May 12, 2018
The Gospel in a Secular Age
by Mark Fulmer
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man.
Nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.”
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
It must be a culinary lesson from some business school or management curriculum. I’ve certainly been served plenty of them in the hospital world. The famous “bad news sandwich” finds itself on meeting menus of all sorts. You know what I mean—a piece of good news, followed by the weightier, unpopular news, then another slice of good news or affirmation. All the parts are true, but the tough, stringy section in the middle is made easier to swallow.
Remarkably, the Apostle Paul takes exactly that approach as he preaches the Gospel to the intellectual Athenians. They were a curious bunch, those philosophers, with time on their hands and spirituality on their minds. All day long, they feasted on whatever was novel, whatever was the tasty idea of the day. But Paul had the eternal weight of Glory to proclaim. So he served them a fresh, culturally prepared “bad news sandwich!”
“I see that you are religious.” Paul begins. His audience was hooked, and probably thought, “Pretty observant chap, this Rabbi fellow. And we’re smart too!” Paul agreed with them and pointed out that their city was filled with idols of all sorts. He even complimented them by mentioning their thoroughness. They had an idol to “an unknown God” just in case there were bases they had accidentally left uncovered.
“What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” The God of the universe, the one true God, creator of heaven and earth has made Himself known. This God does not dwell in a temple made by man, and does not need anything from man. He has given life and breath to all who live, and He has planted a hunger for worship and a longing for heaven in every human heart. But there will be a day of judgment! Now here’s the “bad news” part. Your idols of silver and gold, your lifeless relics will not save you. Your empty worship and worldly philosophy does not bring about the righteousness God Almighty requires.
But God is patient, and He is rich in mercy. He has made a way for the righteousness of one man to stand in for you! You will be declared righteous based on the righteousness of the One whom God appointed. This glorious promise God has punctuated and sealed by the indisputable display of life-giving power. He raised Jesus from the dead! There is life. There is freedom from guilt. There is hope!
Paul preached the resurrection to the Athenians. And that feast of truth is for us as well. We too are called to turn from the idols we worship. We too must repent, and turn in faith to the one true God. And based on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God the Son, we too can receive the assurance that Paul promised to the spiritually starving skeptics on that hilltop in Athens.
Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15)
About the Author
Park Cities Presbyterian Church
Mark Fulmer is an elder at Park Cities Presbyterian Church, and along with Steve Vanderhill, teaches the New Creations Sunday School class.