In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Paul had entered a context in Athens that was not entirely foreign to us today. It was a very diverse city, with metropolitan people of diverse opinions and philosophies. Athens had a reputation as being the seat of many great thinkers: Socrates and Antisthenes, Plato and Epicurus. These were their hometown philosophic heroes, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were adverse to debating other views. As Luke comments, “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
Now, even the message which Paul brought was not entirely outlandish. For the past 500 years, the cult of Dionysus had been a regular part of society. According to legend, Dionysus, the god of wine and madness, crops and fertility, was killed by the Titans who ate all but his heart. Athena took the heart back to Zeus, who gave it to his lover Semele. She ate it and gave birth again to Dionysus. So, death and resurrection was not the strange part of Paul’s message. There was something else about it—that there was only one true God and that His Son had been born, executed by people who were still living, and that He had risen from the dead.
Gods who had origins of long ago, who lived atop high mountains they could handle. Those gods had influence over their lives, and any who chose could appeal by sacrifice to the god whose help was needed. Hera for family, Poseidon for sea and storm, Demeter for the earth, Athena for wisdom, and so on. Some of the great philosophers like Socrates had challenged the gods of Athens and paid dearly for impiety. But for the most part you could live peacefully whether you devoted yourself to the gods or not.
The divinity which Paul was preaching about didn’t fit into Athenian way of life. Not that he was preaching about living as a hermit in a clay pot on the street (Diogenes, a cynic philosopher), but One who to know would change a person’s outlook on every facet of life. One who exposed the darkness of idol worship, the degrading reality of debauchery, the God who justly consigned all to disobedience that He might have mercy on all.
But Paul preached to them from within their understanding of the world. He complimented their devotion to deities, the virtues they praised, and their quest for a good life. Someone, likely not officially sanctioned, had set up an altar, “To the unknown god”—the “Agnosis god,” the god of which we do not know. What they sought from this unknown god can’t be clear, but it was in this opening that Paul explained of Whom he was speaking.
He corrected their errors, commended them for the glances of truth they had, and then preached the call for personal devotion of every person. The true God made heaven and earth, and is not limited to temples, statues, or objects that fell from the sky. They served their deities with offerings which brings the god down to a human level. Instead, it is God who not only created all, but gives life and breath to us.
They still had a glimpse of what their Creator was like, but learning more fully what He is like, they ought not to continue in ignorant (agnostic) ways. The hour has come for all people to acknowledge not gods of their own imagination, but their Creator who lovingly gave them life and still preserves it, who out of sheer grace gave the sacrifice which answers for the sins of all, and who is coming again to judge on the basis of the righteousness of faith.
It was not Paul’s eloquent speech upon the Areopagus which reached their hearts. It was God doing it with His Word. Just as Jesus the Lord had promised, Paul preached repentance unto forgiveness of sins—and some believed (v. 34). This is a wonderful example of the witness a Christian makes in the company of those who are grasping in darkness.
We believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead, and who gives life to our mortal bodies. No matter what cancer or a virus might do to them, God will raise us with Christ at the last. This fills us with hope because no matter what calamity happens to us now, we have eternal life and resurrection guaranteed by God.
We believe in the forgiveness of Christ upon the cross, given for the whole world. Outside of Christ all people can see is cries for justice and revenge. We hold grudges, and try to let go of them for pragmatic reasons, it’s only in the blood of Jesus that there is peace and forgiveness. Covered with the blood of Christ, we pray for those who abuse us (Luke 6:28).
We love our neighbors not just for “the good feels” it gives or because we’ve been threatened into performing well, but because we have been born anew and are being restored in the image of our Creator. This same Creator is the one who loves even His enemies and seeks their good to the end.
We have joy and perseverance whether the country is wealthy or poor because we have a Father in heaven who cares for us. For so many happiness depends solely on whether they can keep their standard of living comfortable, or have enough sedatives on hand to numb the pain. But we “know how to be brought low, and how to abound. In any and every circumstance, [we] have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13)
The future does not terrify us, because we await from heaven our Savior who said that these very things would happen. While the rest of the world may be crippled with fear over pestilence, weather patterns, famine, and so forth. we continue steadfast because it means our Lord’s return grows close. We know that the One who commanded wind and waves to still, demons and death to depart, will give command to the angels and gather us in and remove every cause of sin and all lawless people (Matt. 13:41).
Our faith which we’ve received from God, delivered in the Scriptures, changes the way Christians live in the world. It transforms the way we think, for with the Holy Spirit, we are “transformed by the renewal of [our] minds” (Rom. 12:2).
As Christians in a pandemic, God has put us in a critical place to witness. We can see the idols of our age—science and medicine, and the almighty dollar and we know their weakness. It is a human weakness which is fallible and can only save so far.
Of course, we can commend the good things of our country—charity, dedication, honor, self-sacrifice. But as servants of God, we know that all those virtues which do our country so much good come from the true God. Former times He has overlooked our ignorance, but if we hear this call to repentance and this eternal gospel and cling to our idols, it would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than for us. With all confidence, we can confess that God has appointed a day when He will judge each person—not as people judge each other with outward worth—but how they received this Word of life.
And like Paul standing in that pagan forum, God’s Word will go out and accomplish that for which He sends it. This same Word has the power to overcome unbelief and quell rebellion. As Paul later wrote to Corinthian believers, “The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:4-5)
Our calling is merely to live out our faith in the grace He gives, and pray for those opportunities where our life will be a witness of the hope that is within us. May God grant that hope to be theirs too.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.