ONE: NOBODY IN THE MARKET (16-18)
First is Nobody in the Market. Paul, is the Nobody in the Marketplace. Read verses 16-18…
Why was Paul in the market place? Well, he was alone, waiting for Silas and Timothy to show up in Athens. Paul is not idle, so, he does what Paul does: he starts witnessing. Starting out in the local synagogue on Saturday, then, in the public marketplace Sunday through Friday, Paul busies himself with evangelism. Now, we could say Paul was in the marketplace because he knew God had sent him to preach Christ. That would be true (Acts 9:15; 1 Cor. 1:17).
We could also say that Paul was motivated for his own prize when he stood before Christ and had his life’s work evaluated. That would also be true (1 Cor. 9:24-27; Php. 3:14). And, we could say that Paul was motivated to preach because he knew souls were at stake. True. However, this particular episode is spontaneously launched by a different motivation that sprung up in Paul’s heart. What was it? Verse 16 tells us: “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”
Paul was deeply affected by the pagan idolatry that filled the city of Athens. The word “distressed” is “paroxyno” in the Greek, and it means to become angry or infuriated. The noun form of the word is used in Acts 15 to describe the disagreement between Paul and Barnabus when it says they had a “sharp disagreement” (39).
Paul’s distress is that of a righteous man looking on sin. You will see a pattern in Scripture where righteous men love righteousness and detest sin. They loathe it. The reason is because they were so in tune with God, so near to Him, knowing Him so well that their affections mirrored His. What He loves they love and what He hates they hate.
- After 40 days of beholding God’s glory Moses comes down the mountain with the 10 Commandments to a nation gone wild and finds righteous distress welling up within him.
- Second Peter 2:7-8 describes Abraham’s nephew Lot like this: “And God rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men in Sodom and Gomorrah (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard).”
- And of course who more righteous than the Savior Himself, who discovering the Jews had turned the Temple into a business was infuriated – leading Him to throw the money changer’s tables over and scattering their money everywhere?
Here now is Paul, looking upon the gross and appalling idolatry of this pagan city and horrified that the glory belonging to Christ is all being paid to idols. Athens: a city so renowned for its knowledge but so desperately ignorant of the truth of God. First Corinthians 1:21 comes to mind: “…the world through its wisdom did not know God…”
Application #1: Do we grieve if Jesus Christ is not glorified? We must be burdened in our souls by idolatry. We must love Christ so much that we become distressed in our souls by the sight of evil and sin and idolatry. It is God’s righteousness that causes His anger towards sin. Indifference is indicative of a person far from God. We cannot be insensitive to it! Not just out there, but, in here too! Within our own hearts we must detest the sin that is always so present.
How do we hate sin more? By loving God more. Pile the wood on that fire and Intensify your love for Jesus Christ and you won’t have to try and hate sin more. Abhorrence of sin will come naturally out of an ever-deepening love for the Holy One.
Application #2: Not only must our affections be charged, but, those affections, when properly inspired will produce action. What do I mean? We must be willing to do something about it. Paul channelled that anger, that distress he had into action. What kind of action? The only action that mattered: Evangelism. In this case apologetics – it says in verse 17 that he “reasoned” with them. He was after all talking to philosophers, intelligent people who prided themselves on championing wisdom. So on their level Paul was persuading them, showing them the rationality of the Gospel, convincing them that it is the one thing in this world that makes sense. His distress, his righteous indignation, his holy anger would not allow him to do nothing in the face of what he saw. Athens’ ubiquitous idolatry compelled him to get out into the public wherever people were and bring them the Good News. With every person he hoped they would “turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).
Right away we see Paul run into some characters in the marketplace. They were some philosophers. This group of philosophers came from 2 different schools: the Epicureans and the Stoics.
The Epicureans made pleasure and avoiding pain the highest aim of life. There is no afterlife, and, while believing gods exist those gods do not intervene in the affairs of mankind. It strikes me as a desperate philosophy, finding no purpose to life, floating aimlessly in existence, having come to be without cause and coming to an end with nothing after. The universal urge of man to know God not only goes unfulfilled in this philosophy,, but, true to its agnostic character even denying the possibility of knowing who God is. No wonder pleasure was the goal. What else is there if here and now is all you’ve got? Nothing comes next so live it up as much as you can. No afterlife, no judgment, no continuation after death. Get as much out of this life now while you can. This is the essence behind Paul’s statement to the Corinthians: If there is nothing after this life “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32)
Then there were the Stoics who believed that we ought to reach a place where we are indifferent to pain and pleasure. Mastering yourself is the chief virtue. Extreme self-denial, moral resolution, true-blue self-righteousness that you accomplish all by yourself. To me it seems to carry through to desperation also, just a little differently. That suffering, pain, hardship, frustration from unmet desires, are all part of the real world we have to live in so the Stoic’s answer is to just detach yourself as much as possible from anything good or bad. We find no pleasure in anything, nor does anything bring us pain. It attempts to truncate essential parts of one’s humanity by trying never to be affected by anything in life and maintaining an undisturbed evenness and placidity. Laughter and tears, pain and joy, comfort and hardship are all part of real life. Burying yourself and allowing none of it to touch you requires closing yourself off to not only parts of who you are as a human, but, also closing off to much of the real world
Now here were two different schools of thought colliding with Paul in the marketplace. Yet, while very different, these two schools had something in common: dislike for Paul. Notice two things about these philosophers. First, they were conceited. Verse 18 says they called him a “babbler”, which was a kind of Athenian slang word. The Greek is “spermalogos” and literally means “seed-picker”. (Quote Polhill in MacArthur pg 131). Basically it meant someone who was an ignorant nobody who thought they were a smart somebody because they had some scraps of information they got from hearing someone else smarter than them talk. That was their assessment of Paul. He was a nobody in the marketplace.
Second, they were not only conceited, but, they were confused about Paul’s message. They said, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Clearly they didn’t even comprehend the message, let alone believe it. If you want to understand the letters to the Corinthians you need to understand this passage right here. Why? Because Athens is where Paul was at right before he went to Corinth. After Athens Paul went directly to Corinth. You can see how his experience in Athens changed his approach in Corinth. THe frustration of dealing with arrogant philosophers influenced how he was going to approach Corinth – another Greek city. I bet the words of these Athenian philosophers right here were the inspiration for Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he said, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
Application: People are going to misunderstand your beliefs. Accept it. That doesn’t mean we don’t clearly present the Gospel message or make rational arguments for our faith. FIrst Peter 3:15 says, “…always be prepared to give an answer…”
Not only that, but, human tendency is to mock what they don’t understand. You believe in a God who is all-loving but allows evil and suffering? You believe in a God who commits genocide by killing all the Canaanites in the OT? You believe in a judgmental God who condemns free sexual expression? You believe in a sexist patriarchal God who says women are to submit to their husbands? You believe in a God who says there is only one way to Him and every other way is wrong? You believe in a loving God who sends people to Hell? You believe in a God who would kill His own Son just because He is angry about people’s sins? You will be misunderstood and mocked for it. You are among the “Nobodies in the Marketplace”.
TWO: AN AUDIENCE WITH THE AREOPAGUS (19-21)
The 2nd chapter is titled: An Audience with the Areopagus. Lets read verses 19-21. Having made enough of a stir Paul finds himself escorted by the philosophers to the areopagus. The Areopagus was a court that oversaw the educational and religious affairs of Athens. It was the court that condemned Socrates several centuries earlier. Over time the court’s power fluctuated, but, at this moment with Paul it held considerable power.
They want to know what Paul is saying. But not because they are seeking. They are intellectually curious, not spiritually convicted. You pick up on Luke’s annoyance with the Athenians in verse 21. Clearly he sees who the real babblers are.
Many people are and have been interested in Jesus Christ. The Pharisees sought him out and asked Him questions. Herod’s bucket list was to see Jesus in person and quiz him, which he got to check off when Jesus was on trial. But their questions weren’t an expression of their honest investigation – like it was with Nicodemus or like the disciples’ own questions to Jesus. No, they asked questions flippantly, arrogantly, trying to trick or trap Jesus, having resolutely decided upfront they would not believe in Him. They asked questions like enemies. So you got the Pharisees in Israel, the prideful Jewish leaders, and, you’ve got the Areopagus in Athens, the equally prideful Greek leaders. And here they are “curious” about these teachings of Paul concerning some Jew named Jesus. Tickle our ears! Delight us with your novel ideas!
Application: Delight yourself in the eternal word of God, which never changes and has never changed. Don’t get sidetracked with fancy philosophy. Don’t get hooked by novel or trendy teachings. Don’t be part of the end-times crowd that 2 Timothy 4 says, “will not put up with sound doctrine, but, will instead to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
Application: The wise need the wisdom of God too. Here was Paul, presenting the greatest knowledge, the wisdom of God to the world’s foremost leaders of thinking and reason. Remember that no matter what someone’s IQ, what their academic credentials, or how knowledgeable, educated and smart they are they need the the truth of God in Christ Jesus from us. Never be intimidated by intelligence. Be confident that you have the one piece of intelligence they could never gain on their own and give it to them with all your heart.
Next week: THREE: A SERMON TO SNEER AT (22-32a) and FOUR: FOOLISH IS THE NEW WISE (32b-34)