Babbling for Jesus: Speaking Truth to Highly Intelligent People

Acts 17:18-21

June 7, 1998 | Ray Pritchard

Listen to this Sermon

I’d like to begin by telling you about a new mission statement that has just been approved by the elders of the church. Several months ago the pastoral staff and the elders began working together to write a new mission statement for our church. Although we’ve done this several times in the past, we felt that a new statement would help us focus all our ministries in the same direction. After considering various suggestions, the elders approved the following statement last Tuesday night: Helping people in our community and around the world discover the life-changing power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Although that statement is only 21 words long, it encompasses the entire work of the church. Everything we do as a congregation can be found in that one sentence—worship, fellowship, teaching, evangelism, discipleship, spiritual growth, and world missions. I like it because it focuses on the central work of the church: Life-transformation. We’re here because we believe Jesus Christ can radically change human lives today. That’s our testimony as a congregation and it’s also our testimony as individuals. We not only believe in life-change through the gospel, we have experienced it ourselves.

That leads me to ask two pertinent questions:

A) Has your life been changed by Jesus Christ?

B) Have you ever helped anyone else find a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

Until you can answer yes to the first, you can never answer yes to the second. Only someone whose life has been changed has something to share with another person. You can’t share what you haven’t experienced.

Three Key Principles

As we think about the work of evangelism, there are three principles we need to keep in mind:

1) The gospel is the most powerful force in the world. Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel is the power of God for salvation. The Greek word for power is dunamis, from which we get the English word dynamite. The gospel is God’s dynamic power for saving sinners. It is far greater than military power, political power, economic power, or financial power.

2) Our job is to make the gospel clear. This is the heart of evangelism—telling the good news about Jesus in a way that is simple, clear, and easily understood.

3) Only the Holy Spirit can bring people to Jesus. Our work is telling the story, his work is drawing people to the Savior. If we do our part, he will certainly do his. Sometimes we get anxious and try to do his work as well. When that happens, we end up sounding like one of those fellows trying to sell encyclopedias door to door. We come across as desperate to “close the deal.” Sometimes we talk about winning people to Christ, by which we mean leading them to a place of personal decision. The term is biblical (see Proverbs 11:30), but it can be misleading. We don’t “win” people to Christ literally. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. Our part is to be faithful in sharing Christ with others.

Smart People Need Jesus Too

Today we’re looking at a very particular question that might be called a subdivision of the larger area of evangelism. In our text we have the story of Paul in Athens preaching the gospel to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. It’s a most unusual situation that raises an important question: How do you share Christ with highly intelligent people? The question is important because most of us live in a world surrounded by people who are at least as smart as we are—and sometimes much smarter. Certainly most of us live with and work around people with college degrees, graduate degrees, and various professional degrees. And we all know people who have attained success in life and arrived at positions of some influence in the world.

How do you share the gospel with highly intelligent, well-educated, successful people? It’s not easy in most cases. There are several reasons for this:

1) Highly intelligent people often feel no need for Jesus. Their own attainments have made them feel as if they are above that or beyond it. Sometimes they simply ignore us when we try to share Christ and sometimes they respond with ridicule. In a few cases, they are so arrogant that they are offended at the very suggestion that they need a Savior.

2) We often feel intimidated by such people. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that if a person has a lot of letters after his name—B.A., B.S., M.A., M.S., Ph.D., Th.D., M.D., J.D., D.D.S.—he must be unusually smart. Take it from someone who knows, letters after your name don’t necessarily correlate with intelligence. But our culture trains us to respect those letters so we may think such people don’t need the Lord (and therefore we ignore them) or we may fear rejection (and still end up ignoring them).

Here’s my sermon in one sentence: Smart people need Jesus too. If we ignore the highly intelligent people around us, how will they ever hear the gospel? The fact that some intelligent people don’t feel their need shouldn’t stop us from sharing Christ with them.

A Junkyard of Idols

When the Apostle Paul visited Athens in the year AD 50, he faced precisely that situation. As far as we know, he was the only Christian in a city that was the intellectual capital of the world. Say the word Athens and names like Plato, Pericles, Socrates, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Zeno, and Epicurus come to mind. Even though the Golden Age of Athens was several hundred years in the past, it was still the intellectual capital of the world. If you took Harvard and Yale, added to it Cambridge and Oxford, and put all those intellectuals in one place, you would have something like Athens in its greatest years. Now this Jew from Tarsus—a converted Pharisee—visits Athens and immediately begins discussing Christianity with anyone who will listen to him.

The men of Athens were happy to see him because they loved to argue about new ideas. To them a good day always included some type of philosophical discussion so they were delighted to listen to Paul talk about this man called Jesus.

Luke tells us that when Paul saw the city, his heart was stirred to profound sorrow (and anger) by the many idols he saw there (Acts 17:16). Eugene Peterson says that Athens had become a “junkyard of idols.” Most of those beautiful statues—some of the greatest ever carved by human hands—were meant to offer some physical representation of the various Greek gods, such as Zeus, Aphrodite, Demeter, and Artemis. To Paul those incomparable works of art were nothing more than idols and as such offended his Jewish sensibilities because they transgressed the 2nd Commandment—”No graven images” (Exodus 20:4-6).

What shall we say about the spiritual condition of Athens? From a Christian point of view, it was a city of …

1) Degraded idolaters

2) Arrogant philosophers

3) Idle triflers

This explains why Paul saw idols where some saw art. What you look for determines what you see. Since Paul was looking for spiritual reality, he wasn’t misled by the wondrous beauty of the statuary and the elaborate altars to various deities. He saw beyond the beauty to the idolatry it represented. And his heart was sickened as a result.

Anonymous Christians?

Paul’s reaction would not be very popular today with some Christians. In recent decades much has been made about so-called “anonymous Christians.” That’s the theory that people we used to consider as “pagan” or “heathen” are actually Christians who worship God under another name. They may be Hindu, Buddhist, animist, Muslim, or anything else, but because they are sincere and devout in their religion, God credits them as if they knew Jesus—even though in many cases they have no idea who he is.

I stop to ask the question: Does the New Testament support the notion of “anonymous Christians?” No, No, and No. You won’t find a shred of evidence to support that view. Nothing Paul does in Athens makes sense if he regarded the people there as “anonymous Christians.”

What do you see when you look at Oak Park? That’s not an idle question since this village receives tens of thousands of tourists each year. Buses stop just one block from Calvary to visit the Unity Temple designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. They also visit Wright’s home and the many houses he designed in this area, and they visit the Ernest Hemingway exhibit. For many people those two names summarize what Oak Park is all about. When they come here they see Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway, and that’s all they see. Some come to our village to see cultural diversity and sexual freedom.

What would Paul see in Oak Park. I think he would see what he saw in Athens—a city of idols filled with people who don’t know that they don’t know God! A city of people God yearns to save! A city like Athens—proud of all the wrong things!

Paul the Seed-Picker

Acts 17:17 reveals Paul’s two-part strategy in Athens. First, he started in familiar territory by reasoning in the synagogue, showing Jews and God-fearing Greeks that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Second, he went to the marketplace everyday to talk with anyone who would talk with him. In so doing he was following the example of Socrates who went to the same place to discuss philosophy with his followers.

In verse 18 we learn how the intellectuals of Athens responded to Paul’s message. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” The word “babbler” in Greek literally means “seed-picker.” It’s a term of derision roughly equivalent to “country bumpkin,” “chatterbox,” or (to quote Eugene Peterson again) “airhead.” When they heard him preach, it made no sense to them so they dismissed him as a babbler of nonsense.

I. The Audience Paul Faced 18a

Soon after he arrived Paul began debating with intellectuals representing two distinctly different schools of thought. The Epicureans (so named for their founder, Epicurus) were the secular humanists of that day. In some ways they were close to being atheists in that they didn’t believe that the gods of Greece had any influence over human affairs. They thought the world came into being through the chance collision of atoms. They also believed that at the moment of death the personality ceased to exist. Therefore, this life was all-important. To be happy one should seek pleasure and avoid pain as much as possible. In modern terms their motto was: “Eat, drink and be happy, for tomorrow we will die.” Or to borrow from a famous commercial, “You only go around once in life. Grab all the gusto you can.” The Epicurean philosophy is the seedbed from which modern hedonism grew.

By contrast the Stoics were pantheists and fatalists who believed that impersonal forces controlled every circumstance of life. Since you can’t change your circumstances, the key to happiness is accepting whatever comes without emotion. “Grin and bear it” would be a modern way of saying it. The Stoics had the original “stiff upper lip.”

These were the opponents Paul faced day by day as he reasoned in the Agora. Let’s stop and make two applications at this point. 1) Opposition is always better than indifference. If people argue with you, it generally means they actually care about what you are saying. If they get angry, it means you’re getting to them. But when they shrug their shoulders, what can you do then? 2) The gospel has nothing to fear from an open discussion. We have nothing to lose from putting the Christian message forward in every arena of modern life, whether it be television, radio, the college campus, on the Internet, or over lunch with some friends. Paul wasn’t afraid to take the gospel to the streets and to meet the opposing views head-on. Would that we were as courageous as he.

II. The Message Paul Preached 18b

What should you do when you find yourself in “over your head” with highly educated unbelievers? Do what Paul did. Preach Jesus. At the end of verse 18, Luke tells us exactly what he was talking about, “Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” That’s simple, isn’t it? He focused everything on the historical reality behind the Christian faith. Why is this so important?

A) Christianity rests on the Person of Jesus Christ.

B) The truth of Jesus rests on the resurrection.

Perhaps you’ve seen the sign that says, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” The main thing is Jesus! Talk about him. Stay on task. Don’t get sidetracked. They wanted to argue philosophy, but Paul talked about Jesus. Epistemology is fine, and so is cosmology, but those things can’t save you. Paul kept bringing them back again and again to the central truth of Jesus and the resurrection. In our witnessing we should do the same thing.

III. The Opportunity Paul Seized 19-21

These verses set the scene for one of the most dramatic moments in the early history of the Christian movement.

Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) Acts 17:19-21

The word Areopagus literally means “Hill of Mars” or “Mars Hill.” It originally referred to a stone outcropping on the slopes of the Acropolis where the leading men of Athens met to decide criminal cases. On my recent visit to Athens, our guide took us to the very spot where the Areopagus met in the centuries preceding the New Testament period. Some historians say that in Paul’s day the leading men no longer met at that rocky outcropping, but met instead near the Agora. The precise location doesn’t matter as much as the significance of this moment. Perhaps it would help to think of the Areopagus as similar to the Supreme Court. But even that doesn’t do justice to the event because Paul wasn’t on trial in any legal sense. His “hearing” was an invitation to explain Christianity to the leaders of the city. As such, his words would carry great impact and would be widely discussed for days to come. It would be as if CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, and CNN together offered Dr. Billy Graham two hours on prime-time television, free of charge, to explain the Christian faith.

Essentially Paul would give his speech, the men would ask a few questions, and everyone would go home. Then the “buzz” would spread across Athens. What a fantastic opportunity to introduce Jesus Christ to a city that had never heard of him.

Sincerity Can Kill You!

Luke adds a not-very-complimentary comment in verse 21 to the effect that the Athenians loved novelty. In some ways their love of discussion had turned them into idle dilettantes—always chasing after the latest fad in philosophy, art or religion. That shouldn’t surprise us because we’re not much different. Advertisers know the best word you can put on any label is the word “new.” We’re always looking for a New Idea … a New Age … a New Plan … a New Wave … a New Formula. If it’s new, we want it right now!

In some ways the Athenians were the original post-modernists. Since they didn’t believe in absolute truth, they were always open to the latest idea to come down the pike. Despite their great learning, as a culture they were in some ways quite gullible and easily influenced. In one of his later epistles, Paul describes certain people who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7 NKJV). Perhaps he was remembering his days in Athens.

Have you ever heard anyone say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere?” That’s a popular view held by many people—usually as an excuse not to engage in any critical thinking. It’s also one of the most foolish statements ever made. Sincerity has its uses and it also has its limitations. You may sincerely believe that taking rat poison won’t hurt you, but if you take it, you’ll be sincerely dead. It’s sounds sweet and tolerant and nice and nonjudgmental to say that sincerity is all that matters. But it doesn’t work when you put it to the test of life and death. It’s not enough to be sincere unless you’re sincere about the right things.

Truth Demands a Commitment

Do you remember that moment when Jesus stood on trial before a curious Pontius Pilate? At one point it seems as if Pilate is sympathetic and wishes he could avoid having to make a decision. Then Jesus tells him, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37). “What is truth?” Pilate replied. His question echoes across the centuries. Many people have wondered what that question means. Was he dodging the issue? Or was he sincerely looking for the truth? In this case the Truth was standing in front of him. Somehow he didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t see it.

Curiosity is good if it leads you to the truth. Endless argument can be a way of avoiding the truth. In the end truth demands a personal commitment. You can talk about it, discuss it, debate it, and dissect it, but eventually you’ve got to do something about it. The men of Athens were all too ready to debate with Paul, but they weren’t ready to grapple with the truth he presented.

Four Short Suggestions

So how do we share Christ with highly intelligent people? When I preached this sermon, Robert Burdett, our longtime missionary with InterVarsity, gave me this note: “Q: How do you share Christ with highly intelligent people? A: (One option) Give money and pray for InterVarsity, and let us do it. It’s our calling!” When I shared that with the congregation, they chuckled because we know of the great work IV is doing on many college campuses. But just in case you can’t find an InterVarsity missionary when you need one, here are my four suggestions:

1) Don’t be intimidated—Babble On! If they called Paul a “seed-picker,” think what they might call you. Don’t worry about it. Name-calling is a sign that something is “getting through.” Do what Paul did—keep babbling for Jesus.

2) Expect opposition. Paul ran into high-caliber opposition from the Epicureans and the Stoics. And it’s not clear that any of them converted to Christ. It doesn’t matter. Don’t be deterred by what people say or do.

3) Keep the focus on Jesus. Here is the genius of Paul’s method. He kept focusing on Jesus and his literal resurrection from the dead. He wouldn’t be turned aside to discuss the inviting “rabbit trails” of philosophy. He kept coming back again and again to the central reality of the Christian faith. That’s good strategy for all of our evangelistic efforts.

4) Seize every opportunity God gives you. Think of what we have in these verses. First, Paul goes to the synagogue. Then he goes to the marketplace. Finally, he ends up at the Areopagus. All of it happened “by chance,” that is, it didn’t happen because Paul planned it that way but because he simply used every opportunity God gave him to share Christ with others.

Discover the Power!

As I close let me return one final time to our new Mission Statement. In case you’ve forgotten, here it is one more time: Helping people in our community and around the world discover the life-changing power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

That’s why Paul went to the marketplace. That’s why we’re in Oak Park. We want to do what Paul did in Athens—help people discover how their lives can be changed through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. After 20 centuries we still have the same mission Paul had.

Let’s wrap up by considering those two questions one more time:

1) Has your life been changed by Jesus Christ? If you answer no, or I’m not sure, I encourage you to let go of your pride, your degrees, your pedigree, and run to the cross of Christ for salvation. If you want a new life, you can have one, but you’ve got to let go of everything that stands between you and Jesus Christ. Put your trust in Christ and you will discover that he can change you from the inside out.

2) Have you ever helped anyone else discover a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? I hope the answer is yes. If it’s not, I encourage you to begin praying now that God would give you a chance to share Christ with someone this week. Remember, you don’t have to “win” anyone to Christ. Just be faithful to give the message, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

When all is said and done the only reason to accept Christianity is because it is true. Since our faith rests upon true and verifiable facts of history, we have every reason to be bold and no reason at all to be intimidated.

Smart people need Jesus too. The smartest thing you’ll ever do is to trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The second smartest thing you’ll ever do is to tell someone else how they can trust him too.

There is a road to Athens, and that road ends at the Cross. May God help us to babble on for Jesus this week.

Our Father, thank you that the gospel is the power of God for salvation. Give us the desire and the courage to share that message with those whom you bring into our lives. Help us meet them where they are, and with patience and love, share with them who you are and who you want them to be. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?