6 Easter, Proper A6
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Acts 17:22-31 Sermon
May 25, 2014

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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
298 "Baptized Into Thy Name, Most Holy"
192 "Awake My Heart With Gladness"
29 "Through All The Changing Scenes Of Life"
414 "The Man Is Ever Blest"  


TEXT (vs. 16-23): “16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.  22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 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.

            This morning, we are presented with quite a fascinating story in our First Lesson reading from Acts.  I really dug into this section of Scripture about 20 years ago when I had to present a sermon to a Pastor's conference.  And I've come to the conclusion that there is a lot of material that people sort of gloss over or that lose a lot in translation.  Now I only wish that I could find my original notes on this!

            I began my sermon text about five verses ahead of where our appointed lesson began, so I included those as part of the reading.  This way you can look at it in your bulletin and see it all together, and have an easier time following it through.  So let's begin.

            The Apostle Paul was inAthens, which was more of the cultural center ofGreece.  This was the place where all of the learned people, and the artistic people, and the various philosophers tended to congregate. Corinthby comparison was the center for trade and commerce inGreece, which we know was also a very key population center.  And as we know, the church inCorinthwas the cause of much concern.

            But we're inAthens, and we find Paul sort of waiting there and biding his time until his companions were able to join him.  God wasn't going to let him just sit there and do nothing while he waited, especially with the large number of heathen religions that were being promoted.  The Jews also had a presence there, albeit not a very commanding one.

            That was a good place for him to start anyway, because Paul was a devout Jew who was schooled by the Pharisees.  Jesus the Messiah was the one who fulfilled all of the prophecies of the Jewish Scriptures, so Paul was able to reason with the Jews and proselytes with a common point of reference. 

            But being in the synagogue wasn't bringing the message of Jesus and the resurrection to the general public.  The Gospel of Jesus was something the whole world needed to hear, so it was time to take it outside to the marketplace inAthenswhere there would be a much broader audience.

            Now remember I mentioned thatAthenswas the center for culture and philosophy.  So when a person came up with some new philosophy or school of thought, they would basically make themselves a podium, take it to the marketplace, stand on it, and start talking.  You could find many people doing this same thing.  Then people would walk by, listen for a while, and move on to the next person.

            So in effect, Paul joined all these people on their soapboxes; but the message of Jesus Christ was something far different than any of their philosophers had ever encountered.  He certainly piqued their interest!

            The two main schools of philosophy mentioned in our text is Epicureanism and Stoicism.  Both of these schools were diametrically opposed to each other; however their philosophers were very intrigued with what Paul was talking about.  Paul's words were strange to both of them.

            Just basically, the Epicurean form of thought centered around happiness and pleasure being the ultimate goal of life.  They were very materialistic, even though Epicurus believed that the way to attain such pleasure is to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one's desires.

            The Stoics however believed that human emotions were destructive to being a clear and unbiased thinker.  A Stoic would attempt to bring their will into some sort of harmony with nature; and somehow find satisfaction in the meantime.  Emotions were thought to be from errors in judgment, and that someone who had attained perfection would be free from emotion. 

            Of course Paul would have encountered a lot of strange teachings; but the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were the two of the predominant ones.  So now when we look at verse 18 of our text, here's what we read:  "Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, 'What does this babbler wish to say?'"

            We often use the term "babble" when it is applied to someone who is talking and not making sense, or who is unintelligible, or who is just talking because they like the sound of their own voice.  The word comes from thetowerofBabel, where God confused the language of the people so they were basically babbling incoherently with each other.

            Even though that sort of gets to the idea of what is going on here, it still doesn't quite nail it.  The Greek term is "spermalogos," which is a compound word; "sperma" meaning "seed" and "logos" meaning "word."  Because of this, you'll see certain Bible translations use the phrase "seed picker" instead of "babbler," which is actually closer to the meaning of the Greek word.

            In Greek, this term is one of intense derision.  It is used in reference to the crows, who pick the undigested bits of grain out of animal dung.  And they are using this term to describe Paul because they felt that he was just picking bits and pieces of various philosophies and espousing them from the podium he was standing on.  "What is this seed-picker trying to say?"  This young whipper-snapper certainly has a lot of nerve!

            But he piques their interest to the point of taking him to the Aeropagus, or Mars Hill, where the major philosophers of the day congregate.  The marketplace was where anybody could go; but you had to be someone special to go and meet with the big boys!  You had to have something going for you.

            And that's all these people did too.  Verse 21 tells us. "Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new."  They spent their lives doing nothing but thinking up and listening to new philosophies and dogmas.  What a profession, huh?

            Paul was amazed when he got there.  He saw altars and articles of heathen worship all over the place.  They had a multiplicity of gods they had contrived in their own mind, basically a god for every season and every occasion.  But they also had one special altar, which had been erected to "an unknown god."  They didn't want to chance offending a god they had forgotten; but it also proved the inadequacy of all their various philosophies.  And what's interesting about this, is it seems that all of the various philosophers, despite how different their philosophies were, they were agreed about this "unknown god" altar.

            In verse 22, Paul begins to speak:  “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious."    This almost sounds like a compliment; almost that is, until you look at the Greek.  The word we translate as "very religious" is the word "deisidaimonesterous."  Literally, it means "a very devoted worshipper of demons."  It is used to describe any religion or philosophy that is not proper or directed to the one true God.  Sometimes it is translated "superstitious."  So I guess that if the philosophers could call Paul a crow picking undigested bits of grain from animal dung, Paul could call them worshippers of demons and false gods.

            It's with this in mind that Paul mentions their altar to "an unknown god."  And that is his introduction to preaching the Gospel of Christ, and how Jesus was raised from the dead.  That was something far different than anybody had ever heard.  Nobody could have ever dreamed up of something like this!

            The human mind is no match for God's truth.  Jesus was actually physically raised from the dead, and there was a mountain of evidence to back that up.  There were also lies being spread too, that his disciples came and stole his body; but the truth had all the credibility in the world behind it.

            The human mind has a natural knowledge of God.  People know that there is some sort of supreme being out there somewhere to which we are all accountable, but nobody knows on their own exactly who or what that god might be.  So because of this, people have contrived a god in their own mind and created him in their own image.  From this comes all manner of heathen religions, from the nature religions, to false prophets, to false deities. 

            One example that clearly shows the futility of heathen gods is in 1 Kings 18, where Elijah is with the prophets of Baal.  In verse 21 we read:  "And Elijah came near to all the people and said, 'How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.'"  And we continue in verses 23-24 as we read the test Elijah proposes:   "Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it.  And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.”

            The people soon saw that Baal didn't hear the people or respond to their cries, because of course he didn't exist.  Regardless of what they did (and they went through a lot of antics), no fire came to consume the burnt offering.

            But when it came time for Elijah, he first doused the altar with water, and then God indeed heard his prayer.  The sacrifice was consumed with fire, which also consumed the water.  Nothing is impossible for God.

            So what does all of this mean for us, besides being a neat story?  Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection as a real verifiable fact.  Death had been defeated.  Satan had been defeated.  Hell had been conquered.  Eternal life in heaven would be a reality for all true believers, for all who would follow Christ and believe in him as Saviour.  Whatever the human mind could conceive would be no match for God's truth.

            The Apostle Paul gave clear testimony to his Saviour throughout his ministry.  Things didn't stop on Mars hill with those philosophers.  When writing to the church at Corinth, Paul writes this in the 15th chapter of his first letter, often called the "great resurrection chapter":  "Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive."

            As human beings, we often have our doubts about various things when it comes to God.  Did God really say that?  Did God really mean that?  Am I saved by grace through faith alone?  Did Jesus really rise from the dead, or is that just a myth?

            We have doubts because we are sinful human beings.  Satan wants us to doubt our faith, and come up with things that are more palatable for us to comprehend.  He wants us to put our human mind and intellect above God's truth.

            But we know better.  The Bible is indeed God's eternal and divine truth.  The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts through the Word.  We come to know Jesus, where we experience the forgiveness and life he offers.  We don't have to do anything to get it either, because it is all done for us.  We are saved through faith, and faith alone in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

            During our lives, we will hear all sorts of weird and different philosophies.  There is the new age stuff, Scientology, Zen, and about every other heathen religion the mind of man could invent.

            But there is only one true God, and we know him through what he has written.  Jesus Christ is the only Saviour and the only way we will see heaven.  Jesus has risen from the dead, despite what others may try to rationalize.  And God's divine truth trumps human will and intellect every time.