Rev. denHartog is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
The history of the labors of the apostle Paul in Athens is most fascinating. The book of Acts has sometimes been called “the charter of missions.” It records the first glorious age of the amazing missionary expansion of the New Testament church.
We believe that the work of missions is the work of the almighty, exalted, and glorious Lord Jesus Christ, the sovereign of the universe, the ruler of all the nations of the world. He guides the course of history in such a way that all things are fulfilled for the final realization of His glorious everlasting kingdom of righteousness in the new heavens and earth. He is the One who sovereignly gathers His elect church from the beginning to the end of time from all the nations of the world through the preaching of the gospel.
All of this finds support in the book of Acts. The apostles were directly called and commissioned by Christ. They went forth in His authority and power that was unique to the office of apostleship. This was also true of the apostle Paul. The apostles were by virtue of their office able to speak the infallible, authoritative Word of the Lord Jesus Christ, the mighty Word of salvation. The apostles obviously thoroughly understood the truth that the church of Jesus Christ is gathered not by “the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (see I Cor. 2:4). The purpose of this, according to the apostle Paul, was so that our faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
Acts 17 (as the whole book of Acts does) sets forth great principles of missions. It also gives the inspired example of how the church of Jesus Christ must do mission work in a pagan world.Acts 17 gives us a pattern for how the Christian gospel confronts the foolishness of human wisdom, pagan philosophy, and pagan religion in the world. The mission work of the church even today must follow this pattern. When one considers much of modern-day mission philosophy in books that are being published, it is quite obvious that, along with apostasy in doctrine, the church of our day has departed far from the true principles for doing mission work outlined in the Scriptures, particularly the book of Acts.
The record of Paul’s labors in Acts 17 has much to say even about the stance that the Christian church, the truly Reformed church, must take over against the philosophy, art, and culture of our post-Christian age in the apostate and nominally Christian Western countries in which we live. As the Word of God prophesies, in the end of time the wickedness of these apostate Christian nations will exceed even that of pagan countries. We are certainly living in these times. The church of Jesus Christ must know her stance in this world.
We believe that the entire course of the mission labors of the apostles was directed by the Lord from His throne in the heavens. We are at times told specifically in the book of Acts that the Lord gave direction as to where the apostles were to go. At other times the Spirit of the Lord actually prevented the apostles from going into certain parts of the world (see Acts 16:6). So in the purpose of the Lord the apostle Paul was also directed to go to the famous Greek city of Athens, though we are not told specifically how this was revealed to Paul.
When Paul visited Athens, she was a world famous city comparable to one of the great modern cities of our times. Athens was a world center of art and learning, of philosophy, science, art, and architecture. Many in our world today have studied the philosophy of the Greeks. Many of the philosophers hailed from Athens: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and many more. Those who have gone to liberal arts colleges, where they have studied some philosophy, are aware of the great impact Greek philosophy had, extending its influence even to our modern age. In Paul’s time each of these philosophers had his own school in Athens. The city of Athens was known for its grand buildings, temples, palaces, and amphitheaters, some of which were monuments of architecture and design of the times. The ruins of some of these buildings have been preserved unto our day for tourists to marvel at. The culture of Athens had powerful worldwide influence. Modern-day democracy and government, with its freedom of speech and great pride in tolerating almost every brand of worldly philosophy and lifestyle, derives many of its basic principles from Athens. The men of Athens, we are told in the Bible, were always interested in hearing some new teacher of some new way.
Athens was especially noted for its many pagan idols. Ancient secular writers have commented on this. One states that Athens was one great altar, one great sacrifice, to pagan gods. Statues, busts, and images of pagan gods were found on every street. There were more gods in Athens than in all of the rest of Greece. She imagined herself well protected. Virtually all of the philosophy, art, and lifestyle of the Athenians was devoted to the pagan gods. This was the great inspiration of it all.
The apostle Paul says that he found the city “wholly given to idolatry.” So devoted to pagan gods were the men of Athens that they wanted to try to worship all known gods in the universe. In case they inadvertently missed one of the gods, they also had in the city “an altar to the unknown god.” When Paul came to preach in Athens, they at first imagined that Paul had come to their great city just to tell them about another god or religion that they had not heretofore heard about. They would be interested to add this “god” also to their collection. They were dreadfully mistaken.
Paul did not come to Athens as a tourist to gawk at its art and architecture and to debate with the philosophers in order to learn something of their great wisdom. Paul came to Athens as the ambassador of Christ, the mighty preacher of the gospel of Christ Jesus. The Lord directed His apostle to proclaim the truth of God in this city. Many commentaries have been written onActs 17, in some cases entire books on just this chapter of Acts.
How did Paul preach in Athens? What was his approach? Opinions concerning this vary greatly, as you will learn when reading various popular Bible commentaries on the book of Acts. Some make a large point out of how Paul had sincere appreciation for the art and culture of Athens. Others state that Paul debated with the philosophers of Athens on their own turf. Some interpret Acts 17 in a way that suggests that Paul was really a failure in Athens because he did not preach the gospel at all but only debated with worldly philosophers. As a result there were only a few converts in Athens. Others suggest that Paul got so caught up with the glory of Athens that he forgot his calling.
Some commentators use Acts 17 as proof that we as Christians should have a large interest in the philosophy and art of the world. We should attend the theaters of the world in order to learn important lessons for our world and life perspective that will be of great value to us for our careers in the world and our calling as citizens of the kingdom of Christ in the world. We should see the philosophy and art of the world as an evidence of “common grace” in the natural man, from which we can learn much with great positive benefit for our Christian life.
In the providence of the Lord, Paul was at first alone in Athens. Timothy and Silas, Paul’s co-laborers in the gospel, stayed behind for a time in Berea to care for the fledgling church there. They did not join Paul in Athens until some time later. While Paul stayed in Athens, he had occasion to walk the streets of this pagan city.Acts 17 gives us no reason to imagine that Paul got carried away with the glory and culture of Athens. Paul had one all-consuming passion. It was the passion for the glory of God. He had one calling, to give a faithful testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ in the world. Even though there were but few of God’s elect in this city, Paul was sent to accomplish the purpose of God in it.
Act 17:16 describes Paul’s reaction when he walked the streets of Athens. “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” There is no evidence that Paul was greatly impressed and amazed by the culture and learning of Athens, by its art and architecture, and by all of the monuments to human achievement and wisdom and greatness. Rather, the spirit of Paul was stirred within him when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Strong language describes the attitude of the apostle, intense feeling and emotion, distress and indignation, even anger, grief, and sorrow. This attitude of Paul was rooted in his fervent love for God and for the Savior the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul sought not the glory of man but the glory of God. Paul sought to deliver God’s people, redeemed by Christ from a pagan world of ungodliness, humanism, pride, and wickedness. From this perspective Paul performed all his labors in Athens. We can learn much from the great apostle of the Lord.
It is not true that Paul had no knowledge of or interest in the culture and learning of the day. Paul was not a simpleton. He had degrees from some of the best schools of the day in Jerusalem and Tarsus. Even from a formal point of view Paul was one of the most brilliant intellects the world has ever known. He was well read. He could quote from memory poets and philosophers of his day. Paul had knowledge of things such as the Olympic games, and sometimes in his letters he used illustrations for the inspired godly instruction he gave to the churches. He knew about the wars of the nations that had been and were being fought in the world in which he lived. He knew what it meant to be a soldier in an army. He was well acquainted with the armor that was so tremendously important for the Roman soldier. Paul had a penetrating insight into the pagan culture of Athens. He uncovered its deepest principle of paganism. He showed its utter folly and hopelessness. He preached the gospel in Athens, the gospel of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.
We shall continue our discussion of this chapter in our next installment.