It’s a new world where God has revealed Jesus to be the Messiah. He was rejected by his people and crucified but was raised to life again, showing his approval by God. Jesus is God’s Son, His promised Saviour, and, quite literally, the Champion of the world. But will the world receive Him?
Paul has been travelling a great distance from his home church in Antioch to take the gospel to the Gentile world. He left with Silas and also Timothy whom he collected on his journey. Paul preached in Thessalonica and Berea and was escorted from Berea to Athens for his safety while Silas and Timothy remained. His travel partners were summoned for, however, and Paul waits for them in Athens.
- 16-21 The context of the gospel in Athens
- 22-31 Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles
- 22-23 Introduction
- 24-28 About the Lord of heaven and earth
- 29-31 About the man God has appointed to judge the world
- 32-34 The people’s response
16-21 The context of the gospel in Athens
“…he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols..” The idols described are of gold or silver in tribute to as many gods as the Athenians are aware of and even to any that they have not yet heard (17:29; 23). They were not merely statues for artists to create and admire, but were dedicated to the gods and regarded even as gods. This distressed Paul. He didn’t simply see a cultural reflection from a spiritual people, he saw the foolishness and ignorance of a people who have failed to acknowledge the one true God. They were lost without the knowledge of the truth.
“…so he reasoned…” So Paul got to work to reason with the people. They were responding to information that they had heard up until now about deity and now Paul took up the opportunity to inform them of the reality. You see, Paul doesn’t consider that the truth is open to interpretation or that their perception of the world is just as valid as his. Rather, he sees that they are lacking the piece of the puzzle of life that can set them free! They need to know Jesus and this is not just his own faith and part of his custom, but it is the truth which they need to hear and respond to. The gospel is something that we can speak reasonably to people about. Of course it is since it stems from where life came from.
“…What is this babbler trying to say?…Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection…” Although he was reasoning with them, he also spoke to them, perhaps, in the manner which he had grown used to among Jews and Gentile converts. He included background information that may have sounded reasonable and contextual for a Jew but to the Athenians, this was a new idea and a new perception.
“…talking about and listening to the latest ideas…” His new audience were very interested to hear more since this was their custom. Paul had attracted the ears of locals who loved to listen to new ideas. They were philosophers. They were people who enjoyed to ask the big questions and fill the answers with interesting and plausible – even testable ideas. It’s ironic that the oldest story ever told, because it is literally the oldest story, is being considered by the Athenians as a new idea. Sure, Jesus is a new name in the world, but his story is part of the oldest one alive. Strangely, even though we now live in a world where the story of Jesus is old, I sense that he is so misunderstood, so overlooked and so under taught (both literally and properly) that he can even be presented today as a new idea. Don Carson, who is an North American Theologian, has been doing university missions for 40 years and he reflected on a pod-cast (speaking at Queensland Theological College) that the current missions he runs are not like the ones he used to run. Forty years ago, people knew enough of the story of Jesus and of church teaching that they had plenty to argue about. Today, introducing people to Jesus gives a hugely different response. People are interested and not offended. People have elementary questions rather than hate and pre-rehearsed debate.
22-31 Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles
“…you are ignorant of the very thing you worship…” This is the opening of Paul’s speech and the point of his talk. He didn’t open with this line of course, he remarked positively on the very thing that he had found disturbing. He was taking their idolatry and describing it in a light that would lead him to talk about Jesus. Paul had found an opening and an intersection between his message and their understanding. This is a great lesson in evangelism, knowing where to start and where the gospel connects with the audience. When and how you begin is really not important except that you find where it is! The really important part of sharing the gospel is not so much where you begin but where you end up. The gospel is all about repairing people’s ignorance and giving opportunity to turn to Jesus and live.
24-28 About the Lord of heaven and earth
“…The God who made the world and everything in it…” This is Paul’s way in. The gospel is universal because the God who sent Jesus is the same God who made heaven and earth and everything in it. Of course, he is the only God! The point, though, is that God is not local and subject to certain communities and their borders. Rather, he is above everything and we only need to know who he is and what he has done and calls us to do. He is not contained by temples or things made by humans because he, first and foremost, made us! Even Solomon, who made the first great Temple knew this (See 1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6).
“…as if he needs anything…” It’s a great mistake of all human religion that treats God like he needs to be appeased, fed, calmed, polished or whatever. Perhaps a robot might feel like they can provide for their human creators who made them for service. But the comparison is more like a soccer ball who feels that they have something to offer David Beckham. What possibly could an inflated cow-hide give to an athlete who knows how to be in control. Beckham does not serve the ball and the ball does not serve him – the ball merely is and does at Beckham’s whim and fancy.
“…rather, he himself gives…” It’s an equal mistake to think that God does not care about us puny humans. He is the giver of life. Because He created us and all things, we owe him our attention and respect. The world did not appear out of nothing by accident! God made everything and he place Adam in the world, with Eve, to fill it and subdue it. It is not our place to define God or to order his limitations but to acknowledge ours. From one man, all of life came. And for that, we give thanks to God.
“…God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him…” So, the gospel begins with this information: that God is the loving creator of all things. Next, it follows that all people on earth need to know him and thank him. Just as Romans 1:20 says, the basic outcome of life ought to be that we thank God and worship Him. The bible says that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-2). Mankind is without excuse for ignoring their Creator. Paul adds that really God is not far away but near. The truth about sin is that mankind never reaches out to God. The truth about grace is that God always reaches out for us. Paul again reasons with the Athenians by using some of their own poets to help his argument. He has seen how their thinking and religion reflect that they are God’s creatures who need to be taught clearly about Jesus.
29-31 About the man God has appointed to judge the world
“…in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now…” God has put up with idol worship for centuries. This was the constant battle of the Old Testament: to overcome idolatry in the hearts of the Israelites. The kings of Israel were graded good or evil based on their tearing down or building up of idolatry. God taught the Jews directly and they ought to have been a lighthouse for the world to tear down their idols and learn though the Jews who the one true God is. Instead, God has been putting up with idolatry for generations. Paul calls this ignorance. But the time is now to put aside ignorance and to teach the world that the living God has spoken to this world. And notice that the ignorance is not an excuse for sin because their next step is to repent.
“…he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed…” God’s dominion and power and authority has been established in Paul’s speech. The sin of all humanity has been laid down. The consequences of continued ignorance or rejection of this message is judgement which is coming. When the day of judgement comes, all will be judged equally and fairly. It is a day of justice. And the one who will judge is Jesus. He came the first time to save, but the second time he comes, it will not be to save but to judge (John 12:47; Acts 10:42; 2 Tim 4:1; Rev 14:7). All of humanity will stand condemned or freed based on their response to Jesus as Lord.
“…he has given proof of this to everyone…” How can we tell the world that Jesus is Lord when they are not Jewish or have any understanding of the being one God over all? How do you convince anyone that this is the truth and that Jesus is more than a carpentar and a prophet? You tell them about the resurrection. Paul places the resurrection as the central most important element of our faith (1 Cor 15). It was the resurrection that converted Paul! Not news about Jesus and his message but knowing that Jesus had been raised from the dead as he appeared to Paul on the Damascus road.
32-34 The people’s response
“…when they heard about the resurrection of the dead…” Now this is where the division begins. Some heard about the resurrection and became followers of Paul and believed while others sneered. John Dickson has done some great work in writing and presenting documentaries on the subject of the resurrection and the trustworthiness of the eye-witnesses. His books and DVDs like ‘The Christ Files’ and “The Life of Jesus” are excellent resources to have. Getting to grips with this discussion is important. Our faith is founded on the reality of the resurrection. Our hope is based on the reality of the resurrection. Our Lord’s character is tested on the reality of the resurrection.
The gospel preached to non-Scriptural folk begins with a different context but still concludes with Jesus as Lord and the resurrection from the dead. No human is exempt from this one test: do they believe that Jesus is Lord, risen from the dead. Romans 10:9 says, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe with your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Otherwise…judgement is coming.
- Being distressed by the world that you live in. Have you considered your own reaction to people saying OMG? Do you worry about the amount of energy and time and dedication people give to shopping malls? When you look at the world, do you see people striving to get along while we wait for our lives to be over or do you see people living in ignorance and desperately in need of a Saviour? Reflect on the way you see the world you live in.
- Reasoning instead of attacking. Even though Paul was distressed by the idolatry, he used it as a way to make inroads to the gospel. He did not attack their sin but reasoned with them to see the truth. It seems like Paul did not view the Athenians as primitives but as fellow humans in need of the gospel. Consider how you view those around you? Are they exempt from judgement and true worship because of their different look at life? Or are they living in ignorance and need persuasion to repent?
- The resurrection as proof. Do you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Why? What makes you so sure? Could you persuade someone who is interested to listen?