In Him we live and move and have our being

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Acts 17:16-34

How do we proclaim the gospel to a world that thinks so differently?

“Contextualisation” is a buzz word in some Christian circles to describe the way our message needs to be fitted to our surroundings.  Today’s phrase is often used as a prime example of how Paul drew on the truths already present in the culture to build up a credible gospel presentation. You see “In Him we live and move and have our being” was originally a line from an ancient Greek poet.  Yet Paul uses the phrase to further his gospel proclamation.

So how do we relate the gospel word to an unbelieving world?

Well last time we learnt the truth that the Christian message “turns the world upside-down”.  It is the subversion of all our natural thinking. Therefore when this message meets the philosophers of Athens, we expect to see quite a clash.  Which is exactly how Acts 17 continues…

“Now while Paul waited for [Silas and Timothy] at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.  Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.  Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him.  And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods:  because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.”  (Acts 17:16-18)

Other visitors to Athens may have marvelled at the temples and statues, Paul was incensed.  He did not see these other gods as stepping stones to Jesus but as idols, pure and simple.  In contrast, Paul proclaimed “strange gods.”  In fact the Athenians seem to have thought that Paul was preaching two gods:  Jesus and Anastasia (the Greek for ‘resurrection’)! Paul was not seeking common ground on the basis of ‘some notion of deity’, he dives straight in with the Lord Jesus and His resurrection.  And this, in spite of the unpopularity of “resurrection” to the Greek mind (v32!).  It all just seemed like so much “babble” to the cultured Athenians.

But why?  We know that Paul was a wonderful communicator, millions still read his letters.  We know that these philosophers were experienced at comprehending new ideas (v21), yet the gospel sounds to them like ‘gobble-di-gook’. Paul would explain it in 1 Corinthians:

“The preaching of the cross is, to them that perish, foolishness.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Yet Paul persists (as should we all).  And when he has another opportunity, he sets out his message once again.

“Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.  For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”  (Acts 17:22-23)

Some see this opening as Paul’s establishment of common ground.  Yet if there’s anything which Paul concedes to the Athenians it is their ignorance.  The one thing they seem to know is that they don’t know God.  But Paul will simply declare Him:

“God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;”  (Acts 17:24-25)

We don’t make houses for the gods, God makes a home for us.  We don’t serve Him, He serves us.  He doesn’t need us, we need Him.  It’s all so blatantly obvious, and yet the very foundations of human religion are founded on folly.  And it’s folly which Paul is keen to point out.

He continues by presenting the Gospel of the Two Men.  This is something he also does in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  He tells the story of the world as the story of Adam and Christ.  First he tells us of the original man, from whom all nations of men have come…

“And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:  For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.”  (Acts 17:26-29)

In verse 28 Paul quotes from Epimenides (the original source of today’s saying) and from Phaenomena.  It’s the equivalent of a preacher citing the latest pop song.  Of course he uses these Greek quotes to speak against Greek culture.  He’s saying “If you really believed what you sing about, how could you live how you live?”  Paul is not vindicating the latent wisdom of the Greeks, he is exposing their foolish inconsistencies. Epimenides spoke far better than he knew and far better than the Greeks lived.  On the preacher’s lips the truth is commandeered and pressed into gospel service.  Yet on the poet’s lips it stands only to reveal their folly. But such folly must end…

“The times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:  Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”  (Acts 17:30-31)

Here is the second man in Paul’s sermon.  The Man Jesus Christ answers the man Adam.  Jesus passed through the door marked ‘death’ – the door through which we all must pass – and He came out the other side.  When we pass through that door we are assured that He is the One to meet us.

He is the Judge.  Therefore we must repent.  We must completely change our thinking – that’s how Paul unpacks the meaning of “repentance.”  Our minds must be reconfigured by this gospel story.

The gospel does not confront us as one truth among many.  It sets a question mark over all ‘truths’.  It does not build on our nascent religious or philosophical intuitions, it supplants them.  In short, it shows us what should be so obvious and yet it strikes the fallen mind as revolutionary – God does not live in the intellectual worlds that we build for Him.  No – we live in His world.  For in Him we live and move and have our being.

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