Acts 17:16-34 - Pauls Sermon on Mars Hill


They often say that one of the hardest parts of preparing a message is deciding what to speak about. With 31000+ verses in the Bible, each one of them hand-crafted by the author of the universe to communicate with his creation, it is kind of tough working out which ones to leave out! Now the theory goes that if you are preaching on some kind of special occasion, such as Easter Sunday, it should be easier because everyone knows the kind of thing you should be talking about.

If you want something to stir the gentler side of the emotions you can pick Gethsemene where the Lord comes before his father in anguish as he forsees the sin of the world placed upon his sinless shoulders.

If you want to stir indignation you can cover the trials, all three of them a mockery of both Jewish and Roman justice.

Then you have the cross, where fallen man spit upon the Lord of creation. Where his own people take him and nail him to wood. Those cries "Father forgive them, they know not what they do", "My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me".

Of course, Easter Sunday is traditionally associated with the resurrection, when the Lord rose again on the third day in fulfilment of the scriptures. Someone with an eye to detail may choose to give an address on how the Bible closes up all the little loopholes to show that the resurrection was a fact. "Matthew 27:60 - And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock", have you ever wondered why scripture goes into that detail? Well if the tomb hand not been in a rock face but actually built from a pile of stones (as most pictures show!) then people could have broken in to steal the body, so the tomb was set in rock.

But why does it say hewn, well if this had been a natural cave it could have been like other caves with a series of back passages and little nooks and crannies through which a person could have escaped or hidden. But why does it say new? Well old buildings sometimes have hidden cubby holes that no-one today knows about, just 10 years ago they found a hidden passage in the houses of parliament that led to a room that had been a nerve center for WW1 operations, this tomb had no hidey holes. But why does it say his own new tomb? It tells you that there weren't any bodies in there yet, there couldn't be any mix-ups.

Perhaps those people who look ahead may choose to focus on the 40 days the Lord spent proving he was alive, or even his ascension back into glory and his position at the right hand of God.

So with all of these great things to choose from where am I heading? The answer is somewhere else. Up and down the land, indeed across the world, people will be remembering one of the best attested and most significant miracles ever recorded, the Son of God rising from the dead. In the words of Romans the resurrection was the proof that Jesus is God, "and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead". But my question for you this morning is this - So what? The resurrection happened, Jesus Christ rose from the dead, but what difference does that make to you, and the way you live your life here in Boca in 2001.

To help us look at this question in more detail we're going to tackle Acts 17:16-34.

V16-21 The Audience

Paul was having to wait, he had some time on his hands. One of the things that distinguishes us one from another is the way we use our spare time. Some of us eat, some sleep, some play sport, some veg out in front of the TV, Paul used it to observe the spiritual state of those around him. And when he looked he was stirred, he saw idolatry, people worshipping, giving their energies and sometimes even their lives to things that had been created. So I guess the first question for you this morning is what do you expend your energies on? Note I didn't say what is important to you? If you ask that question you typically get a very pious sounding set of answers. What I asked was what do you spend your energies on because what you spend your energies on are the things that are really important to you, whatever else you may wish to believe.

Types of people

In verses 17-18 we then find that Paul discussed the Bible and its claims with a very diverse group of people. As I go through the list try to see which description fits you best.

So there we have it, five different groups, five different mind sets and yet we find in the latter half of verse 18 that Paul hits them all with exactly the same curve-ball, The Resurrection. No matter who you are, what you are, what your history or belief set the Resurrection is a central stated fact that you have to be able to explain unless you want to go through life and actually death with a mile-wide hole in your world view.

A decision

V19-20 are easy to skip but actually important. In the next 30 minutes you are all going to make at least one decision, you are going to decide to spend the next thirty minutes hearing what the Bible is saying to you or you are going to spend it starring at the clock hoping I shut up early. The people here, to their credit, we at least willing to give Paul and audience, they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, a hill from which he could speak and everyone hear. For a preacher such as Paul this was an ideal opportunity although v21 adds a slight note of warning. These people were always hearing or saying something new. We have the same problem we hear so much that we actually hear nothing. I realize that for some of us here this morning we are in a similar danger.

You are here, you may even choose to listen, but are you actually going to act upon what you hear. Today I am going to ask you a question, present you with a challenge. You have one of three possible responses, you can agree, disagree or ignore the question. If you do either of the first two then this morning will have been profitable for both of us.

V22-26 The State

Excess Religion

V22 must have been rather shocking to the people that heard it, "Men of Athens I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious". The word translated superstitious is actually deisidaimonia it really means god fearing or religious! Here was a religious man telling a group of party goers, practical people and materialists that they were too religious! And you know, I think the same is true of America today. Wherever you go you get religion, you watch a sports program and some sportsman is thanking God for their skill, you go to the supermarket and there is a row of Bibles and a set of get well cards with Bible verses! You go to a hotel and a Bible pops out of your bedside draw. You drive down the highway and you are harangued with a selection of Bible verses, you go down Federal or Yamato and there are huge churches with spires hundred of feet high. I went into a bookshop a few months ago and 3 of the top 10 selling books were Christian, we even go down to the pool for a swim and find people - looking ahead to the tribulation!

There really is far too much of it and it is very, very dangerous!.

V23 I suspect some of you are sitting there thinking, he's been out in the sun, he lost his mind, how can living in a Christian society possible be a bad or dangerous thing. Well look at verse 23. "To the unknown God" You see for all of the posters and books and good sounding words I think many people in this country are worshipping a God they don't know, and that may well include you.

Now now you say, you don't know who you are talking to. We know God. It is God Almighty, Jehovah, Lord Of Hosts, the Christian God it is him we believe in. But do you, you may know his name but do you actually know him?

Aahh - you say, now we see where you are coming from, do we know him in detail. Well yes we do, we went to Sunday school, we know our memory verses, we can tell you all about Abraham, David, Daniel, Paul, Peter the lot. We have a thoroughly Christian education and can tell you anything you want to know. And maybe you can, but that isn't what I asked. You may know all there is to know about God but do you actually know God himself? You see the challenge of the latter part of 23 is this, it is possible that you are worshipping God already but doing it in ignorance, without knowing the precise nature of the deal, and says Paul, if you are doing that then there are a few other things you need to know, which we are now going to look at.


V24 God that made the world and all things therein. Here is the first fact to get our minds around, God made us. He actually made everything but let us focus on this one. He made us and if he made us then he owns us. He has every right to decide our future. Seeing that he is the Lord of heaven and earth. Fact 2, God is still around and he is still in control. Sometimes people acknowledge that God created the world but then they like to think he stepped back and left it to its own devices, not so says Paul. God is still the Lord. Dwelleth not in temples made with hands. Have you ever noticed how much we like to pigeon hole God. When we go to church we put on the nice clothes, smile at everybody and do all sorts of good things because we know that God can see us. Then we go back to the privacy of our own homes and do what we like. Or we go to work and show our real natures. Well says the Bible, God can still see you. Proverbs 15:3 - The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good. We must get out of our minds that God is someone you meet at church, God is everywhere, he sees everything and hears everything, in fact he even knows what we think, he knows what you are thinking right now.

V25 neither is worshipped with mens hand's. This is the next fallacy the Paul tried to debunk for the Athenians and that I wish to debunk for you this morning. God cannot be worshipped with works. Some of us like to think that by doing good things, or giving away money or by any number of other pious activities that we are doing enough to be in Gods good books. Well says v25, just think how ridiculous that idea is. God is the one that gives us life, every breath you take you take because God allows you to. He made all things, billions of suns, tens of billions of planets, each one hand-crafted by God and we think he is going to be impressed because of something we construct out of the materials he has given us! I like old buildings and in England I have seen many. There are many churches and cathedrals that are very impressive to the human eye, some of them were donated by rich gentry that wanted to get right with God, in fact the catholic church actively encourages this kind of belief. I remember one inscription on a fairly impressive abbey that said "To show forth the Glory of God". I'm sure the person that wrote it meant well but he was sadly mistaken. An abbey shows what man can do with a couple of hundred tons of rock. If you want to see Gods glory go to a mountain range and see what he can do with a few million tons of rock, or look up to the sky and see what he can do with billions of billions of tons of rock.

V26 Here we are getting onto dangerous territory. In America we have a separation of Church and State, an important step for both church and state that England sadly lacks. But look what this verse says - the state may have separated itself from the church but it cannot separate itself from God. It can try, it may even appear to succeed, but the success of any nation or grouping has already been decided, ahead of time by God. Have you ever wondered how America became a superpower and the Soviet Union crumbled? I'm sure we would like to think it was intelligence, technology or maybe money but I don't think it was. If you look at the research papers produced by the communists they were miles ahead of us for most of the time. If you look at the natural resources they had available to them they should have been the economic superpower. If you look at the natural defences they have against attack they should have been impregnable. The very character and tradition of the people fitted them perfectly for hard work. So what went wrong? Communism? Well almost but I think the real issue was Atheism. The Soviet Union decided to eliminate God, so God eliminated the Soviet Union.

V27-30 : The Relationship

V27 So God made us, gave us breath and appointed for us a place and society for us to live in, but why? That we may seek him and find him. Just take hold of that, our primary mission here on earth is to find God. I love the picture here if haply they might feel after Him it rather reminds me of an old trick for finding your way around a maze, you keep your hand on the wall and eventually you will traverse the maze. Each of us, in a way unique to our society and character has a method and mandate to seek God and if we really do seek we will find him, that is what the verse says. How can we guarantee that, end of the verse, because he is close at hand.

V28, which raises the question; in what way is he close at hand, how can we know? V28 says because our very existence and being are inextricably woven into God. Do you want proof that God exists? Look in the mirror, examine each fragment of your body, each one a miracle way beyond what any scientist has been able to create or even imagine. Just think of a few! Skin; completely impermeable to water in one direction yet allowing water and harmful substances to flow out in the other. Capable of sensing touch and temperature with phenomenal accuracy and yet able to withstand impact far beyond most other materials of similar thickness. Self healing upon tearing and with an active life of over 80 years. Have you ever wondered how come you go through 3 pairs of shoes a year and yet have never gone through the skin on your feet? Or the eye, a apochromatic lens capable of focusing from 3 inches out to infinity, resolving images far finer than a top quality Nikon lens, that never smears, is good for 80 years and weighs a fraction of an ounce. But beyond the miracle of the body just look into your soul. Do you really think you are an animal? In fact, if you accept the concept of you then you know you are not an animal. You have consciousness, you have feelings, you can abstract thoughts out of your mind and deal in the imaginary sphere. In other words you are made in the image of God or, as the verse puts it, we are His offspring.

V29 Now we get towards the crux, given God made us, given we are in His image, given that our mission here on earth is to find him, we should not be looking for him in the material world. And that presents us with a challenge. Remember back when I started rambling I said, look back over the past week and work out what you spent your energies on. What is it that makes you tick. Well, if you are like most people I know it is likely to be something physical. Gold. Precious things, those finer things of life. Do you deck your house with antiques, is your body covered with jewellery, do you go for exotic things from exotic places? Silver. Money. Can you tell me the value of your bank accounts to the nearest cent or do you now only deal in thousands? Either answer tells me where your heart is. Stone. Maybe we are the sort that builds for the future, housing, cars, furniture all of those things we cluster around ourselves to give ourselves some sense of permanence. Graven by art and mans device. Very different things, hoarded by different personalities but they have all the same thing in common, they are centred around man. Perhaps none of these apply to you, but there could well be others, how about sport? Do we follow the bat or ball with our full heart. Maybe it is sex? Following the fortunes of the latest screen goddess or supermodel. Music? Sensual gratification - all of these things are based upon man.

V30 So you say, if everyone does these things and they are all based upon man then they are all probably OK, right? Wrong. Verse 30. God is longsuffering, he gives each one of us time to understand, he gives each one of us time to decide, but the ultimate commandment is firm and non-negotiable now commandeth all men everywhere to repent. Who does this apply to, all men. So what does repent mean, it really means to turn around. We have to accept that we have been trying to do things our way, follow our desires and our logic but now we want to turn from all of that and we want to follow God.

The Decision

V31 I wonder how your mind works, I'm one of those people that is naturally stubborn. If you ask me to do something I may, if you tell me the chances of my complying are way lower, if you command me there is no chance. And I'm sure some of you out there may be thinking, so what? If I'm commanded to repent and don't what is going to happen, I can go home to my nice home, eat a nice dinner and forget that dreadful preacher Sunday morning. Well - yes you can but take a quick look at verse 31 first. He hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained. You are going to be judged. Not by me, not by anyone here but by God. The God that knows everything you have done, everything you would like to have done, every motive and every inclination and he is going to judge you against a standard of absolute perfection.

Let us take the second half of the verse, whereof He hath given assurance unto all men in that He hath raised Him from the dead. Let me put this to you another way. If you don't know God personally, if you are not following him fully and completely in your life then the resurrection that everyone is celebrating is not a promise but a threat. God is saying "My Son rose from the dead, you will rise from the dead and there will be judgement". It actually says in Hebrews 9:27 - And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.

V32-34 I have presented to you this morning a message of much the same form that Paul presented upon Mars Hill. It is really a challenge, a question if you prefer. Do you know God, not about him or of him but do you know him. If you don't then I have told you the first things you need to know, God created you and is near to you waiting for you to find him, if you choose to find him. To do so you have to obey his command, repent. Finally I have shown you that the resurrection is viewed as a proof of life after death and shown you that for those who have not repented this will be a time of judgement. I haven't actually shown you this morning but I have to tell you that the Bible tells us that after the judgement comes eternal punishment for those that have not repented.

Now that leaves a question, not one for you to answer to me, but for you to answer to yourself. What are you going to do about it?

In these verses we see three major approaches.

  1. Some mocked. If you don't like what you hear pretend it is silly. Claim you don't believe, ignore what you hear. That is clearly your decision, until that day that the Lord has appointed.
  2. We will hear again of this matter. For me this is the saddest group, they were interested, they knew that there was truth there and that they should respond to it but they decided to put the decision off. So why are they the saddest group? Well look at v33 - So Paul departed from among them. They didn't hear again of this matter, they had one chance and they blew it. If the spirit is speaking to you today I urge you to listen.
  3. Howbeit certain men clave. Some people had their lives changed. They would never be the same again, and they wouldn't have to face the judgement. For them the resurrection turned from a threat into a promise. A promise that when they rose from the dead, as we all will, they will do it to face the Lord they love and follow already.

So, as we head our different ways my question to you is simple: So what. Jesus Christ is risen today, but what difference does it make to you? If you don't know God and have heard something this morning that has spoken to you and you want to know God then please come and see one of us afterwards, we will be glad to help you in any way we can.

Thank you and good morning .


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