The terms we should use to describe much of what is going on in our culture is ungodly and hopeless, but God is yet near and offers hope. The ancient Greco-Roman culture of Bible times is perhaps more ungodly than our own sinful culture (Romans 1:18-32). The fall of that once great society reminds us that the same fate awaits all ungodly and hopeless societies (Proverbs 14:34).
The city of Athens was known for its academia and for its religion. The city was the mecca of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who ruled the day in Roman thought. The city of Athens was known as “the most religious city on earth”. Athens was home to the temple known as the Parthenon which has been replicated in exacting detail in Nashville, TN. Historians tell us there were some 10,000 people in the city of Athens in Paul’s day. In that same city of 10,000 people, the government had built no less that 30,000 pagan idols to be worshiped. There is no way to count how many idols were kept, served, and worshiped in the private homes of the people. Archaeologists have discovered in that same ancient city idols bearing the inscription “to the unknown god.” Being fearful of neglecting a deity, they made an idol to represent those deities who had not made themselves known.
It was the true God of the resurrection who the Athenians did not know. It was the true God and Father of Jesus Christ who was proclaimed to them. It was the true God of the Bible that we today must turn to in faithful obedience as we reject the idolatry of our own day.
A CULTURE GIVEN TO IDOLATRY
When Paul was waiting in Athens, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). The ancients said, “it was easier to find an idol in Athens than to find a man.” The idols outnumbered men at least 3 to 1. Perhaps, if Paul were to walk in our cities and in our homes his spirit would be provoked within him today as he sees our idolatry. Idolatry, at its most bast form, is covetousness at its worse (Colossians 3:5).
Idolatry is practiced when we allow anything or anyone to keep us from worship or Bible study or God’s service (Hebrews 10:24-26). Idolatry is practiced when men choose to abandon their covenant of marriage, their children, their church, and their God in order to live with another woman. Idolatry is on display when we train our children in sports, academics, and vocation but fail to train them in the ways of God. Idolatry is most shamefully expressed when men of God are so involved in their work, family, and hobbies that they cannot serve as faithful ministers, deacons, and elders.
Let us remember the evils of idolatry and the punishment the ancients faced because of it. 1 Kings 16:26 tells us of Omri “who did evil in the sight of the Lord and did more evil than all who were before him. For he walked in the way of Jeraboam son of Nebat and in the sins that he made Israel to sin, provoking the Lord God of Israel to anger by their idols.” Psalm 31:6 gives us the right perspective: “I hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord.”
Let us remember the greatness that God alone possesses. The mindset of the faithful is expressed in Psalm 96:5: “For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” Let us be courages, convicted, and take action like Josiah who “put away the mediums and necromancers and the idols and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and Jerusalem, that he might establish the words of the law that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:24).
THE GOD WHO OFFERS HIMSELF
Paul was taken by the Stoics and Epicureans to the Areopagus or Mars Hill in order to explain to them this “strange things” he brought to their ears (Acts 17:20). The Stoics believed in the god of fate. There was nothing that could be done about the human condition and you are what you will be. Therefore, they lived without hope or comfort. The Epicureans lived a life that sought comfort and pleasure as the greatest experiences of life. Therefore, they served “comfort” and “pleasure” as though they were gods. Paul had now the opportunity to present to them the God they did not know. The God who shows us this world is not what He designed it to be and it is not the world his people will ultimately enjoy. Paul preached to them the true joy of knowing God who sent His Son to endure the harshness of this world in order to make us holy. It is the same God who allows us to suffer so that we might “share in His holiness.”
Paul introduced Jehovah God to them as the unknown God who wanted to be known, He is the Creator who wants to be involved with His creation, God is the God who will be both just and merciful in the day of judgment, and the God who alone can offer hope through the resurrection of Christ. The pagan religion which focused on the physical things of life, was completely outdone by the presentation of the true Creator who became flesh for the benefit of mankind.
The reality of Jehovah God is the beginning of Paul’s message. Despite being “very religious” the Athenians knew they had not been able to satisfy their souls in the the deities of their own imagination. The “unknown” God has left evidence of His existence all around us. He is “the God who made the world and all things therein” (Acts 17:24). Therefore, does not “dwell in temples made with hands; neither is he served by men’s hands as though he needed anything, seeing that he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things, and he made from one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons and bounds of their habitation; that they should seek God, if haply they might feel after him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us: for in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:25-28). We can know God exists because he has left us evidence in creation (Hebrews 3:4; Romans 1:20; Acts 14:17). His creation beckons us to faith.
Not only does God exist, but God loves us. Far from the philosophy of the Epicureans (served pleasure) or the Stoics (abandoned hope in face of determinism), the God of the Bible wants to be part of our lives and improve our lives. We can know that God loves us because he has overlooked sin and sent Jesus to become the atonement for sin. God’s patient and long suffering mercy restrains justice to welcome the worst sinners home through grace, faith, and obedience (2 Peter 3:8-13).
The existence of the loving God of the Bible does not negate the reality of judgment. The hope of the resurrection is joined also with the reality that some will be raised to righteousness while others are raised to judgment. Jesus said, “The hour cometh in which all that are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29). Jesus is the Messiah, but He is also the Judge of all the earth. He is the author of eternal salvation to all those who obey Him, but He is also the one who will give the verdict, “depart from me ye workers of iniquity, I never knew you.”
The Athenians were exhorted to repent and baffled by the resurrection of the dead. Some believed Paul, but some mocked him. What will we do? Will we repent? Will we give up our service to things created so we may devote ourselves to the Creator? What about our faith in the resurrection? The Bible tells us that we will all be raised. One day we will believe in the resurrection. Will that be a great day for us?