Results are Overrated (Acts 17:16-34)

Let us imagine what living arrangements will be like in the Celestial City.

There will be an elite section of town with all of the biggest mansions on Goldstone Street. These residences will be the eternal abode of the most famous preachers in the history of the church. Spurgeon will be living next to D.L. Moody, with Martin Luther just across the road. The largest mansions will house American mega-church pastors of 15,000+ congregations. Smoke machines on the front porch will run 24/7 so as to capture the glow of the varied-colored spotlights shining upon the home from the front yard. To enter the mansion, a man needs to wear a three-piece suit and sport a continuous grin, even when talking… although, for those who came to inherit these homes after 2012 in earth years, one may enter with blue jeans over European-styled, shiny, pointed shoes, along with a plaid shirt purchased from Untuckit.com.

There will also be a poor part of the city, on the other side of the river and near the edge of town. Though still nicer than earthly homes (this is heaven, after all), these basically functional structures will serve as the eternal abode of those who just didn’t pull in the results (numbers) during their earthly ministries. The worst of these comparative cottages will house those missionaries who spent a lifetime in a remote, third-world country that was hostile to the gospel. It is only logical that a mere 15 converts to Christ over 40 years of preaching simply cannot buy you much of an eternal crib. In homes only slightly more upscale are those pastors who labored in rural America and never once grew a church to a point of needing a building campaign.

Really? Is that how God operates? It’s all about results, right?  Is that not what we are led to believe? And Paul always had huge results with his preaching, right?

Today’s passage about Paul’s time in Athens is our text today from Acts 17, where it says …

Acts 17:16 – While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ [From the Cretan philosopher Epimenides]  As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ [From the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus]

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

This passage will be our focus for more detailed discussion this coming Sunday. But quickly here today – Here is Paul in Athens, having been recently tossed out of another city for preaching. He is waiting for Silas and Timothy to finish in Berea and catch up to him. You could not blame him for taking some time off and having a tourist-like good time in the ancient city of Athens.

But while walking around town, the sight of the city full of idols was just too much for him. And when it says “full of idols,” read that very literally. Someone wrote that it was easier to find an idol in Athens than to find a man. And Paul begins preaching and evangelizing in a place where folks spent all of their time (again, literal) listening to see if someone had any sort of new ideas to consider that had never been debated before. And Paul’s preaching about what sounds like a god named “resurrection” and a god named “je-sus” fit the bill… enough to humor them by bringing him before the official town council.

Paul begins with the familiar – their own admission that they did not know everything, evidenced by the fact of a god labelled as “unknown.”  Wanting to be thorough and to also not massively irritate some god they simply did not know about, there were statues to unknown gods so that they could be pacified.

Let’s hurry to the results: they were huge, right?  Not really. Most of them wrote off Paul completely. Some said they would listen again another time, and finally there were just a few who responded positively. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Paul really blew it, didn’t he?  Nope. I don’t think so. I think this is among his best sermons.

Here’s the point. Results aren’t our responsibility; they are the work of God, through the Word of God, by the power of the Spirit. Our responsibility is to be faithful and speak the truth. And when we do, we will get the same results as Paul: most will blow it off, some will be willing to listen again another time, and by God’s life-giving grace a few will respond in faith. We plant; we water; but God gives the increase – Paul said that too!

Yes, results are overrated, but faithfulness is not!

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

One thought on “Results are Overrated (Acts 17:16-34)

  1. While I’m not greatly concerned that I only evangelize a few times a year, I am concerned that I don’t pray a while lot about evangelizing. Paul gave a sermon before King Agrippa in which he said that “”I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am…”

    God does grant some people particular gifts in this area. Note particularly the first verse of this section.

    “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers,
    12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up
    13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
    14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.
    15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.
    16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:11-16 NIV)

    1 Peter 3:15 teaches that we should be ready to “give an answer” to those who ask us for a a reason for the hope we have. The entire context of the passage suggests doing this in a hostile environment.

    Lot to digest … lot to pray about

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