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Idolatry, Ignorance and Repentance

Date: May. 25, 2014

Author: Michael Mark

Acts 17:16-34

Key Verse: Acts 17:30

“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

When I was young, around 6 or 7 years old, I was a bit of a daredevil. Maybe more like a little devil sometimes. I loved to climb over fences, and just climbing things in general. Down the block from my house was a grade school, and on the side was a fire escape, enclosed by an 8 foot high fence. Tempted by the opportunity, I climbed the fence, then went up to the top of the fire escape about 3 stories high. I did this several times. Now if you’ve seen fire escapes, then you know they’re not made for playing, and the guard rails are skinny and very basic – a child can roll right off the side. One day, my next door neighbor was taking a walk around the block, and I shouted at him, trying to show off my courage and bravery. He saw me up at the top, and became angry. He told me to come down immediately. He took me right home to my parents, and they all scolded me, and told me never to go up there again. When I was young, I didn’t understand why they got angry, but later, I would know. In my youth, I was foolish, and ignorant. If I had tripped on one of those steps, I could have fallen to my death. Although it was unpleasant at the time, I now realize that they told me to stay away for my safety, because they loved me and cared for me. Similarly, we had proud hearts. We were once, or might even be now, ignorant of God. Ultimately, these things lead to death. But God commands all people everywhere to repent. I would say most, if not all people, do not like to hear the word “repent,” but when we see that repentance leads to life, then we will understand that repentance is truly a gracious command from God.

Last week we followed Paul through Thessolonica and Berea. As Paul and his companions preached the gospel, many Greek people came to believe, including prominent ones, particularly the women. The Jews in Thessolonica because jealous and formed a riot. Paul secretly left at night, not so much out of fear, but so that the rioting would stop. In Berea, Paul found Jews who were of more noble character, and they received his message with great eagerness. They examined the Scriptures every day to see if the things Paul was saying were true, and they found it to be so. As a result, many people came to believe in Jesus there too. When the Thessolonian Jews found out that Paul was in Berea, they made a 45 mile trip to stir up trouble for him there too. To avoid hindering the gospel work, Paul was escorted out, and taken to Athens, about 200 miles away. Silas and Timothy remained in Berea to continue the work, but were instructed to join Paul in Athens as soon as possible.

This is where our passage begins. Look at v.16, “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Athens was one of the greatest cities in Greece, famous for it’s culture and intellectual elites. It could have been considered the intellectual capital of the Roman Empire at the time, and was considered the religious capital of Greece. Three of the greatest philosophers in human history lived there, including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Here are some wise sayings from Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.” As it was the city for higher learning, it was also the city for higher spirituality. They embraced gods of all kinds, built altars to them, and worshipped them. Pausanius, a Greek geographer, wrote that Athens had an altar for Mercy, another for Shame, another for Fame, and another for Desire (Gill’s commentary). They had statues for all kinds of gods and were reverent in their worship of them.

The city was full of idols, and that was what distressed Paul. Paul was distressed in the sense that he was very angry at all of the idols he was seeing around him. It’s like the anger Moses had when the Israelites made a golden calf and worshipped it (Ex 32:19-20).  If there were but a few idols, maybe Paul would not have gotten so angry, however, the city was full of them. He may have seen one, and became disturbed.   Then another, and another, and another – there were so many idols, carved and crafted beautifully out of silver or gold or stone, but they did not give any glory or honor to the one true God. They were an offense to God, and the city was full of them. That was simply how Paul felt. But while in Athens, he reasoned in the synagogues and in the marketplace day by day. He met Jews in the synagogue on the Sabbath, on Saturday, but every day except that one, he was in the marketplace. Paul had a passion and desire to preach the gospel, and it shows here as he preached in the marketplace, in a city full of people who worship idols, and may have been buying things for their idol worship. Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and his resurrection every day, to those who happened to be there.

Verse 18 says, “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate 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.” The Epicureans and Stoics were 2 different schools of philosophy, both founded in Athens about 300 years prior to Paul’s visit, and their continued existence at this time showed the power and influence of their teachings. The Epicureans were founded by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. They were very worldly, and believed that the world was not created by any god, but by the random collision and joining of atoms. They did not deny the existence of gods, but they did not believe that the gods concerned themselves with the things in this world. Their ultimate goal in life was pleasure, but even in this the Epicureans were divided. One sect sought pleasure in the mind, which was achieved by practicing good morals. Another sect sought pleasure in the body, and lived a very sensual and indulgent life. They thought the gods only lived for their own pleasure too, and if anyone learned anything from the gods, it would only be how to live without the pain or fears that they have. They did not believe in the resurrection, but only that all humans return to matter after death.

The Stoics were founded by Zeno, who taught in the “stoas,” or porches, of public buildings, which is where they got their name. Their influence was so widespread that even a Roman Emporer, Marcus Aurelius, was a Stoic, and you can buy his book of Maxims (proverbs) today. Not to be confused with Maximus, the fictional Roman general in the movie “Gladiator.” The Stoics believe that the universe is god, and god is in everything, and everything is a manifestation of that god. So a piece of god is in you, and a piece of god is in me, and a piece of god is in the tree, and another piece is in the grass. God is in everything. Even the “little g” gods were a manifestation of this primary god. What’s interesting is, they call the guiding force behind what creates the universe, what holds it together, and what makes it move, “Logos,” and some of you bible scholars may remember John 1:1. (John was not adopting this god, but using the term to help people understand the true God). This force did not have a personality, but defined the rules, principles, and laws of the universe. That’s why the Stoics’ highest purpose in life was to live by reason, because by living by reason, they could discover truth. Since they believed all were part of the god force, they had stronger morals and ethic. They did not believe in resurrection, but only in the god force, so when you die, you returned to god. There was no plan for mankind, but they believed the universe constantly recycles itself by being burned in a cosmic fire, and recreating.

Although we don’t know of any Epicureans and Stoics today, at least I don’t think anyone here personally knows of one, their principles and philosophies still exist in some form today. For some people, the ultimate goal in life is pleasure, like the Epicureans. The idea of the universe is god is called pantheism, and there are modern teachers today who write books on pantheism.          The same author writes books titled: “How to know God,” “Why is God Laughing,” “The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success,” “Success is a State of Mind,” “Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet,” and, “The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore.” To this author, god is everything, and everything is god. He even writes a book about Jesus, but here is the summary: “And finally, there is the third Jesus, the cosmic Christ, the spiritual guide whose teaching embraces all humanity, not just the church built in his name. He speaks to the individual who wants to find God as a personal experience, to attain what some might call grace, or God-consciousness, or enlightenment.” That is not the Jesus of the Bible. That is another god.

What other idols do you see in our society today? There are celebrities, actors, singers, athletes, that everyone wants to be like, and that everyone wants to know more about. Sports teams are like idols, as people come in crowds to watch a game. More people would rather sit outside in freezing weather to watch a football game for 3 hours, than to come to church and sit indoors and worship God. Video games can also become idols, consuming countless hours of people’s lives. And most recently, there was an article asking the question, “Have phones become idols?” When they did brain scans, they found that when people hear a tone on their phone the same areas of excitement and pleasure trigger as when they see someone they like, like a good friend. Maybe that’s a stretch, but the question is out there. Now these things are not necessarily bad – I like movies, sports, video games, my phone – but it’s when these things capture our hearts and our minds more than God, that they may become idols. And to clarify further, some of these things are neutral, which is why they are ok – but there are other things that clearly set themselves up against God – other gods, other religions, blasphemous art, music, books or movies, pornography, greed is also idolatry. Things such as these we must not embrace.

The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers called Paul a babbler – actually a very condescending term. The meaning behind the word babbler was someone who gleaned ideas from various people, put them together, and tried to look and sound smart. Like a poser, a fake, a pretender. Nonetheless, they wanted Paul to defend his ideas, and explain to them what they mean. Verse 21 says, “All the Athenians and foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” What a way to spend your time. It’s funny how the verse says, they do nothing but talk about and listen to the latest ideas. They took Paul and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill. Mars was the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Ares, who is the god of war. This was a place where the judges, rulers, perhaps the highest philosophers met to discuss civil and religious matters. They have brought Paul before the council, but this is not a formal trial – they just wanted to hear him out. In any case, God has brought Paul here to testify to the gospel amongst some of the most powerful people of the city.

Now we come to the beginning of Paul’s sermon. Look at v.22-23: “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said, ‘People of Athens! I see that I every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.’” Notice the method Paul uses to speak with the non-Jewish crowd in the Areopagus. To the Jews, Paul goes over the history of the Israelites and God’s promises to Abraham and his children. To the Gentiles, Paul finds something that can connect them to God. Talking about Israel, Abraham and King David might not have made sense to the Greeks. We can learn a little bit about evangelism here as well. One way to do it is to meet people where they are at, find out more about the people you are trying to evangelize, and then make the connection to the truth. We don’t have to water down or compromise the truth, but we find the connection, then bring them to the truth. In a movie I saw with Hudson Taylor, he used Chinese characters to make the connection with the Chinese people. For example, the word for righteousness is actually a combination of 2 Chinese words: Lamb on top of “me.” Righteousness is the lamb covering over me. You can go to the gospel from there.

Back to what Paul says – he noticed an altar found with the inscription: “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” The Athenians were very religious. So much so, that they would even worship gods that they do not know. One story says that there was a plague one time in Athens. In order to appease the god and remove the plague, they dedicated an altar to the unknown god. Paul says to them, “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship.” Remember, these men were learned philosophers, seekers of wisdom, truth and knowledge. The greatest thinkers in the world, but Paul says this to them: “you are ignorant of the very thing you worship.” This is kind of ironic. We first talked about idolatry, and now we’re getting into ignorance. The Athenians were ignorant of what they worshipped. How about you? Do you truly know the God you worship? And how do you know? It is important to know God, because if you don’t know what you worship, or who you worship, you are no different than the Athenians, who are idolaters. If you are ignorant of the God you worship, than you do not worship the one true God, because he can be known. This God Paul is about to proclaim to the Athenians.

Look at v.24-25, “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 human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” This attacks the Epicurean idea of creation, which is that everything happened by random chance. By the way, did you notice also, that evolutionists and athiests take this stance? Nothing is new under the sun. But Paul here declares that God created the world. He is not the world. God is not the earth, the earth is God’s creation. This also attacks the Stoic idea of pantheism. The universe is not God, the universe is God’s creation. King Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, says in 1 Kings 8:27, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”

The Epicurean and Stoic ideas of God are not personal, but Paul’s God is personal. He is the Lord. Lord refers to the idea of a person, not an impersonal “force.” “Live” also shows that God is a person. And he is not like any of the Athenian gods. The Athenian gods are in temples, and they require certain offerings to grant your wish. For example, if you wanted fortune, you might sacrifice something to the god of money to get it. But God does not work like that. Of course we serve him, but he doesn’t need anything from us. We serve him because he is the Lord. He does not give to us because we give him something. He is not obligated to give us anything. But only out of his grace and mercy, do we receive blessings.

Verse 26 says, “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” This challenges the Epicurean idea that man was randomly made, and the Stoic idea that people were manifested of the same god force. This also challenges the Epicurean idea that the gods are not involved or concerned with the affairs of people, because we see here that God is intimately involved with every person on earth. The Stoic idea is that there is no plan or purpose for man, other than to live to find truth, but here, we see that God has set times that people will live, the ages or generations they will live in, and the cities that they will live in. So God has determined that all of us should live in the 21st century, here in Chicago, and he knows the dates and times of our birth, and God knows the dates and times of our death.

Just look around you. Look at your life. If you ever think, who am I? Why am I here, look to God. He put you here for his glory. He put you here so that you may seek him, find him, and know him. To worship him and give him praise. Look around you – and look further around you. From one man he made all the nations. Look at history. From Adam, came Noah. From Noah, came Shem, Ham and Japheth. Shem’s descendants populated the Asias. Ham’s descendants populated Africa. And Japheth’s descendants populated Europe. Notice how world empires rose, one empire at a time. The Egyptian Empire, the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Medo-Persian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, and so on. These are all documented in history, and the Lord’s hand was in each one. Notice later the development of languages, from Latin to Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian. English is a Germanic language. God has been in control of all history, and there will come a new kingdom, that Paul will talk about later.

God is the Lord of heaven and earth, and has done all these things. Why? Can we all please read v. 27, “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” God has poured out his grace upon the world, to give people life, so that people would seek him and find him. Acts 14:17 says, “Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” It rains on both the righteous and the wicked. All can enjoy the light of the sun. And God is not far from us. Isn’t that comforting to hear? God is not impersonal, he is not unreachable, he is not far from us. Jer 23:23-24 says, “’Am I only a God nearby,’ declares the Lord, ‘and not a God far away? Who can hide in the secret places so that I cannot see them?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ Declares the Lord.” The Lord is everywhere. He is not the universe, but he is in it, and fills it up. No one can hide where the Lord will not see them. This may be good or bad, depending on your point of view…

So God is nearby, why can’t we find him? Why does he seem so far away? It’s because of our sin. The truth is, we don’t seek God, we don’t desire to find God. We like our sin. We like our philosophies, we like our own ideas of God. We want to live life the way we want to live it. So what’s the result?   We end up worshipping idols, and we become ignorant of God. When we don’t seek God, we will end up worshipping idols, even if they are just ourselves, and we become more ignorant of God. Ignorance of God is sin. Ignorance of God is idolatry. Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3).” So the converse is true: Ignorance of God is death. Not knowing God will lead to death.

How do you know God more? We know him through his word. God has revealed himself through the Scriptures. We can know God, and we will know God more through the study of the Bible. That’s why it’s important to study it daily, as the Bereans did. It’s also important to come to church, to fellowship together, and to listen to the preaching of the word. We preach here verse by verse (sometimes we preach topically, which is good as well, but for the most part, verse by verse) – why? Not so that your head would get puffed up, but so that incrementally, you may come to know God more and more. Please also pray for Bob, Dan and myself that we may receive wisdom for our sermons and to handle the word correctly, and come with a desire to seek God, to find him and worship him. The word of God is the standard by which we can know him. It’s the only thing we have that’s outside of ourselves, it’s the objective truth that we all can open up, read and examine. Anything that does not agree with the word is false, for example, the third Jesus, the cosmic Christ. I pray God may give you a desire to know him more, and a hunger and thirst for his word, which can satisfy.

Look at v.28, “’For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.” Paul again finds a connection to the Athenians, and he quotes 2 of their philosophers. Although these quotes are not directly from the Bible, but the reflect biblical truth, and he is using it as a connection to build a final attack on their idolatry. The Athenians would be familiar with these quotes, especially since they are intellectual philosophers themselves. The “We are his offspring” quote would refer to Zeus and mankind sharing in the god force’s god force, but Paul here makes it refer to God and his creation, and makes his final attack on idolatry in v.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 human design and skill.” These were all the gods they knew, gold, silver, stone and images. He’s telling them they were worshipping the wrong gods, which are not really gods at all. He was pointing them to the true God, the one and only God, and gives them proof that this God is the real God, and going to make a call to repentance.

Can we all please read v.30, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” Paul had proven to them that their gods were not gods at all. Paul’s God was the Lord of heaven and earth, and even world history testifies to this fact. Paul’s God was the reasonable God. J.B. Pohill, in his commentary on Acts, said, “For Greeks, as for Stoics, ignorance was a cardinal sin…Not to live within accordance with reason, to live in ignorance, was the great folly [to them] imaginable. Paul accused them of precisely this ignorance, this sin.” In the past, God overlooked such ignorance. It could mean either of two things, or both. God overlooked ignorance because he was merciful, and patient with sinners. Throughout history, until the time of Christ, God had endured the sin of the world, and when the time had come, he sent a Savior, his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. Likewise, God is patient, and merciful with you, that your ignorance of him is overlooked. Or second, it could mean that God overlooked them, as if ignoring them because of their utter sinfulness. It’s like if a child throws a temper tantrum, sometimes the advice is to ignore the child. (I don’t know if that’s good advice). But the Lord, seeing those who would not glorify him or give him thanks, gave them over to the sinful desires of their hearts. (Rom 1:21-23). We pray that God may not overlook us, but to come and help our unbelief. That’s what we sang this morning, “Pass Me not, O gentle Savior; Hear my humble cry. While on others Thou art calling, Do not pass me by.”

Again, in v.30, now he commands all people everywhere to repent. Who?   All people. Where? Everywhere. Who does that include? You and me. God commands all people everywhere to repent. Why? Look at v.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 everyone by raising him from the dead.” God will judge the world according to these things: idolatry, which is unfaithfulness toward God, and ignorance, which is also unfaithfulness toward God. He created you. He gave you life and breath and everything else. Repent of your idolatry, give him the first place in your heart. Repent of your ignorance of him. If you don’t seek God, seek him, reach out for him, and you will find him. He is not far, but near.

How do you repent of your ignorance and idolatry? Turn to Jesus. Repenting means to turn, to change your attitude about something. Repent of your unbelief, and put your faith in Jesus Christ. Why? Because he has come to save you from judgment. He has come to take away your sins. The proof is that Jesus was raised from the dead. Jesus was a man, he is the man appointed to judge the world. But when he was raised, with his body, he proved to be the Son of God. And since he was raised, we know also that he had to die. He died in our place. He died for our sins. He died for your sins and mine. Then he was raised. God accepted his sacrifice on our behalf, and made good on his promise to forgive us, by raising Jesus from the dead. So judgment will come down to this: do you believe that Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of your sins? Do you believe he was raised to life, for your justification? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? The date has been determined. Do not delay. Repent and turn to Jesus now, for judgment day will come when nobody expects.

Finally, what was the response to Paul’s sermon? There were 3 responses, in v.32-34. The first response was, some of them sneered. When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, they mocked Paul. They would not believe it. They continued in their ignorance, and also, their idolatry. When they heard the truth about their Creator, the Lord of Heaven and earth, the judge of all the earth, they rejected the news. The second response was, “We want to hear you again.” Perhaps they were sincere in this request, but it seems most of the Areopagus went up in laughter, and at that, Paul left the Council. It’s not written in Paul’s sermon, v.22-31, so I wonder if they were even able to hear the name of Jesus Christ. But some did want to hear more. Finally, there were those who believed. One of them was a member of the Areopagus, a high-ranking citizen. Paul’s sermon did bear fruit after all. And it may not be about the quantity, but the quality. A woman named Damaris also believed, as did a number of others.

Turn to Jesus, he is the way to repent of your idolatry, and ignorance. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The command to repent is not a harsh one, nor a burdensome one, but is a gracious command that leads to life. Great Greek philosophers, the greatest minds in the world didn’t get it, but by God’s grace, may you believe. Seek God, and find him. He has lit the way to him through Jesus. Examine the Scriptures. Seek him daily, and weekly. Then go, and tell others. Find a connection, and share the good news, just as Paul did. It may be that God will grant others repentance that leads to life through you.

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