It’s been a few days, but the last time we saw that Paul had been traveling around Athens and was deeply saddened after he saw all the idols throughout the city.
Paul also went into the synagogue, as he usually did, and spoke to the religious people, the Jews and devout people who were there. These Jews (and the Greeks who were following Judaism) were opposed to the idolatry of the city, but figured there was nothing they could do to prevent it. In their minds there was nothing they could say that would help the city. Sure, they themselves were delivered from idolatry, but they believed they were powerless to deliver the city. Why? Why did they believe they were powerless to do anything? Because they were focusing on their own religious experience. Paul preached the gospel to these religious people—but with seemingly little effect. I mean you can speak the Truth, but it has to be received as the Truth before it will set them free.
Then there were the common-joes of the city. Paul met them in the marketplace: tradesmen, people going about their business, commercial people coming into the city square. He met them and talked with them. Here were people who were unthinking victims of the idolatry that held the city in its grip. They were buried in their superstition, gripped by fear, uncertainty, dread of darkness, and inner tensions and turmoil. All the result of following false gods.
Ahh, but then there was a third group, the philosophers. These guys delivered themselves from the crass idolatry of the city, but were offering, as an alternative, the barren concepts of pagan philosophy. How sad and how empty. There are two kinds mentioned here, the Epicureans and the Stoics. Now, don’t think that we have left Epicureanism and Stoicism behind, because we haven’t; their thinking is still alive today.
The Epicureans were atheists; they denied God’s existence. They denied a life after death. They were also materialists, and felt that this life was the only thing that really existed and men should get the most out of it. They felt that pleasure was the highest virtue, and that pain was the opposite. Their motto (and it still persists to this day) was “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” They were what we would call today “existentialists,” living for the experience of the moment. This is a widespread philosophy in our day, although it’s no longer called Epicureanism.
The Stoics, followers of the philosopher Zeno, were pantheists. They believed that everything is God, and that he doesn’t exist as a separate entity, but is in the rocks and trees and every material thing. Their attitude toward life was one of ultimate resignation, and they prided themselves on their ability to take whatever came. Their motto, in modern terms, was “Grin and bear it.” They urged moderation: “Don’t get over-emotional, either about tragedy or happiness.” Apathy was regarded as the highest virtue of life. You will recognize there are many people today who feel that the best thing they can do is to take whatever comes and handle it the best they can. These Stoics were all proud fatalists, and there are many like them today. Luke gives us the initial reaction of these two philosophical groups to Paul:
“’What does this foolish babbler want to say?’ [Those were the Epicureans] Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.’ (They said this because he was proclaiming the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) [Those were the Stoics] So they took Paul and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some surprising things to our ears, so we want to know what they mean.’ [the Athenians and the foreigners spent all their time in nothing else than telling or listening to something new. Been there and done that]” —Acts 17:18-21
This is a very revealing reaction. The Epicureans, who were basically atheistic materialists, were contemptuous of what they heard from Paul. They treated him with utter disdain. They said, “What would this babbler say?” 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.
But the Stoics were interested. Yet Luke is careful to tell us that their interest didn’t come out of a genuine desire to know and understand what Paul said, but out of a shallow curiosity that was intrigued by the fact that he seemed to present two new gods—one named Jesus and the other named Resurrection. They wanted their ears tickled with the latest theories and philosophies. Oh how I know people like that. Probably you do, too. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul said they were utter fools trapped in their own wisdom.
This was the common practice in Athens; throughout the city you could find altars erected to various themes. There were altars to Shame, altars to Reason, to Virtue, to Pride, to Sex and other like that. When they heard Paul talk about a resurrection, they thought this was the name of a god, and that he was preaching about two new deities. They pricked up their ears because, as Luke said, “All they lived for was to hear something new.” We see the same attitude today. Everybody wants the latest self-help book and miracle cure. Each week Oprah touts the new relationship self-help guru. My favorit commercial is when Geico asks, “Does a former Drill Sargent make a terrible therapist?” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhlWddAXSRA) [I say no, I wish all therapists were just like him].
Here in ancient Athens were all the classes of humanity that are still with us today. There were the religious oddballs, remote from life and powerless to affect it; there were the thoughtless idolaters, sunken in superstition, living lives of quiet desperation, as do millions of people today; there were the atheistic existentialists who were priding themselves on the rejection of all supernatural things and were focusing on the present existence; and there were the self-sufficient fatalists who took pride in their ability to handle whatever comes and not show too much emotion in doing so. To all of these kinds of people, the apostle presented one thing: The delivering word of Jesus, the word of the power of God unto salvation. In due course they brought him before the Areopagus.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Book of Acts: