Summary: Sermons by Father Dave ...
“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.” (Acts 17:16)
Ange and I have been to Athens, as I suspect many of you guys have also.
We went for less pious reasons than St Paul. We went as the Australian contingent for the foundation of the International Pankration Federation back in 1996. We went to fight rather than to pray. Even so, we did our best to locate Mars Hill, which was the place where St Paul gave his speech to the Areopagus.
It’s in that general area of the Acropolis, for those who know the region. Even so, we managed to miss it, being more captivated by the Parthenon. Paul of course would not have been captivated by the Parthenon. On the contrary, we are told that he was feeling most upset, when he saw all the evidences of pagan worship in the city.
Most of us who visit Athens today would probably find those ancient religious artefacts to be fascinating. Paul found them disturbing. For him they were not interesting relics of a time long passed, but stunning indicators of a culture that was religiously perverse.
That was a long time ago of course, and St Paul would not find Athens to be quite the same place should he visit it today. Even so, he may well find it equally disturbing.
One of the things that most surprised us about our trip to Athens was the way in which X-rated movies would come on unannounced on free-to-air TV! Well … maybe they were announced, but in Greek. Either way, I don’t know whether St Paul would have been any more comfortable in modern Athens than he was in its 1st century counterpart.
The story of St Paul’s visit to Athens is fascinating from a historical point of view. It is also very significant for students of the New Testament, as I think it is the only time we get any real record of Paul, the ’apostle to the gentiles’, actually preaching to gentiles!
Think about it. Paul’s trademark was that he was the one who carried the gospel of Jesus beyond the confines of Israel and into the rest of the known world. Even so, for the most part, the only people we ever read of Paul speaking to are Jews!
If you go back to the beginning of Acts chapter 17, from which we are reading today, you get a good picture of the way Paul normally operated.
“When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thesssalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 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 was his custom - to find a local synagogue wherever he went.
Mind you, in Acts 16, when he travelled to Philippi, there was no synagogue, so we’re told that on the Sabbath he went to a place by the river, outside the city gate, because this was the place that the local Jews met for prayer.
This was Paul’s pattern. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, spent most of his time talking to people who were not gentiles - to Jews! Why? I suppose because it was the Jews who were most likely to listen to him. It certainly wasn’t because he didn’t care to speak to the gentiles, because when he gets an invitation, as he does here in Acts 17, to speak to a group of Greek intellectuals, he grabs it with both hands.
Either way, what we have in Acts chapter 17 is a rather unique account of Paul, the preacher of the Gospel of Jesus, communicating with a group of persons who have never heard of Jesus, nor (quite likely) of Jehovah, his Father.
Unlike Paul’s normal audience, these persons know nothing of the promises made to Abraham. They may never have heard of Abraham. They know nothing of Moses, of the Covenant, of the meaning of the word ’Messiah’ nor of the ancient Jewish hope for the Kingdom of God.
Paul addresses a group of persons who do not share his language (in the broader sense of the word). They are not persons whose mindsets have been developed through immersion in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are persons who, up to this point, would have heard nothing about the life or death of Jesus of Nazareth. To Paul’s mind they are pagans. Even so, they are human beings, and so far as Paul is concerned, they deserve to hear the truth about Jesus the Christ!
Now I’m going to resist the temptation to eulogise at length about what the Greeks believed. If you, like me, are a student of the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, you’ll know that there is an enormous amount that could be said at this point about what the Greeks did actually believe. They might not have embraced the God of Israel, but this wasn’t because they hadn’t been thinking and talking about life and about God.