In the book of Acts we read the history of the early church and the travels of the Apostle Paul as the Christian faith spread outwards from Judea to Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and Europe. We read of signs and wonders, shipwrecks, miraculous conversions, riots and trials – stories of travel and ancient culture inter-mingled with great self sacrifice and generosity.
In Acts chapter 17, Paul was hounded out of the city of Thessalonica (Thessaloniki) and then promptly forced to leave Berea too, for his own safety.
Those escorting Paul went with him all the way to Athens; then they returned to Berea with instructions for Silas and Timothy to hurry and join him.
– Acts 17:15 (NIV)
And so we start our study with Paul, on his own, in the city of Athens. The birthplace of much of the culture, literature, and philosophy, of the day.
The Acropolis, Athens.
A tale of temples and idols…
When Paul arrived in Athens he didn’t spend his time marvelling at the colours of the Parthenon, or the cultural significance of the Acropolis. In fact the first thing we read about his time in Athens is that he was greatly distressed because the city was full of idols.
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”
– Acts 17:16 (NIV)
In a place like Athens it’s not hard to see the marks of idols; the Parthenon, perched atop the Acropolis, dominates the city no matter where you are. The ruins of temples are scattered throughout the landscape and every gift shop in the city sells plaster cast sculptures of the Greek gods and heroes.
For many of us that’s where our understanding of idols stops. It’s the gods that the ancients worshipped and sacrificed to, or the statues of Artemis that prop up her shrine; it’s graven images and statues made of stone. The problem with this simplistic take is that it focuses on the expression of the problem rather than the root cause.
An idol is anything that we elevate to the place in our lives or society where God should be, it’s anything we worship or rely on in his place. Sure, it could be a statue or shrine, but it’s far more likely to be money, success, self, family, sport, or even religion. Often the ancient statues were just a direct representation of the idol behind them, the god of success or the god of the harvest or a fertility god.
An idol is anything that we elevate to the place in our lives or society where God should be, it’s anything we worship or rely on in his place.
As Tim Keller writes, in his book Counterfeit Gods; “We think the idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life.”
It’s so easy to fail to recognise the things that have taken the place of idols made of stone, but our culture is full of them; we idolise money, fame, celebrity, sex, popularity, self and many more. Are we distressed when these things are more important than God? Or do we flirt with them and become fascinated by them instead?
Being in a culture immersed in the pursuit of idols was distressing to Paul and provoked him to action, it should do the same for us.
A reasoned response…
Paul’s response to this distress, however, was not anger. He didn’t strap on a sandwich board and scream that the end was nigh, or run around condemning the people of this great cultural city; he reasoned with them.
So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.
– Acts 17:17 (NIV)
Our culture has developed a view that equates reason to being the domain of science and therefore, in some way, contrary to faith but Paul stood and reasoned with them.
It would be so easy to dismiss this and argue that our time is different but this was the centre of ancient culture. The ancient Greeks were scientific and philosophical and mathematical, they were great thinkers.
Faith is not the enemy of reason, in fact we should be able to explain our faith and to discuss it. Reason is our ally not our enemy. If what we believe is true, and if the idols of our culture really are pervasive and damaging, then we need to be able to bring that truth to people.
A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
– Acts 17:18 (NIV)
Paul preached the gospel. He told them of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that it had changed the reality of the world they all lived in. Without that key fact all of faith amounts to just a set of moral teachings, some that please and some that are probably a bit difficult, but the resurrection? That changes everything.
Our mandate today…
As Christians it is part of our mandate to engage the culture of our day; we must neither avoid it nor embrace it but engage and challenge and shape it. The idols of our time should distress us and provoke us to action.
Part of this is recognising the true value of what we have, and seeing for ourselves that no idol can ever give the fulfilment and purpose that comes from Christ. An idol will consume all of the devotion or dependence you give it and always demand more, never meeting your needs but creating more instead.
We need to open our eyes to the idols in the culture around us and see them for what they are, because only then can we really offer answers to people hurt and broken by the pursuit of them.