Paul in Athens
Paul in Athens
On Paul’s second journey he arrives in the city of Athens (Acts 17:15). Athens was the city of Perciles, Demosthenes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles and Euripides. Here men still talked about philosophy, poetry, politics, and religion. It was the art center of the world. Yet in this city that put such an emphasis on learning and was filled with such a vast resource of human potential and talent, the city was steeped in idolatry (17:16). The text says that the spirit of Paul was being exasperated as he looked upon that sad reality. And why not? It would be frustrating to see all this human potential going nowhere, and that people were ever learning but never arriving at the truth (2 Timothy 3:7). They were doing a lot of talking and discussing but at the same time never figuring anything out (Acts 17:21). At the end of the day, all their learning was subservient to superstition and moral and spiritual ignorance. So Paul started to do something about that (17:17), which meant talking to anyone who would listen about Jesus. “Paul knew well the reputation of Athens, but he could not have realized, until he saw it, the extent to which it was given to idolatry” (Acts, McGarvey, p. 119). Other ancient writers had noted the same thing. “It is said that Athens had more idols or images than all the rest of Greece. Pretonius satirically said it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens; Xenophon calls the city one great altar” (Acts, Boles, p. 276). Athens was probably the classic example of the statement, “in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God” (1 Cor. 1:21).
I was talking to someone in Portland recently who said that he thought education was the answer for the world’s problems. Yet in Athens, the university capital of the ancient world, education was bowing to superstition. So something more than education is needed. A while back the student body president of Dartmouth College said to the arriving freshmen that they were the smartest and most diverse group of freshmen to set foot on the Dartmouth campus, but then said, “It isn’t enough to be special. It isn’t enough to be talented, to be beautiful, or to be smart”. He then spoke of past graduates who had gone on to commit great evil not because of a lack of knowledge or ability, but lack of character” (World Magazine, 10-8-2005, p. 27). Education can easily go off the rails without goodness, virtue and God in our lives.
Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers
I like reading what people think, but I need to remind myself that philosophy is basically man’s attempt to figure things out without reading the Bible first. So, read the Bible first, then pick up that book on philosophy and see if they got it right. The first school of philosophy mentioned in the text was founded by Epicurus (c. 306 B.C.). This system of included the following beliefs: 1. The gods were so remote that they took no interest in the affairs of this life, and thus exercised absolutely no providential control over the affairs of men. 2. The world was due to chance. 3. No existence was beyond death and hence no judgment. Human beings should pursue pleasure, “especially the serene enjoyment of a life detached from pain, passion and fear” (Stott, p. 280). “By pleasure, Epicurus meant good pleasure (and it pleasured him to be generous, kindly, and patriotic). But his followers formed their own standards of pleasure, and too often they lived lives indulging the pleasures of the flesh” (Acts, Reese, p. 622). Hence the Epicurean philosophy is often summed up in the words, “Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. By contrast the Stoics believed: 1. In god but in a pantheistic way, that is, the world was god and god was the world. 2. Everything was governed by fate. 3. While the Epicureans handled life with pleasure, the Stoics emphasized self-sufficiency, which meant simply to resign yourself and submit to enduring the pain of this life; a kind of a grin and bear it attitude. They also emphasized apathy or indifference to either pleasure or pain and mastery over all desires and lusts.
Various writers have observed that we find the same basic philosophies still among us to this day. The modern counterpart to the Epicureans are the materialists who insist that “he who dies with the most toys wins”, while Hinduism and other Eastern religions are good examples of Stoic thought, that complete indifference to pain or pleasure is the highest moral attainment. Before we move on let us note that Paul's sermon will seriously undermine the premises underlying both of these popular theories.
This Idle Babbler
The word rendered babbler, lit., a seed-picker, was applied to men “who picked up scraps of information here and there and then tried to palm them off as their own” (Acts, Reese, p. 623). “Particularly to describe teachers who, not having an original idea in their own heads, unscrupulously plagiarize from others, ‘zealous seekers of the second-rate at second hand’, until their system is nothing but a ragbag of other people's ideas and sayings” (Acts, John Stott, p. 282). The world often does mislabel the Christian as someone who is ignorant or misinformed (1 Peter 2:12).
What You Worship in Ignorance: 17:23
The very fact that they had erected an altar to the “unknown God” was proof that they were admitting that they did not have it all figured out. The altar admitted the short-comings of their own religious systems – for it had not revealed all the truth to them. Their own gods could not tell them if others gods existed. “Pausanias who traveled extensively in about A.D. 175 and wrote in his ‘Tour of Greece’ that he found near the harbor a number of temples, together with "altars of the gods named Unknown’” (Acts, John Stott, p. 284). Today as I talk to very talented, gifted and educated people in our area I find a similar occurrence. People will tell me that while they do not believe in the “Christian God” or the “God of the Bible” they do believe in “something out there, the holy or the sacred”. Yet if that is what I believed, hopefully here is what I would tell myself:
- “Mark, a god that makes no demands on you is too convenient. Because such gives you the illusion that you are spiritual without any commitment”.
- “A god who never communicates with you or has never spoken is very suspect. Why would such a god create the world and you and then say nothing?”
- “If God is God, then His thoughts should not be your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). So, Mark if you are only believing what sounds right and good to you personally, then I am afraid that your god and you are the same person”.
The Sermon/That People Still Need to Hear Today
- You do not have to remain in ignorance: 17:23
I find this to be an ongoing challenge, because it is very convenient to opt for the excuse which says, “Well there are so many different points of view”. Yet, there are ways to cut through all the clutter. For example in reference to the question, “Are there many paths to God”? Jesus flatly said no (John 14:6; Matthew 7:13-14). In fact, that is the answer to a lot of questions. Find out who Jesus is and automatically a lot of other stuff is solved at the same time.
- God is not distant, He is involved in this world: 17:24
- He does not need us, we need Him: 17:25
- He is not made relevant by our faith in Him, rather we only become relevant when we realize that we are made in His image.
- This world is not governed by fate or pure chance. God has been involved in the life of nations: 17:26
- Our purpose here is not to please ourselves or become cynical and apathetic. Rather, we were created to connect with and serve Him: 17:27
- God can easily be found, for He is not far from any human being: 17:27
- The real work and effort is not found in finding God or His truth it is found in resisting Him.
- What the Bible says has been echoed by poets, writers, etc… (17:28).
- It is high time to stop living in ignorance. The time is now to change your life (17:30).
- There is day fixed for the final judgment of all human beings, Jesus is that judge, and the proof of that is the fact that God raised Him from the dead: 17:31
Mark Dunagan | firstname.lastname@example.org
Beaverton Church of Christ | 503-644-9017