As Paul comes to Athens, we’re going to three three approaches to life:

  • Idolatry: We Worship What Doesn’t MatterPhilosophy: It Doesn’t Matter What We Worship
  • Christianity: It Matters That We Worship the God Who Matters
  • Idolatry: We Worship What Doesn’t Matter

Acts 17:16 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. 

It seems that Paul did not begin his ministry immediately in Athens, but as he waiting for his teammates he took the time to take the city in. And what a city it was! In Paul’s time, the city was past its prime as the cultural and philosophical centre of the Ancient Mediterranean, but the city still impressed. The city was basically the cross between a museum and a university. Yet it was the idolatry that most troubled Paul as he walked around the city. 

The city is described as being “full of idols” It was said of Athens that it was easier to find an idol in the city than a man. On his approach into the city Paul would have passed through a part of the city called “the Herms” named after these square pedestals crowned with the head of Hermes. There were perhaps as many as 10,000 of these, and they are shocking to look at, for the only other part of the anatomy featured on these pillars, I can’t show you a picture of here. As he wandered around the agora, “there were reminders of pagan religions, including emperor worship, with temples, statues and altars. There was a temple of Ares, a temple of Hephaistos, an altar to Zeus, and statues for the various emperors that were worshiped. There were thirteen small altars dedicated to Augustus alone.” And of course, at the peak of the city was the statue dedicated to Athena inside of the Parthenon. Over 40 feet tall and originally covered in gold and ivory, the cost was said to have exceeded that of 400 warships, which led to the artists exile from Athens. 

And we see that Paul’s spirit was provoked within him. As Paul took in the sights as a visitor to this new city, he did not merely act as a tourist. The sights and sounds around him were not merely to be backdrops for some selfies, but they passed through him and provoked his spirit. Because he wasn’t seeing the culture around him through the lens of a tourist, but he studied them carefully, seeing the message behind them. Verse 23: “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship” Paul “observed closely” their objects of worship.” Paul is ready to take thoughts captive.  “5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ”

1Cor. 8:4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.”

This terminology is regularly used in the LXX to describe God’s reaction to idolatry (e.g. Dt. 9:7, 18, 22; Ps. 106 [LXX 105]:28-9; Is. 65:2-3; Hos. 8:5). Paul shared something of the jealousy of God for his own name or character (e.g. Ex. 20:4; 34:14; Is. 42:8). The pain or anger which Paul felt in Athens was due to ‘his abhorrence of idolatry, which aroused within him deep stirrings of jealousy for the Name of God, as he saw human beings so depraved as to be giving idols the honour and glory which were due to the one, living and true God alone.’

Idolatry robs God of His Glory and Man of his life. It is not that your hunger is too large, its that its misplaced. You desire intimacy, but you settle for sex. You desire joy, but you settle for cheap laughs. You desire eternity, but you settle for distraction. You desire safety, but you settle for power and control. You desire God, but you settle for trinkets you can buy at the store. 

CS Lewis said it far better: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Philosophy: It Doesn’t Matter What We Worship

17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 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. 

Notice that Pauls response to the idolatry of Athens was to do what he has done in every city, he goes to the Jews in the synagogues and then to the marketplace. He did not radically change either his method or his message as some say he did in Athens. He preached Jesus and the resurrection so strongly that people thought he was proclaiming two gods. As he preaches in the marketplace (the same agora that Socrates taught in before him) he runs into two groups of philosophers. Now, not every philosopher would agree that it doesn’t matter what we worship, but these two groups were unique and still remain today.

Epicureans: The gods are far away, “so remote as to take no interest in human affairs”. They lived in a realm untouched by the material world. The universe is a chaotic assembly of atoms and nothing is determined. To the epicureans, the gods neither cared about eliminating evil nor could they if they wanted to. We’re basically on our own and construct our own meaning out of life. Live and let live attitude. Try to enjoy life and not cause suffering to yourself or others. To not harm or be harmed.While we don’t see the idolatry of temples all around us, I think we encounter the epicurean spirit nearly everyday in Canada.

Stoics: The gods are within, an expression of the “world soul” that connects us and drives our lives. The goal of life was to life in agreement with the universal soul. Everything is determined, everything that happens must be accepted. You’re like a leaf floating down the river of time, so stop swimming and go with the flow. Fighting against nature leads to suffering, so just let go and accept. Again, while we don’t see the idolatry of temples all around us, I think we encounter the epicurean spirit nearly everyday in Canada. You see it in lululemon, and in Star Wars.

The idolatry of fancy names is just as much a false God as the idolatry of impressive beauty. this is why it is so important that we do not merely float through life as tourists, but as trappers, taking every though captive to the obedience of Christ. 

19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

There’s a lot of questions about this setting: Likely before a counsel, likely not a criminal charge, yet it should be recognized that this is the same counsel and with the same charge that sentenced Socrates to death for introducing new divinities in 399 BC. It doesn’t matter which God you worship until you challenge our gods, then our tolerance is no longer very tolerant. 

Christianity: It Matters That We Worship the God Who Matters

Acts 17:22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 

You already admitted your ignorance. Paul basically saying, “I’ve already won the argument”

The God We Worship Matters

  1. Because He is the Creator of the World and Thus Lord Over It 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 
  2. Because He is the Sustainer of Life
  3. Because He is the Guiding Hand Behind All History 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,
  4. Because He Intends That We Should Know Him Intimately 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Acts 17:29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 

“feeling there way toward him” expresses the idea of ‘groping for God in the darkness, when the light of special revelation is not available.’ Paul is describing a potential that was not fulfilled in the Athenian situation. There was plenty of reaching out for God in the form of popular religion and philosophical reflection, but the result was a proliferation of idolatry and self-confessed ignorance of the true God. Nevertheless, God’s purpose for humanity remains, despite the blinding and corrupting effects of sin. The possibility of seeking after God and finding him is based on the fact that God is not far from any one of us. 

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you think he matters - you’re here, so He matters. 

It Matters That We Worship This God

30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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.”

God, in his patient long-suffering, did not prematurely deal with humankind attempts to rob him of his glory, but at the right time sent his Son into the world to reveal his glory his righteousness and truth. 

The Response:

Acts 17:32   Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

Some scoffed, Some were interested, Some believed: interestingly, one of the counsel believed. Dionysus became the bishop of the area and a church was built at the foot of the Aeropagus. 

Repent of Our Worshipping of Things that Don’t Matter, and Apathy toward the Worship of the Only God Who Does  If you’re not yet a Christian, today, trust in Christ. If you are a Christian, what are your idols and apathy?

Don’t be a Spiritual Tourist, Open Your Eyes and Heart to the Spiritual Ignorance Around You

Why is it that, in spite of the great needs and opportunities of our day, the church slumbers peacefully on, and that so many Christians are deaf and dumb, deaf to Christ’s commission and tongue-tied in testimony? I think the major reason is this: we do not speak as Paul spoke because we do not feel as Paul felt. We have never had the paroxysm of indignation which he had. Divine jealousy has not stirred within us. We constantly pray ‘Hallowed be your Name’, but we do not seem to mean it, or to care that his Name is so widely profaned.

Why is this? It takes us a stage further back. If we do not speak like Paul because we do not feel like Paul, this is because we do not see like Paul. That was the order: he saw, he felt, he spoke. It all began with his eyes. When Paul walked round Athens, he did not just ‘notice’ the idols. The Greek verb used three times (16, 22, 23) is either theōreō or anatheōreō and means to ‘observe’ or ‘consider’. So he looked and looked, and thought and thought, until the fires of holy indignation were kindled within him. For he saw men and women, created by God in the image of God, giving to idols the homage which was due to him alone.

Idols are not limited to primitive societies; there are many sophisticated idols too. An idol is a god-substitute. Any person or thing that occupies the place which God should occupy is an idol. Covetousness is idolatry. Ideologies can be idolatries. So can fame, wealth and power, sex, food, alcohol and other drugs, parents, spouse, children and friends, work, recreation, television and possessions, even church, religion and Christian service. Idols always seem particularly dominant in cities. Jesus wept over the impenitent city of Jerusalem. Paul was deeply pained by the idolatrous city of Athens. Have we ever been provoked by the idolatrous cities of the contemporary world?

Probing Examination —> Provocation —> Prayer —> Proclamation