Thursday, 9 December 2010

Paul in Athens

Acts 17:16-34

Background: ‘Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.’ v21. It was, perhaps, like one of our great Universities, an intellectual ivory tower of a place where they loved talking about the latest ideas.

Epicureans: they were materialistic, doubted the existence of the ‘gods’, and believed in moderation in all things. Sensible people! They would have fitted in on QI, the TV show.

Stoics: they were pantheists (they thought the world has a soul) and believed in exercising self-control in order to overcome destructive emotions. They would have done well as monks, who deny themselves sleep and conversation in order to gain closeness with God (On this theme ‘The Big Silence’ is worth watching!).

For the Areopagus – see the picture above.

Perhaps Paul had grown up longing to see the famous Acropolis with its view of the Areopagus. But if he did, he didn’t stay in tourist mode for long:

Paul’s spirit ‘was provoked within him’ v16. The same Greek word is used in the Septuagint (OT in Greek) when the people ‘provoked’ God by grumbling or worshipping idols (Num 14:23; Deu 32:16 ). What is our reaction to the overt Atheism so popular in the media (Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Fry… )? Are we equally provoked and upset by what we hear?

So, having spent time analysing the situation, picking up the atmosphere of the place, and engaging spiritually (and emotionally) with what is going on, Paul then preaches a message that fits them in their context:

Paul’s Message
His initial attempts at communication seem to fail (v18), despite being one of those who was reputed to have ‘turned the world upside down’ (v6)! ‘It would be hard to imagine a less receptive or more scornful audience.’* So he has a rethink and comes up with a message that does get through (to those receptive of the Good News)…

1. He starts where they are: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What a brilliant introduction. He has grabbed their attention, and showed his own intellectual ability, while remaining focussed on the things of God. He also begins where they are. Like a Sat Nav. It doesn’t ever say: ‘If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here!’ It always starts where you are. (please ignore last word!)

2. He declares a clear message using language they will understand.

‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.’

Notice too the focus on humankind. Paul’s message is written from a universal (rather than universalistic) perspective. He does bring in some good teaching – that God is creator and Sustainer, and determines where we all live on the earth i.e. He’s in control of nations (This doesn’t mean that harsh dictators have God’s support (Nebuchadnezzar was removed from office by God), rather that God is in control of the movements of nations. Cyrus, Emperor of Persia, is called ‘the LORD’s anointed’ (literally ‘Messiah’) in Isaiah 45:1 because he brought freedom for the Jews to go back to their land and rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple cf. Amos 9:7 "Are you not like the Cushites to me, O people of Israel?" declares the LORD. "Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?). These are parts of the Good News that we often skip, assuming that people already know the basics. But in many cases they don’t. Notice that Paul doesn’t preach a message that only appeals to individuals. His gospel is always one for people groups, whether Jewish or ‘Greek’ (gentile) in orientation. One reason we only see ones and twos come to the Lord is that we pretend that the gospel is for individuals (and the ongoing effect is that many think they can be a Christian but not go to church). It isn’t! It’s for humankind! The sooner we preach that the better – the more biblical we will be, and the more true to the Good News about Jesus the Messiah.

3. He quotes their poets and philosophers (v28-30). What he doesn’t do is start quoting the Bible (Old Testament) at length, though he does allude to it frequently. There would have been no point, as the Athenians wouldn’t have known it! The quote about being God’s offspring is particularly interesting – Avatus (the poet), was referring to Zeus, not Theos (God). So in a sense Paul is acknowledging the glimmer of truth in Avatus’ saying, but at the same time gently correcting it. ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ would have appealed hugely to the Stoics. Paul takes this quote and applies it from within a biblical framework:

4. Having quoted their poets and philosophers he brings out some great theology from them:

‘Being then God's offspring (genos: offspring, descendants), we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”’

Notice how he doesn’t shrink from sharing the Good News about Jesus, but he shares it in non-technical language. The resurrection would have been a particular challenge to Greek philosophers, just as it is today for atheists and agnostics.
For those worried about Paul’s lack of explicit preaching about the cross, let me reassure you by saying that Luke’s recording of Paul’s words are probably a summary rather than a verbatim report of Paul’s speech. We can imagine that prior to speaking about a ‘resurrection’ Paul must have mentioned Jesus’ death. In any case it is implied even in the summary we have.

5. The response was varied. Some responded, others did not:

‘32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed…’

Most Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul, but wouldn’t have been so receptive to Paul’s teaching about the resurrection of the body.

We should not expect everyone to respond. But if we take the attitude that it is all up to God, and not at all up to us, then we are in error. A simple comparison of Paul’s message to Jewish audiences e.g. 13:16-43; 17:3 shows that Paul did in fact adapt his message for a purely gentile or ‘Greek’ audience. But we shouldn’t be discouraged when some don’t respond. The Good News is near (as we were seeing this morning from Deuteronomy), the message is in our hearts – but not in the hearts of all. Not everyone is ready. Some, very sadly, will never be ready.
How then should we Share?

This has huge implications for us as we share the Good News with others. There are many places in the world where people already have strongly-ingrained beliefs. To ignore those is foolish. Like Paul we need to speak and live in one way for one group, and another way for another group (1Co 9:16b-23, perhaps taking on ourselves extra restrictions so as not to offend them – after all, our own culture is fairly ‘Greek’ these days i.e. laissez-faire in terms of its morality and cultural taboos, or, rather, lack of them). This is not to say that we change the Good News. Far from it! But we do try to use fewer religious or technical terms that would need explaining. One such term is Messiah – it means a lot to a Jew, and something to a Muslim, but very little to anyone from a non-Theistic background. Even those living in the post-Christian West understand little by the term. Another is the whole idea of cleansing by blood sacrifice. In Central Asia it was difficult to use language involving kings and thrones to explain the gospel – they actually preferred to talk about lambs being sacrificed – it was part of their culture. So we need to think of appropriate metaphors, ones that are current and link into people’s existing world-view.

Often we think that the more we quote scripture, the more powerful our message will be. That is true for those with church backgrounds, but for the un-churched and those from other religious backgrounds it makes little sense to do this. We may in fact be putting them off. Better to find some kind of ‘hook’. One that some folk used in about ’99 or 2000 was the sense of pointlessness of Mr. Anderson’s life in the Matrix world, and his joy at escaping (down a sort of rabbit-hole) to reality, grim though it was, to become the person he was chosen to be – Neo, ‘the One’
followed by:

A more current one is the film Avatar:,
where ‘Jake’ who is without the use of his legs, can experience the freedom of life via an avatar as a Navi, a people with stronger legs than ours, in a place called Pandora. The Navi are more in touch with their nature than we are. He eventually joins Navi of the world he is living in as an Avatar to fight his own people as they try and plunder this idyllic world for its natural resources. This raises all kinds of issues (not least the harmful power of multi-national companies who have the backing of Western governments to plunder e.g. rain forests), but one might ask the questions,

 ‘How can we be free from our restrictive and technology-focussed cultures?’
 ‘What does it mean to be truly human?’
 ‘How can we be more in touch with nature?’

Some have found that they found this world grey and flat after the watching the film. They felt depressed and wondered what the point of life was, if you can’t life in Pandora (the planet where this idyllic world is):
This gives us an ‘in’ – a way in to share the Good News that Jesus offers life, and life in all its fullness (Psa 16:11; Jhn 10:10 ).

At the same time, as well as being culturally appropriate in the way that we share, we also need to remember that God is provoked by idolatry. Those who say, ‘I don’t make any claim to be religious’ are in fact stating their unbelief, and need to be called in no uncertain terms to change their way of thinking. As Spurgeon pointed out, no thief has ever gained points in front of a judge and jury by saying, ‘I make no claim to be an honest person.’! The court is likely to be much more lenient towards those who can show that they are usually honest, but slipped up on one occasion. The same is true with faith – let’s not reward honest fools by acknowledging their unbelief – rather let’s call all we meet to the truth about Jesus Christ as revealed by God through the Holy Spirit and in the message of the Bible.
(quotes are from the ESV)

*Stott 1990: 284

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