What, if anything, can we learn from Paul’s experience and approach in Athens as recorded in Acts 17? Are there similarities to Athens in the first century and America in the twentieth century? Have people changed over the years or are we still essentially the same? Is Paul’s address in the Areopagus to the Athenians a message that we can pattern our message after? Has the gospel changed over the centuries? Does the Bible still speak to us where we are today?
In John Stott’s commentary on Acts he draws these conclusions about Paul’s experience in Athens and challenges us to be Christians who see, feel, and speak in our world like Paul did in his:
The Areopagus address reveals the comprehensiveness of Paul’s message. He proclaimed God in his fullness as Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Father and Judge. He took in the whole of nature and of history. He passed the whole of time in review, from the creation to the consummation. He emphasized the greatness of God, not only as the beginning and the end of all things, but as the One to whom we owe our being and to whom we must give account. He argued that human beings already know these things by natural or general revelation, and that their ignorance and idolatry are therefore inexcusable. So he called on them with great solemnity, before it was too late, to repent.
Now all this is part of the gospel. Or at least it is the indispensable background to the gospel, without which the gospel cannot effectively be preached. Many people are rejecting the gospel today not because they perceive it to be false, but because they perceive it to be trivial. People are looking for an integrated world-view which makes sense of all their experience. We learn from Paul that we cannot preach the gospel of Jesus without the doctrine of God, or the cross without the creation, or salvation without judgment. Today’s world needs a bigger gospel, the full gospel of Scripture, what Paul later in Ephesus was to call ‘the whole purpose of God’ (20:27, NEB).
It is not only the comprehensiveness of Paul’s message in Athens which is impressive, however, but also the depth and power of his motivation. Why is it that, in spite of the great needs and opportunities of our day, the church slumbers peacefully on, and that so many Christians are deaf and dumb, deaf to Christ’s commission and tongue-tied in testimony? I think the major reason is this: we do not speak as Paul spoke because we do not feel as Paul felt. We have never had the paroxysm of indignation which he had. Divine jealousy has not stirred within us. We constantly pray ‘Hallowed be your Name’, but we do not seem to mean it, or to care that his Name is so widely profaned.
Why is this? It takes us a stage further back. If we do not speak like Paul because we do not feel like Paul, this is because we do not see like Paul. That was the order: he saw, he felt, he spoke. It all began with his eyes. When Paul walked round Athens, he did not just ‘notice’ the idols. The Greek verb used three times…means to ‘observe’ or ‘consider’. So he looked and looked, and thought and thought, until the fires of holy indignation were kindled within him. For he saw men and women, created by God in the image of God, giving to idols the homage which was due to him alone.
Idols are not limited to primitive societies; there are many sophisticated idols too. An idol is a god-substitute. Any person or thing that occupies the place which God should occupy is an idol. Covetousness is idolatry. Ideologies can be idolatries. So can fame, wealth and power, sex, food, alcohol and other drugs, parents, spouse, children and friends, work, recreation, television and possessions, even church, religion and Christian service. Idols always seem particularly dominant in cities. Jesus wept over the impenitent city of Jerusalem. Paul was deeply pained by the idolatrous city of Athens. Have we ever been provoked by the idolatrous cities of the contemporary world?