Humanism has become embedded in many parts of our lives and our culture. What does the gospel have to say about humanism? In this message on Acts 17:18-34, Jim Shaddix considers how we can place our trust in the saving power of the gospel alone. He shares four truths about humanism.
- Recognizing the nature of humanism
- Engaging the culture of humanism.
- Sewing into the fabric of humanism.
- Analyzing the response of humanism.
Please turn to Acts 17 your Bible—I may to ask you to open it to that place. Let’s worship the Lord together through the study of His Word and take a look at how we can continue to grow in learning how to sow these gospel threads in spiritual conversations that we have.
Let me read God’s Word over you as you follow along in Acts 17. If you don’t have a Bible, I encourage you to maybe glance over to the side; somebody close to you will let you look on with one. I want you to be following along as we kind of walk through this text tonight. Acts 17:16–21:
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.
Now last week and this week our task at hand is to take these five gospel threads that Pastor David has been teaching us about and look at some examples of sowing these into conversations with people that are around where we are that we interact with every day. Last week—if you were here—we were in John 4 and we talked about sowing gospel threads among cultural Christians. Let me just remind you that when we’re asking the question, “Where did God talk about cultural Christianity?” we’re not going to be able to go to a place in the New Testament and identify a paragraph where we find those terms “cultural Christian” and God saying, “Here’s how you do this.” But when we ask the question, “Did God talk on this subject?” we find ourselves at a place there in John 4 where Jesus had a conversation with a lady that, when she opened her mouth, she sounded a whole lot like some of the people we interact with here in Birmingham, Alabama that we would put into this category of cultural Christian.
Well, the same thing is true with this subject that I want us to come to tonight. And I want to tell you up front: I am equally or more concerned about this particular issue than the issue of cultural Christianity. It’s my conviction that the farther we go in history, the more we are going to find people that we would put in the category of humanist than we do in cultural Christianity, and here’s why. With each succeeding generation of cultural Christians, there is going to be less and less attachment to the heritage, to the tradition, to the denomination, to the churches of our mom’s and dad’s and there is going to be a rise in our association with secularism—a complete disconnect from God.
And so, as we think about this subject of humanism tonight—I want to remind you about the same thing. We don’t go to a passage in the New Testament and find the word “humanism” mentioned. We don’t find a place where God is saying, “Here’s how you sow gospel threads among humanists.” But I think it’s very clear that God addresses this issue. And one of the places He does is right here in the Apostle Paul’s words on the Areopagus in the city of Athens. And so our responsibility then is to look at this text of Scripture and look to see how did Paul do this and what can we learn from this. Luke’s purpose in the book of Acts is to give an account of the advancement of the gospel in the known world. Consequently, when we come to Acts 17, we are looking at a picture of the advancement of the gospel among a different kind of people. And I believe this people—as I’m going to show you in just a second—is very representative of what we know of as humanist today.
Acts 17 16–34 Helps Us Recognize the Nature of Humanism
Now, let’s talk about that just for a moment. I want you to look at your Worship Guide there and I want to call your attention to that definition, because it’s really important that we make sure we’re that using the same dictionary when we talk about a subject like this. And so I want us to think together first about recognizing the nature of humanism, and I want to tell you up front that this has so many expressions—as we’re going to see in this definition—that are not all found in Acts 17. We’re going to concentrate on them, trusting this is what the Lord has inspired to give us. We want to be true to this passage of Scripture and we’re going to look at several expressions of this.
But look at this definition. It’s there in your Worship Guide: “Humanism: A group of philosophies and ethical views…” Note first that there are many of them, just like I said. “…that emphasize…” And here’s what you want to note; here’s what you want to put a big circle around: “…the value and agency of human beings.” This is what humanism is: It’s exalting the value of human beings and it’s exalting the agency of human beings and them being able to do something for themselves. And we’re going to see that. And by the way, this can happen individually and collectively. It can happen with an individual or groups of individuals. Humanists generally elevate reasoning and experience over established doctrine or faith.
So here we are as a people tonight—The Church at Brook Hills—and we have an established body of doctrine. We have an articulated faith and this book, the Bible, is the source of that. This is our authority for faith and practice. The humanist would elevate reasoning and experience over the adoption of something like that. Okay? So with that in mind, let’s look at how all this comes together.
Street definition—just street language, if you will—of humanism. It’s the idea of human beings being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. You ever heard that? The ability of human beings to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. “Whatever problems we’re in, whatever situations we encounter, whatever we go through in life, we can handle this. We’ve got this covered. We can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.”
Embracing and exalting man-made gods—idolatry.
Now, let me show you how this shows up in Acts 17. How do we do this as human beings? How is this expressed? Well first of all, it’s expressed in embracing and exalting man-made gods. You know what that is? It’s idolatry. And it was all over Athens. Paul wasn’t here because it was on his schedule. He had not put this on his “to do” list to be here in Athens. Previous paragraphs tell us he had been run out of Berea because he was sharing the gospel of Christ with people. So he had been escorted to Athens and was waiting for Silas and Timothy to come and join him so they could continue the missionary journeys.
But the text says in verse 16, “…while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw (here it is now) that the city was full of idols.” Now let me tell you something: Luke was not exaggerating about that. Historians tell us there were probably some 30,000 idols in the city of Athens during this time. It permeated this place. And while we haven’t read that far quite yet, if you glance down to verse 23, Paul will mention there “the objects of your worship,” when he’s talking to the Athenians. In verse 24 he mentions the temples that are made by man and then in verse 29—if you look at his description here—he says, “…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.” Listen. Athens was synonymous with idolatry.
Now, right here it’s easy, isn’t it, for us to check out because we think sometimes we don’t live in this kind of culture because we don’t necessarily find ourselves bowing down to idols. We don’t know too many people that do that. But I want you to understand that the connection with our culture here is closer than we might think. Number one, there are actually stores in Birmingham that sell physical idols to various belief systems—various religions. Those things are available. But that’s not the closest connection. We have to understand that anything that we give more time, attention or resources to than we do the one true God is in fact an idol. And by the way, that kind of translation of meaning is verified in both Old Testament and New Testament. We find the reference to idol in different places—used to identify things that were not just physical objects that were bowed down to. So this is where we see how this connects with our culture. Any time we create something of our own that ends up displacing the one true God, we’re guilty of idolatry.
And you see, here’s the deal; here’s where this intersection really comes into play. We know this: The Creator trumps everything. Whoever is the creator is the one who at least has set himself or herself up as being in charge. There is a connection with being creator and being the authority. This is even true of the one true God. You remember Revelation 4:11? Take a look at it here on the screen. The Bible says in this expression of praise: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power”
So stop right there. He’s saying, “God, you’re the one who deserves glory and honor and honor and power. You get these things; you deserve these things.” Why? Look at what the verse says: “…for [because] you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Do you know why God is worthy of our praise and all honor and all power and all of the things we attribute to Him? Because He started this whole deal. He gave us life; He brought this world into existence. That trumps everything.
So take that idea then and move it down on an individual or people group level in our culture right here. Any time we create something—whether it is physical or whether it is representative of a priority in our life that we give more time, attention or resources to than God—any time we create something, what do we do? We set ourselves up as being in charge and this is where idolatry comes right into play with humanism. It magnifies the value and the agency of human beings above everything. We become creator when we create these idols in our lives.
Embracing and exalting many gods—polytheism.
Now, the second one is this. It looks another way that goes right along with this. It looks like embracing and exalting many gods. That’s polytheism—”poly” being many; “theism”, God. Put those together, we’re talking about the worship of a plurality of gods. That flows right out of a multiplicity of idols here. In Athens these two things go together. All of these idols were representative of the fact that they believed in many gods. In fact, one observer said you were more likely to meet a god in Athens than you were a man. By the way, statistically that’s true. Thirty-thousand idols—you remember that? There were only about 10,000 citizens in Athens during this time. Do the math on that; that’s about three gods to every person that’s in the city. I mean, this was all over the place.
And in a very real sense, this connects with a humanistic mindset because it has been said that the belief in many gods is really a belief in no god. Belief in many gods is really a belief in no god. Why? Because when you believe in many gods, what you do is you take the power and glory of the one true God and you gut that and you divvy it up and assign it to numerous areas in your life—numerous objects of worship in your life. And you know why we do that? We do that because it’s easier for us to control, not from the standpoint of controlling many gods versus one god, but from the standpoint of lessening the power and the authority of any one god. That is more manageable for us. So it is an expression of us pushing something down in order to pick ourselves up.
Embracing and exalting the mind as god—intellectualism.
Number three—this is another way that it looks. It looks like embracing and exalting the mind as god. You know what we call that? Intellectualism. Now, intellect is not wrong. God created us as intellectual creatures. But just like so many things, when that becomes an “ism” it has a tendency to be abused.
Some of you have studied the history and you know that Athens by this time wasn’t near the world power as a city that it once was. After Rome conquered Greece, it took a different place from the standpoint of military power and some of the other roles that it plays. But to be sure, by this day here it was still an intellectual and cultural center of the known world. And this was something that they prided themselves in. There were basically two predominant schools of thought or schools of philosophy and they were rival schools of philosophy. We’re introduced to them in verse 18. Look down at your Bible there. It says in verse 18—and here they are named—Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were in this city.
Now, the thing that tied these two together obviously is the operative word “philosophers.” They were both groups of philosophers. They were both purveyors of wisdom. They worshipped their own minds and their abilities to think. And this permeates this first paragraph; in fact this entire story of Paul in Athens. You notice in verse 18 they called Paul a “babbler.” In the language of the New Testament, the word is “seed picker.” It’s a reference to a bird that would pick up a seed here and he’d pick up a seed there and pick up a seed there and pick up a seed there. It came to be a derogatory term that would be used for a man who would pick up an idea there and pick up an idea there, and one there and one there and he would bring them into his own mind and then he would communicate them as the product of his own wisdom. So these Epicureans and Stoics are kind of testing Paul out here and they kind of accuse him a little bit and say, “Well, you’re just a seed picker.”
But, what we notice is that they want to hear a little bit more and so the Scripture says that they take him to the Areopagus in verse 19. And this is the place where—among other things—they determined whether a seed picker’s seeds were worth consideration or not. And they are going to hear him out. Notice what they say in verse 19–20: “’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.’”
And just so we don’t miss it, Luke steps in with a commentary at that point so we really understand what the score is here. In verse 21, he tells us, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in (watch this) in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” The word “nothing,” if nothing else, underscores this was a major deal for them. This is the way they spent their time. They prided themselves in this type of stuff. John Calvin said they were “drunk with their own pride” in recognition of the pride that they took in their intellectual ability. And so here we find another expression of humanism and that is this prideful confidence that some people place in their own reasoning—in their own ideas.
Embracing and exalting pleasure as god—hedonism.
There’s another way this looks: Embracing and exalting pleasure as god. You know what we call that? Hedonism. Now, the Epicureans and the Stoics converged at the point of being philosophers, but understand this: They also each individually brought their own strand of something that represented humanism to the table. Epicureans followed the teaching of Epicurus who taught at the end of the fourth century, beginning of the third century B.C. And he believed that the chief goal in life was pleasure. He was a thoroughgoing materialist in that he didn’t believe in the afterlife. At death, the person ceases to exist. In other words, this world is all there is. And though he believed in many gods, he didn’t believe the gods really cared about or interacted or had any bearing on what people did in this life.
So put all that together. You don’t believe in an afterlife, you don’t really believe the gods are really concerned or have any influence on what you do in this life. What does that lead to? “Go for it, man! Go for the gusto. This life is all there is, there’s no intervention with the gods. Get everything you can; grab it with both hands. Step on whoever you need to get there and don’t worry about it. It’s just the pursuit of pleasure.”
This is one of the places where we see the intersection with humanism in that valuing experience above even doctrines of faith. You know, if you and I didn’t read the Bible, we wouldn’t know about eternity. We wouldn’t know about the unseen world, but we see it, we believe it, we embrace it. A humanist would look and say, “No. It’s all about this life and what I experience in this life. That is what matters.”
Embracing and exalting everything as god—pantheism.
There’s one more expression and that is embracing and exalting everything as god. That’s pantheism. “Pan” means all; “theism,” god. Everything is god. Pantheists believe that everything composes this all-encompassing, imminent divine, if you will. Everything is god. I’m god, you’re god, this building is god, the music we just sang is god. It is all god. Stoics followed the teachings of Zeno who taught about the same time as Epicurus. He believed that god was this world’s soul. And so there was this teaching that the divine principle was found in all of nature—the trees and the skies—but it was also found in human beings. And so, humans realized their fullest potential when they lived by reason which linked them with the gods and linked them with nature—it all kind of came together. And in the context of that journey, it enabled them to discover truth for themselves—to discover eternal truth. And so there was this sufficient—self-sufficient—relying on rationality that they embraced in there, and we see that come together with humanism in a very clear way. Because, beloved, if you believe that you are self-sufficient and can discover eternal truth on your own, you’re a humanist. That is humanism.
Engaging the Culture of Humanism
Now, that’s what we’re dealing within Acts 17 in Athens. That’s what this culture is. On the surface, people bowing down to a bunch of idols. Maybe we look around here in Birmingham; we don’t see as much of that. But when we look at the teaching and the belief system and what was underneath the surface and behind those things, this was an incredibly humanistic culture. We have to ask the question, “How do you engage that? How do you engage that?”
Now, when we think about engaging the culture of humanism, we have to start at a point that really is characteristic of engaging any culture. You know our tendency: There’s a little bit of humanistic tendency in the gravitation toward pragmatism. So we would like to come to a text like this and just say straight up, “Okay. Principle number one: How do we engage a humanist in conversation? Principle number two: How do we sow gospel threads into a conversation with a humanist?” And I think there are things that we learn from that, we’ll see in a moment. But that’s not where we start. Where we have to start is by looking at Paul’s engagement of these with the gospel of Christ that teaches us something about engaging all people with the gospel.
And listen to me; come in real close. I’ve got to warn you about something. What I’m about to tell you—what I’m about to point out to you—is not anything profound; it’s right here in the text. But I want to warn you up front that what we’re going to look at here when we think about engaging this culture with the gospel of Christ is not something you can just flip a switch and embrace and go out and do. And that’s really, really important because it’s real easy for us to think sometimes that we can look at a program and we can get some training in evangelism, or we can come and listen to a teaching series like this about sewing gospel threads, and we can get some practical advice and then that means we just go out and do it. But some of us in this room know that when we put our heads on our pillows at night, we just don’t feel it all the time. We just don’t all the time have that drive. We don’t all the time have that motivation.
And we preachers—a lot of times—present stuff as if it’s easy. You know, you just say, “Boy, just know this: Principle number one, two, three and four. Just go out and do this.” And you know what? With our minds, all of us know—we read the Bible—we’re supposed to be doing this. We’re on the planet to share the gospel. We’re to be weaving gospel threads into every conversation. We know that with our minds but sometimes when we’re honest—isn’t it true—we don’t find it in our hearts. You know why that is? Because this is a matter of the heart. Ultimately, this thing of evangelism is an issue—we might even say of emotion, some feelings, certainly our motivation.
Dr. Chuck Kelley, President of New Orleans Seminary, was on this stage just a few weeks ago and prayed at the end of our service. He said one time, “Our problem in evangelism is only about ten percent methodology. We don’t need another program; we don’t need another way to do this. We don’t need another set of principles or another presentation or plan to lead people. We’ve got them coming out our ears. Our problem is only about ten percent methodology. It’s about 90 percent motivation.” And you know what? He was right. That’s the issue. I mean, think about it, it’s simple. If we’re motivated to sew gospel threads in conversation, we’ll find a way to do it.
Now, what I want to do is I want to give you how Paul engages culture. I want to warn you up front and tell you it’s not that easy. And I want us to see the relationship between these two things so that we can understand how we feed this motivation thing. So here they are. I’ve going to give them both to you and then we’ll unpack them individually. First, be jealous for the glory of God (16; cf. 1 Corinthians 10:31, 10:18; Philippians 2:9–11). And second, be zealous for the souls of men (17). Be jealous for the glory of God. Be zealous for the souls of men.
Acts 17 16–34 Invites Us to be Jealous for the Glory of God
Now let’s start with the first one. See, this is the one really that’s a matter of the heart. It’s a matter of how we feel; it’s a matter of motivation. Look at verse 16. It says, “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit (look at it now) was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” Language of the New Testament here in verse 16. This word translated “provoked” in my English text means “to sharpen,” it means “to incite,” it means “to irritate,” it means “to rouse to anger or indignation.” I mean, this is something that means “to rile somebody up.”
In the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, this is the word that is used when there are references to God being provoked to jealousy. Now we have to press pause right there because immediately some of our minds are gravitating to a place that they should never go, and that is the suggestion that God is guilty of some type of sinful, selfish pride that characterizes the jealousy we have. You see that’s where we miss it sometimes. We know that there are attributes and there are feelings and there are emotions that they have a very perverted, fleshly manifestation—like anger, for example—but then there is also a righteous manifestation. We know that with anger. There is a righteous anger. You know what? The same thing is true of jealousy. The reason jealousy has a bad connotation because it should have a bad connotation by virtue of the way that it’s used in our lives. It comes from that self-seeking self-interest. “Somebody’s got something I want; I think I should have it and I deserve it, and therefore I’m feeling like I do.” That is a sinful jealousy.
But listen to me: When it comes to God—and He is Creator and He is holy and He’s just and He’s good and He is Lord over all things—whenever those things are not attributed to Him, there is righteous ground for jealousy. This is where Oprah Winfrey missed it. When as a teenager, she said—at the back of a country church auditorium—she heard a pastor get up and say, “God is a jealous God.” And she said, “If God is a jealous God, I don’t want any part of Him.” And she walked away from her roots by her own admission. You know why? Because she didn’t know her theology. She didn’t understand that God deserves all worship and honor and glory and man doesn’t. And when He doesn’t get it, there is grounds for jealousy on His part. And guess what? When God doesn’t get it, there is grounds for jealousy on our part.
Did you see what provoked Paul? Did you see what provoked this emotion and feeling inside of him? “His spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” You know what Paul saw when he came to Athens? Yeah, he saw the physical idols, but he saw beyond it. He saw men, women, boys and girls giving glory to something that didn’t deserve glory. And any time you give glory to something that doesn’t deserve it, you’re robbing the one who does deserve it. And what Paul saw was something that ate him up on the inside and that was that God wasn’t getting the glory and these Athenians were spending so much time making idols, they were spending so much time and money buying idols, they were giving so much attention to worshipping this idol. And he said, “God deserves the glory that every one of these people are giving these idols.” And it ate him up. Paul was consumed with the glory of God. And any time he saw where it wasn’t being attributed to God, it did something to him on the inside.
I mean, you think about it: Paul believed everything was to be done to the end of the glory of God. That’s why he said—1 Corinthians 10:31—“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” His evangelism was compelled by the glory of God. In 2 Corinthians 4:15, he said, “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” Paul just believed when more people got saved by grace—which is the only way anybody can get saved—then the bigger the thanksgiving choir and the more God would be glorified. And that compelled Paul. Paul believed eternity was driven by the glory of God. Everything was headed in this direction. This is why he said in Philippians 2:9–11, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, [to what end?] to the glory of God the Father.” He said it is all headed this way.
And here’s the deal, beloved: This has got to consume us. Because you see, this is the beginning point of our evangelism. Brook Hills, listen. This is why we do some of the things we do here. It’s why we talk so much about the glory of God. It’s why there are people that come into this church and they leave saying, “That’s all you people talk about is making disciples and the glory of God.” It’s why we preach like we do: Theologically and doctrinally and less pragmatically. It’s why we sing with such a God focus in our musical worship because we know this is the beginning point. This is where it stops. And if we jump to the pragmatic of, “Hey, let’s go do, do, do; let’s go do this and be involved in this,” but we’re not motivated with the glory of God, sooner or later our motivation is going to wane and we are going to stop.
Be zealous for the souls of men.
Now notice something. Look at verse 17. And this is what brings us to the second one: Be zealous for the souls of men. Notice the little word in my English text—two letter word, beginning of verse 17—”so.” It may be translated “therefore” in your English translation. Based upon what Luke just said, Paul was provoked to anger for the glory of God because he saw all these idols.
What did he do? Number one: He reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and number two: He went to the marketplace every day and talked with those who happened to be there. And we know what he did in both places because in verse 18 at the end it said, “because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” This is what he was doing.
You see this is what Paul saw when he went to Athens. He saw lostness. I had a guy tell me one time that he tried—every person he encountered—to see a big “L” on their forehead just to remind him until they convince him differently they were going to be considered lost so he would share the gospel with them. And this is what Paul did. He saw beyond all of the stuff Athens had to offer—all of its culture, all of the reasons you and I might visit a particular place or take a vacation somewhere. And he saw beyond that and he saw the depravity of man and God being robbed of the glory that only He deserved and it compelled him. Listen, he didn’t try to incite legislation, he didn’t go out and boycott in the street, and he didn’t even tell all these people that they were all going to hell because they were worshipping idols. What he did was he went and he shared the gospel with them. Do you know why? Because a jealousy for the glory of God will lead to being zealous for the souls of men.
And so church, here’s my encouragement. I know I stated those ways—I tried to warn you up front—I’m saying them like you flip a switch. “Go on. Be jealous for the glory of God. Be zealous for the souls of men.” But you don’t just flip a switch. You and I have to nurture that heart condition, that emotion, that motivation. How do you do it? That’s the 64-dollar question right there. I know there’s things that we already know that we need to give attention to to say, “This is a place in which I nurture the glory of God and that value in my life.” And your personal worship time in God’s Word and in prayer—pray that God would let you see His glory like Paul saw it.
Moses prayed for this. Remember? He said, “God, show me your glory. This whole exodus thing will make a lot more sense if I could just see your glory” (Exodus 33:18). And that’s the way it is for us—pray for that. Pray that God would let you see His glory. Nurture the glory of God in these worship times that we have together. Think about the words to the songs; process the truths that are being taught and the mentioning of the glory of God and grab a hold of those things and meditate on them.
Let me encourage you to read some of the great Christian writers who have written on the glory of God. Read J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. Read A.W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy. Read John Piper’s Desiring God. Pretty much anything John Piper writes, you’re going to find this subject. But let these guys call your attention to Scripture and the glory of God and nurture this, because you see, that is what is going to feed our motivation to go and share the gospel and weave gospel threads in the conversations that we have.
So, we do that. What is it going to look like? They haul Paul off to the Areopagus—this place where they’re going to see if his seeds are worth their consideration—and this is what happens. Verse 22–31:
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, and perhaps 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 that’s Paul’s talk on the Areopagus. It’s been considered a sermon but I just want to give you a word of caution here that I’m not sure our best connection here is to look at Paul as a preacher standing up delivering a sermon. I say this for a number of reasons, not the least of which the people of Athens didn’t have a clue who Paul was. They didn’t know he was the missionary of the Christian church—the Apostle to the Gentiles. They thought he was a seed picker, and they were just giving him his 15 minutes of fame here just to see what he had to say. No, the better connection is here is a Christian who has aroused the curiosity of some people that they know to the point that those individuals are saying, “So what do you believe about this?” and that Christian begins to explain. And from that standpoint I would say you and I find ourselves here in a conversation with a group of humanists.
Sewing into the Fabric of Humanism Found in Acts 17 16–34
Sew gospel threads along with common threads.
What do we learn about sewing gospel threads at this point? Three particular ones; there are probably a lot more but let me just give you these quickly. Number one: Sew gospel threads along with common threads (23–24, 28). You know, we’ve talked much in the last several months about gospel threads, but when it comes to humanism, there’s an important thing that we need to include in our weaving and that is some common ground. And this is what Paul did on at least three occasions. He begins by finding common ground with spiritual interest. In verse 22, he says, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.”
And by the way, this is on the table even with humanists. You understand that you can be a humanist—not even believe in God—but still be interested in spirituality? I mean, it’s almost like everybody in our culture is interested — everybody is trying to find their spiritual center. And so there’s a great inroad to a conversation. Just say, “Do you have any spiritual beliefs? Tell me about those.” Because most people you encounter will have some kind of spiritual opinions. Paul begins at that point.
Another piece of common ground is just this theological ignorance that they had. Hopefully, not that we have that in common with them, but here’s the commonality: They are ignorant about something; we’ve got something that can fill in the gap. I mean, he just jumps all over (in verse 23) this wide open door of this altar with the inscription “To the Unknown God.” I mean, what a set up! So what Paul does say, “You’ve got a god that you worship. You don’t even know His name. Let me introduce Him to you.” And then he begins to tell them the gospel.
Third piece of common ground is verse 28. Those two quotes there from poets that they respected—one a Cretan poet, another a Silicean poet. Paul just reaches into something that they had confidence in. And he didn’t promote the polytheism of these poets—he just simply said there are some things they said that are true about the one true God and about our relationship. And he grabs a hold of that, and in doing so, he buys some credibility with them. Sew some common threads.
Now listen to me. I’m not telling you that you ought to spend a whole ton of time becoming experts in humanism. But you ought to know enough—read a little bit enough—to find some common ground so that you can use that in beginning spiritual conversations.
Sew gospel threads without referencing the Bible.
Here’s the second thing Paul did. Sew gospel threads without referencing the Bible (24–31). Okay, I said it, all right? That’s hard for me to say. It’s hard for me to even suggest that maybe in a conversation you would not reference the Bible. But did you notice that Paul sews every single gospel thread that we’ve discussed through his time, through his conversation, through his talk there and he never once references the Old Testament Scripture. Why? Because the Athenians didn’t believe in the Old Testament Scripture. Now listen. You didn’t hear me just say that he did not speak biblical truth or Old Testament truth and you’re not hearing me say don’t reference biblical truth. I’m simply saying don’t magnify a document that a humanist places no credibility in.
Walk through this text with me and let me just show you what Paul does: He weaves the character of God into just about every verse in here. Verse 24: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth.” There’s God as Creator. God’s Creator; He’s gracious. That’s one of the characteristics. We look in verse 25: “…he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Back to Creator in verse 26: “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…”
He’s gracious again in verse 27: “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.” He’s both Creator and gracious in verse 28 when he quotes from these two poets and he connects what they say about us having our being and being His offspring. He introduces God’s holiness without even using that word in verse 29 when he says, “…we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone…” He introduces God’s justice without using the word in verse 30: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” And then I think His justice and holiness are mentioned in verse 31: “…because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.”
Notice how Paul speaks to all of these issues with regard to the character of God that we talked about that he doesn’t use the terms that are most familiar to us and he never references the Old Testament Scripture. What about the sinfulness of man? Do you notice that he never uses the word sin? But in verse 27, he says, “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him.” Verse 30 mentions “ignorance” and “repentance.” He’s talking about these ideas of separation and rebellion. Sufficiency of Christ; he didn’t even mention the name of Christ or Jesus. Now I don’t know that he wouldn’t have if he didn’t have more time. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t but I just want to point out to you that what he does is he describes how God will judge the world—verse 21—“in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.” That’s Jesus.
The necessity of faith in verse 30 talks about “repentance” and we know that repentance and faith go together. Verse 31, “He will judge the world in righteousness” implies people have to look at this as the standard. They’ve got to look to this in order to be in right relationship. And then he sews the urgency of eternity in verse 26—I think indirectly—when he mentions these “allotted periods.” Then in verse 31, he talks about judging the world, raising Him from the dead. All of these—all five of these—are woven through this conversation, and yet he never mentions the Old Testament Scriptures.
And I just want to remind you that any humanist that you talk to doesn’t believe the Bible. If they did believe the Bible, they wouldn’t be a humanist. Can’t read the Bible and come out on the other end with humanism. So they don’t believe the Bible. It would be like a Muslim trying to convince me of the validity of Islam by citing the Koran. I would simply have to say, “But I don’t see that document as authoritative.” And that’s the way it is with humanists. So let me encourage you, find ways to speak biblical truth. That’s what is powerful. Chapter and verse is not where the supernatural power is but Paul is speaking biblical truth but he does it without ever referencing the Old Testament Scripture.
Sew gospel threads through the big story of the Bible.
Number three: Sew gospel threads through the big story of the Bible (24–31). Now you can already see in this that Paul doesn’t necessarily line up his gospel threads in an orderly way—a systematic fashion—a linear progression. In other words, he doesn’t say, “Okay, let’s start with the character of God. And here’s some chapter and verse that support that. Okay, now you need to understand the sinfulness of man and here’s some places that the Scripture teaches.” He doesn’t do that. What he does is he intentionally paints the big picture of God’s redemptive plan in history. He’s hitting these mountain peaks of theology.
Why does he do that? Well, I don’t know if we can be sure but certainly time had one thing to do with it. He probably knew he wasn’t going to have much time that day to speak. And most of the time when we’re in conversations with humanists they’re not going to give us a ton of time. Probably the fact that he knew that the Athenians didn’t believe the Old Testament Scripture, he wasn’t going to spend a lot of time trying to point to different places there. There’s probably a third reason and that is—remember—they thought in big thoughts. This intellectualism and philosophy was dealing with concepts, not so much principles. And it could be he presented that just to give them these big picture thoughts.
But don’t miss it. He goes from Genesis to Revelation. He starts with God as the Creator of all and he ends with God the Judge of all. That’s Genesis to Revelation and all the way in between. He’s weaving sin and righteousness and judgment—all of those things—speaking biblical truth.
And so what I’ve done is I’ve listed for you on there just kind of the big picture concepts that Paul used. Let me just read them to you and then what I want to encourage you to do is go home, look at them, match them with these verses and just think about some different ways. How can I think in terms of big picture ideas? God is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth in verses 24 and 25. Then Paul moves to God created us to live in relationship with him in verses 26–28. Then he says we rebelled by replacing God with gods that we made—verse 29. Then in verse 30 God is patient, but now He demands repentance. And then he says in verse 31—God has appointed a day to demand an account. He goes on in verse 31 to say God’s standard of righteousness is the risen Lord.
That’s a great 30,000-foot view of the gospel and it is a great 30,000-foot presentation of the gospel. And it may be our best approach in conversations with humanists. So we’ve got a task here and that is how do we take these principles—these ideas, these gospel threads we’ve talked about—and how do we articulate them in big picture ways to weave them into conversations with people.
Analyzing the Response of Humanism
Now where does all that come out? We analyze the response of humanism in this passage of Scripture. We really are going to discover three responses—I think—that give birth to two really important truths. The first two responses are in verse 32: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead [here’s the first response], some mocked. [Now here’s the second response:] But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” They just shelved it and said—maybe with a little curiosity—“We’ll come back to it another day.” You understand both of those are rejections of the gospel. To either say, “No” flat out, make fun of it; or to say, “Well, you know that’s interesting, but it’s really not interesting enough for me to deal with it right now so maybe we’ll come back to it another day.”
The gospel is a stumbling block to those who have confidence in their flesh.
Listen, Jesus warned us about these responses—He tried to prepare us for this. Not just among humanists but with anybody. And it gives birth to this truth that we’ve got to remember and we need to let this encourage us, not discourage us but we simply need to know it and here it is: The gospel is a stumbling block to those who have confidence in the flesh. The gospel is a stumbling block to those who have confidence in the flesh. And beloved, here’s the deal. If humanists have confidence in the flesh—and that’s what makes humanism what it is—then this gospel is going to be a stumbling block and there are going to be more that say no than say yes. Jesus—in Matthew 7:13–14—says, “‘Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are [what?] many [right?].’” Then He said, “‘For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.’” Paul in Romans 9:33—quoting from Isaiah’s prophecy—said, “‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.’” This will be the response most of the time.
But church, listen to me, come in here real close. Don’t ever, don’t ever be discouraged and deterred from sewing gospel threads into conversation with humanists. Why? Because of that third response that’s mentioned. Do you see it there in verse 34? Verse 33 says, “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.” One of the Areopagites says, “Count me in. I’m in there.” Why? Because the gospel is the power of God to salvation. Don’t forget it.
The gospel is the saving power of God to those who place their faith in Christ.
The gospel is the saving power of God to everyone who places their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and it is no discriminator of persons. It will save the highest class to the lowest class, the uneducated to the intellectual. It will save the boy and the girl, the mom and the dad. It will save the humanist if the humanist will repent of sin and place their faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel is the power of God to save them.
I don’t think any of us would look at what happened on the Areopagus that day and say revival broke out because it didn’t. But let me tell you some things we do know. In the following century, the city of Athens would give to the Christian movement men like Publius, Quadratus and Aristides and Athenagoras, all of whom were either martyrs or bishops or both—who gave their blood to water the advancement of the gospel among the nations. In the fourth century, the Christian schools in Athens would produce Christian sanctified thinkers like Basil and Gregory that would help the church flesh out its theology. And only time and eternity will tell the unnamed men and women who came to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior as the result of two people on the Areopagus that day saying, “Sign me up. I want to confess Christ.”
You and I can never ever underestimate the value and the potential of weaving these gospel threads into conversations with humanists that we encounter. You know why? Because this gospel is mighty to save. It is mighty to save. It is mighty to save cultural Christians, it is mighty to save humanists, and it is mighty to save people in any unreached people group where we would go—motivated by a jealousy for the glory of God.