Seneca, a Stoic philosopher of Paul’s day, wrote that death is just ‘non-existence’ and hence not something to be concerned about. The apostle, however, thought very differently and tackles such views head-on as he speaks, in our verses, in the famous Greek city of Athens. Though the glory it once had has now faded in the shadows of other cities like Rome and Corinth, nonetheless this ancient capital is still a place of discussion and Paul takes on its foolish ideas about life.
What’s the background to all this? Since Ac 16:9 the Lord has been invading the western Roman empire through Paul and his team. As a result, they find themselves in some of the heartlands of the successful human empires of recent centuries, tackling significant cities with the gospel. Luke summarises this mission with tales from five of them, each of which has its own peculiar traits to be addressed by the Lord. In evangelism it is important to know the group to whom you speak, so that the message is delivered in the most suitable way. Hence, for proud Philippi the gospel came with humility. For wealthy, comfortable Thessalonica, it came with a call to serve others. But in noble Berea the gospel found a people open to hear and consider its message seriously. What, then, is Paul (v15) confronted by in Athens? Luke tells us straight away: idols (v16)!
Paul is deeply disturbed by the sight of all the religious statues in Athens, many of which have a human form. His reaction flows from God’s law. The second commandment (Ex 20:4-6) told Israel not to make images of God to help them worship. Athens, however, has happily done that. But even worse, her idols honour multiple gods, behaviour condemned by the first commandment (Ex 20:3). So it is no wonder Paul is grieved. But why are idols so visible in this city? It may stem from her once being at the centre of Greek culture. More than that, however, it surely links to her proud reputation. Athens was built on the brilliant thought of men – philosophers, writers, dramatists and teachers. In the city, certain men have become like gods. So it is no wonder that they have a strong inclination to make their gods look like men.
Paul begins his work, as usual, in the Jewish synagogue (v17). However, he cannot remain there. Unlike in the previous cities, Luke tells of how Paul strides into the Agora, or market-place, to engage directly with those who gather for discussion. There he comes up against men from two great schools of Greek thought: the Stoics and the Epicureans (v18). The former are named after an area of the market; the latter after an ancient teacher. Though holding different views on many matters, both are agreed that man controls life and can reform himself for good. They, therefore, are quick to despise Paul for his talk of two foreign gods called Jesus and Resurrection. Some even name Paul a ‘babbler’ – one who picks up bits of ideas he doesn’t understand and tries to recount them to others. Nonetheless, they still take him to a place of examination (v19) to discuss his ideas further (v20), for, as Luke wryly notes, they always love to talk about what’s new (v21).
In pompous Athens, then, men are gods and gods are men. So how does Paul respond? By preaching Jesus and the resurrection. Jesus is the Son of God’s human name and his humanity is the great challenge to idols. Ever since Babel man has wanted to make God accessible, leading to idols in worship. On top of that, we have so placed our hope in the possessions of life as signs of God’s blessing, that they have become our idols (Ep 5:5). But the truth is that there is only one place to find God on earth: Jesus. God made mankind to bear his image (Ge 1:27; which is why idols were never needed) but we spoiled that with our sin. However, he sent his Son to live a truly human life free of sin and so faithfully represent God down here (Lk 9:35). Jesus is the answer to our wicked idolatry, which is why Paul preaches him in Athens. But he also preaches resurrection to challenge human arrogance. Athens thought its clever men had solved life but none of them had a real answer to death. No-one does because no-one comes back after dying. Except Jesus. He overcame what no-one else has and so he, alone, can truly understand life. Paul preached that in Athens and it is the hope of all Christians still. We have a Lord who has beaten death.