“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute 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. 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? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean. (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.’
‘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 hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 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. 28’For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
‘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. 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. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.'”
“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.” At that, Paul left the Council. A few men 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.” (Acts 17:16-34)
An amazing man enters an extra ordinary city
This is the account of an extra ordinary man of God confronting an extra ordinary city of man. The apostle Paul was the man; Athens, the city. Consider this extra ordinary man:
“The apostle Paul traveled much greater distances than from Chicago to New York, not in the ease of a train, an automobile, or a plane, but for the most part on foot, and that not on level roads such as we know, but through sandy deserts, along fever-ridden coastal plains, swimming icy rivers, set upon by robbers, beaten by his own countrymen, thrown into prison, sometimes left as one dead. Look at a map of the Roman world that shows you Paul’s journeys, and then confess that our travels are insignificant compared to his.”
“But there was more than mere travel with this man, Paul. Our day is a travel age, vast multitudes move from the city to the country and from the small town to the great city, in innumerable excursions, for a change of scenery, rest and entertainment, without accomplishing anything except having a good time. Paul did not travel for travel’s sake; he traveled to preach- to stir up men, to bring conviction to human hearts, to assault the strongholds of paganism, to do everything in his power, by the grace of God, for the deliverance of men from the bondage of darkness and serving dead idols, to beholding the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
“Frankly, my fellow believers and fellow preachers, even when we do travel to preach, what happens in the great cities we visit? Nothing! A morning audience of people already Christians, a delicious dinner, a few kind words, a generous check, and we go on our way. What does the city know of our coming? Nothing! What does the city care? Nothing! What are our results? So meager as not to be reckoned. But this man Paul, when he went into a city, turned it upside down, riots broke out, men left the temples; the sale of images immediately showed a decrease; he was seized by the populace; he was brought before kings. Through this man paganism was dealt a deathblow. Look at that map- Colosse, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Philippi, Lystra, Derbe, everywhere great and flourishing churches, with bishops, before the end of the century! And then open your New Testament and see what he did in the way of writing, such epistles that nineteen hundred years of study have not exhausted them.”
“There has never been any man as great since the death of our Lord, as this man. This is that servant of Christ, the mighty Apostle, who is entering on foot this summer day, the city of Socrates, of Plato, of Aristotle. The city where almost everyone in philosophy worthy the name had been born and grown to maturity, where art had reached its greatest glory, and oratory had been heard in its greatest power, where a knowledge of everything then worth knowing, of the skies above, the earth on which we live, and much that is under the earth, had been brought together, in a passion for truth. What could this man Paul do, what would he want to do, in this city of Athens?” (Wilbur Smith, Therefore Stand, pp. 247-248).
Unexpected arrival in Athens
As far as we can know the city of Athens was not on Paul’s travel itinerary. God had called him to the province of Macedonia. Athens was in the province of Achaia. Paul must have been confused by his circumstances. He knew God called him to Macedonia and yet he was driven from one Macedonia city to another until it became clear that there was no safe place for him in the province.
In Philippi, people responded positively to the gospel but Paul ended up being severely beaten and jailed. In Thessalonica, people responded favorably to the gospel but hostilities toward Paul became so intense that the new believers had to escort Paul to the city of Berea. In Berea, people again responded to the gospel with great eagerness examining the scriptures carefully to see if Paul’s teaching was correct. But the persecutors from Thessalonica made their way to Berea and drove Paul out of that city.
Driven from one Macedonian city to another as if there were no place for him in the province, he finally ended up in Athens, a city of Achaia, and one of the great cities of human history from man’s perspective.
“When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible” (Acts 17:13-15).
An extra ordinary city
An extra ordinary man of God in an extra ordinary city of the world. Although the political stature of Athens had diminished by the time of Paul’s arrival, the city maintained a prestigious reputation as a world-renown center of intellectualism.
The titles ascribed to Athens tell the story:
“The Mansion house of wisdom.” “The fountain of all arts.” “The Mother of humanity.” and “The eye of Greece.” It was a university city proud of its cultural and intellectual achievements. At one time it was home to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and other notable philosophers. Anyone aspiring to intellectual significance had to connect with Athens. Athens had more that was splendid in architecture, more that was brilliant in science, and more that was beautiful in the arts, than any other city of the world; perhaps more than all the rest of the world united. Athens was not your normal city, but the apostle Paul was by no means your normal man.
“Now and then there breaks from the shell of mediocrity a man of unswerving convictions willing to stem the tide of evils of his day, such was the apostle Paul” (W. Smith). In just ten years, this man started churches in four Roman Provinces: Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia. Prior to his arrival in these provinces, no churches existed. After his ministry to these areas, the gospel of Jesus Christ was flourishing in all four provinces with established local churches.
Paul’s life before Christ
Paul was at one point a zealous persecutor of Christians (perhaps the most feared persecutor). Out of loyalty to his Jewish heritage, he viewed the Church of Jesus Christ as a threat to the purity of Judaism.
Although raised in the Greek city of Tarsus with the privileges of Roman citizenship, nothing tainted his Jewish heritage. Paul had attained all the elements of status among the Jewish people. He was: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee who followed all the legal demands of the law and demonstrated his zeal for Israel by persecuting Christians” (Philippians 3:4-8).
Then, to use Paul’s own words, in midcourse, while persecuting the Church, he was: “apprehended by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12). And from his conversion to Christ to his death, this ma n turned from being foremost persecutor of Christians to become the foremost proclaimer of the gospel. He had the unique combination of being thoroughly educated in Old Testament scriptures and completely familiar with Greek culture and learning.
Was the visit to Athens a low point for Paul?
Some see this as a real low point for Paul. It would seem reasonable to think that he was a little discouraged by the events in Macedonia. Surely he was concerned about the physical safety and spiritual wellbeing of the new believers he had left behind.
He is alone in Athens waiting for his co-workers to join him. Maybe this would be a good time for Paul to rest from the demands of ministry. After being hunted and hated; beaten and driven from city to city, he has an opportunity to vacation in Athens. Most people came to Athens to observe the wonder of its architecture and paintings, and to listen to the debates of the great philosophers. Is this what Paul will do in Athens? How will Athens affect Paul?
How did Athens affect Paul?
The average person came to Athens and was filled with a sense of awe and amazement at the monuments of human achievement. But, the apostle is no average person. Paul was “greatly distressed” to see that Athens was a city “full of idols.” One commentator noted that, “…there is no account that the mind of Paul was filled with admirations; there is no record that he spent his time in examining the works of art; there is no evidence that he forgot his high purpose in an idle and useless contemplation of temples and statuary. His was a Christian mind; and he contemplated all this with a Christian heart. That heart was deeply affected in the view of amazing guilt of a people who were ignorant of the true God, who had filled their city with idols reared to the honor of imaginary divinities (Barnes).
A person’s character and the purposes of his life determines what he sees wherever he goes. When Paul saw that Athens was full of idols, he was “greatly distressed” by what he saw. “His spirit was being provoked” (N.A.S.B.). “His spirit was stirred in him” (K.J.V.).
A city full of Idols
Historians said that one was more likely to see a god or goddess in the streets of Athens than a man. “There were innumerable temples, shrines, statues, and altars. In the Parthenon stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena, ‘whose gleaming spear-point was visible forty miles away.’ Elsewhere there were images of Apollo, the city’s patron, of Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana, and Aesculapius. The whole Greek Pantheon was there– all the gods of Olympus. And they were beautiful. They were made not only of stone and brass, but of gold, silver, ivory and marble, and they had been elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors. There is no need to suppose that Paul was blind to their beauty. But beauty did not impress him if it did not honor God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, he was oppressed by the idolatrous use to which the God-given artistic creativity of the Athenians was being put. This is what Paul saw: a city submerged in its idols” (John Stott).
Idolatry in Athens was not the tribal, barbaric type. It was more of a high-class cultural reality. Yet, no matter how high-class, their idols stood as monuments to the emptiness and futility of their existence. Their idols were also an affront to the glory of the one true God.
Foolishness of Idolatry
On one level, it appears to be a great contradiction that the world’s center of learning and wisdom was filled with the most foolish things a man could create.
“But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats” (Psalm 115:4-7).
Athens had idols to represent every aspect of human life and the physical universe. So extreme was their idolatry that they even erected an altar with an inscription to an unknown God (just in case they missed a deity). “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
What greatly distressed Paul about the idols of Athens?
The answer to this question will provide the greatest possible incentive for evangelism. The single Greek word translated by the N.I.V. as “greatly distressed” is a rare word in the New Testament. But the word is not rare in the Greek translation of the O.T. It means, “to be irritated or provoked to anger.” This word is repeatedly used in the Greek translation of the O.T. to describe the response of the Holy One of Israel to the idolatry he observed (see: Isa. 6:5:2-3; Dt. 9:7,18,22; Ps. 106:28-29).
In a general sense, an idol is anything that stands in the way of the worship of the one true God. An idol misrepresents God and distracts people from God’s exclusive right to glory. God said, “I am the Lord, that is my name! I will not give my glory to another, or my praise to idols” (Isaiah 42:8). The testimony of the new believers in Thessalonica was that they “turned to God form idols to serving the living and true God” (I Thess. 1:9). Someone has said that, “Our Creator and Redeemer has a right to our exclusive allegiance, and is ‘jealous’ if we transfer it to anyone or anything else. Moreover, the people of God, who love God’s name, should share in his ‘jealousy’ for it.”
When we see people giving anyone or anything the honor and glory that belongs to God, we should be greatly distressed. Was Paul burdened about the eternal destiny of the people of Athens? Yes! But that concern was secondary to his jealousy for the name and honor of God. The highest possible incentive for evangelism is not obedience or compassion, but zeal for the glory of God. And since God the Father exalted Jesus to the highest place of honor, we should feel greatly distressed by the lack of honor given to Him.
Many of us would have to admit that we are too undisturbed by the lack of honor for Jesus that surrounds us. Are we blinded by the achievements of man to the point that we fail to see how they often stand in opposition to the glory of God? Let us ask God to open our eyes and fill us with zeal for his glory. May God help us to be greatly distressed by the idols of our times!
A song for reflection:
Help me to see this world dear Lord as though I were looking through your eyes. A world of men who don’t want you Lord yet a world for which you died. Let me kneel with you in the garden. Fill my eyes with tears of agony. For if once I could see this world the way you see I just know I’d serve you more faithfully.
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Let us ask God to open our eyes and fill us with zeal for his glory. May God help us to be greatly distressed by…