City breaks are increasingly popular, aren’t they? Thanks to easyJet, Ryanair and the other low-cost airlines, people can now fly off on Friday night for a couple of days in a beautiful city and be back at work on Monday morning. For example, Helen and I were lucky enough to spend a city break in Rome last September to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. It was wonderful to spend a couple of days in that ancient city, looking at its magnificent architecture, absorbing the atmosphere and of course enjoying Italian cuisine!
The apostle Paul once found himself on his own ‘city break’. He wasn’t in Rome, but that other great capital of the ancient world – Athens. Athens had been the pre-eminent city in Greece for over five hundred years, and was full of beautiful buildings and high culture. It was also the intellectual ‘hub’ of the Roman Empire – the Oxford and Cambridge of its day. A city that philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had once called home.
Acts chapter 17 tells us the apostle Paul was in Athens waiting for his friends Silas and Timothy, so he took the opportunity to look around this famous city. But having sampled the sights and sounds of Athens, Paul didn’t take photos, buy a postcard or top up his tan – instead he wept. He experienced great sadness and sorrow. Verse 16 today tells us why, doesn’t it? Paul “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols”.
You see, as Paul had taken his tour of the city, he had seen all manner of temples, altars and shrines. Temples, altars and shrines with idols in them. These idols were statues of Greco-Roman gods – gods made out of gold, silver, marble and other precious stones. Gods that were widely worshipped, honoured and revered – ancient Athens was a really religious place!
But the trouble with this religion is that it was wrong! What so offended Paul was that worship was being given to the wrong God. The Athenians weren’t giving glory to the one true God, the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Instead they were worshipping false gods. The honour and glory that God alone deserves was being given to silly statues! And that made Paul weep – it gave him great anguish. He just had to say something. He just had to tell people about the true God and his Son, Jesus Christ. He couldn’t keep it in!
So as we look at Acts 17 today, I want us to learn from Paul’s passion to point people to the true God. I want us to share his desire to tell people about Jesus. I want us to share his wish to see God rightly worshipped. But before I begin, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, help us to understand your written word today. Help us to love it and learn from it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Paul’s speech: Against idolatry and ignorance (v.17-31)
Three weeks ago my family and I headed off for our summer holiday in the Lake District. Or at least we tried to! Because a combination of crashes, traffic volume and roadworks meant that on the Friday afternoon we tried to get away, all the obvious routes out of London were blocked. The M11, the M1 and the M40 were all snarled up! The only way we could escape the city was a rather slow and unconventional route through the Hertfordshire countryside. Eventually we made it!
But have you ever stopped to think what gets in the way of people becoming Christians? What are the obstacles that prevent people from following Jesus? Its hard to generalise, but the two most common reasons boil down to ignorance or idolatry:
- So for some people, the biggest obstacle to faith is ignorance – they have never heard of Jesus or been introduced to the God of the Bible. Their greatest need is to hear the Gospel with their ears and read the Bible with their eyes. People can’t worship what they don’t know.
- Ignorance of the true God is a big problem in many parts of the world, but perhaps the biggest obstacle to faith in twenty-first century Britain is idolatry. Idolatry today takes the form of wrong priorities rather than stone statues. But idolatry remains sin in its ‘simplest’ form – worship of something or someone instead of God.
We see idolatry in our society whenever people have higher priorities than getting to know God – whenever we see people who prefer to spend time on their career, their sport or their social life than on God. Big houses, fast cars, fitness clubs, sky-scrapers and shopping centres are all ‘Temples’ to the things people worship today – things like wealth and health, popularity and possessions. Today’s idols may be more subtle than those statues in Athens, but they still draw peoples’ devotion away from God.
Those two obstacles to faith are not new. The same two things were preventing people in Athens becoming Christians. So Paul seized every opportunity on his city break to challenge idolatry and remove ignorance about God. If we look at verses 17 to 21 today, we see that Paul spoke to all sorts of people in a wide variety of situations.
So we’re told in verse 17 that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with Jews and God-fearing Greeks” – he spoke to people who believed in God and knew their Old Testament, but had not yet heard about Jesus. People who were morally upright, respectable and religious, but ignorant about Christ. Paul took it upon himself to put that right.
But Paul didn’t just stay in the synagogue, did he? In verse 17 we’re told he also went out into “the marketplace day by day”, speaking about Jesus with “anyone who happened to be there”. Just like Paul, we have wonderful opportunities in our daily life to share our faith. We can speak about Jesus to colleagues at work, to fellow dog-walkers in the park, to friends over a coffee, or to other parents as we stand at the school gate.
Sometimes in life we even get the opportunity to meet someone famous or influential. As I think back over the last decade of my life, I’ve been fortunate to have had one or two opportunities to speak to Members of Parliament, a High Court judge and some Oxford professors! I hope you agree with me that important and influential people like them need to hear the Christian Gospel just as much as anyone else. Even if someone has big brains, big power or big bucks, they are still a sinner needing forgiveness from Christ.
Paul certainly believed this, because in verse 19 today he leapt at the chance to address the Areopagus. The Areopagus was the supreme council in Athens, the group of men responsible for upholding the religious and moral life of the city. They were influential and intellectual people, and they wanted to know about Paul’s “new teaching” – his Gospel message about the risen Lord Jesus. It was a wonderful opportunity, too good to miss! I guess the equivalent today would be being asked to address the House of Commons, the Supreme Court, or the Oxford Union.
And in verse 22 onwards we get to ‘listen in’ to what Paul said to the ‘great and the good’ of Athens. We get to eavesdrop on Paul’s powerful speech. A speech that confronted their idolatry and ignorance. When he got his moment in the spotlight, Paul took his chance to tell the Areopagus about the one true God. The God who was previously “unknown” to them. The God who could not be more different from their man-made idols. A God who needed to be taken seriously:
- For a start, Paul reminded his hearers that God has made them, not the other way around! God is the creator of the universe, and has given life to every living thing. The God of the Bible is nothing like their man-made gods, which had to be fashioned out of “gold, silver or stone”. He is far too big to be contained within a Temple, a sanctuary or even a church building. Quite the opposite – its in him that we “live and move and have our being”!
- Paul also teaches the Areopagus that it is God who sustains us, not the other way round. God doesn’t need us – we need him! Our lives are in his hand. He’s the Sovereign King who has decided when and where we will live.
When we appreciate all this – when we recognise that all we have is from God – gratitude and worship are the only right response. As creatures, it is our duty to seek and serve our Creator – and we owe him an apology for those times we have ignored or disobeyed him in the past.
This is what the Bible means by the word ‘repentance’. Repentance means saying sorry to God, seeking his forgiveness and walking his way in future. In short, repentance means getting right with God, getting our relationship with him back on track.
We see this in verses 30 and 31 today, where Paul tells the Areopagus that their rejection of the one true God is no longer excusable. Repentance is essential not optional. We can’t afford to be indifferent about our relationship with God.
Listen again to what Paul said: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 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.”
Paul is clear that God’s patience will come to an end. Those who reject him and his ways will not get away with it forever. We will all be judged by Jesus Christ – his resurrection was proof of his God-given authority.
But the great news of the Gospel is that if we come to Jesus in repentance and faith, we do not need to fear Judgement Day. Jesus’ death and resurrection means that anyone can get right with God before its too late. Hanging on the cross Jesus went through hell so we don’t have to. Even today, anyone can receive God’s forgiveness forever through faith in Christ.
Audience reaction: Hostility and hunger (v.32-34)
You see, Paul’s passion was for people to know Jesus as their Saviour before they meet him as their Judge – whether they were Jew or Gentile, important or ordinary.
Paul of course, is no longer with us, so like an athlete in the World Championship relay race, the baton has been passed on to us. It is now our responsibility to tell people about the one true God and his Son. But we often struggle to share our faith don’t we? Like an unfortunate relay runner, we often stumble or drop the baton we have been given – or at least I do!
I think the main reason we don’t speak more openly about Jesus is that we fear people’s reaction. We fear rejection or ridicule, or even outright hostility. But unless we are brave and open our mouth like Paul did, people will never be brought to repentance and faith. Unless we are brave and open our mouth, we will never discover the hunger that many people have for the Gospel. Hunger for a relationship with God. Hunger for guidance in life. Hunger for hope beyond the grave.
That was certainly Paul’s experience after he finished speaking at the Areopagus. Look again at verse 32, which describes his audience’s reaction. Because as well as some hostile sneering, Paul also encountered a hunger from many of his hearers. A number of Athenians had an appetite to learn more about Jesus, and several went on to become believers! Paul’s brave words bore fruit – it was well worth the effort, and we should be encouraged by his example.
Conclusion: Lessons for us from Paul
So as I finish, here are three lessons can we learn from the apostle Paul’s amazing ‘city break’ in Athens:
- Firstly, we should be zealous for God’s glory. Paul wept when he saw the idolatry and ignorance of the Athenians. Do we have the same sorrow when our good and glorious God is ignored or dishonoured today? Do we weep when people worship 21st century idols instead of their Creator? Do we wince when the Lord’s name is taken in vain by our non-Christian colleagues, friends or neighbours? I hope so. Pray for Paul’s passion.
- Secondly, like Paul, we should be prepared to speak of Jesus. Paul’s zeal for God and his love for the lost left him with no option but to open his mouth. Whether it was well-meaning religious people in the synagogue, ordinary people in the marketplace, or prominent Athenians in the Areopagus, Paul had to tell them about Jesus. Pray that God would give us the same urge to open our mouths.
- And finally, like Paul, we should be ready for different reactions. We need to be brave enough to tell people about Jesus, however they may react.Sometimes your words may provoke hostility. If so, simply walk away. But sometimes your words will feed a hunger in your hearer’s heart. They will find the Gospel message attractive and appealing. If you see such hunger, do talk to them some more, give them a Bible, a Christian book, invite them to church, or come with them to Christianity Explored. In short, feed their hunger, and pray that God will graciously bring them to faith in Christ.
The final verse of our passage this morning tells us the name of one man and woman who will be in Heaven because Paul told them about Jesus. Their names were Dionysius and Damaris. May God graciously use us to add many more names to that great list.
Let’s pray: Father, thank you for the inspiring example of Paul in Athens. By your Spirit, please give us a zeal to glorify you and make Jesus known. Give us the opportunities and the courage we need to share the Gospel message. And please prepare hungry hearts ready to receive it gladly. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.