This lesson about Paul’s visit to Athens, is one of the great passages of the New Testament. In Paul’s day, Rome had the political and military power, but Athens –the cradle of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle–was still the intellectual capital.
Earlier in the chapter, Paul had been debating with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Sounds very academic, but this wasn’t like meeting with the faculty at Harvard. It was probably something more like a news show on cable. Imagine Sean Hannity shouting at Saint Paul for an hour. Still, by going to Athens, Paul stepped out of Asia and into Europe, the Western world–our world.
At one point, he quotes from two different Greek poets: “For in him we live and move and have our being–as some of your own poets have said–We are his offspring.” The first line is from Epimenides, who lived around 600 BC. The second is from Aratus, who lived around 300 BC.
I never heard of them either, till now. But that’s the point. Paul was obviously a highly educated man. Paul knew his stuff, and could think on his feet.
He doesn’t bash these folks with his Bible. The Jewish scriptures meant nothing to the Greeks. Instead, he quotes from their own literature. And he doesn’t threaten them with hellfire and damnation. Instead, he’s respectful. He says, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.”
But the oddest thing is the debate itself. The first issue Paul raises with the Athenian philosophers is their idolatry. He does it in a polite, respectful, intellectual way—but he does it nonetheless. By the end of the passage, he says it directly: Idolatry is nothing but ignorance.
And…….that’s where our eyes glaze over and the mind drifts. Idolatry? Who cares? After all, our cities aren’t full of idols in the same way that Athens was. When Paul says that he had walked around town looking at the idols, he wasn’t kidding. It’s been estimated that Athens had as many as 10,000 pagan monuments of one kind or another.
Now, understand that by Paul’s day, there were probably only about 10,000 people in Athens, so there would have been roughly one statue or altar for every man, woman and child in the city. When Paul says that the Athenians were in every way very religious, he wasn’t kidding.
We don’t have that problem in Sioux City. You won’t drive around town Sunday afternoon and see folks out in the front yard sacrificing chickens or bowing to statues of Zeus. We have a TV show called “American Idol,” but those idols only last one season.
But maybe we just don’t understand idolatry. We think of an idol as the actual object—something made of gold or silver or stone. That wasn’t the issue in Athens.
Before our passage begins, Paul was debating with the Epicureans and Stoics. They would have agreed with that idolatry in that crass sense was just plain ignorant. They knew that the gods didn’t live in the statues, and they ridiculed the common folk who still believed it.
In that sense, Paul was preaching to the choir. But he was getting at something deeper. This comes through toward the end of the passage, when he says, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
(1) Idolatry defines how we think of God. In the ancient world, the gods were like Coke machines. The gods were the dispensers of blessings or blastings. If you made the correct offering to the proper god, you’d get your blessing. The crops would grow, your ship wouldn’t sink, and your wife would have a baby.
But if you messed up and neglected a particular god, then he’d blast you with a lightning bolt. Your crops would fail, your ship would sink, and your wife would run off with a chariot driver. That’s why the Athenians had thousands of idols, and even one dedicated to an Unknown God, just so they’d be sure to cover all the bases.
Under idolatry, God is like a Wal-Mart. God has what you need—you just have to figure out how to get it. But does God exist to serve us—or do we exist to serve God? Paul says that the time has come to repent. Idolaters don’t have to repent. The gods don’t care what you do as long as it doesn’t affect them.
The true God does care. God cares about how you treat your neighbor. God cares about everything you think or do or say. The gods of Athens don’t care whether you messed up your life or not. The true God does. God loves you, and wants you to have a happy, constructive, positive life.
By that measure, we have many idolaters and not so many true believers. For many, God is little more than Santa Claus: If you just say the right words, God will automatically cough up blessings for, like putting money in a Coke machine, pushing the button–and out pops the can!
God doesn’t exist to serve you. You exist to serve God. And you serve God best by doing his will. Jesus said all the commandments boil down to this—love God above all things, and love your neighbor as yourself.
(2) So idolatry also defines how we think of other people. If we treat God like an object, like a cosmic Coke machine, then it’s easy to treat other people like objects as well.
As Paul says, quoting the Greek poet, “We are his offspring.” Everyone in Athens would have agreed. We are made in the image of God. But if your God is an idol, little more than a Coke machine, then you’ll see other people the same way: machines that exist to serve you, and cater to your whims.
When an object loses its value, we you throw it out. If the toaster doesn’t toast anymore, it goes in the garbage. And too often, we treat other people like garbage. We throw away relationships. We drop friends, and maybe even family, if they’re not toeing the line and doing what we want them to do. Men may bark or belittle. Women may nag or expect our men to be able to read our minds, and then we whine when they don’t.
The Bible says that when you look at another person—any other person—you’re looking at the image of God. You’re looking into the face of Jesus Christ. If we believed that—I mean, if we believed it consistently, seven days a week, and not just for an hour on Sundays—it would change our world from top to bottom.
If you really believed you were looking into the face of Jesus Christ, it would make an incredible difference in the way you treat the gal at the bank, the guy at the grocery store. It’s a face that could be any color, speak any language, be a man or woman or child, be old or young or somewhere in between.
(3) Idolatry also defines how we think of ourselves. If we have a low vision of God, we’ll have a low vision of ourselves. If God’s only an idol, just a cosmic pop machine, then there’s no point in arguing, and no point in praying. The machine either works or it doesn’t. And if you’re just an object; if you’re nothing but an accident–the product of unguided, mindless biology—then you don’t have to be responsible for your actions either. You’re just another dumb animal.
Think about it: If a dog eats another dog’s food, we don’t call it stealing. If a tom-cat fathers kittens all over the neighborhood, we don’t call it adultery. If a lion eats an innocent gazelle for lunch, we don’t call it murder.
We’d like that to be the universal excuse for everything: I can’t help myself. I’m just doing what I was born to do. I’m just doing what feels right. You can’t hold me responsible. You can’t expect me to change.
Or we might flip it around and use it as an excuse to feel sorry for ourselves. Oh, this is just the way I am. Nothing ever goes right for me. Nobody loves me. My parents made me this way—so if I’m a gloomy and miserable sad-sack, it’s their fault, not mine.
But Paul tells you to repent. You were made in the image of the true and living God. That means you’re supposed to be a creative and constructive person, just as God created the universe. You can even be creative with your words, just as God said, Let there be light, and there was light.
(x) On that day in the Areopagus, Paul called on the Athenians to grow up and follow the truth. Once upon a time, God may have tolerated the ignorance of idolatry, but now you have the power to repent. God wants you to understand his will. He wants you to see him in others, and see him in yourself.
Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. He will give you the power to turn your life around and follow him, so that every day, his image in you grows brighter and clearer, for all the world to see—through Jesus Christ our Lord.