Paul and the philosophers (Acts 17:16-34)

City breaks are increasingly popular, aren’t they? Thanks to easyJet and the other low-cost airlines, people can now fly off on Friday night for a couple of days in a beautiful city and be back at work by Monday morning!

The apostle Paul once found himself on his own ‘city break’. He was one of the great capitals of the ancient world – Athens. Athens had been the pre-eminent city in Greece for over five hundred years, and was full of beautiful buildings and high culture. It was also the intellectual ‘hub’ of the Roman Empire – the Oxford and Cambridge of its day. A city that philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had once called home.

Acts chapter 17 tells us the apostle Paul was in Athens waiting for his friends Silas and Timothy, so he took the opportunity to look around this famous city. But having sampled the sights and sounds of Athens, Paul didn’t take photos, buy a postcard or top up his tan – instead he wept. As verse 16 today tells us, Paul “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols”.

You see, as Paul had taken his tour of the city, he had seen all manner of temples, altars and shrines. Temples, altars and shrines dedicated to Greco-Roman gods. The worship that God deserves was being given instead to man-made idols and images! This mis-informed spirituality and mis-directed devotion is what made Paul weep. So as we look at Acts 17 today, we get to eavesdrop on Paul’s passionate appeals to the Athenians to worship the one true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s speech: Against idolatry and ignorance (v.17-31)

Have you ever stopped to think what gets in the way of people becoming Christians? What are the obstacles that prevent people from following Jesus? Its hard to generalise, but perhaps the two most common reasons boil down to either ignorance or idolatry:

  • So for some people, the biggest obstacle to faith is ignorance – they have never heard of Jesus or been introduced to the God of the Bible. Their greatest need is to hear the Gospel with their ears and read the Bible with their eyes. People can’t be saved by Christ they haven’t heard of. They can’t worship a God that they don’t know.
  • Ignorance of the true God is a big problem in many parts of the world, and has been the main motivation for Christian missionary work over the last two millennia. But perhaps a bigger obstacle to faith in twenty-first century Britain is idolatry. Idolatry today typically takes the form of pursuing wrong priorities, rather than worshipping stone statues.

We see idolatry in our society whenever people have higher priorities than getting to know God – whenever we see people who prefer to spend time on their career, their sport or their social life than on God. Big houses, fast cars, fitness clubs, sky-scrapers and shopping centres are all ‘Temples’ to the things people worship today – things like wealth and health, popularity and possessions. Today’s idols may be more subtle than those statues in Athens, but they still draw peoples’ devotion away from the one true God.

Ignorance and idolatry. Those two obstacles to faith are not new. The same two things were preventing people in Athens becoming Christians. So Paul seized every opportunity on his city break to challenge idolatry and remove ignorance about God.

So we’re told in verse 17 that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with Jews and God-fearing Greeks” – he spoke to people who believed in God and knew their Old Testament, but had not yet heard about Jesus. People who were morally upright, respectable and religious, but ignorant about Christ. Paul took it upon himself to put that right.

But Paul didn’t just stay in the synagogue, did he? In verse 17 we’re told he also went out into “the marketplace day by day”, speaking about Jesus with “anyone who happened to be there”. Just like Paul, we have wonderful opportunities in our daily life to share our faith. We can speak about Jesus to neighbours down the road, dog-walkers in the park, friends over a coffee, or to other parents as we stand at the school gate. We have an extraordinary message to share with ordinary people, just like us.

But its not just ordinary people who need to hear about Jesus. Opinion formers and pillars of society also need to know him too. Being important or influential in society doesn’t mean you aren’t also a sinner needing salvation just like the rest of us.

Paul certainly believed this, because in verse 19 today he leapt at the chance to address the Areopagus. The Areopagus was the supreme council in Athens, the group of men responsible for upholding the religious and moral life of the city. They were influential and intellectual people, and they wanted to know about Paul’s “new teaching”. I guess the equivalent today would be being asked to address the House of Commons or the Oxford Union.

And in verse 22 onwards we get to eavesdrop on Paul’s powerful speech the ‘great and the good’ of Athens. A speech that confronted their idolatry and ignorance. When he got his moment in the spotlight, Paul took his chance to introduce the Areopagus to the one true God. The God who was previously “unknown” to them.

For a start, Paul told his hearers that the true God is nothing like their man-made gods, which had to be fashioned out of “gold, silver or stone”. He is far too big to be contained within a Temple, a sanctuary or even a church building. Quite the opposite – its in him that we “live and move and have our being”! Paul also taught the Areopagus that God doesn’t need us – we need him! Our lives are in his hand. He’s the Sovereign King who has decided when and where every one of us will live.

When we appreciate all this – when we recognise that all we have is from God – gratitude and worship are the only right response. We see this in verses 30 and 31 today, where Paul tells the Areopagus that their rejection of the one true God is no longer excusable: “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.”

Paul’s passion was for people to know Jesus as their Saviour before they meet him as their Judge. The great news of the Gospel – both then and now – is that if we come to Jesus in repentance and faith, we need not need to fear the Judgement Day. Christ’s finished work means that anyone can get right with God – whether we are a first century Greek or a twenty-first century Brit.

Audience reaction: Hostility and hunger (v.32-34)

Paul of course, is no longer with us, so like an athlete in a relay race, the baton has been passed on to us. Its now our responsibility to cure ignorance and idolatry – to introduce people to the God who made heaven and earth.

But we often struggle to share our faith don’t we? Like an unfortunate relay runner, we often stumble or drop the baton we have been given – or at least I do!
I think the main reason we don’t speak more openly about Jesus is that we fear people’s reaction. We fear rejection or ridicule, or even outright hostility. But unless we are brave and open our mouth, we will never feed the spiritual hunger that so many people have. A hunger for a meaning and purpose in life. A hunger for guidance in life. Hunger for hope beyond the grave.

That was certainly Paul’s experience after he finished speaking at the Areopagus. Because as well as some hostile sneering, Paul also encountered a hunger from many of his hearers. A number of Athenians had an appetite to learn more about Jesus, and several went on to become believers! Paul’s brave words bore fruit, and we should be encouraged by his example.

Conclusion: Lessons for us from Paul

So as I finish, here are three lessons can we learn from the apostle Paul’s amazing ‘city break’ in Athens:

Firstly, we should be zealous for God’s glory. Paul wept when he saw the idolatry and ignorance of the Athenians. Are we ourselves grieved when we see people worship 21st century idols instead of their Creator? I hope so. Let’s pray for Paul’s zeal for God’s glory.

Secondly, like Paul, we should be prepared to gossip about the Gospel. Paul’s love for the Lord Jesus and his love for the lost left him with no option but to tell people about him. Pray that God would give us the same urge to gossip about the Gospel.

Thirdly, and finally, like Paul, we should be ready to feed the spiritually hungry. Sometimes our faith may fall on deaf ears. But at other times our words will feed a hunger in our hearer’s heart. They will recognise the Gospel of Jesus to be truly good news. If we encounter such hunger in someone, then do talk to them some more, give them a Bible, hand them a Christian book, or invite them to church. Because our fallible, feeble efforts to share the Gospel message may be used by God to feed someone’s spiritual hunger and bring them to saving faith.

Paul’s efforts in Athens were certainly not in vain. Because our final verse this morning tells us that a man and woman named Dionysius and Damaris were brought to saving faith by his words. May God graciously use us to add some more names to the great roll call of Heaven.

Phil Weston