PAUL IN ATHENS
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By Stephen Green. (First published in Christian Voice March 2004)
Paul's stay in Athens was brought about by trouble stirred up in Berea by the unbelieving Jews from Thessalonica, but how thankful we are that this stay was forced upon him. There is a great deal for the Church to learn from the way in which Paul conducted himself as he waited there for Silas and Timothy.
Acts 17:16: Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
The first point made by Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is how distressed Paul was to see the city of Athens 'full of idols', as the Greek literally puts it. Did he feel like Lot in idolatrous Sodom, who according to Peter "vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds" and with "the filthy conversation of the wicked"? (2Pet 7-8) We can be sure that Paul would have been as vexed as Lot with the idolatry of Athens, and with all the immorality that went with it, including the temple prostitution and the sacrifices to demonic spirits.
I wonder what Paul would make of us? It would not take him very long to discern our prevailing idolatry. Idols can be made out of gold, silver, stone or indeed of plaster or plastic, but they do not need to be. Any time a man sets up some part of God's creation as more worthy of honour than God Himself, he has set up an idol. The fruit of the so-called eighteenth-century 'Enlightenment' was that mankind and the vain thoughts of sinful men were put on a pedestal and worshipped to the exclusion of the Triune God.
This form of idolatry is prevalent today in Britain. Hardly anyone, even in the Church, asks, "What does God think about this?" Our legislators certainly don't. Our police chiefs and fire chiefs don't. Nor do our health administrators, local authorities, school teachers and civil servants. Even though a majority of our population regularly describe themselves as Christian, they look to their own thoughts rather than to God. Saddest of all, much of the Church makes decisions according to human wisdom and current fashionable opinion rather than seeking the Almighty.
From what Paul writes in Romans chapter 1, he would have recognised our particular form of idolatry. We do indeed worship "the creature rather than the Creator who is blessed forever" (Rom 1:25). I was going to write that we do not have images "made like to corruptible man," and that our idolatry is in our mind, but then I thought of all the images of supposed human perfection that assault our eyes from magazine and hoarding, on TV and in film. The decadence resulting in our society from our worship of ourselves is no different from that which Paul describes so well in the rest of that chapter.
PAUL GOES TO HIS OWN FIRST
The big question for me is: Is the Church as vexed as Lot or as stirred as Paul, about the idolatry and evil of our day, as they were in theirs? Or do we take it all for granted? Have we become so inured to it that we don't notice it any more? Do we recognise it as evil at all? And if we do notice it, and we are stirred about it, is the Church engaging with our society about it, as fully as Paul is about to do with the Athenians? And how does he go about it?
17: Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.
Paul's first inclination is to his own people and the devout gentile believers. If he can start from a common base, a shared belief in Almighty God as He is known in the Jewish faith, he can go on to teach Jesus as Messiah. Paul has not been so long in his faith in Jesus that he has forgotten what those he has left behind still believe. Moreover, he still has that 'first love' or initial enthusiasm. Indeed, Paul does not lose his enthusiasm for the Gospel of Christ for the rest of his life. Having gone as far as he can with the Jewish believers, Paul looks outside the synagogue to the pagan Athenians.
18: Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics, 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.
Paul has lost no time. He is immediately preaching all round Athens to anyone who will listen. He is telling them the good news, and they are failing to understand. However, they are interested enough to want it all set out publicly and without interruption. Areopagus or 'Mars Hill' will be the ideal place for a public meeting.
19: And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
20: For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
21: (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
So the Athenians loved new things. What was the latest fad? What was flavour of the month? No doubt they thought of themselves as very up-to-date, very modern in their thinking, cool and fashionable in outlook. Were they as news-obsessed as to enjoy BBC News24? We shall never know, but I have a feeling they would have felt reasonably at home in Britain today. However, unlike the modernisers of today, they were open-minded enough to hear another side.
So Paul had an opportunity to preach 'Jesus and the resurrection' to a large audience in a formal setting. This is how he begins:
22: Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.
The word 'superstitious' used in the King James Bible needs explaining. The Greek word 'desidaimonesteros' does not mean not walking under ladders, not going out on Friday 13th, or crossing your fingers if you see a black cat. It literally refers to reverence of the demon (Gr: 'daimon') gods. The sense is of the recognition of the gods, showing more fear than trust, perhaps, but at least being aware of something considered divine and powerful. We should not run away with the idea that Paul is insulting the Athenians. He is in a way complimenting them. He is trying to connect with them, and explain that he sees things in some measure as they do.
Religion, according to Chambers dictionary, is belief in, recognition of a higher unseen controlling power or powers, with the emotion and morality connected therewith; rites or worship, any system of such belief of worship. Sometimes, when we speak of our faith to others, they say something like "I'm not religious," or, "I don't have time for religion," or even "I don't agree with religion." How do we get alongside that? Saying "Well, I'm not religious either," is a way of establishing a common starting point, but drawing upon the outward-show part of Chamber's definition. In the sense of believing in a higher - or divine - power, and desiring to be on the right side of that divinity, be sure we are religious.
In fact, if we go to church and take part in the rites and worship, we are religious in the other sense as well. Even informal rites are rites. 'Not religious' can mean so many things that the person who is 'not religious' needs an invitation to develop that theme until a real common starting point emerges. As Paul's example shows, it can be very tenuous indeed, but it still needs to be found. Paul has made an important discovery as he has moved around Athens and he draws upon it now:
23: For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
Paul reminds the men of Athens that they are so concerned to be right with all 'the gods' that they have placed an altar just in case they have forgotten a god. Once more, where the KJV uses the word 'ignorantly,' that does not mean that Paul is insulting the Athenians. The word 'agnoeo' carries the meaning of being unacquainted with, or not knowing. He says they worship this god not knowing who he is, which gives him a perfect opportunity to declare the true God.
What follows is, for me, a model exposition of the Gospel. It is important to get straight the ultimate truth that God made the world and everything in it, and is Lord of all. He needs nothing and gives life and breath and all things to all His creation. God is entirely self-existent; He just is. Witness the name of God 'I am' from Exodus 3:14 and Jesus' explicit identification of Himself as God with the same words in John 8:58. At the same time, Paul is sure to tell the Athenians that God is not to be found in their temples:
24: God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
25: Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
26: And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
27: That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
28: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
It is good to have a confirmation in Paul's discourse that although men are all of 'one blood', ("For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him." Rom 10:12) their division into nations is God-ordained. That makes separate nations a good thing not a bad thing, and dispels any idea that attempts at world-unification are of God.
Jesus said, in the context of marriage: "What therefore God hath joined together let not man put asunder." (Matt 19:6) Perhaps we could also say "What God hath put asunder, let not man join together." The Globalists are trying to join the world into blocs as a precursor to bringing all together under a world government. Thank God that all their effort is not according to His will, that we are right to oppose it, and that it will fail.
There is one last word from Paul of a 'getting alongside' nature, his comment that some of the Athenians own poets have said that we are his offspring. But as soon as he has said that, he preaches repentance, and Jesus and the resurrection:
29: Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.
30: And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
31: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. 32: And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.
33: So Paul departed from among them.
34: Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
It must grieve the heart of God that many churches set so low a priority on engaging with the world outside in the way Paul did in Athens. We need to be stirred enough by the idolatry and immorality we see around us to make the effort. Souls are going to hell, a nation is sliding to destruction, and lives are being ruined. Can any Christian, or any church, with a heart for God and his fellow man not be involved with those around us? And as our politicians bear responsibility for the mess have got us into, how can we not pray and witness to them? How desperate is the need today for the Church to confront the State with God's enduring truth.
Where we do engage with the world, whether on a small or large scale, the lessons from Paul's stay in Athens are clear. Firstly, the ground needs to be prepared. Paul did not preach the Gospel cold. He found things out and established what common ground he could first. Only then did he set out the majesty of God, the need for repentance and Christ's saving power.
On the other hand, it is possible to establish the common ground and continue getting alongside people, sometimes for years, and forget to preach the Gospel. It was the Resurrection that finally exhausted the Athenians' patience, but thank God not that of all of them. There were some to whom God granted the grace of belief. The Holy Spirit convicts of sin, not us, but Paul in Romans 10 writes that they must hear the preacher. There is no point in friendship evangelism if the Gospel is never preached at all.