Summary: Paul takes the context of a pagan city and uses their apparent spiritual thirst to tell them about Jesus and his rescue from the judgement to come.
Here’s Paul, left alone in Athens, the cultural capital of the world. How do you think he’d be feeling? Overwhelmed? Excited? Fascinated? Imagine this is you, not in Athens, but in New York or Paris or Rome or Berlin? How would you be feeling? Like you couldn’t wait to get out and start exploring? Going to the museums and the libraries and art galleries? In his case to the Acropolis, or the ancient city walls, or to see the sculptures and monuments for which Athens was justly famous? Or perhaps to go and listen to the philosophers debating life and the universe? Or maybe you’re the sort who’d rather just mooch around, sit in a café imbibing the atmosphere, feeling the vibes of this great hub of civilisation.
I must say I love visiting far off places. But I say to my shame that I don’t normally react to these places the way Paul does to his experience of Athens. See how the passage begins? "While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed." Why was he distressed? Not because he was alone in a strange city. Not because he didn’t know the language. Not because his luggage had gone missing on the last leg of his flight. They’re the sorts of things that we get distressed at. But no, he was distressed to see that the city was full of idols. I mean, what did he expect? Well, presumably he expected that there’d be temples to idols, just as there were in the other cities he’d visited, but what he found here was a city that was swamped by idols. Someone has suggested Luke’s saying there was ’a veritable forest of idols.’ It was almost as if the populace had decided that if there was a god to be worshipped then they needed to have a temple to him or her.
Now in a sense Athens may have been unique in the world of the time, but when you think about it, it wasn’t so different from the cities of our world today. Di and I spent a couple of days in Singapore in April and I can tell you that idolatry is rife there. In fact you could almost say that Singapore is one great temple to consumerism. Everywhere you go there are stores selling every possible consumer item you can imagine - and a few more besides. But of course you don’t need to go to Singapore to experience that, do you? Just drop in to Chadstone or Whitehorse Plaza some time. Or pick up your newspaper or turn on the TV and you’ll see the gods of our age on display. Consumerism, hedonism, wealth, pleasure, health, leisure, career, family.
Well, Paul is astounded at this city that seems to be given over to the worship of idols. So what does he do? He argues in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons. Maybe he’s bothered because the Jewish synagogue has had no impact on the city. He realises perhaps that the message they’re teaching lacks the transforming power necessary to make any inroads in a city like this. They need to understand and begin proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Do you remember the charge that was brought against Paul in Thessalonica? It was that these men were turning the world upside down. If Athens was to be changed then its people would need to hear the gospel. So Paul began with the Jewish synagogue. But he also went into the marketplace, arguing, reasoning with those who were there, proclaiming the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Luke doesn’t say anything about the response of the Jews here. What he’s interested in, here, is the response of the Greek philosophers. Clearly this is a ground breaking moment in the history of the preaching of the gospel. Here we find people who have no knowledge of the Jewish faith, a totally pagan culture, yet one that’s highly intelligent and deeply thinking. In fact it’s interesting to think about the two groups that he begins to debate with, the Epicureans and the Stoics. Let me tell you a bit about them and you can see whether they have their parallels today.
The Epicureans were the ’philosophers of the Garden’. They believed the gods were remote and not interested in human affairs. So what happened was purely the result of chance. They didn’t believe in life after death and had no concept of final judgement. So their aim was to pursue pleasure and a life as free of pain, suffering or fear as possible. Their modern equivalent might be your classic Australian hedonist, or consumerist.
The Stoics on the other hand acknowledged a supreme god, but in a sort of pantheistic way. God was the spirit at the heart of the universe, the ’world soul.’ For them the world was determined not by chance but by fate and the task of human beings was to pursue their duty, seeking to live in harmony with nature and reason, however painful that might be, developing their own self-sufficiency. There’s some parallel there with Buddhism perhaps, or alternatively with those in the west who advocate discipline and hard work as the way to achieve success.