Sunday Morning Sermon — Acts 17:16-21 “Athens: A Mirror of Modern-Day Culture”

16 Sep

When I say the word “philosophy” most people either don’t really understand what I am talking about or assume it is just some course in college the smart people take. But philosophy is important. Our whole culture is shaped by philosophy. Philosophy is one of the big reasons we can go from Elvis being edited on the Ed Sullivan show so his swaying hips would not be shown to the recent Miley Cyrus exhibition on the MTV Music Awards in just a couple of generations.

Philosophy is just a fancy word for how we view the world. Philosophy answers the fundamental question: what is the nature of reality? So it is an important subject. Philosophy is asking “what makes the world go around?” “What is life really about?”

Paul has been dealing with philosophy all through his mission but it has been under the surface and we deal with it every day too, just under the surface of our lives.

In Philippi the greed of the owners of the slave girl led them to turn Paul over to the authorities for beating and imprisonment. The philosophy of materialism ruled their hearts.

In Thessalonica it seems the philosophy of traditionalism ruled the day, as many of the Jews who heard Paul’s message of Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism could not stomach the idea of this new teaching.

But in today’s text, Paul will be in a place where philosophy is not subtle or covered up. In Athens, people love new ideas and are very out front about their philosophy. In Athens Paul will meet a whole new world of philosophies and he will deal with each one of them by holding out the truth about Jesus.

But don’t think this morning that we are just going to talk about Paul’s interactions with the philosophies of his day. Athens in the first century is very much a mirror for America in 2013. So the ideas we will see in this passage could as easily be seen on TV or in the news today. So this morning we are going to look at the culture of Athens in order to consider our own culture and how we relate to it. Next week, Lord willing, we are going to look at how Paul preached in Athens. So we are going to look at how we can effectively communicate to our culture. Then on the last Sunday of September, brother Paul Comer is going to bring our message, so we look forward to that time as well.

There is no doubt that America is becoming a post-Christian culture. We don’t see it quite as much here in the Bible belt as in other places, but we do see it. Just consider for a moment how many of you have children or grandchildren who do not go to church. They may profess Christianity but they really hold to a different philosophy. They are practical atheists, they live as though God does not exist. So these next couple of weeks will be very helpful to us as we consider how to interact with the changes that are taking place in our culture and even in our own families.


There are four ways in which our American culture in 2013 is like the culture of Athens in the first century . . .

First, we see in verse 16 that like Athens,

1.       Our Culture is Full of Heartbreaking IDOLATRY (17:16).

Acts 17:16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.

Paul was sent away from Berea because of the persecution he was facing from the Jews who had tracked him down from Thessalonica. As the spokesman for the group Paul was at the center of controversy. So for his safety his co-workers shipped him off to Athens while they stayed and tried to help the fledgling church in Berea. But as Paul is there waiting, he is troubled. The city is full of idols.

The Roman writer of Paul’s day Petronius said only partly in jest that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens.

And we need to remember that idolatry in the ancient world was not just the making of images, it had a strong connection to sexual immorality. The idolatry of Athens was heavily sexualized, as one of the most special things about being human was perverted into false worship.

Seeing all this stirred Paul up. The way this verb provoked is written in the Greek text shows us that Paul was being provoked over and over. It’s as if every time he looked out over the city he became disturbed all over again. This word provoked was the same word that was used when Paul and Barnabus had their “sharp dispute” in Acts 15 and it is used positively in Hebrews 10:24 when we are told to stir one another up to love and good works. In our day we’d say Paul got worked up over what he was seeing.

Now I don’t think its very hard to see how our culture mirrors the culture of Athens in this matter of idolatry. We live in an over-sexualized society. We live in a society that worships all kinds of things other than God, whether it be money or power or celebrity.

The question that comes to my heart on this is not whether we live in an idolatrous culture. I don’t even think that is arguable. Instead, I think the real question is “Are we as disturbed by the idolatry of our day as Paul was in the idolatry of his day?”

Do you participate in the idolatry of our generation by giving your heart to sexual immorality? Do you settle for the same pursuit of materialism as your neighbors? Is there any distinction between you and your unbelieving neighbors other than the fact that you are in church this morning? Or are you heartbroken over the idolatry of our culture? And not just heartbroken, but stirred to action. Notice the next verse, verse 17 . . .

17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.

We see here that the disturbing idolatry of Athens motivated Paul to change his strategy. Over and over we have seen Paul whenever he goes into a city go to the synagogue to witness to the Jews who were worshiping there. He did this because he loved his people according to the flesh and also as a strategic plan to establish a connection between Christianity and Judaism. This connection was important for keeping Christianity from being thought of as just another pagan religion. Paul could go into the synagogue and establish a kind of beachhead in a city and work from there with the Jews who believed and other devout Gentiles and from there he could get churches started with people who were accustomed to meeting together for worship already. So in Athens, he does go to the synagogue again but we also see a difference here. At the same time he is going to the synagogue he is also going out to the marketplace to engage with those who are there.

Again, Paul’s mission in Athens mirrors our own culture. In days gone by we could do much of our witnessing in church. Inviting people to church we could hope that they would hear the gospel message and believe. Many of you probably came to faith because someone invited you to church. But today it is different. Whereas about 2/3 of people over 60 go to church only about 15% of adults under 30 go to church. The times have changed. If we are going to reach people in our day we will have to go to them. We will have to meet them where they are. There is still a place for church where we can build each other up and many people will still come when we invite them but like Paul, in the midst of an idolatrous culture we must go out with the truth about Jesus. We’ve got to get outside the church walls.

So like Athens, we live in a culture of heartbreaking idolatry. But let’s not let that idolatry simply make us mad so that we rail against everybody that’s messing up our country. Let’s allow that heartbreak, that provoking in our spirit to move us to reach our idolatrous culture with the gospel, one person at a time.

The second parallel we see to our culture in the culture of Athens is this:

2.       Our Culture is Consumed with the Pursuit of PLEASURE and PRIDE (17:18a).

18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.

Paul confronted two groups of people in Athens who were much more out front about their philosophy than most people. The Epicureans believed that the material world was not connected to the divine. The gods may or may not have created the world but they did not have influence over everyday life. So the focus of Epicurean philosophy became maximizing pleasure in this life. Some tried to find pleasure through pursuing the finer things in live, others may have gone the way of pursuing pleasure through using others or living a wild life.

On the other hand the Stoics were believers in the divine. But they believed that the divine was in every human being. This divinity could be revealed and directed through living a virtuous life. So the Stoics tended to focus on cultivating self-discipline.

So on the one hand Paul was confronting pleasure seekers and on the other hand he was dealing with people who believed the divine was inside them and that they could cultivate it to reach their full potential. In other words, a people consumed with self, consumed with pride. Both groups were trying to find peace of mind but going about it in a very different way. Sadly, both ways are dead ends.

Again, as we look at this, is this not a mirror of our own culture? As Tim Keller says, most people are trying to find peace either by being very bad or by being very good. We see the pleasure-seeking, comfort-driven culture of the Epicureans everywhere around us. The philosophy may be present at a frat party or at a wine tasting, at the Golden Corral or at the finest French restaurant. Wherever people are consumed with pursuing pleasure you will find the fingerprints of this ancient philosophy.

In the same way, Stoicism shows up in many of our popular books and movies and music. There is a focus on finding the hero inside you and so much of what we sell in the self-help industry is about unlocking the god inside you through speaking truth to yourself or cultivating self-discipline. This philosophy can even be seen in some TV preachers who talk about speaking the word in faith to get whatever you want.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is right, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

The question for us, of course, is whether in Jesus we have anything better to offer to the world than these bankrupt philosophies. It is in considering this question that we come up against the third way in which Athens mirrors our culture.

3.       Our Culture is CONFUSED About the Message of Jesus (17:18b).

And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.

Now we see that these philosophers of Paul’s day were very dismissive of him. They call him a babbler. The Greek word is a “seed picker.” The idea is that of a chicken pecking on the ground at seeds. And like the chicken they are saying Paul is pecking about the world of ideas and just scattering things here and there. In other words, they didn’t think what he was saying was making sense. They even thought he was preaching more than one God: Jesus and Anastasia. The Greek word Anastasia was the word for resurrection but it was also a female name. So they misunderstood Paul to think he was preaching Jesus and the goddess resurrection rather than understanding that he preached Jesus and his resurrection.

Neither the Epicureans nor the Stoics believed in a resurrection. The Epicureans believed that death ended all existence and the Stoic believed that in death we reunited with divinity and left the material world. So the idea of a physical resurrection was completely foreign to them.

This is why Paul says the gospel was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. The Jews couldn’t get past the idea that their Messiah would have to suffer on the cross and the Greeks didn’t believe in the reality of the resurrection.

So this episode in Athens shows us that when we have a culture that is focused on this life, whether the pursuit of pleasure or self-discovery, words about Jesus will often be misunderstood. Some will call us irrelevant, focused on heavenly things when there is so much going on in this life. Others will call us silly for believing in a dying and rising Savior. We’ll get put in the company of people who believe in a flat earth or who think the moon landing was done on a Hollywood stage. Some will misunderstand our words about Jesus because they are focused on their pleasure or on their self-discovery. So they will interpret all our words through their way of looking at the world. So they will call on Jesus if he will help them feel happier or if He will help them become successful but if it has to do with eternal life or spiritual life or our sin and God’s judgment or about following Jesus our Lord they want no part of it. That is why there is always a fine line between going to where people are and watering down our message to try to make it more palatable for people. We absolutely need to go to people but we need to go without compromising the truth of the gospel in any way.

The final way Athens is a mirror to our culture is seen in verses 19-21. Here we see that . . .

4.       Our Culture is Eager to Know Things But Not Eager to COMMIT to Truth (17:19-21).

19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Now when you read verses 19-20 it is hard to tell whether the people of Athens are hostile or friendly, whether they want to really listen to Paul or whether they are trying to find a reason to accuse him. But when we get to verse 21, we see the truth.  They were just curious. They just liked to talk about ideas, especially new ideas. Luke is showing us that the real seed pickers, the real babblers are the Athenians, not Paul. Paul knew what he believed and could articulate it clearly. But the Athenians just liked talking about new ideas. I doubt any of them would have paid the kind of price Paul paid for his ideas. Most Epicureans probably would have been happy to be quiet if people started giving them a hard time for their beliefs but Paul experienced beatings, hardships and eventual death because of the gospel. Obviously Paul was not just about ideas. Jesus was not just a philosophy to him.

When I look at our culture and even the church I see more people like the Epicureans and Stoics than those like Paul. This same trend toward learning but not committing is rampant in our day. We live in the Information Age after all. But what do we do with all that information? We are overwhelmed with ideas. One new study contradicts the study that was done two years ago. The abundance of information makes us feel smart but what do we really do with all the information we have? How many of us really live in ways that are deeply informed by what we have thought through and come to believe?

In Jesus, we have the Savior of the world and the answer to our culture. Jesus is the cure for an idolatrous culture because He is the true and living God and when He saves us He changes us, weaning us over time off of all the counterfeit gods of sex, and success and money so that our allegiance is His and our hearts are His.

Jesus is the cure for the overwhelming pursuit of pleasure and pride because we find in trusting Him that our greatest joys are in Him and that every gift is from Him so that we can enjoy all we do as an act of worship without worshiping the gift. And when we come to Jesus we recognize that we are sinful and in need of salvation. We realize that there is not a hero inside of us, the hero is on the cross, paying the penalty for our inward sinfulness that shows itself in our everyday actions.

Jesus is the cure for our confusion. His life, death and resurrection makes sense of a beautiful but broken world. His singular life answers our deepest needs and our greatest questions like nothing else can.

And Jesus is the cure for our flighty, inconsistent full of knowledge but wisdom-lacking hearts. He is the way, the truth and the life. Following Him is not a philosophy but a whole way of life. And it is life that is abundant life, eternal life.

So this morning, do you believe this? Are you trusting in Jesus alone for salvation?

And beyond this, how can we get this great message outside these four walls to those who are in the grip of idolatry and pride and pleasure-seeking and confusion?

We can WITHDRAW from culture.

We can attempt to CONQUER culture.

We can CONFORM to culture.

All three of these options, if we hold to them exclusively, will keep us from really reaching people for Jesus.

Or we can do what I believe Acts will show us we should do . . .

We can live IN culture and present through our words and our lives TO culture a BIBLICAL vision of reality and truth and salvation.

We have the truth. Now the question is, what will we do with it?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: