Paul in Athens from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.
Proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus in Athens (Acts 17)
Proclaiming the resurrection may not be as hard as you may think. As Christians gather to celebrate Easter today, a recent national survey revealed that over half of people in Britain believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. New research published by Theos, the public theology think tank found that on the question of Easter’s significance today, 43% of the public believe that the Easter story is about Jesus dying for the sins of the world while only 26% think that the Easter story has no meaning today. 57% of people questioned said they believe that Jesus was executed by crucifixion, buried and rose from the dead, with over half of those (30% of the total sample) accepting the traditional Christian belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ and the rest (27%) believing that Jesus rose in spirit form. This widespread belief clearly informs people’s more general attitude to life after death. Over half of people said they believe in some kind of existence after death, although most of those (44% of the total) believe that ‘your spirit lives on after death’. Only 9% said they believe in a personal physical resurrection. So, while many people remain ignorant of what the Scriptures teach about God’s purposes, a majority of people in Britain do nevertheless believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus and do believe in life after death. Turning that general belief into a saving faith is the challenge before us as a church. The late Noel O. Lyons, for many years director of the Greater Europe Mission, used to say,
“Europe is looked over by millions of visitors and is overlooked by millions of Christians.” Europe needs the Gospel today just as it did in Paul’s day, and we dare not miss our opportunities. Like Paul, we must see with open eyes, pray with broken hearts and act from compassion for those who are lost. In ten days we begin our Summer Thursday Night courses. One of the courses is ‘Becoming a Contagious Christian’. Lets see what we can learn from the Apostle Paul about how to become contagious Christians. This evening, lets consider what Paul saw, how Paul felt, what Paul did and what Paul said.
1. The City : What Paul Saw
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16).
Paul arrived in the great city of Athens, not as a sightseer, but as a soul-winner. He was driven by his personal encounter with the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. No doubt Paul did the tourist sites. The buildings and monuments of Athens were unrivalled. The acropolis, the town’s high and ancient citadel has been described as “one vast composition of architecture and sculpture dedicated to the national glory and the worship of the gods.” Or perhaps Paul would have lingered in the agora, with its many porticoes painted by famous artists, listening to its statesmen and philosophers discussing the basis of democracy. Paul already a graduate of Tarsus and Jerusalem might well have been spellbound by the sheer splendor of the city’s architecture, history and wisdom. Yet it was none of these things that struck him. First and foremost what he saw was neither the beauty nor the brilliance of the city but its idolatry. The adjective Luke uses occurs nowhere else in the NT, and has not been found so far anywhere else in Greek literature. The NIV translates it “full of idols”, but the idea conveys something stronger. The city was “under” them, swamped by them. The innumerable shrines, statues and temples must have appeared as a gigantic forest of idols. In the Parthenon stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena, whose gleaming spear point was visible 40 miles away. Elsewhere there were images to Apollo, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, and Diana. The whole Greek pantheon had been fashioned not only in stone but gold and silver, ivory and marble. There is no reason to think that Paul was blind to their beauty. Athens was in a period of decline at this time, though still recognized as a center of culture and education. The glory of its politics and commerce had long since faded. It had a famous university and numerous beautiful buildings, but it was not the influential city it once had been. The city was given over to a “cultured paganism” that was nourished by idolatry, novelty (Acts 17:21), and philosophy. “The Greek religion was a mere deification of human attributes and the powers of nature,” wrote Conybeare and Howson. “It was a religion which ministered to art and amusement, and was entirely destitute of moral power” (pp. 280-281). The Greek myths spoke of gods and goddesses that, in their own rivalries and ambitions, acted more like humans than gods; and there were plenty of deities to choose from! Paul saw that the city was “wholly given to idolatry,” and it broke his heart.
We today admire Greek sculpture and architecture as beautiful works of art, but in Paul’s day, much of this was directly associated with their religion. Paul knew that idolatry was demonic (1 Cor. 10:14-23) and that the many gods of the Greeks were only characters in myths but were unable to change lives (1 Cor. 8:1-6). With all of their culture and wisdom, the Greeks did not know the true God (1 Cor. 1:18-25). As for novelty, the chief pursuit of both the citizens and the visitors (Acts 17:21 was spent telling or hearing “some new thing.” Athens was indeed a beautiful city but beauty did not impress Paul if it did not honour God the Father. Instead Paul felt oppressed by the idolatrous use to which the Athenians had put their God-given talents and energy. This is what Paul saw: a city submerged in its idols.
2. The Idolatry : What Paul Felt
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16).
The text says Paul was “greatly distressed”. The verb comes from the medical word used of a seizure or epileptic fit. It also means to irritate, provoke, to arouse in anger. The emotion Paul felt is the same word in the OT describing God’s jealous reaction to idolatry. What is jealousy? Jealousy is the resentment of rivals. Whether it is good or evil jealousy depends on whether the rival has any business to be there.
To be jealous of someone who threatens to outshine us in beauty, brains or sport is sinful, because we cannot claim a monopoly of talent in these areas. It on the other hand, a third party comes between a husband and wife, the jealousy of the injured person so displaced is righteous, because the intruder has no right to be there. Paul had to confront two opposing philosophies as he witnessed in Athens, those of the Epicureans and also the Stoics. We today associate the word Epicurean with the pursuit of pleasure and the love of “fine living,” especially fine food. But the Epicurean philosophy involved much more than that. In one sense, the founder Epicurus was an “existentialist” in that he sought truth by means of personal experience and not through reasoning.
The Epicureans were materialists and atheists, and their goal in life was pleasure. To some, “pleasure” meant that which was grossly physical; but to others, it meant a life of refined serenity, free from pain and anxiety. The true Epicurean avoided extremes and sought to enjoy life by keeping things in balance, but pleasure was still his number one goal. The Stoics on the other hand, rejected the idolatry of pagan worship and taught that there was one “World God.” They were pantheists, and they emphasized personal discipline and self-control. Pleasure was not good and pain was not evil. The most important thing in life was to follow reason and be self-sufficient, unmoved by inner feelings or outward circumstances. Of course, such a philosophy only fanned the flames of pride and taught men that they did not need help.
It is interesting that the first two leaders of the Stoic school committed suicide. The Epicureans said “Enjoy life!” and the Stoics said “Endure life!” but it remained for Paul to explain how they could enter into life through faith in God’s risen Son. Our Creator and Redeemer has a right to our exclusive allegiance, and is rightly “jealous” if we transfer it to anyone or anything else.
This was Paul’s sentiment when he wrote to the backsliding Corinthians “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy”. He longed for them to remain loyal to Jesus. So the pain which Paul felt was due neither to bad temper, nor pity at the Athenian’s ignorance.
It was due to his utter hatred of idolatry, stirred by jealousy for God, he saw people so depraved as to be giving to idols the honour and glory which were due to the one true God alone.
What is our motivation in mission? Obedience to the Great Commission? That’s good. Compassion for the needs of the lost? That’s better. These are important, but the highest incentive of all is jealousy for the glory of Jesus Christ. Henry Martyn had a brilliant career as a mathematician at Cambridge University.
While there he went to hear Charles Simeon the preacher and soon dedicated his life to telling others about Jesus. He became the first volunteer to join a new missionary society working in India. The day he arrived at his new home he wrote in his diary “Now let me burn out for God”. Not trained as a linguist, nevertheless, he translated the NT into Hindustani. Then he translated it into Arabic. After he’d completed his third mammoth translation into Persian, he died of exhaustion at the age of 31. Earlier he’d written in his diary, “I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified; it would be hell to me, if he were to be always so dishonored.”
What Paul saw, what Paul felt. Now lets see,
3. The Witness: What Paul Did
“So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17)
“Left at Athens alone” (1 Thes. 3:1), Paul viewed the idolatrous city and his spirit was “stirred.” Paul’s reaction was positive and strategic. His practice was first to go to the people with whom he had most in common, a reverence for the scriptures.
Every Sabbath he went to talk to the Jews about what the Old Testament foretold about Jesus. Then during the week he debated with Greek passers-by in the Agora market place. With anyone who was interested. It was here that the Stoic and Epicurean scouts found him. They were rival groups who held very different world views. The Stoics like Moslems, emphasized fatalism, submission and the endurance of pain. The Epicureans like Buddhists on the other hand emphasized chance, escape & enjoying pleasure.
“A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate 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.” (Acts 17:18).
Some were rather skeptical and insulted Paul. “Babbler” was Athenian slang for a magpie or parrot. It was used of teachers who not having an original idea of their own picked up scraps of knowledge from here and there. Paul was just an ignorant plagiarist. Others were more charitable but confused. They thought Paul was talking about two new gods called 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 would like 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.) (Acts 17:19-21)
Whatever the precise motive of the philosophers may have been, they brought him to the Areopagus or Mars Hill. The place where the judges and senior politicians met as guardians of the city’s religions, morals and education. What Paul saw, felt and did.
4. The Defence: What Paul Said
“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People 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. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what 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.” (Acts 17:22-24)
The apostle took as his point of contact with them, the anonymous altar he had come across. Despite their multiplicity of shrines, the Athenians remained superstitious that there might still be another god they had offended by not honoring. As an insurance policy they had dedicated this altar to the unknown god, just in case. How are we to interpret Paul’s introduction? Was he acknowledging the validity of their religion? No, Paul was acknowledging their ignorance not their worship.
He made the bold claim that he could enlighten their ignorance, insisting that special revelation must correct what ever general revelation might disclose. He then went on to proclaim the living and true God in five ways. Five ways that expose the errors, the horrors of idolatry.
4.1 This ‘Unknown’ God Created 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. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:24-25)
4.1.1 He is an infinite Being : Our Creator (Acts 17:24)
The sun, the moon, the stars, the vast reaches of space, the surging seas, the violent volcanoes, the jungles and deserts, the animals, and man himself are all made by an omnipotent, omniscient, infinite God. An awesome, magnificent, preexistent, self existing uncreated God. This view of God is very different from either the Epicurean emphasis on a chance combination of atoms as you find in the scientific religion of evolution, or the pantheism of the Stoics, as is common among Hindus, shintoists and animists today. How absurd to imagine the Infinite Creator God would live in a man made shrine. Any attempt to limit or localize God, to imprison Him in holy temples is ludicrous. God is an infinite being, our creator.
4.1.2 He is an Independent Being : Our Sustainer (Acts 17:25)
Everywhere he looked, Paul saw the work of genius. The Parthenon was indeed a wonder of the world. 50 colossal statues, 520 feet of continuous Ionic frieze depicting horses of the sun god throwing up their magnificent heads and the horse of the moon goddess poised to leap out of the very stone work. Paul dismissed it all as worthless. God alone sustains the life He created and gives to His creatures. It is absurd as thinking God should ever need sustaining with food and water. But that is what most Eastern religions believe when they daily offer food before their shrines. These people in Athens had attempted to domesticate God, to reduce Him to the level of a household pet dependant on us for food and shelter. It was a ridiculous, blasphemous reversal of roles. The infinite God, the independent God. This unknown God created you.
4.2 This ‘Unknown’ God Controls You
“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” (Acts 17:26)
Paul left no room for a theory of a master race though the Athenians naturally considered themselves to be so. Every race thinks they are superior. The truth is we all have a common origin; we all trace our ancestry back to Adam. God has not only created each race equal, he has set natural boundaries. As we saw in the former Yugoslavia and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, you cannot force people of different ethnic groups to live in peace with each other. The times as well as the boundaries of the nations are in His hands, and it is from him that we should seek a solution.
This unknown God created you and controls you.
4.3 This ‘Unknown’ God Convicts You
“God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘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 human design and skill.” (Acts 17:27-29)
4.3.1 Paul reinforces what they already felt (17:27)
There is as Pascal put it, “A God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every human being which only God can fill”.
There is a universal striving, a feeling after God. We touch God in nature, providence and circumstance because He is not far away.
Paul reinforces what that already felt.
4.3.2 Paul affirms what they had almost found (17:28)
The Athenians own poets had described this sensation, this search for God. They knew God must be there,
but they had not found Him. Without the true revelation they had digressed into idolatry to try and describe God, try and worship Him. Paul quotes their own writers whom they understood to corroborate the Scriptures which they did not. He does so not to canonize them but to expose their own inconsistency. This should make us look for similar insights drawn from general revelation that lie embedded in non-Christian authors, for these give us points of contact. Like showing a Moslem from the Koran that Jesus is the final prophet because they believe Jesus will return. That Jesus is superior to Mohammed because Mohammed never performed miracles, never appealed to OT prophecy as fulfilled in Him, never claimed to be sinless. Jesus did. Paul has underlined what they felt and what they’d almost found….
4.3.3 Paul explains what they had always forgotten (17:29)
All idolatry whether ancient or modern, primitive or sophisticated, is inexcusable, whether the images are metal or mental, material objects of worship or unworthy concepts of the mind. Idolatry tries to minimize the gulf between the Creator and His creatures, in order to bring Him under human control. It reverses the roles of Genesis 1 “In the beginning man made God in his own image”. it’s a perverse expression of human rebellion against God. Surrounded by the cultural and academic intelligencia of Athens, Paul not mincing his words, called it ignorance. Having shown God to be the Creator of the universe, the Sustainer of life, the Ruler of the world, and the Father of all, and having secured their attention. By reminding them of what they felt and what they’d almost found and always forgotten, Paul gave his challenge…
4.4 This ‘Unknown’ God Commands You
“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 everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)
Paul comes back to his opening point. The Athenians had admitted in this inscription that they were ignorant of God.
Now that Paul had given them logical proof they were no longer innocent. Exposing error is as important as stating truth in evangelism. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance.” It is not that God did not notice it, nor that He acquiesced in it as excusable. No, in His mercy He did not punish as they deserved. Now everything was different because of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Repentance and obedience are commanded because God has revealed Himself fully and finally in Jesus Christ. Judgment is certain for those who ignore Jesus, for this is the ultimate rebellion. Three things we learn about this judgement. Significantly, at least in this gospel presentation, Paul links them not to the cross but to the resurrection of Jesus.
It has been Decreed: God’s Judgement is Universal
God will judge the whole world.
It has been Defined: God’s Judgement is Righteous
He will judge with total justice.
It will be Dramatic: God’s Judgement is Certain
The day has been set, the judge has been selected. God has committed the judgement to His Son, and He has given proof of this publicly, by raising him from the dead. By the resurrection Jesus was vindicated and declared to be both Lord and Judge.
“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. Some of the people 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 17:32-34)
Mention of the resurrection was enough to bring the meeting to an abrupt end. The Jerusalem Bible translates it as “they burst out laughing”. The meeting was adjourned in uproar. There was derision from some, but decisions from others. A trickle of new disciples responded to one of the finest sermons in history.
If we do not speak enough like Paul, perhaps it is because we do not feel enough like Paul, or more especially because we do not see enough like Paul. That was the order. He saw, he felt, he acted. It all began with his eyes. He looked and saw men and women created in the image of God, degrading themselves by giving to idols the homage due to God alone.
Summarise outline. As we bathe in the glow of the resurrection today, may it be as real to us as it was to Paul. And may God make us jealous this week. Jealous for his name. Jealous for his flock, Jealous for his glory. Lets pray.