Acts 17:14-17 “The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible. While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the market-place day by day with those who happened to be there.”
Paul’s visit to Athens seems to have been quite unplanned – to go at that particular time, but it fitted in to his overall strategy, that was to journey to the most influential centres of learning and commerce in the Mediterranean basin, and speak in every such place about the claims of Jesus Christ, leaving behind him a worshipping and evangelistic congregation of new Christians who would be led by elders and preachers. That was his broad strategy, while how long he stayed anywhere, and where would be his next destination, depended on the workings of God’s providence, on the invitations he received to remain longer, or on the fierceness of the opposition. In many places he was persecuted, doors were closed to him, and he was run out of town. Paul then would brush the dust off his feet but carry on fulfilling the Great Commission.
So in the year or so preceding his arrival in Athens he had been expelled from a place called Pisidian Antioch. He had been threatened with stoning in Iconium; he had actually been stoned and thought to have been killed at Lystra. Then he obeyed God’s call and had sailed to Greece, but in the first place he stayed, Philippi, he was whipped and thrown into prison. That was the beginning of his years in Europe. In Thessalonica, the capital of Macedonia, the next stop, his visit caused a riot. In Berea he was forced out of town by angry crowds.
So his companions thought a boat trip was called for. They put Paul on a ship that took him along the Greek coastline south-east for over 250 miles to the city of Athens. It was a journey that took days. It would have been a time of rest, recovery and also personal witnessing to other voyagers – all of which we are told precisely nothing. I remember well sailing for ten days on a cargo boat with three other passengers from Liverpool to Norfolk, Virginia in August 1961. The voyage cost me 60 pounds. I was a 23 year old student, all on my own, on my way to study in America for three years. What mounting anticipation and excitement I had on that journey, especially as we sailed up Chesapeake Bay on a sunny Labor Day seeing the barbecues and the water skiing from the deck of the Carl Fritzen. I disembarked, went through immigration (showing them the required chest X-ray that I had brought from Cardiff), and caught a bus to New York. Looking back to that journey over fifty years ago I can hardly believe that I traveled like that. Today it can seem to me to be some fantasy.
So Paul took a boat, sailed down the coast of Greece finally mooring in Athens. There were some companions referred to who, one presumes, were escorting him, protecting and providing for him as one held in such high esteem by the early Christians, their initial suspicion of him as a spy and persecutor having long vanished. It was either the year 50 or the year 51, almost twenty years after Pentecost, but accompanying Paul in this place was no sound of a rushing mighty wind, no cloven tongues as of fire resting on him and no gift of speaking in a foreign language or even the dialect of the people living in that part of Greece. He had to tune his Greek to that as quickly as he could. Yet, like Peter, Paul was another great evangelist, filled with the Spirit. In fact Paul was the greatest pastor-evangelist that the world has ever seen or ever will see. In Athens his aim was to continue to present the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit so that the citizens of that famous place would put their trust in God through Christ, and serve him as their King in the fellowship of the church. He told the Roman Christians about the convictions that motivated him; “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand’” (Roms. 15:20&21). He tells the Ephesians in tones of wonder, “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephs. 3:8). He was conscious that he’d been given this ministry by the mercy of God. That meant it was a mission that could not fail, and so he didn’t lose heart. Athens was a new challenge.
1. PAUL SURVEYED ATHENS.
So while Paul was waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy to arrive he began looking around the city. That is how every person called by God to minister in a certain area begins. He settles down and he looks around. He does so as thoroughly as he can. Those are not wasted days. Paul might have got up at dawn and noticed who was going to work at that time. What happened after it was dark? Where are the people – night and day? What are they doing? We had memorable visits from Michael Toogood 25 years ago, who was then planting a church in Soho, London. I was constantly challenged by his dedication and self-sacrifice. He told us of moving into Soho and how he discovered who his neighbours were in the block of flats where they lived. They shared the one toilet with the other residents. It was stinking and he described cleaning it up. Michael made it sparkle. He showed us photos. Their young teenage daughter had to share that toilet with other families. He surveyed the place where God had put him. What was going on in their street and the adjacent streets, and in the parish of Soho? How could he start planting a church in such a place? Where do you meet people and hold a conversation? Paul did that same thing, not depending on preternatural hunches; he looked around and observed and asked questions.
Paul, like every educated man, knew about Athens; it was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Its glory days had been 500 years earlier; now was the afterglow or you could refer to it as the late afternoon of that golden age. Half a millennium earlier had been the time when there’d been incredible military victories. The Persian empire attacked them but Athens repulsed them twice. First at Marathon where 100,000 Greeks defeated a Persian army of over a million soldiers. Then there was a second Persian invasion and the famous 300 Spartans at Thermopylae had withstood the Persians for days until they were betrayed. In the centuries following those victories Athens was the most envied city in the world. The metropolis was rebuilt like Ground Zero after 911. Great temples like the Parthenon, and also the Erectheum were erected on the Acropolis (the famous ‘porch of the maidens’ was the Erectheum – you may have seen pictures of it. The pillars of this temple are carved women, the roof resting on their heads). Those buildings were intact when Paul wandered around.
But the Athenians also built a civilization. They established the first democracy in human history. Athens was a city-state run by elected men. It was an age of literature with classic plays performed in theatres, bowl-shaped arenas with excellent acoustics, some are still being used for concerts and drama today. There were the athletic games. It was also an age of philosophy, of Socrates and Plato. There’d actually been four great schools of philosophy in Athens, the Academy founded by Plato, the Lyceum by Aristotle, the Garden by Epicurus and the Painted Porch by Zeno.
What a cultured age it was! There were historians like Thucydides and playwrights like Aristophanes and rhetoricians like Demosthenes. It was a time of immense progress in the arts of sculpture and architecture. However, inevitably Athens declined. There was a Greek civil war, Athens verses Sparta, terribly divisive and destructive, and the city never regained its former glory. When Paul walked around Athens there was nostalgia, a populace looking back and trying to imitate the giants of the past. But still it was the place to go for Greek learning and culture, a magnet for the intellectual elite, a community of wannabe philosophers, not at all a commercial centre like Corinth, but a backwater provincial town of a mere 25 thousand people, about the same size as Aberystwyth. That was Athens as Paul saw it.
2. PAUL WAS GREATLY DISTRESSED BT ATHENS.
Before Paul uttered a word to any of the populace, Athens said something to him. We are told of the reaction of Paul to that message, and it was a feeling of deep distress. Literally he responded with a paroxysm. Paul returned day after day from his walks around Athens very disturbed in his soul. The Authorized Version says that “his spirit was provoked within him” (v.16). When I visited for the first time great cities like New York, or St Petersburg, or Paris, or Sao Paulo I did not feel like that, but when I’ve walked around a huge slum in Nairobi, where half a million people live, then I feel a paroxysm of compassion. The poverty, the enormous need, the single mothers raising children in shacks with no running water, no toilets, open sewers and no income. There I feel a millionaire who is intruding and gawping, and yet I’m impotent to help these people in this vast shanty town.
Why did Paul feel so bad? Certainly there was slavery, and the rights of women were few, and if the newly born were unwanted they would be exposed at midnight, food for the dogs. That was enough to make anyone groan. But that was not the prime reason for Paul’s anguish. It was not that he was a philistine with no sense of culture, and no appreciation of great poetry or philosophy or architecture.
Paul was a citizen of Tarsus and that was no obscure or insignificant place. It was the leading city of its region, an educational and cultural centre noted for its various schools. Some of its philosophers had a significant reputation. There is no way that Paul could have grown up in such a place and not been aware of the questions these philosophers raised and the battle for the minds of men that the rival schools promoted. Paul actually returned to Tarsus three years after his conversion and that must have renewed his interest in those teachers. Then the young Paul had gone on to Jerusalem and had studied under a brilliant teacher, Gamaliel and Paul had excelled as his student – so he tells the Galatians in chapter one of his letter to them. He’d studied Greek thinking and occasionally he quotes Greek proverbs and references in his preaching and letters. So he was no obscurantist nor was he naïve about what sort of ideas he would meet when he began to evangelize in Athens. He had planned his approach from what he’d observed, their combining base and primitive superstitions with high academic discussion. So if Paul was emotionally distressed by what he saw in Athens it was not because here was a good old country boy meeting what was in his judgment a bunch of city slickers.
Paul grieved deeply because everywhere he turned in Athens he was confronted with idols and temples along every street. The glory of the living God shone down on them all in the sun and rainbow and clouds and refreshing rain by day, and the moon and stars each night, yet they were worshipping idols carved out of stone and wood and covered in gold. Each Athenian from the slave to the governor, from the child to the elderly, had a conscience, the voice of the Creator that commended them when they did right and convicted them when they sinned, but they were all making sacrifices to this idol or that, or both. In proportion to its size Athens contained the most learned, educated, artistic, intellectual population in the whole world It was a city of the arts, of wise men, debaters and arbiters of good taste yet all were given over to idolatry. They had passed the death sentence on Socrates for what they referred to as his atheism, because he did not believe in many gods, just one. They studied Plato and Aristotle and quoted the poets and admired the dramatists and then they popped into a temple and saw the young priestesses and then made a sacrifice to cover their guilt. They were suppressing God’s clear truth and were worshipping created stuff rather than the Creator. Paul was filled with exasperated indignation.
He had never seen anything like Athens. The Roman writer and satirist named Petronius once said that it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man. The city simply teemed with idols. Another commentator said that Athens had more idols than all of the remainder of Greece combined. The altars to Eumenides and the hermes stood at every entry to the city ‘to protect the place.’ There was the altar of the Twelve gods, the Temple of Ares (or Mars), the temple of Apollo. Paul saw the image of Neptune on horseback, the sanctuary of Bacchus, the forty foot high statue of Athena, the mother goddess of the city. Sculptures of the gods of Greek mythology were on every street; Athens was a virtual forest of idols. It was all desperately despicable and crude, the poor people drawn to these idols, spending their money on sacrifices, the young women enslaved to the temples, the Doric temple of the patron goddess Athena, the temple of Mars on the Areopagus and that was dwarfed by a 40 foot statue of Minerva. How fallen man has exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for idols! If the true God was unknown in Athens, what knowledge did the darker places of the world have of him? If the eye of Greece was spiritually blind what was the condition of such places as Babylon, Rome, and Wales? If men walked in darkness from the radiance of this green tree, what poor light must come from the dry.
So Paul was greatly exercised. His experience of the living God, his personal salvation and relationship with God the Son, and his moral sensitivity shrank any appreciation of the skill of the sculptor or the architect. He was “greatly distressed to see the city was full of idols” (v.16). There was an emotional response and this is where we are being tested. When Jesus experienced the rejection of Jerusalem he did not shrug. He wept over it; “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! I would have gathered you under my wings and protected you, but you’d have nothing to do with me.” Or when Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome about his feelings for his fellow countrymen he told them, “I speak the truth in Christ – I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Roms. 9:1-4). And again he told them, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (Roms. 10:1). Where does evangelism start? It starts in our own hearts, in our distress and anguish and prayers that people we move amongst should no longer be cut off from Christ. We would rather endure that ourselves than envisage them being cut off from our Lord.
Are there not times in your life when you see crowds of people, on the London Underground, at Heathrow, on a state occasion, and you are touched by their sheer numbers? The Lord Jesus had compassion on them as sheep not having a Shepherd. William Chalmers Burns the Scottish missionary to China had the call to the mission field when he was still living in Scotland. A journey in a boat to China wasn’t the making of Burns as a missionary. What showed God’s preparation of his life was that he’d walk through the crowded streets of Glasgow, moving through the multitudes of men and women hurrying up and down, and his heart would break with sorrow for them, and he would need to turn aside into a close to control his sobs and dry his tears.
Haven’t there been any occasions when we’ve felt something like that? We may be in Cardiff on the afternoon of a rugby international. 75,000 men have arrived there filling the streets around the Millennium Stadium and we feel overwhelmed with sadness at the presence of such a multitude, so few of whom having a living relationship with God. The fields are white unto harvest but the labourers are few. We all agree if we have a television set that there is very little ‘on the box’ as they say, that we can watch with pleasure. The soaps and dramas and films complain of man’s lost condition as he struggles to find some meaning to life, and the media’s conclusion is that there’s none. There is always much violence and obscenity and sensuality and all this is a barometer of the desperate spiritual desert in which the majority of people live their lives.
Another sign of this lostness are actual idols. I walked past a shop this very morning a hundred yards from the church and saw in the window some idols for sale, as goddess and earth worship have come back into vogue. You can find statues of Buddha and several Hindu and Egyptian gods, and plenty of cats, snakes and fetishes. I have friends working in east Berlin and in a park where they regularly walk and play with their three children there’s been erected a large statue of Baal. In London you can come across Buddhas and totem poles on the Embankment.
But idols don’t have to be physical objects. It is just as possible to have idols in our minds as we create mental images of the god we imagine. This is the very thing people do when they introduce their idea of God like this, “I think of God like this . . .” You can invent your own god and he is usually a bigger picture or projection of the kind of person you are, an easy-going god.
3. PAUL REACHED OUT TO ATHENS.
How did Paul respond? Did he think, “What a terrible place! I must get out of town as fast as I can.” No! He stayed and we’re told this, “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the market-place day by day with those who happened to be there” (v.17). I thought of John Wesley’s first visit to Newcastle. He was struck by the blasphemy, darkness, the ignorance, the poverty, and the squalor. How did he react? He did not lose heart. He said these memorable words, “This pace is ripe for him who said, ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’” So Paul in Athens didn’t wait for people to come to him. He went after them. How did he go about this?
i] Paul went first of all to the synagogue. That was of course his pattern. Whatever new city he reached he went first to seek his fellow countrymen. Here was no exception. The apostle went to meet the devout persons of Athens. He asked people directions to the synagogue, and he made this his first place of resort. Here he knew he’d find people who were acquainted with the Holy Scriptures; here he’d find God-fearing Greeks, people of Athens sickened by the idolatry and fertility cults of the temples all over downtown Athens. There were these religious folk drawn to the white-washed walled emptiness, simplicity, holiness and Word-centredness of a synagogue. They’d turned their backs on Greek polytheism and studied the monotheism of the Jews. We are given an example of Paul entering a synagogue and addressing the people there earlier in this 17th chapter and in verse 2. It describes how Paul commenced his evangelism in Thessalonica; “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women” (Acts 17:2-4).
So what do we see there? How is Paul’s evangelism described? Pretty comprehensively. He used the Scripture as a common point of contact . . . “the Bible says.” There were various strands to his encounter with these Jews. We are told that Paul was “reasoning” (17:2). This word means to discuss or debate (it used 10 times in Acts). Paul was “explaining” (17:3). This word means to open up and clarify. Paul was “proving” (17:3). This term means to respond to objections; to demonstrate the validity of one’s claims. Paul was “proclaiming” (17:3b). This means declaring with authority a clear message (about Jesus). Paul was “Persuading” (17:4). This means to be an advocate urging his hearers to respond (this word is found 7 times in Acts to describe Paul’s preaching). The heart of his message was the necessity for the Messiah to go to the cross as the Lamb of God. He had to suffer as God’s servant and then rise from the dead.
I wonder do we have enough flexibility to sit around and encourage and answer people’s questions on a Sunday? As a result of this evangelism, many people were won over and “joined” Paul and Silas (17:4); they became the first followers of Christ. Then when the other Jews became hostile and spoke against the things uttered by Paul, then he and Barnabas would move on saying something like this, “it was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing you put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).
How can I turn that approach to ourselves? Maybe to say this, let’s begin with the people whom we know. Why do we know them? Ultimately because God in providence has brought them into our life. It’s easy for us to categorize in our head who amongst them is and who isn’t a good target for evangelism, who seems close to the kingdom of God and who doesn’t. Don’t do that. Think about the folk you know, pray for them, ask Providence to guide and help you, and then seek to tell them about Christ. And then I could also turn Paul’s approach like this, let’s find where the people are and go there. Don’t stay in your comfort zone. Jesus in the Great Commission didn’t say, “Wait for them to come to you,” he said, “Go!” Reach out. Think about the times when you naturally interact with people through your days and weeks. Don’t hurry away from people. Take time to speak with them and show a genuine interest in them. Then, pray that the Lord will open the door for you to tell them about Christ. And pray for yourself and others that you’d speak boldly. If as a congregation we asked God individually and on Tuesday nights to give us all more opportunities to glorify his name through evangelism, then won’t God be pleased to answer and give such opportunities to us? Surely, this is something God desires us to do, to speak to him about our weakness and need of his grace. Let’s seek the opportunities around us and ask the Lord to open the doors for us and bless us when we walk through them. So you start with people with whom you share some things in common. But then we have to get out of our little evangelical ghetto. The salt has to get out of the salt-cellar to flavour the lives of others.
ii] Paul also went to the Athens market place day by day, with those who happened to be there (v.17). Not much is said about Paul’s outreach in the marketplace, except that again he “reasoned” there also with people. It wasn’t preaching, it was the Socratic method in Socrates’ own city. In other words, Paul was dialoging, discussing, and posing questions about the Gospel to people. Where is our marketplace in Aberystwyth? It’s not the supermarket where we are pushing our trollies and carrying our baskets and lining up at the check-out counter. Maybe our ‘market’ can be a number of places. Outside the school waiting for the children to come out. Traveling with your friend on the school bus – that’s our market. Walking up the hill to lectures with students taking your course. Hanging clothes on the line on Mondays with your next door neighbour doing the same on the other side of the fence. Having a lunch break or coffee break where we work. And you tell them about your week-end.
Asking people genuine questions does a lot of things. It demonstrates interest in the hearer; it reveals commonalities; it relieves tension; it creates dialogue; and it opens doors. Too often we allow ourselves to be put on the defensive. The dynamics are changed when we turn the conversation a different way and ask questions. A woman said to Becky Pippert, “I can’t stand those hypocrites who go to church every Sunday. They make me sick.” “Me too,” said Becky, adding, “I agree. Isn’t it amazing how far they are from true Christianity? When you think of how vast the distance is between the real thing and how they behave, it’s like worlds apart. Ever since I discovered what Christianity is really all about, the more mystified I am.” The girl said, “The ‘real thing’ . . . what do you mean by that?” Then they talked for an hour about the faith as the woman’s hostility had been changed into curiosity by a question, “Isn’t it amazing how far they are from true Christianity?’ We have to learn to ask questions.
A real personal challenge is to ask at least one probing question and see what happens. I am thinking of big questions, for example,
Do you have any kind of spiritual beliefs?
Is there any way I can pray for you?
Do you ever think about God?
Do you think there is a heaven or a hell?
If you died, where do you think you’d go?
If what you’re believing isn’t true, would you want to know?
I am saying to myself and to you to be aware of those who pass by you every day and to ask God for an opportunity to listen to them and to pose a question to them. Put something in their consciousness. They may ask for more information and a longer conversation.
So here is Paul taking the good news of Jesus Christ into the maelstrom of idolatry and unbelief. He took his feelings with him. The problem of unbelief is not simply intellectually incredible, to be told assuredly that everything came by chance out of nothing, Beethoven, and Rembrandt, and Shakespeare, and Einstein, and the Lord Jesus – that they are all the products of chance, as are all the laws of nature and the design of everything – aren’t we lucky that they were made like that? That is intellectually incredible. But atheism is not simply a challenge to my thinking it is also a challenge to my affections. I feel grief at false religions. They are mankind’s greatest crimes. So we have seen what Paul did when he entered this crucible. And then we have to see what he said to the intellectual leaders of this city of Athens.
6th June 2015 GEOFF THOMAS