ACTS 17 - ENCOURAGEMENTS FOR WITNESSING.
(1) It pleases the Lord for it is His top priority that others should know the Gospel of salvation. His final words before ascending to heaven were: 'Go (move out of your comfort zone, don’t wait for someone to come to you, take the initiative), preach the Gospel to all creatures' (Mark 16:15).
(2) The Holy-Spirit is working with you as you witness whether you feel Him or not (Acts 1:8).
He is sent TO us and then works THROUGH us: 'If I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come (to you), He will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgement' (John 16:7-8).
(3) God has already been working in the person’s life - even those who seem furthest away from God. This is illustrated by a story from ATHENS, a city steeped in false philosophy and religion. It provides the historical background to Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17.
They had lost the knowledge of the true eternal God and replaced it by idols to many false gods (who were merely higher beings within this universe). It was said that in Athens: ‘it is easier to find a god than a man.’ Even today many say they believe in God but if you ask what kind of God, they don’t describe our God, but an impersonal force or mind. Replacing God, they fill their lives with idols to which they cling, but find no true meaning.
1. A plague had struck the city of Athens, in 600BC, decimating the population.
2. They offered sacrifices to their 30,000 gods (more than any city they collected gods from everywhere) to ask for deliverance - to no avail.
3. In desperation the elders sent messengers to summon a Greek hero called Epi-men-edes. He came to Athens and they told him they had tried everything. They begged his help.
4. He came up with a plan based on two premises.
Firstly: - there must be another God who did not consider himself represented by one of the idols in Athens, but who was hopefully good and great enough to stop the plague. They had to contact this ‘unknown God.’ But they said: ‘we don’t KNOW Him or His NAME - how can we contact Him.’
Secondly: Any God, good and great enough to stop the plague is also big enough to smile upon us in our ignorance, if we openly acknowledge our ignorance and turn to Him.
5. Epi-men-edes then told them to bring a flock of sheep to Mars Hill (sacred ground), of more than one colour (to give God a choice) and commanded the flock to be released. Normally such sheep (if kept hungry overnight) will begin to graze. He commanded the men to follow the sheep and called on this God to cause the ones He wanted to be sacrificed to lie down (rather than graze) in the spot He wanted them sacrificed. This would be against the sheep’s nature so it would be a sign of this God’s willingness to help. Miraculously a number of sheep did this.
6. Wherever the sheep laid down, they built ALTARS - inscribed to the UNKNOWN GOD (thus humbly admitting their ignorance) and offered the sheep as a sacrifice.
7. All 3 Greek writers who tell us about this (Diogenes Laertius, Philostratus, Pausanias) agree the plague was lifted at once. But Athens went back to following many gods , but at least one altar was left on Mars Hill dedicated to the UNKNOWN GOD.
600 years later in Acts 17, the apostle Paul came to Athens: 'While Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw the city given over to idols (because idols draw people’s attention away from the one True God). Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. Some said, 'What does this babbler want to say?' Others said, 'He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,' because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, 'May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? 'For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.' For all Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing (v16-21).
This is an example of how to witness to those who don’t even have a clear idea of who God is. 'Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus (on Mars Hill!) and said, 'Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 'for as I was passing through and
considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you' (v22,23).
Paul had done his research on Athens and had discovered how God had already worked and communicated Himself to them. Then in witnessing He built on that to build a bridge from the knowledge they had to the Gospel as its fulfilment. This was a positive approach rather than just tearing down their errors. Standing on the same hill, he identified with their unknown God (whose existence they accepted), reminding them of the events of 600BC, when this God revealed His great mercy and power to them (even over death!). They had accused him of bringing in a foreign god but Paul said: 'No, I want to tell you more about the God who has worked in your life before. He wants to reveal Himself more fully to you. You have admitted your ignorance but I know Him, you don’t have to be ignorant any more.' So, by relating the gospel to a previous revelation of God Paul helped to open their hearts to new truth.
He firstly announced He had some good and important news for them (v23). Then he explained the true nature of God and from that revealed their sin (idolatry): 'God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things' (v24,25).
He explains that the GREATNESS of this unknown Creator God meant He could not identify Himself with any idols (visual images which lower Him to the level of a created being). We have to start here. He is the TRANSCENDANT CREATOR (separate from and above His Creation. He is not part of creation (or a universal force). God is the personal Source and Lord of all things, so we can’t bring Him down to our level, keep Him in a Temple, or describe (limit) Him by an image.
'And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for (seek) Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us' (26,27).
He is SOVEREIGN over all mankind, who are all equal under Him and who are created to worship Him. He designed this world of space and time for man (the summit of His creation) to find and know Him. Thus He is also IMMINENT (near to us). He is interested and involved in our lives and wants us to find Him. He is not out of reach and if we seek we shall find Him (Jer 29:11-13). We say: 'God loves you and has been working in your life so that you might seek and find Him. You will find the true God if you desire.'
Paul now establishes his points from their Greek writers, showing his bridge-building method: 'for ‘in Him we live and move and have our being’ (this declaration of God’s greatness and nearness is from Epimenedes himself -whom Paul called a prophet in Titus1:12) as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring' (we are created in the image of the personal God with the ability to know Him). Therefore, since we are ‘the offspring of God’, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising' (v28,29).
Since God created man, God must be greater than man not lesser. It is foolish to try and represent Him by a man-made image. His Divine Nature is transcendant, above anything in creation. He is a Person, so to reduce Him to an lifeless idol is sinful. He is not like some dumb idol, but a God who speaks and reveals Himself. It was appropriate that the altar to the unknown God had no image. We should expect this God to come close to us and reveal Himself.
He did this before in Athens showing His power over death but they had continued in idolatry but now He had revealed Himself supremely in Jesus Christ and his resurrection, which removed all excuses: 'Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked (because of their ignorance God had not judged them for idolatry but had even shown them mercy), but now He commands all men everywhere to repent (from idolatry) because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man (JESUS CHRIST) whom He has ordained '(v30,31a). Since Christ, things have changed. Men will be judged for rejecting Him. Ignorance is no longer an excuse for: 'He has given assurance (proof) of this to all by raising Him from the dead' (v31b).
In witnessing, realise God has already been speaking and working in their life, even if it has been confused and covered by false ideas. If you can locate this work of God (by asking and listening if they have ever been
aware of God) you can build on this, instead of coming across as telling them something totally foreign. You are saying: ‘the same God who already has been at work in your life because He loves you, wants you to seek Him and find Him and I can tell you more about Him.’ Then describe the true God, encouraging them to seek Him, proclaiming His Son Jesus Christ as His supreme revelation, risen from the dead and coming soon to judge all men.