I Believe: Credo
Acts 17: 16–34
What we’re doing for the next few weeks is looking at the basic beliefs of Christianity, and we’re going to follow the outline of the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is the oldest summary of biblical doctrine we have. As you know, the Apostles’ Creed begins with the words, “I believe.” Credo in Latin. “I believe.”
As soon as we talk about Christians believing, we’re posed with the question, “Yeah, but we live in a world in which fewer and fewer people seem to be believing.” In the 21st Century every year we see statistics that say more and more people say, “I don’t believe in God. I don’t have religious beliefs. I don’t have a religious preference.” So what is the future of Christian belief in a world in which fewer and fewer believe?
One of the ways to answer that question is to go to Acts, chapter 17, because there Paul goes to the Areopagus. He goes to Athens. Athens was the intellectual center of the Roman world. It was sort of like Oxford and Cambridge. He went into the marketplace. When you and I hear marketplace, we think of an Ema market or a shopping mall. It was actually the place where all of the ideas were debated.
For example, this Athens Agora, the marketplace, was the place Socrates would go every single day to debate with people and to propagate his philosophy, and so on.
Here are the three things I’d like you to get from this passage.
First of all, we’re going to learn that everybody does believe. Everyone is deeply religious. Everyone does believe.
Secondly, your beliefs must have a God-sized God big enough for your moral intuitions, and
Thirdly, your beliefs must have a heart-shaped hope that can fulfill your deepest desires.
Those are the three things we’re going to learn from Paul in this passage.
Everyone does Believe
First of all, when Paul begins his message in verse 22, he says, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” He says, “You are very religious.” We might say, “Well, that’s then. Back then everybody was superstitious. There was a lot of religion, but today religion is dying out. Today people are more secular.” I believe if Paul were here he would say exactly the same thing to Imphal people.
He’d say, “You’re all very religious. Maybe not formally religious. Maybe you don’t adhere to institutional religions or formal religions, but you all hold deeply religious beliefs, unprovable faith beliefs.” How would he make his case?
Well, Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, says that even in secular societies, all human beings have to live for something, and they all have to live on the basis of answers to certain questions.
You can’t live unless you answer some questions, or at least tentatively answer some questions.
What are we here for?
Where have we come?
Where are we going?
Is there an afterlife?
What’s wrong with life?
What would put life right?
How should I be living?
Nobody can live without tacit, implicit at least, tentative answers to those questions, but the answers to all of those questions are beliefs. Not a single one of them can be proven.
Whatever your answer is to any of those questions …
What should human beings be doing?
How do you determine right and wrong?
How should you be living in such a way as to put life right?
The answer to those questions, whatever they are (and everybody has to have some answers), you can’t prove them in a laboratory. You can’t prove them in a test tube. They’re beliefs.
For example, let’s say you’re an atheist or an agnostic. You say, “Well, I don’t have any religious beliefs. I don’t have faith. I just go on what I see. I go on the evidence. I’m a reasonable person.” Most secular people I’ve met would say two things. One is they say, “I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe when you’re dead that’s it. I don’t believe in God.
Can you prove there is no God? Can you prove there’s no afterlife? Of course you can’t. It’s certainly a leap of faith. You’re betting your life. You’re betting your destiny on your faith that there is no God, that there’s no afterlife, because you can’t prove it.
Therefore, you are living by faith just as much, in some ways, as a person who believes there is a God and an afterlife.
2. Your Beliefs must have A God-sized God big enough for your moral intuitions
In verses 16–17 it says, “16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So 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.[including Epicurean and Stoic philosophers].” That word reason is really interesting. It’s the Greek word dialegomai, and it has a very specific meaning.
First of all, here’s what it tells you. Christians, listen. When he is dealing with people with a deeply different worldview … Their understanding of human nature, their understanding of whether there’s a God, their understanding of the nature of the universe … They’re radically different. He doesn’t start preaching. I know that’s what I do. You have to realize that I’m saying preaching, monologuing, just telling people, “This is what the Bible says,” is not what he does.
Dialegomai is not preaching. He’s entering into dialogue. Christians who just think, “All I have to do is tell people, ‘This is what God says. This is what the Bible says,’ ” to people with a radically different worldview … You’re going to get nowhere, and it’s your fault that you’re getting nowhere. On the other hand, dialegomai does not mean what you and I would think of, which is just conversing. It was a Socratic method. Here’s how the Socratic method works.
The Socratic method says,
first of all, we acknowledge that we both have deeply different worldviews, but rather than me criticizing your worldview from the point of my worldview, which of course gets us nowhere … Of course one worldview will look stupid from the vantage point of another worldview.
Instead, the Socratic method was you came inside, sympathetically, the other person’s worldview. You tried to think like them. You tried to understand them. You tried to listen. You tried to sympathetically and imaginatively enter in and imagine what it’s like to be a person inside this worldview. You’re not laughing. You’re not yelling. You’re not screaming. You’re not saying, “How stupid.” You’re coming on the inside.
Then, and only then, do you criticize that worldview from its own premises, from its own standards. By your own standards you have a problem here, and that’s what Paul does.
That’s how you make progress. You say, “How does he do that?” Let me show you. The first thing he does is he shows these folks, especially when he gets up and speaks …
He’s doing all the dialoguing. He’s doing all the Socratic method. He’s persuading people by entering inside their own worldviews, and he’s trying to show them the problems on the basis of their own premises. He’s also showing them how they smuggle in resources and values from other worldviews, showing that their worldview is actually not adequate. You say, “How does he do that?” Here we go.
First, when he gets up to speak, he challenges them to have a God-sized God. He says, “You do not have a big enough God for your moral intuitions.” Now how does he do that? Well, he starts with this fascinating beginning in verse 23.
“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
That is an astonishing statement, and it’s the secret to how he is reasoning with them. He says, “On the one hand, you’re worshiping something without knowing it. This altar to the unknown god shows that you sense there’s something inadequate about your worldview, that your worldview can’t quite account for all of your intuitions, that there might be a God out there that you sense but can’t identify, that your own understanding of the universe and of the gods isn’t adequate.
If there’s no God, you can explain moral feelings, right? They might be the product of evolutionary biology. It might be the product of cultural construction. If there is no God, you can explain moral feelings, but if there is no God, you cannot explain moral obligation.
Moral feeling is, “I feel this is wrong.”
Moral obligation is, “You must not do it, whether you feel it’s wrong or not.”
If there is no God, there is no moral obligation, and yet we all know there’s moral obligation.
Paul would say the existence of God makes sense of your moral intuitions, but your worldview does not. Your worldview is too small for your own moral intuitions. What he does here, by the way, is he’s working on them in his own way. He says in verse 28, “as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we are indeed his offspring.” He says, “So you say, on the one hand, that God creates us, but then how do you make idols?” He’s criticizing the way they believe in multiple gods and idol worship.”
He says, “If God made you, then how could we make God? That doesn’t make sense.” What he’s doing is coming inside and showing them their own worldview has incoherencies and inconsistencies. If you read verses 25–29, you see him giving them a God-sized God. He says, “Let me give you a God big enough for your intuitions, big enough so that you’re no longer in contradiction. Let me show you …”
He goes through and says, “This is a creator God. This is a God who’s not dependent on anything, but everything is dependent on him. This is a sovereign God, and this is a God who wants a relationship with you.” That brings us to the resurrection. He doesn’t just talk about God. In the end, he talks about the resurrection. He begins to turn to Jesus and the resurrection.
3. A Heart-Shaped Hope wonderful enough salvation for your heart’s deepest desires.
It’s not just enough that your belief system intellectually have a big enough God for your moral intuitions. You also have to have a heart-shaped hope wonderful enough salvation for your heart’s deepest desires. What’s ironic about this entire scene is how they make fun of Paul. They call him a babbler. Do you see that? “What does this babbler have to say?”
By the way, I want you to know that’s a pretty big insult. It’s basically saying, “What does this intellectual lightweight have to say?” What’s ironic is even though they sneer at it and not that many people become Christians, what happened is Christianity grew so much and won so many people to faith that, within a certain amount of time, all of those Greek gods were extinct. Why? I’ll tell you why.
One reason is because of the reasoning Paul did. That reasoning worked, but here’s the other reason why. All of the philosophers, the Stoics, the Epicureans, all the beliefs in gods … They just went away, because Christianity was received by the population in such great numbers. Why?
One of the reasons was the older worldview could not help people understand or face suffering.
The Stoics said,
When suffering comes, just be strong. Control your emotions.
Don’t let your heart get too attached to anything, because everything is going away.
When you die, you become part of the All-Soul. You don’t exist in a conscious, personal heaven. You just become one with the All-Soul.
You become part of the impersonal life force.
What they said was, “Just be strong, because everything here is passing away. Don’t get your heart too involved with anything.”
The Epicureans, however,
believed that when you died, that was the end of body and soul.
There was no afterlife of any sort.
What they said you should do is run away from suffering.
You should live for pleasure and for your own happiness, and when you see suffering coming, you ought to just get away from it.
Historians say the average person found neither the Stoic nor the Epicurean approach to suffering not only workable but right. It wasn’t workable, because only very strong people can handle suffering through being stoic, but they also thought it wasn’t right. You shouldn’t detach your heart from people who are suffering just so you don’t let it get to you, and you certainly shouldn’t run away from suffering in a cowardly way.
The old Greek worldview did not give them the resources for handling suffering. Oh, but the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the gospel …
When Jesus Christ went to the cross to die for our sins, that’s not the way the Stoics say to go. Oh no.
He didn’t detach from us. He attached to us.
He didn’t run away from suffering, the way the Epicureans said. He ran toward it. He attached himself to us.
When he was on the cross, he was screaming. He was yelling. He was crying. He wasn’t stoic at all.
Christians had a model of someone who was not afraid of suffering. He didn’t run away from suffering and also didn’t try to detach the heart but cried out to God and cried out to others. They had a model for someone who embraced suffering and loved people in spite of it, but the resurrection … Oh, the resurrection.
Think about this, everybody. The Stoics and the Epicureans said, “After death there’s no way that you’re going to be with your loved ones. You’re not even going to be conscious. Your personality goes away.” Not only did Christianity say that after you die you’re with your loved ones and with God as a loving person, but the resurrection means you get your bodies back. It means you get a new heavens and a new earth.
The whole earth is going to be made perfect. We’re going to have our bodies back. There’s no other religion that says anything like this. Nothing. See, heaven is a kind of consolation for the life you lost, but the resurrection is the restoration of the life you lost. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s the restoration of the life you never had; all kinds of things you’ve always wanted but the brokenness of the world didn’t allow.
When the people in that era heard that because of the cross I can follow Jesus Christ, who embraced suffering and loved people through the suffering, and because of the resurrection I don’t have to detach my heart … I can handle anything, because I know “the worst thing that can happen to me is I die and the resurrection.”
When the plagues came, the terrible plagues in the cities, and everyone else ran for the mountains, the Christians stayed in the cities and took care of the sick, even though they died themselves, because they weren’t afraid of suffering and death.
When they went into the arenas to die for their faith, they sang hymns, because they weren’t afraid of suffering and death. All of the other people said, “Our faith does not fulfill the deepest longings of the heart such that we can handle suffering like that. I want that.”
I don’t know who you are here tonight, but I do know you do believe. You have deep beliefs. My question is … Do you have God-sized beliefs big enough for your moral intuitions, and do you have a heart-shaped hope big enough to satisfy your deepest desires? Christianity has that for you. Christians, here’s what I want you to see. When Paul saw all the idols in the marketplace, he was distressed. Do you see that in verse 16? It’s a word that actually means angry and indignant.
But he didn’t look at the pagans and say, “Stew in your own juices. I hope God “judges you.” He plunged into the marketplace, even though he knew he was going to be mocked. We need to do that too. We need to be willing to go into the marketplace of ideas. Paul believed that if you use this method, if you learn how to dialogue, Christianity could engage the most dominant cultural ideas. He was not afraid of that. He was not shy. He also knew he was going to be called a seed picker, a babbler, an intellectual lightweight. We will too.
But those early Christians loved that old brutal culture until it changed, because they were walking in the footsteps of Jesus himself. Jesus looked down from heaven. He saw idols in our hearts, but he didn’t disdain us. He came down. He got involved. He plunged, as it were, into the world, even though he was going to be mocked. More than that, he was going to be killed, but he did it for us. Walk in his footsteps. Have that fearless love. Plunge into the marketplace. Go and do likewise.
Let us pray.
Thank you, Father, for giving us what we need here to be public with our faith, to say “I believe,” to show other people that they also say, “I believe,” even the ones who don’t think they do, and to show “them how the gospel gives us a God-sized God and a heart-shaped hope. We pray, Lord, that you would teach us how to be wise, not just in what we say but how, like Paul, to embody the gospel with love, making ourselves vulnerable, opening our mouths, even though we know sometimes it’s going to bring mockery. We pray, Lord, that you would show us how to walk in Paul’s footsteps and in your Son’s footsteps. We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.