How do you know if your Faith is real? When you find your Faith being tested, and it will be tested, does it start to slip away? And if your Faith begins to fade what happens to your confidence in your belief systems? And if you start to wonder if your beliefs are somehow corrupted – what does that do for your trust in everything; God, family, the world in general.
Indeed, when we begin to waver in our Faith, it can become a very slippery slope to living an existence outside our relationship with God.
How many here have ever climbed into your car only to discover it wouldn’t start? Probably everyone at least once. I lived most of my life with clunker cars – so I had to learn how to diagnose the problem and try to fix it. Some become experts in car repair– and I suspect it was mostly all trial and error!
Up until a few weeks ago, I had an old Ford Tractor. It was a 1952 Ford 8n. Great tractor, but sometimes I had problems getting it started. I would turn the key and absolutely nothing happened – no noise, nothing. I learned that meant the problem was likely electrical. A disconnected wire or something. Other times, I turned the key and it made a faint whirring sound, grrrun, grrrun, grrrun. That was often because my battery didn’t have enough juice. So, I jumped it or put the battery on a charger. Then, at other times, that old tractor would start right up, but after a few minutes, it would die on me. Well, this turned out to be a problem with the engine not getting enough fuel. When I cleaned out my fuel filter, I was up and running.
Diagnosing problems with our Faith is very much like getting my old tractor back up and running. We need to do some troubleshooting to trace the issues.
What I’d like to propose now is sort of a dummies guide for diagnosing problems in our Faith. I’m going to assume that not everyone understands what constitutes our Faith, and one needs to know what Faith “is,” to diagnose any problems.
But first, let me tell you what Faith is not. When someone says they “Believe in God” that is not the same as having “Faith.” One can “believe” something but still not act upon it. If I choose to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, that requires no action on my part – I just wait for it to happen. But for me to believe that the Son of God rose – that takes Faith! Belief is not the same as Faith.
What about “acceptance.” If I say I have accepted Christ as my savior, isn’t that the same as Faith? No, millions of people, maybe hundreds of millions around the world, have accepted Christ as their savior. But they lack Faith! When Billy Graham had his many gospel crusades, it’s estimated that 215 million people heard him live and that 2.2 million people responded to the invitations to become a Christian. But get this next part:
“In a 1990 interview with PBS, Billy Graham himself stated his belief that only about 25% of those who come forward at one of his events actually became Christians. In recent years, studies have shown that only 6% of people who “come forward” at an evangelistic crusade are any different in their beliefs or behavior one year later.”
Wow – and that was with Billy Graham as the witness for Christ!
Belief is not Faith, and Acceptance is not Faith.
What if I say I “Trust” in the Lord. Isn’t that the same as Faith? Nope, all it means is that I trust that God is responsible for everything that happens. In fact, I can get quite cynical and start blaming God when things to go as I planned. I am observing what happens, and assigning God as the source of my consequences, but not really accepting the outcome.
Belief is not Faith. Acceptance is not Faith. Trust is not Faith. By now you must be wondering, okay then, what is Faith?
Faith is when Belief, Acceptance, and Trust all come together as one resident process to transform us. You see, Faith requires a belief based in knowledge. Faith requires an Acceptance of Christ thorough an emotional assurance of his presence, and lastly, Faith requires a Trust such that you put yourself entirely into the “custody” of Christ.
As Christians, having Faith is not something we do blindly – it is something we become. Unfortunately, the word Faith as used in the bible has been corrupted by secularist. We are mocked as being irrational because we have “Blind Faith.” But that is not what the Bible means when it discusses Faith. There is nothing Blind about “Faith in Christ,.”
When the Apostle Paul describes “pistis Christou” (Romans 3:22, Galatians 2:16), his meaning doesn’t require an abandoning of reason. In fact, it needs a reason! Once we develop this biblical “Faith in Christ” it becomes centering and transformative.
Paul describes how “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:6)
And as followers of Christ, we know that we must exist through our “Faith in Christ.”
This is what Jesus was talking about in John’s Gospel when he said: “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me.” (John 15:5)
Without Faith in Christ, we cannot do anything. Without living in Faith our beliefs systems crumble, our assurance in our values rattle, and our trust in humanity begins to sink like stones in the water.
But what should we do when we have a crisis of Faith? When we are having a crisis in our Faith what do we do to restore it? That brings us back full circle to my antique tractor. How do I get my Faith, like my tractor, to start and keep it running?
Just like the tractor, we need to look at the individual parts that make it run. Let’s start with the part of Faith that comes from Belief based in Knowledge – it’s a lot like the wiring in a vehicle.
If we think about the wiring as the circuitry the tractor needs to operate, that’s like our core body of knowledge that we carry within us that shapes our beliefs. Don’t we even use that expression – “That’s how we are wired?” Are religious beliefs are wired according to the wiring diagrams found in our biblical texts. If your Faith doesn’t turn on – look to how your wiring is affecting your beliefs.
Has your confidence in the bible been hijacked? Or maybe you’ve been walking on eggshells about this whole thing around the Bible as “inerrant,” the Bible as “infallible.” Perhaps you read what seems to be contradictions in scripture. Or, maybe you choose to believe part of the Bible and ignore other parts – that’s some crossed wires right there. If one lacks confidence in the bible – the electrical circuit needed to guide Faith – they might be headed for a meltdown.
How does one fix that? Easy, we need to find the shorts. We need to find the faults in the wiring. That is why we need Bible Study and Sunday School, and even more critical is the need to read our Bibles on a regular basis. This is a time when we learn to navigate those difficult passages. The reality is when a person reads the bible long enough and often enough – they discover new interpretations all the time. Once the short circuits are fixed, and our wiring back in order, we are ready to operate our Faith at peak performance. We get back to “firing on all cylinders” as a mechanic might say!
By the way, if you are overwhelmed by the Bible (as most of us can be), let me tell a little secret. God gives us knowledge as we are ready to accept and digest it. Many people do not realize that, as Methodist, we are not taught that the bible is inerrant? We do not have a doctrine of infallibility. It would never have occurred to John Wesley because it was never really considered. Instead, Article IV of our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules, with the wording from the Evangelical United Brethren Church, says this: “We believe the Holy Bible, Old, and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation.”
Our doctrine says don’t sweat it. God will lead you. He will help us organize the wiring- harness. If you are having a crisis of Faith and you can’t even get started – check your wiring. Just open the Bible, and God will work with you to reveal all that is necessary for your salvation.
Now, what if your Faith is like my Tractor when it is trying to turn over, and it goes, grrrun grrrun, grrrun. You’re not getting a spark. Your Faith is a bit run down. Faith runs on emotion. It is our spark, our enthusiasm. This sounds just like my tractor battery. You see, we might have proper wiring, but if our battery is almost dead – we can get going. In Hebrews 11:1 we read: “Now Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That conviction is a spark that ignites the fuel of our Faith. If we want assurance, we need a spark.
When I was folks about their conversion story, I often hear about a spark or light that shined. Now, some people don’t have a big conversion story – they just felt a spark of the Holy Spirit working through them. This is very common. Most people do not realize that John Wesley was a Christian for twenty-two years before he felt his spark of assurance. He tells of how he felt his heart strangely warmed (at Aldersgate). That sounds like a glow plug in a diesel engine that finally ignite. His internal fuel combusted, and he was granted the assurance he wanted. We even sing a hymn called Blessed Assurance – it talks about how we are confident that Christ is within us. We need assurance to sustain our Faith.
How do we create that spark? Easy, let’s look at my old tractor – when my battery is weak, I put it on a charger. I harness the power of other sources to reenergize it. That is what the Christian community – your larger church family is for. This is also why John Wesley insisted that the Methodist Church deploy small groups. It is in these small groups we are held accountable and encouraged in our Faith. We keep one another’s batteries charged up.
Isn’t that another expression we use at times when we are invigorated by a revival or a good sermon – “I got my battery charged?”
Finally, let’s look at what happens to us when our Faith begins to waiver because things are just not turning out how we expected. Maybe the trust meter is declining. This happens when we encounter hypocrisy in our own church. Or when we are forced to witness awful things done in the name of Jesus. I won’t even discuss the latest Priest scandal because it is so tragic for those abused children. We all have our own stories, and experiences, maybe even right here in this church. Our Faith in one another can erode when we start to lose trust in our community and our family. Or maybe we merely just think God has abandoned us. We wonder, where is God?
I like the story of Daniel and how the King decreed that no one could pray to anyone but him for thirty days. When Daniel refused to stop praying three times a day to YHWH, the King was forced to put him in the lion’s den. Now, if I was Daniel, I might have felt compelled to think – what is going on here? I pray morning, noon, and night. I worship God with all my Heart, Soul, Strength and Mind and look where I end up. I’m served up as Dinner.
But Daniel did not let this clog up his fuel lines of Trust. He kept right on praying, and God sent an Angel to close the mouths of the Lions. Daniel 6:23 says that “The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den. And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.”
Daniel never stopped Trusting in God. To keep our Faith fully intact we also must sustain our Trust. How do we do that? Just like in my old tractor, we find out what is clogging the fuel lines. What is blocking our ability to have a conversation with God and to discern his plans?
Does anyone here know why a fuel filter gets clogged up? Because there is junk that gets into the fuel. How does Junk get into our lives that block us from communicating with God? It’s easy because we are swimming in junk. The secular world is flooding our world with garbage through all forms of media. Movies, music, culture, and even education. Our children are the most vulnerable – and social media is corrupting civil discourse.
The only defense we have, to keep our fuel lines unblocked, is to avoid the junk as best as we can. Limit our exposure to negative influences. We can also put a little hi-test into our tanks! Let’s feed on good sources of Christian music, and culture, and conversation. But even more than that, go right to the source for your fill-ups.
Go to God in prayer as often as you can. Let him fill your tank with his gift of Grace.
I started this conversation by asking the question – how do you know if your Faith is real? The answer is simple – you don’t unless you run a diagnostic:
- Check that your wiring is free of short circuits – avoid crossing your wires of scripture. And remember, you only need the wire harness that’s fitted for you. God will let you know what is sufficient for your salvation.
- Make sure your battery stays charged. When your running low – don’t avoid others – get around them. Let them recharge that spark of emotions – that Blessed assurance of the Holy Spirit.
- And finally, make sure your fuel lines are not clogged by all the garbage in the world. We are not designed to run on ethanol – we need Hi-Test right from the source of God through prayer.
The Apostle Paul was clear when he told us “For in [the Good News] the righteousness of God is revealed through Faith for Faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by Faith.” (Romans 1:17) We cannot live – if we don’t fully understand that Faith in Christ – is not Blind. It needs Knowledge, Assurance, and Trust. And it’s on us to us to keep our Faith tuned up and running at full capacity. Just as Jesus said, this is the only way we can live.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
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I was recently amused to hear a story about a former pastor of this church, from back when it was a three-point charge. It seems when he first came aboard he felt the need to race from church to church to church, because of the close starting times. After a few speeding tickets, one church decided to change their starting time to allow the pastor more time to get to where he needed to be.
That seems unfair for the police to do that. A pastor was trying to do God’s work and even he had to obey the speed limit. But that is life, right? We follow the rules. I get exasperated at times by these limitations.
How many of you have the same problem – do the limits on life seem to always get in the way at times! Think about it. Eighteen to vote, but twenty-one to drink. Only $200 out of an off-brand ATM. Even limits on how many questions one can miss on a driver’s license exam…. Maybe that is a good one. Most of these limits seem arbitrary, but some are not. There are also limits to things we cannot see – like the physics of cell phone signal, or the available internet speed in the mountains, grrr. There is even a limit to how physics in our daily lives like waiting for a pot to boil – or if you are making moonshine, how hot the mash can get before the alcohol begin to leach off… Anyone know? 173 degrees. Yes, I know.
We are all subject to these seen and unseen rules. But, when we look to the Bible we discover that God thought limits were an excellent way to regulate all his creations. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8). How many of us break the Sabbath weekly?
“Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” (Genesis 6:3). Yet, modern science thinks they are close to having us to live forever. No thanks, I’m not sure I’d want to live more than 120 years – but that’s me.
And then get this, from the Book of Job we learn, “… God fixed the weight of the wind and measured out the waters, … He set a limit for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt, (Job 28:25-26). I think God wins that one! We humans haven’t mastered that yet!
From birth to death we learn to exist within our limitations. How many remember Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry when he famously said this line – “A man has to know his limitations!”
However, I do have good news. This morning I want to discuss the few times God removes our limitations. Where God says – do not stop. The one time when God officially gave us the freedom of excess. We find this at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew:
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
I know many of you likely have this scripture memorized. For those that are new to the bible, this is the clarion call for our Christian duty. As Methodist, this scripture is practically our Missions statement – We have been told to go and make disciples of Christ to transform the world.
Unfortunately, I think too often when people read what this scripture, what is called the Great Commission, they can get caught up in the what we are supposed to do and seldom slow down to see “the how” that Jesus was telling us.
We’re lucky when we read this passage because Jesus did not encode it as a parable. Christ means what he says. He is informing the disciples that he has all the authority of Heaven and Earth – I am commanding you to demonstrate to others what it means to be my disciples. For those that follow you, I want you to Baptize them so that the Holy Spirit will come into them. AND THEN I want you to continue to teach them how to obey all the things that I taught you. I want you to do this for all Ethnos (all Nations) – that means, all cultures of all people everywhere. Not just the Jews. And do not worry, for I am Emmanuel – God is with you!
How many of you remember your Baptism? If you were older like I was, you were probably full of energy. I was radiating, and I know I had a stupid perma grin on my face for weeks. Unfortunately, my church did not have a discipleship program – or else I fell through the cracks. After a year or so after I came to know Christ, I began to have doubts. I became hesitant to move forward. Instead, I focused on all the ways the church members were not obeying the Bible. I froze.
Yet, today, when I go back and read this passage I am filled with relief because I know that I was no different from some of those first disciples – that doubted.
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
Over the years I’ve read this passage many times – and when I got to the words “some doubted” I always dismissed it. I guess I figured, gee, too bad for whoever doubted; maybe they learned the hard way.
Before I move forward this morning, I want to explain the full translation of the Greek word – διστάζω (distazō). This word translated as “Doubted!” But it doesn’t mean what how we use it today. Right now, my baseball team is doing poorly. I’m starting to doubt they will make the playoffs. That means I am beginning to believe they will not.
That is not what it means in the original Greek. Instead, distazō means to doubt – but it’s a different kind of doubt. It’s more like to waver, or to hesitate. These are synonyms.
For Matthew, having doubt was not the same as modern usage of the word as to disbelieve something. You see, to have disbelief is to fully form a thought. You are mostly sure about what you do not believe. Distazō describes a doubt that means a hesitation or wavering. It’s that gap of time we use to form our thoughts.
Our present translation of doubt is not what Matthew intended. If he wanted to insinuate that some disciples did not know who Jesus was, he would likely have used the word agnōstos – Unknown or forgotten. But nothing in this passage suggests they did not recognize Christ – they just didn’t know what to think about Christ what they saw him. They hesitated, they waivered.
How many of you have ever seen the videos of a service member returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan? If you watch them, you will often see the spouse or children being suddenly surprised. Usually, they will freeze in place, put their hands to their face, start to scream and THEN run to the person. I tear up every time I watch those videos. Anyone else?
When you watch you will notice that some of the family members run straight away to the veteran, yet others freeze first –they hesitate. Once they realize what is happening they rush towards them. “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
Now, let me ask you all a difficult question. What do you think their reaction would be for someone if they previously thought their loved one was dead? Do you think they might stand there a bit longer and wonder how can this be true? Wouldn’t they waver before running, hesitate longer, and maybe wonder what they are seeing.
I think Matthew was describing the same thing about the disciples when they first saw Jesus reincarnated. What is happening? What does this mean? Can this be true? What do I do next?
You see, some were just like us. They were conditioned to hesitate because we live with limitations. Most of us are just like them. We hesitate, we waiver, we doubt.
I will give you an example to make my point. And clearly, this example does not fit many of you. But here you go. Christ gave us all a command to make disciples. How are you doing? Do you GO! Or do you hesitate? Do you look for opportunities to be a personal witness for Christ – or do you waver.
Maybe you’re worried that the person is going to be rude or not respond nicely. Maybe you don’t know what to say. Maybe you think it’s not the right time or place.
In short – to use Matthew’s definition – do you hesitate, do you waver, do you doubt?
Personally, I am very thankful for verse 17 of the Great Commission. I don’t feel alone anymore when I doubt or wonder what I’m supposed to do. Hesitation is a mechanism we use to stall until we have everything sorted out.
We need time to practice what we might say. Then we wonder, will they like our church. But guess what – It’s ok. And that’s not me saying that.
The author of Jude’s epistle –the one some think was Jesus’ half-brother, says that other Christians are to “have mercy on those who doubt.” – to those who hesitate and waver!
That is because having doubt is often a sign of discernment in our faith. We are trying to work it all out. This is especially common for those in their 20’s and 30’s. It takes time to discover that some of those other earthy “truths” we believe just might be wrong.
Let me repeat what I said before – Doubt is not disbelief. Some authors call doubt “a bridge from our faith to perfect faith.” When we have doubts, we need to remember to challenge the truth of our doubts… think about that one. We must challenge the truth or validity of our doubts.
Every week I stand up here and say, “Being a Christian is hard!” I’m purposeful with that declaration because having doubts is part of the difficulty. The primary reason for doubt is that we live in a world of limitations. Right? Scientist thinks we can live longer than 120 years and most of you don’t think the Sabbath is important. But when I look in my bible I suspect there is a reason it is number four and is ninety-eight words long. The ones we all try to keep, not to kill, commit adultery, or steal are only four or five words long. And come later than keeping the Sabbath. We hesitate and waver on if God means what he says.
Maybe it’s because we are bounded by our reality. I mean, how can God possibly love us that much? We don’t experience that much love from anyone or anything else in our lives. How can God’s capacity for unbounded love for us be real? How is that much love even possible?
We hesitate when we read verses that talk about that much love. With all the other limitations on our lives, how we supposed to comprehend how God’s unlimited love working through us, and for us, and even in spite of us. It’s mind-blowing.
It is especially hard when life is not going the way WE planned it to go. When we have ailments or maladies or a death in the family – or even our own terminal diagnosis. We begin to doubt! We waver in our faith. We hesitate in our love for Christ. Not all of us – but most of us!
We are limited by not knowing the big picture. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to our children and to us forever…” (Deuteronomy 29:29a)
Christ revealed many things to us. He told us about the lifting of limitations upon us. That because he has ALL authority –we as his disciples can freely baptize and teach new disciples.
Because he sends us to ALL nations – all cultures – we know our mission field is everywhere. It is boundless.
Because he wants us to teach ALL the things that He has given to us – we know our lesson plan is forever full of new wisdom and hope for others in His glory
Because he promised to be with us always, ALL WAYS, so we know that we are not alone. His presence and promises has no limitations
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matthew 7:7). He is always right there – no limitations!
There were disciples of Christ who wondered, just like we do, what does it mean to follow him. They hesitated, they wavered, they doubted. They were not perfect even in the presence of Christ. And we are a long way from being perfect.
John Wesley describes God’s Perfecting Grace as a life “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.” Wow, that is a high but glorious bar to reach!
Maybe there are some of you here that are close to perfection –I know that I have a lifetime more of work to even get close.
In the meantime, Christ has lifted our limitations and has commanded us all to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
I hope all of you will TRY to do this always without hesitation, without waver, and without a doubt. Many of us will falter because we are sinners. But HE promised, surely, to be with us always, to the very end.
It is in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we give thanks and praise for this message today, and courage to make disciples of Christ to transform the world!
I have been thinking a lot this week about the Great Commission. In Matthew 28 verses 18b-20, Jesus told us to:
“ 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
For many of us we struggle to understand how to get started. This is because we have not been mentored. Too often as Christians we find ourselves out in the community and we may invite someone to our church or to a gathering. Hopefully the sermon that week was engaging. Maybe the hymns were full of enthusiasm. Perhaps they like what they see and decide to come back. Now what?
Often discipleship it is dumped onto the Pastor to formulate a plan. But in reality, these individuals are our responsibility. We need to be invested in their growth and development in Christ. If all we are doing is inviting – we are like the circus barkers trying to lure people into the side shows. We all need to remember that it was “Us” that invited them into a Christian life. There must be something compelling about our story if they agreed to come the first time.
Here is a short video of my thinking about all this…
These are 3D Flip Books. Use arrows to turn the pages. You can also download the pdf file to your own computer to read offline. Have Fun! (These can take a while to load on a phone)
These are 3D Flip Books. Use arrows to turn the pages. You can also download the pdf file to your own computer to read offline. Have Fun! (These can take a while to load on a phone)
How many of you would call yourself religious? I I would suspect that many of you might think everybody should be religious? This world would be a much better place if everyone would just get more religion. Right? I hear many people say that.
Here’s my question. What do you mean by being religious? Most of us use the term and assume it means to follow Christianity. In fact, some folks agree and use that definition to call us a bunch of religious nuts. I looked up the term “religious” in the Urban Dictionary – Have you ever heard of the Urban Dictionary? It is an excellent source to see how the mainstream secular society defines things.
They define religions as Completing an action without really thinking it through. Just like how religious people ignore reality to follow a faith. Ouch, see what I mean. This morning when we read Paul’s sermon on Mars. He is talking to all of us that say we are religious!
For those that would like to follow along, I will be reading from the Acts of the Apostles in Chapter 17. Before we start, let me ask this, how many of you would like to have traveled with Paul? Interesting. Have you ever read the book of Acts? I’m not so sure I would have. In this reading today, we are going to jump to verse 16. Because in verse 1 to 16 you’ll discover that Paul didn’t randomly wind up in Athens – but he was chased out Thessalonica and then barely escaped Berea.
His companions, Simon and Timothy, were probably exhausted and said – hey Paul, here’s a great idea, why don’t you go on ahead to Athens – we’ll catch up with you. So that’s Paul did. He went on ahead to a place he’d never been.
Do any of you travel much? How about outside about your area code? What do you all do when you go to a new city. Do you go sightseeing? Maybe check out the local museums or attractions? When I was younger, I would travel just to go to amusements parks. Like Six-Flags in Atlanta or Disney World.
Anyone know where the word amusement came from? To “muse” is the root word and means to think about something. Put the letter “a” in front of muse, “amuse,” and it means to not think. Someone that amuses us allows us to “not think,” like a comedian or funny TV show. The next time you go to Disney remember they are there to amuse you, so you don’t think about the price of those tickets – right?
Well – this is what Paul did – he went sightseeing, but he wasn’t much amused. It’s said that the city of Athens at his time had 10,0000 people and over 30,000 gods they worshipped. It’s said it was easier to find a god than a person. In Paul’s time, Athens was the home of all Western Europe’s learning and philosophy.
This was a place where people went to muse – to think! All the important muse’ were from Athens. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates. Certainly, this was a place that an important thinker like Paul wanted to visit.
Let’s begin in Verse 16 where Paul’s is wandering the streets waiting for Simon and Timothy to arrive. Acts 17:16 “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
Right away we learn that this trip was not what Paul was hoping. It says he was greatly distressed? The translation for distressed does not do this verse justice but think I know what it means.
I have often traveled to places where I was overwhelmed by the debauchery I witnessed. Places like San Francisco and people walking around naked. Or in New York in the 90’s with all the porn movie houses right in Times Square. You see, when you come from a small town like I did and are suddenly in the middle of something like that, you become distressed!
As Luke says. Paul was distressed! So, Paul went next to find people he would be comfortable with – at the Synagogue. Acts 17:17-18 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. “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.
We read here that Paul decided to preach the Good News to a group of people that had no clue what he was talking about. Paul tried to reason with the Epicureans and the Stoics. Who were these people? These were the same people that we have all around us today.
The Epicureans were what we now call secularist and atheist. They didn’t believe in any one God. They thought life should only be for their personal desires Having a god would get in the way. Some of you may have heard their famous mantra – “Eat, Drink, and be Merry. For tomorrow we die.” Sadly, they live for nothing but pleasure.
The other group was the Stoics, and they were Pantheist. They believed God is everywhere in all things. “Nature is sacred, trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals.” They are like the original hippies in this country. Peace man – Far out. Groovy! Ok, confession time, who here at one time said “Groovy” or “Far out?”
I’m not sure if Paul impressed this audience or made them mad because the scripture next says they TOOK him to the innermost part of the city – to the Aeropagus. This was a vast marketplace where food and trade were sold. It was also where you found the legal courts, the theatres, the heralds, the debate societies; everything was here.
Acts 17:19-21 “Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? I read this as both hostile and curious!
20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”
Remember earlier, Paul was teaching the Gospel … we are all born sinners that Christ died on the cross for our sins,, and now all we must do is be faithful to him to have eternal life. Now, suddenly Paul is standing in front of people who had no idea about this new God, let alone his son Jesus. He was likely wondering how he could explain Christ if they don’t know how the story begins? The story of creation and sin. The story of Genesis 1-11. I think Paul decided to change his tactics. He chose to use their culture to explain.
Acts 17:22-23 “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 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.”
What just happened? Paul decides not to tell the Good News. In fact – he is going to give them some bad news! For those that worship many idols, he was about to explain that they were all obsolete. It is the “Unknown God” that deserves all the attention!
Acts 17:22-29 “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. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
So right here Paul tells them that there is only one God. One God that makes all other creations.
26 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. Hmm, this sounds like a story from the Tower of Babel. More Genesis.
The Greeks hearing Paul tell about this one God had never heard such a story. They believed the man was created from the soil and when they died, the returned to the earth. Sound familiar? Who in our culture says we just rot and decay when we die? But now it gets exciting because Paul presses in on them…
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.
Paul is telling them – you all have 30,00 idols. You have no clue who to worship. But you all do know how it feels to worship blindly, not knowing which god to praise… You are like a blind person stumbling in the dark. But the real God is standing right next to you “unknown.” But it gets even better!
28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
See what Paul did right there. He tapped into the local culture and quoted their poets to make his point.
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, just like your poets claim, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.”
Just imagine all the mouths open and jaws hitting the floor. But Paul doesn’t care –he comes next delivers a final warning they need to hear…
Acts 17:30 “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
What does repent mean? Repent – To change how you think, to take another path, to look at life differently.
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.”
Paul is telling them – look you better pay attention because the time is coming soon when you will be judged by this “unknown god.” If you want proof – let me tell you more about his Son that rose from the dead!
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”
Wow – that sure did not turn out like most Theologians and missiologist expected. Did Paul preach the Gospel? Did he tell the Aeropagus the Good News? No – he didn’t. Did he mention the Cross? No! Did he say Christ was the Son of God? No! Did he mention salvation on the cross? No! Did he even pronounce the name Christ or Jesus – No!
Paul did what we all have to learn to do. He adapted to the culture. He didn’t race in with Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, when they don’t even know the Father! How could this audience possibly understand the story of Christ when their god was Loki, or Ra, or Thor who was busy up there making thunderclouds. No – Paul knew that he had to dial back his testimony to what little they could understand!
But Paul did tell them the truth about their idols. Didn’t he! Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill was his lesson to the Athenians that they cannot be saved by worshiping random idols. That the “Unknown God” was the only one true God – and he was getting ready to come back with a vengeance!
I’ve heard many pastors who preach on this scripture say it was Paul’s best Sermon. I’m not so sure. I think it was Paul just teaching us how to improvise and witness in a culture that does not know God.
Acts 17:30 “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
I sincerely believe that every moment we spend with idols that distract us from God is time spent in ignorance. I will close with last words from Jesus speaking in his Sermon on the Mount.
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” 24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:21-23)
Perhaps we all need to take a survey of the idols in our lives, and our family’s lives. We all have idols competing for our time. The question is, do they serve us? Do they make our lives safer and allow us more time to worship the true God?
Or do we serve them? These are the questions we should all ask God to help us discern. Are these idols moving us away from our opportunity to be entirely with Jesus Christ?
Remember him? The one that came to in the flesh was beaten and tortured and died so that we may have eternal life. Should we find the time to believe in him!
 Mikhail Gorbachev