The title of this message is “You are a Pontifex.” I want to be clear – I have not just insulted you. Pontifex is the Latin word for priest; it literally means “bridge-builder.” Priests were seen as living bridges between God and humanity. The Bible makes it clear that we are all bridge builders; this calling is not reserved for a set of religious specialists. Every disciple is supposed to be a means of drawing people to God.
Every Christian would agree with what I’ve just said. Where we’d disagree is how we accomplish this bridge-building task. For the last 60 years, the church in America has been told that you build bridges by being “relevant.”
Too many people have assumed that ambiguous term means that we gain a hearing in the minds of unsaved folk by looking and sounding just like them. If the church wants to be relevant, it must borrow from the culture.
Today’s American culture is oriented toward youth, is urban, evolutionary (assumes the future is brighter), emphasizes tolerance on social issues, and is infatuated with technology. Contrast that with traditional churches that are oriented toward senior citizens, rural, historical, emphasizes biblical morality and has little desire for the latest tech whiz-bangs. It’s no wonder church folk feel increasingly alienated in their own communities.
The dominant church growth philosophy is “Go young or die.” You wouldn’t believe how often I hear people acting and speaking out of the assumption that the only churches that will survive are those who direct their whole ministry at youth and young adults. It seems that no price is too high, that you can’t go too far in this drive to be relevant. There are at least two problems with this philosophy;
One, it you become just like culture, you become invisible. If there’s no difference between the Church and the other places people hang out, why bother with the Church?
Two, this pursuit of relevance has been an occasion for watering down the Gospel. For example, only sinners need a Savior. Because “tolerance” is the one absolute virtue in our culture and it means “I won’t confront you about your sin if you don’t confront me about mine,” we’re told to ignore or sugar-coat the part about people being guilty of sin. Let me ask you, if the worst thing you’re guilty of is “making maladaptive lifestyle choices,” then why would Jesus have to die for YOU?!
Today I’m going to advocate for a different approach to relevance. I want to use Paul’s preaching in ancient Athens as an example of a confrontational approach to culture. I may be like Don Quixote, but I believe that relevance is best achieved by being counter-cultural. We may gain more enemies than friends, but I think what’s most important is whether or not we’re staying true to God’s word and all of God’s word, not just the parts that are easy and are approved by our so-called post-Christian culture.
Here’s the Eternal Truth we can observe in today’s passage = When culture collides with the truth, we must build bridges to allow people to cross over. This must be done without compromising the truth.
Step One = Compare the cultures to find points at which to anchor the two ends of the bridge (16-23).
- 16 reveals Paul’s reaction to the city of Athens; HE WAS GREATLY DISTRESSED TO SEE THE CITY WAS FULL OF IDOLS.
- 17 details Paul’s solution to the problem; he REASONED with the residents of the city. He went to the synagogue to meet the Jews and Gentile converts. He went to the marketplace to meet with everyone else.
PRINCIPLE #1 = Paul went where the people were; he met them on their turf, but on his terms.
In v. 19 he took advantage of the opportunity presented him to take the discussion to the next level; THEY BROUGHT HIM TO A MEETING OF THE AREOPAGUS. The Aeropagus was a courtyard situated on a hill NW of the marketplace in Athens. It had historically been a place where court was held in session, but by Paul’s time was more of an educational, religious, and cultural center. This opportunity didn’t suddenly fall out of the sky; it came as a result of the discussions Paul had already been having in the synagogue & marketplace.
PRINCIPLE #2 = We don’t JUST wait on the Lord to provide unexpected opportunities; we create opportunities by faithful service and being proactive.
In vs. 22-23, Paul compared the Christian faith and the Athenian culture and pointed out one thing held in common and one thing that was different. The point of commonality; Church culture and Athenian culture were both based on Theism: the belief that a god/gods exist.
Even though he was emphasizing something important held in common, based on his choice of words, we know Paul’s approach was confrontative. VERY RELIGIOUS is a 19-letter word in the Greek! It is better translated as “superstitious.” It is actually an insult, a word that the Romans and Greeks – who could b religious snobs – liked to throw at Jews and Christians. Paul used one of their fancy words against them. Tongue in cheek? Irony or sarcasm?
Paul also pointed out one difference: The God unknown to them was known to the Church. Pointing out their ALTAR TO AN UNKNOWN GOD gave a visual representation of a vital difference. The God that was still unknown to them had revealed Himself to the Jews and Christians. Paul offered this as an example of their “over-religious” behavior, their superstitions. The Athenians were so diligent about religion that they sought to cover their assets by erecting an altar to any god they might’ve otherwise missed.
PRINCIPLE #3 = We become relevant by finding points of comparison, not by compromising.
Step Two = Build the bridge by revealing the truth (23-31).
In verse 23 Paul asserted that God can be known; He’s revealed Himself: WHAT YOU WORSHIP AS UNKNOWN I PROCLAIM TO YOU. God has revealed Himself in many ways.
- Generally – in nature.
- Morally – in the human conscience.
- Spiritually – in the circumstances of life, dreams, visions, all arranged by the Holy Spirit.
- Objectively – in the Bible.
- Personally – in Jesus’ life & teachings
But Greek philosophers defined God as an impersonal, unknowable force.
Greek religion had developed many gods.
Verses 24-25 point out another contrast; that God is the Sustainer of life; we depend on Him, not the other way around. God made the world and He lives in all of it, not just in temples. He doesn’t depend on us.
In Greek religion, the gods had to be placated with offerings, worship, and temple-building. Their very existence depended on receiving worship.
Greek philosophers saw a moral distinction between the physical and spiritual. Their notion of god had nothing to do with the physical universe as physical matter was inherently evil.
Contrary to those notions, as vs. 26-27 show, God rules over all creation and yet is personally involved in it at every level, every moment. Paul told them about God’s involvement:
- He is Creator: [God] MADE EVERY NATION OF MEN.
- He is Sovereign: AND HE DETERMINED THE TIMES SET FOR THEM AND THE EXACT PLACES WHERE THEY SHOULD LIVE.
- He is Savior: HE DID THIS SO MEN WOULD SEEK HIM & FIND HIM, THO HE’S NOT FAR FROM US.
Greek philosophy stated that as a force, god is known only in the after-life. In Greek religion, the gods couldn’t be counted on to act consistently or for our betterment.
PRINCIPLE #4 = You can’t tell the truth if you don’t know the truth.
God is the Father of all humanity (vs. 28-29); we are not illegitimate children; life is not random. Human beings have their origin & outcome in God. He made us in His image. Therefore, manmade idols must never be the objects of worship. In a nod to popular culture, Paul turned quoted one of their own poets. In Greek religion, the gods were created in the image of man; mythical, exalted versions of us.
Verses 30-31 reveal that God is not capricious; He judges justly. Connecting their altar to an unknown god with idolatry, Paul gave the Athenians a warning; God used to overlook their kind of idolatry because it was based on ignorance, but now all people must repent. Repentance is the only way to avoid judgment; we can’t ignore God’s justice foreve. To be perfectly fair, God has revealed His standard for judgment in the perfect life Jesus lived in this world.
Greek philosophers saw history as an endless cycle of repetitive events; death was the only escape. What you did in this life didn’t matter. In Greek religion, the gods gave their permission or commanded sinful behaviors.
PRINCIPLE #5 = We must be assertive, but never aggressive or obnoxious as we present the truth.
Step Three = Be prepared for a variety of reactions (18, 32-34).
Rejection, even persecution are possible reactions to the truth. Some people will argue with you – or worse. In verse 18, the professional philosophers called Paul a BABBLER and accused him of pushing FOREIGN GODS.
In verse 32, some people SNEERED at Paul. When a person’s view is based on pride in their big brains, this is a typical reaction. They have no honest debate, so the resort to ridicule to try to discredit the truth. There’s hope for those who will engage in honest debate, because they will hear the truth. However, the reaction described in these verses is nothing like honest debate.
A second kind of reaction is also described in v. 32: a mixed one. These people were open-minded, but not ready to commit. “WE WANT TO HEAR YOU AGAIN,” they said. Similarly, our task is to present the truth, not to press for conversion. Only God saves people and He waits patiently; we should do exactly the same.
The third and most desirable reaction is found in v. 34: Acceptance (repentance and conversion). It is written; A FEW MEN BECAME FOLLOWERS OF PAUL AND BELIEVED. They accepted t truth and were saved. Luke names some of the new converts, founders of the church in Athens. Note that one of them was a public official.
PRINCIPLE #6 = We don’t judge our faithfulness on the type or amount of response, but on our degree of faithfulness to the truth.
A sixth-grader stood up in class and gave this politically correct report on the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday:
“The pilgrims came here seeking freedom of you know what.
“When they landed, they gave thanks to you know who.
“Because of them, we can worship each Sunday, you know where.”
(The Joyful Noiseletter, November 2007, p. 2.)
What makes that joke both sad and funny is how likely it is to be true. You may have read about the public school somewhere that decided, to combat the evil of gender bias, they would stop referring to their students as boys and girls and call them all “purple penguins” instead.
Let’s be honest. Nobody respects a fake. Nobody respects foolish denial of who you are in order to fit in. Whenever a church is guilty of trying so hard to blend in that they hide or dilute the truth, they have failed to be the church. They have lost their potential hearing by attaining perfect camouflage. When you can’t see the border between the church and the world, the church has ceased to exist.
So – be loving. Be positive. Be respectful and patient. But balance each of those virtues with being honest. This world will one day be destroyed with fire and pretending it is not so will not fire-proof a single individual.
We need to emphasize our distinctiveness, we need to maintain the boundaries of our biblical identity. There are parts of church life that are only cultural, not biblical, and they can be reevaluated. But the center of who we are must be maintained without compromise and without apology.