Last week we were studying verses 1 to 15 of Acts 17 and Paul’s visit to Thessalonica and Berea. While some Jews and a great many God-fearing Gentiles in Thessalonica believed the good news, many of the other Jews in the city were jealous and started a riot. And so Paul and his companions had to leave in the night. In Berea, however, many of the Jews, as well as Gentiles, believed the good news. And we read how they received the message with great eagerness and they examined the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul was saying about the Lord Jesus matched up with what the OT Scriptures said. But, at the end of last week’s reading, we saw that the Jews from Thessalonica travelled as far as Berea to try to stop Paul from preaching the good news. And so, while Silas and Timothy remained a bit longer in Berea, Paul moved on to Athens. And today’s reading is about Paul’s visit to Athens.
Verses 16 to 21
And in verse 16 we read that Paul was greatly distressed by all the idols which filled the city. So, we can imagine Paul, walking around the city, as any visitor to a major city would do, looking at all the sites. But, in Athens, wherever he looked, there was an idol. One over there. And there. And there too. John Stott says that the word Luke uses when he said that the city was full of idols conveys the idea that that the city was smothered with idols or swamped by them. It was coming down with idols. Everywhere he looked, there was an idol or an altar or a statue or a shrine, dedicated to this god and to that god.
And what he saw distressed Paul greatly. Now, the word translated ‘greatly distressed’ is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament to refer to God’s reaction to idolatry and to how God was provoked to anger whenever the Israelites turned to idols instead of trusting in him. And so, just as the Lord God was provoked by idolatry, so too was Paul. He was not only distressed by it, he hated it. And it made him angry, because here were all these people, in the city of Athens, giving glory and honour and praise to idols instead of giving that glory and honour and praise to the One who really deserves it.
You see, it’s not just sad that people don’t believe in the Lord Jesus. It’s not just sad that people won’t join us to worship God. It’s not just sad; it’s also wrong. It’s wrong that they don’t give God the glory he deserves. It’s wrong that they don’t thank him for filling their lives with good things. It’s wrong that they don’t give the Lord Jesus the honour that he deserves for being our Saviour. One of the reasons we want to reach people with the gospel here and throughout the world is because we want our God to receive the honour and glory and praise that he deserves.
So, what did Paul do about it? Well, look at verse 17. He reasoned with the people. This is the same word we came across last week. Paul reasoned with them. He addressed their minds. He had a message which he wanted to convey to them and to explain to them. He wanted to persuade them. He wanted them to understand and to believe what he said. So, he reasoned with them. He debated with them. And he did this in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles but he also did it in the market-place, day by day, with those who happened to be there.
Now, whenever I think of a market, I think of the market that I sometimes went to with my mum in Bangor on a Wednesday morning. There were rows and rows of stalls, with stallholders selling fruit and vegetables. Other men and women sold flowers and plants. Others sold towels and sheets and linen. And so on. They were there to sell. We were there to buy.
Or we can think of the Christmas market down by the City Hall. And it’s the same idea. Lots of stalls. Lots of people selling things. Lots of people, crowds of people, buying things.
That’s what we think of whenever we think of a market. But the market place in Athens was a bit different. Yes, it was a place of commerce, so people were buying and selling things there. But it was also a place where people gathered for discussion and debate. And so, in verse 18 Luke refers to the Epicureans and the Stoics. They were two groups, or two schools, of philosophers who gathered there for debate. Or look down to verse 21 and Luke tells us that the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. And they did this in the marketplace.
I was trying to think of a modern equivalent, but was struggling to come up with anything. And I was struggling because I don’t think there are many places now where people gather for conversation about the latest ideas. I was thinking about a pub — and I know that Noel Agnew used to go into some of the bars on the Shankill to engage people in conversation. But really, people go to bars today to meet their friends and to watch Sky Sports. So, that’s not really the same thing. Even when I was at Queen’s, the students in the Student Centre rarely talked about anything important. We certainly didn’t talk about philosophy. Perhaps the best equivalent was the kind of New Age Fair that Ian Morrison mentioned on Sunday morning where stallholders are there to talk about what they believe and the visitors are there to learn about all the different religions on offer. That’s what the marketplace in Athens was like: some where there to teach and to debate with others and others were there to listen and to learn. And so, just as a Christian might set up a stall in a New Age Fair, so Paul went into the marketplace and he started to reason and to debate with those who had gathered there to hear the latest ideas.
Well, in verse 18 we read that some thought he was talking nonsense:
What is this babbler trying to say?
Others were more interested. They said:
He seems to be advocating foreign gods.
What Paul said about the Lord Jesus and the resurrection seemed like some new teaching to them which they’d never heard before. But they wanted to know more. And so, they took Paul to the Areopagus, or to the city council, to find out more.
Verses 22 to 31
And so, in verse 22 we read that Paul stood up and began to address them. And notice that although he had been provoked by the number of idols he had seen in Athens, though he was angry because of their idolatry, he doesn’t come across as angry in his speech to the Areopagus. Some preachers can come across as angry. Their faces are red and they wag their finger at the congregation and berate them. But Paul wasn’t like that. And in a very calm and straightforward way, he explains to them what he believes about the true God.
And so, he begins by stating a fact. Verse 22: He can see that they’re very religious. He can see that they’re very religious because the city is coming down with idols and with places of worship. They’re religious people.
However, the problem is they don’t know the true God. And so, Paul refers in verse 23 to this one altar he saw which was dedicated to an unknown god. Though they were coming down with idols, they were worried that there might have been one God which they did not know. And so, in order not to offend such a God, they had this extra altar which was dedicated to whichever God they might have forgotten.
I wonder, do you remember when people used to phone in to a TV programme and they’d want to say hello to their family. And they’d mention by name this person and that person and this one too. And then, they’d add: ‘and hello to everyone else who knows me.’ They didn’t want to leave anyone out. They didn’t want to offend anyone by not mentioning them. Well, that’s why the Athenians had this one extra altar, dedicated to an unknown god. They didn’t want to leave any god out.
Paul used this altar as his way in, because he goes on to say at the end of verse 23 that he was now able to make known to them this God they didn’t yet know.
And he makes several points about this God. First of all, he told them in verses 24 and 25 that whereas the Athenians believed that they had to build homes for the gods to live in, Paul’s God made the world for us to live in. And whereas the Athenians believed that they had to give the gods whatever they needed, Paul’s God gives us everything we need. In other words: he doesn’t need us; we need him.
Secondly, he told them in verse 26 that this God made all the nations of the world and he has determined the times set for them and the places where they should live. In other words: not only did he make all things, he rules over all things. He raises up one nation and brings another down. He exalts and he tears down.
Thirdly, he told them in verses 27 and 28 that he made us so that we would seek him. In other words, he made us so that we would know him and give thanks to him. And no one should think that he’s hiding from them or that he’s far away and aloof. He’s very near to us, because in him we live and move and have our being.
Fourthly, he told them in verse 29 that they shouldn’t think of this God as an idol made of gold or silver or stone. In other words, he’s not like the idols they worshipped in Athens. He’s altogether different from them.
And then, fifthly, Paul told them in verse 30 that up to now, God has been very patient with them. He’s overlooked their ignorance of him and he’s tolerated their idol worship. But now, God commands them — and we should note that he’s commanding them through the preaching of the Apostle Paul — God commands them to repent of their idolatry and their unbelief. Now that they have heard about the true God, they must turn away from their false gods and they must worship the one, true and living God and him alone.
And then sixthly, in verse 31 Paul warned them that this God has set a day when he will judge who? He will judge the world — all the nations he has made. They thought Paul had been talking about a foreign God which had nothing to do with them. But no. This God rules all the nations and every person of the world is answerable to him. So, he will judge the world.
And he will judge the world with justice so that no one can complain that he was unfair and unjust towards them. He’s judgment will be right.
And he will judge them by the man he has appointed. Who is this man? He’s the man the Lord God raised from the dead. In other words, he’s talking about the Lord Jesus Christ who died, but who rose again and who is coming again to judge the living and the dead.
So, Paul introduced them to the one, true and living God who made all things and who rules over all things and who will judge all people by the Lord Jesus who died and rose again.
Verses 32 to 34
We have the reaction of the people in verses 32 to 34. Some sneered at the idea of the resurrection of the dead just as today many people will sneer at the idea of anything supernatural. But others were intrigued and they wanted to know more. And then look at verse 34: A few men became followers of Paul and they believed his message.
Even in Athens, a city coming down with idols, the Lord Jesus Christ was building his church. And how was he building his church? Through men like Paul, who were appointed by God and sent out to proclaim the word of God, and to make known to everyone the one, true and living God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
And what we learn from this passage is that whereas the Athens were saying this is a foreign god and he’s got nothing to do with us, Paul was able to explain that since our God made the world and everything in it, then everyone is answerable to him. And therefore everyone is commanded to repent of their false worship and they are to turn to God, through his Son Jesus Christ, and worship only him.