Today’s scripture lesson from the 17th chapter of Acts bears witness to what I believe is one of the greatest struggles of human life: the struggle to know God’s presence. The setting for today’s scripture lesson is a sermon that Paul preaches about the struggle to know God’s presence. To appreciate what is known as Paul’s Areopagus Sermon, it is important to know the various contexts in which Paul’s sermon about knowing God’s presence was preached.

The Context of Athens
Athens was the capital of Greece and was typically acknowledged as the birthplace of Western civilization.

Paul was in Athens because of the violent response to sermons he had preached in Thessalonica and Berea in northern Greece. The response to Paul’s sermons was so tumultuous that Paul was carried to Athens for his own safety. While he is waiting for his companions Silas and Timothy to arrive, Paul is distressed to see that Athens is full of idols. Commentator John Gill described Paul’s distress in Athens this way:

His soul was troubled and his heart was grieved, … he was exasperated and provoked to the last degree; he was in a paroxysm; his heart was hot within him; he had a burning fire in his bones, and was weary with forbearing, and could not stay; his zeal wanted vent, and he gave it.

With burning fire, Paul went to the synagogue and the marketplace in Athens to preach about knowing the presence of God. His preaching in the synagogue and the marketplaces caused some of the Athenians to take him to the Areopagus where persons were engaged in religious and philosophical debates.

The Context of Religiosity
There was no single guiding work of scripture that offered guidance for knowing God, and there was no priestly caste designated for oversight of worship. Animal sacrifice, especially of oxen, goats, and sheep was the central ritual act of worship at temples. Much of Greek worship, however, was focused on individuals worshipping individual gods and goddesses. As a result, Greece and Athens were famous for the number of individual shrines that were built for a plethora of Greek gods and goddesses as noted by Paul when he said, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship.”

The Context of Philosophy
Athens was noted as the home of Greek philosophy that emphasized reason about the practices of Greek religion. Two of the Greek philosophies singled out in the 17th chapter of Acts were Epicureanism and Stoicism as noted in Paul’s debate with their philosophers.

Epicureanism was based on the belief that reality is made up of atoms that form the essence of all existence. Epicureans believed that pleasure in moderation was the highest good, that mental pleasure was regarded more highly than physical pleasure, and that good life was achieved through pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The ultimate pleasure taught by Epicureanism was freedom from anxiety and mental pain, especially related to needless fear of death and the gods.

Stoicism taught that the essence of the cosmos is God and that God as Divine Reason governs the cosmos. The highest good in Stoicism was to align personal virtue with Divine Reason. This occurred as individual accepted those things which could not be changed and adjusted their personal attitude toward their circumstances. The ultimate goal of stoicism was freedom from fears and desires.

The Context of the Unknown God
The Athenians and the foreigners who lived in Athens spent their time hearing and discussing the reality of unknown things. Paul noted this reality when he spoke about seeing the altar that had been built to an unknown god. This altar was an acknowledgement that there is a knowledge about God that is beyond the knowledge of human philosophies and religion that builds shrines for gods to live in.

The Context of the Known God
Paul’s sermon at Areopagus proclaimed that God’s unknown presence is known through:

  • God who made the world and everything in it
  • God as the Lord of heaven and earth who does not live in shrines made by human hands
  • God who gives all mortals life and breath
  • God who raised Jesus from the dead

The Context of Jesus
Paul’s sermon at Areopagus proclaims that followers of Jesus believe in God who is known as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. It is our faith that God is known through Jesus. It is our prayer that God will be known through our faith in Jesus whom Gregory of Nazianzus described in the 4th century AD:

He began His ministry by being hungry, yet He is the Bread of Life.
Jesus ended His earthly ministry by being thirsty, yet He is the Living Water.
Jesus was weary, yet He is our rest. Jesus paid tribute, yet He is the King.
Jesus was accused of having a demon, yet He cast out demons.
Jesus wept, yet He wipes away our tears.
Jesus was sold for thirty pieces of silver, yet He redeemed the world.
Jesus was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, yet He is the Good Shepherd.
Jesus died, yet by His death He destroyed the power of death.

May God bless us as we live with faith in Jesus who makes God known.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Knowing God

by Pastor Marc Brown
May 14, 2023

Accompanying Scriptures: Acts 17:22-31

Fort Hill United Methodist Church
Order of Worship for May 14, 2023

Scripture Lesson    Acts 17:22-31

The Good News      “Knowing God”

Music                          “Surely the Presence” Hymn #328



Closing Music      “Take My Life” arr. Penny Rodriguez

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