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(no matter how sophisticated or intellectual or culturally accepted)


The University of Richmond where Jenny attended has a very special contest for its students with a very valuable reward. You can win a free year’s tuition by submitting the best thesis question for the university to debate and discuss from various angles for a couple of years. It’s called the Quest Question. Past winner: “Is Truth in the eye of the beholder?” Doesn’t sound too tough (you have to submit an entire package that expands on your theme and suggests avenues of debate for the different departments)

Jenny and I put our heads together and submitted a surefire winner:

“Is Tolerance the new modern virtue?” We’ll be talking about this today …

However, sad to say it must not have been politically correct enough to win the prize …

Winning statement = “When does Discovery Inspire Change? Why Change?”

What about Tolerance in today’s culture?

being patient and fair is one thing; We are not talking about going about like the KKK in a crusade of violence and a lynch mob type mentality; but today tolerance means not speaking against another point of view as being wrong and dangerous … but taking a hands-off approach; different strokes for different folks

cf. the Christian testimonies you hear in the media – I want to give praise to God for what He’s done for me ….. but not: God calls upon each one of you to repent and put your faith also in Him

Problems of living in a pluralistic society in a democratic nation:

cf. how our National Day of Prayer is supposed to make the effort to incorporate people of every faith as if they have equal validity

cf. how after the 9/11 tragedy in the service that followed in the National Cathedral the speakers like Billy Graham had to walk the fine line between not compromising the truth and being gracious to the pagan philosophers

How would Paul respond? Notice that he didn’t get invited back to many cities?

Cf. our military chaplaincy program

What type of tolerance is appropriate for us?


(no matter how sophisticated or intellectual or culturally accepted)

The Approach / The Argument / The Application

Today: Setting the Stage and Setting the Tone for the gospel presentation in Athens



“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols.”

[Was going to spend entire sermon on just this verse 16]

Didn’t go around wrecking the idols like King Asa (1 Kings 15:12 “removed all the idols which his fathers had made… But the high places were not taken away) — which was appropriate to do in a theocracy; but he didn’t just look the other way either

Background of Athens – “city full of idols”

Lots of statues and religious symbols

That phrase could well be translated “drowning in idols,” or “swamped with idols.”

At the time of Paul’s visit to Athens, that city was no longer important as a political seat; Corinth was the commercial and political center of Greece under the Roman Caesars. But Athens was still the university center of the world

By this time, the city of Athens was about 600 years old. The birthplace of democracy, Athens was named after Athena, the virgin goddess who was enshrined in the beautiful Parthenon of the Acropolis. Athens was a university city, where in former years students from all over the known world sat at the feet of the great philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. …. But in 86 B.C., Athens was sacked by the Romans. Most of the beautiful buildings for which Athens was famous were destroyed. … Historians tell us that there were over 30,000 statues within the city proper. Probably only a population left of 10,000 – a pretty hefty idol/people ration … Paul knew that behind the art, the beauty, the gold, the silver and the marble was something much more deadly–behind them was idolatry, immorality and captivity. (Ritchie)

Paul hated false misrepresentations of God and futile attempts by man to devise their own religious systems. He hated the evil of the idolatry and he felt compassion for the people who remained in bondage and spiritual ignorance.

Paul was probably reminded of his past intellectual pursuits in Judaism – Phil. 3

He was born in Tarsus, one of the three great university cities of the Roman world, the other two being Athens and Alexandria in Egypt. Paul himself had been trained as a Jew at the feet of the greatest rabbis in Jerusalem. He was a man of incredible intellect, unsurpassed in his ability to reason with the mind that God gave him.

He knew firsthand the delusion and pride that come with the sophistication of the wisdom of this world. Remember: the preaching of the cross was foolishness to the Gentiles.

Phil. 3:7-8 “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ”

There’s an example of repentance and conversion!

literally sharpen; figuratively arouse, excite, stimulate; in a negative sense provoke, irritate, cause to be upset; only passive in the NT (AC 17.16; 1C 13.5 “love is not provoked”) … anger exasperate


Usually those things which impact our comfort and well-being and the pursuit of what we want to accomplish

– We are provoked by people who treat us wrong

– We are provoked by circumstances that bring us pain; or cause us to waste our time; or inconvenience us

Paul looks at things from God’s perspective – He is provoked by those things that provoke God

Have we become so numb to the perversity of the world around us that our spirit is no longer provoked?

– Do we see the idolatry that Paul saw? Are we sensitive to it? Do we hate it?

– Do we have a love for the people that are living lives of futility and hopelesssness; do we care what happens to them?

Look at how angry God got in the days of Noah – Gen. 6:5-7 “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. 7 And the LORD said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.’”

Last days described as being similar to days of Noah

Matt 27:37-38 “For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark,”

Look at how angry God was in the days of Moses when the Israelites made the golden calf as their idol to worship — Ex. 32:7-10 “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, ‘Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’ And the LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. 10 Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.’”

Look at what motivates Paul to preach the gospel here in Athens:

– You normally have the love motivation – “for the love of Christ constrains us” – compassion for people

– You normally have the fear motivation – don’t want to see the wrath of God executed against these people

– But here Paul elevates the aspect of motivation to the desire to see God glorified – It greatly disturbs him to see God robbed of His glory which He so richly deserves


“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.”

He could have taken a mini-vacation here; some much needed rest while he waited for his traveling companions (Silas and Timothy); had just finished some intense tours of duty in Thessalonica and Berea

He was accustomed to the Jewish element in the audience stirring up the crowd and the authorities against him; he kept having to move on to the next location under duress;

He had to keep one step ahead

1) Some people feel that Paul blew it in Athens –

– Should have waited for the ministry team

– Resorted to logical debate rather than reasoning from the Scriptures

– Didn’t really present the complete gospel message …

I disagree

2) Some see Paul’s approach here as a model for how to identify with the culture and present sort of a “friendship evangelism” model of subtly working the gospel in as he had opportunity … I see some of that sensitivity … but I take Paul’s approach to be much more bold and confrontational and even sarcastic than that .. He issued a strong indictment against their practice of idolatry

How did Paul take the Initiative?

Paul went to where the unbelieving people were. He met them on their home field.

3 Different Groups:

1) The synagogue – religious people – already interested in spiritual things

2) The marketplace – common people going about their daily activities

diff. culture back then … not like us accosting someone in Giant …

they were used to the social interaction in this forum and discussing a wide range of topics

3) Then we will see that he was granted an opportunity to take his message to the Philosophers of the city — the super educated and articulate


Are we always waiting for someone to tell us what to do? Are we driven like Paul was so that we just cannot rest unless we find opportunities to present the gospel?


“And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, ‘What would this idle babbler wish to say?’ Others, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’– 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 which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.’ (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)”

1. Opposition can be a good thing – allows for clear distinctions between truth and error

Don’t you hate it when you are witnessing to someone and they keep agreeing with you as if they have the same type of faith in Christ when you know that they just don’t see the distinctions? That’s why those evangelistic explosion questions up front are so good:

“If you were to die right now and stand before God and He were to ask you Why should I let you into my heaven, what would you say?”

It makes people commit to where their trust is before you give them all the right terminology.

Paul was dealing with Philosophers who had a highly defined worldview where it was easy to point out the differences. These Philosophies that had some ability to grapple with the difficult questions of life – with suffering; with hardship …

a. Philosophy of the Epicureans – Motto: “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” / everything happens by chance / deism

Kent: Epicureans sought contentment by a serene detachment from the world, and believed there would be no divine intervention in life nor punishment after death (the emphasis on sensual pleasure was a later perversion). They were materialistic in their outlook.

Taught that people couldn’t connect with the gods at all and that as a result, there was no reason to seek moral good.

The Epicureans are the spiritual fathers of all our modern self-help, self-realization groups. The Epicurean philosophy was to seek a path of tranquillity. They didn’t even want to think about a God who would judge them for their evil ways, so they crossed all thought of that out of their minds. For them, truth came through experience. Today’s

Epicureans agree with that. “If it feels good, do it,” they say “All truth is within me.” (Ritchie)

b. Philosophy of the Stoics – Motto: “Grin and bear it” / your fate has been determined; accept it without emotion / pantheistic = everything is god

Kent: Stoics sought happiness by accepting nature as it is and finding their place within it. They were essentially pantheistic.

Emotions were to be denied, and personal discipline and morality were highly valued.

Stoics also believed that life had no meaning. Rather than considering life to be random and unpredictable, they believed in an unchangeable fate set in motion by distant powers. What will happen to you will happen; it can’t be changed. Therefore, the wise person is strong, able to be dealt terrible blows and suffer significant pain, able to bear up under good and bad and never raise an eyebrow, able to steel themselves against every contingency. (Zeisler)

Stott: To oversimplify, it was characteristic to Epicureans to emphasize chance, escape and the enjoyment of pleasure, and of the stoics to emphasize fatalism, submission and the endurance of pain.

Look at all the resurrection has to offer both of these systems: Hope for eternity; a personal relationship with a God who is alive and cares about you individually

2. Name Calling and False Charges are to be Expected / Misunderstood

a. “idle babbler” – gave him no intellectual respect for his views;

tough audience to reach

could not grasp the system of thought without fuller explanation;

The word babbler is literally “seed-pecker.” They saw Paul as one of the little birds in the marketplace going around pecking at seeds here and there. They regarded him as a mere collector of fragments of truth, gathering a few choice words from philosophies that he had picked up along the way and trying to impress people. They smiled and dismissed him contemptuously. (Stedman)

Stott: used of various seed-eating or scavenging birds . . . . from birds it was applied to human beings, vagrants or beggars who live off scraps of food they pick up in the gutter, “gutter-snipes”. Then thirdly it was used particularly to describe teachers who, not having an original idea in their own heads, unscrupulously plagiarize form others picking up scraps of knowledge from here and there . . . until their system is nothing but a ragbag of other people’s ideas and sayings.

b. “proclaimer of strange deities – because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.”

(the word is demons)

note plural – confusing the doctrine of the Trinity? Personifying the Resurrection as a separate deity?

Talk about strange deities … how about their hodgepodge of countless idols

3. Opposition Presented an Opening for Proclamation of the Gospel

a. Fantastic Setting – “brought him to the Areopagus”

physical hill of Mars; or symbolized the court system?

court of judges who had the final authority in the city of Athens

Super Bowl of philosophical debate – look at its history

Fairly intimidating

Kent: Areopagus was the same court which had tried and condemned Socrates centuries before. Sometimes it met on the hill west of the Acropolis.

We have the wrong setting inside this little hotel room for Peter’s sermon …

this sermon should be shouted from the mountaintops; demands a large outdoor amphitheater

b. Inquiring Audience

“May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean”

Major Problem: they wanted to know in an intellectual sense but not in terms of submitting their hearts and wills to the Sovereign God

Mostly a Futile Exercise: “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new”


“And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.’”


“Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects”

Gets their attention; appeals to what interests them; looks like he is paying them a compliment

The word he used was literally, “you are god-fearers.” But the word he chose for “god” was rather unusual. Instead of the common word theos, which means God in his greatness, he chose the word daimon, demon, by which he implied that the gods they worshipped were lesser concepts than the great idea of God. They understood that he meant to compliment them because they had a concept of, and a capacity for, God. They were very much involved with and interested in God. (Stedman)

Paul connected with a fear the Greeks had: They didn’t want to accidentally offend any god by failing to recognize and worship it. So they erected altars and sacrificed to the unknown god in addition to all of their “known” gods.

Sincerity will get you nowhere – it is all about truth and a heart response that conforms to the truth about God

B. SARCASM – you might not read this the same way

For all of your intellectualism and sophistication, even you yourselves have had to confess your spiritual ignorance – we see a little bite from the mouth of the Apostle Paul

“examining the objects of your worship” – subtle dig at their idolatry


“What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you”

Not bashful about sermonizing;

Great Commission: “All authority has been given to me …”

Could you be accused of arrogance? Yes

Could you be accused of being a know-it-all? Yes


Different contexts call for different types of approaches in presenting the gospel. In this sophisticated center of philosophy and intellectual debate, Paul did not back down or apologize for the message of the exclusivity of salvation by Jesus Christ and the significance of His resurrection. He stood up against the sophisticated intellectuals of that city and addressed their pagan idolatry and ignorance of the nature of the one true God. In all he did he was motivated by wanting God to be glorified. He was provoked by the same things that provoke a holy God. He took initiative to address his audience and he adopted a tone that combined sensitivity, sarcasm and authority in order to gain their attention and provide a platform for discussion. Next week we will look at the argument itself.