Take the gospel to the intellectuals.
Luke provides us with three key ingredients for taking the gospel to intellectuals: 1. Get provoked for God’s glory and the good of others. 2. Expose idols gently. 3. Invite repentance clearly.
Pillar New Testament Commentary, The Acts of the Apostles, by David Peterson
Exalting Jesus in Acts, Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary, by Tony Merida
NIV Application Commentary by Ajith Fernando
ESV Study Bible
INTRODUCTION & BIG IDEA
My dad is an intellectual man. One of my most vivid childhood memories is coming downstairs each morning to my dad sitting at the kitchen table in a suit and tie reading. Until he retired, my dad would wake up at 4:45am every day so that he could read the Los Angeles Times cover-to-cover before heading to his law office. A couple times in my childhood he took me to work with him and I was riveted. He was brilliant in a courtroom and could use his intellectual gifts and oratory skills to whip a jury into a captivating sense of sympathy for one of his clients. Then he could go back to his office and pour over law books for hours without the slightest break in concentration. To this day my dad reads more books in a week then power tools he owns and is ready at the drop of a hat to hear and debate a new idea. My dad is agnostic about what he calls organized religion and, at nearly eighty years old, is still a true intellectual. You probably have a friend or loved one like my dad, someone who loves reading books and discussing ideas. In our passage for today, the Apostle Paul runs into a group of Dennis Cohen types in Athens. Verse 18 calls them Epicureans and Stoic philosophers. We know this group of people were intellectuals from Luke’s description of them in verse 21: Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. Frankly, you could substitute “Cohens” for “Athenians” and you’d have an apt description of Chrismukkah with my family. Rather than being intimidated by these intellectuals, verse 18 says that Paul “was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” to them. This verse brings us to the big idea of our passage in Acts 17: Take the gospel to the intellectuals. Luke holds up the Apostle Paul as a shining example and through his example urges us to take the gospel to intellectuals. Take it from me, intellectuals can be intimidating to take the gospel to. Thankfully, Luke provides us with three key ingredients for taking the gospel to intellectuals: 1. Get provoked for God’s glory and the good of others. 2. Expose idols gently. 3. Invite repentance clearly. And if you don’t think you know any intellectual types, these three ingredients will still be highly effective for taking the gospel to diverse people.
GET PROVOKED FOR GOD’S GLORY & THE GOOD OF OTHERS
Acts 17:16-17: 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. Paul never planned to preach in Athens, he was simply waiting for his team to arrive so that they could continue on their missionary journey. But then something happens. Paul is provoked in his spirit because the city is full of idols. This word “provoked” is used throughout the Old Testament to describe the Lord’s righteous anger, mingled with patient mercy, toward his people when they provoked him by worshiping idols. Idolatry is trusting in created things rather than the Creator for our hope and happiness, significance and security (New City Catechism – 17). Paul is righteously angry that created things are receiving the worship and glory that the creator God deserves and mercifully moved because idols break the hearts and kill the souls of all who worship them. Paul is provoked for the glory of God and the good of others and so he reasons with intellectuals and preaching Jesus and the resurrection. Paul is provoked for God’s glory in his heart, which motivates him to speak the gospel with his lips. Paul is provoked because the real God isn’t getting the worship he deserves and the people aren’t glorifying the One they were made for. As John Piper says, “Missions exists because worship does not.” Before we can speak the gospel with our lips we need to be provoked in our hearts for God’s glory and the good of others.
Question: Do others’ idols provoke you? Take it from me, intellectuals can be an intimidating and mentally merciless bunch. As a result, you may think that you need to know a lot of things to bring the gospel to intellectuals. While knowledge is helpful, the Bible says and my experience confirms that if you want to take the gospel to intellectuals, more than gaining knowledge in your head, you need to get provoked for God’s glory and the good of others in our hearts. The heart motivates the mouth. How do we cultivate such a love for God’s glory that we get provoked by our city being full of idols? One idea: Begin your day by singing songs of praise. There is something unique about singing God-glorifying songs that cultivates a love for God’s glory and a longing that others reflect it. After I read my Bible and before I pray, I’ve begun practicing the spiritual discipline of song. It’s powerful. I love to put on The Getty’s or Norton Hall Band, go on a walk, and sing. The more you sing songs to the glory of God, the more your eyes will see the counterfeit gods around you and your heart will be provoked into action for God’s glory and the good of others. Cultivating a love for God’s glory will protect you from the twin errors of either being so angry that you want to smash idols rather than reason with idolaters or being so numb to idols that you’re never provoked enough to speak. To take the gospel to intellectuals, first, get provoked by cultivating a love for God’s glory and the good of others, perhaps, through song. This raises an important question: Once we are provoked by the idols that our intellectual friends hold dear, what do we do with those idols? That brings us to the second move in our passage. To bring the gospel to intellectual, second…
EXPOSE IDOLS GENTLY
Acts 17:22-27: So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are 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, 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. 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 is actually not far from each one of us…” The intellectuals in Athens have requested to hear more from Paul, and so, Paul heads to the Areopagus where all the thinkers hang out and share ideas. Paul’s goal is to expose their idols so that they turn to the living and true God. But notice that Paul gently exposes their idols by starting with a point of interest that the intellectuals and Christianity share: divine things. Paul says, “I see that you’re very religious and interested in the divine, wonderful, me too.” From that common starting point, Paul exposes the emptiness of their idols by showing where the Bible delivers better on the longing for the divine than idolatry does. Paul essentially says, “that’s wonderful that you’re into religion, but you worship gods you make and cannot even name, that will never fulfill your longings. The Bible says taking your interest in the divine to the one true God who made everything and named everyone. How much more satisfying?!” Paul brings the gospel to intellectuals by gently exposing idols; he begins with a common point of longing and then shows how the real God better fulfills it.
What are some longings that people in our city and Christianity share that we can use as a common starting point so that we can gently expose the weakness of idols? One obvious one these days is racial justice. We could rightly say to many fellow Philadelphians, “I see that you are very concerned for racial justice, wonderful, me too!” And then we can use that shared starting point to share how the true God makes better sense of our shared longings for justice. You could gently expose the idols by saying, “if you think that humanity, not God, is ultimate, you can say that all people have innate rights, but you can’t explain why people have them. But if you believe in the God of the Bible, then you truly have the reason and the fortitude to work for justice; the image of God is in humanity and Jesus died to redeem a people from every tribe, tongue and nation.” You can gently expose the idols by showing the common longing for racial justice and how belief in the real God better fulfills the longing. Of course, to say that the true God better motivates justice sounds hollow if we don’t heed the motivation and display it through our actions. Another common starting point is career (or the security, power, identity and significance that we seek through our careers.). Again, we can begin with a common starting point, “I see that in every way that you’re a hard worker and want to achieve through career, that’s wonderful, me too.” But then you can gently expose the idol by asking questions, “Have you noticed how hard it is to rest and be satisfied with your work? But if you were to find salvation and identity in Christ, then you could work and rest knowing that God’s love for you, the most important place of significance, isn’t contingent on your performance.” This is how I became a Christian. A high school gymnastics teammate of mine essentially said to me, “I see that in every way you’re devoted to gymnastics. But have you noticed that gymnastics isn’t devoted to you and that that no matter how many times you win gymnastics meets, gymnastics never seems to satisfy your longing for significance? It’s because you weren’t made to live for your own glory, but the glory of God.” These kinds of conversations opened the door for my friend to bring the gospel to me. A final common starting point could be public safety during the pandemic. You could say, “I see that you’re concerned for public health and are disappointed that people aren’t willing to slightly inconvenience themselves by wearing masks in those environments that the CDC urges, me too. But guilting people doesn’t seem to work. But the gospel of Jesus Christ can make us truly free, so free that we’re free to lay down our convenience to serve and love others even if we don’t think wearing the mask is necessary.” To bring the gospel to intellectuals, get provoked for the glory of God and the good of others and then expose idols gently. How do we, finally, help our intellectual friends lay down their idols? That brings us to our third and final point. To take the gospel to intellectuals, thirdly…
INVITE REPENTANCE CLEARLY
Acts 17:29-31: 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.” Paul isn’t content to leave the exposure of idols vague. Rather, he makes it personal. He says that the intellectuals should not be worshiping what they make, but the One who made everything. He says that God has been overwhelmingly patient in not bringing immediate judgment on intellectuals and everyone else for their idolatry, but God has fixed a day when he will righteously judge the unrighteous world, including intellectuals, by the appointed one, Jesus Christ. Therefore, he invites them to repent clearly; to turn from idols to worship the true God through Christ. When it comes to taking the gospel to intellectuals, it’s tempting to reason together and leave it at that. Intellectuals tend to love the conversation for its own sake, but the gospel is urgent and so taking the gospel to intellectuals requires not just stating the good news, but also inviting repentance, to turn to God, clearly.
Question: will you love your intellectual neighbors enough to not just reason with them, but say to them, “God invites you to turn from your idols and build your whole life around Him, to find your hope and happiness, significance and eternal security in Him. Will you?”
My intellectual friend, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that Paul preaches proves that Jesus is God and that’s really bad news. The resurrection of Jesus means that all of your idolatry is personal. Your idolatry is against Him, the true and living God. But the resurrection of the Lord Jesus is also glorious news. The one who will judge idolatry righteously one day will pardon you graciously if you’ll receive him with the empty hands of faith because He died and rose for sins, even the worst sin, worshiping what we make rather than the Maker who took on flesh, died, and rose for us. Jesus is the only Redeemer who can bring intellectuals and the rest of us back to God. Friends, we’re not going to Hell anymore and we are free in Christ to find our hope and happiness, significance and security in Jesus Christ every day. Revel in the gospel and take it to intellectuals by getting provoked for God’s glory and their good, exposing idols gently, and inviting repentance clearly.