. Despite our material affluence, we are often materially restless, always yearning, always needing, always buying, always owning. It’s a constant dissatisfaction.

        The other category I see is moral restlessness. Our culture, having abandoned Christian morality, seems to be in a futile search for something to replace it with. Maybe it’s environmentalism? We should structure our lives to preserve every niche of this world we live in. Maybe it’s the creation of a new sexual morality, the promotion of sex as the goal of life, the acceptance of all sexual sin. Maybe it’s the pursuit of other spiritualities: eastern, new age, atheistic, and especially psychological - where wrong is what victimizes me and right is what empowers me. Maybe it’s a mixture of this moral vacuum with materialism, looking for moral satisfaction in the right medicine or the right diet or the right exercies plan. I think all these ‘isms’ and pursuits are attempts to fill the vacuum left when a purposeful life of relationship to God has disappeared. But this restlessness gives believers the opportunity to say, in Jesus’ words ‘you are worried over many things, there is only one thing that is important’ ‘Come all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.’

II. Critique and inform. (Acts 17:24-29)

        As we identify the restlessness in our own culture we can, like Paul, begin to critique and inform, to speak Biblical truth that addresses the restless heart. This is what Paul does in the next section, Acts 17:24-29 "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. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.' 29"Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone--an image made by man's design and skill.

        Paul presents the living God of the Bible to these people who were running around after idols, running around after ideas. He makes four ‘who God is’ statements, straight out of the Old Testament, that will either attract or outrage his hearers. First, God is the creator of the universe, he made the world and everything in it, and therefore he is it’s master by right of creation. Further, as creator, he cannot be constrained to live in temples built by human hands. This challenges the Epicureans, who had the idea that the universe came about by chance, and the Stoics, who saw creation as god, and the idolators, who fabricated gods that fit in human categories.

        Second, God is the sustainer of life. He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. It’s absurd to think that he who sustains life would need to be sustained, that he who supplies our need would need our supply. Any attempt to domesticate God, to make him dependent on us is a ludicrous reversal of roles: it is we who depend on God.

        Third, God is the ruler of all the nations. ‘From one man he made every nation of men, and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.’ God is in control. He is not impersonal or remote, but involved in the life of every nation and every people. The history and even the geography of each nation are his to command. But Paul says that God’s purpose in this control is that men would seek him, for ‘he is not far from us’, and ‘in him we live and move and have our being.' That’s the quote I mentioned from the writings of Epimenides. Paul isn’t afraid to use insights from the lips of this culture to critique the culture.

        Fourth, God is the Father of all human beings: As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.' This is another quote from secular sources, the third century B.C. poet Aratus and his predecessors. Paul doesn’t hesitate to use such bridges, much as we might quote a contemporary movie or book to show how even in our own day people have some insight into spiritual or moral realities.

        Since God is our creator and father, Paul implies that we are made in his image. Therefore ‘we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone--an image made by man's design and skill.’ Paul’s source for this truth is the Old Testament, where prophets like Isaiah poke holes in the ideas of the idolators, that you can make something with your hands out of metal or wood and then worship it. God who is creator, sustainer, ruler and father to all men cannot be confined or honored in this shrine or that statue or this image. The restlessness of the Greeks is because their god is too small - they need to get their eyes off the endless multiplication of idols or ideas and look up to a God who is greater.

        In the same way, the restlessness of our culture can be addressed by pointing people to God as creator, sustainer, ruler, lawgiver, and father. To a God who says ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ A God who addresses our restless materialism through his son, saying “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? . . . So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

        He is also a God who addresses our culture’s moral seeking, saying through his prophets “He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” God is the one who says “I wrote for them the many things of my law, but they regarded them as something alien.” No matter what kind of morality you pursue, if it is not God’s moral standard, it is useless. So the New Testament says ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ - of his moral goodness. And a moral God must judge this moral failure. God is the righteous judge, and Scripture teaches of a day when he will come to judge, not on the basis of some sham morality we have created, but on the basis of his own righteousness and justice. David wrote “he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” So we know the answer to the moral vacuum of our culture - it is God’s standard of righteousness – but the existence of that standard also threatens us with judgment.

III. Bridge to Jesus. (Acts 17:30-34)

        This is the same direction Paul went, as he began to bridge from critique to the Good News about Jesus. Acts 17:30-34 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For 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." 32When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." 33At that, Paul left the Council. 34A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

        If the one true God is the God of the Old Testament, whom Paul has described as Creator, Sustainer, Ruler and Father, then the worship of idols, gods created by men, is a pitiful, ignorant, common sin. Paul tells us in Romans that men “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” Only because of his loving patience had God put up with that sin. But now, because Jesus has come, God is commanding all people to repent, to ‘turn from these worthless things to the living God’, as Paul taught in Lystra, or face his judgment, which will be universal - he will judge ‘the world’; and righteous - he will judge with justice; and definite, for the day has been set and a judge has been appointed. God has designated Jesus his Son for this task and has revealed that choice by raising him from the dead.

        Just when Paul gets to this point, the mention of the resurrection, he gets objections that bring the meeting to an end. Some of the people sneer at the resurrection; others say they want to hear Paul again. What’s striking is that Luke does not record any clear presentation of the Gospel, of the sin bearing death of Jesus. Why? Well, Luke never records all that has been said. You can read this speech in two minutes, and I’m certain they gave Paul more time than that. But Luke’s readers already know the Good News; he’s more interested in reporting Paul’s bridge to the culture than what he did with that bridge. In other words this is a model of pre-evangelism. The evangelism itself is left unsaid, though we know that some believed, including at least one from this group that met on Mars Hill. There was a faith response.

        The thing we need to learn from this is that in reaching our own culture, we need to build bridges prior to evangelism. I’m proposing that we do that by analyzing our culture, and individuals, for areas of restlessness. Then we introduce the restless to a God who has answers to their struggles, and to Jesus, who is their answer. He is the one without whom our hearts are never at rest and in whom we find rest. He is the one who came and died that we might have peace, that our deadly bondage to the materialism of this world could be broken, that our search for a meaningful morality could be fulfilled, that the sin revealed by exposure to the one true God could be paid for, that our penalty could be taken, and our very lives could be renewed. Jesus accomplished all this through the cross - and we’ll meet in just a few minutes at the foot of the cross to celebrate what he has done.