By Gregg Bing
Continued from last month.
When Paul arrived in Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he looked around at a city whose people were completely given over to idols (Acts 17:16). After reasoning with the people in the Jewish synagogue and in the public marketplace for several days, he was confronted by certain Greek philosophers. Desiring to understand more about this strange, new doctrine Paul preached concerning Jesus and the resurrection, they brought him to the Areopagus (Mars Hill), the highest court of the Greeks. What an opportunity this provided for the Apostle Paul. Though the people in Athens were idol worshippers, they “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). As a result, they were willing to listen to what Paul had to say. As we look closely at Paul’s message to the Athenians, we find helpful examples of how to effectively share the truth of God with unbelievers.
As Paul stood on Mars Hill, he spoke boldly (freely). He did not hesitate to declare the truth to these people, though they were viewed by many as experts on wisdom and knowledge. He did not water down or compromise the truth in any way, just to avoid offending them. In our ministry of the Word to others, even to those who do not know God, we should not hesitate to confront them with the truth of God’s Word; nothing else has the power to transform their hearts and lives (Rom. 1:16, Heb. 4:12).
Though Paul spoke boldly, he was careful to “walk in wisdom” toward those who were outside of Christ (Col. 4:5). Paul began by saying:
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious.” (Acts 17:22)
We need to be perceptive, aware of the needs and feelings of those we minister to. What did Paul perceive? That these people were “very religious.” This expression is translated “too superstitious” in the King James Version. The literal meaning of the Greek word used here means “fear of demons (or pagan gods).” Rather than criticizing these people, I believe Paul was, in a respectful way, acknowledging their devotion to worship, though he knew this worship was misdirected. As servants of the Lord, it is important that we deal with people humbly and gently. Our task is not to criticize or argue with them but to communicate the truth of God’s Word. Paul instructed Timothy:
“A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth.” (2 Tim. 2:24-25)
After commending their devotion to worship, Paul used a technique that was often employed by the Lord Jesus in His earthly ministry: an object lesson. Object lessons convey spiritual truths using real life objects or situations which people readily relate to. Jesus told parables, true-to-life stories that He used to teach spiritual lessons. Paul focused the attention of the Athenians on an object they would relate to—one of their own altars—one he could use to teach the truth.
“As I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” (Acts 17:23)
The Greeks worshipped many gods, who, in their minds, controlled every area of their lives: weather, harvest, fertility, music, love, war, death, etc. This altar to “the unknown god” was no doubt a safety measure to avoid offending any god they did not know. The God who remained unknown to the Athenian people was, in fact, the one true God. This is the God Paul would proclaim to them.
Nature of God
Paul first declared to these idol worshippers and philosophers the nature of the true God: His person, His power, and His preeminence.
“God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.” (Acts 17:24)
The true God is an awesome God, much bigger and more powerful than the gods the people of Athens worshipped. He is not a god who can be contained in a temple made by human hands. Even Solomon, as he considered the daunting task of building the temple in Jerusalem, which was to be God’s dwelling place among His people, Israel, declared of Him:
“But who is able to build Him a temple, since heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him? Who am I then, that I should build Him a temple, except to burn sacrifice before Him?” (2 Chron. 2:6)
The true God is not an object (idol) made by human hands. He is the Creator of the world and everything in it, and He is Lord over all He created, both in heaven and on earth.
Worship of God
Such a God cannot be worshipped as these Athenians worshipped their gods. Their worship focused on doing things with their own hands to provide for the needs of their gods: carving images of them, building temples for them to dwell in, erecting altars to honor them, bringing gifts and sacrifices to appease them and garner their favor. Much religious worship today centers on the same false premise: that man must do something for God. The emphasis of real worship should be praising God for what He has done for us. So, Paul told them:
“Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.” (Acts 17:25)
God does not need anything from man. On the contrary, He is the One who gives us all we need: “life, breath, and all things.” Worship of such a God is not to be based on the traditions of men, with its ritualistic and ceremonial attempts to please God. This is why Jesus told the woman at the well:
“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24)
This is what God desires from man, worship that is spiritual in nature, worship that comes from the heart, worship that is based on the truth of God’s Word.
The Jews worshipped in the tabernacle and later in the temple. While their worship under the law involved ceremonies (i.e. cleansing), keeping feast days, bringing gifts and sacrifices to the Lord, every aspect of this service toward God was intended to focus their hearts on Him and His purpose for their lives. Yet, by the time Jesus was born, Israel’s temple worship had deteriorated and become little more than ritual to most Jews. They had elevated the traditions of men above the Word of God. In Matthew 15:8, Jesus reproved them with these words:
“These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Sadly, this is the case in many so-called places of worship today. People simply go through the religious motions, “having a form of godliness,” but with hearts that are cold and unaffected by the things of God. All such worship, which is based on the traditions of men rather than the Word of God, is in vain. Paul warned the Colossians:
“Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Col. 2:8)
Next month we will see how Paul declares to them God’s purpose for man.
(Continued Next Month)