Summary: Reaching a changing world for Christ has always required the church to be innovative, Paul’s trip to Athens is an illustration of this truth.
In a world where there is so much diversity it is important to be able to change, to come up with innovative solutions to the problems and challenges that we face. In the second half of Acts chapter 17 that is where we find the Apostle Paul. You’ll remember that the first part of his ministry was spent either in Israel or in area’s that had heavy Jewish populations due to the diaspora. But then God sent him out of his comfort zone and into the Gentile area’s starting with Greece. Before God let him go there, he was given Timothy and Luke as teammates, people who had a gentile background, who looked like the people that they were being sent to and who understood those people. The past few weeks we’ve looked at the success and challenges that they faced in Philippi and Thessalonica. Then they go to Berea, where they again had great success but some of the Religious leaders from Thessalonica showed up to cause trouble specifically for Paul. So Paul leaves and goes to Athens while Silas and Timothy continue the work at Berea. The idea was for Paul to wait for them to show up but that doesn’t exactly fit the person that Paul is. So we pick the story up in Acts, 17:16-34, “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 marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.’ (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made very nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone-an image made by man’s design and skill. 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 all men by raising him from the dead.” When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”
I love this passage because it shows us a whole lot about Paul’s personality and what drove him. Paul arrives and attempts to wait for Silas and Timothy, but seeing the spiritual condition of the city moves him to action. He tried to wait, he tried to be good, he tried to follow the plan, but his heart wouldn’t let him. Think about where he is, Paul is in Athens, at one time the center of the ancient world, still at this time arguably the center of the philosophical world. These people thought that they had it all together, they thought that they could answer all of the questions, and they looked down in judgment at any philosophy from the outside. They should have been proud, their ancestor’s basically created modern philosophy. Today we still know names like Socrates and Plato. They would tell you that they had it all together.