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 centre of Greece under the Roman Caesars. But Athens was still the university centre of the world. It was the heir of the great philosophers, the city of Pericles and Demosthenes, of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, and Euripides -- these men who established patterns of thought that have affected human learning for centuries. Almost all philosophies follow, in some degree, the teachings of these men. But Athens was long past its best when Paul visited it. It was now four hundred years after the golden age of Greece, and, though Athens was still a center of art, beauty, culture, and knowledge, the city had lost all political importance.
Remember that Paul came down from Beroea with certain unnamed Christians and was left alone in Athens. He sent word back to Silas and Timothy, whom he had left in Beroea, to join him there. Evidently the apostle did not intend to stay long in Athens. He was heading for Corinth, the political capital, for Paul always focused upon those areas where the commerce of life flowed and where the influence of a church would rapidly reach out into the surrounding regions. He had decided to wait for Silas and Timothy in Athens, and Luke now tells us what happened there... (1)
Paul did as we all would have done. he had some time to kill, so he went sight-seeing. And what better place for a spot of afternoon sight-seeing - Athens, Cultural Mecca and architectural wonder of the world.
But what he saw moved him to tears. He saw a city of great beauty - every nook and cranny stuffed with finely carved and gilded statues. At the time when Paul visited, historians reckon that the population of Athens would have been about 10,000 and that there would have been about 30,000 statues! You were more likely to bump into a god or a goddess than you were a human being! But behind it all he saw so much emptiness, and he was moved to tears.
It's not unlike the famous scene where Jesus looks down from the hills over Jerusalem and weeps. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!"
A group of students at Stanford university once wrote this in the university magazine:
Why are we Christians willing to follow Jesus into suffering in order to accomplish his mission of liberation? Because Jesus has changed our minds about a lot of things, and we can no longer tolerate the foolishness and futility that is passed out as wisdom at this university. We are tired of the "enlightenment" of this age which is blindly ignorant of its intellectual slavery to materialism and its contradictory obligation to ethical relativism. We are tired of seeing people's lives wasted and unfulfilled because of their submission to the established world order. (2)
Maybe Stanford students don't use the same kind of language that I would, but the point remains - how do we look at our town? How do we look at Hartlepool? What do we see when we look down from the little windy road that goes out past the golf course to Hart?
Do we see a town desperately in need of the Gospel? Do we see rows of houses full of people who really need to understand anew the message that God would have us all hear - that we are precious and that we are loved and that God wants us to discover fulness of life within his family gathered around Jesus Christ? Do we see the sites of old heavy industry now replaced by hi-tech low employment units and understand the sense of loss and lack of purpose that has accompanied long-term unemployment for so many people here? Have you ever looked across the town and been moved to tears? If you have, then you will understand something of what Paul felt as he wandered through the streets of Athens. And he was filled with a burning desire to make an impact there in God's name, and so he went to speak to the people...
And who did he speak to?
First he went into the synagogue, as his custom was, and there spoke to the religious people, the Jews and devout persons who were there. Then there were the common citizens of the city whom he met in the marketplace, tradesmen, people going about their business, commercial people coming in with their wares to the city square. Then there was a third group, the philosophers - the Epicurians and the Stoics.
Who are you and I speaking to?
I guess we're quite good at the first, aren't we - speaking to the religious people! Here I am doing it now! We speak amongst ourselves about our faith, we even speak with our ecumenical partners about the town! We speak with our christian brothers and sisters through the district, through the synod and nationwide. But what about the rest?
How good are we at speaking to the "common citizens" of our town - people beyond our church fellowships? And how good are we at speaking to today's equivalent of the philosophers - the movers and shakers of culture and society?
So often beyond the walls of our fellowship we become awkward and tongue-tied. The confident words and affirmations of our churchy prayers and hymns seem inadequate all of a sudden and the language seems to hint of another age, of times gone by. The things which seem so obvious and for which we can so eloquently praise our living God between these walls slip through our fingers on the street outside when. What do we say when we are asked to "give a reason for the hope that is within us." "Always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you," wrote Peter. But "ready" is just what we are not!
Well, let's take a lesson from Paul as he went outside the synagogue in Athens to speak with the people.
First, he found some common ground, a basis for agreement. He recognised and affirmed their thirst for God. "I've been walking about your city," he said, " and I can see just how religious you are! You are god-fearing people!"
So much was true. Floating about Athens at that time were two competing understandings of God and the world. On the one hand, the Epicureans believed that God existed, but that God was so remote that he could have no impact or effect on our lives. God isn't interested in us, basically, we are too insignificant. On the other hand, the Stoics believed that God was everywhere - literally - in everything, anything and everything was God. And God was watered-down, if you like, spread very thinly across the cosmos. Of course, my gross over-simplification does no real justice to these philosophies, if you're interested you can read them up for yourself. You'd get a good basic understanding if you read "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaardner.
For now, though, we just need to understand that Paul made an attempt to understand where his audience was coming from. He did not judge or denounce, he tried to find a positive starting point from within their own understanding and experience. He didn't try to make them feel stupid or guilty or inadequate, he tried to take them on a step from where they already were to a deeper understanding of who God really was and what God was really like.
And then, Paul takes a leaf out of Jesus' book. Jesus taught with props - not artificial things made out of cardboard and with his lines written on the back - but real props - the stuff of everyday life. Jesus pointed out sheep and shepherds, a man sowing his seed, fig trees, pebbles, fish, mustard seeds, some people building a big barn...
And Paul does the same. He points out to them something familiar to the people of Athens and uses it to unlock a truth that lies buried very deep within them - a truth about the nature of God.
While he was wandering about, Paul had spotted an altar among the thousands of altars, dedicated to an unknown God. Now there are lots of theories about what it was that Paul saw, but plenty of ancient sources agree that there were such things in Athens. My favourite explanation I read this week in a sermon by Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Osaka, Japan:
A plague spread rampantly in the sixth century before the common era (or 600 B.C.). Back then people thought the cause [of the epidemic] was they had angered one of the gods. The leaders enquired with all they had into which god they had upset. But, they did not discover which god was angry. A poet by the name Epimenides of Cyprus appeared on the scene. He concluded that the one who was angry was "a god not known" yet in Athens and he made one suggestion. First, select a number of sheep and let them get hungry by not giving them any feed to eat. Then, release them where there is grass. Then the sheep will eat the grass according to their natures. However, if there is a spot somewhere where they did not eat the grass, build an altar there.
Paul takes this idea of an unknown God and says, "I know this unknown God of yours." This God, who you don't know yet, is the source of life itself, the creator of the universe, and the one who is right here in your midst. This unknown God can't really be found in statues and altars, in fine collonaded buildings and hillside shrines, this God is found and known in the life and death and rising again of his son Jesus Christ.
And that was that. We are told that some people joined Paul and believed, in particular a man called Dionysius and a woman called Damaris, but it seems that most of them laughed and drifted away.
Paul is not beaten in Athens, he is not flogged or imprisoned or dragged before the authorities. He isn't chained or stoned. In Athens it is far worse than that - he is paraded as an exciting new thing, politely listened to and then dismissed as a crank. To be ignored is far worse than to be opposed. Athens - the least hostile place Paul has ever visited - is just about the only place where he did not found a church.
There's a lesson there for us. We live in a culture where we are allowed to preach the gospel, where we are listened to politely, but where we are ultimately ignored. Even a skilled and battle-hardened missioner like Paul found that to be the toughest place in which to preach the gospel.
All the more reason, then, to devote the best of everything we have got to find new ways of making the jewel of the gospel sparkle in the greyness of people's everyday lives.
All the more reason, then, to devote ourselves to a life of prayer and service which overflows into everything we do and everything we are - that we might be living witnesses to the fulness of life in the kingdom of God.
(1) Ray C. Stedman, "Athens versus Paul"