When you think of the church, my hunch is that it’s a little different from what the people in the first century thought of when they experienced that initial gathering; There weren’t any bibles. There weren’t any bands. They didn’t put words on a screen. They didn’t even have hymnals. They didn’t have buildings and they didn’t have any staff; no children’s pastors, no youth pastors, no singles pastors, no young adult pastors, no worship pastors, no associate pastors, and no social media pastors.
You see, from the very beginning the church wasn’t so much a location with a hierarchal structure and amazing programming designed to attract a crowd but rather, the church was a movement. A movement that was launched around an event in history; the resurrection of Jesus.
It began as a handful of people poured into the streets of Jerusalem soon after the resurrection, telling everyone, “Jesus, was crucified but he rose from the dead and we are witnesses” and within just a few weeks over five thousand men, plus women and children, had embraced this message, this idea, that Jesus had come to Israel as the long awaited Messiah; God with us, who died for us, and rose again.
And suddenly, this movement was gaining traction.
The problem was, there was a very sensitive balance of power between Rome and the Jewish authorities and it was important to keep the peace between the two.
This Jesus movement was beginning to disrupt the balance.
So, to stop this movement and restore the balance, wide spread persecution broke out against this new sect of Judaism called “The Way”. It’s believed that it was referred to as the way because Jesus said, “I am the Way and the truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
And as we talked about a couple weeks ago, a guy named Saul emerged on the scene as one-man wrecking machine going from house to house arresting, torturing, and killing Christians. But as he persecuted the church, the church continued to spread as the people fled Jerusalem – the hub of persecution - out into the surrounding regions and continued to talk about Jesus.
But then something happened. Saul had an incredible conversion experience.
He was about to take his persecution up another notch when he was literally blinded by the light as Jesus appeared to him and told him to go to Damascus and wait. While in Damascus, a guy name Ananias shows up and lays his hands on him and something like scales fell off his eyes, and he was able to see again, and then they prayed together.
Ananias explained that God has given Saul an opportunity to take this message to the entire world and he does. After 15 years of learning all he could about Jesus’ life and ministry, he traveled throughout the known world and establishes little Ecclesia’s, little gatherings, little churches.
Today we're going to listen in on a conversation between Paul and a group of people that knew nothing about Jesus. In fact, they had never even heard of Jesus.
My goal is for us to see how someone presented the message of Christianity to a group of people who had never heard any of it before without saying, “Hey, come check out my church, we have the best band in town, and the children’s ministry will blow you away. Your kids will beg you to come back every week. And the pastor, dude, he totally rocks – he is so relevant.” If fact . . .
Paul couldn’t even say “the bible says”, because if you remember, the New Testament didn’t exist yet.
So, here we go . . . READ Acts 17:22-31
Paul was waiting for a couple of his friends in Athens so he took a walk around the city and he notices that there are idols everywhere – to every god you could think of - and so he starts engaging people about religion.
Now, Athens is full of philosophers, so this wasn't hard to do. And he runs into a group of philosophers that want to engage with him at a deeper level and as he’s talking to them about Jesus, some of them started asking, "What is this babbler trying to say? Is he trying to advocate a foreign God?”
This is a big deal, because if you're going to introduce a new God in Athens, you must get permission.
So, they took him and brought him to a meeting at the Areopogus.
The Areopogus in Greek mythology is where Aries was put on trial by the Gods for murdering Poseidon's son. So, this is an important place to the Greeks as it was considered a place of judgment. This is where they had civil trials and where they made decisions.
If they were going to do something new in the city, this is where they would make that decision.
So, they took Paul to the Areopogus and the counsel says, “You are bringing some strange ideas that we’ve never heard of before and we would like to know what they mean. So, would you please, for our benefit start from the beginning?"
What an awesome opportunity!
Paul stood up and said, "People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. In fact, as I was walking around your city, I found an altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God."
This is interesting. They've got altars all over the city to all these different gods, and this one alter to an unknown God . . . just in case they missed one.
Now we laugh, but some of us are the same way.
- Some people only go to church on Christmas and Easter . . . just in case.
- Some people have a piece of jewelry and if something bad happens, they feel like they must touch it . . . just in case.
- Some people keep handy in their mind some verses they memorized as a child . . . just in case.
- Some people pray every night, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. But if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” You know, just in case.
That’s what this altar is . . . it’s the just in case altar.
Paul says, "Look, you're very religious, you know there's something out there bigger than you. You don't know what it is and so you have this alter to the unknown but I'm about to take the 'un' off the 'known'.
And then he begins, The God who made the world and everything in it is the unknown God. And this God is bigger than all the rest of your Gods put together. In fact, you can't build a temple for Him. He is so big he couldn't fit. And he certainly couldn't fit on your little itty bitty altar that you have set up for him.
And all your other gods, you take them incense, and some potato chips and set a diet coke out there, and you put some stuff in there, and your little piece of gold and silver that the priest just steals . . . You're always trying to bribe your gods as if your gods need something.
But let me tell you about the Unknown God . . . He doesn't need any of that. He doesn’t need your stuff.
And they're listening because they’ve never heard anything like this before.
Then he says, “This God that you don’t know yet . . . well, He made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him.”
This little term, “grope around in the darkness” is like walking into a dark room and you know there's a light switch somewhere.
He’s saying to them, "Look at all these idols. You're God seekers, that’s why there's an altar to the Unknown God. And the God who created all this knew that. And he knew you would ask questions, and he knew you would seek, and he knew you would grope around in the darkness. And he knew that perhaps you would find him. Though He is not far from any of us."
And then Paul does something so cool. He quotes from their own philosophers. He digs into their own culture to say, "Hey, you haven't missed it completely. Even some of your poets’ kind of bumped into the truth about this big unknown God when they said that we are his offspring but there's just more.”
You can't make an image that reflects this big, grand, glorious God.
- In the past, God understood that people were seeking.
- In the past, God understood that there was darkness.
- In the past, God understood that people knew there was something more than then what could be seen, and so they built images, and they built temples, and they burned incense, and they made sacrifices, and they did all kinds of crazy things.
In the past, God just kind of said, 'Okay, I get it, I understand . . . but now he wants us to rethink what God is really like because He has done something new.
What has he done?
He has revealed himself to the whole world through his Son Jesus and has set a day when the entire human race will be judged.
And he goes on, "He has given us proof of this, to everyone."
Now, I can imagine the pause. "Proof, sure he's given proof. We're talking about religion, there's no proof in a religion. I mean look, unknown, we don't know."
I mean we believe, we try to have faith, we try to do the right things, we try to keep all the gods happy, but you're saying that somehow this new thing that you're telling us about there's proof."
Paul says, "Yeah, actually that's why I'm here”.
So, what’s the proof?
God raised his Son, Jesus, the judge, from the dead and I saw him.
And when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, they fell on their knees and repented, and they set about destroying their idols and altars.
I made all that part up, that's not in there, okay?
Instead, when they heard about the resurrection of the dead some of them sneered.
"Oh, seriously, that's where all this is going? The proof is somebody rose from the dead? And supposedly you saw him? Look, we may be a bunch of idol worshipping Athenians, and there may be a lot of things that we don't know, but one thing we do know, people don't rise from the dead. Get him outta here."
But others said "Hmm . . . you know what, we want to hear you again on this subject," and at that point Paul left the council.
Most of the people who heard Paul that day said, "If that's what we have to embrace and believe to follow this new teaching, we'll just go back to unknowing."
But a few people said, "Okay, you are telling me that you know people who witnessed, a resurrection?"
And Paul would say, "Yes. And for the first few years I didn't believe it either. And for the first few years I did everything to stamp out Christians. And then one day I met the risen Jesus. And so I'm here to tell you, first hand, that God has done something in our generation as proof that he knows us and he loves us and he can be known."
This was the message of this movement called “The Way”.
And its momentum didn’t revolve around cool worship bands, mind-blowing children’s ministry, or even pastors that totally rock. It didn’t gain traction because of beautiful worship spaces, stained glass windows or ornate pipe organs.
This message survived the first century because it answered the question, “Who is Jesus?"
When Paul has this opportunity with people who don’t know anything about Jesus,
- He starts with creation.
- He starts with the fact that God cares.
- He goes to the point that God has revealed himself, God has revealed himself in a man.
- And if you have a hard time believing it, which of course you do, God decided to prove it and he raised Him from the dead.
- And that is the message that caused momentum for this movement called “The Way”
Regardless of your church experience, the question is, "Who do you think Jesus is?"
Paul left the hill that day, leaving them with THE issue to wrestle with, "Who is Jesus?" And that's where we're going to leave it today.