An Unlikely Sermon Illustration

For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

— Acts 17:23

In yesterday’s Sparkling Gem, we examined Paul’s tactful and effective ministry strategy as he sought to share the message of the Gospel with the highly educated pagan crowd on Mars Hill in the city of Athens. Today I want to focus on his message. As Paul stood in the amphitheater and looked into the faces of the Athenian judges who were listening intently to him, the Holy Spirit dropped a sermon illustration into his heart that was pure genius.

Paul began by saying, “For as I passed by….” The Greek word used here carries the idea of a leisurely walk or a stroll. This is a word that a tourist might use to describe a peaceful, paced walk on a sunny afternoon. The Greek tense used implies multiple strolls throughout the city, which means Paul has taken the time to observe Athens. As a visitor to this historical city, he hadn’t closed his eyes to the city but had taken the time to experience its sights, its sounds, its smells — all the unique characteristics that made Athens what it was.

Paul went on to say, “…And beheld your devotions….” The word “beheld” is the Greek word anatheoreo, a compound of ana and theoreo. The word theoreo means to look upon or to gaze at, and it is where we get the word for a theater.

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Like a huge theatrical stage, the entire city of Athens was staged for idolatry. Since idolatry was the biggest show in town, Paul had carefully observed it like a patron at the theater who watches every act of a play. He had studied the Athenians’ devotion to idolatry and knew the level to which this city had sunk into this abominable practice. However, in Acts 17:3, this Greek word theoreo is compounded together with ana, a word that means up. Thus, the word anatheoreo, translated “beheld,” actually means to look upward.

In addition to the thousands of small idols that people kept outside the front door of their private homes, Athens was filled with huge images that towered over the heads of those who passed through the city. These statues were so monstrous that as Paul strolled through the city, he had to look upward to see them! But instead of referring to these idols as the abominations they were, he calls them “devotions.” The word “devotions” is derived from the word sebo, a Greek word that means to stand in awe, to reverence, to worship, or to venerate.

Calling those idols abominations would have gotten Paul nowhere. In fact, using that kind of terminology would have gotten him kicked out of court and evicted from the city! Rather than lose this God-given opportunity to speak to the brightest minds in Greece at that time and impact that city with the Gospel, Paul continued to build a bridge to his listeners. If he had said that the city’s idols were abominations or cursed images, he would have been correct. But instead, he kindly called them “devotions,” which means objects of worship.

As Paul took strolls through the city and observed city life, he could see that the people of Athens were genuinely in awe of their gods, as evil as these idols were. The Athenians truly venerated and reverenced the idols as objects of worship, even though they were nothing more than objects carved of wood and stone — a truth that Paul clearly stated later in his message. But at that point in his message, Paul chose to call them objects of worship, further widening the door of the listeners’ hearts so they would receive the next vital point he wanted to make in his message.

Looking up at the listening judges, he went on to tell them that as he had passed through the city, he had “…found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” Then he continued, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”

Knowing full well that idols were precious to the heart of every Athenian — especially to Athenians such as the judges who were seated before him — Paul reached deep into the world of Greek culture and borrowed an idol as the sermon illustration for the message he was about to preach. If Jewish leaders back home had known what he was doing, they might have fainted! Idols of any kind would have deeply offended the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. But the Holy Spirit had shown Paul that the idol to the UNKNOWN GOD was a divine opportunity to declare to these Athenian leaders the identity of the UNKNOWN GOD! Paul then went on to brilliantly make use of this image made of stone to reveal the truth of Jesus Christ to his listening audience!

At this point, Paul had the judges transfixed by his message and shocked by his knowledge of vivid details about the city. Sensing Paul’s sincere respect for them, the men gave him their undivided attention as he prepared to shoot the Gospel arrow deep into the darkness of their souls in such a way that it would penetrate their hearts.

Then suddenly — Paul did another astonishing thing! Right in the middle of his message, he reached into classical Greek literature and quoted the Athenians’ own poets and philosophers! He said, “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28).

Today we use this quote in the lyrics of certain Christian songs. But these words weren’t written by Christians — they were written in a heathen context and then used by Paul to reach Greek hearts! The words were originally written by Aratus of Soli in Cilicia in 270 BC and by a Stoic philosopher who wrote a hymn to Zeus in approximately 300 BC. If Paul was trying to impress his intelligent audience, he had done it! They had just learned that this was a serious man — so educated that he could even quote by memory from Greek literature!

It was clear to Paul’s audience that he had read other materials in addition to studying the Old Testament. Because Paul was not only highly educated, but also well-rounded in his education, he could therefore speak freely to this intellectual crowd.

When Paul was a young man studying at the University of Tarsus, he had no idea that he would one day stand before the highest court of Greece and use the information he was studying at that time. What a vivid example this is of our need to cherish what we are presently learning! It is very likely that God will call upon us to use what we have learned in times past to help fulfill our assignment now or in the future.

There are great lessons to learn from Paul’s message on Mars Hill. What did he do right?

  • Verse 22: Paul addressed them respectfully: “Ye men of A…” He could have called them wicked sinners, which would have been true — but he would have immediately lost his audience. Paul appealed to them on a higher level of respect and therefore got their attention.
  • Verse 22: He called them religious. As we saw yesterday, this was a great compliment to them, which caused them to open their hearts to hear his Paul could have condemned them for being idol worshipers, but this would have shut their hearts and provoked them to evict him from the court and from the city.
  • Verse 23: He used an altar as the basis for his ser This object that Paul borrowed from their own culture as his chief illustration surely caused these judges to draw nearer to hear what he had to say. He could have said that this altar was an offense to God, but instead Paul chose to use it as an illustration to lead his audience to the Gospel message.
  • Verse 28: Paul quoted the Athenians’ own Greek poets and philosophers, showing them that he was familiar with their culture, literature, and history. This surely impressed the Athenian judges and caused them to respect what Paul had to say. He could have decided to quote only from the Bible, but by choosing to quote from their own literature, Paul grabbed their hearts and provided a common ground that they could relate to.

Imagine how dumbfounded the judges must have been when they realized that the man before them was a man of intelligence, not just an ignorant preacher with weird ideas. By the time

Paul was finished, he had fully preached the Gospel from beginning to end. He had even given an invitation, calling on his listeners to repent!

As you reach the people to whom God has called you to minister, ask the Holy Spirit to help you find ways to connect with them so they will open their hearts to you and to the message you have to share with them. The Holy Spirit knows the key to every person’s heart. He knows every culture and every nation, so nothing takes Him by surprise. If you are willing to listen to the Holy Spirit’s direction and do what He tells you to do, He will show you how to build that bridge into people’s hearts more quickly than you could have ever done on your own. Just open your heart and receive what the Holy Spirit wants to show you!

MY PRAYER FOR TODAY


Lo
rd, I am so thankful that You teach me step by step how to be more effective in the way I witness and share Your love with people. You know the key to every person’s heart, so I ask You to give me the key to reach into the hearts of those people You have laid on my heart. I know they are part of my assignment, and I will do whatever You ask me to do in order to reach them effectively. But I ask You to speak clearly to me. Help me understand the proper steps to take and the right things to do so their hearts will be open to receive the love You want to give them.

I pray this in Jesus’ name!

MY CONFESSION FOR TODAY


I confess that I am growing wiser in the ways I share Christ with unbelievers. Because I pray and seek the assistance of the Holy Spirit, He is helping me, showing me how to touch people’s lives in a way that opens their hearts both to me and to the love of God that I am commissioned to bring to them. I declare by faith that God’s Spirit is guiding me and teaching me how to be more effective in my methods of reaching both the unsaved and those who are in deep spiritual need.

I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!

QUESTIONS FOR YOU TO CONSIDER

  1. Can you think of effective methods the Holy Spirit has given you in the past that have been successful in opening the hearts of unbelievers so you could share the message of Christ with them? What were some of those successful methods?
  2. As you think of the people God has placed on your heart right now, what can you do that will draw them closer to you and thus allow you to ultimately share the best news in the world with them? What acts of kindness can you show them that will make an impression on their hearts?
  3. For whose salvation are you specifically praying at this time? If you haven’t yet made a list of the unsaved people God has put on your heart, why don’t you do it now to help you remember to pray for them every day?