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PAUL IN ATHENS

Acts 17:16-17:34
Key Verse: 17:31

In the previous passage we learned anew that Jesus who died for man’s sin and rose again from the dead is the Christ. He is God’s King and our Lord. May we submit to him and believe in his Lordship over all. May we also study the words of the Bible with great eagerness and absolute attitude so that we can grow deeper in our faith in Christ Jesus and become be his obedient and dedicated servants in this generation. Today’s passage is about how Paul served Athens, the people of intellectual city of that time. We can think about two things, Paul’s shepherd heart for them and his message for them.

First, Paul’s shepherd heart for Athens (16-23a). Look at verse 1. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens…” Athens had been the foremost Greek city-sate since the 5th century B.C. Even after its incorporation into the Roman Empire, it retained a proud intellectual independence and also became a free city. It boasted of its rich philosophical tradition inherited from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and of is literature and art. In Paul’s day it was a comparatively small town by modern criteria, yet it still had an unrivalled reputation as the empire’s intellectual metropolis.

Of course Paul had known about Athens since his boyhood. In our terms, Paul could be considered a graduate of the universities of Tarsus and Jerusalem, and God had endowed him with a massive intellect. Now he was there, in Athens. So he might have been fascinated by the sheer splendor of the city’s architecture, history and wisdom. Yet it was none of these things which struck him. First and foremost what he saw was neither beauty nor the brilliance of the city, but its idolatry. He saw that the city was full of idols (NIV). And in MSG, it is translated “a junkyard of idols.” It can also mean “smothered with idols”, “swamped by them” or “a veritable forest of idols.” Apparently, there were more gods in Athens than in all the rest of the country-- there, it was even easier to find a god than a man. How can it be possible in such a city known as the empire’s intellectual metropolis? What irony! One can hardly believe it. But that was what Paul saw not only with his physical eyes but also spiritual eyes.

There were innumerable temples, shrines, statues and altars. There was the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis (Athenian citadel), built 447 B.C. - 438 B.C., at the highest of the Athenian Empire’s power. It was one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments. There stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena, ‘whose gleaming spear-point was visible forty miles away. There were 12 Olympians - the gods of Mt. Olympus. And they were beautiful. They were made not only of stone and brass, but of gold, silver, ivory and marble, and they had been elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors. But when Paul saw all these, he was greatly distressed, for they were nothing but idols. His great distress was his abhorrence of idolatry out of his jealousy for God. All these may show that the city might be aesthetically magnificent and culturally sophisticated, but to Paul the people were morally decadent, spiritually deceived and deadened. His distress was the expression of his broken shepherd heart for Athens, which had became idolatrous despite its great intellect.

Then what did he do? Look at verse 17. “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” He was willing to talk and reason with them in any places where the people had gathered, even in the marketplace (in ancient Greece, agora was an open space in a town, especially a marketplace).

Look at verse 18. “A group of Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers began to dispute with him.” These were contemporary but rival philosophical systems. The Epicureans founded by Epicurus (342 - 270 B.C.) considered the gods to be so remote as to take no interest in, and have no influence on, human affairs. They emphasized chance, escape and the enjoyment of pleasure. The Stoics, on the other hand, founded by Zeno (340 - 265 B.C.), acknowledged the supreme god, but in a pantheistic way. They emphasized fatalism, submission and the endurance of pain. Paul could talk and dispute with both of them. Then some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Here we see that although Paul reasoned and disputed with the intellectuals in Athens, he did not miss the important point, that is, to preach the good news of Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting place of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are preaching? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they men.” Paul’s preaching the good news about Jesus the resurrection aroused their spiritual desire or curiosity to know what Paul had preached.

Luke wrote in verse 21 in parenthesis, “(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)” They tried to satisfy their intellectual desires and their intellect seemed to be great. Yet, they were doing noting before God. They were intellectual wanderers and lost ones in so many relativistic ideas, updated to the latest one. No one could see their problems in life, but Paul saw their seriousness and challenged them. They were intellectually alive, but morally and spiritually deadened--like a corpse.

Yet, Paul was not judgmental or condemning. Rather, he was positive with them. Look at verse 27. “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.’” He recognized their religiosity, which signified their spiritual thirst and pursuit, and there found a way to reveal the true God.

Second, Paul’s message for Athens (23b-34). His message had two clear points: God is the Creator, and he raised Jesus as the Judge. Look at verse 24. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.” He proclaimed the Maker of the world and everything in it. Human beings who were God’s creatures made in his image, understand the concept of creation. Paul did not argue about it. He proclaimed it. That there is the Creator, the Maker of all things, is self-evident truth (beautiful music for a crazy world). But unbelieving intellectuals deliberately deny this evident truth. They don’t want to put God in their hearts. Anyway, Paul clearly proclaimed God the Maker.

And he is the Lord of heaven and earth. Heaven and earth belong to him and he rules as the Lord of all. He is the Lord of universe, much more than a landlord of an apartment or certain properties. He is infinite as the Creator and the Lord of heaven and earth. He is not confined and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands as if he needed anything. He is self-sufficient. More important, he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. What a strong statement! Everyone’s life came from him and each breath is due to him. Nobody is self-operating over his or her life. There will be a day one’s breath comes to a halt, when the giver of breath stops doing it. He is the giver of everything. Nothing is my own. He gives me strength to work. Paul had such an absolute faith in God the Creator and proclaimed God’s creation and his ownership and Lordship.

Look at verse 26. “From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” When we review Genesis, because of man’s sin of pride, men had to be scattered. It is written that peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language and nations spread out over the earth after the food (Ge 10:5,32). It was God who did this spreading, and the existence of many nations was God’s plan so that people should inhabit the earth. When a nation is to be established and where her territory is to be is also according to God’s determination. Some nations have a long history; others, short; some have a big land; others, small. (Both the history and the geography of each nation are ultimately under his control.) All is up to God. And each individual’s date of birth and birthplace is also God’s deed. Then why did God do this? Look at verse 27. “God did this so that men should seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each of us.” The purpose of establishing each nation is for the people to seek the Creator and find him, not to make gods. It is possible to seek and find him, for actually he is not far from us (in ESV).

And Paul said in verse 28, “For in him we live and move and have our being. Again, what a strong statement! As fish swim in the sea, people live and move in him whether they acknowledge it or not. Even one finger movement is done in him, for my existence itself is in him. Each breath and Each step of walk are done in him. We can breathe and walk and run because we are in him. As fish cannot leave the sea where they swim, so we cannot deny the Creator, for in him we live and move and have our being. We remember Paul’s message to the people of Lystra in Galatia, who were mostly illiterate: “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). This was a proper message to the uneducated and so not intellectual people to introduce the God the Creator. But to the Athens, Paul spoke in a philosophical and intellectual way, saying, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Nonetheless, his message was crystal clear and emphatic. And then he said, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” (It is true in creation terms that God is the Father of all humankind, and all are his off spring). In this way Paul appealed to the intellectual Athens, philosophical and literarily-minded, in order to present God the Creator. His message was inclusive.

Paul did not stop there in plain statement, speaking the general truth. Paul had appealed to their mind, but now urged them to act. He said, “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill.” As we have been studying, such thinking is a foolish and futile thinking, degenerating the divine being into material things, less than human level. God’s offspring should not think in that way. Thus he now challenged Athenian idolatry. Then Paul said in verse 30, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance (unknown god), but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” Paul had said to the Lycaonians, “In the past, he let all nations go their own way…Yet he has not left himself without testimony” (14:16-17), and “We are bringing good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.” (14:15). The message of repentance was same. Paul urged all people, educated or uneducated, to repent, that is turning to God the Creator, the living God from worthless things. Repentance is the way of life. Repentance is a beautiful thing before God. An unrepentant heart makes people bitter, despairing, sorrowful, or angry or rebellious. But repentance brings joy and peace and new strength and hope. Isaiah 30:15 says, “In repentance and rest is your salvation.”

Paul spoke further to let them know why people should repent. Look at verse 31. “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” Finally, Paul had to say of the judgment. One day God will judge the world. God once judged the world through the Flood. This flood judgment looks forward to the final judgment. This is biblical constant from Genesis to Revelation. God judged the world and will judge the world. Now when we look at the world, everything seems to go continually day after day, but the day will come God will judge the world. It is coming closer day by day. As for the Flood, rain fell on the earthy forty days and forty nights. However, for the final judgment one day will be enough to judge the world. It will be the day of the Lord. Peter said in 2 Peter 3:10, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.”

And God will judge the world with justice. All judgment systems in this world are corrupt. Last week we heard about US Supreme court decision. This week we are sorry to hear about the political turmoil in Egypt. Mohamed Morsi has been ousted as Egyptian president. Some celebrated the president’s ouster; yet there were Morsi loyalists. People wonder whether Egypt turmoil is a Coup or not; if a coup, then is it “a good coup” or “a bad coup”? People long for justice, especially in judgment. Indeed, God will judge the world with justice. His judgment will uncorrupt and absolutely impartial. Then how will he judge the world? He will judge the world by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection proved that he is the innocent Son of God. He died from man’s sins and God raised him from the dead. He has been appointed as the Judge. Peter also said this to Cornelius and all his household, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). God’s raising Jesus from the dead and appointing him as the Judge was the conclusion of Paul’s message. This message was exclusive, while the first part of his message was inclusive. Paul’s message began with the Creator God and his creation and concluded with Jesus and his judgment. Athens had to repent and turn to God by accepting Jesus who was raised from the dead and so be saved from judgment. What an amazing grace it will be that the one whom I have believed and trusted in is the Judge! It will be also real and frightening that the people who rejected Jesus to the end had to confront him as the Judge.

Look at verse 32. “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus (Eusebius identified him as Athens’ first Christian bishop and martyr), also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.” God bore some fruit even in such a seemingly difficult mission field as Athens.

The message of God’s creation and judgment by Jesus is universal. God’s creation and the resurrection and the judgment perfectly make sense to the intellectuals. We don’t need to avoid speaking such things to them. As Paul shared with a shepherd heart his absolute faith in God’s creation and repentance and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and final judgment for Athens, we may also do so to serve the students in our campus.

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