July 31, 2016
Today we have the story of Paul in Athens. Now, this is not as “well known” as some of the stories in Acts, but it’s still a great story! And it’s perhaps one of the most important of Paul’s series of sermons he gave in the various cities he visited. I’d like to look at this story today, and I’d like to start by going back just a bit in this chapter and see how Paul got to where he was. And yes, this is a “sermon about a sermon!”
In the first few verses of chapter 17, Paul had come to the city of Thessalonica with Silas. Thessalonica was one of a number of cities in that area called “Asia Minor,” which we know today as Turkey. That’s where Paul was going on what has come to be known as his “First Missionary Journey.” He took three or four of them, depending on how you interpret the book of Acts. Oh and by the way, I’m not exactly sure where it started, but he’s now being called “Paul.”
So, as he did in the other cities he visited, Paul went to the synagogue in Thessalonica. And in the synagogue, he argued with them “from the scriptures” – for three weeks! That’s pretty persistent, isn’t it? And as a result, some of the people believed, but some got upset, and some caused him grief! And at one point, they complained to the city authorities, saying, “These men have turned the world upside down…”
I want you to remember that. That’s the phrase I’m using as a theme today. “These men have turned the world upside down…” Acts is the story of how they did just that. Paul and the others went from town to town, preaching the gospel – the “good news” of God in Jesus Christ. And they changed the world! And it seems to have been the same in each town. Some people believed, and some got upset! And some attacked “the boys” in various ways. In Philippi, they “beat them with rods” and put them in prison with their feet in stocks! Do you remember that story? God opened the jail, but they stayed. And they changed the life of the jailer. That’s Acts chapter 16.
When Paul came to Athens, it was the same story. Some believed, and some did not. But I want you to remember something from your history class, all those years ago. Do you remember Athens and Sparta? They were the two major “Twin Cities” in Greece. And they each city had their own culture. Sparta was the sports oriented city. They were all about physical competition. But what about Athens? Athens was the center of philosophy and learning. Do you remember that? We see that here in this story. Just before the place I started reading today, we read these words. “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:21) In other words, they spent their time “Philosophizing!”
Well, Paul came “a-ridin’ into town,” and he was “a-preachin’ and a-teachin’” in their synagogue. And some of the “philosophizers” – the Epicureans and Stoics – heard about it. And they were not very happy! They were also not very kind! “What is this ‘babbler’ saying?!” they asked. And they “took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus.” Now, the Areopagus is not a fictional elephant from ‘Sesame Street!” (That’s “Suffleupagus!”) No, the Areopagus was a sort of arena, a place of debate and discourse! And those things were very highly developed in the Greek culture, and especially in Athens!
Well, Paul was very good at those things! As a Pharisee, he was well-educated. He could speak well. And at a certain point, his reputation had gotten around, and not just as a preacher, but as a speaker and a debater. I once heard a very good talk about Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. And Corinth was another important Greek city. And in the lecture, the speaker was
saying that when Paul was coming to Corinth, (later on) they were ready to debate him! They had raised debate to the stature of an Olympic Sport! They had their great debaters – their “local heroes,” and they wanted to take him on!
If you remember, Paul didn’t accommodate them. Read the beginning of I Corinthians sometime. In the beginning of that letter, he said, “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom.” Because, as he said, “…Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. ” (I Cor. 2:1, 1:17) Paul didn’t want his skills in debate to take precedence over the gospel message!
So, that was the culture. And here in Athens, they wanted to take him on, too! But he hadn’t built his reputation yet, and they weren’t exactly sure who he was. They heard about him “arguing” in the synagogue, and some of them went to hear him. And he went out into the streets and the market places, too. And the news about him was getting around. So it wasn’t long before the philosophers got a hold of him, and took him to the Areopagus – that place where they debated, and talked about new ideas. There, they were ready to hear and to debate his “new teaching.”
They quickly learned that Paul was good! He did well in Athens. And his speech is recorded for us here in Acts 17. As we think about this, one one of the things I want you to see is that, when he spoke, he used “their world” as references. He had looked around the city, and he had seen all their religious idols and shrines. And that’s what he talked about that day. He used none of the scripture references he probably used in the synagogue. He made no reference to Jewish history or culture. (And that was probably hard for him as a Pharisee!)
What he did was, he used things in their world in order to turn their world “upside down!” That’s the best way to convince people! That’s what Jesus did. He talked about things with which they were familiar.
So Paul started out saying, “I see that in every way you are very religious.” “I’ve seen your many objects of worship.” “But as I walked along, I saw one idol labeled, ‘To the unknown God.’” The Greeks had gods for everything. They had a god of the harvest, a god of fertility, a god of war, and so on… And apparently, if the people weren’t sure which of the many gods to thank or to worship for something, they would set up an idol to “the unknown god.” It was sort of a “catch-all god!”
Well, Paul used that as a launching point to talk to them. And he wasn’t necessarily implying that that particular statue represented his God, Yahweh. But it gave him the chance to tell them that they didn’t really “know God,” and that they could “know God!” That’s what Paul is talking about here. He’s talking about “knowing” the “unknown God.” That’s the most important thing about our faith, too! “Knowing God.” And that makes me think of a quote by one of my favorite authors, John Eldredge. He said, “Too often People substitute ‘knowing the right things’ for ‘knowing God.’” That makes people “religious” but not necessarily “spiritual,” doesn’t it?
In other words, like the Athenians, people are sometimes “very religious” in what they do, but they don’t really “know God” all that much. And that’s what I want us to think about today. Because we can easily fall back into that mode, can’t we? And sometimes the “religious” things we do can even get in the way of our “knowing God!”
I want you to think about that in your life. What does that look like? Do you know God? Or do you just know “about God?” Now I know that’s something we often just “assume,” isn’t it? “I’m a Christian, so of course I know God!” or “I’m a church member, so of course I know God!” But is that true? I want you to think about that. And not just think about it, but to seek to know God better. And the best way I know to do that is to spend time doing it. When we don’t spend time with a friend, what happens to that friendship? It’s the same with God. If we neglect the time with him, our relationship with him will start to grow “stale.”
As you think about that, I’d like you to connect it with what we’re talking about today. I’d like you to consider that it was when the disciples “knew God,” that they “turned the world upside down!” That made all the difference. As I said, that’s why Jesus came, so that the people could know God better.
The disciples knew God, and it certainly turned their world “upside down!” It turns our world “upside down,” too! When people “know God,” it makes life completely different! It happened in every city the Apostles visited! It changed the course of history. And the church of Jesus Christ became the thing that made the greatest impact on the history of this planet, and nothing else has ever come close!
So, let me close with this question. Has “knowing God” turned your world “upside down?”
Eternal God, help us to know you better. Help us to seek you each day – to seek you with all of our heart! Help us to know that we are different, and that indeed, nothing can ever separate us from your love in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Help us to know these things today and forever, in his name, Amen.