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City of Idols (Part 2 of 3)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg
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April 18, 2024 4:00 am

City of Idols (Part 2 of 3)

Truth for Life / Alistair Begg

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April 18, 2024 4:00 am

You may have heard the saying “Some people are so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly good.” That certainly wasn’t true for the apostle Paul! Learn how he engaged with the world without compromising his faith, on Truth For Life with Alistair Begg.


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You may have heard the saying, some people are so heavenly minded, they're of no earth earthly good. Think about the Apostle Paul, he was certainly heavenly minded but he did a lot of earthly good.

And today on Truth for Life we'll learn how it's possible to fully engage with the culture without compromising our faith. Alistair Begg is teaching from Acts chapter 17, we're looking at verses 16 through 23. Paul, as he arrives in Athens following his time in Thessalonica and in Berea.

And as he moves around this city, Luke doesn't remark on his response to its architecture. Presumably he was struck by the immensity of it and its stature. But Luke actually tells us, gives us an insight into what was happening in Paul's psyche, if you like, what was going on in the core of his being. He starts off in the same world with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, those whom we mentioned last time, who had come around the monotheism of Judaism without entering into all of its rites and rituals.

They were known as God-fearers. They wanted to know God, and they were interested in what the Jews were saying, but they had not themselves converted to Judaism. Paul goes into that group, and he speaks to them. Presumably in Athens, he followed the pattern previously established. You will see that when he went into the Thessalonica, he, as his custom was, went to the synagogue. And on three Sabbath days, you will notice he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. In other words, he did the hard work of biblical exposition. He didn't just go in there and tell them, you know, if Thessalonica needs a good shake, or let me tell you what happened to me when I was down the street in another place, let me share some experiences I've had of the Holy Spirit. All of those things would have been interesting and marginally profitable, but he knows that's not what he's called to do. That's not what he's called to do. No, he's called to make much of Jesus and to explain the gospel. And so what he does is he reasons with them—he's not unreasonable—and he says to them, What I want you to do is to look at your Bibles at the Old Testament. And then he takes the Old Testament, and he explains, and he proves that the Christ—that is, the Messiah—had to suffer and rise from the dead.

That was his strategy. And he would have shown his listeners that the Messiah that they were waiting for was a Messiah who actually had to suffer. Yes, he was a king who would reign.

Yes, he was a prophet who would speak God's Word. But he had to show them that he was also a priest who would himself die to bear the sins of his people. And the light started to go on in the eyes of certain people. They said, Oh, oh, oh!

He said—and that's what he did—he said, Are you getting this? Do you realize that what the Old Testament is saying, that the Messiah, when he comes, must suffer and rise from the dead? And when one or two of them said, Yes, we understand that, then the coup de grace, then Luke tells us, he said, This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is that Messiah. It doesn't start off about Jesus. It starts off with the Old Testament.

And we're going to see that it is remarkable what Paul does here in Athens. When he gets the ears of the intelligentsia, he doesn't start with the doctrine of the atonement. He starts with the doctrine of creation. We'll see that later on.

Most of us are afraid to start with the doctrine of creation, because we've already given up on the idea that God could create the world in seven days if he wanted to. I'm hard-pressed to find anybody who would actually believe that. You say, You don't possibly believe that?

Well, I'm very happy to believe that, yes. Well, how did it get as old? Well, I've seen you antiquing things. Don't you think God can antique things? You make something new look old?

You do it. I've been in your houses. I've been in my house.

I don't need to go in anyone else's house. But that's for another time. And when he's done that in the synagogue, then he moves out into the marketplace with those who just happen to be there. That's verse 17. And he talked with those who happened to be there.

In other words, he didn't have appointments. He just engaged people in conversation. Now, some of us are better at this than others. Some of us are raconteurs. Some of us can talk about anything. Most of the time, nobody wants to listen to us. Other people have difficulty in engaging people in conversation. Not everybody is able to do it in the same way.

But if you're introverted and you're not good at starting these conversations, that's okay, because people are looking for people like you because they don't like extroverted people who are like in their face all the time. And so God knows what he's doing in putting people together. And Paul, given his temperament, given his personality, is out in the community, in the mainstream of life, down in the marketplace, and he just seizes the opportunity to speak with those who happen to be there. And the people who were listening—and there were a group of eggheads who were there, the intelligentsia, they looked like tadpoles, huge big heads and tiny little bodies—they were intrigued by him. Some of them said he seems to be a bit of a birdbrain, seems to be a bit of a babbler, picking up scraps of information. That's what the Greek means, and just spitting them out. Somebody else said, No, I'm not so sure you're right on that. He seems to be speaking about some foreign gods.

And Luke says the reason they said that is because he was speaking about Jesus and the resurrection, the resurrection being anesthesia. And so the possibility is that in their minds they said, Oh, we got the kind of male-female deity thing going on here. Anyway, there was enough intrigue for them to say, Why don't you come to a meeting of our philosophical society? A group of us does meet together routinely, and we speak about the really important things of life. Verse 21, Luke parenthetically says, And all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing—actually, not doing nothing, but doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. Now, there are groups of people like this everywhere.

You can find them different places. In the sixties, it was kind of trendy to, you know, have this kind of bohemian perspective on life and to suggest that we knew the things to talk about. Paul Simon puts his tongue in his cheek and writes about it when he says, Yes, we speak the things that matter with words that must be said. Is analysis really worthwhile? Is the theater really dead? And you read your Emily Dickinson and I, my Robert Frost, and the dangling conversation and the superficial sighs and the borders of our minds. Now, that's not all gone.

We're three decades on from that, at least. But you can find these people. You'll find them in coffee shops around America. You'll find them in Starbucks. Schultz wanted them in Starbucks, and he has achieved what he set out to do. If you've read Pour Your Heart into It, if you're a business student and you haven't read Pour Your Heart into It, then I commend it to you.

It would be exceptionally profitable. The story of how Schultz gets the whole concept of Starbucks up and off the ground. He's designed not simply to sell coffee at exorbitant prices but actually to, by his own testimony, restore the street corners to America. And Schultz says in his book that he was brought up in a community, I think, in New York, where people were out on the stoops, and they were out on the corners, and they smoked cigarettes, and they talked to one another, and they shot the breeze with each other. And he says in the end of our twentieth-century society, and into the twenty-first, no one's out on the corners, no one's on the stoops, no one's shooting the breeze, everyone's in their cars, it's an atomized society, the culture is disintegrated from one another, and everyone is isolated. So he said, what I want to do, having been in Italy and gone to the piazzas and the coffee shops, he said, what I want to do is restore the street corners to America. I want to create places in America where people can sit down and actually talk to one another, and you know what? He's done it.

He's done it. And I don't know about you, but I have discovered in just about every city in America that if you go into this place or a generic version—you know, like when you get drugs and you say, would you like the real thing or a generic—you can go to Starbucks or a generic, and you'll find that there are people in there. You can play chess with them or checkers if you happen to be so inclined. There's some person that has all kinds of things attached to him, not least of all an iPod, and he's in his own cyberspace world listening to Bohemian Rhapsody or whatever it might be, while at the same time prepared to engage you in a conversation regarding metaphysics. And you don't have to do anything except say, hello. And you're off to the races.

What do you want to talk about? Well, that's what Paul was doing. I have a sneaking suspicion that if we would just scatter into these communities and into these places, intentionally thinking about opportunities for the gospel, we'll actually fill Parkside up two or three times over with people who are just interested as a result of our conversations. Not because we're going in there to try and hammer them with something, not because we're going in to try and infiltrate the culture, as it were, but just because we're going in as human beings that like other human beings and are interested in what other people are reading and what they're saying. What is that book? I haven't read that book. Tell me what that book's about. And if you ask that question, they're liable to ask you, and what's your book about? And you can tell them what your book's about. And if you have to read it in the New Testament, you're off to a flying start.

Oh, this is a good one here. I was just reading a bit in Acts 17. My pastor was trying to explain it.

Didn't do a very good job, so I thought I would just come in here and read it for myself, see if I can make some headway in it. And the person says, well, what's it about? You say, well, is it Paul? Who is Paul? Well, Paul and so on, and you're off to the races.

You're not sitting down with a little thing, you know, waiting for the chance to press button A, so you can press button B, and so on, and get to wherever you're supposed to get to, because your head has been wired for a certain methodological approach to communicating the gospel. No, they were there, and they were there in good numbers, and they loved to talk about these things. And as a result of that, he did receive an invitation, verse 19, on account of the fact that he had intrigued them. They took him and brought him, verse 19, to a meeting of the Areopagus—that is, the assembly of the people. And if you've been to Athens, you will have seen the site on Mars Hill, and you will have seen the plaque there with Acts 17, beginning in verse 22 and running through to verse 31. I went there with a group of people, and I looked at the plaque on the wall, and it's written entirely in Greek, and so I stood and I looked at her for a little bit, and I said, Aha! I said, Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious, because… And I began to apparently translate it, but I wasn't translating. I was just quoting Acts 17 from memory.

But they were thoroughly impressed. For a moment. So, brought up to the meeting of the Athenians and the Areopagus, the intelligentsia of the day, he's going to begin his dissertation for them in verse 22. We're not going to be able to get there before this evening, but let me just set the context for you as we draw this to a close. What we're saying at Parkside in both our teaching from the Bible, whether it's here or in any of the context, and in our communicating of the gospel within our place of influence and involvement, is that two things are essential. One, we need to have one foot planted firmly in the culture. And the other, we need to have one foot planted firmly in the Bible. Somebody might say, Well, you need both feet in the Bible. Okay, okay. So, but you understand what I'm saying.

Leave him aside for the moment. One foot firmly in the culture and one foot firmly in the Bible, so that we confuse the two horizons. It's not unusual to find people who have got both their feet firmly in the Bible and their heads in the Bible. They're wonderful teachers of the Bible, but when it all comes to the end, the people are sitting there going, So what?

I don't understand how this intersects with anything. And there are other people who are so brilliant at establishing an understanding of the cultural context that having set the context very clearly, everybody's sitting there saying, What does this have to do with the Bible? And the real challenge is being able to read, as it were, the New York Times and the Bible and to show how the New York Times and the Bible intersect. Well, it doesn't have to be the New York Times. I just say that to annoy my Wall Street readers who are here and who are very concerned for me.

But it's all right. I need to read what the enemy is saying in order to understand them and fight against them. And what I've discovered is that the dominant philosophies that are represented here in Athens are still essentially dominant in twenty-first-century America. At the risk of oversimplification but in the interest of time, let me summarize them for you. We are told, encountered a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The Epicurean philosophy can be summarized in terms of words like chance, indulgence, and escape. It's the kind of thing that you find in Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams, a form of existentialism, really. It is represented in all kinds of contemporary lyrics and even in ancient lyrics.

The idea for the Epicurean was that you really only have the moment. You seize the moment, grab the gusto, do your best. From Wayne's world, it would be, party on, dude. And in the words of Kris Kristofferson, either written but certainly sung, it would be, I don't care what's right or wrong.

I don't try to understand. Let the devil take tomorrow, cause tonight I'll take your hand. Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow is out of sight. Help me make it through the night.

Now, when you run up against somebody, if you're dating in the dating game, and you begin to pick up the fact that they are Epicurean, you do well to grab your car keys and make a run for it. For those of you who did poetry at school and loved it, then Swinburne gets this whole philosophy in the Garden of Proserpine, when he writes, From too much love of living, from hope and fear set free, we thank with brief thanksgiving whatever gods may be. And what do we thank these gods, whatever they are, whoever they are for?

Well, we thank them that no life lives forever, that dead men rise up never, and that even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to see. It is, in the words of the Liverpool soccer supporters, chanted routinely, Que sera sera. Whatever will be will be. The future's not mine to see.

Que sera sera. It is aptly summarized in the teenagers' flippant response to everything, Whatever. Whatever.

It is alive and well. Do you understand that many a young person in suburban Cleveland today, if pressed, that actually is their summary statement of their worldview? Whatever. Oh, do you know this?

Whatever. In contrast, and yet in comparison, the Stoic philosophy can be summarized in terms of fatalism, submission, and the endurance of pain, perhaps best summarized in Henley's Invictus. If you remember W. E. Henley, if you did him at school, Henley had polio as a boy, had his leg amputated. Henley's amputation gave inspiration to Robert Louis Stevenson when he created the captain with the peg leg in his novel Whatever It Was.

But Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw and those kind of people were all sort of hit together. And Henley grabs this Stoicism and encapsulates it for all time in one stanza that most people know, but the rest of the poem we had to learn at school as well. It's known as the Invictus.

Do you remember it? Out of the night that covers me, and black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be—that's the same line you will notice—"whatever gods may be," as we have in Swinburne, for my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears looms but the horror of the shade, and yet the menace of the years finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. The Epicureans believed that death ended everything, there was nothing beyond, and therefore no judgment to be feared. The Stoics said, Bring it on! Bring it on!

Show me what you've got! Under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody and unbowed. Who, facing the death penalty, quoted as his final words, Invictus?

Yes. That's right, Timothy McVeigh. And it was historicism at the very core of his being that allowed him to lie down on that gurney and scream at death. And it is the Epicureanism of convincing oneself that it's all over when you die and you go to nowhere and it doesn't matter, that allows people to proceed wholesale towards eternity without hardly a passing thought for what it may mean. It is this philosophical framework that Paul is confronted by, and it is to this group that he then begins his address. And to his address we will come on the next chance we have together. You're listening to Truth for Life. That is Alistair Begg with a message he's titled City of Idols. We'll hear the conclusion tomorrow.

Keep listening. Alistair returns in just a bit to close today's program. Now we have something very special we're making available to Truth for Life listeners. We want to invite you to download from our website a free ebook that is all about the nature and character of Jesus. The book is titled Name Above All Names.

It's co-written by Alistair and Sinclair Ferguson. The book offers an insightful look at seven key qualities of Jesus' identity and ministry. As you read this book you'll gain a deeper understanding of how Jesus is a true prophet, our great high priest, a conquering king, along with other roles he fills. This is a rich study from two seasoned pastors who have decades of extensive experience in Bible study and Bible teaching. We think you'll benefit greatly from their profound knowledge about who Jesus is and how he is revealed throughout the entirety of the Bible. You can download your copy of the ebook Name Above All Names along with a companion digital study guide.

It's free. Go to slash name. And while you're on our website you'll want to request the short 45-page booklet titled Does the Old Testament Really Point to Jesus? As you read this little booklet you'll learn six specific ways to identify where the Messiah is predicted in the Old Testament so you can better understand how Jesus is the fulfillment of these predictions. It's a quick read with tremendous insights that will greatly enhance your personal or small group Old Testament study.

Ask for the booklet Does the Old Testament Really Point to Jesus? when you give a donation through the Truth for Life mobile app or online at slash donate or call us at 888-588-7884. And if you'd rather mail your donation along with your request for the booklet you can write to us at Truth for Life P.O. Box 398000 Cleveland, Ohio.

Our zip code is 44139. Now here's Alistair with prayer. Father, I thank you for the Bible. I pray today for us to become students of your Word so that we might learn to share it with others in a way that, like Paul, is reasonable and compassionate and interesting and vibrant and related. I pray for some who are listening to the Bible being taught today and who, with their friends, are thinking issues through, some who have been tempted to think with the Epicureans that death ends it all, but deep inside them they know that isn't true, some who have been raging against the machine, playing Pink Floyd on their iPod, Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone.

I'm just another brick in the wall. And yet inside of them they see the emptiness of the world, they sense their own fears and incapacities, they know that they cannot conquer their demons nor triumph over their sins. And that, of course, is where the message of a loving God and a wonderful Savior and a terrific Friend and Guide and Counselor comes in. So we pray that there will be those who, before the day is out, simply bow in childlike trust and turn from their empty and futile way of life and trust in Jesus, and that others of us will plan on going out into this week compelled by the love of Christ to make much of Jesus. And now may the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one of us today and forevermore. Amen. I'm Bob Lapine. Thanks for listening today. Tomorrow we'll find out how the Apostle Paul was able to declare the truth of the Gospel with conviction, but without condemning his listeners. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-04-18 07:32:31 / 2024-04-18 07:41:51 / 9

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