The City of Idols
What do you see when you look out at the city? When Paul looked out at the city of Athens, he saw a city full of idols, and it compelled him to take the gospel to that city. From him we learn in this passage how to take the gospel to the city full of idols.
What do you see when you look around the city of Philadelphia? Typically, we might think of skyscrapers, parks, traffic, poverty, and great restaurants. Around mid-March most of us didn’t see much at all, freshly under the stay-at-home order. I remember watching the drone video that made its way around the internet of the empty Philadelphia streets. More recently, you might have seen SWAT teams, helicopters, national guard troops, protestors, and some looters. But do you see idols? An idol in the Bible is any created thing we look to for our hope and happiness, significance and security. Philadelphia, like every city on earth, is full of them, but we are often ignorant or indifferent toward them, and therefore don’t really engage the city with the gospel. In the passage at which we’re looking today, the Apostle Paul is fleeing persecution, and ends up in one of the great cities of the ancient world: Athens. Sure enough, it is full of idols, and so we are going to learn from Paul how to take the gospel to the city full of idols: get angry, expose the incoherence, and call for repentance.
Where we began reading in verse 16 we read that Paul was waiting for them, them being his companions Silas and Timothy, at Athens. He hadn’t targeted Athens; he ended up there as a result of persecution. However, while he’s there, his spirit is provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols, full of statues they called gods. Athens was a cultural center of ancient Greece, so many of the most magnificent statues of their gods were located there. This word there translated “provoked,” what I’m calling anger, is actually forbidden toward another person the one other time it appears in the New Testament. Paul’s not angry at the Athenians per se; he’s angry that the city of Athens is full of idols. The word appears throughout the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe God’s anger toward the idolatry of the people. Paul so loves the glory of God that to see it given to the idols of the city angers him.
Imagine you have a best friend. They’re always there for you, they’re kind, they never toot their own horn, they’re always encouraging you, cheering you on when you succeed, the kind of friend you always know will be there tomorrow, with whom you can fall back and know you are loved and accepted. Then your friend writes a book, and the book is a masterpiece. People love it. It hits #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, 5000+ 5-star Amazon reviews, and so forth. But you find out somehow that your friend’s name has been deleted from every copy of the book and replaced with another. Then you see this other person, this counterfeit author, on Fallon or some other such show getting all the credit. Wouldn’t your spirit be provoked within you? Wouldn’t you get angry? That’s why Paul gets angry here. He knows the God who made all these Athenians! He knows the God who made the gold from which they made false gods and bowed down to give them the glory that God deserves! He knows how great He is! Do you know Him too? How could you be indifferent to idolatry? How could I?
You say, “Well we don’t have idols in the city of Philadelphia like they did in Athens,” but are you sure? We do still have what we might call the obvious idols: There’s a Buddhist temple on the corner of my block up the street here with a statue out front, at the feet of which people regularly leave various sorts of tribute. No statue is actually a god, but when you look to it like that for your hope and happiness, significance and security, you make it your god, and you can do that with anything God has made. In fact, the city is still the place with the shiniest, most magnificent idols. You can idolize people’s opinion of you anywhere, but the city has the “coolest” people. You can idolize a career anywhere, but if you really want to climb the ladder, you have to be in the city. You can idolize money anywhere, but the highest paying jobs are still in the city, and so forth. What’s that mean? Christians shouldn’t live there? No! It actually means Christians should live there, because Christians should be the ones seeing these idols and saying, “I can’t stand that God isn’t getting the glory He deserves there!” Do the idols in Philadelphia make you say that?
If they do, you should want to stay, because look what effect anger at the idols had on Paul. Remember he didn’t plan to go to Athens; he was just there fleeing persecution, but after telling us about Paul’s anger at the idols, verse 17 tells us “so he reasoned in the synagogues with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” So Paul gets angry, but notice he doesn’t say, “I can’t spend another minute in this disgusting city.” He doesn’t go around Athens smashing their idols. He doesn’t take up the sword against the Athenians. He doesn’t even go to the ruler of Athens and tell him to pass anti-idolatry laws. What’s he do? He reasoned with them. The word there translated reasoning is the word from which we get the word dialogue. He was so angry he talked to them, not in a fit of rage, but in a reasonable dialogue. He knew that going after the statues wouldn’t do anything; the heart is an idol factory as Calvin said, and it will have no trouble manufacturing a new one! Humans were made to worship, and we’ll only stop worshipping idols if we start worshipping the one true God, who we come to know by hearing the good news of Jesus and the resurrection, and so that’s what Paul gave his energy to.
Pastor John Piper has said, “Mission exists because worship doesn’t.” As long as there is a square inch of the city of Philadelphia and of the earth over which God is not getting the glory He deserves, it should bother us. Get angry about it, not angry at people, and let it drive you talk to people, not to yell at them, but to patiently and respectfully reason with them about Jesus and the resurrection. Let it drive you to your neighbor saying, “Would it offend you if I shared with you the message of Jesus?” Ok, how do you do that? That’s the next point on which we’ll focus. First, expose the incoherence.
Expose the incoherence
Look down at verse 22 where we really see how Paul addressed the Athenians. He begins with a commonality: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” He points out the evidence, that as he passed along he observed their objects of worship, and found also an altar with the inscription, “To the unknown god.” He took the time to observe their situation, to get to know them on some level, and to connect with them where they were.
Then, from that posture, he does push back. He says that god they have a sense of but don’t know, that’s the God he’s talking about, but he’s not like the gods they worship. He’s the God who made everything, rather than a god who lives in temples made by human hands, nor can human hands add anything to him, since He needs nothing, and is the one who Himself gives to mankind life and breath and everything. You read the ancient Greek literature written in Athens and you encounter the people giving the gods food they didn’t have, but when the Jews offered sacrifice to God in the Scriptures, they were only giving to God what was already His, using the very breath He gave them and sustained at every moment. Serving the God of the Bible is like giving your dad a gift with the money he gave you, not bribing an otherwise angry judge. Even the Greek, non-Jewish writers point out that in Him we live and move and have our being, and that we are indeed his offspring. He’s using their own writers against them, to show them that though they are very religious, their religion is incoherent. It claims that in God we live and move and have our being, that He made us, and yet treats Him as though He lives in buildings we make and needs the service we offer Him.
Now in Philadelphia today if we had a chance to address the whole city, we probably wouldn’t say, “I perceive in every way you are very religious,” though no doubt some Philadelphians are. What if Paul had stopped off in Philadelphia for the past few weeks instead of Athens a couple thousand years ago? What would he have seen? What do you see? My guess is he’d have seen two cities: A city concerned for “law and order” and a city concerned for “social justice”. What comes naturally to all of us is to see the idols of one of those cities and get angry with them, but it’s actually vital for Christians to be angry about the idols of both, and expose the incoherence they create.
It would take a lot more time and work to adequately expose both, but why not get started? People of Philadelphia, I perceive that in every way you are very concerned for law and order, for as I passed along, I saw your police forces, your military, and your citizens defending your stores. But the incoherence here is that the very people calling for law and order seem unconcerned that the law and its protection be applied impartially to people of color. If the law they want to see enforced isn’t in some way rooted in God’s law, why should they have the power to enforce it? But if it is rooted in God’s law, how can you live as though it should only protect you and people who look like you?
Other people of Philadelphia, I perceive that in every way you are very concerned for social justice, for as I passed along, I saw your protests, your signs, and your social media feeds. But the incoherence here is calling for essentially an unknown justice, just as the people of Athens worshipped an unknown god. What is social justice, and who gets to define it? I’ve shared Rachel Denhollander’s statement with you all before, but to mention it again: “There are certainly many things in life that are matters of mere opinion, but if something is going to be truly evil, truly unjust, that requires a standard beyond human perception, beyond human opinion.” The Bible requires us to say that black lives do matter, Rev. King knew what he meant when he quoted Scripture, calling for justice to roll down like waters, but does the city? How can you call for others to submit to a justice rooted in nothing greater than your and your fellow protesters’ perception?
Idolatry always leads to incoherence. Once that’s exposed, call the city to repentance.
Call to repentance
So here’s the “therefore,” verse 29: “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” That is, of course, exactly how the Athenians thought of the divine being. Paul’s calling them to a change of mind, which is what the word repentance means, but notice how Paul identifies with them. He doesn’t just say, “You shouldn’t do that”; he’s saying, “none of us should.” In verse 30 he explains why they were deceived for so long: There was a time of ignorance that God overlooked, but now he calls all people everywhere to repent, because now the day is fixed on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man who he has appointed, that’s Jesus, and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead. God’s raising of Christ from the dead exalted Him to the position of Lord, so now all people everywhere can know by whom they will be judged.
That fixed day has not yet come, which means this call on all people everywhere to repent still stands. To the city concerned for law and order, we could say, “We ought not to think that the divine being is the God of our tribe, here to protect us and fight for us against those we’ve oppressed.” To the city concerned for social justice, we could say, “We ought not to think that justice can be abstracted from the divine being, amenable to our definition.” And to both, to all people everywhere, including ourselves, we can say, “Repent,” because the day of judgment is coming, but it’s not yet here.
Isn’t that amazing? You see what Paul is saying to the Athenians? You’re ignorant! Though your own writers have said that in God we live and move and have our being, you’ve worshipped idols instead of him, and haven’t we all? The amazing revelation here, then, is not that a day of judgment is coming; that makes total sense if God is just. The amazing thing is that it hasn’t come yet! The amazing thing is that God is merciful, that He would overlook thousands of years of ignorance in Athens, and that He would be so patient with us today, thousands of years later in Philadelphia. It can be because the man through whom God has appointed judgment, Jesus Christ, already came once, not to execute judgment on us, but to bear judgment for us.
Romans 3:25 tells us that God “put forward [Christ] as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” God can overlook sin only because Christ died for all the sins of His people. Whatever ignorance you’ve walked in, whatever idols you’ve worshipped, repent and believe in Jesus Christ today and you will come to know the true God, not the one made by our imaginations, and though judgment day come, it will be a day of blessing rather than curse for you. But either way, the day will come, and judgment will be by this man Jesus Christ, and of this God has given you assurance by raising Him from the dead. How you respond to Him now will determine how He responds to you then.
In the end of our story, no matter how well Paul exposed the incoherence of idolatry and called for repentance, some end up mocking him. That will happen. Others express a willingness to hear more; that will also happen. And finally, verse 34 tells us that some believed. By God’s grace, that happens too, and can you see how this message, this dialogue Paul engaged in about Jesus and the resurrection, would totally transform an Athenian? Instead of worshipping the things their hands have made, they’d begin worshipping the God who made them. God would begin getting the glory He deserves in their lives. You see how it would transform both of our “Philadelphians” we’ve been talking to? The law and order Philadelphian wouldn’t be able to weaponize the law to oppress other tribes; he or she would have to see the law as something under which they are guilty, that calls them to repent, and become more concerned to see God’s law administered justly rather than simply to protect their tribe. The social justice Philadelphian would similarly lose the ability to simply accuse others of injustice, and would have to see themselves as one of those among all people everywhere who is called to repent. They’d lose the self-righteousness and might actually be able to persuade someone who isn’t already convinced to promote true justice, grounded in God’s justice, looking forward to the day when He will judge the world in true righteousness by this man He has appointed.
You see why Paul chose to respond to his anger at the city’s idols by preaching this message? We need just laws; don’t hear me wrong. As Rev. King said, “The law can’t make my neighbor love me, but it can stop him from lynching me,” and if we as Christians do actually love our neighbor, we must want laws that stop people from lynching him, or pressing their knee into his neck, and so forth. But as Rev. King himself pointed out, the law can’t do it all. Someone has to also dialogue with the city and proclaim to it Jesus and the resurrection if real love for neighbor is to be created, and if God is going to get the glory He deserves in a city. That’s why we’re here church. This city is full of idols; let it work in you a righteous anger, and with gentleness and respect, take the gospel to it.