At first glance, the text in front of us could be a passage that we look at to gain some insight on how to do gospel centered evangelism. Although there are many helpful things, we can look at from this text that are important for doing evangelism, I think the thrust of the text is centered around repenting from idolatry.
Idolatry is something that can be super elusive. For some of us, our idolatry is laced with apathy, passivity, and procrastination as we stick our heads in the sand. We see what we should do, and we refuse to do it because we do not like the difficulty of doing what we should do. This kind of idolatry worships the god of comfort. For others of us, our idolatry is laced with activism, performance, and pursuit of pleasure. We see what we should do, and we refuse to do it because we are too busy doing other things. This kind of idolatry worships the god of performance.
Oftentimes, the idolatry we struggle with is deeply rooted in the culture we are brought up in. Every culture needs preachers to confront idolatry with winsomeness and courage. We must remember that idolatry is simply anything that we mix with or elevate above the power of the gospel. Anything we place our faith in, outside the presence and the power of God has become an idol that dictates how much time, talent, and treasure we give to it in our worship.
Idols can range from vocation, to friendship, to marriage, to family, to possessions, to prestige/power, to intellectual superiority, to philosophical wisdom, etc., the list goes on and on. At the end of the day, regardless of the flavor of your idolatrous poison, idolatry is really about what you do or do not worship through the giving of your time, talent, and treasure. All of the external versions of idolatry have a core desire attached to them. For instance, the desire for comfort, the desire for control, the desire for acceptance, the desire to escape, the desire to be respected, can all be core desires that drive our worship of external false gods.
The question becomes, who or what will we worship? Who or what will we give our lives to? Who or what will we sink our time, our talent, and our treasure into? In light of the text today, we have to ask, which kind of Athenian am I? Paul is literally proclaiming the gospel to the Athenians and the Athenians were historically known to be a pagan culture that valued philosophical knowledge while lacking practical wisdom. At the end of the day, the Athenians fell into two different philosophical camps: Pursue pleasure at all costs or stick your head in the sand and procrastinate because you really cannot change the outcome of things.
So, the simple application for us as we study this text, is to be aware of the ways that we either pursue pleasure or resist change. The reality is that whatever you have been passively ignoring or whatever you have been actively pursuing, will tell you a lot about who or what you are worshiping. The reality is that your spirit needs to be provoked to confront your idols! This is actually where the text begins today.
16Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and devout persons, and in the marketplaces every day with those who happened to be there. 18Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” – because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
22So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26And 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, 27that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ 29Being then God’s offspring, 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. 30The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because 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.”
32Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33So Paul went out from their midst. 34But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
#1: PAUL’S SPIRIT IS PROVOKED (VV. 16 – 21)
Sometimes, we all need someone to provoke us to repent of our idolatry. This is actually where everything begins in our text today where Paul’s spirit is provoked. Pay attention to the text and take note of how similar you and I are to the Athenians. I do not think that Luke wrote this story so that we could be challenged to be more like Paul in our evangelistic efforts; though there is nothing wrong with learning some things about evangelism from Paul’s interaction with the Athenians. I just think that Luke wrote this story so that we could repent of our similarities to the idolatrous Athenians. Again, provocation is the key to repentance. If you and I are not provoked by our idolatry, then we will happily continue in our self-worship.
You may notice in verses 16 – 21, that Paul’s spirit is provoked because “he saw that the city was full of idols” (v. 16) and that he responded to what he felt deep down inside by starting conversations with believers in the synagogue, some ordinary folks in the grocery stores and gas stations in the marketplace, as well as some of the highly educated philosophers at the college campus of Athens (vv. 17 – 18). Ultimately, Paul’s response to the anger and frustration he felt, awarded him an invitation to preach in front of a council of the top philosophers in Athens (vv. 18 – 20) – these guys felt like Paul was a “babbler” (v. 18) and that he was presenting some weird new philosophy that he had ripped off of someone else (they literally believed that Paul was a plagiarist who could not really believe what he preached).2
To all of this, Luke adds a note in verse 21 that describes the Athenians as people who “spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” – the Athenians were the real babblers who were top notch philosophers with nothing to offer in terms of true restoration. The leading philosophers (the wisest people in Athens) literally promised nothing because the Epicureans believed that you only have one life to live and it all ends with death therefore we might as well live for all the pleasures of this world before we are extinct in death, and the Stoics believed that God is in everything and that you cannot do anything to change the outcome of your destiny therefore you might as well ignore all of the problems and not seek any real change.3
So, on the one hand, Paul’s audience was half full of activists who pursued pleasure as their god and on the other hand his audience was half full of apathetic folks who just took whatever life threw at them without any thought towards real change. Both groups were guilty of idolatry in a community that boasted a human population of about 10,000 people with a graphic arts display of roughly 30,000 images/statues of their useless gods; 10,000 lost people and 30,000 useless gods in a visual arts display (think about how many idols are present daily in our visual society).4
Paul’s spirit was provoked because he saw a city full of dead people who were worshipping at the feet of dead idols under the banner of philosophy. One philosophy calls you to worship the vast array of idols by literally chasing whatever pleases you because pleasure is God. The other philosophy calls you to worship the vast array of idols by literally doing nothing since transformation is an illusion, God is so far out of reach, and it is too much hard work.
Do these idols sound familiar to you? Just do whatever pleases you and do not do anything that is difficult or painful. Do not worry about pursuing transformation, you cannot do anything to really change who you really are. Just stick your head in the sand. Just embrace the pleasure and embrace who you really are. Is not our culture completely saturated with this kind of philosophy?
What is needed when our heads and our hearts are full of such foggy philosophical notions? What do we need when we realize that we have surrendered to the pursuit of pleasure and the cynicism of procrastination? What do we need when we are provoked with these idolatrous realities within us? We need someone to preach the gospel to us!
#2: PAUL PREACHES THE GOSPEL TO THE ATHENIANS (VV. 22 – 31)
Paul was literally disturbed, angry, and enraged because of the lie of idolatry.5 So with his heart and mind provoked by those emotions, he stepped into the pulpit of the Areopagus and he preached the gospel beginning with a smooth introduction that caught the ears of his listeners (v. 22), then he moved seamlessly but winsomely into the problem of idolatry and worship to an unknown god (v. 23), then he moved into a description of who God really is and what he really does on behalf of his creation – God is our Creator and he has drawn near to his creation (vv. 24 – 27), then he masterfully cited some of his listeners favorite poets – God gives us our dignity and breathes life into us because we are his children (v. 28), then he drops the bomb regarding our sinful idolatry – we are guilty of turning God into creations of our own when we pursue pleasure or when we stick our heads in the sand (v. 29), and finally, he lands on the reality of the coming judgment and the hope of the resurrected Jesus – God’s patience with us will run out and we will be judged by the One whom God rose from the grave (vv. 30 – 31).
While there are so many things we could focus on in Paul’s sermon to the Athenians, what he says about idolatry and repentance is the hook of his message when he says in verses 29 – 31 that, “Being then God’s offspring, 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”. If Paul would have left out these final three verses in his sermon, the people in Athens would have merely added Paul’s message to the long list of philosophies they loved to babble about as mere intellectual exercises.
The problem for the Athenians and for us is that Paul did include the last three verses and those last three verses require a response: You can either go back to your pursuit of pleasure or you can go back to sticking your head in the sand like nothing is really wrong or you can repent and begin living in true freedom.
Good preachers bring you to a point of decision with clear implications of the appropriate response. How we respond to the message is on us. No one can control our human response, but we are culpable for how we respond. How easy it would be for many to respond by going back to business as usual: chasing pleasure and sticking their heads in the sand. How the Athenians respond should challenge us in terms of how we respond to the call to have no other gods before the Living God in our crucified, risen, and returning Savior.
CONCLUSION: THE ATHENIANS’ RESPONSE TO PAUL’S MESSAGE (VV. 32 – 34)
Human responsibility alongside of God’s sovereignty has been a lengthy debate throughout church history that has resulted in much confusion regarding how we respond to the gospel. An unhealthy view of the two parallel tracks of human responsibility and God’s sovereignty can lead to a fear of losing one’s salvation every time we sin or it can lead to a lack of a clear call to repentance and salvation. A healthy view of these two parallel tracks should give assurance in God’s sovereign hand in saving and preserving his people while simultaneously giving ample opportunities to respond to the offer of salvation in repentance.
When you and I are clearly confronted with our worship disfunctions that manifest in the idols of pleasurable pursuit and willful ignorance, we can either scoff and mock as we continue in our sin, or we can procrastinate and put off until tomorrow or next Sunday what we should repent of today, or we can turn away (repent from our idolatry) and believe once again (or for the very first time) upon the finished work of Christ at the cross and the empty tomb as we hope in his return.
The Athenians responded in all three ways that I just described: Some mocked (v. 32), others procrastinated as they said, “We will hear you again about this” (v. 32), and others turned away from their idols as they “joined him [Paul] and believed” (v. 34). The question for us is which response will I be responsible for today? Am I a mocker who goes right back to what I was doing? Am I a procrastinator who will wait for another day? Or am I a believer who repents as long as it is today?
It does not matter if I am guilty of chasing pleasure or sticking my head in the sand as a procrastinator. Either of those two idolatries can manifest themselves in various ways – porn use, angry outbursts, control/manipulation, greedy with time, talent, and treasure, indifferent to the suffering around me, focused on climbing the corporate ladder, resistant to spiritual community, and the list can go on and on. All of the things I just said are fruit of unbelief. The fruit of believing upon the name of our crucified, risen, and returning Christ, is simply, immediate and ongoing repentance. Which kind of Athenian will I be today?
1 Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version Bible, The New Classic Reference Edition (ESV) (Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2 Kent, Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1996), 230 – 232.
3 Ibid., 231.
4 Ibid., 230.