Reading Luke and Acts in 2020
Week 41 | Acts 17
Acts 17 Reflections and Questions
By Tom Jackson
As we consider Acts chapter 17, I ponder the obvious double entendre we who live in a place called Athens (Georgia, not Greece) can assign to this scripture. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” What idols draw us away from God in our Athens of today, or wherever we live?
The Apostle Paul, along with Silas and Timothy, was making what we recognize today as “good trouble” along the 100+-mile journey from Philippi to Thessalonica. They had not intended to visit Athens, but unforeseen circumstances took Paul there. In each town along his way, Paul’s practice was to go to the synagogue first. He had more success reaching Gentiles attached to the synagogues than he did reaching Jews who called it their worship home.
His “good trouble” began in Thessalonica. The Jews felt the Gentile adherents were “theirs,” and Paul’s luring them away to Christianity was upsetting the body politic. The jealous Jewish leaders recruited ruffians in the marketplace and formed a mob, setting the city in an uproar. The believers spirited Paul and Silas out of town to Beroea. There, they again went to the synagogue, preached Jesus as Messiah, and gained additional adherents “including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.” The angry Jews from Thessalonica followed Paul and Silas to Beroea, again inciting the crowds. Leaving Silas and Timothy behind to make bail, believers whisked Paul away to Athens, where he was to wait for his compatriots to join him.
Can’t you see Paul in Athens – walking around and looking at things? He sees a city full of idols. (What might he have thought about Sanford Stadium, or the statue of Athena at the Classic Center?) Athenians, you may know, love to talk. They will discuss anything to death! Paul saw yet another opportunity to preach the Gospel. Those willing to listen escorted him to a place of high importance, the Areopagus, which we know as Mars Hill. This was home to the high court that tried cases of homicide, arson and religious matters (an interesting combination, to be sure). There, Paul held forth about the risen Savior to a learned audience that included Epicureans and Stoics. He spoke to a crowd that was curious, not hostile. Unlike his previous stops, in Athens he wasn’t on trial. When it was over, he was free to go.
Paul spoke in terms his listeners could appreciate at a high academic level. On his walk about Athens, he had observed an “altar to an unknown God.” Paul told the Athenians that this god unknown to them was in fact “The God who made the world and everything in it, Lord of Heaven and earth.” This God does not live in shrines made by human hands, he said, nor is He served by human hands as if He needed anything. We need not think of him as a deity formed by mortal hands from stone, gold, or silver.
But Paul’s discussion reached a point too far for some. They scoffed when he spoke of the risen Jesus. A dead person rising was a difficult concept for those who believed life ended at the death of the body. But some open-minded listeners said, “We’ll hear from you on this again,” and later came to believe. The scripture lists them by name, because it was significant for Paul to accomplish this – not while speaking to believers in a synagogue – but in the great public forum of Athens.
Like the learned Athens scholars who heard Paul, do we have a tendency today to shut out ideas that don’t comport with our already-formed world view? Some college students complain if a professor brings up alternate ideas and theories. In a controversial discussion, political or otherwise, do we refuse to even consider the possibility that the guy who disagrees with us may be right? Are we so afraid of being challenged by an idea with which we don’t agree, that we’re not even willing to listen to it? If our position is true, it will not shatter under scrutiny. Neither will the true God. Only idols shatter. The idols of Athens invigorated Paul. He used them as an opportunity – a jumping off point to bring people to the truth.
In verse 22, Paul describes the people of Athens as “very religious in every way.” They did have a lot of objects to worship. Paul’s point is that we can be “religious” without being correct in our religion. “Very religious” people can bow down and pray before a stone statue, and what does that offer them? What objects in our Athens of today misdirect our devotion? Our financial status? The size of our home? Our profession? Our favorite sports team? The glitter and glamor in the stores? Such objects can become our altars and idols, says Paul in verse 23. They have no life in them.
Some have complained about the church building being closed during the pandemic. In verse 24, Paul says God “doesn’t live in temples made with human hands.” How has your church carried out its important work with its building closed? Many unwittingly succeeded in a longstanding goal – to get the people of the church out of the building and into the streets where they can actually do God’s work! Solomon knew the great Temple at Jerusalem could not contain God. Our earthly structures set no boundaries or limits for God’s presence in the world. And while corporate worship is vital, much of the actual work must take place out where the people are – in the streets and communities.
Yet we look forward to our return to our sanctuaries, because we can and should worship God in the temple as well as serve in the streets in His name. I think it no accident that we call it a “worship service.” Our faith expressed through worship, if it is real and true, leads inexorably to a life of service to others in Jesus’ name.
Tom Jackson is a member of Athens First UMC.