America has changed pretty radically over the last 30-40 years, in more ways than we could count. One of the major ways which we haven’t really discussed yet is the subject of biblical literacy. Read the founding documents of this nation, as well as the papers left behind by the people of that time period, and you’ll find them chock-full of allusions to biblical references. The very founding document of this nation—the Declaration of Independence—starts out with the supposedly self-evident proposition that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. You might be able to find a speech by Lincoln in which he didn’t reference the Bible, but you’d have to look for it. Up until around 30-40 years ago, it was assumed that pretty much everyone had at least a passing knowledge of the Bible.
Not any longer. My friends, if we’re going to reach this generation, we can’t assume that our audience knows anything about the Bible. Heck, most American Christians know less about the Bible today than a typical nonbelieving skeptic would have a hundred years ago.
That’s why this sermon/speech is so important. This is the first major speech (aside from the short one in chapter 14) in which an evangelist is trying to reach a completely pagan audience. These hearers know nothing about Moses or the prophets, and they couldn’t care less.
So where do we start? With creation. Now if you’re reading this today, you might miss the controversial elements of what Paul says in today’s reading. It all sounds pretty standard for us as Bible-believing Christians to know that God created everything. But this was very radical for these listeners to accept. I won’t bore you with the details, but let me summarize how this proposition would raise some eyebrows. The Epicureans believed that matter was eternal and that there was no Creator, and the Stoics were Pantheists and denied that God could be separate from the creation.
If we do believe in a divine Creator, then what can we know?
• He doesn’t live in a man-made temple. If he made the universe, how could he be contained thus?
• He doesn’t require any sacrifices (or anything else) from us, since he supplies us with life, breath, and everything else we need.
• All people are created by him, and thus we all are equal before him in our nature.
• All nations and kingdoms of men are under his sovereign control. He's the One who set up their times and places, and marked their boundaries according to his own wisdom.
Why did he do this? Is this some abstract concept? Is he just some god “up there” like Zeus, who really doesn’t care about what happens on earth? No! All this time, he set up the boundaries of kingdoms in certain times and places in order for them to reach out to him.
But this God that I’m talking about is not that far. He’s not just up in Heaven, directing the affairs of men like a chess player moving pieces on a board. He’s right here, right now. He’s reaching out to you.
And here comes the kicker. How do you know all this, Paul? Well, if he was like some well-meaning evangelists I’ve heard, he'd bring out a Bible verse that proves his point. But no. He quotes their own poets and philosophers. “In him we live and move and have our being” is a quote from the Cretan philosopher Epimenides. “We are his offspring” comes from the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus.
Now, did Paul believe that these poets and philosophers were 100% inspired like Isaiah or Moses? Of course not. But these pagans had some insightful truth that he could use as a connection point with this audience.
My friend, there is some truth in Islam. There’s some truth in Buddhism. There’s some truth in any other religion. We need to know the background of the people we’re trying to reach, and we need to know it in order to reach out to people where they are right now, not where we are.
Take it as you will.
Lord Jesus, you did that for us, didn’t you? You didn’t wait for us to reach you where you were. You stepped out of Heaven and came down to us, to where we were. Thank you.