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Paul in Athens

This article is adapted from a sermon preached by Adam Brock entitled “Paul in Athens.”

What’s your favorite vacation?

Are you an activity person or a lounge-around person?

Mountains or beach?

Museum or waterpark?

Well, Paul shows up in Athens after a very long, difficult season of ministry. His traveling buddies are a few days behind him and so he finds himself with a few days on his hands. And what happens next is quite revealing. Because I’m all for vacations! Truly! If you have the opportunity to get away, do it! But remember this: We take a vacation from the stuff we do, but not from we are! Paul understood that we never take a vacation from our faith, or from the life God has called us to live. And we’re going to see that on full display here in Acts chapter 17.

Verse 16 is going to help answer the question, what did Paul see?

“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Acts 17:16 NIV

What Paul saw

He saw a people and a place that was highly religious and full of worship. The problem was their worship was in all the wrong places. He looks around and sees that the city was full of idols. Some have estimated that at this time there were more than 30,000 idols in the city.

When we think about idols today, I know it is possible to think that idolatry is not something we struggle too much with. I know this is possible because I think that way sometimes.

You see, I had a buddy named Nic that lived across the hall from me in college. His roommate was a foreign exchange student from Nepal who was Hindu. Part of the Hindu religion is a belief in multiple gods. And so, this guy had the classic-looking figurines that for him were objects of worship. One of the problems was that my buddy Nic thought it was hilarious to take his roommate’s idols and hide them in my room. So, I’d come back from class and one time the idol was in our fish tank, another time it was next to my toothbrush, once I pulled back the sheets to my bed, and right there on the blanket was this idol. It made me so nervous! I was for sure he was going to think I was stealing them and get mad at me.

Unfortunately, I think that’s how many people view idols today.

An idol is anything to which we turn when we need something only Jesus can provide.

Any person, place, thing, or thought that you look to as your source is an idol in your life. Idols aren’t just statues worshiped at shrines; they are substitute gods and functional saviors.

Kyle Idleman, in his book “Gods at War,” identifies several different idols that we worship. His list includes the god of food, the god of sex, the god of entertainment, the god of success, the god of money, the god of achievement, the god of romance, the god of family, and the god of me.

Richard Foster is another theologian who has written extensively in the field of spiritual disciplines. He says that the three biggest idols tempting mankind are money, sex, and power.

Idols can take many forms and often look like the need for peer approval, and the relentless pursuit of success. All of this should remind us that idols don’t just look like small figurines from the far east. They actually look like anything we turn to instead of turning to Jesus.

My favorite line from Idleman’s book is a short opening sentence from the devotions at the end of each chapter. Each devotion begins with this: Idols are defeated not by being removed but by being replaced.

What Paul felt

“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Acts 17:16 NIV

After looking around and seeing the idols that filled the city, Paul’s heart was burdened!

Paul knows what it means to be zealous. He knows the essence of being devout. But he also knows what it means to be transformed by the gospel! And he sees these people and he recognizes their lostness.

We too must recognize the lostness around us. Not so that we can point it out and come with pride or arrogance but because we will never have a burden for people until we see the effects of sin for what they really are: death and loss. What Paul saw around him burdened him! It bothered him! He was torn up about it!

Paul’s burden, his deep concern for what he saw, the lostness and idolatry around him, fueled his message. And God opened doors for that message to be heard.

Are you greatly distressed by what you see around you?

When was the last time you felt a burden for others?

I believe the primary reason we don’t share our faith is because we don’t feel as Paul felt. We don’t feel burdened for people. And this is because we do not see like Paul. When Paul walked around, he didn’t just “notice” the idols. He looked and saw men and women, created by God in the image of God, giving idols the praise and worship that was due to God alone!

Where did Paul go?

“So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. 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.” Acts 17:17-18 NIV

Here we see Paul going to the people.

The synagogue represents ministry to people who are more religious than others. This describes the Lake Area well. We’re filled with many people who are familiar with church words and religious practices, and may even be devout in practice. And yet, that doesn’t mean that every person in the Lake Area is following Jesus.

Paul had an extremely fruitful ministry proclaiming the gospel to those whom the world thought didn’t need it. May we never take for granted that a person knows and understands the gospel.

Over the years here at Trinity, I’ve seen a large number of students and adults who want to join the church, and then after explaining the gospel to them they realize that what they had previously understood was something totally different than the gospel of Jesus. That’s why gospel clarity is a guiding value for us as a church.

The marketplace represents “Mondays.” In other words, the everyday rhythms of life. The reality is that while we will always gather for weekly worship, there are people who will never come to faith unless someone engages them where they currently are.

The marketplace is about taking faith to the ordinary places of life. That means at school, the gas station, work, and family dinners. We started this message by saying we don’t get to take vacations from our faith, well you don’t get days off either. Because following Jesus is not just about what you do, but about who you are! Christianity is not defined by where we go once a week, but by who we are, every day of the week. The challenge is how do you begin leveraging the relationships and spheres of influence that God has given you for kingdom purposes?

The short answer is by being intentional. You’ve got to have a plan. You’ve got to be seeking out opportunities. You’ve got to be regularly praying for God to use you. And you’ve got to walk around with your eyes open. Constantly looking for where God is moving, and how he’s calling you to join him.

What we take away from this is that we need to get where people are and engage them day by day.

“I wanna be where the people are!”

Not just a little mermaid song, it’s actually a kingdom strategy!

Now let’s turn our attention to what happens when they take Paul to the Areopagus.

Areopagus means “Hill of Ares,” the Greek god of war. The Romans knew this god as Mars, which explains why we find “Mars Hill” in some Bible translations. This is the religious and civil center of Athens, where they would often meet for a free exchange of ideas.

Let’s pick up the scripture with verse 19 and go all the way to verse 24.

19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?
20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”
21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.
23 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. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
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 human hands.


The next several verses are going to give us insight into what Paul said.

Paul has the opportunity to give the Athenians the unchanging message about Jesus.

In verse 22 Paul begins by establishing a point of contact with the people.

Notice how his message draws them in by identifying their religious interest. His comments let us know that he understands the people. And he plays to their curiosity. He wants them to be receptive to the message, so he utilizes what he knows about these people.

I think the lesson for us is to also live our lives strategically, and in ways that make others wonder about the hope and joy we have. May we be mindful of where people are so that when they are hurting, we come to them with comfort. When they are down, we are encouraging.

When they are lost, we offer light.

He says that he has seen all the objects of worship and he even found an idol that was addressed to an Unknown God.

I wonder if Paul were here if he would say the same thing about our town? You see, we have the trappings of being religious, but if we look deeper many people are simply concerned with appearances and accolades, and accumulating wealth, much more than actually loving God.
He goes on to establish in verse 24 that God is the Creator!

Paul begins his address with creation, asserting that God made the world and everything in it.

Paul declares that God does not live in temples, he is not contained or limited by human construction.

“In the beginning, God” — that’s Genesis 1:1. This is the message of the Bible and a necessary ingredient to understanding the gospel. God is Holy, he is the one that this life is about! We are not in charge. He’s the creator, we’re a part of creation!

This may sound elementary but how many people walk through life convinced that they are the center of the universe. Spoiler, you’re not. And neither am I. This is his world! That is why he gets to make the rules. He gets to assign purpose. He gets to shape identity. Because he created us!

Look at verse 25.

“And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”

Here Paul declares that God is the Sustainer of Life!

Paul wants them to see that God is the provider.  We say that we are serving God, and in his great plan we get to participate in the work of God, but at no point does God require us. He is the source. He is the provider. And this flies directly in the face of the Greek theology of the day that said the gods needed the service of men.

Paul would later write in Colossians 1:17 that “He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.”

Look at verse 26.

“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.”

Here we see that God is the Ruler of the nations.

God is intimately involved in the lives of creation. He is sovereign over the seasons, the borders, the rise and fall of nations, and all of history.

This was important for the Athenians to hear, as they considered themselves to be a special people, you know, God’s gift to the world. Sound like any other nations you know?

Well, Paul wants them to know their place in history is all a part of the sovereign and providential hand of God and is not anything that they should boast in or place their hope in.

Look at verse 27.

“God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”

God is knowable.

In contrast to the teachings of Epicureans, who viewed the gods as being detached and uninvolved in daily affairs, Paul teaches that God’s purpose in creating humans was that “they might seek God.”          He lovingly desires that people discover their Creator.

“He is not far from any one of us” — what a wonderful truth. God created us, God is for us, God is with us! Paul is declaring that through Jesus, you and I can actually know and be known by God. The one who created it all wants to pour out his love on you! This is what makes the gospel message so amazing! You can know God! You can be a part of his family! God is not detached, disinterested, or unengaged. He is near to us, but we need the work of Jesus Christ to know him.

If you’re coming from a society that attempts to worship every “god” it hears about in hopes of not messing up and wonders whether they’ll ever find favor with the divine, this has got to be a breath of fresh air.

Today, if you’ve been searching all your life, running from pursuit to pursuit, hoping the next thing will satisfy you, I hope that you too get a breath of fresh air from this. God wants you to know him! He’s made a way for you to be in right relationship with him!

Notice the next two verses.

28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’  As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “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 human design and skill.


Here Paul is establishing that God is the Father of humanity.

In verse 28 Paul quotes two pagan poets.

And then he works hard to help us see that to think of God like an object would be a huge reduction. He says God is not stone or gold or silver. But that’s our temptation, to make gods in our image. It is foolish for us to make gods in our own image when God’s Word tells us that it is us that have been made in his image! This is the foolishness of idolatry. God has put within us a desire to know and worship him, but we try to make for ourselves gods that look like what we think they should look like.

30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
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 everyone by raising him from the dead.”


God is the Judge.

The fact that God will judge is clearly taught in scripture. Paul now tells the Athenians that God has committed this judgment to his Son, Jesus, who will judge everyone on a fixed day, in perfect righteousness. If people will repent, however, this same Judge can save them. Salvation comes through him because Jesus lived the life we fallen humans couldn’t live, died the death we deserved, and rose on our behalf.

What were the results?

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.”
33 At that, Paul left the Council.
34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.


Not all changed their mind that day.

We see three responses:

1.) Some thought it nonsense,
2.) others were curious and wanted more info,
3.) others became followers and believed!

Paul shows us an example of living an intentional life for the gospel. He was burdened, and that burden fueled his message.

Today, if you are living your life like the people of Athens, with a “just in case” mentality, you need to hear this. Maybe you come to church — just in case, you say your prayers — just in case. You give to missions — just in case. If that’s why you’re here or if that’s why you come, in an effort to appease an “Unknown God,” then know that this is the God I proclaim to you!

Jesus Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He came to earth, and he was declared “Immanuel” — God is With Us!

The heart of the gospel is about knowing God personally and intimately. And the way to do that is and always has been through faith in Jesus!

If you are ready to follow Jesus or want to know more, let us know by emailing communications@tbclc.org or calling 337-480-1555.
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