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 both Jews and 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 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. 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.)
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are deeply 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 human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 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. 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. 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.” (New International Version)
The city of Athens was a major intellectual center in the ancient world. Ideas, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, and debate were standard fare amongst the citizens. At the time of the Apostle Paul’s arrival in the city, Greece knew next to nothing about Christianity. Paul’s response to what he saw and felt, dictated what he did and said; it was both wise and deeply impactful to the people of Athens. It’s almost akin to a seminar in how to communicate with folks who believe and live very differently than ourselves.
Paul entered the city and made a simple observation: Athens is full of idols. Out of all the observations Paul could have made, this one would not likely be made by most people visiting the city. Athens was a glorious place with its unparalleled architecture. The Acropolis and the Agora were resplendent with the arts and democracy.
For all its physical beauty and brilliance, the one thing Paul homed-in on was the idols. This would have struck many folks as odd – something like focusing on the dog collar instead of the dog. Yet, Paul was using more than his physical eyes – his spiritual sight was making a big observation – that Athens was very much a religious place.
The Apostle felt upset and distressed. Paul was disturbed down deep in his gut with the spiritual state of this renowned city-state. The sheer volume of idols and the practice of idolatry created an overwhelming sense of both pity and anger.
Paul handled his emotions well. By freely acknowledging them, he was then able to choose his response. Had he not done so, it is likely Paul might have just gone on some frustrating tirade, thereby never truly connecting relationally with the people. There’s nothing wrong with being irritated or exasperated; its what we do with those feelings which are important.
It is our emotions, not our thoughts, which move us to act. Paul knew why he was feeling disturbed and decided not to stuff those feelings but step out and address the great need he was observing. He decided to meet the Athenians on their turf and on their level by reasoning with them every day in the great buildings and open spaces of the city.
While in Athens, it seems Paul understandably utilized the Socratic method of dialogue – involving questions and answers. Its impressive that throughout the Acts of the Apostles, Paul demonstrated a deft ability to communicate and connect with a broad range of people.
Paul wasn’t interacting and dialoging just for the fun of it; he wanted to make an appeal, a request to seriously consider the Christian good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection as a viable philosophy of life. He made his appeal with Jews, Greeks, and passers-by, as well as philosophers.
Since the massive intellect of Paul could handle any reasoned debate, he was invited to the Areopagus, which was the place where the best-of-the-best carried-on their discussions.
Paul’s address to them was incredibly cogent and well-reasoned – finding common ground from which to debate and maintaining outward grace amidst his inward disturbance.
The late British exegete, John R.W. Stott, reflected on today’s New Testament lesson and gave us words which are still relevant:
“Why is it that, in spite of the great needs and opportunities of our day, the church slumbers peacefully on, and that so many Christians are deaf to Christ’s commission, and dumb with tongues-tied in testimony? The major reason is this: We do not speak as Paul spoke because we do not feel as Paul felt. We have never had his indignation. Divine jealousy has not stirred within us. We constantly pray, ‘Hallowed be Thy Name,’ yet we do not seem to mean it… Paul saw people created in the image and likeness of God giving to idols the homage which was due to God alone… and he was deeply pained by it.”John R.W. Stott
May the good news be so pressed into our minds, hearts, and guts that what comes out of us is deep compassion, wise dialogue, and effective ministry for the sake of our Lord. Amen.
*Above picture: ruins of the Greek Acropolis in Athens where the Apostle Paul addressed the Areopagus.