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Acts 17:16–34

We have hear the apostle solving the mysteries of antiquity. There were three: the mystery of life, of motion, and of being. It is the mystery of the one and the many. Philosophers have been and still are trying to solve these mysteries, but can only do so if they have the God of the Bible. They must see as Paul saw, and if they do, they will feel and speak as Paul does (Stott).

So, let us notice first what Paul saw. He saw a city full of idols. The word “full of idols” in v.16 is one Greek word which describes an overgrown forest or something absolutely submerged. Stott paraphrases “a city submerged in idols.” You can imagine it either way here as a city submerged or a city that has growing up everywhere—idols. The mental picture is not what others saw. Others were blind to this matter. They would see beauty and pleasure, but Paul saw blasphemy and pain! But why did he see like this?

Second notice, he saw like this because he had something different in his spirit than those in the city had. He actually felt what God felt when it came to things that compete with God’s glory. It is the same idea described when God was jealous for his people when they made idols when Moses was up on the mountain. His anger raged in the matter and except for mercy and grace the people would have been destroyed! The word used for how the apostle felt is the same used for an epileptic seizure. It’s what some might call today “triggered!” Paul was provoked in such a way that he had to speak on the matter. So we read next what he did.

So, third notice what the apostle does and says. He goes to three groups: the Jews and devout ones in the synagogue; he goes to those in the marketplace, among those who happen to be there; and he also is faced with the philosophers in the city. These include two groups at odds with each other. The first Epicureans were given to solving the mysteries of life with moderated pleasure. They were those like in Wilson’s crowd who say we ought to drink but with moderation because it is dangerous and we need to exercise self control. So, they would be viewed as manly because their pleasure was not given to those like all the rest of the world loose and uncontrolled, but moderated with joy. Then there were the Stoics, who kept a stiff upper lip. They tried to solve the problems and mysteries of life, motion, and being by not being effected by anything around them. They were marines in their mentality of life. Let nothing effect you that should effect your motions. They thought themselves warriors for truth. They were Englishmen in regards to their stiffness. The first group took great joy in life by their supposed moderation, and the second group took joy in their lives by not feeling joy at all! Both were ignorant of what Paul saw. And because Paul saw what he did with Spiritual eyes, he felt something rightly. He felt something rightly because he saw things rightly. It’s hard to know which is the priority. Both are important. But how did Paul solve these mysteries for them?

The large portion of this text is about the last thing, how Paul solved the mysteries of antiquity, or ancient mysteries that Philosophers have tried to solve but they only produced more and more and more idols in the process. What does Paul say to solve all of this. Well, he first faced quite a bit of scrutiny for preaching the gospel that solves this matter. They call him a babbler, which is the word spermologos, a derogatory term that means someone who takes ideas from all places and puts them together but doesn’t have anything original. So, that is how they see the gospel he is preaching to them. They bring him to an area that likely included a formal senate of people there at Areopagus, which literally means Hill of Ares or Mars Hill, named after false mythological gods. Perhaps says one commentator the deal was that if Paul could explain he would be authorized by the city senate to preach. So, his ability to preach there was being put on trail, perhaps. Nevertheless, there habit was always being original. But like Chesterton, he says he tried to create a heresy by being original, but, well here is the quote: “I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.” That may well describe what happens to these philosophers by the end of the text. What we can say clearly is that Paul “stands” courageously here in the midst of this senate and tells them the truth about God and themselves. As Calvin states that religion is found in knowing God and ourselves rightly. They are ignorant. They have even an idol set up in honor of their ignorance called “to an unknown God.” Paul thus goes on to solve the ancient mysteries that they are concerned with in regards to life’s creation, motion/change, and being/existence. He speaks throughout this text that God is creator, Lord, redeemer and judge. But we may see the matter more clearly in focusing here in his statement in v.28 where the mysteries are identified in answer to the question. The answer is “in God” we live, move, and have our being. Ancient philosophers like Thales said that water solved this mystery. It had three forms and it was the stuff explaining these things. That might sound silly, but it was actually ingenious as man could go without God. Man can see there has to be something, in particular one thing that makes sense to the diversity of things in the -verse per se. So, this is where we get the word universe. Uni meaning one, and verse meaning many. So, when we say universe we are saying there is something that gives meaning to all the rest. Today there is a push to be “above” meta- the universe. The idea is to be above God. The universe by term means God gives meaning to all that is in it. Man seeks to be above God. Here Paul destroys the meta-verse of man’s making in a single sentence with the doctrine of union with Christ! “In him we have…!”  Life is rooted and grounded in God. Without God change or motion is impossible. And without or apart from God being there, there can be nothing here or anywhere! And after laying all of this out, he says therefore in vv.30ff that their time of ignorance is up! They are now accountable to be converted! In last week’s message we considered how it is tyranny to indoctrinate people. Paul does not indoctrinate people here, he teaches them doctrine! Doctrine taught is what changes the world because it now puts people in an accountable position to change because God has been proclaimed through the gospel! Everyone is accountable for sin and are justly condemned for not believing in God. This is not what we are talking about. We are here talking about the accountability to positively be converted! He says the one who became man is going to judge men. And because of what he has declared about God being the one that answers the ancient mysteries and the one who gives meaning to the diversity of life, it is a terrible idea to make idols. We may quip and say, look at those sad people, but he is speaking to us all! This text is God telling us that since we know God is the one who gives meaning to the diversity of life in its life, motion, and being, it is a horrible idea for us to be worshiping other things in our lives. There is no life apart from him. Yet, we complain about not having two things, when we are not grateful for having one things according to God’s design. And instead of being content in God, we make idols like a forest in our lives. We too get submerged like a little city under all of the idols we make to make us happy. We too think one hand we can be happy by some controlled joy with dangerous things. We too take on rigid non-feeling philosophies to be tough in life. But no matter what cup we have chosen to drink here, we are all idolaters in need of Paul’s message and answer to the mysteries of antiquity. We all need to be united to Jesus Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection, and ascension. And if we do, idols get destroyed, and we begin to see and be satisfied only when the city or our lives are no longer under false gods, but when we are walking in the freedom of God’s law. Amen.

a view of the city from the top of a building
Photo by Shpëtim Ujkani on Unsplash

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