I’m sure you’re all well aware of the phrase “ignorance is bliss”. BUT is it? Is it really bliss? Well much as there are certain things that I would rather not know - like the gory details of someone’s medical procedures OR the score in the football when I still haven’t watched it - on the whole Ignorance is not bliss. In most situations in life you’d rather know.
• Like if you were these builders laying down pavement in Belfast city centre you would appreciate someone pointing out that you should park your van elsewhere before you cemented the bollards in place.
• And if you were the President of USA visiting a class of school children - wouldn’t you want an aide to let you know that you were holding the children’s reading book upside down?
• AND if you were this lady on the American version of who wants to be a Millionaire – I reckon it would be good to just plain old know that the moon is bigger than an elephant.
Because what you don’t know can still hurt you! It can embarrass, humiliate, threaten and frustrate you. AND I’m sure you can think of numerous different ways in which not knowing something can be a much more serious thing than in any of those daft pictures. Not knowing about the bitterness growing in a spouse or partners heart, or of a tumour growing in your body, or not knowing about the impending collapse of the stock market – all can have serious if not fatal consequences for your marriage, your health or your finances.
You see ignorance is not bliss. It simply cannot be. There is nothing remotely delightful in lacking knowledge about things that matter. Which is all a rather circuitous route to asking tonight’s key question: Why do so many people in our culture live as if ignorance is bliss when it comes to God? As that’s where we’re at as a culture, isn’t it?
I mean it’s not that folks don’t believe in God as most population surveys show that the vast majority still believe in some kind of supreme being - It’s just that people are content to live unaware of what He’s like, and what He’s done, and what He asks of us in response.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said that we have “outgrown our need of God.” AND that’s how so many live these days - as if we no longer have any need of, or obligation to, our maker. AND so we can organise our lives quite happily without God - because people have reduced everything to the things of time and sense and material cause and effect. AND above all we will say: “I will be right at the centre of the world and of creation. I will be the reference point for my life. AND if it does not suit me to have a God there, then I will do away with him. It does not matter to me.”
AND even though there is still vague talk of God and faith and spirituality in the culture - as a nation we live as practical atheists. We have been raised on a diet of doubt - and even the religious often lack conviction.
Which is why the Apostle Paul says to just such a culture in Acts 17v.30:
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 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.”
Isn’t that the message that our culture so badly needs to hear? Don’t we long for friends, family members or colleagues to hear that message? Maybe that’s something we need to be reminding ourselves of tonight? That we can’t just shut God out of our lives and think that everything is going to be alright. For one day we will all stand before Jesus. God has appointed him as our judge and if we have lived our lives ignoring God then we will receive justice and be removed for ever from God and all the benefits of his sustaining hand.
You see ignorance is not bliss. There is nothing remotely delightful in lacking knowledge about things that really matter. AND there can be no comfort in being uninformed about our eternal destinies. Which is all fine and well, and might have you thinking “Amen to that”... BUT people don’t want to know! I mean when was the last time you had the opportunity to give this kind of message to someone? When did you last have a chance to warn someone of the Lord’s return? It just doesn’t happen often, does it?
Well it did for the Apostle Paul and tonight we want to learn from the master how you go about creating and taking such opportunities for the gospel. We could not have a better role model than Paul here in Acts 17. There are 3 great lessons to learn. I’ve found them tremendously helpful as I’ve looked at them this week. AND here’s the first one:
(1.) WHAT PAUL SAW (v.16)
If you’ve not been here for the first 2 sermons in this series - Paul is on a preaching & teaching tour of ancient Greece. AND his message has brought confrontation. He’s preached in Thessalonica but the Jews didn’t like what he said, so he’s smuggled out of town to Berea and no sooner than he starts teaching there than the Thessalonian Jews follow him down the road and stir up trouble there too. So, verse 14:
“The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.”(v14)
So Paul finds himself alone in this great city of Athens with some time to kill. AND I’ve asked myself this question and I’ll ask you too: I wonder what you would have done if this was you? Life is tough, it’s hard work - even if you aren’t being chased from town to town by an angry mob, so imagine you’re left alone by yourself in an amazing city with a bit of time on your hands. What would you do? A bit of site-seeing perhaps? Check out the Acropolis, the Parthenon; Soak in the atmosphere of the birth place of the Olympics... and of course the Kebab. OR maybe you’d take a trip down to the beach to lie on the sand and read your book, have a paddle and get an Ice Cream. I reckon if this was me - I’d be saying to myself “Come on Ken, it’s time for some R & R. No-one is watching after all.”
BUT not Paul! As Acts 17 verse 16 tells us:
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned...”(Acts 17v16)
This is so striking isn’t it? Because what we see here is that Paul was never off duty. Never. He may well have started off down the tourist route in Athens, but he didn’t switch off in his service of God. He may have been on holiday from work, but he was never on holiday from the Lord. And all that follows in what is perhaps one of the most influential narratives on evangelism in the New Testament happens, verse 16: “while he was waiting”.
Because while he was waiting - he looked around. He was observant. I wonder how many opportunities to tell people the gospel you and I miss just because we don’t hear or see them when they’re staring us in the face. I think rather often we are like God’s description of his servant in Isaiah 42: “You have seen many things, but have paid no attention; your ears are open, but you hear nothing.” Are we not like that? I have to confess that all too often I am. But not Paul - he was observant.
AND he didn’t just see. He also had a spiritual sensitivity in seeing. His heart was in tune with God’s heart - who longs for the lost to come to him. Not only did Paul see the idols, but he was moved by what he saw. Look at that again at verse 16:
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed...”(v16)
Paul’s soul is stirred! He is powerfully provoked, painfully provoked, by the culture he sees around him. Because he loves Christ and he loves people - that’s his heart. So he could not bear to see the living God of all heaven and earth ignored. He couldn’t believe that people would waste their time and their money and the best years of their lives on worshipping things that ultimately don’t really matter.
Someone spoke of a friend of mine in very unflattering terms a little while ago. He didn’t realise how well I knew this person so as he went on and on I got increasingly indignant and angry and finally I couldn’t take it anymore - and I just blurted out: “He is nothing like that at all! That is a complete distortion of the man I know.”
And I realised afterwards that I’m not as quick to speak up for Jesus. I wonder at times if my heart has not become too callous to be stirred. And I wonder if we as a church haven’t got so used to the culture around us that we’ve lost this godly distress. Paul was greatly distressed. AND so, verse 17: “...he reasoned”.
He spoke out. Paul could not stay silent in the light of the ignorance and the need of these people. And we should not stay silent too. And I guess what we must pray for is for our hearts to be deeply stirred when we see people worshipping the idols of career, money, sex and status. Not to mention the all too common idols of self-rule and self-reliance... and the self-inflicted relational pain that comes with them. There are so many idols out there that draw people’s hearts, but never satisfy them. AND we have to ask ourselves: Are our hearts stirred? Are they stirred when we see people who desperately need the gospel? Do we feel the agony of that? Or do we think: “Well, actually I mustn’t say anything because really it will be uncomfortable for me”? Let’s pray that our hearts will be moved.
For if we feel this, then hopefully that will mean we seize the opportunity. I love that little “so” at the beginning of verse 17. He was stirred... “so he reasoned”. He takes his own advice from Ephesians 5 verse 16 and “makes the most of every opportunity for the days are evil” and speaks out. AND attempts to engage with these people.
So, how did he do it?
(2.) WHAT PAUL DID (v.17-21)
Verse 17 again:
“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.”
Now here’s the issue, isn’t it? It’s so obvious, but it has to be said: Different groups of people were in different places - so Paul went to both. And living in a post-Christian Britain as we do we have to grasp that too. That different people can be reached in different ways in different places. So some are indeed still willing to come to church. They are as David often says: “Just waiting for an invitation.” Which is exactly why we have to get out for Parish Visiting and invite people to those Jubilee celebrations and services. We need to invite them to our synagogue as it were.
AND in Thessalonica and Berea the synagogue was Paul’s primary focus, because most people could be reached that way. But here in Athens that particular context was secondary. Yes Paul went to the synagogue, but he realised that most Athenians would not be there. Where were they? Verse 17 - “in the market place...” That’s where they were. AND we’ve got to accept the reality that many, many people will not darken the doors of church these days - AND we must go to them.
So the question for each of us is: Where are the people? Where is our market place? For me it has always been sports teams - football or cricket. That’s where the folks I can get alongside and interest in the gospel are. Where’s your market place?
Rebecca Manley Pippert made the point at this year’s New Word Alive conference that one of the main reasons that Christians lack conviction in our evangelism and become complacent is because we have so few non-Christian friends. Sure we have acquaintances and colleagues, but do we have real friends? There are probably plenty of people who we’re happy to send an e-invite to Carols by Candlelight to, but do give them our time? Do we invest our lives into theirs?
Because that’s what Paul does, doesn’t he? He not only goes to where folks are - he goes “day by day” as verse 17 says. So you might set up an event - like the 5-a-side football tournament that some members of the congregation are organising for next Saturday. Trying to make something happen by meeting people where they’re at. BUT you might just open up your home and start using your dinner table to engage with people and take an interest in their lives.
But whatever it is we do, we must be saying: “We’re going to the market place. Where are people going to be? How can we link up with them there?” Let’s do things that engage with people and build trust and relationships. So that in time we can introduce them to the gospel.
Which is what Paul seeks to do next. In verses17 and 18 he reasoned in the synagogue and the market place and
“...A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute 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.”(v17-18)
The word “reasoned” there literally means “dialogued”. So Paul didn’t just go in and blitz them. He reasoned and explained. He asked questions and answered them. That’s why I love the opening question on the Christianity Explored course - because it opens up a dialogue. Right at the start of the course we ask: “If you could ask God one question and you knew it would be answered what would it be?” What does that question do? It opens up a massive dialogue! As people say “yes, well I have got some questions” and you begin the debate.
Maybe you’ve got a friend who you could bring along to the course as it starts on Thursday. AND then again maybe you haven’t! BUT what’s to stop you asking someone just that kind of question this week? When you go into work and get asked the inevitable “What did you get up to this weekend?” question, rather than saying “Oh you know, nothing much.” How about saying, “I went to church and it got me thinking about what it would be like to meet God. What do you think? If God came to dinner at your place tonight - what would you want to ask him about?” Who knows what kind of opportunity that might create!
Obviously I am well aware that it might just have your colleague looking at you slightly askance as they say “Eh? What are you going on about? You’re a nutter!” BUT isn’t it encouraging that even the great Apostle Paul left his listeners a little bemused at times as they ask one another in verse 18: “What is this babbler trying to say?”
BUT what he was doing was applying the truth of God to people’s minds in order that the Holy Spirit would give them understanding and draw them to Christ. AND that’s what we have to do. We have to take the opportunity to speak and then trust God to do his work by His Holy Spirit.
So as we pray that our own hearts will be greatly distressed so that we’ll be moved to engage, let’s also pray that God will give us an opportunity. If you pray “Lord, I’m ready to speak. Please give me an opportunity. Please open a door for the message.” (Which is a prayer straight out of Colossians 4). If we do that, then he will answer our prayers. For he loves the lost - he sent his Son to die for them. And we just need to be available. Let’s pray that the Lord will open doors for debate.
So that’s what Paul saw, what Paul did and finally we have...
(3.) WHAT PAUL SAID (v.24-31)
Verse 22 if we can look down:
“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.”(v22)
AND Paul here establishes a bridgehead into the Athenian world with that phrase: “TO AN UNKOWN GOD”. He creates a way in - a point of contact to where these people were coming from. The historian Demosthenes tells us that many years before in Athens there had been a plague. AND these altars were built by the Athenians when an oracle had revealed that they were at mercy of an unknown god. So Demosthenes says: “Your idols have not protected you and you must build altars to an unknown god who is bringing this plague.” AND Paul had done his research. He identified a felt need. What is the felt need? Fear of a plague that had killed their loved ones. That’s their fear - something that all the pride and might of Athens can’t answer.
AND that is his way in. They may have been the birthplace of philosophy and democracy, but they can’t handle the plague. AND it’s from there that he traffics the gospel into their lives. AND that is what we need to do. We have to establish contact points. Places where people feel the Athenian equivalent of plagues. And they are numerous - Because people are wandering around Newcastle like sheep without a shepherd. That’s what they’re doing aren’t they? What would Paul see if he had a stop-over in Newcastle today? The burden of guilt, the drivenness of career, the fear of death, the loneliness of anonymity, the worry of relational break-up. Now those are all real bridges into people’s lives where very gently we can say “You don’t have an answer here do you? You’re confused and hurting. Desperately trying to deal with the issues of life by yourself.”
Some of you will remember Bernard Levin, the famous columnist for the Times newspaper. He was not a Christian, but he once wrote this:
“Countries like ours are full of people who have all the material comforts they desire, together with such non-material blessings as a happy family, and yet lead lives of quiet, and at times noisy, desperation, understanding nothing but the fact that there is a hole inside them and that, however much food and drink they pour into it, however many motor cars and television sets they stuff it with, however many well-balanced children and loyal friends they parade around it… it aches.”
AND the apostle would say that it’s a right and proper ache - as in verses 24-31 he outlines the answer to it:
i. How we were made by God and for God, and our fulfilment and destiny are to be found in him and him alone.
ii. How God is not hopelessly elusive and unknowable, but very findable.
iii. How we have no excuses for ignoring God anymore, because God has made himself know to us in Jesus.
iv. So we must turn to him before it’s too late, because Jesus’ resurrection proves to us that he is coming back to judge us all.
Which is a terribly brief summary of those verses. They could easily be the subject of a further sermon, but I’m out of time. SO, let’s finish by looking at the results. They are there in verse 32 aren’t they?
“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.” At that, Paul left the Council. 34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed.”(v32)
You see there are different reactions - AND we must all expect that. If we’re worried about getting a bad response we will never say anything... because that’s a totally unrealistic expectation! Read through the book of Acts and you will see that the reaction is the same every time - they share the gospel and some come to faith, others want to know more, while others want to kick their heads in (metaphorically or literally). AND that will be the same for us to! BUT the important thing here in Athens is that wonderfully... the gospel has gone out.
AND that is the lesson we need to learn from Paul. He was faithful to the Athenians, he loved them enough to tell them the truth and for some it changed not only their lives, but also their destinies.
Let me finish now, but let me do so with some final words from John Stott. He sums up brilliantly in his commentary how we should feel about this whole passage.This is what he writes:
“Why is it that in spite of the great needs and opportunities of our day the church slumbers peacefully on? And so many Christians are deaf and dumb. Deaf to Christ’s commission and tongue-tied in testimony. I think the major reason is this - we do not speak as Paul spoke because we do not feel as Paul felt. And if we do not speak like Paul because we do not think like Paul this is because we do not see like Paul.”
That’s spot on, isn’t it? So let’s pray that we will wake up, and see and feel and speak like the Paul.