The Needy Church
Within the city of Athens were many religious people. And having observed the idols that they had crafted, Paul became provoked in his spirit, compelling him to teach the people about Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.
The people of Athens who heard Paul were, in turn, provoked by his teaching and requested his presence at their council on Mars Hill (17:19). The passage before us this morning, in many of our Bibles, comes under the heading, ‘Paul’s Sermon on Mars Hill’.
As is frequently the case in Scripture, we do not have an exhaustive verbatim account of the dialogue that took place that day, but we do have the highlight reel. Contained within Paul’s message are concepts that are vital to our understanding of the nature of God. Additionally, we find concepts that are vital to understanding how we are to relate to God.
And while the religious folk within Athens cannot be said to be a Christian congregation, Paul’s instruction implies that they are certainly positioned to become one if they were to repent (17:30).
Paul begins his sermon by commending the people of Athens for their attentiveness to the supernatural, “I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining your objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’” (17:22, 23).
Following his commendation, Paul makes a bold transition, “what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (17:23). I do not regard Paul’s statement here to be the least bit harsh. The people of Athens, by their own profession, had a very ambiguous view of God. They did not presume to know the precise identity of the God of the universe and so their altar concedes their ignorance.
Paul simply uses their own confession as his entry point to talk about the “Lord of heaven and earth” (17:24), and to talk about Jesus Christ, risen from the dead (17:31). You could say that Paul’s method of evangelism was to scratch where the people itched. Paul began his message where the people were at. They believed in a god, but confessed that they were lacking information.
Prompted, no doubt, by the sight of temples and idols, Paul declares, “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things” (17:24, 25).
Most Christians, most congregations, get this first part. We readily confess, ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.’ Nothing new there. But, this second part is a bit of a wake-up call for many professing Christians. Paul also says that “(God is not) served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things.”
In most things, self-sufficiency is counted as a good thing. As young men and women, we moved out of our parent’s home and were proud that we could look after our material needs apart from our parents continuing financial support. Some of you came to this country with very little means, but through your dedication to a particular craft and because of your hard work, you are currently doing very well. We describe a person like this as ‘self-made’, meaning that they did not need to inherit someone else’s wealth, but they gained it for themselves.
Not too long ago, I had to install a dishwasher in the manse. Now, for those who do not know me well—I am not the least bit handy. As a result, a simple task like installing a dishwasher takes me a lot of time and a lot of effort. I kept refusing Allie’s offer to assist me, even though I knew her help would benefit me in completing this task. Why would I do this? Why might any of you refuse an offer of help? I think the reason is because we like to be self-sufficient. It makes us feel good to do something on our own. Besides, if Allie helps me with the dishwasher, then she gets some of the credit.
I reckon that there are times when self-sufficiency is commendable. I reckon that there are times when self-sufficiency should be pursued. But I also hear Paul saying that there is a place where self-sufficiency is not appropriate.
Paul tells us that “God is not served by human hands” (17:25)—that’s bad news to the self-sufficient. That’s bad news for those of us who want to employ a self-sufficient approach to Christian living.
Within the church you sometimes hear people talk about their desire to ‘serve God’. I’ve had many occasions when I have had my vocation described to me in terms of my being committed to ‘serving God’. Such notions, however, are out of step with what Paul is saying. God is not served by human hands, as though He needed anything.
Someone objects, ‘But I just want to serve Jesus!’
And what does Jesus say? “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).
Have you thought about what that means for the church? The Son of Man did not come to be served by the local congregation, but rather, Christ came to serve the Church and to give His life as a ransom for the Church (20:28).
In other words, we’re not here to help Jesus. We are here to receive help from Jesus.
We’re not here because we have it all together. We should be gathered here because we perceive ourselves to be lacking—we perceive ourselves to be in need.
And friends, I declare to you that our perceiving of our need of Christ is a great blessing.
The Bible does not read, ‘Blessed are the self-sufficient. Blessed are those who can pull themselves together.’
No, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Mt. 5:3, 6).
The Bible does not say that we can advance the kingdom of God by human effort and human service. No, Jesus says, “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).
How you view these biblical statements will depend on your approach to the Christian life. If your self-sufficient, do-it-yourself tendencies have followed you to church, you may not be entirely thrilled to hear that spiritual advancement cannot be attained without help.
But, on the other hand, if you are well aware of your weaknesses, if you are well aware of your shortcomings, if you are well aware of your need—then you are well positioned to be abundantly blessed by the God.
I know what the cliché says, but it seems to me as if the message of Scripture is that God helps those who are helpless. God says to the psalmist, “call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honour Me” (Ps. 50:15).
I admit, that on the one hand, it is sobering to be ‘poor in spirit’, sobering to be ‘hungry’, ‘in need’, or ‘in trouble’, but there is an immensely positive component to this equation.
Those who are poor in spirit receive the kingdom of God.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness gain satisfaction.
Those who are in trouble, and ask for God’s help, receive it.
Those in need receive help because Jesus came not to be served, but to serve.
If I can put that in other terms, I hear Paul saying that God is not a Taker, but a Giver. That reality should shape the behaviour of a local congregation. I fear that there are people in this world who view God as a Taker and view the Church as the means through which God takes from us. Some see it as God and His church taking our time on Sunday morning, taking our money as the collection plate is passed around, and then taking more time as we are encouraged to join a committee or a mid-week group.
If there are occasions when we view God as a Taker, occasions when we view the Church as a Taker, could it be that our viewpoint is a function of not approaching God from the perspective of need.
If we bring our self-sufficiency to church, I suspect we will leave highly disappointed. I’m afraid that the only passages I have found where God promises progress, reward, and satisfaction are in those passages where the person approaching God comes in a state of great need.
Extend that principle to a local congregation. Would you like to see St. Giles Kingsway progress in Christian maturity and in her positive influence upon her community? Would you like to see the endeavours of St. Giles Kingsway tangibly rewarded? Would you like the members of St. Giles Kingsway to be collectively satisfied in our relationship with Jesus Christ?
If the answer to those questions is a resounding ‘Yes!’, let us remember what is required. Weakness, hunger, and need.
If we are weak, we will plead for strength. If we are hungry, we will beg for that which satisfies. If we see ourselves in need, we will ask for help. And when we do this—when we pray—Jesus promises to serve us. God promises to help those who are helpless.
While conversing with unbelievers, it has often been suggested to me that Christianity is just a ‘crutch’ for the weak. Those with whom I have conversed with in this regard are always surprised when I agree with them. ‘Yes, Christianity is indeed a crutch’, I tell them, ‘without Christ I am spiritually crippled and unable to walk.’
Or, as the apostle Paul has said, “I will boast of my weakness that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2Cor. 12:9). That’s an interesting equation, isn’t it? More weakness means more power. More need means more assistance. Therefore, we conclude that weakness is good—being needy is good when it causes us to seek Christ.
Perhaps the analogy of a crutch is a poor one. Christ is so much more than a crutch—He is our all in all. In Him we live and move and have our being (17:28).
If we are living in communion with Jesus Christ, there is no need for us to limp around any longer. There is no need for St. Giles Kingsway to limp through her programs. If we confess our need, and seek Christ’s help, we too will be able to confess, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Amen.