Sermon series: Transformational Church

  1. A Winning Witness - Acts 4

  2. The Priority of Praying Together - Acts 6

  3. Dare to Fail - Acts 13, 15

  4. Sharing Christ with a Christless Culture - Acts 17

Scriptures: Acts 17:16-34


The secularization of our country is an interesting thing. In the name of education and advancement, educators and intellectuals have dismissed the most influential book of all times from our curriculum. It is nearly impossible to understand the writings of Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer without some basic understanding of scripture. And yet, in a day when censorship is decried by the liberals, they themselves have censored the Bible from the realm of public education. The results have been devastating.

If one were to go back and document the decline of our culture over the past four decades, one fact that would be glaringly noticeable would be the significant correlation between prayer and scripture being taken out of public schools and the rapid decline of the culture we once knew.

As the scripture says Proverbs 29:18, "Where there is no revelation; the people cast off restraint."

All of this has led us to where we are today; a generation of people who embrace as truth, as philosophy which says there is no truth. The days of preaching to people who have even the most basic understanding of Christianity are gone in our country. Now, I say this, not to reminisce about the good old days, but merely to clearly establish where we are as we try to communicate Christ to a Christ less culture.

Many Christians today, sit around and bemoan the loss of what they consider the "golden days." But I don't think that is a biblical response. The truth of the matter is that our culture is still far better off than the culture into which Paul and the Apostles brought the gospel.

This morning, I want to invite you to the book of Acts, chapter 17, verses 16-34. It is a famous passage, many of you are familiar with it, it is where we find the Apostle Paul in Athens, preaching the message of Christ to the intelligentsia of his day. (Read Passage)

Even as Paul was called to take the message of Christ to a Christ less culture; so we too have been given this glorious task. Man's basic needs have not changed. Man is still in need of a Savior, and Jesus Christ is still the only way. Man's thinking may have changed, but Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever. Our challenge is to find the most effective way to communicate Christ to our culture.

I want to show you four things about Paul's ministry in Athens this morning, and then draw some application oriented conclusions. My hope is that we can learn from Paul how to better share our faith within the framework of our culture.

I. Paul's cultural milieu

Fleeing from persecution at Thessalonica and Berea, Paul heads to Athens to await the arrival of Timothy and Silas. And this is the occasion for his famous sermon on Mar's Hill.

The Roman world was one which had been influenced significantly by the Greeks. The art and literature from ancient Greece, was studied and admired by the Romans, and every well educated Roman could read and write Greek fluently. The fact that the New Testament was written in Greek, gives testimony to the influence of Greek thought and language in Paul's day.

Other than being a pagan culture, by which I mean they worshiped pagan idols, there are two things I would like to point out about the Athenian culture.

First of all, it was a city that personified a culture given over to hedonism, or the pursuit of physical and sensual pleasure. Verse 18 tells us that there were Epicureans in Athens.

Epicureans believed a philosophy very akin to modern day Existentialism. While they did not deny the existence of gods, like the deists, they held that the gods were distant and uninvolved in the affairs of humans. They were avowed materialists, believing that this life, would you could own during it and experience during it were all there was to human existence. Denying the existence of eternity, they lived for them moment, professing a belief that the best life was the one lived free from pain, totally given over to the pursuit of pleasure. This philosophy, while only truly understood and held by the educated elite, had made its way into the common culture. Lining the streets and temples of Athens were thousands of sculptures of the human body.

While touring the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, several years ago, I happened upon a room filled with Roman and Greek statues. From a purely artistic stance, the artists of the day had a fabulous talent for capturing the human form in marble. But seen from another point of view, these statues spoke volumes about the sensual nature of the culture in which Paul ministered. To say the statues were erotic would be an understatement. It must be remembered that much of the pagan worship in Paul's day centered around fertility and involved immoral acts between the worshipers and the temple prostitutes (such as the temple of Diana in Ephesus).

So the culture of Athens, and for the most part the Roman empire as a whole, was given over to the pursuit of sensual pleasure.

Secondly, it was a city still associated with learning and culture. Of all the Greek cities, Athens was the most famous for being a center of art, architecture, philosophy and culture. While it had lost most of the glory it had held some four to five hundred years earlier, its impressive temples still adorned its streets, drawing artists and philosophers from around the known world.

Verse 18 tells us there were also Stoics at Athens. Stoics had a higher view of the God's and held to what, today, we would call Pantheism, that is, they believed that god was to be found in all of nature. We see this type of philosophy today in the earth worship which is expressed in many new age teachings.

The scripture tells us that nature declares the Glory of God, ie. it gives testimony to His handiwork, it speaks to His power and might, but God is not in nature. God is a personal being, Who knows us personally and can be personally known by us.

The Stoics held to a more intellectual philosophy than did the Epicureans. Feeling that the divine spark was within all living things, they felt that there was a rational principle that held the cosmic order together. Thus pure reason became the one thing that connected them with the gods. Like philosophers during the enlightenment, reason ultimately became their god.

One scholar has noted that "The prevailing philosophies of the West's post-Christian era - secular humanism's scientific empiricism and the New Age pantheistic type of post-modernism - are remarkably similar to the Epicureanism and Stoicism Paul encountered at Athens."

It was into this sensual and philosophical milieu, very much like our own, that Paul brought the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This brings us to our second observation, Paul's consuming motivation.

II. Paul's consuming motivation

Verse 16 tells us that his spirit was provoked within him. The Greek word employed here literally means to be enraged or provoked to wrath. Paul was physically upset at the sight of such idolatry and paganism.

A. He knew God's truth

Paul knew that these statues were merely man-made objects that held no power to save, no power to protect, no power to forgive or respond. He knew that it was God who had created the heaven and earth. He knew the truth, and the deception and false teachings that surrounded him stirred within his soul a deep and profound righteous indignation.

Perhaps you've experienced the same thing from time to time: When you know something is false, but it is being presented as the truth. All you have to do is watch CNN for a few minutes and you'll have a similar experience. Paul's knowledge of the truth, the truth that had set him free, caused him to respond.

B. He was indwelt by God's Spirit

Not only was it His intellect, his knowledge of God's truth, that stirred him, but Paul, like all Christians, was indwelt by God's Spirit. Friends, one of the things we must keep in mind is that the closer we are to God, the more sensitive we will be to His Spirit. Ephesians 4 tells us that with our words we can grieve the Spirit of God, and we know that He is a person who lives within us, guiding us into truth, convicting us of sin, and leading us in the pathways of righteousness.

When Jesus beheld the money changers at the temple, His righteous indignation swelled up within him. When Paul saw the extent to which these Athenians were in the dark, he was similarly incensed.

Of course the question is, when was the last time you became upset because of the lostness of the world around you? When was the last time you were moved to words or action by the culture in which you live? The problem with many Christians today is that they are content to let others go to hell, as long as they and theirs go to heaven. This kind of attitude gives evidence to an insensitive to God's Spirit. The same Spirit that was within Paul is within us. The question is: Is our response like his?

But there was another motivating factor in Paul's life..

C. He was constrained by God's love

Writing to the church at Corinth, in 2 Corinthians 5 Paul says, "If we are beside ourselves, it is for God, for the love of Christ constrains us, having concluded this, that one died for all..."

Paul understood why Jesus died on the cross. Not only did he have a cognitive understanding of the love of God, he had a personal experience with the God of love. How is it that we can claim to have died to ourselves and now allow Christ to live within us, and yet we are unmoved by the lostness of those around us? How can we claim to be His body and yet remain indifferent to the eternal lostness of the very people for whom Christ died?

Paul was moved and constrained by the love of God, even as we should be.

But notice one more thing: I believe Paul was jealous for God's glory.

D. He was Jealous for God's glory

He knew that there is only one God, and yet these Athenians were worshiping, giving glory to, ascribing praise to mere stones. The credit that belonged to God was going to idols. In Isaiah 42:8, God says, "I am the Lord, that is My name; I will not give my glory to another, nor my praise to idols."

This is the feeling that swept over Paul as he stood amidst the idolatry of Athens. It was what motivated him to share Christ with a Christless culture.

This brings us to our third observation, Paul's Christ centered message.

III. Paul's Christ-centered message

Verse 18 tells us that Paul preached Jesus and the resurrection. Of course it is impossible to preach that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, without first preaching that Jesus died on a cross. The gospel, plain and simple was Paul's message. Verse 18 also gives us insight into how many received his message, they called him an idle babbler. A literally translation of what they called him was "seed speaker." It carried with it the idea of a bird pecking indiscriminately at scraps of ideas here and there, and then passing them off as profundity, with no depth of understanding whatsoever.

It is, however, of extreme importance that the scripture tells us that Paul preached Jesus and the resurrection. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, for he knew that it is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe.

The cultural climate in which we live, brings with it the very real temptation to try and make the gospel palatable, to make it easier to swallow or somehow less harsh. After all, a message that says we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus to Calvary, is not going to be a popular message in a society that is given over to self satisfaction and the pursuit of material things and pleasure.

John MacArthur, in his book, Hard to Believe, says , " Now comes the issue that's behind all the pop music and self congratulation and ‘fun' that the seeker sensitive churches promise: People aren't going to buy Christianity if its that hard. If it doesn't meet their needs, they won't be interested. If they want six fruit flavors and you've only got two, you've lost them. They need Christianity that tastes great, and if its less, filling in the short run, well, we'll explain all the hard stuff later. There's a name for that in the marketing world," says MacArthur, "and it's called bait and switch."

Folks, the scripture tells us that the gospel is a stumbling block, a scandal, certainly for those who do not know Christ....but the problem today is that it has become a stumbling block for many who profess to know Him.

The result is a watered down version of the gospel which, while trying to be relevant to the culture in which we live, ends up compromising the heart of the gospel.

Now, I don't want to slam all "seeker sensitive" churches, because, first of all, the term means different things to different people. But some of what I've seen has led me to believe that there is reason for concern. I spoke with several nationally known Christian artists recently who told me how the church they attended was now regularly playing secular rock songs as part of their so called worship service. I'm not talking about the style of Christian music, I'm talking about classic rock songs, words, music and all, being incorporated into their worship services.

Other churches have created an atmosphere so sensitive to lost people that it is forbidden for staff to mention the name Jesus from the pulpit, lest they become offensive to non-believing visitors.

We must ever be conscious of the reality that it is the gospel, not our persuasive speech, not our ability to market the church or even our Lord, but it is the power of the gospel itself, applied to the hearts of the hearers by the Holy Spirit that leads to salvation.

While I am a strong advocate for helping people come to a clear understanding of the gospel message, and I believe we must know how to answer anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within us, I am also keenly aware that, as Jesus says in John 6:44, that no one can come to Him unless the Father draws Him.

Paul's message was Christ-centered. He was not depending upon his own persuasive ability to get people to believe the message of the cross, on the contrary, he knew that was God's job, not his. That doesn't mean he was sloppy or half-hearted in understanding his audience and their beliefs, it simply means that he knew where the power was, in the gospel message of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected.

Perhaps no greater proof of this power can be seen in our day and age than in the movie "The Passion of the Christ." I was reading this week that it is the number one movie in Turkey, the number one movie in Egypt, and in several other middle eastern countries Christian missionaries are reporting muslims are going to see the film and are believing in Christ as Savior. I would hardly call that movie seeker sensitive. I would hardly call it inoffensive, if anything it is extremely offensive, but that's the nature of the message of the gospel, it is offensive to learn that your sin and my sin sent Jesus to die on the cross. It is extremely offensive to come to terms with the fact that because of our sins He suffered and died a cruel and horrible death.

We must never take the offense out of the gospel, lest we convey a message that fails to show the sinfulness of man. We should not seek to be offensive, 1 Peter 3:15 says, "sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence." While our message is offensive, we, as Christ's messengers should speak the truth in love, not in anger or with a spirit of self-righteousness.

Paul preached Jesus, and so should you and I. Now, that was the content of His message, but what was his communication method? How did he approach these Epicurean and Stoic philosophers?

That brings us to our next observation.

IV. Paul's communication method

A. General observation - vv.. 16, 22-23

First and foremost Paul understood to whom he was speaking. One of the things I tell my preaching students is to know your audience. While the content of the message must never vary, if you are preaching to Kenyan farmers you will approach the gospel one way, and if you are speaking to wall street financiers, you will approach it another way. How you approach your audience depends upon who they are, and you know that by observation.

Paul was in Athens, he was among philosophers, educated people who thought they knew more than they did, he knew them to be religious and that's where he began.

B. Religious conversation - v. 17

If you study Paul's missionary methods, you'll find that in nearly every city Paul preached, the first place he went was to the Jews. Why? Because, remember, Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism. Jesus is the Messiah foretold by the Jewish prophets. Paul went to a place where he could find common ground. He preached to the Jews and to the God-fearing gentiles. He began with people who had a similar world view as he did. But then he took it to the market place, where the pagans would be, and he dialogued with them. That's literally what the scripture says, he carried on a dialogue with them. He listened to their questions, and he responded with God's answers.

Sharing the gospel is more than merely telling others what you know and believe, it is also taking the time to listen and answer their questions. Paul did both, but he did so from a position of understanding.

C. Intellectual comprehension - vv. 18, 28

Paul was well versed in the philosophy of the day. He had studied their beliefs, after all, Judaism was an ancient religion, and the educated Jews of his day had learned how to be apologists for their belief in one God. Paul took this understanding and applied it to his gospel presentation. The scripture, in verse 18, says he was conversing, or debating with them. The Greek word translated "Conversing" or "encountered" is a word that in this context literally means to "confer, or converse" or to consider carefully and carry on a discussion.

In verse 28 we find Paul actually quoting one of their poets. Paul was well versed, not only in their philosophy, but also in their traditions and their literature. Paul had become a student of his culture so he would better be able to convey the message of Christ. Paul had become all things to all men that he might save some. He was willing to invest his time, his mind and his life in doing whatever it took to reach others with the message of Christ.

So, understanding his culture, knowing their literature, their religious thoughts, their philosophical underpinnings, Paul confronts them.

D. Pointed confrontation - vv. 18, 23

Verse 23 says, What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you."

There came a point when the preliminary groundwork had been laid and Paul cut to the chase. He confronted them about the differences between the falsehoods they believed and what He knew to be true. This is a difficult thing for many modern day Christians.

We are welcome to share Christ with others, so long as we don't tell them that He said "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father but by me." It is the exclusivity of Christ, that causes many Christians problems. Listen, Paul understood that he had to come to a point of confrontation, to a point where he showed them the difference between truth and error. And if we are going to faithfully present the gospel to our culture, we will have to come to that point of confrontation.

From there he simply presented the gospel.

E. Gospel presentation - vv. 18, 24-31

He starts in verse 24 with the One God as the Creator of all things, supreme above all of creation and sovereign in the universe. He tells them that everything that is comes from God, and that all of humanity has been created by Him, and that God is the God of time, of life and of death. In verse 27 he says that man does not seek after God on his own because of his sinfulness, but that man is theistic because we have been created in His image. From there he declares to them that God has revealed Himself to humanity in the form of His only Son Jesus, who will come and judge the earth, and He preaches the resurrection to them and in verse 30 calls them to repent.

Friends, this is the gospel. That God created us, that sin separates us from Him, that only through the completed work of Jesus can we be in right relationship with God and that unless we come to know Him we will face an inevitable judgment.

Notice with me, in verse 32 that after he preached the gospel, some sneered at him, but others said "we shall hear you concerning this again."

F. Personal invitation - vv. 30, 34

The call to repentance in verse 30 culminates in verse 34 where the scripture says, "but some men joined him and believed."

God has not called us to be successful; He has called us to be faithful. Paul used his knowledge of the culture, his passion for the gospel, and the opportunity God gave him to preach the gospel. His faithfulness resulted in people being saved.

V. Our commission and mandate

The mandate of our Lord remains the same for us as it has for all Christians over the last two millennia. As we go we are to make, not mere decisions, but disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are to teach them to do all things that Christ has commanded us. That's what our Lord has commanded us to do, and we are to do it with all diligence.

Ours is a culture that, while embracing secular humanism, while embracing the experiential tenets of Existentialism has rejected the historic message of Jesus Christ crucified.

Many Christians are simply baffled by the culture, they cannot understand it, they do not like it and they seek to avoid it. But Christ has called us to reach our culture, like it or not.

And herein lies the tension for modern day Christians. We want to convey the message of Christ to our culture, but not in such a way that will seem tired and worn out. At the same time we cannot compromise the heart of the message, we cannot water it down, or try to make it acceptable to lost people. The very nature of the gospel means that it will always be offensive to those who are perishing. But remember, it is not our knowledge or our persuasiveness that will win them over, it is the power of the gospel itself.

We are called to share the old, old story, to a culture that needs to hear it in the context of where they live and who they think they are. That is why it is so important for us to understand the prevalent worldviews that lost people hold. We need to understand the times, in order to know how to most effectively carry out our Lord's great commission.

Allow me to suggest several things I think will help you understand the culture and thereby better communicate the message of Christ to the world in which you live.

A. Be certain of what you believe

You cannot share what you do not know. If you are not well grounded in your own faith, you will be a miserable failure at trying to share with others what you yourself do not understand.

B. Be aware of what others believe

Take the time to read a book like J.P. Moreland's book, Love God With all Your Mind, or Ravi Zacharius' book, Deliver us from Evil, or another one of his books, Jesus Among Other Gods. Go online and look up things like post-modernism, or Existentialism. Put down the television remote and pick up a book. Engage your brain. More than a hundred years ago the Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon said, " I believe a very large majority of churchgoers are merely unthinking, slumbering worshipers of an unknown God." May that never be said of us.

C. Be prepared to share

Don't look at it like a burdensome task, but rather a great privilege. I find that we are generally prepared to do what we like to do. Most Baptists I know are always prepared to eat, why? Because they like to eat. If we enjoyed sharing Christ, we would be prepared to do it. We would be, as Paul told Timothy, instant in season and out of season. Be prepared, you never know when God will give you the opportunity.

D. Be sensitive to the Spirit of God

A wise man once told me that the gospel runs along the tracks of relationships. The people God is going to use you to reach are most often people whom He has put into your circle of acquaintances. Be sensitive to opportunities, crises in their lives, moments of openness, when they are searching for answers. Have an ear open to the voice of God's Spirit.

E. Be faithful

Don't give up. People in different cultures respond differently. When we go to Africa, in certain places when the gospel is preached, people respond by the thousands. In western Europe, it may take years of faithful work to see even one person come to Christ. You and I have to be faithful to our Lord in the culture where He has planted us.

Dr. Calvin Wittman is pastor of Applewood Baptist Church in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. He is a former missionary to Spain, and holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Seminary (MDiv), and Southern Seminary (DMin). He is also a veteran of the United States Navy and has worked as a news anchor on both television and radio stations in Texas.