This passage has fascinated me for a long time. I am always impressed by the zeal and courage of this man, Paul. Driven from the city of Thessalonica, by an unruly mob - the same threatening to happen in Berea, Paul goes down to Athens (minus Silas and Timothy) and probably without Luke. By himself "he takes on" the city of Athens – which he describes as a city full of idols.
What Paul saw in Athens: (v. 16)
Athens was by all accounts an impressive city. It had once been the intellectual centre of the ancient world. Men like Plato and Socrates made their mark there - and their influence lasts until this day! Athens had beautiful buildings(e.g. of which the Parthenon still stands).There were found innumerable temples and shrines and statues to every conceivable god under the sun. Some said,"it was a veritable forest of idols". Another said that "there were more gods in Athens, than in all the rest of the country". Yet another said that "it was easier to find a god there than a man." There were images of Apollos (the city's patron god), Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana, Aesculapius - to mention but a few famous ones. All these statue-gods looked very impressive and beautiful. They were not simply made of stone and brass, but overlaid with gold, and made of ivory, silver and marble - elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors.
Such fine art and elegance and majesty is impressive! I have seen some displays of Greek art in Berlin and London and works of art in Europe. And as far buildings and architecture are concerned, some of Europe’s cathedrals are truly awe inspiring. The sheer magnitude and beauty of these buildings is impressive and one can feel quite moved and in a funny sort of way, ‘religious’, as one beholds just the sheer beauty and majesty of these hand fashioned buildings and statutes and is overawed by them.
When Paul had seen all these things, what impression did this make upon him? We read in v. 16 that "his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols". The Greek word for being provoked (ESV) /distressed (NIV) is "paroxyno", from which we get the medical term "paroxysm" – having a seizure or epileptic fit. Paul then (if you like) had a quiet fit as he walked through the city filled with so many idols.
What many would have regarded as a great centre of culture, religion and learning, Paul regarded as ‘rank and file’ idolatry. Was Paul blind to aesthetic beauty and was he deaf to the philosophical eloquence and thought forms of the people of Athens? No! Paul, sees further than aesthetics and human wisdom. He looks at this city not through human eyes but through God's eyes. He looks at it with a biblical world view and with a renewed mind (Rom. 12:1,2). He was provoked, not because he was a snob, or because he felt superior to the Athenians, or because his culture clashed with theirs. No, Paul's feelings ran much deeper. He was provoked because he knew that the God who made the heavens and the earth abhorred idols. Idols are man’s attempt to substitute the one, true God, Creator of the world and all its people (Psalm 24:1; 89:11) with man-made creations and thoughts. And so it was in Athens. Here was a people which God had made in His image (minus the sin). What were they doing? They were giving glory to created things, dumb idols, and their own human wisdom and Paul grieved, as he saw human beings so trapped in themselves and depraved as to be giving idols the honour and glory which was due to the One, Living, True God alone.
Can you feel something of the heart of this apostle?
What Paul did in Athens (vv. 17 - 21)
Although Paul saw and felt these things, he did not withdraw into his shell, or locked himself up in a hotel room in Athens. What did he do? He did what he always did. He preached the gospel, and as we see it here, he preached it to three different groups in the city of Athens:
(i) As was his habit, he always went to the synagogue , where he would reason with Jews and God fearing Greeks. (v.17a)
(iii) Paul preached by way of street evangelism, in the market place with those who happened to be there. (v.17b)
(iii) He preached to a group of the intellectual elite - which was made up of different philosophers - Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. We will focus on this event. How do you speak to ‘know it all', philosopher type people? (vv18-34)
Let us firstly consider the philosophical schools mentioned here in verse 18 :
The Epicureans, deriving their name from the philosopher Epicurus [341 - 270 B.C] essentially had a materialistic world view. For them the gods were far removed and even non- existent. If they did in fact exist, they had no effect on the world. And so, their philosophy was basically expressed in 'pleasure seeking'. It is the most logical philosophy to have when there is no God and no moral accountability in the Universe. So they figured that what gave ultimate meaning in life was to live this life to the maximum', and so their motto/ philosophy was, "eat , drink and be merry , for tomorrow we die" (cf. 1 Cor. 15:32) . It is in fact a very common way of thinking today. We are very much a pleasure centered age. Instead of great cathedrals, we build great sport stadiums, entertainment parks and shopping malls.
Stoicism. According to this philosophical school its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.  The philosopher Zeno [340 - 265 BC] was representative of this school.
So, Paul reasoned with people such as this because he was distressed, and he wanted them to know the truth. But how do you speak to people of a city, so full of idols and so full of their own ideas about the gospel? How do you communicate the teachings of Jesus to a people with a completely different, pantheistic, polytheistic world view? How do you communicate with a people, that do not have an O.T. background?
Well, the generation that we now deal with by and large has the same problem, even though many of them belong to churches. Many have no clue as to what the Bible is all about, or as to who Jesus really is. For many, He has become simply an option among many gods. I remember being at a function, where I spoke to a lady who is in the leadership of a particular church, and she told me that she believed that ultimately all religions led to God. The people in her group all agreed. That is in effect an expression of modern pantheism /polytheism.
How do you deal with people whose world views are shaped by the gods whom their imaginations and their hands have created? Two responses:
1. Nothing but the sovereign grace of God can open their eyes. If God does not open the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf, - in short, if the Holy Spirit does not do this work, they will not hear and they will continue to love the idols and thought systems which they have chosen. The heart wants what the heart wants, and until that heart is changed , the heart will continue in its cravings.
2. Having said that, it does not mean that we must sit still. God has called His people, like Paul to proclaim the Gospel to the World, always praying that the Holy Spirit would be pleased to work in application of that truth to the heart! (see Rom.10: 14,15). Paul passionately believes that the gospel must be presented - no matter how impossible the situation. Woe is me, if I do not preach the gospel! And we shall see what the outcome will be in v.34. Some shall believe! (v.34)
What Paul said to the people of Athens
Notwithstanding the cultural and philosophical hindrances, Paul pushes on and proceeds to construct a framework that explains who Jesus is. It is clear however that his presentation of the gospel to "biblical illiterates" cannot be done in the same way as to the Jews in the synagogue, and the God-fearing Greeks.
These people of the Areopagus had no idea what the 10 commandments were. They did not know who Moses was. They had a completely different view of history. They call him a "babbler" (v.18) lit. seedpicker i.e. an incoherent rambler. His presentation of the gospel was truly foolishness to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23). So, when they listened to Paul they ridiculed his 'philosophy'.
But he pushes on and he makes a very fundamental observation.
He takes note of the fact that these people are very religious. In his wanderings in Athens he saw an altar built to an unknown god (vv. 22,23), and he seizes this opportunity to connect with them. What he is in fact saying is this : "Though you are religious, you seem to know very little about God. He is unknown to you. I will tell you about this God that can be known , for He has disclosed Himself. I am going to proclaim Him to you!”
Do you see that brilliant opening move? He finds something in their religious culture that links with his topic. He creates interest and proceeds to build his case. From here on he begins to proclaim the living and true God in 5 ways, exposing the errors of their idolatry. And he presents them with an ultimatum.
1. God is the Creator of the Universe (v. 24) : This is a very different view of the Epicureans, whose view of God was marginal. It was in some ways similar to the view of the Stoics who saw the gods as removed and unsympathetic. But here Paul instead introduces God as the CREATOR, who is personally involved His creation. He is the Sovereign God who is above all, and it is therefore absurd to suppose that He would live in temples built by human hands.
2. God is the Sovereign and the Sustainer of life (v. 25) : As Creator and Sovereign over all He gives life and breath and everything. Since he is such a being God cannot be manipulated or controlled. Moreover, He doesn't need men. He doesn't need their praise and their sacrifices to sustain Him. No! It is the other way round. Man needs God. Man needs to realise that for every breath he takes, he is sustained by God. Man depends on God; He does not depend on us.
3. God is the Ruler of all nations (vv. 26 - 28). He made from one man every nation to live on all the face of the earth. God made man. Here we learn that every person is made in the image of God. God is not a tribal deity. He is the God of the nations, whether they like it or not.They are therefore accountable to Him. His unseen hand either blesses in response to obedience, or is withdrawn, in response to disobedience - but His presence is always there. "In Him we live and move and have our being". Even the Greek poets admitted that - even though that fact was vaguely understood.
4. God is the Father of mankind (vv. 28,29) : "For we are indeed His offspring." Once again Paul quotes their poets with respect to a truth with which the Bible agrees. It is not as if there is no truth in humanity. There is general revelation of God's truth in all the religions of the world. But there is not sufficient revelation in any of these religions to save mankind. Grace and truth are only completely found in Christ (Jn. 1:17). Are all people God's offspring? Yes! All are God’s "fallen creation", and by His grace He sustains them even now. But that doesn't mean that they are all "saved". Being this personable, hands-on involved God, He should also not be conceived of in terms of idolatrous man-made images. The essence of idolatry is that it tries to bring God under our control, which brings Paul to his last point:
5.God is the Judge of all men (vv.30,31): Paul comes back to the point of ignorance in v. 23. The Athenians admitted by that altar inscription that they were ignorant of God. And Paul says that this being so , in the past he overlooked such ignorance,not because He excused it, but because He was merciful. But now people everywhere must repent! Why ? Because Christ has died and has risen for the sins of those who are willing to believe in Him. The next step is that He will return as Judge - and then the question will be : What have you done with the Good News which I came to bring to you ? Have you ignored it? Paul tells his listeners three facts about that judgement:
(a) it will be universal
(b) it will be righteous
(c) it will be definite.
RESPONSE: (vv. 32 - 34)
Some sneered - a few wanted to hear more - and a few believed. What can we learn from Paul's preaching to a city full of idolatry? In our own city many people are rejecting the gospel, because they perceive it to be trivial. There are many who live by the Epicurean view and others by the Stoic way.
Whatever the case may be our city populated by so many who think that they know it all, our city, so filled with idolatry and opinions needs to hear the gospel of Jesus in understandable ways. The people of our idolatrous city need to hear that God is not impersonal and removed . He is the Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Father of mankind, and He is the coming Judge. And He insists on repentance from idolatry. An idol is a god-substitute, and that invites God’s wrath.
By God's grace some in the city of Athens heard and responded. Among them were a man called Dioynisus and a woman called Damaris, and there were others. Thank God that He gives even people in pagan cultures the ability to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Pray that this may be true of the city of Windhoek. Amen.