God’s Claim on All Peoples - Part 2
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 17:16–17:34
Let's begin with the text before us...
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”— because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you’re presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you’re very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t 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. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he’s actually not far from each one of us, 28 for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ 29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. [Pray]
Today is part two of last Sunday’s message. We ran out of time; I had more ways to apply Acts 17. That means today’s message will be lighter on explaining the text and heavier on applying the text. If you missed last Sunday, that message is online. Today’s primary goal is to answer this question: How else might Acts 17 equip you and me as Christ’s disciples? Last time, we drew further confidence from the fact that the gospel is not only an intellectually respectable message; it’s the power of God for salvation. Dionysius, Damaris, and others are persuaded that Christianity is true, Jesus is risen. In a world teaming with idols and competing worldviews, the gospel saves.
Moreover, the gospel still calls us to repent from idolatry. Not just the world, but especially us—we must reorient our lives around the true God. We must cultivate a heart that’s jealous for God’s glory. We must renew our minds to discern idols and renounce them to have more of God in Christ. Why? Because he’s the universal Creator and Lord; and we exist to seek him and enjoy worshiping him as he really is.
1. We must align our lives with God’s mission to all peoples.
That was last week. What else does Acts 17 mean for us? It also means we must align our lives with God’s mission to all peoples. When reading Scripture, one of the most helpful questions to ask is this: What time is it? What era in God’s story are we living? But be careful, answering that question can transform your life.
Verses 30-31 highlight what time it is. He says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
I explained this some last week. For centuries, Israel benefitted from God’s self-revelation. God didn’t give this to all nations. He chose Israel; and there was a time when he let the nations walk in ignorance. But Paul presents that situation as a thing of the past: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent…” It’s not that nations all of a sudden stop walking in ignorance, but that God now has a mission not to leave them in their ignorance.
Rather than dealing primarily with Israel—and maybe a few Gentiles here and there—God has commissioned the church to take his special revelation to all.[i] We have a mission to command all peoples everywhere to repent and rest their guilty, weary selves in the forgiveness God offers in Christ. That mission started with Jesus’ resurrection; it finishes with Jesus’ return. That’s what time it is, beloved. Until his return, our risen Lord says, “Command all peoples everywhere to repent.”
I fear that many Christians look to God’s word to find therapeutic comfort for a life they would’ve lived anyway without Jesus. They like the gospel because it pacifies their guilty conscience; but when it comes to commanding the world to repent, they check out. Beloved, we can’t live there. We can’t live there, because King Jesus is too glorious and forgiveness is too sweet to keep silent; and his return is too dreadful to leave people in their ignorance.
Life isn’t so much about how God fits into our plans; it’s about adjusting our plans to fit the story of God’s mission. God is on a mission to save a people from all nations. How are you conforming your life to that mission? Based on a number of factors and abilities, it’s going to look different for each of us. But the question is still one everybody can ask: How’s he conforming you to participate?
Would your coworkers and clients know you to be a Christian? Would they say, “Man, he hates it when God is belittled; I don’t know this Jesus he talks about, but the way he talks about him makes me want to know him”? What time is it, beloved? It’s time to command all people everywhere to repent. How are you aligning your life with that mission? I know mine needs to be further aligned.
I prayed one morning this week that the Lord would allow me share the gospel with one person that day. He sent me someone…right in the middle of some work. I was rather impatient with the “interruption.” It wasn’t till half-way through the conversation that the Lord rebuked me with this question: “What time is it, Bret?” In an instant, it changed everything about that conversation and my heart as well. We went on to discuss how the Lord binds up those who’ve been torn apart.
2. Imitate Paul’s God-centered analysis, unbiased engagement, worldview evangelism.
Next, as we call the nations to repentance, imitate Paul’s God-centered analysis, his unbiased engagement, and his worldview evangelism. Not everyone must be a pioneering church planter. But I am saying there are patterns to Paul’s missionary work to imitate. Paul says elsewhere, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
Paul involves himself in God-centered analysis. Verse 16, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” Most people who entered Athens were impressed by the city, enthralled by the architecture. Paul sees right through the façade. It’s an idolatry swamp. In verse 23, he observes the objects of their worship; he knows them well enough to quote from an inscription on the rock. Then he shows how far they fall short of knowing the true God.
In verse 28, he’s familiar with their own poets. But he uses those poets to acknowledge the truth about humanity they get right and to expose the worship they get so wrong. He looks at their culture through God-centered lenses and says, “That’s good, that’s bad. That’s right, that’s wrong. That’s beautiful, that’s corrupt.
We need the same God-centered lenses. We need to train our minds to make God-centered critiques of any ideas, beliefs, or values that don’t align with God’s truth, with God’s justice, with God’s values. We can’t just passively sit back and let the culture entertain us and tell us how we must think. We must be alert to its deception. What is this commercial teaching me to value? Why does the media keep pushing that headline while ignoring these events? Why do Facebook and Google sift content so you see only what you prefer, and does this isolate you into a little bubble that precipitates self-worship?
We also see in Paul’s witness unbiased engagement. He doesn’t play favorites. Note the various peoples he interacts with: Jews and Greeks in the synagogue. He goes into the marketplace and reasons with whoever happens to be there. He converses with the Stoics and Epicureans, the great philosophers of his day. Men and women alike. Ethnicity, economic status, social status, gender, education level—it doesn’t matter. They all need Christ; Paul offers them Christ.
Likewise, we too must not show favorites. In terms of strategy, it may help to think through ways to reach a particular people. But never can our strategy turn into favoring that people or that class over others. Or favoring only those people who look, dress, smell, talk, and do things like us. We can’t fall into the error of building a church around a particular ethnicity or class; or doing things here that exclude a particular ethnicity or class. The gospel is for all peoples without distinction.
When Paul interacts with these people, though, what’s his approach? It’s not difficult to observe differences? Just read his speech to Jews in Acts 13 and compare with his speech here to the Areopagus. Both show relentless faithfulness to Scripture and to preaching Christ. Yet there’s also differences. It’s not pre-packaged.
He shows sensitivity to what people know and don’t know, the categories they accept or deny. He practices what we might call worldview evangelism. A worldview is your all-encompassing perspective on everything that matters: where’d we come from; what shapes morality; what’s possible and not possible.[ii] It’s the lens through which you see everything. All I mean to say here is that Paul is attentive to the worldview of his listeners. He knows where they’re coming from; and that serves his ability to communicate the truth clearly and be sure they’re getting what he’s saying.
For the Jews who read Scripture, they grasped monotheism and sin and curse and God’s promises. But most were completely blind to a Messiah who would suffer, die, and rise again. Their worldview didn’t allow it. But what does Paul do in verses 2 and 3? He takes the Scriptures and he builds into their worldview categories for a suffering and rising Messiah. Then he says, “That Messiah is Jesus.” Patiently, he lays the groundwork before he even gets to the name Jesus.
He does the same with the Areopagus, except they don’t know Scripture; and their worldviews very much compete with Scripture. They weren’t like blank hard-drives onto which he might download Christianity. No, their hard-drives already had corrupt files that wouldn’t just conflict with Christianity, but also prevent them from receiving the gospel files accurately.[iii] Francis Schaeffer once said, “we must understand that there’s no word so meaningless as the word god until it is defined.”[iv]
For Paul to slap a John 3:16 bumper sticker on everything while their concept of “god” and “love” and “world” are so out of step with the biblical meaning, would be just plain lazy, confusing, and unloving. No, what does he do first? He lays groundwork upon which he can then preach Christ. He starts further back with God, who he is. If you don’t know God truly, you’re not going to get the gospel.
Then he pulls from their own poets. He interacts with their worldview. They were right to see something of God’s nature revealed in humanity. But they were dead wrong to turn him into an idol of their own making. So while he’s setting forth the biblical worldview, he’s also dismantling their worldview, showing its inconsistencies, and exposing their accountability before God.
Francis Schaeffer called this “taking the roof off” someone’s house. People construct worldviews to hide from reality. They go into them like a house. But “When the roof is off, each man must stand naked and wounded before the truth of what is.” Our brother Max wrote a Thesis on Schaeffer. He adds this: “…when an individual comes face to face with the fact that their worldview is illogical and cannot adequately answer major objections of existence, morals, and how they come to know anything at all, that’s when Christians are able to lovingly and confidently demonstrate that God revealed himself in the incarnation of Jesus Christ…”[v]
I don’t want to make this more complicated than what it is. The main point is that we’re dealing with people, not projects. Loving them well means working hard to know them, to know how they think, to know what framework they’re hearing you from, and then building a foundation on which Christ is rightly understood and offered. The best way you can do this is by asking questions and listening. Press people’s worldviews to their logical conclusions. Then back it up and show how the biblical worldview is most consistent with reality, and the only one that offers true hope in the gospel.
Maybe an example would help. Suppose you work with an LGBT advocate. Let’s assume your relationship is one where neither of you mind sharing your views, but she’s quite adamant that Christians have got sexuality wrong. They’re just imposing external constraints. Her view differs from others in the LGBT community. It’s not so much the create-your-own-reality-I-can-do-what-I-want view. It’s actually a seek-your-own-destiny view: “I was born this way; I must be true to myself.”
The worst way to approach this is to impose on her a worldview she doesn’t actually hold. We end up slandering, putting words in her mouth. Not too much better are superficial remarks like, “You fight so often for various political freedoms, but I just want to say that true freedom comes in Christ.” That might be true. But it’s conflating categories and not really meeting her at the most fundamental level.
Far better is to follow Paul’s approach, and address her own worldview, even being willing to grant where that worldview gets some things right. Maybe like this: “You know, you’re always telling me that you must be true to yourself. It would be morally wrong for you to live out of sync with your human identity. You couldn’t be more right. Christianity actually affirms the same truth. The real question is, how do you know your human identity? Is it just subjective, a matter of your own inclination? Or, could it be that you’ve gotten your identity all wrong? Is there something objective that tells us what we are and whose we are and why we are? See the culture around us says, ‘You are your sexuality,’ the whole of your self-worth is found in fulfilling your sexual desires. But when that goes south, when relationships fail, then what? You’ve got nothing left to live for; and you don’t know who you are. On the other hand, Scripture sets our identity in someone outside us who never changes and who is always faithful and knows us in the most intimate way. This God stamped his identity in us, in you. Whether male or female, you’re his image bearer and he determines our destiny.”[vi]
From there, it’s not too far from further conversations about the image of God, how sin warps that image, and what Christ has done to give us a new identity in him. God-centered analysis; unbiased engagement; worldview evangelism.
3. Resurrection truth means the body is good, history is linear, we’re accountable, physical death isn’t the end.
Speaking of worldview, what are some ways Acts 17 shapes our worldview? One way is with resurrection truth. If there’s one thing we’ve noticed in Acts, it’s the centrality of Christ’s bodily resurrection. But also notice that Christ’s resurrection guarantees a future bodily resurrection of all people. Christ will judge the world in righteousness, verse 31. Everyone will be raised for judgment.
How might a future resurrection shape your worldview? Well, some religions break the universe into spirit and matter. The spirit is good, they say, and matter is evil. But a future resurrection of the body says just the opposite. Resurrection means your body is good. Resurrection means God’s physical creation is good.
Resurrection also teaches us how to view history. History isn’t an endless cycle. History is linear; it’s heading somewhere. The risen Christ is taking everything to the judgment and new creation. Resurrection also means humans are accountable. The Lord will judge us. It also means physical death isn’t the end. I’ve attended funerals where pastors have said things like, “He’ll never be more whole than he is now.” I know intentions are good, but that’s false. We’re not whole until we receive our resurrection bodies. These are but a few ways that our bodily resurrection shapes our worldview.
4. Four truths that kill racism...
Next, racism. Racism isn’t limited to the black-white divide in America. It has a much longer history and numerous, horrible expressions world-wide. I do want to be careful when I use the term “racism,”[vii] especially since “racism” is often hijacked by various ideologies to promote racist, political agendas.
In his book, Love in Hard Places, D. A. Carson offers a helpful starting place. Racism means “all patterns of exclusion of others grounded in race or ethnicity.”[viii] I find the latter term “ethnicity” more helpful than “race.” The Bible never organizes peoples by skin-color, as is so often done in “race” discussions. Rather, the Bible speaks of ethnoi, various people groups—tribes, tongues, peoples, nations.
Then also, I like to add the element of pride and prejudice—pride being making yourself superior to others; prejudice being the hostile opinions and feelings based on your perceived superiority. So when I say “racism,” I mean all patterns of exclusion of others grounded in ethnic pride and prejudice. Acts 17 equips us with a worldview that ought to rip racism to shreds wherever it exists.
All ethnicities share the same heritage in Adam.
To begin, all ethnicities share the same heritage in Adam. Acts 17:26, “[God] made from one man every nation [read, ethnicity] of mankind to live on all the face of the earth…” That’s a sweeping statement. No ethnicity exists as the result of the fall, or as the result of a curse, or as the result of random, genetic mutations. God made every ethnicity; and he doesn’t make mistakes. He also made them from one man, Adam. Which means every person of every ethnicity bears the image of God.[ix]
No matter the skin color, hair texture, facial features, geography, language, food likes and dislikes—we’re all cousins in Adam. His blood runs in our veins. We’re all cut from the same cloth. We’re all created to image God. To demean or dismiss or stereotype another person because of their skin-color not only ignores our common ancestry; it’s an assault on God’s image and creative work. No ethnicity is more valuable than the other. They’re all equally a part of God’s good creation.
All ethnicities were created for the same purpose: to know God.
More than that, all ethnicities share the same purpose to know God. Verse 27 goes on: “…that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” As Paul explains in Romans 1, God made known his invisible attributes in the things that have been made. Every ethnicity should look at creation and seek after God truly. Sadly, though, all ethnicities abandon this purpose. Unity in Adam also means their sin nature hinders the pursuit of God. Every ethnicity exchanges God’s glory for idols. That should humble us. Nobody is better than the other.
All ethnicities share the same purpose to know God.
All ethnicities share the same idolatry problem. Look again at verse 30: “he commands all people everywhere to repent.” Which ethnicities need to repent from their idolatry, including the idolatry of self, the idolatry of one’s ethnicity? All of them. Nobody gets a free pass on repentance. All people everywhere must repent—repent means reorienting your whole self around Jesus, finding your ultimate identity in Jesus. It’s not just European-Americans that need to repent; it’s also African-Americans and Chinese and Latinos and Koreans and Canadians and Hispanics and Egyptians and Russians—we must all return to the Lord. He’s not far from us.
All ethnicities are being pursued by the same God.
In fact, all ethnicities are being pursued by the same God. God gave up his Son for all ethnicities. Jesus said, “I, when I’m lifted up, I will draw all peoples to myself.” He’s the Lamb who was slain and redeemed people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Verse 30, “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent.” God sends his messengers to all peoples without distinction and says, “Come to me!”
Any pattern of exclusion of someone grounded in ethnic pride and prejudice denies these truths of Acts 17, and will be held accountable at the judgment. At the same time, people who embrace the truths of Acts 17 can make great strides in the pursuit of unity. Real unity. Familial unity in Christ. The world doesn’t have the answers to the sin of racism. They don’t even have the proper worldview to diagnose the problem.
But by God’s grace, he hasn’t left the church in ignorance. We know the truth; it’s right here. We can walk into any room, into any store, into any school, into any neighborhood and say about any person, “Descended from Adam just like me. Image bearer, created to know God just like me. A guilty idolater just like me. A candidate for God’s grace just like me.” When that’s the attitude of our heart, racism will die. God’s truth will sever the roots of ethnic pride and prejudice, and make the church to better reflect the community we’ll eventually be in the final kingdom.
5. God’s movement of peoples keeps us mindful of our missionary opportunity.
One final way Acts 17 might shape our worldview: refugees. The Bible speaks of God ordaining government to promote good and restrain evil. When it comes to refugees, evaluating how a government should act is crucial. Without minimizing the importance of those conversations, all I want to do here is point out one truth from Acts 17 that should also play a significant role in shaping our response to refugees.
It’s in verse 26: “[God] determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” God is sovereign over the movement of peoples, so that they might find him. 11,741 peoples worldwide. Over 7,000 are “unreached”—which means there’s less than 2% of an evangelical witness. 3,178 remain unengaged, which is worse. Not only are they lost, but no Christians are looking for them. Mostly, they live in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia; and there are obvious challenges to reaching them.
But here’s the remarkable opportunity we have. God has brought many of these unengaged people groups here, and to other major cities in the world where they can access the gospel. The video you’re seeing maps the movement of refugees over the last decade and a half. The circumstances they’re leaving are unspeakably horrible. Over the last 3 years, we’ve seen many refugees settle in Fort Worth from Myanmar, Iraq, Congo, Somalia, and Syria. God has brought the nations to our doorsteps.
The question is, what will we do with this opportunity? Will we sit in fear over what this could mean for our country? Will we spend all our time debating what more the government should do? Or, will we see this as God’s doing, as part of his plan to help many unengaged peoples come to know Christ?
I think our walk through Acts 17 has equipped us all the more to share Christ with them. Not only do these truths kill racism; they compel us to minister to all ethnicities without distinction. We’ve also learned how to talk to people with different worldviews, to help them know and understand the gospel that frees them from idolatry. Let’s pray that God would give us opportunities to make his gospel known.
[i]It’s just as Scripture and Jesus said: “the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations…” (Luke 24:45-47).
[ii]One of the best summaries that I’ve heard on “worldview” is by James Anderson. The wording here comes from the lecture found at the following link: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/what-are-worldviews-why-do-worldviews-matter-how-does-one-change-worldviews/.
[iii]For this illustration, I’m indebted to D. A. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” in Telling the Truth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 386.
[iv]Quoted in Max Stabenow, “Francis Schaeffer and Christian Discipleship: Towards a Model of Biblical Worldview Integration,” Thesis, Gateway Seminary (September 29, 2016).
[vi]I’m indebted to Joel Duggins for helping me think through this example.
[vii]Some people reduce “race” to such broad categories, they sometimes miss the racism between people groups within those categories. For instance, tensions exist between Chinese and Japanese peoples, but if they’re both lumped into the “Asian race,” it’s hard to label the problem “racism.” Others have packed so much into the term “racism,” that they automatically assume racism is the underlying problem with any observable difference or disparity, quite apart from pursuing the facts. See especially D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 87-108.
[ix]Cf. Acts 17:26 with Gen 1:27-28; 3:20; 5:1-3 (esp. “in his own likeness, after his image”).