I wonder if the men who escorted Paul to Athens parted with the words, “try to stay out of trouble”. I know I’ve heard those words plenty of times, usually immediately before I find some form of trouble.
You could’ve forgiven Paul for laying low in Athens, having had to leave Thessalonica and Berea because of opposition, but as we’ve already seen in this study, Paul did anything but. It wasn’t long before he’d come to the attention of the intellectual elites within the city and was being questioned about this good news that he preached.
Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
– Acts 17:19-21 (NIV)
Beliefs on trial…
It’s funny how few words Luke gives us for what happens here; “they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus.” It fills me with curiosity to know more; was it a friendly walk up the hill to have a chat? Or was it a more forceful trip? Who exactly took him?
The Areopagus (or Mars Hill) was an important place in ancient Athens. It took its name from the mythical trial of Ares, who had killed Halirrhothius, the son of Poseidon. The Olympian gods gathered on the hill top and put him on trial, eventually acquitting him of all charges.
The court was originally used to try homicide cases, but by the time of Paul was more involved in the cultural and religious life of the city; the members, all noble men of good repute, were seen as the guardians of the sacred mysteries.
When Paul rocked up in the city marketplace and started preaching a God they did not know, arguing against the ones they did, it is only natural that they brought him for questioning on Mars Hill.
The need for something more…
Paul had observed that some of the people of Athens made offerings to a God they did not know. The sum of all of their knowledge and all of their experiences led to the conclusion that there was something else, something unknown, some mystery or meaning they could not fathom; despite having a whole Pantheon of gods in their lives, something was missing.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
– Acts 17:22-23 (NIV)
There are a number of theories about this altar, but none seem to be definitive or have enough historical evidence to provide here as the truth. What is does show us, however, is that in their petitions to the gods some Athenians were saying, “we’ve tried everything else and nothing has worked”.
I don’t know if that last sentence resonated with any of your past experiences, but I know it did with mine. In the altar To an Unknown God, Paul identified a problem that is so common to humanity—the feeling that in spite of all we have and know there must be something more.
It’s a feeling that arises because there are needs, hopes, and desires that can ultimately only be met by God. In the first study of this series we looked at idols being anything that we elevate to the place that God should occupy, this is the feeling that grows in the human heart when those idols let us down.
It’s the feeling when no amount of alcohol or drugs can quite numb the pain, no new work achievement can fulfil our need for purpose, or no amount of sex can remove the sting from the loneliness. It’s the feeling when we lose whatever we looked to for purpose or security, when we realise (as Bono sang) “we still haven’t found what we’re looking for”.
The author of Ecclesiastes wrote that God has “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We have this yearning for more because God has placed within people a desire that only He can ultimately fulfil.
C.S Lewis described this brilliantly in his book, Mere Christianity.
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
– C.S Lewis
It was this thought that there must be something more that was the foundation of Paul’s message to the thinkers of Areopagus, “Look,” he said, “you know there’s something more in life and you haven’t found it yet – I’m here to tell you what it is”.
The only thing that fulfils…
So often Christian cultural norms of evangelism have led generations to rail against their society, to shout about everything that is wrong, but Paul doesn’t do that—he focusses on pointing to everything that is right. His motivation is not to score philosophical or intellectual points but to point people to Jesus.
We live in a world where so many are seeking for something more, we see it in their pursuit of idols, we see it in their new age, spiritual, attempts to try and find fulfilment. But what is needed is Jesus Christ.
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
– John 14:6
One of the central claims of Jesus’ life is that He was, “the way, the truth and the life”. Not one of the ways but the way, not a possible truth in an age of relativism but the truth in a way that nothing else could be, and the life. He did not claim to be a possible route to God but the only route to God.
When people wrestle with the emptiness, when people try every substance and activity known to humanity to fill a hole, when people dream and hope and wonder if there is not something more, when people reach rock bottom and yet feel the longing for something to redeem their circumstances: There is always, only, Jesus.
When Paul spoke to the Areopagus he knew this, and that’s the basis for the way he reached out to them. He presented Jesus as the completion of their search for meaning, of their feeling that there was something more.
When we reach into our worlds we need to reach them with that same care and compassion and ultimately with the same answer. Always, only, Jesus.