Read Acts 17:22-34

Paul was on his second missionary journey and had to leave Berea in a hurry because of angry Jews. Friends took him to Athens where he was hanging around waiting for Silas and Timothy. This whole trip was not part of the plan. So he does a bit of sightseeing.

There is something fascinating about Paul in Athens: the great Christian apostle amidst the glories of ancient Greece. He had known about Athens since boyhood. Everyone did. Now for the first time he visits the city he had heard so much about. He is alone in the cultural centre of the world. What was his reaction?

Athens was crammed with altars, images and statues dedicated to the gods. Religion was a very important aspect in Greek society and culture. They worshipped many gods, creating a polytheistic society. They believed that the gods controlled all natural and social areas of life, that they had to be appeased, that they were immortal, and that they dwelt on Mount Olympus.

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. (Acts 17:16-17 NASB)

The Unknown god 
So Paul steps into this plethora of philosophy and religion and uses an altar to an unknown god to cross the barriers and identify in them something that all of humanity has in common, despite our various cultures and context, and that is this innate desire to search for meaning, possibly higher meaning. That meaning in ancient Athens identified itself through hundreds of idols – because when meaning is found human nature wants to worship and appease it.

Today’s culture 
Today we may not have literal idols, but western culture also seeks meaning in other ‘idols’ like: 
- Stuff, materialism 
- Status, the need to be important 
- Busyness, a diary that shows we are valuable 
- Body image 
- Power 
Etc.

Yearning 

There is something inside of us that yearns, longs for more: an existential longing, a global phenomenon that unites the human race. Eccl. 3:11 alludes to this when the writer says that God has put eternity in the hearts of humanity, but we simply cannot fathom this.

God is an unutterable sigh, planted in the depths of the soul. ~Jean Paul Richter 

Paul addresses this yearning in one of his most compelling speeches. Throughout this speech he lays down arguments and absolutes for us to consider:

  1. The Creator God that cannot be boxed – Acts 17:22-24
    Paul uses this inner search to point them to the Author and Creator of life. The Source of the search: a God that cannot be put into a nice neat carving or temple, or even nice Christian clichés and mantras. God is bigger!
  2. The Creator is not bound by rules of mankind – Acts 17:25-27 
    Rules and laws exist because a broken humanity needs boundaries. In his speech, Paul suggests that the Creator of the universe is not bound by rules, because he is the one who set everything in place: the rhythm of life, the natural laws that govern our planet. He created order – but order did not create Him. The minute we try to define God by mere rules, or even traditions, we run the risk of our conclusions being flawed. The Creator of the Universe is not served by humans or rules – He is above these. However, he uses the rules and this innate human need to distinguish right from wrong as signposts to Him. 
  3. Humanity exists through the providence of its Creator – Acts 17:26-28 
    Paul is showing that humanity is not a hap hazard invention, or something that came about through an explosion in an atmosphere that over zillion years later eventually crawled out of a pond and turned into a human.

    Rather, that there is an Intelligent Designer behind creation. That all of humanity was purposed by God, and not only that, but according to Hebraic thought, unlike Greek thought, humanity is not just an after-thought or amusement of the gods, rather men and women are the image bearers of God. In our spiritual DNA we have an eternal history that cannot be reduced to scientific formulas or fate.
  4. The Creator has us on a search that shows up idolatry as futile – Acts 17:29-30 
    "God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself because it is not there. There is no such thing." C.S. Lewis.

    Whatever form of idolatry – it eventually is revealed as futile. Existential longing is not satisfied in things or philosophies or within ourselves – only God can satisfy that. 
  5. The Creator has an answer to the yearning – Jesus Christ – Acts 17:31-34 
    We can assume that Paul’s speech recorded by Luke was shortened. It would be a safe assumption that he would have explained the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to them. Jesus who said that when you see me you see the Father – you observe my actions and words and you observe your Creator.

For the Epicurian and Stoic philosophers this was mere foolishness. The concept of a physical resurrection was idiotic, and salvation that comes in the form of a human God who sacrifices Himself out of love for His creation seemed totally absurd. And for so many it still seems absurd today.

So does faith not have any reason or evidence? Is Jesus to be thought of the same as the tooth fairy as Richard Dawkins and his ilk would have us believe? Is faith absurd? Is creation just the mere product of a hap hazard evolutionary process? Do we simply disregard the fact that since the recording of human history there has been a search for meaning? Do we disregard the claims of Christ – of him being a true representation of the Creator in every way?

You cannot read the words of Jesus and say they are the words of a good man with wise sayings. Jesus very self revelation points us to the fact that either these are the words of a liar (he is not God), a lunatic (he thinks he’s God) or they are true – and He is God and therefore the way to eternal life.

Paul’s argument to the Athenians is that the longing/search that is in every human heart acts as evidence of the existence of a Creator – and that this search should awaken in us the acknowledgement of God – a God who manifested Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ.

John 14:6-7
Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.
If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him."

Paul’s conclusion is that in Christ the futileness of idolatry is revealed, in Christ God’s love is made manifest, and in Christ existential longing is satisfied!

Sample Discussion Questions 

  1. Paul confronted Epicurean philosophers (the pursuit of pleasure) and Stoic philosophers (fate rules the planet). What philosophies dominate our culture today? 
  2. How do these philosophies affect our thinking/behaviour as followers of Christ? 
  3. How is the Gospel received amongst such diverse philosophies/religions in our culture today? 
  4. Are we articulating/presenting a clear Gospel? 
  5. If not, why not? 
  6. How does Paul’s speech challenge my thinking and approach with the culture I live in? 
  7. What is so very important about the resurrection that Paul uses it as proof for all that he is saying?
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