Introduction to Acts 17:16-34
Acts 17:16-34 contains Paul’s message to the Athenians at the Areopagus. Athens was considered the intellectual capital of the world. It was home to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Paul came to Athens during his second mission trip, seeking refuge. Earlier, he had been run out of Thessalonica by the synagogue crowd. He found a more congenial reception in Beroea, until the ruffians from Thessalonica arrived and ran him out of town again.
Interestingly, the Gospel tends to generate two responses in its hearers: repentance, leading to conversion; and resistance, leading to hostility. Things became so heated on this mission that Paul’s colleagues felt it best to get him out of Beroea until things simmered down. And so they sent him to Athens for a brief respite, before moving on to Corinth. But Paul was never one to take a holiday from the main business of his life, so he found ample opportunity to share his witness.
Someone stopped by the office recently to say hello. He shook my hand and said something rather odd: “You staying out of trouble?” I wasn’t sure if it was a greeting, or a question. I wanted to say something cute. But I decided to treat it as a legitimate question. I said: “I try to stay out of trouble, but trouble seems to find me! In fact, I’ve about decided that the nature of ministry is trouble.” There was an awkward silence. He gave me one of those funny looks, as if to say, “I’m sorry I brought it up.” I’ve thought about it since. And I’ve come to a conclusion: if you’re looking to stay out of trouble, don’t follow Jesus!
The more I study Acts, the better I understand, that trouble follows Jesus. And trouble follows those who follow Jesus. If you’re earnestly seeking to be a witness, trouble will come to you!
Early on in ministry, I think I envisioned discipleship as a perpetual safety net, a safe haven, a warm blanket. But it isn’t true. Discipleship always leads to a cross. Disciples don’t avoid trouble. They inhabit trouble!
While Paul was seeking refuge in Athens, he runs into trouble.
The text begins with the angst of the apostle: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens. He was deeply distressed.” The word for distressed is paroxyno. It’s a medical term for a seizure, an epileptic fit. We use it today when someone gets upset. “She had a fit.” “He spazzed out!” Another translation says Paul was “irked.” For good reason!
The city was full of idols. Nothing irks a Jewish Christian more than idolatry. It’s a violation of the Shema, the Jewish confession of faith, which begins, “The Lord our God is one.” Our theology is rooted in monotheism. One God. Athens was a violation of the first two commandments: No other gods before me, and no graven images. A monotheist in a polytheistic town? Of course, he was irked.
Nothing evokes the ire of God more than idolatry. Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.”
One of the ancient historians said of Athens: “Its easier to find a god there, than a man.” Everywhere Paul looked, there were shrines and temples. There was one to Athenia, Zeus, Ares, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana. Athens was a veritable forest of idols.
Normally, when Paul visited a new town, he went first to the synagogue. He had connections there. He found hospitality there. A place to stay. Food to eat. A bed to rest. Community. And there he would teach on the Sabbath and explain the Scriptures. But on this trip, he also did some street preaching. He didn’t just stay in the synagogue, he went into the marketplace. And this is where the trouble begins. As long as you keep your faith private, in the church, its okay. But when you go public, there’s trouble!
But despite the fact that Paul was irked by the culture, he didn’t detach himself from the people. He engaged the community. It’s impossible to be a witness if you don’t engage the culture. It’s impossible to influence the world, if you never leave the church. For the bread to rise, the yeast has to penetrate the loaf.
During Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t settle in the synagogue. He went out to where people lived and worked and played. In fact, Jesus didn’t call a single disciple at the synagogue. He called disciples at the dock, at the tax office, on the hillside. Luke 5 says, Jesus invited Peter to follow him while Jesus was sitting in Peter’s boat.
You can’t catch fish unless you go where the fish are! Jesus calls us to be fishers of people, not keepers of the aquarium. And Paul knew it. He goes where the fish are. He goes to the marketplace. He goes to the Agora. The gathering place. The hub. The place where people assembled to get the news, to share information, to exchange ideas.
The agora was the central spot in Greek city-states. In Athens, a university town, academicians and philosophers gathered there, and debated, argued and discussed the latest ideology. So Paul went there.
Paul himself was no slouch intellectually speaking. He was a graduate of UT (University of Tarsus), educated in Jerusalem by the finest Jewish scholar of the 1st century, Gamaliel (5:34), a PhD in the Jewish law. Gamaliel was the grandson of Hillel the Elder, one of the great minds of his day. Paul could stand toe to toe with these sophisticated elites. It’s interesting also, that at first he didn’t just lecture and preach to get the word out. He used an Athenian technique. The Socratic method. Q&A. Dialogue. So he’s not just using Jewish methodology, he’s playing by their rules.
The initial response was fairly brutal. They called him a babbler, a cock sparrow, a bird-brain. Spermologos. A retailer of second-hand scraps of philosophy. A picker-up of learning’s crumbs. Others referred to him as a propagandist for foreign deities. Suffice it to say, many of these cultural elites were not buying what Paul was selling. Paul would later say in 1 Corinthinians 1:23, that the Gospel message is a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks.
Some however, were impressed enough to invite a second hearing. Verse 19 says: they brought him to the Areopagus, the hill of Ares, the Greek God of War, the son of Zeus. The Roman name for Ares is Mars. They took him to Mars Hill, the place where the Supreme Court of ancient Greece gathered. And here at the place built in honor of the son of Zeus, Paul proclaims the son of the one true God.
In many ways, this is Paul’s finest preaching. He’s having to adapt. He’s communicating to people who do not share his Bible. These Athenians don’t know the Scriptures. The Bible is not their story. It has no authority for them. Of course, as people belonging to the way, the Bible is our starting place. But how do you teach/preach to people who have no concept of Scripture? Who don’t recognize the Bible as inspired, God-breathed, sacred?
Paul has to find a bridge, a cultural connection whereby he can begin to teach biblical truth. So watch what he does. Though he’s irked by their idolatry, he actually uses their idolatry as a point of contact.
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” It’s an under-handed compliment. In other words, I appreciate your piety. I thought I was pretty spiritual, ’til I met you. But you guys take the cake! You’re up to your ears in religiosity! You see what he’s doing? Rather than using their idols to beat ‘em up, he uses their idols to relate. “You guys are so spiritual!” I see it in your statues and shrines. And I applaud that!
“But as I looked carefully at your objects of worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘to an unknown god.’ What you therefore worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” And starting with creation, he tells the Gospel story. He shares his witness.
It’s interesting that when we don’t really know God, anything and everything can assume the place of God.
When I’m not living in devotion to God, anything can become God. A form of government. A political party. The church. Drugs. Alcohol. A relationship. Self. A job. Money. Sex. Power. Food. Porn. Knowledge. You may never ever actually build a shrine or burn an offering, but our attachments and obsessions reveal our idols.
We’re all made with a god-shaped hole in our hearts, and we often try to fill it with god-substitutes, which cannot satisfy. Indeed, they only serve to make us dissatisfied. But everybody’s looking, everybody’s searching, groping. We all have an instinct for God. “We are His offspring,” says Paul. Notice, that’s a direct quote from one of their poets, Aratus. Then he quotes another, “In Him we live and move, and have our being.” Talk about connecting. Paul knows the music of Athens, the poets, the culture. Paul has been studying the culture, not because its cool, but so he can relate, connect, and bridge the gap between the unknown and the known.
The better you know the culture, the better you can empathize with the people, the better you’re able to be a conduit to God. As a missionary, you must not only be a student of theology, you must be a student of the culture!
This is incarnational ministry. Think about it. When God chose to make himself known to the world, He didn’t come as some weird alien that nobody understood. The shepherds didn’t come to Bethlehem, and say, “What is it?!” They said, “Its a baby.” And the unknowable became knowable! Not in a generic child, but in a Jewish kid. God is a Jewish boy? Yea. From Nazareth? A carpenter? A teacher? Who is betrayed? Who’s nailed to a tree? Like a lamb that is slain? And He rises from the dead on the third day? And is coming again to judge the earth? He’s not just a divine mystery. You can know Him! In fact, He wants very much to know you, right now, in this moment. Indeed, He is not far from you! Proverbs 18:24, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
This is what Incarnation means. Its not just our theology. It’s our ecclesiology. It’s the way we do church. We seek to make known the unknown, by building bridges. Chuck Swindoll has said, “People who inspire others are those who see invisible bridges at the end of dead-end streets.” That’s what it means to be a witness, to build invisible bridges, so that the unknown God becomes known!
Sometimes you see it. We saw it in the life of Barbara Redmond. She died unexpectly last year. We had her homegoing service a few days later. Her father was one of the original sculptors of Stone Mountain. He died when she was a teenager. Her mother had to go to work, and she helped raise her siblings. She cooked, cleaned, washed, nurtured and loved. For many years she worked at Dekalb Community College. She had a love for the students there, particularly the foreign students who were far from home. She adopted many of them. She fed them and cared for them. In one situation, she moved an entire family into her own home. The family was Buddhist. Another was Muslim. They didn’t even share her faith, but because of her faith she loved them, and cared for them.
Often, I’m told she would take a plate of barbeque and peach muffins to the men who serviced her car. She loved her doctor, her chiropractor, and both of them wept when they got the news. She was a bridge.
Her daughter told me that she even learned how to text on her cell phone. Nearly 80! But she learned. You know why? Because she loved her grandchildren. She wanted to be a part of their lives. And that’s the way they communicate. So she learned their way. She connected, on their turf, to their world, and showed love on their terms. Because they were “worth the trouble,” she said. That’s what God has done for us in Christ!
She spoke a language that is cross-cultural and cross-generational. She spoke Gospel. She was fluent! She was a witness!
Staying out of trouble? Not a chance! Not in this lifetime. I’m a witness!