"Athens: The Gospel Comes to the Center of Learning" #82-04
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on September 28, 2014
By Rev. Gregory Seltz, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:Athens, Who Is Paul Talking To?)
Copyright 2014 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Text: Acts 17
Christ is risen, He is risen, indeed, and His message of grace is for all people. Amen.
The Bible says that the ancient Greeks sought wisdom. They were a people intent on the next nugget of philosophical wisdom. They were the people who would bring the world art, and beauty, and philosophy. But, in the hands of sinful men and women, even Greeks, would that be enough? Are human wisdom and ingenuity ever enough for what truly ails us as sinful people?
Well, let's not be so philosophical; let me ask a more practical question. Ready? Here it goes, "Have you checked your email yet today?" I just heard that the first thing that people do after waking up from sleep, they don't kiss their spouse, they don't jump in the shower, they don't come to breakfast with the family; no, the first thing they do is check their emails. We, like the Greeks, seem to have an insatiable desire to know the next thing, the new thing, right now.
But, don't you ever get tired of being connected all the time? Especially when all the information really doesn't help like we thought it would?
Maybe not. I've read the average number of text messages sent and received daily by Smartphone owners aged 18-24 is about 130. That's the average. I know people who send and receive well over 400 a day! Texts are going out and coming in every twenty seconds, twenty-four hours a day.
That's being connected right? Information, direction, solutions we need to live, right?
Then there's e-mail and social media. And, of course, then there is television with its twenty-four-hour programming. It may not be the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato; it may not be the beauty of Greek art; but, in our own modern way, we seek the wisdom, the solutions, the ingenuity in our hands, for our issues, with a mere passing notion of God's real participation in our lives for our sakes.
Constant connections; but, does it ever truly bring the blessings we really need. For, in reality, we're a people who stare at screens all day. TVs blare in the background stifling conversation. Texting often has us talking past one another, not to each other. And people aren't unplugging, even when being plugged in isn't truly helping. A constant dump of information overwhelms us. It never stops. Yet we like the Greeks still seek wisdom on our own terms.
But, even on the most earnest of searches, our wisdom is often confusing. A while back I heard that aspirin could be helpful to prevent heart attacks. But I read a few weeks ago that a new report contradicted that finding. A few days later I saw an even newer report that contradicted the contradiction! You've experienced this, haven't you? One idea comes to you one day only to have it changed a few days later.
And so the revolving door of new ideas continues--for marriage, for parenting, healthcare, diet, exercise, advice about aging--even in science! Do you remember when Pluto used to be a planet? Now they've taken its planet status away!
It's crazy, isn't it? If you're feeling the stress and strain of the constantly flowing and ever-changing onslaught of information, you have some sense of what the city of Athens was like in the first century. It was a place that was always eager for the next philosophical, spiritual thought, the next new important news, the big academic, religious, informational thing.
But God's Good News was for Athens too. The Apostle Paul found his way to Athens during his second missionary journey. As he waited for his missionary companions to arrive, he looked around the city of Athens. Acts 17 says it this way: "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" (Acts 17:16).
Paul was bothered. He was disturbed by the many gods that vied for the attention of the people. There were gods for love and for war, for hunting and harvest, for wine and wisdom, for the sea, for the land, for work, and for home. This was like a jab in the soul for Paul--that's what the word "provoked" means in the verse. Paul felt like you might feel when you're at your wit's end in the overwhelming flood of information coming at you. You wonder what in the world is going on, where's the truth in all this. You know this can't be the way we're intended to live.
But there was even more irritation coming Paul's way. In addition to the many gods in Athens, there were also many segments of philosophy and thought. We hear in verses 17-18, "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" (Acts 17:16-18).
Paul was not only bombarded with the latest information and ideas; he was confronted by people who thought they knew it all, who thought they had a corner on the market in the area of wisdom.
Athens had been the center of thought and philosophy for the world for centuries. The philosophies and logic of Athens still roam the halls of our finest universities even today. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, but here's the reality of Athens, especially first century A.D. Much of its philosophical thinking had became empty musing and schmoozing. Verse 21 tells it this way: "All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new" (Acts 17:21). They were addicted to the news feed! If they had cell phones, they'd be checking them too. For them, like us, information had become entertainment. Being busy was a pastime.
Are you getting stuck in that Athenian trap today, too? Are you becoming an expert in moment-by-moment trivia? Is your answer to the question "How are you doing?" that one word answer, "Busy"? Are you always distracted, unable to maintain a train of thought or to engage in a meaningful conversation? Are you unable to figure out how to find freedom from the connection and information taskmaster? That's what information does to us without the wisdom of God that comes to us through faith in Jesus.
That's why Paul says in Acts 17, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:23). There is an answer to the Athenian information overload, then and now! There is a solution to life that becomes enslaved by our own inventions! There is a freedom to the slavery that comes to the misplaced worship of the "gods" of technology.
Paul proclaims to the Athenians in our text, and to any who will listen today; it's that simple, yet powerful truth of God who drew close to you, God who cares about you, and who gives your life purpose, now and forever. Paul told the Athenians about the living God who is present. He talked about the true God who wasn't invented by people, but who comes close to us in Jesus and who knows and understands what makes life right and good. Paul brought the Good News of God who overcame every obstacle thrown at us--including death. Instead of living in the frenzy of life, trying to figure out by ourselves what is meaningful or fulfilling or true, Paul presented the key to a life that can be peaceful, confident, and certain. He brought them the news of the strong, wise, and trustworthy Savior, Jesus Christ.
He said to them about this true, strong, wise, and gracious God: "In him we live and we move and we have our being" (Acts 17:28).
In other words, we don't live in the frantic tug of war of whatever or whoever is claiming to be in charge for the moment. You're not a slave to the latest news or the most urgent attention-getter. Your life is in God. In Him you live and move and have your being. Your life is in His grace--the life-restoring love given to you as a gift. Your life is anchored in His peace. Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). The wisdom of the world, the whims of advertisers, and the way of this multi-media world, they do not own you. God says to you, "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine" (Isaiah 43:1). God purchased the rights to you when His Son paid the price for your sins on the cross. And in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, you were redeemed. You were brought back and brought forth from chaos and confusion. By grace you can be still and know that the Lord and Savior is God. He is in charge. He made you His own. As the Apostle Peter said also, "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from this empty way of life handed down from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, so that your faith and your hope, they are in God" (1 Peter 1:18-21 NIV).
That's the simple truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is what came to the city of Athens--the so-called city of wisdom.
Do you remember Stephen Covey's book, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"? In the book he talked about how we're drawn to the urgent and unimportant matters of life. Try to concentrate on planning your day, and a telemarketer calls. Try to spend time in prayer or reading of the Bible, and the doorbell rings. Make plans to spend time with a friend who can give you sound advice or encourage you, and you have to cancel because your car breaks down. Carve out time for your children or grandchildren, and you end up getting distracted by catching up with email. Too often, the urgent gets in the way of what is really important.
In Athens, that was the case with what we called the Areopagus. It still exists today as a massive area of rock where the ancient council of elders would have met. From the Areopagus, the city of Athens could be seen below. I was privileged to stand at that very place where Paul stood in Acts 17. It is an amazing place, with vistas that, while beautiful, still proclaim the incapacity and temporalness of all human wisdom on our terms alone. This was the spot where, important matters were constantly engaged, where vital solutions were always being offered, always being sought.
So Paul shocked his listeners at the Areopagus with what was truly important: our lives before the living God; he cuts right to the heart of all things. He acknowledges that there is more to life that our ideas, plans, and inventions; he speaks about God, the One who came so that we might have resurrection life even from the dead. On that day, a number of men and women believed. They were freed from the whims of the world and their own sinful distraction that was tossing them about. They realized the truth of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4, "For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power." Their lives were made brand new by faith in Jesus Christ.
Is the important being swallowed up by the urgent in your life? Is what really matters being pushed aside by the distractions? Are you so busy with what's happening right now that you're putting off preparing for eternity? That's an Athens moment in your life today, too.
God doesn't want you to be caught in the unhealthy and the unwise trap. He wants you to have real wisdom, real power to live life now and forever. So instead of letting you live in the wisdom of the world, God gives you real wisdom. Instead of leaving in the Athenian-like existence, God brings you the simple truth that makes it all worthwhile.
You know the wisdom of the world. It says, "Buy it, you'll be happy." It claims, "Don't depend on anyone and you'll go farther." It spouts, "Dig deep inside yourself to find answers and strength that you need." It chides, "Hurry and cram in as much as you can. There's no time in life to rest."
But the wisdom of God debunks those lies. We hear God's spokesman say in the book of Proverbs: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight" (Proverbs 9:10). Or also, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will bring healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones" (Proverbs 3:5-8).
You want that healing and refreshment, don't you? It's a gift from God, in His grace, exactly what Paul proclaimed in Athens: new life from the cross and resurrection of the Savior Jesus.
Athens would teach a virtuous person to seek wisdom; but the Bible says it differently, "Wisdom, God's wisdom, actually is seeking you."
In fact, the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 1, "Christ Jesus...has become for us wisdom from God." In Colossians 2, in Him "are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." Jesus is Wisdom personified, and He came for you and me.
You see, real wisdom isn't what we think up. It's what's revealed to us and given to us from outside of ourselves. God doesn't leave us groping around in the darkness of our half-truths or sinful, information overload. He comes in the middle of the stresses, the confusions, the conflicting reports and brings not only wisdom, but life and salvation; a life of grace in Christ, obedience to the God who loves us with an everlasting love.
That's what the Apostle Paul was getting at in 1 Corinthians, chapter one. He says it this way: "Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world? ...Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jew and Greek, Christ the power of God, the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength" (1 Corinthians 1:20, 22-25 NIV).
God stepped into the world in Jesus Christ and eliminated the chill of sin, hopelessness, and frantic weariness. God revealed real wisdom in Jesus Christ--His perfect life lived in your place, His death on the cross that carried away your sin and guilt, His resurrection from the grave that opened the door to new life, and His presence with you that now gives you peace and purpose. God's wisdom unplugs you from the endless chaos of the world. It's simple. Listen to God's Word: Psalm 46:"Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalms 46:10). Psalm 50:"Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will glorify me" (Psalms 50:15). Or 1 John 4: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:10-12 NIV).
This is the simple, refreshing, and life-restoring wisdom from God. It's the clear voice of truth in a confusing and complicated barrage of voices in the world.
Will you let the beautiful wisdom of God find you today? Are you ready for His grace and truth to simplify and empower your life? That was the eternal offer that Paul brought to the Athenians that day; real wisdom for those seeking wisdom for life. That's the same opportunity he brings to you today, that's wisdom for your life, now and forever.
LUTHERAN HOUR MAILBOX (Questions & Answers) for September 28, 2014
Topic: Athens, Who Is Paul Talking To?
ANNOUNCER: Now, Pastor Gregory Seltz continues with questions based on "The Footsteps of St. Paul." I'm Mark Eischer. Pastor, in the account of Paul's experiences in Athens, we hear about Epicureans and Stoics, devout Jews, and people in the marketplace. Who were all these people?
SELTZ: Well, Mark, Athens was a city of the world. Many people lived there.
ANNOUNCER: Perhaps not all that different from one of our modern metropolitan areas around the world.
SELTZ: You're right. It was a true city. And in that city there were people who were Jewish along with people who were worshipers of God, but weren't of Jewish lineage. Paul reached out to the Jewish folks. He knew them and could relate to them. But, he was also speaking to whoever was listening. We hear about people in the marketplace, people who happened to be present. The fact that Paul engaged with people in these public areas says a lot about his work as an Apostle and about our calling as followers of Jesus Christ.
ANNOUNCER: Who else might have been in the marketplace?
SELTZ: You can probably imagine: anybody and everybody!
ANNOUNCER: Would you say it was something like a shopping mall?
SELTZ: Even more, Mark. The Greek marketplace was not only a place to shop and socialize; it was a place to discuss the news of the day, to build relationships with people. Think about it, Paul immersed himself in a place where he could really get to know people, mix with them, form relationships, enter into deep conversations. Paul really wanted to get to know people. He wanted to know where they were in thought and in spirit. He wanted to understand their needs. All of these efforts were in order to share the Gospel effectively with the people he met.
ANNOUNCER: How does that translate into our situation today?
SELTZ: Well, every Christian is connected to somebody. It could be to family members, friends, or co-workers. It could be to the neighborhood. In fact, every church is connected to people, too. Churches are a part of communities. Just as Paul immersed himself in the Athenian community, churches are salt and light in their community. God's gathered people are always called to scatter--to get into their communities so that they can understand how they can share the love and Good News of Jesus effectively.
ANNOUNCER: That's not always easy, though, is it?
SELTZ: It's a challenge, that's for sure. Even Paul encountered the challenge of two of the major philosophical groups of the day: the Stoics and the Epicureans.
ANNOUNCER: What do we know about them?
SELTZ: Epicureans sought happiness. They not only desired life's pleasures, but they concentrated on the absence of pain. The Epicureans withdrew from political life and they gathered in groups for friendship in order to support one another in their quest for happiness. They focused on gaining knowledge, limiting desires, working toward tranquility, and finding freedom from fear and the absence of pain. The Stoics, on the other hand, they were more reserved in their search for peace and contentment. You're probably familiar with what it means when someone is described as having a "stoic personality."
ANNOUNCER: Right, that might be a person who is more reserved, unemotional.
SELTZ: Yes. They believed that a disciplined will would keep them from destructive emotions and, therefore, achieve happiness in their circumstances. They focused on clear judgment and inner calm in the face of all emotions and circumstances. Spiritual exercises were a key part of Stoicism. Above all, they wanted to live out their beliefs. Actions, not mere ideas, that showed a person's true philosophy.
ANNOUNCER: It sounds like some of these philosophers would be interested, then, in what Jesus had to say.
SELTZ: I think there would be appeal. There was also a deep need in them, like us. As you know, when you try to reach peace or happiness through your own efforts, you always hit a wall. So Paul knew their need and he knew how to communicate with them--to grab their interest and win them as listeners. He never held back with the Gospel, but understood his listeners enough to meet them where they were at.
ANNOUNCER: Was he successful?
SELTZ: Acts 17 tells us: "But some men joined him and believed, among them were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them" (Acts 17:34 ESV). The Holy Spirit worked to change the hearts of people who knew almost nothing about the true God or had totally misunderstood who He was.
ANNOUNCER: That should encourage us when it comes to sharing Christ with those around us.
SELTZ: We should definitely be encouraged, because no one is ever too far gone; no one is too distant from God or too sinful to receive the life-transforming gift of the forgiveness of sins and life that come through Jesus Christ alone.
ANNOUNCER: And it's Good News that motivates us, then, to share the blessings we've received in Christ. Thank you, Pastor Seltz. This has been a presentation of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"O Word of God Incarnate" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"O Holy Spirit, Enter In" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)
"Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)