Friday, June 29, 2012

Representing the Kingdom of God on Mars Hill - Acts 17 – Kingdom Missions in a post-Christian World

(Click to read Acts 17) 

Acts 17:26-28 (ESV)
(God made) every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27  that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way towards him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Good News, me hearties. We’ve been set free.

Through faith, in the eyes of God we have been given the righteousness Jesus. He is now our high priest, and King of kings. He is the only mediator we need to go straight to God. We don’t need a special secret method, and we don’t need another special human being to confess to or to hold our faith in their hands.

We are now invited to be citizens of the Kingdom of God. Through Jesus, all the corrupt powers of empire around us and within is have been defeated. We may now have renewed hearts, and the very Spirit of God living inside us, the living seed of the Kingdom growing in us, through us, changing the structures of the world around us.

We may now live for the King of kings, and no lesser authority in Earth or Heaven holds sway over that authority. Our King says we are free.

Our life in as free citizens of the Kingdom starts by faith, and it continues by faith. It’s all free, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit within and through us that manifests Kingdom Justice and Love in the world.

Acts 17:24-25 (ESV)
24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

The King is a giver, me hearties. He doesn’t need our efforts. He doesn’t need our works. There is nothing we can do to impress him. There is nothing that we have that we can give him. Everything we have is from him. The Kingdom growing in the world around us is turning everything right, toward his just and loving purpose for which it was created.

This is good news for us that are weak. This is good news for us who struggle with anxiety or addiction. This is good news for the poor, the oppressed, those in the margins.

This is difficult news for those with power, for the rich, for the violent. It was hard news for Paul, the man who spoke these words from Acts 17.

Before he had received the freedom and grace Jesus offers the world, he had lived for and preached an entirely different message. Before Jesus, he taught others to take the religious code of law, put it on like a chain, and pull it as a weight to show God you were good enough for the Kingdom.

Paul heard the message of Jesus. He heard it straight from the mouth of Stephen as he stood and watched approvingly at his murder (Paul's words in verses 24-25 closely match Stephen's last words in Acts 7:48-50). The free entrance into the Kingdom of God offered by Jesus and his followers was so different that Paul felt his entire life threatened by it. That's why he hated the new Kingdom Communities and violently persecuted them.

Paul needed to be blinded, weak, and vulnerable before he was able to accept this freedom in which these communities shared. Once he did, he became the first and most effective missionary preacher the church had had since Jesus.

Here are Paul's words on his new life in the Kingdom:

Galatians 2:20 (ESV) 
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul now li
ved in Jesus’ resurrected life, by faith.
Paul also said this:

Romans 6:14
For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.

Jesus did not promise that we would see the end of poverty in our lifetime, but we will continue to be generous and stand for justice for the poor and oppressed in the hope of the completion of his will and his Kingdom come on Earth, as he did promise.

In that same hope, we walk in faith, and without any condemnation, believing that God’s work in forming us and the Just Kingdom in the world will be completed.

With the authority of this message of freedom and grace, a truly humbled and gentled Paul found himself in the bustling and lively and progressive capital city of Athens, among a people who had never before heard it.

Paul found himself in Athens with some time on his hands, having been escorted there for his own protection. He and his friends Silas, Timothy, and Luke (author of the book of Acts) had caused trouble in the last two cities they’d visited, and Paul had to leave quickly.

They had some success in Thessalonica, where people wanted to hear the things they said. But things soon turned ugly, and they were accused of treason against Ceasar for proclaiming that Jesus was the new King (v7). They fled to Berea, where the religious faithful were happy to explore scripture to see if the things they said were true. But when agitators who followed from Thessalonica tracked them down, Paul had to flee again for his physical safety.

Now Paul was in Athens alone, waiting for his friends to arrive.

The city of Athens was a major metropolitan centre. Though it wasn’t at the peak it had achieved about four hundred years before, it was still at the centre of philosophical and artistic influence of its era. It had a leading university, and attracted thinkers and students from all over the neighbouring territories. Philosophy and literature were a major point of the cultural identity.

(A capital city valuing arts, literature and a progressive University campus culture could describe my neighbourhood in Edmonton, frozen capital of Alberta.)

In this major urban centre, Paul found himself alone and without influence.

Consider the power dynamic of this image compared with our ideas of missions today. If we take away our privilege and our wealth and our ability to give aide, are we still able to share the Good News of the Kingdom of God with the poor and the outsider, locally or internationally? What does this mean for missions? Can poor people share the message of the Kingdom?

Before Jesus, Paul was a privileged man of great influence. After Jesus, he finds himself alone in a strange city with no apparent need for his story of Jesus.

As we, the world's most privileged, seek to give our aide to the needy, we should remember that it is not the blanket we give, or the orphanage we build, or the soup kitchen we run that is going to lead people to understand or accept the Kingdom of God. At best, when we have this attitude we become arrogant and selfish in our own abilities and strength, and forget the God who saved us. At worst, we set ourselves up as gods and idols ourselves in the lives of the people we serve, and use our influence to create converts from indebtedness. This is not honouring to God.

The rich and powerful, like us, are just as in need of the freedom of the Kingdom as the poor we serve. The most oppressive and hateful of the most powerful class has as much need to be freed from their oppression and hatred as the poor does from their poverty.

What Paul has to offer Athens is the gospel of the Kingdom, and the Holy Spirit inside of him. He had faith that God was the one who changed hearts and gave grace. He walked humbly in Jesus’ authority, not his own.

When we find ourselves in the position to give generously to those in need, or we find that we ourselves are the ones in need, either way it is the the power of the Holy Spirit that is the strength in our mission, not ourselves.

We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, demonstrating and speaking Justice and Love wherever we go, spreading seeds of the Kingdom in the cracks of the empire's foundation. We are ambassadors of the Kingdom to the empire, speaking truth to false power, inviting anyone who would to join the movement that will change the world.

Acts 17:17 (ESV)
So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there.

To effectively serve people as citizens of the Kingdom, we need to be where people are.

Both the synagogue and marketplace were places of meeting, where people went at their leisure to hang out, do business, spend time with each other, and to talk. Our equivalent may be a pub, coffee shop, mall, or library.

Acts 17:18 (ESV)
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.

To effectively serve people as citizens of the Kingdom, we need to know who they are.

Paul found himself among Epicureans and Stoics. The Epicureans were material empiricists. All that is and can be known can be measured and tested, and the chief end of life is to seek pleasure. The Stoics believed in a divinity called “Logos”, which they described as an impersonal supreme intelligence that was the force of all reason and fated everyone to whatever lived they found themselves in. For them, the greatest participation in the divine was to live for pure reason.

These two philosophies are remarkably similar to the common ideologies of atheistic empiricism and postmodern pantheism.

Not only was Paul aware of these philosophies before he arrived, as we can see by how he addressed the people in his speech, he was observant of his surroundings, seeing the idols all around him in the city, and becoming provoked by them. When he looked around the city, he didn't just see great architecture, he was moved by the things that moved God.

Kingdom ambassadors know people as God knows them.

Paul had a biblical worldview, and spiritually sensitive eyes. Paul understood the full spectrum of the gospel. He knew God as holy, and that the sin of the people of Athens would move God to fierce justice. He knew God as love, and that the sin of the people of Athens would move God to gracious forgiveness.

The more we live according to God's Kingdom, the more we will see with Kingdom eyes.

Kingdom ambassadors sensitively seek to know people as they know themselves.

Paul was well educated in the culture and philosophies of the people to whom he he was speaking.

In verse 26 Paul describes God as determining times and places of people’s lives, in a language that would not be unfamiliar to the fatalism of the Stoics.

In verse 28 he quotes two different Greek poets that they would have been familiar with. One of them is actually a quote that describes the Greek God, Zeus.

Paul read books, met and listened to lots of people, and observed the architecture around him in order to better know and understand the people he was speaking to. Paul entered the culture of the people of Athens, becoming an Athenian to the greatest degree he could, and shared the gospel with them in their cultural language.

Paul was not a sectarian. A sectarian is afraid of the culture around him, and seeks to isolate himself in a bubble of his faith, lest he be infected by the contagious culture surrounding him. Far from being afraid of the culture, Paul faced it head on with humility and in the light of the gospel.

In the marketplace, he did not simply declare his message, as from a soapbox. He reasoned with people. He had an engaged, respectful give and take dialogue with them.

When invited to speak to the Areopagus (or Mars Hill – the council of philosophical authority in the city), he began very gently with what they knew, and then clearly brought them to what they didn’t know.

He acknowledged their idols specifically. He spoke in the language of their philosophies when they were congruent to the message of Jesus. He quoted their poets.

But he did not compromise the essential elements of the gospel.

Paul was not a syncretist. He did not seek to marry his “Jesus philosophy” to the common philosophies of his day, hoping to slip some Jesus in when people weren’t looking. He had the boldness and the humility to present himself and what he believed exactly as they were. He did not compromise for fear or for pride.

The philosophers of Mars Hill were looking for a new idea. Paul did not present the gospel as such. His message commanded not a change of mind or philosophy, but an entire change of being.

At the centre of his message was the truth that God did not and does not need the service and work of religious people.

This is Good News for the weak, but difficult for the self-sufficient.

God made us, and to raise ourselves or anything else up as a god instead of him is ignorant.

Imagine the offense of that word, “ignorant” to the council of great philosophers of Athens.

Paul called them to repent, to turn around and leave the Spirit of empire, and act entirely different, as an agent of the Kingdom of Grace. Exactly as many as were ready to receive Paul's message did, including members of the Aropageus itself.

Let us live as ambassadors of Justice, Love, and Grace.

Let us engage with people around us,

sympathetically knowing them as they know themselves,

and as God knows them.

Let us humbly live, share, and proclaim Jesus and the Kingdom in our cultural context without compromise.


v4 – Paul’s company gets bigger
v5 – Jealousy. The gospel requires humility because it really is for everyone. It makes Donald Trump no better than a homeless drug dealer.
v10 – The diligence of the Bereans
vv16-34 – Paul preaches at MARS HILL in Athens
He saw the idols.
He reasoned
He had compassion
He spoke with wisdom and Grace
He did not compromise the truth

(Click to read Acts 17)

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