Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. – Acts 17:16
Are we going to live as tourists or missionaries?
As Christians this is the question we must face everyday. It is quite easy to live as a tourist in America. There are plenty of distractions that can draw our attention away from the people around us that need Jesus.
When Paul entered Athens in Acts 17:16 he was alone. He had just left Berea quickly because people were attempting to harm him. The Thessalonians had heard he was in Berea and came to the city looking for him in order to harm him. He quickly left, leaving his traveling companions (Timothy and Silas) to stay in Berea.
Paul was an educated man. History and the arts were things that would fascinate him. Athens was the center of learning and artistry. This city exceeded all others in history of intellectualism. Paul could easily feel at home in this city.
When Paul arrived at Athens – escaping death threats again – it would be quite understandable if he would want to take it easy in this city. His traveling companions were not with him. This could be the perfect place for his much needed vacation. By this time in ministry he had already been stoned to the point of death, beaten horribly, imprisoned falsely, and just narrowly escaped another riotous mob trying to harm him in Berea. If there ever was a time for some much needed rest and relaxation, this was it.
Paul does begin to tour the city. He had never been to Athens. He grew up learning about it, reading about it, and studying their philosophers. We should try to imagine the awe and wonder Paul must have felt as he walked around Athens for the first time. He was finally in the cultural capital of the world at that time, and it was time to drink it in.
John Stott comments, “The buildings and monuments of Athens were unrivalled. The acropolis, the town’s ancient citadel, which was elevated enough to be seen from miles around, has been described as ‘one vast composition of architecture and sculpture dedicated to the national glory and to the worship of the gods.’ … Or Paul could have lingered in the agora, with its many porticoes painted by famous artists, in order to listen to the debates of its contemporary statesmen and philosophers, for Athens was well known for its democracy.” (1)
Stott then poignantly writes, “Yet, it was none of these things that struck him.”
We must be sure to understand – though the city was full of so much architecture, artistry, academia, it was none of these things that struck him. Which they could have! No! Instead something else struck Paul.
Verse 16 states, “the city was full of idols.” The word in Greek for “full of idols” is kateidolos. “Full of idols,” while accurate, could be said other ways. It also means, “completely covered up by idols” or “swamped by idols” or “drowning to death by idols.”
There is an ancient saying of Athens, “It is easier to find a god there than a man.” Paul was experiencing this. And the result is that he was not going to be a tourist in perhaps the easiest city to be a tourist in. Instead, Paul was going to be a missionary.
This is the world we live in. What are we going to do? It is terribly easy to live as a tourist in the twenty-first century. There are people everywhere around us that give there heart and soul over to their idol. They spend their money and time to their idol only to be killed eternally by it in the end.
What is our proper response?
Verse 16 states, “his spirit was provoked.”
This must happen to us. We must be provoked by the idolatry in our world. As Paul was moved deeply – provoked – so too must we be moved and broken for them.
The word provoked, in the Greek paraxysm, does convey the meaning of having righteous anger toward sin. However, there is more. The Septuagint uses this same word to speak of God. YHWH is said to have feelings of paroxysm when the golden calf is made at the base of Mount Sinai when Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments from God. So this “provoking” is righteous anger and indignation because of sin – however – it is to be coupled with immense grief for the blindness of the people of the city.
Christians, we must feel this same burden for our cities. I believe this is the linchpin to an explosion of true evangelism taking place. When Christians are truly broken for the lost around them, they will feel compelled to do something. When the idea that scores and scores of people are going to hell sinks in, it is then that we will begin to live as missionaries and not tourists.
A man named Henry Martyn has said, “It would be hell to me that Christ be always dishonored by idolatry, I could not endure existence if Jesus be not glorified”
That is being provoked. Do we have this? Pray that God would provoke us to be missionaries.
John Stott, The Message of Acts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 277.