In Acts 17:16-34 we read of Paul's famous speech in Athens at Mars Hill. This was significant because it was his first and most direct contact with the elite philosophers and thinkers of his day. The most important showcase of Christian ideas and gospel message to the pagan mind concentrated in one place.
The "Areopagus" was the supreme council of Athens or the "Upper Council", as it was called. These were the great and famous of Athens who were elected to this office for life. And they were gathered to hear this "new idea", this "new teaching" as befitting the rich and powerful who are in every generation, the first to come into contact with new and visionary ideas.
Of course we are familiar with Paul's sermon on the topic of the "Unknown God" where the Apostle used an inscription on one of Athens' many pagan altars dedicated to an "Unknown Deity" as the basis for his lesson on the true and Very Knowable God. And as these distinguished politicians, and thinkers, and artist, and leaders listened to Paul's description of the God who created all things, including mankind; the God who could not be devised by human will or human art; the God who would exercise a judgment one day; a God who had intervened in human history by resurrecting a certain man from the dead…
As they listened and compared the identity of this God with the gods that they knew, they were challenged to consider a truly "new" idea, one that for all their pompous boasting about being open and curious about what was new, … they were not ready for. Paul introduced them to a God that required a personal change from them --- a God that was the arbitrator of what was true, right, and just and demanded that they conform to this or else.
A God that couldn't be bribed, or manipulated, or scripted, or used but rather was the one that did the scripting, the demanding, the rewarding and the punishing! They found a convenient place to challenge Paul's teaching. The resurrection of a person from the dead was an easy point of scorn. To scoff at human resurrection was a convenient way to save face and dismiss their guest. It was also a panicky reaction to an idea so powerful that it could engulf them and change their world beyond recognition, if they accepted it.
You see, smart men have always searched for new and better ways to change the world but invariably they seek out methods that do not include God. This was true then and has been consistently true throughout history even into modern times.
Let me give you several examples of smart men who wanted change the world without God and how they succeeded.
Changing the World Without God.
1. Friedrich Nietzsche - Friedrich Nietzsche was a poet and philosopher who lived in the 19th century. He was a compete atheist who believed that the concept of the dignity of individual life and equality of men only diluted the entire society. His method of creating a good world without God was to allow the superior intellectual, and physical ones in society to rise to power. These "super-men" would then be able to create better societies from the best to the least. Sort of a Top-Down Management style. His theories and ideas often referred to as Nihilism.
2. Karl Marx - Economist and philosopher who lived much of his life in England in the 19th century. He also was an atheist but he believed quite the opposite of Nietzsche. He believed that the way to make society god without God was to make everyone equal. The way to make everyone equal was when the lower working class (proletariat) overthrew the upper classes and this was to be done by revolution. Revolution was the way to make everyone equal and when everyone was equal there would be justice and a good society.
3. Sigmund Freud - Austrian psychiatrist and founder of psychoanalysis who died in 1939. He also rejected belief in God as a childish illusion and taught that transformation of society begins with the understanding that humans can change themselves for the better. Science could unlock the mysteries of the mind and correct behavior so that it would become acceptable - This could be done through his program of therapy, which was a kind of on-going transformation process for the individual. These men and many like them envisioned a change in the world without God and to an extent they succeeded.
- Nietzsche's ideology was wrestled away by the Nazis and with Hitler in command Germany managed to control most of Europe and nearly dominated the world in his lifetime. All to create the Super Race.
- Karl Marx fostered a movement called Communism, which managed to suppress religious expression in nearly 70% of the world's population for almost half a century.
- Sigmund Freud's ideas have helped mold a society (especially in the West) that is saturated with sexual content and completely self-centered and godless with self-gratification at the center of existence. His was a great influence.
And yet with all this influence, look at the final results of these efforts to change the world without God.
- Nietzsche's legacy left Hitler defeated, Germany destroyed, millions dead and his ideology completely repudiated except for extreme fanatics in places like South Africa who held on to his supremest ideas a little longer than most.
- Karl Marx's socialist paradise turned into a nightmare as country after country in Europe totally rejected the Communist cause and turned to Democratic reform in order to counter the huge problems that 50 years of Communism produced.
- Freud's exhortation to exchange faith in God for faith in self has given us a society that worship technology, glorifies sex, and cannot conceive of a god any greater than man himself, which is small comfort in this dark and perilous world.
Several years ago, all of these ideas came into focus for me while listening to a newscast one morning on my way to work. The first 3 items were on the local newscast.
- 14 women murdered by gunmen at University of Montreal
- 8½ month baby murdered by parents who abused 2½ year old sister as well.
- 3,200 children awaiting appointments with social workers as a result of accusations of child abuse.
Remember, this was just in my own city! The reality of this newscast brought home to me one important point; despite the efforts of these men and others like them our attempts to change the world without God have failed miserably. These men have failed miserably, because the world is not better, in fact the world without God is getting worse!
How to Change the World
Now, as you know, I'm not a philosopher, or poet, or scientist. I'm just a preacher. But I propose that in order to change the world we must make known to the world the
God that has been, and continues to be unknown by this world. And in our declaration to the philosophers, and thinkers, and leaders, and those who think they can change this world we must declare to them the following:
1. We must declare that God is the Lord of creation and not man.
The Psalmist tells us why we should do this:
A. Because God's the creator of the world and wants to be recognized as such. Psalm 33:6-9:
6 By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
And by the breath of His mouth all their host.
7 He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap;
He lays up the deeps in storehouses.
8 Let all the earth fear the Lord;
Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.
9 For He spoke, and it was done;
He commanded, and it stood fast.
B. Because the greatness of a nation depends on its trust in God, not in its ideologies or political systems or military might.
10 The Lord nullifies the counsel of the nations;
He frustrates the plans of the peoples.
11 The counsel of the Lord stands forever,
The plans of His heart from generation to generation.
12 Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,
The people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance.
- Psalm 33:10-12
It is God, the creator of the world and nations that exalts a nation or destroys nations and happy are the people who recognize this fact not only in church, but in the philosophical and political arena as well. If we want to change the world, we have to recognize who created it and who has the power to change it.
2. We must declare that sinfulness is the root of mankind's problems.
Paul formalizes this idea in Romans 6:23 when he writes "the wages of sin is death," but this is the larger truth that everyone wants to ignore. It began with the disobedience of Adam, which set into motion the destruction of the ecology as well as the weakening of our human nature to the point that we are subject to both physical and spiritual death. For example:
- Sins of pride provoke wars in homes and nation.
- Sins of greed provoke poverty and violence.
- Sins of lust provoke chaos in every society.
- Sins of dishonesty provoke confusion and loss.
If we want to change the world we have to tell the world what's really wrong with itself. Sinfulness destroys the world, not ignorance and poverty. Ignorance and poverty and violence are the product of sin not the cause of sin; and we have to declare this truth to the world
3. We must declare that the change begins and ends with Jesus Christ.
We need to understand that systems, ideologies and revolutions will never change people for good --- only Christ change a person for eternity and thus make a radical change in and of this world. It's interesting to note that western nations enthusiastically encourage fewer communist and terrorist nations to embrace democratic and capitalistic systems.
They say that once this is done some kind of magic transformation will take place. All will become peace and prosperity, and the transformation of the world will take place. This, of course, is nonsense.
The west is offering the east the chance to worship at the altar of Mammon because it believes that society can be transformed if it is prosperous enough. And the way to do this is by promoting and practicing the free-market system. Why do you think devout Muslims reject this idea? They, as well as we who follow Christ, know that social democracy and the capitalistic system has not solved the real problems in this country anymore than communism solved problems of Eastern Europe, or fundamentalist Islam solved them in the Middle East.
Our system has simply given us more freedom and money to pursue our sins. The only person that can truly effect a change in our world is not the U.S. President, or the U.N., or even a safe and free Middle East… Until He changes us and our world it is and will always be.. "more of the same."
The Process of Change
Of course what I've given you here are the broad declarations we need to make when we have the chance, as Paul made when he had a prime audience on Mars Hill in Athens. And if they would have listened, if they would not have cut him off when they did, what do you think he would have said?
Well, he declared the sovereignty of God, the need for men to repent, the coming judgment, and the way of salvation through a resurrected Christ. If they would have let him continue in Athens perhaps be would have explained to them what he explained to another Greek audience in Corinth, and that is, how Jesus changes people and thus the world. In I Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul explains the process of change:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
This verse describes accurately the state of our society even though it was written 2,000 years ago.
11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
Note he doesn't mention science or social reform as the agent of change because these things find their source in people and the sad reflection of 10,000 years of human history has taught us one thing - people can't change themselves.
Paul reveals the key to change not only for one person but for entire societies à We Are Changed By God, We Cannot Change Ourselves. In this verse Paul explains how God changes us through Jesus Christ.
1. He washes us clean from sin
God goes to the root of the problem in human nature. He confronts sin, pays the penalty of death for it on the cross with His Son and then offers us forgiveness to wash our conscience clean of guilt.
Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- Acts 2:38
Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
- I Peter 3:21
A clean conscience brings joy and peace. That's change!
2. He sets us apart (Sanctification)
Like Priest in the O.T. Building - sanctuary -set apart for special purpose. Sanctification is like a new identity. Before we belonged to the world, we are sinners, unclean, unworthy, condemned. But when Christ washes us clean we take on a new identity, a changed identity.
These new people are called saints, Christians, believers, the Church, the sanctified etc. Christ doesn't just change the existing society, He creates a new society that will ultimately survive the old. That's why they're washed and set apart.
3. He Justifies us
Washing relieves the conscience for past sins. We have peace for things we cannot atone for, nor can we change. Sanctification gives us a new identity, a new place into which we fit now. This new identity gives us our sense of value and purpose as the people of God.
Justification means that God no longer condemns us for sin, no longer holds our weakness and sinfulness against us. Justification, therefore, gives us confidence for the future because we will fail, we will sin again, we will come to recognize our imperfections to a greater degree in Christ and this is painful.
However, because we are justified by faith in Christ we have the assurance that we have fulfilled all of God's requirements in order to be just, and saved forever. In Jesus Christ our past is forgotten, our present is renewed, our faith is assured. In this world of "same old same old", and "more of the same", this represents a true and lasting and satisfying change!
Have you ever watched the news and seen the injustice, the killing, famine, poverty in the world and felt absolutely helpless to do anything to change it for the better? You know, you don't have to feel helpless, you can begin to change the world…
- It begins with you accepting God as the ruler of your world. In other words, the part of the world that you control. Your car, home, business, goods work, even your family. When you let God control this part of the world it's the beginning of His control over the entire world.
- It continues with a sincere acknowledgment that you contribute to the mess out there with your own sinfulness.
- It's your sins that bring misery to the world.
- It's your sins that sent Jesus to the cross.
- It's your sins that will ultimately condemn you.
- There is never any change without an acknowledgment of personal responsibility.
- Finally, the change in you is completed when you realize that as a sinner you need God and His forgiveness more than you need anything else.
This need moves you to confess your faith in Christ and confirm this by repentance and baptism. Baptism becomes the historical context where the transforming change is completed as you arise from the watery grave. Washed, sanctified, justified.
I believe Paul might have told these great men, these world changing thinkers, that the world is changed one person at a time. Jesus said,
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
- John 3:16
You see, that word "Whosoever" in the Greek means everyone but, everyone, one at a time! Each person here today can begin to change the world if you are willing to let God change you first.
It is in this way that we, in our generation, will make the unknown God known to a lost and dying world.