“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. 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. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. 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. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:16-21 ESV)
Even a cursory glance at our modern culture reveals that things in the church are changing, but I’m not sure we realize just how much. Following World War II, America saw not only a boom in baby births but also a boom in church attendance and religious affiliation. Suddenly, it became culturally popular and socially acceptable to settle into a suburban lifestyle by buying a home and a new car, raising a family, and joining the local civic club and the local church. Churches were bulging at the seams and membership was at an all time high. Last year, Southern Baptists baptized 8 million new believers and our attendance averages still decreased. So, we have more people leaving our churches than joining our churches. Overall, not a good trend.
However, there’s a lot more to those numbers and statistics than you might realize, at first glance. The religious affiliation growth of the late 1940’s and 1950’s does not necessarily equate to real spiritual conversion and true commitment to Christ. As I mentioned above, there was a huge cultural trend that impacted this “boomer” growth. Some of those conversions and commitments were real and eternal, while many were shallow and culturally driven. That shouldn’t really surprise you; it happened then and still happens, today.
In some ways, people view religious affiliation as a pragmatic answer to their current needs. In other words, if it helps then I’ll participate and go through the motions but when it ceases to provide the feelings or results that I desire then “I’m out of here!” In fact, this is where we often find that quote from Karl Marx, “religion is the opiate of the people.” And that’s really how many modern skeptics view Christianity, it carries little truth but it makes people feel better. Let me just say, truth is truth no matter how much it hurts and a lie is a lie no matter how much it makes you feel better and the truth is always better than a lie.
In today’s focal passage, Paul has been escorted to Athens by friends from Berea. They had to get him out of town quietly before another riot occurred and Paul received another beating from the Jewish instigators. While he is waiting in Athens for Silas, Timothy and Luke to join him, he takes a stroll through the city and he begins to notice the religious affiliations of the Athenians. There were idols everywhere and Luke states, “his spirit was provoked.” The word provoked (paraxuno) literally means to be “cut by a sharp edge” or poked by a sharp stick and incited to anger. Paul was in a city full of religious idolatry and people who sought religious knowledge, but were completely ignorant of the truth in Jesus Christ.
I mentioned above as to how religious affiliation in America is changing. While traditional church attendance is down overall, religious beliefs and affiliation is actually increasing. I didn’t say that belief in traditional Christianity is increasing, because it isn’t, but religious beliefs in general and religious affiliations are increasing. In other words, people aren’t less religious in this age of scientific empiricism but they seem to be abandoning “feel good” religious pragmatism and are looking for programs or organizations that are more involved in having a social impact whether those programs or organizations are religiously based or not. They are looking more for a ‘cause’ to join and not a religious idealism to simply believe. To put this in plain English, most people are looking for what we would typically call a “social gospel” and not necessarily religious faith. They want to be a part of something that is making an impact on the social problems around us, and not just attend a religious service. In many ways, our culture is similar to what Paul found in Athens. Lots of smoke, very little fire. Let me explain what I mean…
Paul is wandering around in a city that is inundated with religious icons and idols. These people were fascinated with the latest and greatest trend in religious ideas and beliefs. While that might seem somewhat antithetical to my description of life in modern America, I think it is very much what is happening in America. We seem to recognize that real solutions to our cultural problems won’t come from just positive “thoughts and prayers.” In many ways, our culture is crying out with the words of the Apostle James:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:14-18 ESV)
I want to be very clear here, a “social gospel” that will make a real difference in our culture is more than just economic opportunity, access to quality medical care and an end to racial/sexual injustice or biases. While the answer for many of these issues will contain some elements of personal, social and governmental involvement and transformation, the real issue is much, much deeper. That’s what Paul saw in Athens and what we need to see in our culture… the real answer is not just some new political ideology or even a refreshing of an old ideology, it’s not even a new political candidate or even a new political culture or climate. It’s not even some new religious ideology or “dynamic” new savior. In the passage I cited above by the Apostle James, he is saying that REAL faith in Jesus doesn’t just offer up “thoughts and prayers” when a need is encountered but REAL faith responds lovingly with a practical and faith-filled response.
Why a practical AND faith-filled response? Why not just a practical response? Because that’s where the “social gospel” falls short. It sees man’s need as being ultimately just a lack of or imbalance in resources or, possibly, a social bias that can be “educated” or culturally filtered out of people. But if scripture is correct, then the real issue goes much, much deeper. To put it practically, the social gospel sees the answer as being social or cultural in nature because they see the issue as a lack of education, cultural grace or social awareness. If those things are properly addressed then the problem will self-correct. However, the biblical gospel sees the issue as being in the heart of man and not the mind of man. When the heart (or will) is truly transformed by the power of God through faith in Jesus then the mind and, ultimately, the desires and actions of man begin to change.
Jesus put it this way: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:21-23 ESV)
Did you catch that last part? If your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If you’re unable to see (or understand what’s causing the real struggles in your life) then your entire life will be full of darkness. That’s what Paul sees in Athens. That’s why he’s “provoked” by their religious blindness and the same thing is happening in our religious-minded culture, today. We see, but not well enough to recognize our true blindness. We know something’s wrong, and we keep trying solutions but they don’t really resolve the issue. What’s Paul’s initial response? He heads into the Synagogue and reasons with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, just like before. He starts there, but he doesn’t stop there. He heads out into the marketplace and engages the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.
While we may not think we know much about these ancient philosophies, they are actually still quite common in our culture. We generally think of Stoicism as “not showing any emotion” but that is really just an outcome and not the root teaching. Stoicism is really about “self-mastery” by controlling yourself, your responses, your surroundings and, thus, controlling your destiny. We see this really come through in the eastern religious traditions, modern self-help teaching and in Yoga. Epicurean philosophy is almost the exact opposite. Epicurus essentially taught that the physical realm was all that existed, so eat, drink, play and die for this life is all that exists. These two philosophies really describe the primary non-Christian philosophies of our modern culture. You define who you are and you control your own destiny or there’s nothing beyond this life, so live life to its fullest by indulging in whatever makes you happy. Ancient philosophies with many modern disciples.
Notice how Paul counters these philosophies, he preached Jesus and the resurrection to them. How does Jesus and the resurrection answer these ancient philosophies and how will it answer their modern counterparts? Let’s see…
First, self-mastery promises to bring hope through believing in your own goodness, your inherent power to overcome any obstacle, and by “actualizing” your vision of your true self. You are what you say you are and what you believe you can become. This really feeds on the idea of American independence and self-achievement. It is a great philosophy that makes you feel really good about yourself, most of the time. But, it doesn’t provide any real help when life throws you a curve ball and everything begins to collapse around you. What happens when you control yourself and everything around you perfectly but the doctor tells you that you have stage four cancer or your spouse has early onset Alzheimer’s? What happens? You ask yourself, “What’s the point?”
How is preaching Jesus a response to this philosophy of life? The entire story of scripture revolves around our creation/birth, our failure, our redemption, and our re-creation or new birth in Christ. In fact, if the philosophy of Stoicism were actually true then we wouldn’t have everything collapse around us and our self-mastery and self-actualization would have achieved our goal. But it doesn’t, and we come face-to-face with the reality of sin/failure, ours and everyone else’s. That’s why Jesus had to come; we couldn’t do this on our own. We try and we fail, repeatedly. We need help and Jesus is God coming in human form to provide that help and hope.
Next, the philosophy of Epicureanism is the natural outcome of our culture’s views regarding science and the origins of life. According to their view, there’s nothing beyond this physical, material existence. What you see is all that exists. There is no life beyond this life and the spiritual realm we think exists is just a figment of our vivid imagination. Yet, most of us don’t really believe that. In fact, our ability to reason and think is proof that there’s more to life than what we can see. You might need to let that one sink in for a moment. If our material existence is all that exists and life is the result of just chemical interactions then your ability to reason and think are just chemical reactions in an organ in your head and what you consider to be the “real” you doesn’t actually exist. And yet, you know that can’t be true. Thinking, reasoning, logic and love really are more than that, aren’t they!
The resurrection of Jesus confirms what we know to be true, deep down in our souls. There is more to life than just “this life.” To put it rather simplistically in a “meme” format, “the most important things in life aren’t things.” We know that, and most of us try and live that way but we often fail, don’t we. That’s where the second part of Paul’s preaching hits us, the resurrection changes all of that. The resurrection of Jesus is so hard for us to believe because it defies our experiences. Dead people don’t walk out of their own tombs, and I would agree. But Jesus wasn’t just a dead person, he was THE Son of God and completely unique in the history of the world. Just what we needed, someone who could change things, someone who had the power to re-create us.
Think about it… God made us, we messed it all up, He came to put things right because we couldn’t, and we even tried to mess that up by killing Him. But God… that’s huge, BUT GOD!!! But God had expected and planned for that from the very beginning. God even expected how you would mess things up and He planned for that, too. The resurrection of Jesus isn’t just God’s response to an injustice against His son, it is His response to our failures. The same power that gave life to Jesus in that tomb is able to resurrect our dead souls and transform our lives. Not through our own power or self-actualization, but through the power of God. That same power is able to give us life, life that will last into eternity. Not though our own goodness and but through Christ’s.
One last thought, this redemption and eternal life doesn’t come through religiousness. We aren’t promised eternal life because we believe God exists, in whatever form that might take in your mind (see James 2:19). These people in Athens were religious, but they still needed to know and trust in Jesus. So do you… it’s not enough to just be religious. You can be religious and lost. Trust Jesus and the power of His resurrection and discover what life is really about.
“A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10 HCSB)