Paul in Athens

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. Acts 17:16 (NASB)

Paul was agitated. That’s my translation of παρωξύνετο τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτοῦ ἐν αὐτῷ, which the NASB renders in its formal-equivalence fashion as “his spirit was being provoked within him.” The verb παροξύνω is in the imperfect tense, usually indicating continuous action or an ongoing state of affairs. And at the risk of committing the etymological fallacy, the root of the Greek verb comes into English as “paroxysm.”

Paroxysm (parək sizəm) Noun: a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity. Synonyms: spasm, attack, fit, burst, bout, convulsion, seizure, outburst, eruption, explosion

I take it that Paul somewhat more than mildly disturbed by the idolatry he saw in the streets of Athens. Paul was agitated.

My wife and children can see it in my demeanor when I become agitated by something I read online. I’ll have the computer in my lap, set it down, stand up, lean forward and start pacing while I rub my hands together. They call it my “mad walk.” “What made you mad?” they’ll ask, and I’ll tell them that someone is wrong on the internet yet again.

Paul was agitated. He saw the idolatry that pervaded the city of Athens and it angered him. There’s still a lot in the world that makes Christians angry. Christians even make each other angry. The world is filled with Christians pacing the floor and rubbing their hands together, sometimes justifiably and sometimes not so much.

Paul was agitated, and I suspect that his agitation was more justified than my own often is. The scriptures are filled with evidence of God’s displeasure with idolatry. The Ten Commandments begin:

You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving-kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20:3-6)

The story of the Old Testament is, in many ways, the story of God’s battle with false gods, idols and idolatry. Paul was steeped in the words of Israel’s scriptures, and in the earliest extant document in the New Testament the apostle described his ministry among the Greeks in this way:

For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything. For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:8-10)

Idolatry was not a peripheral issue for Paul. For him, turning from idols was a non-negotiable and non-debatable consequence of the gospel message. The presence of so much idolatry in Athens rightfully and justifiably agitated him. So, I’m not sure what happened. Paul’s speech before the Areopagus – in English, “Mars Hill” – a place name and the name of the Athens council that convened there – was downright irenic.

People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.

Really? You start by complimenting the idolaters for their idolatry? You use the language of their philosophers and you quote their poets? Where is the righteously agitated Paul?

Maybe Paul took a course in public communications and how to succeed in business. I get emails at work that cause “my spirit to be provoked within me.” But I’ve learned, never answer angry. That’s business email 101. Hit “Save” not “Send” on that first draft and revisit it after you’ve calmed down. Decide to act, not to react. Wait until your emotional brain is no longer in control and you are free to choose the words that best achieve the effect you wish to create.

Paul was a strategic communicator, but I wonder if there might not be more to it than that. I wonder if there might be something in the gospel itself that led Paul to such an approach. Paul’s argument is simple. The Athenians were “groping” toward the one true God. Their altar to the unknown god revealed the fact they were aware of their ignorance and the incompleteness of their Olympic pantheon. Their own philosophers and authors pointed them to a more universal reality.

“For in him we live and move and have our being.”

“We are his offspring.”

Paul’s assertion that the creator does not live in temples made with human hands would have rung true with at least some of his audience. At least it would have made for a good philosophical discussion for the learned Athenians who loved to engage in conversations about “the latest ideas.” (Acts 17:21) Paul lost his a major portion of his audience, however, when he turned from philosophical abstractions to the scandalous particularity of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God.

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

This is where he lost a major portion of every audience he addressed, both Jewish and Gentile. This is where the church loses much of its audience today. Inspiring quotes and deep spiritual thoughts? Bring them on. Turning from this generation’s idols to serve the true and living God who brought creation’s story to a climax in Jesus of Nazareth’s words, deeds, death and resurrection? To live one’s life in anticipation of the risen one’s return in glory to reign over all creation? Away with your narrow-minded theocracy!

Paul took an irenic approach to the idolatrous Athenians, but he wasn’t willing to compromise on the truth of the gospel. Jesus was Lord of all. The gospel required repentance by everyone. Paul did not engage in inter-religious dialogue; he called those who worshiped Zeus and Aphrodite to abandon their idols and give their lives to Jesus, the messiah of Israel and the Lord of all creation (and, by implication, to unite themselves to the assembly of those who worshiped him).

So, then, was Paul’s irenic approach to the Athenians simply a rhetorical strategy adopted to achieve his evangelistic aims? Not entirely, I think, especially as I consider this curious passage:

From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him. (Acts 17:26-27)

“So that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” For Paul (or, perhaps, for Luke, who is the author of the book of Acts), Israel’s story is at the root of God’s saving activity, but God has also situated the other nations of the world (and their religious practices) in time and geographical space. Their myths and religious practices, while catastrophically wrong-headed, are also reflections of God’s creative activity. People invent religions because God created them to “search” and “grope” for him, so that they might find him.

To the extent that the religions of the world prepared people to hear the good news of Christ and his kingdom, the author is comfortable with making a qualified affirmation:

What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

The nations of the world groped in darkness, but even this instinct was the work of God. God “overlooked the times of ignorance” but now the consummation of Israel’s story has revealed the truth to the nations as well. It is time for all to repent – to turn from the idols that lined the streets of Athens.

I wonder which parts of this fallen culture the church can affirm as the work of God, even as it calls this present age to repentance.