Acts17v15to34: PAUL IN ATHENS

(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

Paul's ministry in Athens is unusual in two ways. First of all he was alone. He usually worked with others but in Athens he was without close associates. Secondly he was, according to Professor Barclay, in the greatest university town in the world. Paul's message to the Athenians is somewhat different in character from usual and addressed the strange mixture of superstition and intellectual curiosity that typified the city.

(B) Paul up against it.

A Christian ministry in Athens could only be undertaken with great difficulty. Paul must have found the task of preaching the gospel daunting. He was faced by:

    (a) Jewish supremacists in the synagogue.
    Most synagogues would contain Jews whose outlook was legalistic and racist. Many Jews considered that they were children of Abraham and as such God's chosen people. They believed that if they kept the law they had no need of a Saviour.

    There remain a few Christians who are racist in their outlook. I know of a hyper Calvinist pastor in East Anglia who if he knocked a black man down would not bother to stop. He considers that all black Africans are sons of Ham and as such cursed by God. Two British Israelites that I once knew shared this view. We are indebted to Paul who made it abundantly clear that salvation is of God's grace and obtained by faith. It has nothing whatsoever to do with race, sex, class, education or income. It has everything to do with believing in Jesus.

    (b) A popular religion based on human invention and superstition.
    The Greeks made up their gods - Jupiter, Apollo and Mercury among others. They invented stories about these gods and made earthly representations of them. Temples and shrines were built to house the images of the gods. Then people came along and made offerings to the images. In the end many Athenians worshipped the idols they had made from gold, silver or stone.

    The Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul but not the body. They held that the divine spark in man survived. How it survived, where it survived or what it did after surviving is not at all clear.

    Most Englishmen are little better than the Greeks. According to national surveys 70% of the population of Britain believes in God. However the majority make God in their own image. All sorts of weird beliefs exist about life after death. I can recall hearing a sensible church going colleague saying that she didn't believe we would have bodies after death but would exist as disembodied spirits. What does this mean? What is a disembodied spirit? I suppose our spirits could exist in some huge collective brain or brain substitute. In these circumstances it might be possible to communicate spirit to spirit although identification might be a bit difficult. Does this sound preferable to being raised bodily to life - as Jesus was - and as all his followers will be.

    (c) Academic or scholarly trend-setters who left God out of their thinking.
    There were two schools of thought in Athens - Epicurean and Stoic.

    The Epicureans believed that everything happened by chance. There was no life after death. God didn't exist or if he did he was so remote from the earth as made no difference. The chief end of man was pleasure - the pleasure that brought no pain to oneself or others.

    The Stoics taught that God was a fiery spirit who was in all things including men. When a man died the divine spark in him returned to the all pervasive God. Every thing that happened was in the will of God and as such had to be accepted. Man's chief end was to be ruled by reason and to do his duty.

    Today many intellectuals leave God out of their calculations. Very few Zoologists or Botanists give God any credit for his creation. I have watched numerous TV programs presented by David Attenborough where the marvels of nature are ascribed to evolution! Scientists manipulate the human genetic code without acknowledging its author. Psychologists and Sociologists try to explain human behaviour without reference to man's fall. Historians fail to appreciate that God is working his purposes out.

    (d) A society obsessed with novelty.
    The Athenians were not really interested in the truth. Luke writes: All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. v21. It is possible to spend a lifetime speculating about religion without ever making a commitment to the truth.

    An enormous amount of media time is devoted to discussing future events - especially sporting events. Pundits give their views on who will win and why. It is a complete waste of time. The opinion of 'the experts' does not affect the outcome of a football match. It isn't the truth! But the public, like the Athenians, obviously find it entertaining.

    The media is more interested in what makes a good story than the truth. Newspapers, radio and TV are in the entertainment business. So the only religious items to make the headlines in the tabloid press are outlandish remarks by liberal Bishops or scandalous behaviour by erring Priests. It is unorthodox belief and criminal conduct that make news.

    The situation in Britain in 2004 is not so different from the state of affairs Paul faced in Athens.

(C) Paul takes them on.

It is remarkable that Paul brings the Christian message to the people of Athens. He is a stranger in the city and all alone. What can he do - one amongst so many? The Athenians were in such error and confusion that preaching Jesus - the way, the truth and the life - seemed a hopeless task.

Doubtless we in Britain sometimes feel like this. The spirit of the age is so hostile to Christianity and the response to evangelism so limited that we feel like withdrawing to the relative safety of our churches and leaving the world to its own devices. As a church fellowship shrinks in size the few that remain huddle closer and closer together for warmth and comfort. What we need is a transforming visitation of the Holy Spirit. It was the indwelling Spirit that made Paul effective.

Paul was motivated to speak by the idolatry of the ordinary folk. This is what upset him most. While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. v16. I wonder if this troubles us? Does it matter that so many make God in their own image? It belittles God. He is relegated to something less than man. God, the Maker, ends up being manufactured by his own creation! Whenever man makes God in his own image he exerts sovereignty over God. Man is in control. Jesus taught his disciples to say, "Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name." The very first line of that great prayer reminds us of God's holiness - his 'otherness'.

Paul displays his versatility in Athens. He reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and God-fearing Greeks. He disputed with the general public in the market place. He addressed the ruling council of the town who were the guardians of religion and governors of the university.

Most of our religious leaders preach to their own people! Unlike Paul they are not good at arguing their case with the world.

Paul made a very skilful presentation to the Areopagus:

    (1) Firstly he captures their attention. He starts by referring to the altar with the inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD' and says, "Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you." v23. Illustrations are an excellent way of arousing interest. Sometimes the tactic backfires. I told the story, 'A Field Full of Bullocks', to a rural congregation recently. After the service sundry old men had bullock anecdotes by the dozen - but none of them commented on the truth I was trying to convey.

    (2) Paul deals with four issues during his address:

      (a) God's relation to the universe.
      Paul says: "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth." v24. It is very humbling to acknowledge that there is one so far our superior that he made the world and everything in it. Clever men prefer to believe that they are the end product of a process that has neither author nor sustainer. The process is god.

      (b) God's relationship with men.
      Paul says of God: "because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else." v25. In a very moving, lovely, passage Paul explains the purpose of God in giving life to men: "God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being'". v27and28. I have dealt with man's search for God in the story of the hostess.

      (c) Man's defective approach to God.
      God can never be found by making him in our own image because by so doing we make him less than ourselves. This is Paul's point when he says: "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 man's design and skill.

      We know that a statue of a famous man is a poor substitute for the man himself. When a beloved husband and father dies his photographs are little consolation to the bereaved. Treasured memories and heart knowledge are scant compensation for the living presence of the deceased.

      God is not a statue or a picture in our heads or an idea or an emotion - 'For in him we live and move and have our being.'

      (d) Man's need to repent.
      Paul tells the Areopagus: In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. v30and31.

      Men do need to repent of their condescending attitude to God and the dishonour they do him. God no longer overlooks a failure to recognise his wisdom, might and glory. Men who dismiss God with contempt are guilty of supreme arrogance. The judge is coming. Jesus whom God raised from the dead is coming again. He has been appointed judge and he is coming. He is surely coming to judge the world with justice.

    (3) Does Paul's presentation lack something? It seems that his message was interrupted and he was unable to finish. Paul introduces the man whom God has appointed to judge the world in justice; a man whom God authenticated by raising him from the dead; but he doesn't name the man. His name is what gives hope to sinful men. Jesus is Saviour. When we call him Saviour we call him by his name! He came to save men from their sins and to reconcile them to God their maker.

    Paul does not speak about the saving work of Jesus or the gift of his Spirit or the promise of eternal life. His address ends at a very unsatisfactory stage.

(D) Disappointing Results.

Paul's eloquent and thoughtful message did not impress all the members of the Aeropagus. When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered .... . v32. It is likely that those who sneered were those who earlier had said, "What is this babbler trying to say?" The Greek word translated, 'babbler' in the NIV and AV is more accurately rendered, 'gutter-sparrow.' The gutter-sparrow darts around picking up bits here and there. Paul is accused of borrowing an idea from here and a thought from somewhere else. He is not a genuinely original thinker but has cobbled together a philosophy from a variety of sources. This wholly erroneous judgment was probably based upon Paul quoting the Old Testament, Greek poets and Jesus.

Sadly a preacher who makes good use of illustrations does not always get the credit he deserves. My father who was a good, dear man was a little jealous of the Rev George Bird who pastored a large Baptist church in Ipswich. He would say, "George's sermons just consist of a string of stories." I think the hardest thing about preaching is to find telling illustrations that bring the truth home to the hearts of the congregation. The finest exponent of this art was Jesus himself.

Another criticism made earlier was that: "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." v18. The philosophers in the market place thought that Jesus was just another god made up by Paul or his Jewish associates. As far as they were concerned all religions were superstitions and one god was as good, or bad, as any other.

Many academics in our day and age dismiss Christianity as superstition. It is something to provide comfort and reassurance to people frightened of dying. As all religions serve this purpose there is nothing to choose between them. Jesus in proclaiming himself the way, the truth and the life is a charlatan of the first order.

A number of the Aeropagus were sufficiently interested in what Paul was saying to say, "We want to hear you again on the subject." v32. This response is not really very hopeful. It lacks the urgency of the Philippian jailer's, "What must I do to be saved?" Procrastination is a great enemy of the gospel. See section on 'Procrastination' in exposition on Ecc10.

Luke tells us that a few believed including Dionysius, a member of the Aeropagus also a woman named Damaris... v34. Prof. William Barclay hazards a guess that Damaris was a notorious street woman. Respectable women would not linger in the market place to listen to Paul. So Barclay makes the nice point that the gospel appeals to the highest and the lowest - the scholarly aristocrat and the city prostitute. However I think the good professor underestimates the curiosity of respectable women!

(E) Conclusion: Why did Paul have little success in Athens.

Some commentators believe that Paul's emphasis was wrong in Athens. He was too intellectual. When he went on to Corinth his approach was different. He writes to the Corinthians: When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 1Cor2v1and2. Perhaps, Paul had learned an important lesson in Athens.

It is not possible to argue someone into the Kingdom. When I was a boy and a young man I tried to do this with singular lack of success. Paul adopts a much better method when he makes his defence before King Aggrippa by giving his testimony.

I, personally, do not believe that Paul was so much at fault as that he was sowing in very unyielding soil. The whole ethos of Athens was not conducive to the gospel. The mindset of the inhabitants made them unreceptive to the truth.

The situation in Athens is replicated in Britain today. For years the numbers of conversions to Christianity has been declining. All sorts of explanations have been put forward for this. Most of them point the finger at the church as an institution or ineffectual individual Christians. I have just finished reading an article in the March 2004 issue of Evangelicals Now entitled, 'Whatever happened to the Brethren?' Stephen Doggett commenting on the low number of conversions in Brethren assemblies writes: For a movement that has placed great emphasis on encouraging people to 'make decisions', these are painful figures, and must surely lead to questions about the effectiveness of the services and activities offered. Well the lamentable state of the Open Brethren is shared by the Grace Baptists. I don't believe that the lack of conversions is anything to do with the 'effectiveness of the services and activities offered.' Desperately hungry people will go anywhere to find food. Those with no appetite will not be tempted by the tastiest gourmet meal. The New Testament never blames the message and rarely blames the messenger. Unresponsive hearers are blamed.

We must never lose sight of the fact that because Paul witnessed in Athens some were saved. He was not deterred by the enormous difficulties from preaching the gospel and because he was courageous and faithful a few believed. I have seen a few come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ - a few through my own ministry! I am comforted by the knowledge that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents.