A new edition of the World Christian Encyclopaedia has recently been published. The latest figures from it show that Christians make up 33 percent of the world's population - as computed in the middle of the year 2000. The good news is that the Christian Church world-wide appears to be growing faster than the world's population. The bad news is that Hindus are growing faster than Christians and Muslims faster than Hindus. So two-thirds of the world's population do not know THE ONLY GOD - the God of the bible. They have false gods or no gods. That is the challenge for us.
Our subject this morning is "The Only God" - as we continue with our series of studies entitled "Knowing God". To help us with our thinking I want us to look at Acts 17 verses 16-34. And I want to focus on three phrases or sentences, first, "PAUL ... WAS GREATLY DISTRESSED" (v 16); secondly, "THE GOD WHO MADE THE WORLD" (v 24); and, thirdly, "HE COMMANDS ALL PEOPLE EVERYWHERE TO REPENT" (v 30).
First, "PAUL ... WAS GREATLY DISTRESSED" (v 16)
That raises three questions.
First, why was Paul distressed? The answer is because of what he saw. And what he saw, we are told in verse 16, was "the city ... full of idols". Paul had gone ahead of his colleagues, Silas and Timothy, who were still in Berea. And while he was waiting in Athens for them to join him, he seems to have been doing some sight-seeing. But what struck him most of all was not the beauty of Athens - and it was (and the Acropolis still is) beautiful. No! What he saw was not the huge gold and ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon as a wonderful object of art. What he saw was this and a host of other statues as idolatry. He saw that these people in Athens were light years away from knowing about, and worshipping, the one God of the bible. For they had many gods, and if they believed in one god, they had distorted ideas.
Yes, there was beauty; but as so often with wrong ideas of God, there was total decadence as well. For there were obscene erotic idols in Athens as well as the idols that make modern tourist attractions. There were the Herms, for example - phallic stone objects with the head of Hermes on them. These stood as supposed protection in house doorways and entrances all over the city.
Of course, Athens was no longer a political force in the ancient world. But it was still a cultural force. It still represented the highest level of culture the ancient world had ever reached. The sculpture, literature and oratory of Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC had (and have) never been surpassed. It was the birth place of the great philosophers Socrates and Plato, and the home of Aristotle, Epicurus and Zeno, the founding father of the Stoics. It also was remembered as having provided the world's first real experiment in democracy. All that is why it remained a symbol of the best that human intelligence, art and organization could produce.
But Paul was not taken in by this. He saw this as evidence that unaided human intelligence, however, brilliant was incapable of knowing the true God. As he wrote to the Corinthians:
the world through its wisdom did not know ... God (1 Cor 1.21).
Paul saw that this city of former politicians like Pericles and Demosthenes, and brilliant playwrights like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and brilliant historians like Thucydides was "full of idols". He saw the absolute need for divine special revelation, however intelligent you are. He saw that the best education - for people still went to finish their education in Athens - was no protection against irrational superstition. He saw that intelligent educated people could stoop to the worst forms of religion that included the greatest immorality. He saw that the claim to be "religious" proved nothing. The problem was not that the Athenians were irreligious - look at verse 22:
"Men of Athens! [said Paul] I see that in every way you are very religious."
The problem was that their religion was quite wrong. Paul knew that their religion was leading to hell not to heaven. He had no truck with any "multi-faithism" or all religions leading to God.
Paul's understanding of what was going on here in Athens is made clear to us in Romans chapter 1 where he spells it out in detail. Keep your finger in Acts 17 but turn on to Romans 1 and verse 18 and following. He is here saying that truth is suppressed not for intellectual reasons but for moral reasons - that is to say, truth is suppressed because people do not like the truth. So, for example, this week there could well have been a media blackout against the new book from the Christian Institute, Children as Trophies - the book that shows how children do suffer when brought up in homosexual households. There are people who do not like that truth. There is, says Paul, "godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness" - verse 18 of Romans 1. And this, says Paul, is with a backcloth of an awareness of God in everyone which comes through God's general revelation in nature. That is why, he says, verse 19 of Romans 1 "they are without excuse".
Then he argues in Romans 1, that as they morally drift away from God, so their thinking gets confused and foolish. But in their foolishness people still need a "god" - something outside themselves to "believe in". That is why you get, on the one hand, idolatry, as Paul says in Romans 1 verse 22:
Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
This happened in Athens (and Rome) and still happens with some people today. Or you get, on the other hand, philosophical ideas that deny God, or virtually deny God, like the Epicurean philosophers in Athens. And people then project something else to live for. But as the statistics are showing, that "non-religious" alternative is getting less and less popular in our time. What you are getting in the West are a host of New-Age type religions. And as you have all these new religions so, says Romans 1 verse 24, God gives them "over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another". The rejection of the one true God so often has, as a result, sexual immorality. And according to Romans 1 verse 26 and following, homosexual sex is a focus for that immorality.
So this is what Paul saw - beauty and grandeur, no doubt; but in the scale of ultimate values that is secondary. What he saw was idolatry and false religion and he knew that along with that went sexual decadence. That is why he was distressed.
But that brings us to the second question, which is this: what was the nature of his distress? The word used here for "distress" in Acts 17 is rare but it is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to refer to God's reaction to idolatry. Sometimes it is translated as "being provoked" and provoked to a mixture of anger, grief and indignation. Are you provoked by the godlessness and decadence of modern Britain? Or do you try to bury your head in the sand?
Because Paul was provoked for God's glory and honour, he was motivated to help the Athenians. The facts motivated him. And he was motivated because he was a follower of Christ. That meant he also had compassion on these people and he was, genuinely, sorry for them. So do you have that "distress", which should be a combination of provocation and compassion?
Are you provoked at Bishop Jack Spong, the American bishop, who according to the Diocesan Bulletin is preaching next Sunday at St Thomas' Haymarket? In his twelve "theses" that Spong has published for the world, he denies the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the miracles of Christ, the cross as a sacrifice for sins, the Resurrection as commonly understood, the Ascension, the bible, prayer, and judgment. Are you provoked by that? Are you provoked at the way children are being led by some health education into immorality in our schools? Are you provoked at the way the Gospel cannot be broadcast freely in this country over the electronic media? Paul, undoubtedly would have been.
That brings us to the third question - what did Paul do about this distress - this provocation mixed with compassion?
Answer - he was willing to take a stand, on his own, as a minority of one. He didn't wait for Timothy and Silas to arrive and give him moral support before he acted. He was distressed and then he went to the synagogue, to debate with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles. And then he spent time talking with people in the marketplace. And he did this "day by day" - verse 17. Are you willing to be in a minority of one, when that is necessary. It is not easy. We have no reason to believe it was easy for Paul. No one likes confrontation. But in the marketplace Paul took on, and preached to, everyone - including the intellectual Epircurean and Stoic philosophers.
The Epicureans were often hostile to religion and believed that the world is ultimately only a collection of atoms. So, they said, just enjoy life. By contrast, the Stoics believed in a world soul - a sort of pantheism; and they held that the world is determined by fate, and duty must be our goal. The Epicureans emphasized chance and pleasure; the Stoics fatalism and endurance. But what does Paul say to these people. Does he first argue against their philosophical systems? No! What he preaches and teaches you have in verse 18:
Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
That is Luke's summary of what Paul was saying. He was majoring on Jesus - undoubtedly his person and his work - who he was and what he did - that he was God come in the flesh; that he did die on the Cross for the sins of the world - including all these Athenians; that he rose again from the dead and that he is coming again. And people are still interested when you talk about Jesus Christ.
But Paul clearly spoke about Christ in different ways to different groups. When he spoke to Jews he could assume that they knew what he meant by "God", when he said that Christ was the "God the Son". He could not assume that with these Athenians. So he takes them from where they are at - ignorant of God. Paul was taken to the Areopagus, a little north-west of the Acropolis where the Parthenon was situated - it was the place of an ancient court. And we are told in verse 22:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men 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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
What Paul went on to say brings us to our second heading this morning.
Secondly, "THE GOD WHO MADE THE WORLD" (v 24)
This address is very instructive. Paul was hard line as we have seen. That is clear from his "distress" and from what we can read in Romans 1. He had no truck with pagan idolatry or godless philosophy or moral decadence. But that didn't mean he ranted and raved. He was a model of helpfulness and courtesy while being absolutely definite in what he said. Paul knew he had to address their ignorance, and by way of introduction he spoke about one of the altars he had seen, "with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD." There were a number of altars with similar inscriptions. Legend has it that at a time of plague, a flock of sheep had been released. Wherever one of the animals stopped, an altar was built to an "Unknown God" and the sheep sacrificed. Allegedly the plague died down.
So Paul's goal is to dispel their ignorance about God. And he begins by saying that the true and only God is "the God who made the world" - the creator God. The world is not a self-existent collocation of billions of atoms, as the Epicureans might think. Nor is the world itself divine, in a pantheistic way, as the Stoics might think. No! God minus the world equals God, while the world minus God equals zero - to put it in mathematical terms.
Nor did God just create matter and then let it carry on under its own steam. Some Epicureans held this view. Deists in the 18th century held this view. Many in the West today hold this view. This is the view that the universe is like a clock. God made it, yes. He then wound it up and has let it tick on ever since. And it does so under its own laws without any need of God's intervention. No! Paul says that God is not only the creator he is also the sustainer - verse 25:
he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.
God continues to sustain his creation. And God is not only the sustainer. He also providentially rules nations and history. Verse 26:
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
The nations didn't come from a range of men, but from "one man". So all people in every nation must be equal in God's sight, in terms of their worth. This is contrary to what some Athenians believed. And the rise and fall of nations - the times set for them - did not depend on luck or fate, as the Stoics believed. No! It is all under God's providential ordering. And God's providential ordering of history means that although men think that they are the initiators of their search for God, God is seeking them. He is working to make men seek him:
"God did this so that men would seek him" (verse 27).
All this being so, of course, God does not live in temples (verse 24); nor does he depend on human hands for his existence (verse 25). And Paul argues his points, quoting from some pagan Greek writers. One of the Greek poets had said, verse 28, "We are his offspring." And Paul's conclusion is there in verse 29:
"Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone--an image made by man's design and skill."
And that brings us to our third heading this morning ...
Thirdly, "HE COMMANDS ALL PEOPLE EVERYWHERE TO REPENT" (v 30)
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 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 all men by raising him from the dead."
Am I talking to someone who is ignorant of God this morning? The good news is that God can overlook that ignorance. You can make a new start. And Paul has been arguing before this speech or sermon that the key is Jesus and the Resurrection. Christ died for your sins and mine. By his Holy Spirit he wants to give you new resurrection life. Why not receive that by faith? And why not this morning? The alternative is serious. For if you don't come face to face with Christ now as your Saviour, one day you will have to come face to face with him as your judge.
You say, "can you prove that?" Paul says, "yes, the raising of Christ from the dead" is proof enough. That proves God is real and the eternal world is real.
I must conclude.
Let me just point out the response to Paul's speech or sermon. Verses 32 - 34:
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 A few men 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.
Some sneered. Others put a decision off. A few believed. So I end with two questions.
First, are you a mocker, a deferrer or a believer? For you must be one of those three. Most this morning will be believers.
My second question, therefore, is this: are you greatly distressed at the spiritual state of modern Britain? If so, what are you doing about it? Are you willing to be in a minority of one, if necessary? Are you willing to tell people about Jesus and the Resurrection, definitely but politely, appropriately and as you are able - with grace and truth? For that is what Paul did.