Paul in Athens: Proclaiming Christ to a Christless Culture

Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens

It’s midday in the year AD 50. Mr. Artist just graduated from Apollos University with skills in painting and sculpting. He is now prepared to go to the marketplace and make a living selling his work to the Athenian people. As Artist walks from his house to the urban center of commerce, He bypasses the colosseums, theaters, libraries, and the 15,000 statues of the Roman and Greek god and goddesses (Aphrodite – goddess of beauty, Bacchus – the god of brotherly affection, Zeus – the Father of the gods).

When He enters the marketplace of the city of Athens, a dense population of around 12,000, He struggles to find any spot to set up and sell his art collection. Other craftworkers and idol makers are yelling at each other: “I was here first.” As artist looks around, He becomes overwhelmed by the amount of people that are there. Businesspersons were making deals face-to-face, philosophers were debating and teaching about the sciences, news reporters were heralding their messages to the people.

Finally, artist gets a spot to sell his items. The Athenians run up to him with their drachma coinage, shouting: “Give me your sculpting of Metis so I can have wise counsel or paint me the god of Demeter to hang up in my room so my crops will grow.” Before making the deal, the people start moving frantically. Artist wonders what is going on. Next, he hears from an old woman that there is a peculiar man in the streets proclaiming some foreign deity. She says to Artist in a raspy tone: “They say his name is Paul. He traveled from Thessalonica and Berea to here.” Artist responds: “That’s 250 roman miles. It must have taken him 3 days by sea. He must have something important to say, even though he looks like he hasn’t taken a shower in days.

As artist begins to approach this man, the Epicureans and the Stoic philosophers begin to dialogue with Paul, asking many questions. Artist notices that some were impressed with Paul’s understanding of Greek culture and philosophy while others were laughing at him, calling him an ignorant babbler. Nevertheless, the philosophers invited him to preach a sermon at the Areopagus, which is found in your Bible in Acts 17:22-34. The Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill, was a 370 foot rock where the greatest minds would come together and discuss politics, philosophy, and science.

Artist becomes so eager to hear this man proclaim his God that He decides to skip work for the day, hoping that this God could bring joy and meaning to his life, unlike the gods of silver who can’t speak. As artist takes his seat, the Apostle Paul stands up in the midst of the Areopagus with a stern and compassionate tone: “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an alter with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.‘ Therefore what you worship in ignorance this I proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own prophets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’

Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. ”Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” So Paul went out of their midst, but some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

There are many people today like Mr. Artist, the intellectually elite philosophers, and the people of Athens who are longing for an inward peace, who want to be fused with meaning and purpose, to have a worldview that will answer why they exist, what their purpose is, and where they are going after this life is over. The problem is that the Bible says men and women are more prone to believe in falsehood than truth, to love darkness more than light, to worship anything and everything except the true and living God. As Romans 1 rightly states: Men have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served the created things rather than the creator.

Then you have us, the people of God. The ones who were just as lost as the world, following our own selfish desires and the Prince of the power of the air, Satan, who is now working in the sons of disobedience. How thankful should we be, that God extended unmerited favor to us (grace). That God revealed to us our sin and gave us the strength through His Holy spirit to repent and trust in Him rather than false gods. That our old self has been crucified and we no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in us. C.S. Lewis said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

As we look at our text today, I want us to examine the character of Paul and how it affected his evangelism. There are three basic questions I want us to ask ourselves. (1) Where did Paul go and why? (2) How did he feel? (3) What did he do? My goal for answering these questions is not to give you 5 secret principles that will help you become a better evangelist by tomorrow. The purpose of my sermon is to introspect Paul’s life to understand the kind of heart, character, and attitude one possesses when they have a genuine relationship with God.

Where did Paul go and why? Before we can answer this question, let’s briefly discuss his background. He was born in Tarsus, a Greek Mediterranean City known for intellectual elitism, but was encouraged by his parents to study Judaism in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, a famous rabbi and leading authority in the Sanhedrin. He grew up to be a Pharisee, a group who emphasized strict orthodoxy. Before becoming a follower of Jesus, Paul zealously persecuted the Christian church, trying to destroy it. In Acts 7, he held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, the first martyr and dragged believers to prison in 8:3.

His life completely changed when he was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus to lock up more Christians. A great light appeared to him and he was struck blind. A voice called out to him, Saul, why are you persecuting me? This was the resurrected Jesus. Paul’s conversion dramatically changed his life and he began preaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish messiah and the Son of God. He went on three separate missionary journeys across the world, was stoned, shipwrecked, beaten, and threatened countless times. He was able to endure all of these hardships because God took out his heart of stone (idolatry, legalism, murder, pride) and gave him His Holy Spirit, moving Paul to live for the glory of God.

First, in order for Paul to have an impact on the culture, he must have an inward change of the heart. This change happens when you are born again and have a personal relationship with God. The metaphor of marriage is used in the same way to describe our relationship with God. Isaiah 54:5 states: “For your Maker is your husband. The Lord Almighty is his name; he is called the God of all the earth.” So as our relationship with God gets better, our desires and motives become more like His.

Before my wife and I got married, I didn’t care for watermelons. My family never ate them. The only fruit I remember eating growing up was apples and bananas. When we got married, I found out that Olya’s favorite fruit is watermelon. Now, I love them and eat healthier than before. Unfortunately, Olya didn’t know before she married me that our refrigerator at home was always stocked with cans of Coca-Cola. We have compromised to caffeine free Coke. My point is that we are gradually conforming into the likeness of the one to whom we are closest to. Because she liked watermelons and we hang out all the time, I eventually had to eat them with her and as a result I began to grow a desire for them. As God and you spend more time together, you will inevitably desire to be holy and compassionate because thats His character. Second, because of this inward change of the heart through a relationship with God, Paul was effective in evangelizing to the culture. We can better understand why Paul preached in the places that he did and endured the trials that he experienced. It’s because he had died to his old nature and God is working through him. Because God loves His creation, and is willing that no one perish, Paul also has the same desires. This is why Jesus’ last words to his disciples were: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to EVERY creature.” This includes the Jews and the Gentile people.

Where did he go? The first location where Paul went was the synagogue, where the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles were. Acts 17:2 states that as his custom was, Paul went to the synagogues whenever he entered a new city. I believe he did this for two reasons. First, because God desired that his own people, the Israelites, return to Him. Second, because Paul could relate to the Jews. He grew up in that environment his whole life and was able to use his gift of understanding the Old Testament to point them to Christ. What gifts has God given to you that will affect your sphere of influence?

The second location of Paul’s activity was the agora, the central plaza of Athens. This was a marketplace of ideas, philosophies, businesses, and art where the unbelieving Gentiles were. These were the common people. You had businesspersons making transactions on the street corners rather than office buildings, journalists heralding news (they had no newspapers), and professors engaging face to face. The agora was where everyone came together to buy and sell or share ideas, and Paul goes public there with his faith. To the modern person, it doesn’t make sense that Paul would be public with his faith. Even some misguided Christians would say thats why we have different temples, synagogues, and church buildings so that people can practice their faith in privacy and not be bothered by others with different religious convictions.  However, if there is a God who is the Creator of everything, that God would have to logically be the Lord over every area. You couldn’t keep him in a private place like Sunday worship and the Wednesday Bible study, but God will be outflowing from your heart in every situation and place. Jesus said there is coming a time when you will neither worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem, but all worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth. Often times, unfortunately, we keep it private.

You just completed your grocery shopping and are putting your food items on the conveyer belt, waiting for the cashier to ask if you have a Kroger plus card. You respond: Yes, I do. She says, “How are you today?” You say: “Fine, and you?” She makes this statement: Well, okay. I was watching the news today and heard that there was another shooting on the West end of Louisville. The only news you ever hear now is bad. In what way do you respond? Do you just say oh yea, I agree. The news is depressing, or do you take this as an opportunity to say, “Well, do you want to hear good news instead?” and then share the gospel. I must confess that I have had opportunities like this before and failed to be faithful to what God wanted me to do. Let’s be like Paul who was always ready to give an answer to the hope that was in Him, but let us do this with meekness and gentleness.

The third location that Paul went to was the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill. This 370 foot rock is where the greatest minds would come together and discuss politics, philosophy, and science. It would be equivalent to being invited to speak at Harvard or Cambridge except that if you were charged with introducing foreign deities, you could be killed. Paul’s life was on the line. He was invited by the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of his day. The Epicureans were materialists who believed that even if gods existed at all, they were far removed from us. This is eighteenth century deism (clockmaker). Stoic philosophers were pantheists (Spinoza), believing that the ultimate divine principle was to be found in all of nature and the spark of divinity within. Modern day components were Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan who famously said, “The universe all there was, is, and ever will be.” Interestingly enough, these two types of philosophies are saturated in our universities today.

How did Paul interact with these people? He seems to begin on common ground by saying that they are religious. This word is used to mean fearing the gods and does not mean the negative sense of being superstitious. Paul is pointing out that he has carefully walked around the city and he knows which gods they serve. He is letting the Athenians know that He has taken time to study their worldview. This is an important observation in the text because I believe Christians today are ignorant of what others believe. As we engage the culture, not only should we be prepared to give an answer to what we believe, but we should also take time to understand how the culture thinks.

Second, Paul asserts that the unknown god is the God he proclaims in the agora. In other words, he is not introducing a foreign deity to which he could be killed for. Rather, he is pointing out that their unknown God that they worship in ignorance is the God that He believes in, the Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Father, and Judge of the whole world. Paul’s speech reveals that he made points of connection (agreement, contextualization) and points of contradiction (disagreement). He was willing to understand where they were coming from while also telling them that they need to repent of their idols and serve the living God.

The next question I want to answer is how did Paul feel and what did he see? Paul was greatly distressed when he saw the city was full of idols. The word for distressed is the same word used in the Old Testament for jealousy when God saw His people worshipping idols. The word for jealousy is not in the sense of being envious of another person because he or she has a better car, home, or athletic ability. This jealousy is profound because love is not just sweet feelings but its thunderous feelings. For example, if a husband sees another person flirting with his wife, he is right to be jealous, for only he has the right to flirt with his wife since they are married.

Another example is if you love somebody and you see them going in the wrong direction, you don’t just say oh, no. I hope that person will be okay. No, you get mad. You say: “I will not let that drug destroy this person’s life and go to jail. I care too much for them to make bad decisions. Example of mug shots. In the same way, since God created the world, only worship, praise, and honor should go to Him. He is telling them: Don’t fall into the hands of these idols, come to me. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Paul also felt a strong compassion for these people because he knew that they were lost. He saw something that moved him to tears. The sights and sounds that portrayed man’s fundamental idolatry and rejection of God. Like Calvin, Paul could have said: “That man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols.” This emotional connection to the people gave him the audacity to publicly proclaim Christ. It also gave him the courage to stand in front of the most sophisticated philosophers in the world, risk his life, tell them of their ignorance of the unknown god, and then declare to them that they need to repent because Jesus is coming again. There is no 5 point sermon that can produce this passion. It takes reflection, prayer, habits of the heart, and spending quality time with God to know How He feels and thinks.

Not only did Paul feel greatly distressed, he also saw idols under the art, business, government, and philosophies of the Athenians. What is an idol? An idol is excessive devotion to, or reverence for some person or thing. It replaces the one, true God. Throughout the Old Testament, God showed how worthless the idols of other gods were. The Philistines devoted their worship to Dagon, the fish god, even though it was twice knocked to the floor by Yahweh. The contest between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal show that the True God has power and the false gods are worthless.

One of the greatest examples in the Bible where God demonstrates his power against false idols is 2 Kings 5. Naman, the prime minister of Syria, a pagan, was a leper that needed to be healed. He knew about Elisha, that He was a man of God and a well-known prophet. After he got healed, he told Elisha that He would only serve the God of Israel. When he went back to worship in the house of Rimmon with his master, he would bow down but not show his allegiance to the idol because he had the dirt from Israel under him.

In this passage, we see that Paul shows the futility of idols. First, he says that God does not dwell in temples made with hands since He made the world. You can’t confine God to a particular location if He is Lord over all. Next, he says that He can’t be served by human hands as if he needed anything. Since God created the world, he surely doesn’t need someone to serve Him. Rather, He serves His creation by giving them life and breath and all things. We don’t build our tower of Babel, or construct something to Him. He came to us. There are still religions that bow before statues and icons. One day, I visited the Hindu temple of Louisville out of curiosity. When I got there, I saw three miniature temples inside an open space that was at least sixty feet tall. Inside each of these temples were shrines filled with gold, images of various gods, and fruits and vegetables at the altar where incense was being burned. It broke my heart to see them trusting in these gods that they have made in their own image, not recognizing that a resurrection is coming, not a reincarnation.

Idolatry extends beyond the worship of idols and images and false gods. Even if the American west doesn’t bow physically before a statue, they show their excessive devotion to something. It may be the altar called the stadium where the sports deity is worshipped, the fast food restaurants where the god of gluttony is worshipped, the god of wall street where greed is worshipped, the god of lust where pornography is worshipped, the iPhone god where entertainment is worshipped. Are you holding an idol in your heart? If so, God desires for you to trust in Him rather than the pleasures and comforts of this life.

The final question I want to ask is What did he do? First, the Apostle Paul engaged with different types of people. He was able to evangelize to the Jewish people through His knowledge of the Old Testament. He went to the Athenian people, even quoting their own poets, demonstrating that He was an apologist. He not only knew his worldview well, but knew it better than they did. This helps us understand that we should do our best to engage the culture with the gift set that God has given. We may not be able to dialogue with the philosophers at The University of Louisville, but surely we can grab a cup of coffee with our next door neighbor and share the good news.

Because Paul reasoned in the marketplace, He was able to be invited to the Areopagus to discuss more about Jesus and the resurrection. If we are faithful to the opportunities God gives us each day, He may continue to open doors for us. When He preaches his sermon at the Areopagus, he reveals to them that the God they do not know is the one He is proclaiming. Then, he led his audience to the main themes of the gospel, such as the need to repent, the coming judgment, and the gift of eternal life found in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Paul used the resurrection of Jesus as the ultimate proof. He showed that God has given assurance of the coming judgment by raising Jesus from the dead. If Jesus did rise from the dead, then the Athenians should believe. He also said that their times of ignorance have passed because one cannot ignore truth for too long without being responsible for their behavior. Paul was not afraid to be honest and upfront with people, even if it may offend them.

Whether Jew or Gentile, philosopher or simple person, Paul understood that Christ was for all. As Paul shows us throughout his experience in Athens, where we begin may vary with the spiritual condition of our audience, but where we end must always be the same. Proclaiming the reality of sin, judgment, and the need for repentance with Jesus as the only way to salvation. If you are not a believer, I want to ask: Are you going to reject, be reluctant, or be receptive to the gospel like Dionysius and Damaris? If you are a believer, ask yourself the same questions: Where do you go with the gospel, how do you feel about the lostness of my family, friends, and neighbors, and what price are you willing to pay to honor God with all of my heart, mind, soul, and strength?

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