The Real Reality

Acts 17:16-34

September 30, 2023 | Brian Bill

I posted some thoughts on Facebook this week and began with this verse from John 3:8: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Many people shared how the Spirit blew through their lives during the services this past weekend.  I don’t have time to share all of them, but here are some that stood out.

  • “God is doing new things in me.”  
  • “I had to leave early so I stood and surrendered when I got home.”
  • “The sermon on Sunday really moved me. I did not stand up; however, the Holy Spirit was moving within me.”  
  • “It was the most moving service that I have been in…in a long time. It brought tears to my eyes to see how many people were impacted by the moving of the Holy Spirit.”
  • “I finally gave over that last long resistant 20% earlier in the week.  When you invited us to stand, I just immediately shot up without even thinking about it. Then I knew this was what God wanted me to do publicly.  Neat timing for me!”
  • “I’ve never been in a service like that before.  It felt like revival broke out.”

When I shared with Pastor Ray what God did this past weekend, he responded, “Christians know that something’s up. Something is going on in the world, in our culture, and the spiritual realm. The response perfectly illustrates that. Something’s up.  No one can say exactly what it is or what it means or what will come next. But if ever there was a time for Christians to get our minds right, this is it.”

Indeed, God is doing something special right now and it’s time for us to get our minds right.  We’ve been praying Psalm 85:6 this past year: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”  Could it be happening right now?  Lord, make it so.

This past Tuesday, the staff met right here in the sanctuary to celebrate what God is doing.  We spread out and spent time praying for what God wants to do in our services this weekend.  We asked Him to revive us again.  Let’s pray right now.

So, here’s a question.  Does the Bible ever seem like a puzzle to you?  Do you find it challenging to fit all the pieces together?  [Hold up various pieces and say, “This is Moses…David…the Book of Numbers…Zephaniah…the Gospel of Mark…the 10 Commandments, etc.”]  Many of us know bits and pieces of the Bible but we don’t always know how it all goes together.  

Not only is the Bible just a pile of pieces for many; for some of us, we have missing pieces.  Still others have added pieces from other worldview puzzles into the mix.  Greg Koukl writes, “Even with all the right pieces, few Christians have ever assembled their puzzle in an accurate way to make sense of the whole thing…if you’re a puzzle person, you know there’s a trick…you look at the cover.  Seeing the whole thing at once helps you know where the individual parts fit in.”

Many people know some stories from the Bible but do not know the Bible’s story

My wife Beth recently shared some insight with me.  For those of us who have been in church for a while, we might know the Bible stories and a number of verses, but when we just have fragments of the Bible, it can become very frustrating and even embarrassing because we think we should know how it all fits.  Many people know some stories from the Bible but do not know the Bible’s story.

The Bible is one book with God as its author, made up of 66 books, written by 40 different human authors, over 1500 years, in three different languages, on three different continents.  What’s more, this unified collection of books shares a common storyline.

One of Francis Schaeffer’s most memorable sayings was that Christianity does not start with, “Jesus saves you from your sins.”  It starts with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  

Nancy Pearcey says something similar, “It is perfectly true that Jesus came to save us from that deforming disorder called ‘sin.’  But starting with that is like going into a movie theater halfway through the film.  You don’t know who the characters are, you can’t figure out the plot, and you are constantly guessing at the events leading up to that point.”

In a real sense, the Bible is not about you, it’s all about God.  You’re not the hero of the story, God is.  While some see the Bible as about themselves, others view it as just a set of rules.  At its core, the Bible is the story about God’s glory and the grace of the gospel!  The Bible contains the only true worldview because it is the only view of reality in which all the pieces fit together.

Here’s our main idea: The story of God is all about the glory of God.

A couple years ago, I asked for some tips on Facebook from people who like putting puzzles together.  Within 24 hours, 116 people commented.  Here are three of the most helpful suggestions when putting a puzzle together.

  1. Build off the four corner pieces.  
  2. Find the central subject.  
  3. Keep referring back to the big picture.  

These are helpful tips when trying to make sense of the Bible as well.  We’re going to discover the four corner pieces, find the central subject, and we’ll keep referring back to the big picture.

Christianity is not just another worldview; it is the one true story of reality, resonating deep within each person that it touches.  It is true at all times, for all people, and at all places.  The biblical narrative outlines how God is the Creator, how He relates to our fallenness, and how He is working to reconcile the world to its intended purpose.  Within this metanarrative, or big story, we see where God is directing history and how He will ultimately defeat all opposition.  The Bible provides answers to life’s fundamental questions and offers a vision for true human flourishing.

A metanarrative is a grand story that explains and provides a context for understanding and explaining all our other stories.  Got Questions says, “A metanarrative speaks of absolute, universal truth while an individual narrative speaks of ‘what is true for me’ and ‘gives meaning to my life.’”  Ephesians 1:9-10 describes the grand story of salvation: “Making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

These four words capture the narrative arc of the entire Bible:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Redemption
  • Restoration

It’s helpful to understand the Bible as one grand story of redemption, where God is the main character.  He created everything and He created us.  Humans decided to go their own way by deliberately disobeying God, causing a curse upon the human race and corruption to be unleashed in our world.  God provided a solution for our sin by sending Jesus to die on the cross and be raised on the third day and He will ultimately restore creation back to the perfect image He first intended.

In his book, The Story of Reality, Greg Koukl argues that a true worldview must answer four major questions:

  • Where did we come from?  
  • What is our problem?  
  • What is the solution?  
  • How will things end for us?  

Almost every good story has these four parts.  It has a beginning which sets the stage, telling you who the main characters are and how the story gets rolling.  Then something goes wrong.  Eventually this conflict gets corrected and the wrong gets fixed.  Finally, the parts of the plot resolve themselves into a satisfying ending.

The Christian narrative is different from all other stories because it doesn’t start with, “Once upon a time.”  Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  The Bible is not a fable or fiction.  It is factual and accurate because it is the real reality.  This is the mega narrative of the way the world really is. 

  • Creation tells us how things began and where everything came from.  
  • The Fall describes the problem when sin was unleashed in the world.  
  • Redemption gives us the solution, the way to fix what went wrong.
  • Restoration describes what the world will look like once the repair takes place.

When I was working on this sermon at a coffee shop, a guy came up to me and asked, “What are you working on?”  I told him I was working on four words to describe the entire storyline of the Bible.  He looked skeptical and then offered his insight, “In God we trust?”  I told him that was a pretty good answer.  When I shared the four words – Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration – he said he found them to be helpful.  I was able to bridge into the gospel and invited him to church.

One reason the message of Christianity no longer makes sense to people in our pluralistic society is because they are not familiar with the starting point,  Thus, concepts like sin and salvation don’t make sense.  When talking to Jewish people, the apostles could count on a certain background knowledge of the Scripture and the longing people had for a coming Messiah.  But when speaking to pagan Gentiles with multiple worldviews, it was imperative to begin at a more foundational level.  

This is precisely the situation the Apostle Paul faced when he arrived in Athens.  Listen as I read Acts 17:16-18: “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. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’”  

Instead of being impressed with what Paul saw in this beautiful city, verse 16 says, “His spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”  The phrase “full of idols” means the city was covered with, or “under” idols.  There were gobs of gods everywhere.  One ancient writer estimated there were 30,000 gods in the city, making it easier to bump into an idol than an individual.  

The Greek word for “provoked” is where we get the word “seizure” from.  Paul was so morally shocked his insides convulsed.  He was angry and agitated and deeply distressed about the depth of their depravity.  

I can relate as I saw something in my news feed on Wednesday, which was repulsive, revolting, and repugnant.  I felt nauseous and immediately looked away.  My guess is you have to look away from things as well.  One pastor put it like this: “If you’re not filled with indignation, you will not have courage to do what Paul did; but if you only have indignation, you won’t have the gentleness that you need.”  

Some time ago, I was behind a car filled with bumper stickers all over the back window, the trunk, and the bumper.  One statement jumped out at me: “Don’t mess with me, I have more gods than you do!” Underneath were nine symbols representing these idols.  It made me grieve and I had to fight back the temptation to speed up, roll down my window and yell, “Oh yeah, my God is the maker of heaven and earth, and He is mightier than any of your so-called gods!”

Instead of leaving the city or yelling at people made in the image of God, verse 17 tells us Paul built bridges with those in the marketplace daily.  In verse 18, we’re introduced to two groups of philosophers, representing two major worldviews, who wanted to debate with him.

  • The Epicureans were atheists; they denied God’s existence and the afterlife.  They were content to just live for today.  Their worldview was to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain [put on orange glasses].  Their creed was, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”  Do you know any Epicureans in the QCA?  
  • The Stoics were pantheists who believed everything was God and God was in everything.  Stoics strived to live in harmony with nature, focusing on self-control and self-sufficiency.  Their attitude toward life was one of ultimate resignation.  Their motto was, “Grin and bear it.” [put on black glasses] Apathy was regarded as the highest virtue in life.  Do you know anyone just going through the motions?

Some of these proud philosophers treated Paul with utter disdain.  The word “babbler” is literally a “seed-picker.”  Their tone was one of condescension, which is what many of us experience when we stand up for truth today.  They saw him as one of the little birds in the marketplace flitting around pecking at seeds here and there.  According to verse 19, others were interested and wanted to know more about “this new teaching” so they brought him to the Areopagus, the highest court in Athens.  

As we walk through our text, let’s see Paul’s approach as a model for us as we live on mission with the intelligent, atheistic, pleasure-seeking, self-sufficient and apathetic people in our own lives.  His words are clear, concise, and very much to the point.  

While the Epicureans were all about enjoying life, the Stoics focused on enduring life.  Let’s learn how Paul pointed them to eternal life.  Notice two things Paul does to build bridges before he shares the metanarrative, or grand story of Scripture.  

  • Affirm what you can.  We see this in verse 22: “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said, ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.’”  Paul was repulsed by all their idols, but he was respectful.  What he saw nauseated him, but he didn’t get nasty with people.  He didn’t denounce them or attack their idolatry.  In fact, he paid them a compliment.  Do you look for ways to compliment those who are not yet Christians?  Or are you secretly angry with them because of their behavior?  
  • Address their needs.  Notice verse 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.’”  The word “observed” means, “to behold attentively.”  The Athenians had erected an altar to an “unknown god” because they didn’t want to inadvertently miss one.  This showed Paul how they had a deep desire to please God, even if they didn’t know who He was.  In effect, he said, “You admit you don’t know this God so let me tell you about Him.”  

Notice how bold Paul was in verse 23: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”  The phrase “worship as unknown” literally means “in ignorance.” It’s as if he was saying, “You admit there is a God you don’t know.  I happen to know that God and I will now proclaim Him to you.”

After affirming them and addressing their needs, Paul told the story of God’s glory by focusing on four foundational truths – Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.  

The story of God is all about the glory of God.  Let’s look at the four corner pieces of the puzzle now.

1. Creation.

Paul launched into a theology lesson by taking them to the Book of Genesis in verse 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.”  In the midst of multiple gods, and diverse worldviews, Paul quickly contrasted the true God with their innumerable idols when he said, The God…”  There’s only one God.  

From there, Paul built the Christian worldview one puzzle piece at a time by focusing on how God created humans.  Then, he traced everyone back to Adam in verse 26: “and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.”   In verse 27, he proclaimed how God put within people a desire to know Him: “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him.”  

One pastor put it like this:

  • You didn’t make God; He made you.
  • He doesn’t need you; you need Him.
  • He’s looking for you; even when you’re not looking for Him.

Then, in verse 28, Paul made another cultural connection by quoting two of their pagan poets: “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.’”  In our culture, it would be like using a line from a current movie or a lyric from a top song.  In verse 29, he established the uniqueness of the one true god who doesn’t live in buildings or can be depicted by statues: “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.”

Before moving on, observe that Paul spent most of his message establishing God as the Creator.  That’s a good word for us today as many don’t understand who God is.

2. Fall. 

After establishing God as Creator, Paul introduced the idea of our deep brokenness caused by sin.  Then, he called people to repentance in verse 30: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent.”

With an overemphasis on sappy sentimental spirituality and easy believism, I fear the evangelical church has stopped preaching repentance

With an overemphasis on sappy sentimental spirituality and easy believism, I fear the evangelical church has stopped preaching repentance.  We must reclaim this important doctrine because it’s what Jesus preached according to Matthew 4:17: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”  

3. Redemption.  

After establishing that everyone is a sinner in need of repentance, we must move to who Christ is and why He came.  Look at the last part of verse 31: “He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.”  The resurrection is proof Jesus is God and He is alive.  He has conquered depravity, death, and the devil himself.

4. Restoration. 

Consider the first part of verse 31: “Because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man whom He has appointed…”  Everyone will face the judgment of Jesus.  The day of judgment is fixed and inescapable.  Hebrews 9:27 says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”

Paul was not afraid to speak of judgment.  He did not shrink from speaking the truth about the resurrection of Jesus, even though he knew many of his listeners would not want to hear it.  He celebrated the supremacy of Christ and didn’t shy away from speaking about sin.

It was only after laying the groundwork of who God is as Creator, who we are as humans, and our relationship to Him that Paul explained how sin and guilt are taken away by the Redeemer, all pointing to our ultimate restoration.  The Christian worldview is logically coherent.  Nancy Pearcey writes: “The Bible is an account of reality, structured like a great drama: It has a beginning and an end; it features a struggle between good and evil; it reaches a climax and ends with a finale.”

As God gives you opportunity, build bridges and speak boldly for Christ.  Be unshaken in what you believe and unashamed of the gospel.  Tell people that God is their Creator, that sin is the problem, and that Jesus died in their place.  Call them to repentance in light of the resurrection because judgment is coming.  

The responses to Paul’s message are still very common today.  

  • Some rejected.  We see this in verse 32: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked…”  The word “mock” means they “sneered and derided.”  When they heard about the resurrection, they rejected it.  Write this down.  You will be mocked and maybe worse if you speak truth.
  • Others were reluctant.  A second response is found in the last part of verse 32: “We will hear you again about this.”  They told Paul they wanted to talk some more.  
  • A few received.  Verse 34 says: “some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”  It’s often just a few who will be convinced.  

Many will reject.  Some will be reluctant.  A handful will receive.

What about you?  Have you been rejecting the gospel, or are you simply reluctant?  Or perhaps you’re ready right now to believe and receive the free gift of eternal life.

If you’re already a Christ-follower, build bridges with people and look for ways to tell the story about God’s glory.  My mind goes to the words of “I Love to Tell the Story.”

I love to tell the story,

of unseen things above,

of Jesus and his glory,

of Jesus and his love.

I love to tell the story,

because I know it’s true;

it satisfies my longings,

as nothing else can do.

Tell the story of God’s glory and use Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration as your outline.

Indeed, something special is happening.  Make sure it’s happening in your life.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?