What makes a sermon powerful? Powerful sermons that lead people to genuine repentance don’t need to be long. Spiritual success is not necessarily measured in the number of converts. After all, it is the depth of conversion that matters. The secret of a sermon that is sharp like a knife, is that it gives glory to God, that it presents a complete picture of God, that it proclaims His character and reveals to the audience what God is really like. The psalmist sings:
Thou hast a mighty arm: strong is thy hand, and high is thy right hand. Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face (Psalm 89:13.14, emphasis supplied).
And that’s exactly what God is like: He is mighty, He is justice and judgment, He is mercy and He is truth. Thus, life-changing sermons need to incorporate four vital components: the power of God, the justice of God, the love of God and the truth. But wait! One item is missing. If the message is the rocket, it still needs a propellant to take off.
We live in a time when God expects His church to proclaim the Gospel to a highly diversified world audience. One large subset of that audience in the westernized world adheres to the so-called “secular culture.” Many times spiritual leaders come to the conclusion that today’s spiritual environment presents an unprecedented challenge, and that this new challenge calls for novel evangelization strategies. These “novel” strategies are sometimes borrowed from churches that do not embrace the truth and unique solemnity of the message of the antitypical Elijah.
The question you might ask is, "Does the secular culture really present a novel challenge to the Gospel mission of the church?" One of the central messages of Scripture is King Solomon’s true assessment of the affairs of life, whether they be of a spiritual or physical nature: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Among the devil’s most successful tools in destroying faith is the lie that from the time we are born, we stumble from one new situation to the next. Satan wants us think that any case, any difficulty we face in life, is too hard for the Lord to resolve, because it is unique from anything that God has taken care of in the past. It is important to keep in mind that God does have thousands of years of experience in solving the problems for His children and for His church.
The “One Hundred-second Sermon” was preached around 51 AD. When I read this sermon aloud at my typical reading speed, it took me almost exactly 100 seconds from beginning to end. It may have been that Luke, whom we consider the author of the book of Acts, just provided a summary of what was said; but it may be very likely that he recorded the message verbatim to the testimony of the power of God. The Spirit of Prophecy states that the words of this sermon “contain a treasure of knowledge for the church” (AA, 241). It is, therefore, instructional and important that the church of today examine and carefully consider the words and the message of this sermon that took one hundred seconds to deliver.
What was the background? The apostle Paul was on his second missionary journey. Protestant theologian and pastor Friedrich Gustav Lisco, who authored an exhaustive commentary on Martin Luther’s Bible translation,i places this journey within the time period of 51-52 AD. In Acts 17, we read that the apostle Paul was sent to Athens, because the brethren feared that the hatred that had been stirred up by the Jews of Thessalonica would put Paul in danger. The Spirit of Prophecy (AA, 234) describes Paul’s situation in this way:
In this great city, where God was not worshiped, Paul was oppressed by a feeling of solitude, and he longed for the sympathy and aid of his fellow laborers. So far as human friendship was concerned, he felt himself to be utterly alone. In his epistle to the Thessalonians he expresses his feelings in the words, “Left at Athens alone” (1 Thessalonians 3:1).
In the time of Paul, the city-state of Athens had declined significantly in the glory it had once enjoyed as capital of the “kingdom of brass” (Daniel 2:39). If we take a close look at the image of Daniel 2, we note that the world power of ancient Greece (331 – 168 BC) is depicted as the thigh of the standing, human-like statue. If we go deeper and think about a most accurate interpretation of the details of the imagery provided by God Himself in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, we find an interesting analogy. In the science of physical fitness, core muscle strength is one of the most important features of a strong and healthy musculoskeletal system. The core muscles of the lower back and thighs keep the body upright and keep it moving efficiently. Likewise, Greece must have contributed something very important to a geopolitical system that has been standing strong even until today. What could that have been?
Under Roman hegemony, none of the Greek city-states had any important military or political roles left. While reported population figures for 50 AD appear conflicting, Athens’ citizen population had been declining drastically from over 170,000, at the height of its prosperity in 431 BC, to 75,000 in the year 100 AD. ii,iii Trade, agriculture, industry, and intellectual activities, however, still flourished.iv The Romans borrowed art, religion, philosophy, and way of life from the ancient Greeks, and they spread Greek culture throughout their empire. Athens and Sparta, as cities of resounding fame, were allowed to keep their independence. Athens, in particular, remained a center of cultural excellence.v It had one of the Roman Empire’s best universities, and even Nero himself went there to prove his artistic abilities in 66-67 AD. As you will see below, what was thought and taught in Athens still has relevance today.
While Paul was waiting for his fellow laborers, he took note of the blunt idolatry of Athens. He engaged in seemingly little fruitful daily disputes with the public (Acts 17:16-17), until his efforts finally caught the attention of the Greek philosophers:
Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection (Acts 17:18).
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the Epicureans and the Stoics are explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures. Epicurus lived from 341 -270 BC. It is claimed that his philosophy provided the intellectual foundations for modern science and for secular individualism. vi The philosophy of Epicurus assumed a view that was based on an atomistic materialism. The ultimate goal of Epicurean philosophy was to “liberate one from fears of death and the supernatural.” Epicurean philosophy encouraged adherents to find happiness in almost any situation. It is understood that Epicureanism played a venerable role in the intellectual development of western civilization.
Epicurus was not exactly an atheist, but the materialism he preached formed the basic concept of atheism; Epicureanism embraced a number of passive gods that were not really needed to uphold its central teaching. Atheism just took it a step further and eliminated these passive gods entirely. Titus Lucretius Carus, an Epicurean poet, expresses in his work, “On the Nature of Things,” the conviction that everything is made out of invisible particles; particles are in motion in an indefinite void; there is no afterlife and time is not limited; the universe has no designer; humans are not unique; human society began in a primal battle for survival; nature ceaselessly experiments and all organized religions are superstitious delusions. Epicureans “called into question virtually all religious systems and promises. Such enemies of faith found the doctrine of bodily resurrection particularly risible, since it was contradicted both by their scientific theory of atoms and by the evidence of their own senses.” vii Does that somehow sound familiar to you?
Unlike Epicureanism, Stoicism, founded by Zeno of Citium (335-263 BC), taught a life resigned to “fate,” acknowledging limits of self-control and obligations of duty. viii Aiming for tranquility of mind and evenness of emotional life, Stoicism was meant to make people happier by teaching them to control their negative emotions. The doctrine of pneuma and total blending allowed the Stoics to adopt Plato’s definition of death as “the separation of the soul from the body.” Dying was not the end of a person’s existence, according to the Stoics. Once the soul had separated from the body, it maintained its own cohesion for a period of time. It is important to note that the theories of “natural law” in ethics seemed to stem directly from Stoicism.ix Further, we read that:
Stoicism claimed the adherence of a large portion of the educated persons in the Graeco-Roman world, and it had considerable influence on the development of early Christianity.x
Another source mentions that Stoicism was extremely influential in the Roman era, as well as in “early Church doctrine”.xi In fact, Stoicism’s teaching on the soul and body and its “natural law” ethics have been passed down through the centuries in by the Roman Catholic Church and are today embodied in modern Catholicism. Stoicism has never died.
The teaching of “natural law” holds that any binding rule or moral behavior can be deduced simply via the utilization of human reason. This directly opposes the Biblical teaching that human reason is of a fallen nature. Thus, only through acceptance of God’s character as revealed in Scripture, through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and through the interaction with the Holy Spirit, does man have access to the unfallen, supreme Divine moral standard. In brief, man can never attain a good character simply through the exercise of human reason, unless he submits to Divine influence, that is, to the teaching of the Word of God and the influence of the Holy Spirit. King David clearly sets forth the path to moral excellence:
Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way (Psalm 119:104).
God’s law is first; acceptance of God’s law leads to understanding, which, in turn, results in good behavior.
One more striking aspect is that, beyond defining moral rules, Stoic thought drew from Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) teaching and was instrumental in the promotion of star and sun-worship in the Hellenistic age and throughout the age of the Roman Empire:
This sidereal theology, founded on ancient beliefs of Chaldean astrologers, transformed in the Hellenistic age under the twofold influence of astronomic discoveries and Stoic thought, [was] promoted, after becoming a pantheistic Sunworship, to the rank of official religion of the Roman Empire. xii
Zeno’s successor Cleanthes of Assos (331-232 BC) compared the universe to a human being, and the realm of fixed stars to the soul. Both were the greater concentration of spirit in their respective realms, and the stars could therefore be worshipped. xiii
From the features pointed out above, we see that Roman Catholicism was heavily influenced by Stoicism. These were not the doctrines of the Scripture-based church in the wilderness (Revelation 12:6), nor those of the early Protestant church, which embraced sola scriptura. Nor will the remnant church of those, who “keep the commandments of God and keep the faith of Jesus”, ever exalt “natural law” above divine revelation. Indeed, available sourcesxiv confirm that “The natural law is central to Roman Catholic moral theology”.
It appears that the Epicureans were influential in paving the way for modern secularism through materialistic, individualistic atheism. Stoicism, on the other hand, provided the backbone for Roman Catholic morality, namely “natural law.” While the head of the statue in Daniel 2 symbolized Babylon, it wasn’t until the Greek empire that the world-views of atheistic materialism and “natural law” gained momentum as they formed into the “civilized philosophies” of learned men. They finally provided the “core strength” to the tall-standing, proud statue of end-time superpowers. Note that both Epicurus and Zeno of Citium were contemporaries of Alexander III of Macedon (356-323 BC), aka “Alexander the Great,” the founder of the Greek empire. The three together prepared for the statue to stand on two legs beginning 331BC.
Based on this consideration, it is not entirely wrong to postulate the following typology: Epicureans and Stoics were types and probably even the forerunners of two major end-time forces that would oppress God’s church and oppose God’s Word. In the book of Revelation, atheistic secularism is represented by the “beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit”, “spiritually” called Egypt (Revelation 11:7.8), pointing back to Pharaoh’s open defiance of the God of the Israelites (Exodus 5:2). Egypt also stands for the spiritual “King of the South” as typified in Dan 11. Likewise, one of the powers that came from the geographical north after the writing of Daniel 11, was Rome. Hence, the spiritual “King of the North” represents the “sea beast” power (Revelation 13), or the end-time Roman church.
Paul had been more or less “detained” by representatives of these two influential Greek schools of thought that comprised the intellectual A-list of Athens. The apostle was then forced to give a detailed testimony of his faith:
And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? (Acts 17:19).
The Spirit of Prophecy writes:
Here Paul did not meet with an ignorant, credulous populace, as at Lystra, but with a people famous for their intelligence and culture.
Some [of the great men of Athens] were prepared to ridicule the apostle as one who was far beneath them both socially and intellectually, and these said jeeringly among themselves, “What will this babbler say?” (AA, 233, 235).
In the next issue, we’ll take a closer look at the function and purpose of the Areopagus in the times of Paul, an intriguing symbolism begins to unfold.
...to be continued...
i. Friedrich Gustav Lisco, “Das neue Testament nach der deutschen Uebersetzung Dr. Martin Luthers: Mit Erklaerungen, Einleitungen, einer Harmonie der vier Evangelien, einem Aufsatz ueber Paleastina und seine Bewohner, einer Zeittafel ueber die Apostelgeschichte, und mehreren Registern versehen. Zum Gebrauch fuer alle Freunde des goettlichen Wortes, insonderheit fuer Lehrer in Kirchen und Schulen", (Berlin, 1834), 302.
ii. "Can the population of Sparta and Athens be calculated?"
iii. David Wilkinson, “Decline Phases in Civilization, Regions and Oikumenes”, Comparative Civilization Review 33 (1995), 33-78.
iv. "Explore Greece/History"
v. "History of Athens"
vi. "Epicurus & Epicurean Philosophy"
vii. Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011).
viii. "Stoic Philosophy of Mind"
xi. "Epicurean & Stoics"
xii. Franz Cumont, “Astrology and Religion Among the Greeks and Romans” (reprint, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960), pp. 55, 56.
xiv. Richard M. Gula, Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of Catholic Morality, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989).