Some Sneered, Others Questioned, A Few Believed: Lessons on the Amazing Power of the Gospel
August 30, 1998
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It is not often that a preacher has his sermon interrupted by the congregation. In the 29 years that I have been preaching, it has only happened to me a handful of times. Once in my first church in Downey, California a woman stood up during my sermon and began making comments. She wasn’t arguing, really, just adding some information she thought the congregation should know. Everyone smiled since this woman was a bit eccentric, and the service went on. I remember five years ago preaching in Haiti, the followers of the witch doctors gathered in the back of the church muttering imprecations against me and against our team. And once or twice during my nine years at Calvary my sermon has been interrupted.
As troublesome (and frightening) as interruptions can be, they do serve one good purpose. They tell us that someone was listening closely to the sermon. If a person cares enough to interrupt the preacher, he must have been paying very close attention to what was being said. And that’s always good news, especially when many people struggle to stay awake during the sermon.
It appears that something like a sermon interruption happened on three different occasions in the book of Acts. When Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, he was interrupted by a spontaneous outburst from the audience (Acts 2:37). In a sense Peter preached the message and the congregation gave the invitation. In a much different setting Stephen preached to the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) and indicted them as being stiff-necked for always resisting God and for their complicity in the death of Christ. Luke tells us that the Jewish leaders responded in fury by gnashing their teeth, dragging him outside the city, and stoning him to death (Acts 7:54-58).
The final sermon interruption in Acts occurs as Paul comes to the climax of his sermon on Mars Hill. It happens when he declares that God has raised Jesus from the dead. Up until that point the sophisticated Athenians had listened with at least polite interest, but this was far more than they could bear. They most assuredly did not believe in the resurrection in any sense at all. This proved conclusively that Paul was indeed the ignorant “seed-picker” that some people made him out to be (Acts 17:18).
Luke tells us how the men of Athens responded to Paul’s message in three brief verses:
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others (Acts 17:32-34).
I. Comments on the Text
Note the three responses to Paul’s message:
a) Derision—Some mocked his talk of a resurrection. The very idea was incredible and even repulsive to the Greeks. They believed in the immortality of the soul but not of the body. They thought the body disintegrated in the grave while the soul lived on in some other realm. To them, the notion of a bodily resurrection was absurd. Why would you want your body back when you could soar through the ether without it?
b) Delay—”We will hear you again on this matter.” Evidently these hearers were open-minded enough to desire a second exposure to Paul’s preaching. They weren’t ready to buy into his message, but they didn’t want to reject it out-of-hand. Many people in the world fit into this category. They need time to process the message and make it their own. They have to weigh what they have heard and chew it over in their own minds. This isn’t necessarily a bad sign. Perhaps we should ask how many of us responded to the gospel the very first time we heard it. Most of us needed to hear about Jesus more than once before we were ready to follow him. It was the same in Paul’s day.
c) Decision—Luke tells us that “a few” joined themselves to Paul—meaning they committed themselves both to him and to his message of the gospel. Luke names two in particular: 1) Dionysius the Areopagite. His title means he was one of 12 leading men who made up the Areopagus that met on Mars Hill. Obviously he was a man of much influence in Athens. For him to follow Jesus would be like a Supreme Court justice going forward at a Billy Graham crusade to accept Christ. Many others would be favorably inclined to Christianity because of his example. Early tradition suggests that he went on to become the first bishop of Athens. 2) Luke also mentions Damaris, which is a female name. That in itself is fascinating because women normally weren’t allowed to join the discussions on Mars Hill. She must have been a woman of some note because Luke singles her out.
The sum total of Paul’s ministry is not very large or very impressive. Two people by name plus a few others unnamed. We aren’t even told that a church was started in Athens. Perhaps there weren’t enough converts to start a church.
Not Always Easy
If I stand back and ask what strikes me as I read the text, I am mostly impressed by the sermon Paul preached rather than by the response. Luke takes quite a few verses to record the message—with what might be considered a disappointing response from the cultured men of Athens. But therein lies a most important truth. The preaching of the gospel has never been attended with universal success, especially in what might be called pioneer missionary work. Generally speaking, when the gospel penetrates a society, there will be a long period of sowing the seed before the harvest finally begins to come in. We’ve all heard stories about valiant missionaries who labored in India or Pakistan or a Middle Eastern country for 40 years with only a handful of converts. The fact is, those stories are almost always true. That’s the way it was in the beginning.
It’s not hard to understand why this must be so. The gospel is a radical message that runs counter to everything most people believe. It presumes a certain view of God, a certain view of humanity, and a certain view of Jesus Christ. And it demands a total change of mind and complete faith in Jesus Christ. This isn’t easy for most people to comprehend.
What is a Christian?
This week during a television interview someone asked me to answer the question, “What is a Christian?” That’s easier said than done because so many people think in terms of baptism, church membership, going to mass, or other religious rituals. Before you can get to the right answer, you’ve got to sweep away all the wrong answers. I would define a Christian as a person who accepts the Bible as the Word of God, and on the basis of what the Bible says, has a living relationship with Jesus Christ through whole-hearted trust in him as Lord and Savior. That definition may seem unduly complicated—and perhaps it is—but I think we need to move beyond the “just say a prayer and you’ll go to heaven” mentality. Saying a prayer at the end of a worship service is good—but you have to know to whom you are praying and you have to know what the words of your prayer really mean. If you don’t know that, you’re just mouthing words but nothing else has changed. And worst of all, you end up thinking you’re a Christian when in reality you may not be a Christian at all.
Have you ever considered how radical it is to become a Christian? It’s not an easy step to take because it means rejecting the world’s entire way of thinking. The world entices you to believe that there is no God, or if there is a God, he really doesn’t matter. But to become a Christian means believing that there is a God in heaven who demands the first place in your heart. The world wants you to think that you’re okay just the way you are, but Christianity teaches that you aren’t okay, and that you are a sinner desperately in need of God’s grace. But in order to experience God’s grace you must turn away from all trust in yourself—in fact you must renounce self-trust—and transfer your trust to Jesus Christ wholly and completely. And that means believing that after this life is over, everyone will live forever either in heaven or hell.
During the TV interview I commented that many people have a “Mount Rushmore” religion as a way of covering their bets. When they look up, they see Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed and Moses—and maybe Michael Jordan and Elvis Presley. They figure as long as Jesus is up there somewhere, they’re going to be alright in the end. But they are badly mistaken. The Lord Jesus Christ will not share his glory with anyone else. He must be worshiped as the one and only way to heaven.
From Ashes to Glory
Perhaps the most remarkable thing you have to believe is that a man came back from the dead. That’s what ended Paul’s sermon abruptly. These intellectual Athenians were quite happy to listen to Paul’s discourse on the true God. Even if they didn’t agree, they found his ideas fascinating. But to hear him declare that God had raised Jesus from the dead—Preposterous! Nonsense! Ridiculous! They had no room for that idea then and modern man has no real use for it today.
I thought about this a few days ago when I officiated at the graveside service for a 91-year-old woman who had attended our church for many years. I used to see her many Sundays sitting on my left under the balcony, although she hadn’t been to church for a few years because of physical problems. When she died, her body was cremated and the ashes placed in a small box. There I stood with the box at my feet and a small square hole in the ground where the box would be buried after I said the prayer of committal. As I stood there, I thought as I often do about how hard it is to believe in the resurrection of the dead. It’s hard enough for me to connect the woman I saw on Sunday with the box of ashes at my feet, much less to ponder how God would bring about a resurrection of an immortal body out of those ashes. On a purely human level, I understand fully why the Greeks wanted nothing to do with the idea of a resurrection. Why should anyone believe such a bizarre notion?
The answer is simple. God has already demonstrated his power when he raised his Son from the dead. If God can do that, he can raise from the dead all those who follow his Son. The question of the resurrection isn’t a how but a who. If you know Jesus, you can rest assured that your body will be raised in the last day. And you can rest well not worrying about the precise details of how it will happen.
Not Peace, But a Sword
We shouldn’t be surprised that Paul’s sermon elicited varying responses. True gospel preaching always divides. Jesus himself said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’” (Matthew 10:34-36). Many of you have experienced the sobering truth of these words in your own family. It’s not unusual for one spouse to follow Christ and another to be unsaved. Sadly, we often see children who love Jesus while their parents are uninterested. Your loved ones may also be your spiritual enemies because they do not share your faith in Christ.
I have two points to make in saying this: 1) We shouldn’t be surprised when our own witnessing brings a variety of responses. Some will laugh it off, others will attack us, some will want to think about it, and a few will believe and be saved. This is the true biblical pattern. 2) We ought to remember that God’s timing and ours are often quite different. We naturally want to see people come to Christ NOW—if not yesterday! But if we know anything about God, it’s that he works from the standpoint of eternity. Think of it this way. When Paul walked away from Athens, he could have regarded himself as a failure. Yet we know that a vibrant church eventually sprang up there—and that church has continued in various forms across 2000 years to this very day. He couldn’t have known that back then, but God did, because he moves across the generations and the centuries to accomplish his purpose.
This week I happened to read Isaiah 55:10-11 once again. These familiar words ought to encourage all of us in the work of evangelism: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” This is one of many places in the Bible where spreading the good news is compared to sowing seed into the soil. God’s Word is the seed, we are sowers, and the soil is the human heart. God has called us to spread the seed everywhere by every possible means. We do the planting and God gives the harvest—in his own time and in his own way. Isaiah 55:11 reminds us that nothing is ever wasted with God. His Word always accomplishes its divinely-ordained purpose. Our job is to sow the seed, his job is to bring in the harvest. If we do our part, God cannot fail to do his.
II. Lessons on the Power of the Gospel
As we wrap up our series on Acts 17, let’s consider five lessons from the response to Paul’s preaching in Athens.
a) Some people will always stumble over the Big Issues. In Athens the Big Issue was the Resurrection. They just couldn’t believe it. Sometimes the Big Issue is believing what the Bible says. Sometimes people argue about God the Creator, or the Trinity, or whether or not Jesus is the only way to heaven. Sometimes people don’t believe in heaven or hell. Very often unbelievers can’t accept that they are sinners desperately in need of God’s grace. They certainly don’t like to be told they are utterly unable to save themselves and that they must cast themselves on Christ for salvation.
My point is this. The gospel will never be universally popular but we are commanded to preach it anyway. Don’t expect everyone to cheer you on—and don’t be surprised when some laugh in your face. There’s nothing to be done about it except to smile and find someone else who will listen.
b) Others will always need more time. I know that delay can be dangerous in the spiritual realm, but not everyone can make an impulsive decision to follow Christ. Often folks just need more time to sort things out in their own minds. I know I’m that way about any major decision. If I’m in a store and a salesperson starts to push me toward a decision, I’ll generally just walk out because I don’t like to be forced to sign on the dotted line even one second before I’m truly ready. Remember: When you plant seeds in the ground, the harvest doesn’t spring up the next day. You’ve got to water and weed and wait. It’s the same in the spiritual realm.
c) God often calls people to Christ from very unlikely places. The story of Dionyius and Damaris ought to encourage us. Even though most of the people didn’t become Christians that day, Paul did snag a big fish when he got Dionysius. Down South we call a man like that a “bell sheep”—you put the bell around his neck because the rest of the flock naturally follows him. The same with Damaris. Even though he only caught a few fish, these two made it worth the trip. He ended up with a Bishop and the head of the Women’s Ministry.
When I started this sermon series several months ago, I told you that I wanted to help you find common ground with unbelievers. If we can’t find a way to speak the gospel in a way they can understand, how will they ever hear the gospel at all? That truth leads me to one final principle that should guide all our evangelistic efforts:
d) We must seize the moment, find common ground with unbelievers, speak their language, and boldly call sinners to repentance. Paul did all of this in Athens. He started by witnessing in the marketplace and then he preached on Mars Hill and began his sermon by referring to their altar to an unknown God. He even quoted some of their own poets (Acts 17:28). Everything in his message was calculated to reach a highly-educated Greek audience. And he ended with a strong presentation of the gospel, a call to personal repentance, and a warning of future judgment.
Last month Brian and Beth Bill came home for a few weeks of vacation. They’re involved in an exciting ministry of church planting among the business people of Mexico City. As we ate lunch together, Brian talked to me about the challenge of learning Spanish even though many of the business people of Mexico City know English as a second language. You can talk to them in English and they’ll listen, but if you want to reach their hearts, you’ve got to speak Spanish. That’s why the Bills have immersed themselves in the Mexican culture. Mexico City is their Athens and every day Brian and Beth do exactly what Paul did—look for teachable moments to share the gospel in a language the people can understand.
A few weeks ago I remarked that we shouldn’t look at our missionaries as fundamentally different from us. In the truest sense we’re all called as missionaries—only most of us are cleverly disguised as something else. You may be a carpenter, a nurse, a pharmacist, a teacher, an executive, a doctor, a writer, a police officer, or a salesperson. But that’s just your job. It’s how you make your money. But it’s not your calling in life. If you are a Christian, God has called you to be a missionary who is cleverly disguised as something else.
Was Paul a failure in Athens?
One final question and I am done. Was Paul a failure in Athens? Many people read this story and answer yes. As far as we know, Paul never founded a church in Athens. That evidently came sometime later. Paul left town knowing that most of the people who heard him on Mars Hill either laughed at him or ignored him. Only a few became believers.
Did he fail? It all depends on how you define failure. If you mean in terms of winning large numbers of instant converts, the answer is yes, he failed. But I ask another question. Was he faithful to do what God called him to do? We know the answer is yes because he went to Athens and preached the gospel. If he did what God wanted him to do, how could he be a failure?
Here is some very good news for the saints of God. Just do what God has called you to do. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. And don’t play the silly comparison game. Be faithful to God and let him take care of the results.
A City Changed Forever
It is true that when Paul left Athens he had little to show outwardly for his labors in that great city. There was a handful of converts and nothing more. But from the standpoint of two thousand years we may add these results. 1) He left the city having altered its spiritual condition forever. By his faithful preaching he had introduced the gospel to the people of Athens. That means he had increased their spiritual responsibility a hundredfold. Before Paul, the men of Athens could justly say they had never heard of Jesus Christ. Never again could they plead ignorance of the truth. It would be a thousand times better for Paul not to have come than for the people who heard him to ignore his message. The more light you receive, the greater your accountability in the Day of Judgment. 2) He left the city with a new confidence in the Christian message. Heretofore the gospel had succeeded in smaller towns and provincial capitals. But Paul proved the message of Christ could stand on its own in the intellectual capital of the world. If it won converts there, it could win them anywhere. This ought to give us great hope in a village like Oak Park—which in many respects is a university town only without the university. When Paul preached where Plato had taught, he established forever that the gospel belongs in every strata of human society. Even Athens needs the gospel—and even in Athens God has his people ready to respond.
Our Father, we thank you that the gospel is truly the power of God for salvation—to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. Give us the desire to share the message with those we meet. Make us bold in the face of opposition. Grant us an eternal perspective so that we will not be discouraged when the results seem to be small. Help us to see that even one life saved is a miracle that will last forever. Help us to find common ground with unbelievers, so that through our witness, many people will come to faith in Jesus Christ. We pray to do our part, knowing that if we do what you have asked us to do, you cannot fail to do what you have promised. So let the gospel go forth with life-changing power from Oak Park to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name, Amen.