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Paul at Athens

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Paul at Athens

Acts 17.16-34 – Part 1

April 29, 2007


Do we care about those who do not know the Lord?  Are our hearts stirred when others blaspheme the name of Jesus?  Or are you upset when on national radio, you hear that the bishop of New Hampshire is pressing to be married to his partner.  Does that bother you?  I hope it does!

According to a newspaper article of a few years ago, a majority of Alaskans are not members of any religious institution, Christian or otherwise.  In fact 60.2% are unaffiliated.  1.1% identify themselves as Episcopalians.  This compares with 40.5% of Americans who are unaffiliated with any religious institution. 0.8% of whom claim identity as Episcopalians.  By the way 22% claim to be RC; 8.5%, Baptist (largest protestant group).

I suppose the average church has no more than 1/3 of its membership in church each Sunday – certainly, that is the case with us.

Today, we look at Paul in Athens.  He is, of course, not dealing with nominal Christians, or heretical ones; he is dealing with non-Christians.  However, we can learn quite a deal about witnessing from this incident as we look today at the heart of Paul, and then next week at the heart of the message.

The book of Acts records the movement of the gospel from Jerusalem to other parts of the world.  And from the gospel, churches are established.  Chapter 1-12 center on apostolic activity in Jerusalem and Judea (the region Jerusalem is in); then Acts’ large central section narrates the spread of the gospel from Antioch in Syria to Europe; the final third of the book portrays Paul’s trials before the same 3 tribunals as Jesus (Jewish Sanhedrin, the Roman procurator and of the Herods, results in Paul’s arrest and internment in Rome.

Chapter 17 narrates Paul’s 2nd of 3 missionary journeys when he, Timothy and Silas travel through Turkey into Greece.  Chapter 17 begins with Paul in Thessalonica (Greece) ending in him being unceremoniously rescued from a small riot resulting from his preaching and teaching there.  Then to Berea, where he met a much more responsive audience who received the word with eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so – Acts 17.11.

Then to Athens where Paul is alone, with Silas and Timothy planning to join him later.

What I want to pay particular attention to is Paul’s heart – as he confronts the great intellectual giants and spiritual pigmies of Athens, and then ask how that applies to us.

Point One:  Paul is Stirred By the World

Acts 17:16 (ESV)
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.


Some of you may have visited the Parthenon in Athens.  It’s a favorite tourist, sitting on top of the Acropolis – a large hill (highest city).  The Parthenon was home to the goddess of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.  It dominates the city today, and it did then.  There is a lower hill, northwest of the acropolis called the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, where Paul debated with some Athenian philosophers.  From Mars Hill you could see the Parthenon, truly one of the amazing architectural achievements of all time. 

William Barkley pointed out that "It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together, and that in Athens it was easier to meet a god than a man."[—Tom Constable's Notes on the Bible

As Paul looked around, Luke notes, not his admiration of the splendid architecture, but his reaction to their idolatry, represented by the many statutes representing the Greek pantheon.

We read that Paul was stirred – a very strong word – from which we get paroxysm – a fit or an emotional outburst.

And why?  Because Paul could see multitudes on their way to destruction because they thought of God in this way.  Idols are what we make up.  That’s why we have a second commandment – no idols.  We are not to represent the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our creator, our savior and our judge, by the imaginings of our minds.  To do so is utter folly and leads to ultimate destruction.

Yet, this is what we regularly do. 

How many times have we heard…What do you think God is like?  The sky is the limit.  There is no end to the empty ideas we have about God.

Romans 1 says everyone knows that there is a God – but it also says we suppress what we know.

Ex.  One of the Truth Project presentations was on science and Christianity.  They tried to show how some of the assumptions of evolution are faulty – that the assumption of simple organisms becoming complex over time is not what we learn from science.  The simplest organisms are complex, thus undermining one of the assumptions of macro-evolution – that is the belief that we came from the primeval sludge.

Yet, on another, non-scientific level, the thought that we humans are no different from the primeval sludge we came from is NUTS.  It is really laughable.  Yet, it has a great hold on our society. 

Paul is indignant over the false ideas about God represented by the many statutes all around him. 

What moved Paul to preach was that he was stirred in his heart at the spiritual darkness of those around.  He was also no doubt stirred by devaluation of the one and true God by these false representations of him.

The point I am trying to make is that if we only make denunciations of the world and its values, we fall short of what moved Paul to action.  It is easy to tear down, more difficult to offer a way forward.

This is what James White said here on Thursday night.  He said that not only do we need to be able to discern between truth and error, but we must also put forward – we need to offer a positive alternative to empty worship of the man-made gods or idols which rule over so many in our world. 

There are many things people are stirred by.  Injustice, war, famine, poverty, natural disaster – this stir everyone as well.  But, we Christians, should be different.  One of those differences is that what the world regards as of little importance, we are stirred by:  that is people rejecting the Lord Jesus and living life their own way without him.  That is the way of those who are perishing.

Christ is concerned that so many are sheep without a shepherd.

That men, made in the image of God can think in this way – disturbs Paul – and doesn’t it stir us?  That Buddhism, Hinduism and the rest are simply different paths to the same God?  Doesn’t that bother you? 

He is not just thinking about their needs, but about the need and glory of God! 

Point Two:  Paul Goes into the World

17-18.   He is asked in verse 19 – but he doesn’t wait for that. 

You may be familiar with churches which offer an invitation for those present and not yet Christians to make a commitment to Jesus Christ.  But, actually, Paul’s strategy is not to invite, but, you might say to invade others.  He takes the gospel right to them.

If our evangelism is ‘come here our ministry, or our guest preacher’ which is about where we are, we need to know that that is not where we need to be, and by God’s grace, we need to be.  We need also to invade their territory as Paul did.

Look at verse 17 - he reasoned in the synagogue.  Remember he was chased out of the Thessalonican synagogue just before this, so it wasn’t a safe place for him. This took courage.

Think of the missionaries to the Muslims – speak of danger. 

Plus, he goes into the marketplace – which in one sense wasn’t unusual in that place.  But, he went where they are.

How can we do that?  Talking to people we know about the Lord.   

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Unfortunately ,we wait until people come to our church to tell them the gospel – hope that they hear the gospel in church.  Of course, this is a good thing to do; but notice that Paul is on the offensive.  He is in the synagogue, and then we next read that he is mixing it up with Epicureans and the Stoic philosophers who call him babbler – which means something like ignorant showoff.

But he is getting under their skin – he is making them mad.  He doesn’t hold back.  He takes the gospel to them.

The Epicureans’ goal was to live a life of pleasure, by which they meant the absence of pain.  They were not simply hedonists, doing whatever they wished; but rather they did what was necessary to avoid pain.  They live with a kind of serene detachment from the world – a kind of life of Riley.

The Stoics, on the other hand, emphasized virtue and hard work, not detachment and pleasure.  They believed in a life lived rationally, in line with the rational-divine part of human nature and in acceptance of one’s fate.  Only virtue mattered.  Their ideal life was highly individualist centered in pursuit of virtue in complete independence of any external supports.

It looks as if Paul had bothered to learn about both groups, since he quotes, not the OT to them, but one of their Stoic philosophers in verse 28.

But everyone knew what they believed and stood before.  Paul

We need to engage the unbeliever.  We need to know what he believes.  We should not be stoics – in that sense. 

Paul is provoked and stirred – to the center of the intellectual world and it is full of idols.

Paul doesn’t wait; he takes the gospel to them.

Point Three:  He Confronts the World

We are called to be the salt of the world.  On the one hand, there is the problem of being so concerned about the world’s impurity, that we avoid it all costs.  There is a sense that we should be more ‘separated’ from the world in the way it thinks and behaves.

The salt must keep its savor.  But if we are so immersed in the world, we loose our savor as well.  There is a balance.  We can become good for nothing.

Romans 12:2 (ESV)
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul was treated with contempt.  They mocked him, asserting intellectual superiority over him – and this is not easy to take.  Paul was used to physical harassment certainly, but this kind of opposition was in a way even more difficult.

Look at Acts 17:18 (ESV)
18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, "What does this babbler wish to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities"—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.

They were contemptuous of him. 

But, he doesn’t back off.  He doesn’t play down the truths he know will be unpopular. 

Look at Acts 17:32 (ESV)
32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, "We will hear you again about this."


If you look at verse 18 – that’s exactly what he was preaching.  He knew they would find that fantastic.  We’re tempted to leave out those things that are unpopular.  Not Paul. 

Paul is not titillating their intellect – look at Acts 17:31 (ESV)
31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."


He knew that his crowd would find the resurrection of the dead to be impossible and utterly ridiculous. 

Today – Jesus is the only way to God


He doesn’t back off.  He speaks directly to them.

Paul confronts this world.  He doesn’t water down the truth.  He doesn’t use underhanded ways to make his point.  He isn’t rude.


Stirred – going forward and confronting them with the truth.

Are we stirred?

How shall we go out?

Are we willing to confront our friends, families with the truth, and not hold back anything they need to know for salvation’s sake.

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