ACTS 17:22—35 ESV
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 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. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 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, 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, 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.’
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. 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.”
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
If you missed last week, we started our series called ON DEMAND. We asked for topics and got a great response. Last week we talked about “forgiving with God,” how true forgiveness begins with God’s forgiving of us. When we receive His love, it enables us to forgive others as God does. Divine love offers divine forgiveness. That is what we need in order to forgive others from the heart.
Today we look at a question regarding Jesus being the only way to heaven amidst the existence of other religions. This is a HUGE topic, so I’ll hit what I can this morning.
“In the beginning,” is how the Judeo-Christian Scriptures begin. God existed before anything else and caused all things to exist. And so, God is our starting point. Most religions have a creation story, but soon after is when things begin to diverge. Here’s an illustration: think about the spirituality of the world like an interstate. The world has a beginning (a starting point) and is headed toward an ending or destination. At different points along the way, humanity decided to take an exit off the interstate, and many of them stopped and setup camp all along the road at various exits. Some religions exited before others and its the reason they are so different from each other.
If we look at Islam, they get off the interstate at an exit just after Abraham. They tell the story differently, building a new narrative from Abraham’s family. It’s the reason their faith community looks so different from those who kept going with the story. For Jews, they traveled much, much further, taking an exit off the interstate just before Jesus. For us Christians, we have continued down the road, holding to God’s destination and truth, staying true to the interstate God put us on. Now, all metaphors limp, but I hope this provides a framework for our thinking.
For any conversation about God, there has to be a starting place. Every topic, issue, or argument has to establish some common ground so that the one speaking can build some credibility. This is what the apostle Paul does in our Scripture. We find him at the Areopagus, the site of the highest governmental council in Athens, Greece. Politics, philosophy, and religion were welcome in this place during Roman times. So Paul’s words aren’t out of the ordinary.
Surrounding the grounds were statues and altars of the many gods of various religions, both ancient and contemporary. One of the altars was to an unknown god. This unknown god is a perfect conversation piece because it’s like a blank canvas, an empty moment that Paul can fill with the truth about Jesus.
He works in ideas that are familiar to his listeners, building credibility and gaining an audience. He uses the competition—poems and stories from philosophers they are familiar with—to connect his audience to the ultimate truth for their benefit. The whole point is to win them to Christ; for those gathered together, with their ideas and opinions on religion and life, to hear a deeper, greater truth that would save their souls.
I once heard a story about Gregory the Great, a pope in the 6th century AD, who sent missionaries to the English Isles. When they arrived, they found temples to pagan gods. They wrote the pope, asking for permission to destroy the temples. But Gregory responded saying not to tear them down. If the people understood worship and devotion, then they were already wired for worship. He encouraged them to build relationships and to replace their idols with the cross, re-orienting them toward Christ.
Paul desires here in Acts to re-orient people to Christ. Does he have to reveal whats wrong with their ideas or practices? Yes, because without turning them toward the truth, toward Jesus Christ and what God commands, the people will be lost. But Paul starts on common ground and uses the competing views of the days to find connection points.
Several years ago, the Twilight series was a big thing in the culture. There were many people and parents concerned about our culture focusing on vampires. But I heard an evangelist twist the phenomena for the positive. Rather than judging the cultures’ interests, what if we looked deeper into their interests and found connecting points?
The Twilight and vampire world was about love, community, sustaining life with blood, and living forever. Can you see the connecting points? How conversation can start around fellowship, the love of God, Jesus’ sacrifice of blood for us, and everlasting life? We can untwist the strange thinking of a make-believe world and offer hope! We can look for the common ground in the broken redemption stories around us and point others toward the ultimate redemption story that can make them whole!
Christ’s expectation, as made plain through Paul, is that all people would come to Him. There is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ. The details of that salvation and the way it plays out are in the hands of God, not the hands of His people. Our role is to be a compassionate, patient, inviting people, who reveal Jesus Christ in our very hearts, minds, souls, and strengths. We are the glory of God, on display for the world to see.
And so we use the competition, understanding that everyone is hardwired to worship, and those who are already religious have the upper hand when it comes to connecting with Jesus. We stay true to the story, remaining on the interstate. We respect, we win favor, we find common ground, and we reveal the truth of Jesus Christ, all for their salvation. Amen.