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A Message From Mars' Hill

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A Message From Mars' Hill

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Suppose you were able to climb into a time machine and go back in time to hear some of the famous speeches of history. Where would you go and what would you listen to? How about Berlin in 1963? U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" message showing his solidarity with the citizens of a divided and beleaguered Berlin on June 26 that year. What if we could take the time machine to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 19, 1863? One of the most significant battles of a terrible civil war had been fought in this small town only four months earlier. President Abraham Lincoln wanted to honor the dead, and to promise that they hadn't died in vain—that a greater cause was being accomplished. The resulting message became known as the Gettysburg Address. In spite of its very short length, it is remembered as one of the most moving speeches in history. These great messages from history, together with most of the others that might come to mind, have this in common: They are tied to momentous events in history, and they speak directly to the people who can relate to those events. Let's take one more trip in the time machine, this time to Athens, around A.D. 50. The apostle Paul is about to give a remarkable message to the citizens and legal minds of Athens. Setting the Scene Paul had just been hustled out of town in Berea because of continuing persecution from some of the Jews at Thessalonica. After leaving Berea he waited in Athens for Timothy and Silas to join him. Athens at the time was immersed in the worship of pagan gods and full of idols (Acts 17:16). Petronius, a writer in the court of Nero at the time, stated somewhat sarcastically that it was easier to meet a god in Athens than it was to meet a man (Jameson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Revised Edition, page 1114). Athens was known as a center of learning—probably something like a top university town of today. Their outlook on life is summarized in verse 21. They wanted to spend all their time hearing or telling something new. Recognizing truth and acting on it apparently wasn't part of the formula. The philosophers there viewed Paul as a "babbler" or "seed picker," someone who picks up scraps for a living. They thought they knew all the gods, and they viewed Athens as the center of knowledge and understanding. Paul, in their minds, was speaking incoherently. They equated him with the vagrants who depended on scraps and trash to supply their needs. Paul's Message Paul was taken to Mars' hill, known as Areopagus in Greek (Acts 17:19). Mars' hill was where a court was convened to look into matters concerning religion or morals. Here, in a city taken over by idol worship and completely besotted with the idea of hearing and telling new things, Paul told them something they hadn't heard before. He told them about the God of the universe and His Son. Verses 22 to 31 give us a glimpse into an enormously powerful message, tailored to Paul's audience. In verse 22, he makes mention of an altar erected to the Unknown God. There were many of these in Athens. The altars to the unknown gods were constructed some 600 years before Paul's time. There had been a pestilence of some kind spreading throughout the city, and it was decided to sacrifice a herd of black and white goats in order to appease the gods, and hopefully end the plague on the city. The herd of goats was let loose from Mars' hill, and wherever an animal lay down, it was sacrificed to the god whose altar was closest to the spot. If no altar was nearby, a new one was erected to the "unknown god" (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, page 143). Paul apparently passed one of these altars on the way to Mars' hill. Paul goes on to tell them that the real God was, in fact, unknown to the Athenians (verse 23). He told them the marvelous story of how the real God created everything, and then sent His Son to the world to proclaim His message. In verse 29, Paul challenges them to think about things—how could a god of gold or silver or stone, created by the Athenians, have actually created mankind? He told them of the coming of Jesus Christ and the hope of the resurrection. Given the times and the audience, Paul's message should have been tremendously moving. From the Athenians, steeped in idol worship and the love of debate, he got very little reaction. Verse 34 mentions just a few who believed. The rest either scoffed or invited Paul back for more academic debate at some future time. Compare this with the reaction Paul received in Iconium (Acts 14:1) or Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-4). While there was persecution, there were also multitudes who believed, and churches were established. Even the apostle Paul, with a message as powerful and pertinent as the one he brought, received very little response from the hard-hearted and unbelieving people of Athens. Christ Himself received a similar reaction from His hometown acquaintances in Nazareth. Notice Matthew 13:53-58. After teaching at the synagogue, He received only unbelief from those who knew Him as a child. He also moved on, and did few mighty works there because of their unbelief. What About Us? Hearing God's Word with an open heart and mind is a responsibility we have today. Unbelief and hard-hearted hearing isn't limited to Athenians or people from Nazareth. Christ warned of the dangers of an unreceptive heart and mind when He gave the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. We may tend to think of this parable in terms of those who are new to the Word of God, but we have an ongoing responsibility to receive God's message with an open heart and a willingness to make changes in our lives. In verse 4 of Matthew 13, we learn about seed falling by the wayside. The wayside was generally a strip of land that could be used by the public to pass between fields. The constant foot traffic on the wayside meant it was packed down and hardened. In verse 5, we're told about seed falling on stony ground. According to William Barclay's Daily Study Bible series for the book of Matthew, the land in Palestine didn't tend to be land filled with stones, but rather it was land with a thin layer of topsoil covering a sheet of limestone. When viewed from this perspective, it becomes more apparent why the seed falling on stony ground is rootless (verses 5 and 6). Then, in verse 7, we're told about the seed falling into ground with many thorns, which spring up and choke out any growth. The interpretation of the parable is found in verses 18 through 23, with the seed shown to be the gospel message of the Kingdom of God, and the soil representing those of us who hear the message. Hardened hearts and minds (verse 19) aren't a unique problem for those hearing the message for the first time. Any of us who neglect our spiritual growth can certainly become hardened by the world around us. Shallow spiritual roots (verses 19 and 20) only become apparent when hard times come. Good times and trials can often come in cycles for all of us. We will experience those times when things seem to go well, maybe for many years at a time. If we haven't sought God with an open heart and mind and a willingness to look at ourselves in the mirror and make changes (i.e., develop spiritual roots), the hard times of persecution and trial will destroy us spiritually. Finally, the thorny ground is shown to represent the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches (verse 22). Which situation are we most susceptible to, by and large, in our affluent Western nations? We don't experience the hardships and physical persecution faced by our spiritual forefathers in Christ's day, many of whom were martyred for holding fast to their beliefs. Today we enjoy a wealth and relative ease of life not known in the past. Thorny ground is certainly a possible danger for all of us. Maintaining fertile soil, spiritually speaking, is likewise a responsibility for all of us. A Call to Action Paul finished his message on Mars' hill by telling the Athenians that the time of ignorance is past, and that God calls on mankind to repent. He admonished them by telling them that a time of judgment is coming. The ultimate judge, he told them, was not the court convening on Mars' hill, but rather the risen Son of God. Paul spoke to the Athenians just a few years after the first coming of Christ. We surely are living through a period of time close to the second coming of Christ. Paul's message to the people on Mars' hill is every bit as timely and profound a message today as it was nearly 2,000 years ago. UN Dave Johnson is a deacon attending the Fort Worth, Texas, congregation.