Pastor John Thompson
Charles Colson in his book “The Body” (Being Light in Darkness) says: The prevailing world-view denies the existence of absolute truth. So when the Christian message, which is essentially historical and propositional, is proclaimed, modern listeners hear what they interpret as simply one person’s preference—another autonomous human choice of lifestyle or belief.…
What does this tell us?… To evangelize today we must address the human condition at its point of felt need—conscience, guilt, dealing with others, finding a purpose for staying alive.…
So we must be familiar enough with the prevailing world-view to look for points of contact and discern points of disagreement.
It is no different then if you or I were talking with a Hindu, for example, about issues of life and religion. We wouldn’t assume that he or she was coming from a Judeo-Christian perspective. We would start from the Hindu presuppositions about the world, probe their world-view, find the points of contact and concern, and then begin to challenge or question those presuppositions. Only then could we begin to present our case effectively.…
Our handy prepackaged God-talk won’t do. Before we tell them what the Bible says, we may have to tell them why they should believe the Bible (there is a great case to be made). And we need a Christian apologetic that doesn’t just make the case for us; it must touch the chords within our unbelieving friends and neighbors and begin to alter their view of reality.
That statement defines what Paul did in the ancient city of Athens as he encountered a city that challenged all of his great skill as an evangelist and an apologist for the message of the Gospel.
We see that versatility as Paul shared first in the synagogue, then in the marketplace and finally in gaining a hearing for the Gospel message before the ruling council that met in the Areopagus.
Paul adapted his methods to reach out to Jews or to evangelize Gentiles who had virtually no background in Scripture. This passage gives us insight into the heart, the mind, and the ministry of Paul, providing us with important lessons for engaging people in our day.
How should we, as Christians, interact with a pluralistic society where every form of belief is considered as equal and to hold to one view is considered intolerant? How should we engage skeptical intellectuals in particular? How do we reach out to those with no knowledge of the Bible or of God, of sin or of salvation. I believe we can find answers from Paul’s visit to Athens.
1. SEEKING MEANING: Acts 17:16-21
2. FINDING OUT WHO GOD IS: Acts 17:22-29
3. KNOWING GOD! Acts 17:30-34
1. SEEKING MEANING: Acts 17:16-21
Commentator E. M. Blaiklock said that “Athens was in the late afternoon of her glory” when Paul came to the city. Five centuries before few cities could rival the splendour of Athens. Politically, Athenians had developed the first democracy, a city-state run by elected officials who were accountable to the people. (What a novel idea!) Athens boasted important leaders in every category of Western civilization. Great playwrights like Aeschylus (the father of tragedy). Hippocrates, another fifth century Athenian was called “the father of Western medicine.” And when thinking of Athens you must mention Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy, who taught Plato, who later taught Aristotle. Numerous artists also called Athens home. Phidias was renowned for his statue of Zeus considered one of the wonders of the ancient world. Temples built by other artisans lined the streets of the city, the most famous being the Parthenon completed around 432 BC. Athena was the patron goddess of the city and her statue stood high inside the Parthenon.
Just a short distance from the Parthenon stood a little hill on which a temple to the Greek god of war, Ares, was built. Ares corresponded to the Roman god of war, Mars and so the name of the location was the Areopagus or Mars Hill, the place where Paul made his defence of the Gospel before the council of the city.
Though the golden age had passed and Athens had been surpassed by Corinth as the center of commerce it still remained in Paul’s day the intellectual capital of the ancient world. We might view it as a university city, a center of learning and instruction.
It wasn’t the history, the architecture, or the beauty of Athens that impacted Paul. We read that “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” The verb translated “provoked” is “paroxuno” the root word of our English “paroxysm, a seizure, spasm or outburst.” Paul experienced the highest level of feeling, or threshold of pain. Paul was deeply disturbed within his soul when he saw a city “full of idols.” I wonder how we feel when we see people bowing to the idols of our day, or if we are tempted to bow ourselves? The word “katidolos” describing the idols occurs only here in the New Testament, the city was literally permeated with idols, smothered with idols.
Pausanias says that Athens had more images than all the rest of Greece put together. Pliny states that in the time of Nero Athens had over 30,000 public statues besides countless private ones in the homes. Petronius sneers that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Every gateway or porch had its protecting god. They lined the street from the Piraeus and caught the eye at every place of prominence on wall or in the agora.
Paul’s reaction illustrates what it means to have a Christian worldview. By definition a worldview
is a set of beliefs about the most fundamental issues in life: origin, meaning, morality, and destiny.
When we become followers of Jesus Christ our view of everything changes. Our theological beliefs about God, creation, humanity, sin, redemption and the kingdom shape our view of the world around us. We see the world through a different set of lenses. We see the world differently because we filter
everything we encounter through the right perspective of God’s self-revelation in creation, in Scripture, and ultimately in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We understand the redemptive plan of God set in motion before the foundation of the world and unfolded through His revelation from creation through to the cross and into eternity.
So Paul in reaction to what he saw and what moved his spirit as the Holy Spirit worked within him began ministering in the synagogue. Paul was committed to the truth and had compassion for the people. We too must reach out based on commitment to truth and motivated by compassion as we live in a world smothered by idols. An idol is anything to which people turn when they need something only Jesus can provide. An idol is anything that supplants the living God in the human heart.
Paul began with those who had some knowledge of God and then he moved into the marketplace and confronted the pluralism of city directly. The Athenian marketplace was called the agora.
It contained everything: town officials deliberating, artists creating, business people dealing, the media reporting, the philosophers philosophizing. Everything happened in the marketplace. It was the public space for everything. And there Paul spoke of his faith. He had conversations that matter speaking of Jesus and the resurrection.
So much so, he attracted the attention of two of the schools of thought of the prevailing world views among the Athenians. The Epicureans said “enjoy life.” The Stoics said “endure life.”
Epicureans derived their worldview from Epicurus, who had lived in the second and third centuries B.C. According to Epicurus, the chief goal in life is to attain the maximum amount of pleasure and the minimum amount of pain. Their goal was material things thinking that this life is all there is. The Stoics worldview was that life is filled with both good and bad and since you cannot really avoid the bad, what you have to do is “grin and bear it.” That is stoicism. The phrase “que sera sera” “whatever will be, will be” captures the spirit of Stoicism.
Both worldviews were hopeless and meaningless and both groups reacted strongly to Paul. Some called him a babbler, literally a “seed picker” evoking an image of a bird pecking at seeds in a barnyard. Others thought he was proclaiming strange deities, a male deity Jesus, and a female goddess of resurrection. “Anastasis” is the Greek word for “resurrection” but “Anastasia” is a Greek feminine name. There were some however, who reacted sincerely. They were seeking meaning. But as Luke clearly notes, too many of the Athenians were all talk, daily doing nothing except telling or hearing something new.
2. FINDING OUT WHO GOD IS: Acts 17:22-31
The Athenians often gathered at the Areopagus to debate and to decide affairs and here Paul makes his defence explaining who God is. Paul preaches about what these things mean. He first identifies with them establishing a point of contact on the basis of their religious interest. Wherever you go you find some sort of religion. Paul next establishes a point of conflict. They had an altar to the unknown god, Paul came to proclaim to them the God who would be known. God has revealed Himself. God is not unknowable. Paul describes the revelation of God and how the problem is not that people cannot know God it is that they don’t want to know God.
An address in the Areopagus was known to take two to three hours, so what we have here must be only the highlights of Paul’s message. Luke has shared with us the ultra condensed version. You have to read all of the epistles to fill in the details that Paul probably expounded. Paul sets out no fewer than seventeen truths about God.
1. God is the creator of all things: God… made the world and everything in it (24); we are his offspring (citing the pagan author Aratus) (28).
2. God is the sustainer of all things: God… gives to all mankind life and breath and everything (25).
3. God is ruler over all things: God… He is the Lord of heaven and earth (24).
4. God is a transcendent spirit: God… does not live in temples made by man (24); we should not
think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone (29).
5. God is perfectly complete in Himself: God… is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything (25).
6. God is a purposeful and active God: He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined alloted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, (26).
7. God is a personal, relational being who seeks relationship with His creatures: God did this so that they should seek God and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him (27).
8. God is immanent within the world: God… He is actually not far from each one of us; for in him we live and move and have our being (citing the pagan poet Epimenides) (27-28).
9. God is our Father, in the sense that our life comes to us ultimately from Him: We are his offspring (28) and being then God’s offspring He cannot be contained in an image formed by the art and imagination of man (29).
10. God is a merciful being: In the past God overlooked such [idolatrous] ignorance (30).
11. God is a morally righteous being who calls all people to repent of wrong: God… He commands all people everywhere to repent (30).
12. God is a God of justice: God… will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has apppointed(31).
13. God’s purpose in human history has reached its goal in the mission of Jesus Christ: God… now… commands all people everywhere to repent… For He has set a day when he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has appointed (30-31).
14. God raised Jesus to life after His death: He has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (31).
15. God has already set a time when all people will be passed under judgment: God… has fixed a day on which he will judge the world (31).
16. God will judge all people by the righteous standard of the Lord Jesus Christ: God… will judge the world by the man whom he has appointed (31).
17. God has provided a universal sign of His future, universal judgment by raising Jesus from the dead: God… has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (31).
Paul essentially explains a Christian worldview here. He sets the Gospel in the bigger redemptive story of the Bible. He shows that the faith is reasonable and exclusive. He shows the need of repentance from sin and of placing faith in the Redeemer. Though the name of Jesus is not mentioned in Luke’s summary, the whole premise of Paul’s preaching was Jesus and the resurrection, that’s why he was brought before the Areopagus to make his case for Christ.
Paul wisely begins by sharing foundational basics that come from the beginning of God’s written
revelation. He recognizes the biblical illiteracy of the Athenians and he begins where they are.
3. KNOWING GOD! Acts 17:32-34
First, some dismissed the message rejecting it with derision. Second, some deferred wanting to hear more but not yet responding. And third, there were those who repented, deciding to believe. Paul confronted them with a competing worldview. We need to remember that people already have a worldview in place that will compete with the biblical truth we share. Wrong ideas must be lovingly countered and replaced with the new categories and meaning of a Christian worldview.
The Christ Centered Exposition Commentary says: In the past Western Christians communicating the gospel to next-door neighbors assumed people basically shared our worldview. We assumed they had an understanding of God. We assumed they had heard of Jesus. We assumed they knew he died on the cross and rose from the dead for the benefit of humanity. We assumed they viewed sin as offensive to God and destructive to people. We assumed people believed history is moving somewhere. In days gone by, even atheists were “Christian atheists” in that the deity they claimed to deny was clearly the Christian God. But the time for making assumptions in evangelism has passed. In order to be effective, we have to begin sharing the truth of the gospel by anchoring our teaching in the creation account. We must describe the nature of God and move through the biblical story line.
Paul worked to connect with those hearing him in meaningful ways. He even quoted pagan philosophers. One author said: Paul was aware of popular writings, but nothing about his life suggests he would have been watching hours of Netflix if given the opportunity—much less allowing his mind to play in the gutter as he considered hours of explicit pop lyrics. We must guard our minds (Philippians 4:8), but we should also seek to understand culture. Doing so can help us build bridges to the gospel.
The Areopagus address reveals the comprehensiveness of Paul’s message. He proclaimed God in his fullness as Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Father and Judge. He took in the whole of nature and of history. He passed the whole of time in review, from the creation to the consummation. He emphasized the greatness of God, not only as the beginning and the end of all things, but as the One to whom we owe our being and to whom we must give account. He argued that human beings already know these things by natural or general revelation, and that their ignorance and idolatry are therefore inexcusable. So he called on them with great sincerity, before it was eternally too late, to repent.
Now all of this is part of the gospel. Or at least it is the indispensable background to the gospel, without which the gospel cannot be effectively preached. Many people are rejecting our gospel today not because they perceive it to be false, but because they perceive it to be trivial. People are looking for an integrated worldview which makes sense of all their experience. We learn from Paul that we cannot preach the gospel of Jesus without the doctrine of God, or the cross without the creation, or salvation without judgment. Today’s world needs a bigger gospel, the full gospel of Scripture, what Paul later in Ephesus was to call ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27).
John Stott in The Message of Acts says: It is not only the comprehensiveness of Paul’s message in Athens which is impressive, but also the depth and power of his motivation. Why is it that, in spite of the great needs and opportunities of our day, the church slumbers peacefully on, and so many Christians are deaf and dumb, deaf to Christ’s commission and tongue-tied in testimony? I think the major reason is this: we do not speak as Paul spoke because we do not feel as Paul felt. We have never had the paroxysm of indignation which he had. Divine jealousy has not stirred within us. We constantly pray ‘Hallowed be your Name’, but we do not seem to mean it, or to care that his Name is so widely profaned.
Why is this? It takes us a stage further back. If we do not speak like Paul because we do not feel like Paul, this is because we do not see like Paul. That was the order: he saw, he felt, he spoke. It all began with his eyes. When Paul walked round Athens, he did not just ‘notice’ the idols. The Greek verb used three times (16, 22, 23) is either “theoreo” or “anatheoreo” and means to “observe” or “consider”. So he looked and looked, and thought and thought, until the fires of holy indignation were kindled within him. For he saw men and women, created by God in the image of God, giving
to idols the homage which was due to him alone.
Idols are not limited to primitive societies; there are many sophisticated idols too. An idol is a god-substitute. Any person or thing that occupies the place which God should occupy is an idol. Covetousness is idolatry. Ideologies can be idolatries. So can fame, wealth and power, sex, food, alcohol and other drugs, parents, spouse, children and friends, work, recreation, television and possessions, even church, religion and Christian service. Idols always seem particularly dominant
in cities. Jesus wept over the impenitent city of Jerusalem. Paul was deeply pained by the idolatrous city of Athens. Have we ever been provoked by the idolatrous cities of the contemporary world?
Paul ended with three reasons to repent:
Acts 17:30 (ESV) “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” First, God’s is patient to give you time to repent. We have as many idols or more then the Athenians. Our land is as corrupt as theirs, even though we have known the gospel for hundreds of years, which they had not. God has not yet destroyed Canada for its sins. Why? It is because God is patient. He has also been patient with you. He has overlooked your ignorance for a time. Pay attention, and let God’s patience lead you to repentance.
Second, God commands repentance because…Acts 17:31 (ESV) “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” God commands you to repent! Turn from your sin and trust in Him. If God tells us to do something, we had better do it.
Third, judgement is coming the time to repent is now. God has appointed a final day of reckoning when Jesus shall be the final judge. Paul’s exact words were, “he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
The only hope is Jesus. Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed.
On that day when Paul shared this message a few became faithful followers. Two are mentioned in particular, Dionysius a member of the Areopagus and a woman named Damaris. What about you?