A. The story is told of a preacher, who one day at the end of the worship service was shaking the hands of the congregation as they departed.
1. A very old lady went past him with a big smile on her face.
2. Following her was her middle-aged, adult son, who said to the preacher: “Our mother thinks you’re the greatest preacher she has ever heard.”
3. Then the son leaned toward the preacher and added in a confidential half-whisper: “Of course, we think she’s losing her mind.”
B. I read about another young preacher who was flattered when someone described him as a “model” preacher, until he looked up the word “model” in the dictionary and saw that one of the definitions for “model” is “A small imitation of the real thing.”
1. That experience made him a little more cautious to the compliments he received.
2. Soon after, someone else in the congregation described him as a “warm” preacher.
3. Again he consulted his dictionary, and was disappointed to see that one definition of “warm” is “not so hot.”
C. Preaching the Word of God, and teaching the Word of God, and sharing the Word of God, are some of the most important and rewarding activities that any of us can be involved in.
1. And at the same time, preaching, teaching and sharing God’s Word, can be one of the most challenging and humbling activities that any of us can be involved in.
D. The apostle Paul was one of the most effective and faithful preachers, teachers and sharers of God’s Word.
1. Any study of Paul’s life must include attention to the way that he handled the Word of God.
2. Today’s sermon applies very easily to me, and to all our ministers, elders and teachers.
3. But today’s sermon also applies to every Christian, because all of us must properly employ the Word of God in our own lives, and we are all called to share the Word of God with others, not necessarily in a formal or public way, but privately and personally.
4. Paul’s admonition to Timothy certainly applies to all Christians: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Tim. 2:15)
5. So let’s turn our attention to the preaching and teaching of the Apostle Paul and see what we can learn from his example.
I. The Story
A. A quick survey through the book of Acts demonstrates Paul’s passion for communicating the message of Christ without hesitation or apology.
1. Paul spoke boldly. Paul preached the Word. Paul taught with conviction. Paul connected with the needs of his hearers.
2. Even though Paul’s conversion is in Acts 9, and he immediately begins to preach and teach, it isn’t until Acts 17 that we are blessed with the content of one of Paul’s sermons.
3. Let’s take a close look at Paul’s sermon in Athens and learn some important principles about properly handling God’s Word in our lives and in our ministry.
B. In our sermon last week, we did a quick overview of Paul’s 2nd Missionary Journey.
1. We traced his travels and experiences, and we mentioned that he went to Athens.
2. Today we want to take a closer look at what transpired there in Athens.
3. You will recall that just prior to going to Athens, Paul was in Thessalonica and Berea.
C. The Bible says: 13 When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14 The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15 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. 16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. (Acts 17:13-16)
1. So, when Paul reached Athens, he was alone.
2. While Paul waited for the arrival of his missionary partners, he ventured into the crowded streets of that famous metropolis.
3. As Paul moved about soaking in the sights and sounds of Athens, he encountered Greek culture at its worst, and it upset him deeply.
4. The prevalence of idols and the resulting commercial windfall and sinful behavior they spawned gnawed at that preacher’s soul.
D. Most of us have never experienced a culture like that so full of idol worship, but there are cultures and places in the world today, that mirror what Paul experienced in ancient Athens.
1. How troubling it was for Paul and would be for us to see sincere people bringing their treasures and offering them to gods of stone and wood.
2. How troubling it would be to see people weeping and begging before their idols, and some even cutting and mutilating themselves, or offering their children in sacrifice to their lifeless gods.
3. The tragedy of this is: Earthly gods are never satisfied.
a. Idol worshipers are filled with superstition and blinded by fear and ignorance as they live their lives wondering if they’ve satisfied all the demands and won the favor of their gods.
4. That would be so heartbreaking to see, and that’s why Paul was so greatly distressed to see what he saw there in Athens.
E. Let’s try to get a picture of what ancient Athens was like.
1. Athens was a city unsurpassed in sculpture and architecture.
a. It boasted a sixty-thousand-seat stadium (bigger than the Carrier Dome).
b. Art galleries existed in rare abundance.
c. Lavishly decorated music halls and respected Academies lined the stone-laid streets.
d. In many ways, Athens stood as the cultural centerpiece of the entire ancient, Greek world.
2. Additionally and tragically, Athens was a junkyard of idols.
a. The busy streets of that city were a veritable forest of stone, wood, and precious metals all carved and shaped into shrines of strange gods.
b. The first century author and philosopher named Pliny, wrote: In the time of Nero, Athens had well over twenty-five thousand public statues, and another thirty thousand in the Parthenon alone.”
c. Another first century writer, Petronious, wrote: “It was easier to find a god than a man in Athens.”
3. The city of Athens was a philosopher’s dream.
a. Wealthy families sent their children to Athens to learn philosophy and to be enriched by the myths of fanciful gods and goddesses.
b. Athens was the native home of Socrates and Plato and the adopted home of Aristotle and Epicurus, who all lived about 300 hundred years before the time of Paul.
c. The final voice of authority in Athens came from the direction of the Areopagus, on Mars Hill.
d. In that lofty place sat philosophers and scholars, teachers and historians, each with their own form of truth.
e. Truth to them was relative and dogmatism amounted to intellectual suicide (sounds like our times, right?).
4. Paul’s soul perceived the evil around him, his spirit ached for the spiritual blindness and the emptiness of the Athenians.
5. John Stott provides a fitting analysis of Paul’s assessment of the spiritual darkness of Athens: Paul’s reaction to the city’s idolatry was not negative only but also positive and constructive. He did not merely throw up his hands in despair, or weep helplessly, or curse and swear at the Athenians. No, he shared with them the good news of Jesus. He sought by proclamation of the gospel to prevail on them to turn from their idols to the living God…The stirrings of his spirit with righteous indignation opened his mouth in testimony.
F. Let’s continue the story from Scripture: 17 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. 18 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. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
1. So, as Paul’s ministry custom was, he went first to the synagogue to speak with the Jews and God-fearing Greeks he found there, and then he went to the market place to interact with anyone he could find there.
2. It was in the marketplace that Paul ran into some Epicureans and Stoics.
3. The Epicureans were an interesting group.
a. They believed that everything happened by chance – they believed there were gods, but they were remote and uninvolved in life.
b. They believed that death was the end and that there was no afterlife.
c. So, they believed that the chief end to life was pleasure.
d. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” is a classic Epicurean philosophy.
4. The Stoics, on the other hand, were the opposite.
a. They believed that everything was god, and everything that happened was the will of god.
b. Their emphasis was on personal discipline and self-control.
c. In their mind, pleasure was not good and pain was not evil.
d. They taught that people should strive to accept the laws of the universe, however harsh.
e. They strove to be emotionless and worked toward a state founded on reason. (Spock-like)
f. They believed that the soul survived the body, but only in a kind of ethereal state.
5. To summarize and compare the two philosophies, the Epicureans’ goal was to, “Enjoy Life!” and the Stoics’ goal was to “Endure Life!”
6. That day in Athens, the Stoics and Epicureans smugly stroked their beards as they listened to Paul, and they were interested enough in his strange new ideas that they granted him a formal hearing – they invited him to speak on a higher plane – literally – and they escorted him up the hill called Mars to the Areopagus.
a. Paul’s moment had arrived to proclaim the good news of Jesus in the most esteemed of settings!
G. Let’s sneak in, find a seat, and listen to Paul speak in the meeting of the Areopagus, the Bible says, Paul 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.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 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. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
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. 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.” (Acts 17:22-31)
1. I’m guessing that what Luke gives us here is a Reader’s Digest version of Paul’s sermon.
2. Notice that Paul began where they were, and like all good preachers, he led them to where they needed to go.
3. Paul started with such a courteous beginning – no insult, no frowning put down, just a courteous, truthful observation – “I observe that you are very religious…”
4. Then Paul focused his sermon on something familiar so that he might explain something unfamiliar.
a. It was a brilliant approach on his part.
b. They knew precisely which altar Paul was speaking about.
c. Perhaps that altar to the Unknown God had been a source of anxiety for some, after all, they didn’t want to leave any gods out and make them angry.
d. Imagine how interested they must have been when Paul said, “You know that unknown god down there on the corner of Zeus and Poseidon? I actually know that God’s name, and I know what that God requires. (Did he have their attention? Absolutely!)
5. Who is that unknown God?
a. He is the creator of heaven and earth.
b. He is the Lord and Master of all things.
c. He is the one who gives life and breath to all living things.
d. And guess where this God lives? He doesn’t live in man-made temples.
e. Imagine how many man-made temples there were in Athens! None are God’s home.
6. What does this unknown God want from and for people?
a. He wants them to seek Him, and He promises that they will find Him.
b. And He wants them to repent, because a day of judgment is coming.
c. And what is the proof that this day of judgement is coming? God raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus will be the judge.
7. Notice how Paul slipped in those two “R” words before the people could tune him out.
a. And what was the response of the listeners?
b. “Repent…you’ve got to be kidding!”
8. The Bible says: 32 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.
a. The response that Paul received is similar to the response we receive today.
b. Every effective sermon results in some sneering and rejecting.
c. Some are intrigued enough to return for a second hearing.
d. And a small group of others believe.
9. Which category are you in at this point?
a. Are you among the doubters and rejecters?
b. Are you among the interested and intrigued?
c. Or are you among the group of devoted believers?
d. We must always remember what is at stake…the souls of people…their eternal existence.
II. The Application
A. As we come to the close of today’s sermon, I want us to draw some principles about correctly handling God’s Word as we share it with others.
B. First of all, as we share the Word of God, let’s always stay focused on the main subject.
1. While there are many important spiritual subjects and areas of interest, we must be sure our main subject is Christ Himself.
2. Christ was Paul’s main subject.
a. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he wrote: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2)
3. Although Paul started with the altar to the unknown God in Athens, he moved the Athenians toward Christ.
4. Preaching, teaching, evangelism and Christian living that doesn’t exalt Christ is empty.
5. Christ is the answer to our deepest needs.
6. Ultimately, we are not trying to make people religious or church goers, rather we are trying to make them Christ-lovers and Christ-followers.
7. When they truly believe in Christ and are devoted to Him, then their lives are transformed.
C. Second, as we share the Word of God, let’s always speak the truth without fear.
1. Because we know that the truth can bring rejection and persecution, sometimes we withhold the truth.
2. We live in a time that Paul predicted in 2 Tim. 4:3-4: For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
a. As you know, the pressure of our culture has caused many denominations, preachers and Christians to change their doctrinal stances to make them more palatable for the masses.
b. A person can literally find a church that will teach whatever they want taught, so that they can live whatever lifestyle they choose.
c. However, we must stick with the Bible truths alone.
d. We cannot change or water down what God has said.
e. And we must speak the truth in love, without fear.
3. I just learned this week that, Russian president Vladimir Putin approved a package of anti-terrorism laws that usher in tighter restrictions on missionary activity and evangelism. The amendments include laws against sharing faith in homes, online, or anywhere but recognized church buildings. The laws go into effect July 20.
a. We need to pray for our brothers and sisters in Russia.
b. We need to pray that they have the courage to share their faith in obedience to God’s commands, which override any governmental laws.
4. Presently, we don’t have official laws prohibiting us from sharing our faith, and yet many of us are afraid to for reasons other than governmental punishment.
5. I pray that all of us will have the courage to share the truth, no matter how unwelcome it may be or whatever reprisal we may experience.
D. Third, as we share the Word of God, let’s always start where our audience is.
1. Paul hooked those men in Athens when he spoke of the altar to the unknown god.
2. We need to find a way to build a bridge to those with whom we are trying to share the Word.
3. We need to find a way to get into their world and build a bridge to Christ.
4. We need to begin with the familiar in order to introduce them to the unfamiliar.
5. Jesus did that over and over again in His teaching by using parables from everyday life.
6. Paul did that over and over again by becoming all things to all men in order to reach them (1 Cor. 9:22).
E. Finally, as we share the Word of God, let’s always surrender the results to God.
1. Paul wrote that he planted the seed, and that Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. (1 Cor. 3:6)
a. I read about an elevator operator at a hospital in Nashville who once described his evangelistic approach like this: “I’m just a nobody telling everybody about somebody who can save anybody.”
b. In some respects, once we have delivered the message, our part ends.
c. Our task is to communicate God’s truth, it is God’s job to empower the truth and draw people through it.
d. Our task is to prepare the patient, but God is the one who does the surgery.
e. When we faithfully sow the seed and water it, then we have done our part.
2. We should never try to force or manipulate people into obeying God, Paul never did, and it doesn’t help in the long run.
a. We should share the Word, pray, care, and show genuine interest, and then entrust the results to God.
b. God can handle the rest and His Word is powerful enough to do its job.
3. Paul wrote: I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. (Rom. 1:16)
a. I pray that you and I will be faithful to do our part to get the Word of God out to those who need it, and when we are faithful to do our part, God can take care of the rest.
4. Allow me to end with this illustration:
a. One day an old Georgia farmer, was sitting on the porch of his tumbledown shack.
b. A stranger stopped for a drink of water and just to pass the time, he asked: “How is your cotton coming along?”
1. “Ain’t got none,” replied the farmer.
2. “Did you plant any?” asked the stranger.
3. “Nope,” was the farmer’s reply, “afraid of boll weevils.”
c. “Well,” continued the stranger, “how is your corn?”
1. “Didn’t plant none,” came the answer, “ ’fraid there weren’t going to be no rain.”
d. The stranger persevered: “Well, how are your potatoes?”
1. “Ain’t got none. Scairt - of potato bugs.”
e. “Really, what did you plant?” pressed the stranger.
1. “Nothin’,” was the farmer’s calm reply, “I jest playin’ it safe.”
5. That’s not the best way to handle the seed for the farmer, nor for the Christian.
a. We must not play it safe with the seed of God’s Word, but must spread it abundantly.
F. Review: As we share the Word of God…
1. Let’s always stay focused on the main subject – Christ.
2. Let’s always speak the truth without fear.
3. Let’s always start where our audience is.
4. Let’s always surrender the results to God.
Resources: Paul: A Man of Grace and Grit, by Charles Swindoll, Word Publishing, 2002, Chapters 14.