Audio Worship "Finding Jesus" Acts 17.16-34

Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1595

July 9, 2023

Acts 17.16-34             Click here for audio worship.

Dr. Ed Pettus


“Finding Jesus”


16Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Some 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. 19And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

22So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28for “‘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.’ 29Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

32Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33So Paul went out from their midst. 34But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.


  • Reading the Culture


I find this first verse, verse 16, a fascinating key to addressing the cultural issues of our nation and of any nation. The verse says that Paul’s spirit was provoked within him. What was it that provoked him? In that same verse it was that the city was full of idols. The definition of provoked in the biblical language is to be roused to anger. I’m not sure if anger is what Paul felt and we cannot tell from his actions because all we read is that he reasoned with people. If being provoked to anger leads to calmly reasoning with people, that seems a great way to deal with one’s anger! But he was provoked, at the very least, to being disturbed by what he saw around him. I also see this as the Holy Spirit speaking to Paul. It is only because Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit that he could be provoked by the idolatry of the city of Athens. Christians are provoked by idolatry because the Spirit makes believers sensitive to sin and able to see idolatry for what it is, sin. There is a lot of idolatry in the world. Idolatry, worshiping other gods, is a much greater problem in the Bible than atheism. We tend to draw attention to atheism as if it were a greater concern than idolatry. Idolatry is certainly practiced by non-believers and unfortunately sometimes creeps into the lives of believers. The Bible is less concerned with people who think there is no God and more concerned with believing in the wrong god. That is tied to this understanding that we are all created in the image of God and we have within us the desire to worship. The problem is that sin distorts this desire so that people will rush to worship all sorts of other gods. In Paul’s day it was idols of gold and silver, wood or stone. In our day it is more about idols of fame and riches, status and materialism. People not only want an idol to worship, they seek to be an idol for others to worship. That’s not necessarily a criticism of shows like American Idol, but the entertainment industry certainly promotes idolatry in some ways.

What Paul had done in his time in Greece was to read the culture around him. Now, it can be difficult to do something like that in his time and in ours. Paul saw many different idols and different philosophies in play in his time. It is no different today as our nation is seeing an ever increasing and growing pluralism of all things. Between social media, so called experts, government authorities, voices of alphabet soup, the sciences, foreign entities, common sense or lack thereof – with all that is surrounding us, we have much to read and much to counter with the gospel. Much of the culture is provoking. It provokes us to anger or to disturbance because the Holy Spirit has given us spiritual and biblical discernment.



  • Searching for God


Paul discerns from an inscription on an altar that these people were religious. That is, they practiced some kind of rituals or worship of something they may have considered a higher power than themselves. The inscription was “to the unknown god”. Paul proceeds to make known the God whom they only knew as unknown. Beginning with creation, Paul reveals the God of the Bible. God made everything. God does not live in temples. God gives breath to all living things. God created mankind that they would seek God. God is a living God not confined to idols of stone or gold, but is living and gives life, for in Him we live and move and have our being. Basically Paul is giving them the answer to their search for that which was previously unknown to them. This is the God you seek in all your temples and figures, but this God is not so small that He can be contained in any of these figures. This is the God who has raised Jesus from the dead. Interesting that the text does not say that Paul named Jesus, but the audience must have known that Paul was referring to Jesus. It is just a statement that God raised Him from the dead.

The way to find this formerly unknown God is to repent. The unknown shall become known! Through Jesus Christ, God is known. The people, back in Paul’s day, were searching for God even if they did not know they were searching for God. They were searching in all the wrong places – idol worship, human inventions, pursuits to fulfill the human need to praise and adore something bigger than themselves. It is no different today as people have no idea they are searching for God and yet the evidence shows that in their pursuits for fame or fortune, in material things or social status, they are actually looking for God. I think that is Paul’s understanding when he says, “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him”. There is this God-shaped vacuum in our hearts that can only be filled with God and yet we as fallible sinful human beings will go to anything and everything but God to fill our lives. It is the classic stereotype of filling our lives with work, that can become an idol. Filling our lives with possessions, which can become an idol. Filling our lives with sinful practices in an attempt to fill ourselves with something more than eating and sleeping and going to work. One comes to realize that all the attempts to fill ourselves are empty of what we truly need and it is only in finding Jesus that we can be filled. We search for that which we do not know and seek to fill the gaps of our lives with the worldly gods of fame, fortune, TikToc, Twitter, and so on and on, until we run dry of all the worldly pursuits.

When I was a non-believer, only for nineteen years, but my time was spent on pursuing happiness and nothing more. I did not realize the emptiness of life while I was trying to fill it with sports and cars and whatever else one pursues. It was not until I found Christ or was filled with Christ that I began to see we are only full and at peace, satisfied and content when we begin the pursuit of God and all the blessings of life and evangelism and love and hope that come with believing.

What people may come to see is that their search, like that of the Athenians, their search is for God Himself and all the pursuits of worldly fulfillment fall desperately short of life in abundance.



  • Finding Jesus


You may recall that when Paul preached to the Jewish leaders, he traced Jewish history and quoted from the Old Testament and made his argument using what all the Jews would have known. But when Paul speaks to the Athenians, there is nothing about Jewish history or prophecy or Psalms, but addressing the question in a way they could perceive. Paul appeals to their desire to worship, their search for knowledge, their seeking out new ideas and understanding. He uses something that they can relate to the gospel. But the one common theme between the Jews and Gentiles was Paul’s invitation to repent. Repent of all that would prevent you from coming to Jesus. The search for God ends with Jesus, whether you are a Jew or a Gentile, Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. He is the end of the search and yet He is the beginning of a lifelong search into all that Jesus has done, is doing, and will do. For the folks in Athens, all the discussions and questions and “telling or hearing something new” are all wrapped up in Jesus.

In reading this I was reminded of a scene from the movie Amadeus when a new opera was performed and the emperor commented that the music was something quite new and Mozart was so pleased – something new, yes, quite new! The Athenians were pursuing things new. The gospel was new to them. People tend to be drawn to new things, but there were also divided opinions about Paul’s words. Some mocked Paul, others wanted to hear more. Some even believed and joined Paul’s group.

It is something of a real life rendition of the parable of the sower whose seed landed on different places. Some seed fell on the path where the birds ate it up. Some on rocky soil that grew for a time but withered away. Some on soil that was full of thorns and choked the plants. Some on good soil that produced lots of grain. Look again at verses 32-34 in our reading for today, some mocked – birds ate the seed. Some wanted to hear again – could be rocky soil or thorny soil. Some believed – good soil. This is what we do as followers of Jesus Christ, we cast the seed, we tell of Jesus, we share the gospel message. Some will hear it and reject it. Some might go along for a short time and still reject it. Others might receive it and their lives will be transformed. This is our life giving alternative to the world, to the far left agenda, to the corruption, to the sin and death that plagues humankind; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus Christ is salvation from the evils of sin and death and the devil. Only in Christ is there “something new” and there is always something new in Christ. Those Athenians were always in pursuit of something new. The world is in pursuit of something new and we have the new thing God has done in Jesus Christ.

God gives us new life in Christ. Paul preached this to those in Athens and he wrote about it in his letters.

Romans 6.4, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”


2 Corinthians 5.17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Ephesians 4.24, “...put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”


Jesus also gave new things, John 13.34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”


Others saw it in Jesus as well, a new teaching:


Mark 1.21-28, And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.


A new teaching. A new self. A new life. All things made new in Christ. This is what we have to offer the world. We proclaim a message that is always new because it is the good news of the living God in Jesus Christ. He makes all things new. He ends our search for that which makes life full and with purpose and meaning and hope and peace and love. Believe in Jesus Christ whom God raised from the dead. In this act is the assurance of salvation and life and life eternal. May we all grow in trust and faith and love so that we might speak the gospel into an idolatrous culture and into the lives of those around us. Amen.