Back in 1835, some residents in South Carolina had this idea to build a new railroad that goes through the mountains of their state into Georgia and Tennessee. Up to 1835, all the railroad tracks to the west had avoided these mountains, called Blue Ridge Mountains, but this new idea proposed that the railroad go straight through the mountains in a 13-mile tunnel they were going to dig. So construction began some years later, and in 1856 this tunnel came to a little mountain in the Blue Ridge mountain range called Stumphouse Mountain. That was 1856. By 1859 they were still at Stumphouse Mountain and the state of South Carolina had spent over a million dollars trying to dig through it. And they were finished. The state refused to spend any more money and the entire project was just abandoned.
Which means, right now, in the mountains of South Carolina, there is a tunnel going straight through this one mountain that just randomly stops right in the middle of it. It’s called Stumphouse Tunnel, and you can go there and visit it. You can’t get there by car. You have to park and get out and walk up the mountain, and back when Melissa and I were dating we did that — that was back in my twenties.
Melissa has family in that part of South Carolina, and she had been there several times. But this one summer we both went and did the whole trek. And like you could imagine, when you come to the tunnel it is just this big hole in the side of a mountain. And you can walk in it. So we did that, along with some of the other people visiting the tunnel that day. And it doesn’t take long as you’re walking into the tunnel before you find yourself in complete darkness. It was the darkest kind of darkness I’ve ever experienced. It was a disorienting darkness. Everything is just black. There is no light at all. And when you are in that kind of darkness, it affects the way you act. Seriously, we take for granted how confident we move around when we can see.
In the darkness, though, in Stumphouse Tunnel darkness, it’s different. Everyone just takes little, shuffle steps. Every move you make is tainted with a kind of doubt and anxiety because you can’t see anything. You walk with your hands up [like this] because you don’t know what’s out there.
That’s what it’s like in the dark of Stumphouse Tunnel, and that’s not too different from the cultural situation that Paul finds himself in in Acts 17.
The Context of Acts 17
The first thing you might notice in Acts 17 is how similar it is to Acts 14. The two chapters seem to follow the same script. Both include, as we’re going to see, an important sermon by Paul to a Gentile audience — remember in Acts 14, Paul preached the gospel tailored for the pagans of Lystra, and they wanted to sacrifice a bull for him. Well, here, Paul preaches the gospel to a crowd of philosophy majors in Athens, and in a similar way to Acts 14, his message is tailored for them.
This message here by Paul — what Pastor Michael just read — it really is the central part of the chapter, and we’re going to look closer at it, but let’s get there through the context. So let’s back up for a minute and see what leads us to this sermon.
Just like in chapter 14, chapter 17 opens with Paul, in his custom way, preaching in the synagogue. This time, though, he’s not in Asia, he’s in southeastern Europe, in the city of Thessalonica. And like in chapter 14, Paul’s preaching angers some of the Jewish listeners and they stir up a crowd to run Paul out of the city. In chapter 14, Paul and Barnabas flee to Lystra. Here, in chapter 17, Paul and Silas flee to Berea. And here in chapter 17, just like in 14, it isn’t long before the Jewish men from the previous city who kicked Paul out actually track Paul down — they follow him to where he is — and then they stir up more crowds there to run him out again. We see that in Acts 17:13,
“But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.”
And when this happens in Berea, right away, the fellow Christians get Paul out of there. Silas and Timothy, who were with Paul, can stay there a little longer. But Paul is immediately sent out of there, escorted by some of the Berean brothers until he gets to Athens. And when these guys bring Paul to Athens, they stay there with him until they figure out a plan for how to get Silas and Timothy to Athens. When those plans are made, the Berean brothers then leave. And Paul is left in Athens by himself to wait for Silas and Timothy.
I can almost imagine how that conversation went. These guys from Berea are packed up, about to walk out the door, and they tell Paul to just hang out, to lay low, to wait for Silas and Timothy to get there. And Paul probably agreed — but you know, this is Paul. And as verse 16 tells us, while he is waiting around for Silas and Timothy to get to Athens, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). And so Paul, being Paul, can’t just lay low because he’s on a mission.
Getting to Paul’s Sermon
Okay, so we’re getting to Paul’s sermon in verse 22. That’s where we are headed, but there is a subtle part of the story here that I think it is important for us.
When Paul finds himself here in Athens, he finds himself in a cultural situation he did not plan on. Luke doesn’t tell us that Athens was on Paul’s list of places to go like Rome was. Luke just tells us that Paul ends up in Athens because he is being run out of all the other cities. Paul didn’t plan on Athens, but Athens is where he found himself. And we get the sense from verse 16, that while Paul was there, his attitude was like, “Well, here I am.” He doesn’t bemoan the cultural situation he finds himself in and wish that things were back the way they used to be — you know, back when he was in Berea. Instead of complain, Paul is determined not to come off the mission. He is determined to move toward those around him with the good news of Jesus. So, in verse 17, he goes to the synagogue and he reasons from the Scriptures with the Jews, and then everyday he goes to the marketplace and he talks to whoever is there.
Again, this is a subtle part of the story. It is just context. But Paul finds himself in a cultural situation he did not plan on, and rather than retreat and hide, he goes where the people are and he tells them about Jesus. If the shoe fits, wear it.
Paul has good news, and he’s going to tell the good news. That’s what he does, and his message here gets their attention. Look at verse 18,
Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.”
Ironically, there are some cultural situations so dark that the message of Jesus sounds foreign. It sounds like nonsense. To some people, gospel messengers can sound like babblers. That’s what is happening in Athens here, in around 50AD.
And when these philosophers heard what Paul said about Jesus, they want to bring him to the Areopagus — the place where all the Athenians and foreigners congregated and entertained new ideas. These Epicurean and Stoic philosophers think that what Paul says is interesting and they want the others to hear him.
So in verse 19 they bring Paul there. They take Paul and they bring him before the Areopagus. And I want to be clear here: I don’t think this is a positive thing. I don’t think we should see this development to mean that these philosophers were sincerely considering the gospel. In fact, I think the note Luke makes in verse 21 is meant to keep us from doing just that. Verse 21 tells us that these people “would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” They give Paul this platform not because they care about what he has to say, but because they want to make a spectacle out of him. They think his message is strange, and they want to be entertained by it. And Paul, of course, undeterred by any of this, stands there before them and he’s got something to say.
And this is how we get to his sermon in verse 22.
There are two main things that Paul does in this sermon. First, he shows us The Problem of Ignorance, and then he shows us The End of the Problem.
The Problem of Ignorance
Ignorance is the theme of what he says. Verse 30 mentions “ignorance” explicitly, and it’s also how Paul starts his sermon. Notice verse 23, he says to the Athenians . . .
“I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
The Greek word for “unknown” in verse 23, and then the word “ignorance” in verse 30 are basically the same. The noun is agnoia — which is where we get the English word “agnostic.” It means “ignorance,” or literally, “no knowledge.” And that is the problem here in Athens, in 50AD. The problem is what they do not know. And Paul is about to speak into that.
Paul says, in verse 23, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Basically, he says, I’m going to tell you what you don’t know. And that probably, to many of us, sounds very arrogant: Paul is going to tell them what they don’t know. But notice how he does it.
There is something the Athenians don’t know, and need to know, but it doesn’t mean they don’t know anything. They know something is out there, and Paul actually affirms them for knowing that. When he starts in verse 22, he comments that the Athenians are “very religious” — which could be sarcasm, but either way, Paul engages the Athenians where they are to tell them what they need to know. They know something is out there. Even beyond the normal objects of their worship, they still know there is something more, and so they have this altar to the “unknown god.” They have this category for a divine being bigger than their everyday routine. And Paul’s going to tell them who he is. And he does that by making three corrections:
- God doesn’t live in temples made by humans; (v. 25)
- God isn’t served by humans as if he needed us; (v. 25)
- God isn’t a product of human imagination (v. 29)
And if we needed to find a common theme in each of these corrections, I think it’s pretty clear we can see that Paul is saying: God is big, and humans are small. God isn’t contained in a house or temple we might build for him. We don’t do stuff for God because he needs us. And God isn’t the outcome of our ingenuity and cleverness — he’s not gold or silver or stone or an idea that we make up.
The trend here in Athens, and for all humans, is that although we have this understanding that there’s more to life than what’s here — that there’s something bigger than us out there — we often take that something bigger, that Someone bigger, and we try to domesticate him to give us what we want. It’s like we can’t help ourselves from thinking that everything is really about us.
In primitive cultures, this is called traditional religion, or folk religion. And basically, it’s an understanding of the supernatural that has little to do with actual theology and doctrine, and is more concerned with what we do. And it’s terribly superstitious.
It goes like this, for example . . . A village notices that after it rains, the crops really begin to grow. They know the rain comes from something out there, and they know rain is good for their crops, and therefore good for their food, which is good for their happiness. And so they try to figure out what they need to do to make the rain come. How do they make that someone out there, the divine, send this rain? Maybe they do a rain dance, or maybe they sacrifice an animal. It starts with trial and error, but eventually they build a culture that believes what they do for the divine determines what the divine does for them. So in order for it to rain, the divine needs us to do that little rain dance for him again.
We see this in primitive cultures of the world, and we see this in our own. According to one sociologist, in America this is called Moral Therapeutic Deism. It’s a very simple understanding of God that believes he exists mainly to give us what we want, and that he will give us what we want as long as we are decent people. As long as we don’t hurt anyone, we expect life to go pretty well for us. We scratch God’s back, and he scratches ours. That’s the basic, normal view of God in our culture, and there’s so much more to say about this, but we all know too well how this it goes. This is the air we breathe. And the truth behind it all is that really we view ourselves as god and we want that Someone bigger out there to just get on board with that, and give us what we want.
Seriously, some of us are probably there right now. We think this way. And if you’re there this morning, or anywhere close to there, the apostle Paul wants to tell you something.
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
 And he made from one man [Adam] every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,  that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.
See, the problem with ignorance is that it leaves us in the dark.
All the things in life that make us happy, the things that we want, these are all meant to lead us to God. That’s what Paul said: the way that God set up the world — the ways things are — are all directed toward God. Verse 27 says that God made things the way they are so that people “should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” The word here for “feel” is only used a few other times in the New Testament — also translated “touch” — and it carries the imagery of being in the dark and walking with your hands up. That’s how you walk in the dark. You just feel your way through life.
You take little, shuffle steps, and you just put yours hands up to the stuff around you, and if that’s how you live, sooner or later, you are going to think that rather than you and this stuff exist for God, you’ll think God exists for you and this stuff.
We can’t help ourselves from thinking it’s all about us. All about “me.” That’s what it’s like when we’re in the dark. That is the problem of ignorance.
And then there’s the end of the problem.
The End of the Problem
Paul speaks into this cultural situation, both in Athens and into our own, and it’s fascinating how he does it. He’s not red-faced. He’s not hollering. He’s not holding up a sign with flames on it. Instead, Paul tells the Athenians that they are in the dark, but they’re not far away — God is not far from them. And then comes verse 30:
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
The problem has been ignorance, but now those days are done. Now, God commands all people everywhere to turn from the darkness. Why? Because Jesus is real, Jesus is alive, Jesus has been raised from the dead.
Darkness is no longer an option because the Light of the world has come, and now the end is in sight. There is a day, Paul tells us, a fixed moment in time, when everyone in this world will stand before Jesus. Jesus has that kind of supremacy. He is the Lord of all with that kind of authority. And to prove the point, to make it sure for us, Jesus walked out of the tomb. He was dead, and now he’s not. He’s now alive, and he reigns, and we’re all going to see him one day.
Notice the response after Paul said this, in verse 32, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’”
It’s ironic that in verse 18, Paul teaching about Jesus and the resurrection fascinates the Athenians. And then in verse 32, Jesus and the resurrection repels them. At one place the resurrection of Jesus interests them, and it leads into this sermon; at the other place the resurrection of Jesus irritates them, and the sermon is over. In both cases, though, Paul is just super clear. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything.
And the reality is: that what will find increasing dissonance with our surrounding culture is actually the key to everything we think and say. It’s that Jesus is real, Jesus is alive, Jesus has been raised from the dead.
And the good news is that Jesus is who he is to bring us out of darkness. He wants us to know God. He wants us to find our peace and our joy in God. That’s why he came, to both reveal God and redeem sinners. Jesus came to show us who God is, and to welcome us into a new relationship with him.
So after Jesus died for us, and was raised from the dead, in Luke 24, he comes to his disciples. They were are all depressed; they had seen him die; they saw the place where he was buried. But now Jesus is raised, and he comes to them in their amazement and he says, Luke 24:38,
“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:38–39)
The word for “touch” here in Luke 24 is the same word for “feel” in Acts 17. And we get it. The reason we are no longer in the dark feeling our way to God is because Jesus can be touched. We were walking through life in the dark, hands up, trying to feel our way to God, and Jesus comes, he turns the lights on, and says, Put your hands right here and see. It changes everything.
Jesus is real. Jesus is alive. Jesus has been raised from the dead. And he invites us to this table.
He told the disciples to touch him, because he can be touched. Jesus is the touchable God.
And we remember that at this table as we eat the bread and drink the cup. Jesus has a real body, and in his veins is real blood. And on the cross where he died that body was battered for us, and that blood was poured out for us. While we were still in darkness, the Light of the world did that for us. And here in a moment, I want us to know that what we hold in our hands represents light in the darkness. And as we eat and drink, I want us to imagine being overcome by this light, and then through us this light shines into the darkness.