Sermons on Sermons | Part IV | “The Strangeness of the Word” | Acts 17:22-34


Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A Sign to Be Opposed

As we finish out our Sermons on Sermons series and how to intake the preached Word of God, we’re going to be talking today about the strangeness of God’s Word. We’ve heard of the power, the primacy, the story, but now the strangeness. Not that there’s actually something wrong with it, but that as it comes into our world, this world of sin, blindness, and error, God’s Word always has a foreign sense to it. It comes from some place else. It comes from God.

I’m reminded here of the words that were spoke over Jesus by Simeon as he was presented in the Temple. Do you remember what he said? “Behold, this child is appointed… [to be] a sign that is opposed.” (Luke 2:34) A sign that is opposed. You see the Word of God and Gospel of Christ which it proclaims, is foreign to us as people. It cuts against the grain. Apart from Christ, it is simply not the way we think and the way we live, particularly in relationship to God.

In our postmodern world, when truth is being thrown out the window altogether, this is such an important affirmation. We are Christians because the Gospel is true. It brings boatloads of comfort, but doesn’t always make us comfortable. It soothes our soul, but the contents of the Word of God will not always make us feel good. Even after we become a Christian, this note of strangeness remains. Even as we are immersed in the name of the triune God, we are still, each us, dipped into our culture. Every time we place ourselves under the Word of God, it should shake us. It should reinvigorate us. It should remind us of what is true about God, about ourselves, and our world. If you would persist in hearing and reading the Scriptures, then get used to different. You could put it like this: we don’t so much read the Bible as the Bible reads us. It exposes and correct our false assumptions.

I can think of no better sermon in Scripture to illustrate this than the one Paul preached in Acts 17 while in Athens. This city had a storied cultural tradition that included no less than Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. But, as Luke tells us, it was also a city “full of idols” – literally “smothered by idols” or “swamped” by them. It is this idolatry that calls forth in Paul the desire to teach, to preach, and to reason with anyone who listen to the Gospel of the living God.  What we should first notice here is that Paul takes everything that is assumed about religion and God and flips it upside down. You know, the Christian message continues to do that today wherever it is faithfully preached. We might bemoan the challenges of preaching the Gospel and being faithful Christians in our day, but look at the challenges the first Christians had! They lived in a society that was pluralist to the hilt, and look what God did with them.

I. God’s Word Confronts Our Idols (v. 16, 22-23)

As we get into the passage, let’s look first at how God’s Word confronts our idols. As Paul preaches in the Areopagus, he seizes on an altar dedicated to, apparently, the gods know who. Surely, Paul must have got a few chuckles when he stood in the middle of Areopagus and declared, “I perceive you are…religious.” Of course, the word that’s used there can simply mean superstitious, so it was a bit of backhanded compliment. In fact, the people of Athens were so superstitious that they even had altars to unknown gods, just to cover their bases. Perhaps the tribute on an old altar had worn off, so they put on a new one, “whoever this altar used to be to, we didn’t want to forget you, either.” Or maybe the intent was to make sure that whatever other unknown gods were “out there,” were placated, too. Paul seizes on this and says, “That which you worship as unknown I proclaim to you today.” Emphasis on the unknown.

Just like the worshippers at Athens, all of us bring skewed and idolatrous notions about God to his Word and into our lives as Christians. We have to allow (and continue to allow) God to show us who he is, rather than us trying to tell him who he is. Scripture is the plumbline by which that happens. That’s what idolatry is, after all. Listen to John Stott’s definition: “All idolatry tries to minimize the gulf between the Creator and his creatures, in order to bring him under our control.” (The Message of Acts, Stott)

II. God’s Word Brings Clarity to Confusion (vs. 24-29)

Secondly, we see that God’s Word brings clarity to confusion.

So, the idolatry at Athens was all about just that: placating and controlling the gods. But look what Paul does: he knocks the bottom out of their false worship. “All along,” he says, you thought the gods were like this, but let me tell you about the true and living God.” Listen to what he says: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Oh, he’s really upsetting the tea party now, isn’t he? In a city stuffed with idols, Paul goes before the religious authority and says there is one God and he doesn’t need your altars! He could have been quoting from Psalm 51:10-12:

All the beasts of the forest are mine,

   and so are the cattle upon a thousand hills. …

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,

   for the whole world is mine, and all that is therein.” (New Coverdale Psalter)

You see, Paul is combating what Tim Keller calls “Thunder” and “Sweetheart” religion. What does he mean by that? Thunder religion is moralistic religion – religion that says you gotta keep up those altars, keep up those sacrifices, placate those deities (whose number was profuse), keep them in your pocket, stay on their good side, be good ‘cause Santa’s comin’ to town and you don’t want to be left with coal! This makes people feel good. It makes us feel like we can do it all. This is “thunder religion,” kept by those who keep up the altars of the gods, and count themselves among the “good folk.” But it is not Christianity.  

And here you might think, well Justin, didn’t YHWH himself institute sacrifices to be made? The answer is yes, but not like this. He instituted those sacrifices knowing that he would one day be on the altar himself. Friend, that’s a different kind of religion.

Then there is sweetheart religion, or, as we know it, relativism. It says, pick a god, any god, just don’t make a fuss over it. It’s about our preferences and what works for us, with conveniently very little content. And because it lacks any content, it has no power to speak with any conviction about justice or evil or salvation. In the end, it has no message and requires nothing. And today, our culture is just as caught up in this as Athens was in Paul’s day. As we ministered at the Wine Fest those few weeks ago, I guarantee you that there were people who found our very presence their to be judgmental. To be offensive. This is our default mode – we love Sweetheart religion!

From cover to cover, the story of the Bible is dramatically different, because it’s the story of God’s great pursuit of man, not the other way around. The Scriptures are the story of a God who is so utterly faithful and good so as come into his creation and die for the life and healing of the world. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) It sounds almost blasphemous to say, but the Christian life is about knowing and proclaiming and giving thanks and living in light of God’s service to you, not the other way around.

David Gooding, writing on the approach to sacrifice and worship at Athens, says this:

Its sadness lies in the way it misreads and misinterprets the heart and character of the true God. He is not in business. He does not sell his love or his forgiveness to us spiritually bankrupt sinners, nor can we buy his salvation.” (True to the Faith)

III. God’s Word Brings Nourishment to Hunger (vs. 22-23)

Thirdly, God’s Word brings nourishment to hunger. Paul clearly acknowledges that there is a massive spiritual hunger present in Athens, even if it’s corrupt, degraded and misplaced. Man was made to worship, and worship he will – even if it’s at the altar of an idol. We often hear that our society is becoming more secular, but that does not mean this hunger will go away – it cannot.

So, for instance, why are some of our young people looking for healing in sex reassignment surgery? Because they are hungry, starved, in need solid food and are being offered an empty plate. Tragically, you can guarantee a surgery won’t fix that. But the revealing, honest scalpel of God’s commandments and the healing, saving balm of the Gospel can and will.

And today, you go down the road to Sharpsburg and worship at the Church of the Wild – a church that retains Christian language while openly embracing paganism and nature worship. You see, we can never become truly secular. We just transfer our allegiances. As Paul walked in the midst of Athens he “observed the objects of [their] worship.” We walk in the midst of the demanding gods of autonomy, inclusivity, and the self. And what we proclaim to others and to ourselves, is the strange and unknown, and yet saving of message of Christ.

IV. God’s Word Calls for Repentance & Faith (vs. 30-31)

Lastly, we see in this passage the strangeness of God’s Word in that calls for repentance & faith. It is not, like the other philosophies embraced at Athens: not just “the telling or hearing of something new” (v.21) without consequence.

Paul ends by saying that the one God who made all sent one Savior into the world for the salvation of the world, and that the next item on God’s agenda is one judgment for the entire world. Listen to David Gooding again:

He is not a God who has a right to interfere in some nations and cultures because he fits in with their ethos and concepts, and no right to interfere in other nations and cultures because he is alien to their way of thinking. He made them all, he maintains all, and he commands all everywhere to repent.” (True to the Faith, David Gooding)

As we listen to the preached Word, it urgently calls us to do the strangest thing of all in the eyes of our culture: repent and know Christ today! Brothers and sisters, we do not know the hour and the day of Christ’s return but what we know is this: it is but one day closer still! So the preaching of God’s Word convicts all and calls all to come to faith in Christ.

So, is the Bible strange to you? Good. It means your listening. Every day we should come to the Scriptures prepared, like those at the Areopagus, ready to have “strange things” brought to ears and ready to say yes and amen. Don’t give up hearing and listening to the Word of God because it runs it counter to our culture and, therefore, to some of your assumptions. Day-by-day, bend your knees while they still bend, bow you head, and humble your heart.

A Prayer for the Church from Philippians 1:6-11

[Now may] he who began a good work in you…bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  [And may] your love…abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Amen.