Summary: The philosophers of Paul’s day are not really that much different from what we see in the world around us in a post-Christian society. How Paul addressed them can help us in dealing with people who collect thoughts like Matchbox cars.
What did you collect as a child? I collected a number of things, pennies, model trains, marbles, and Matchbox® cars. I would wait anxiously until my mother would drive me down to the toy store so I could drool over the latest and greatest tiny little car or truck. I used to show off my more elaborate cars to my friends and we’d compare and argue over who had the best.
In a way, the people we meet in the final section of Acts 17 are like kids collecting Matchbox cars; instead, they collect new ideas. They don’t do anything with the ideas, except put them on a shelf and admire them. For them, the gospel of Jesus Christ is just another shiny Matchbox car. This practice is pretty common, even today. Our post-Christian society is very spiritual, but spirituality has become like a collection to admire, argue over, but ultimately put back on the shelf. The idea of ultimate truth is becoming more foreign all the time. . It’s a dangerous place to be in.
We’ve been talking about how you receive the Word of God. There are three we see in this chapter. The first is when an external force or internal carnality poisons the Word. The second is eager, but discerning, acceptance, and the final is the inoculation against the word by philosophy.
Are you ever in “off” mode as a Christian? Like a taxi driver who switches off the “available” light on the top of his cab, sometimes we feel like we are “off the clock” as Christians. For pastors, it’s often after church on Sunday. For you it could be when you are at work or perhaps waiting for some event or ministry to take place.
Paul has one of those “downtimes” here in the middle of chapter 17. He is waiting in Athens for two of his partners to show up, but something happens that makes Paul spring into action—and he ends up confronting a third group of listeners to the gospel. Last time we saw those that reacted with a cultural filter and with jealousy, and then those that listened with an open ear, an eager heart, and a discerning spirit. Now he talks to the philosophers of the day, the big thinkers, and how he brings the gospel to them, and how they react, gives us information about how many people today, who think they are so intelligent, actually inoculate themselves against the gospel.
Paul didn’t seem to have any intention on sharing the gospel in Athens but when he looked around he saw and was troubled. The word means a sudden, violent emotion. He didn’t need the Spirit to speak miraculously to him here, he was becoming like God and so reacted like God would in that situation—seeing the worship of gods that are not God and people in desperate need of real salvation, not the faux salvation that comes through philosophy without God. Athens was impressive, but just having fancy buildings and fancy systems of thought doesn’t make you correct. Oddly, Athens of Paul’s day was a relatively small town of 10,000 or so, living in the past days of glory with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
17 – 18
It’s almost like, Paul was unsettled in spirit, but didn’t really know why, so he did what he normally did, shared the gospel in the synagogue there in Athens. When that didn’t seem to satisfy the unsettledness, he just went down to the mall during the week and started discussions with anyone who happened to come along.
Some of those belonged to two groups of philosophers, the epicureans and the stoics, which represented the two major philosophical ideas of the day.
Epicureanism held that pleasure is the chief goal of life, focusing on “tranquility free from pain, disturbing passions, superstitious fears, and anxiety about death.” They believed in “gods” but thought they took no interest in man. You might say that the Epicureans of today would be those who say “you only go around once in life so you’ve got to grab all the gusto you can.” Materialism and hedonism would be modern day equivalents.
Stoicism focused on living harmoniously with nature and emphasized a person’s rational abilities and individual self sufficiency. The stoic was pantheistic and thought of God as “World-soul.” The Stoics felt that there was a great purpose in life and their job was to become part of it. Because of that they were mainly self-sufficient, “I am the master of my fate, captain of my destiny” sort of thing. Today’s New Age followers would fall under this category.
It says in verse 18 they “conversed” with him. The Greek used there means “seed picker” and basically infers that Paul’s ideas were more like a bird flitting from seed to seed than their highly organized systems of philosophy.