In the last study, we looked at being on trial and on display to display Christ. We looked at seeing trials - seeing suffering as an opportunity to show and share our faith. In this study, we are going to look at this from a different angle.
It's always good and necessary to see someone else living out what we are told to live out, and this time, we are looking to the Apostle Paul for his example of putting this call into action, not on trial in persecution, but on trial in public scrutiny. By God's providence, Paul found himself in a situation in Athens, Greece, which was very similar to ours in America.
1st Part of the Situation: Excessive Expression of Everybody's Idolatry
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Then also, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers argued with him. Some said, “What is this pseudo-intellectual [literally seed-picker*] trying to say?” Others replied, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities”—because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the Resurrection. (*meaning one who is picking up and piecing together scraps of knowledge)**
While Paul was waiting for his team to join him in Athens, he did what is normal for any of us. As the pace of his trip wore off and he settled in, he started looking around and noticing his surroundings. He was struck by what he saw in the people's blatant idolatry.
Now, the Scriptures make it clear that, apart from Christ, we are all idolaters at heart:
18 For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, 19 since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. 21 For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles. 24 Therefore God delivered them over in the cravings of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen. (Romans 1:18–25)
We here in America have civilized our idolatry into mainstream hedonism and materialism, in which our lives, for the most part, revolve around our well-packaged pleasures and possessions. The people in Athens, on the other hand, while being a civilized people as a whole, were not so civilized in their idolatry, making idols of many shapes and sizes (including images like Paul mentions above) to represent many deities, which they openly worshiped. The similarity they had with us, though, is that their city was full of their idolatry, because their lives were full of their idolatry. Idolatry is simply the replacement of God with someone or something else to which we devote our lives, and the reality in America today is that God is not the central focus of most cities. Our idolatry is the willful failure to do what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31: whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory. So, we are to understand the true scope and nature of our sinfulness: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
The things Paul saw grated on his spirit, and he couldn't keep his mouth shut as the truth of the one, true God was welling up inside him. He couldn't just settle down and wait - he had to step up and witness. He split his efforts between the Jews and Gentiles, including those Gentiles that sincerely wanted to worship God and those that didn't. He wanted to reach everyone all across the religious spectrum, from the synagogue to the shopping center. He went in with a straight-forward presentation of the truth.
Now, I will venture to say that one of the reasons many Christians are having a hard time getting out of the gate to witness is that they simply are not looking around and getting stirred up. Some good old-fashioned righteous indignation does our witnessing a lot of good. After you've lived in the same place very long, it's easy for the blinders to come up and the fires to die down. But whether we want to deal with it or not, our God is being disregarded, and people are perishing. Should that not bother us? Should we not be stirred to action?
Back to Paul - as you can imagine, he made waves - big ones - as he knew he would (maybe you've heard it said that, wherever Paul went, he either started a revival or a riot). Out of being stirred up, he stirred them up. Some of the prominent philosophers took issue with his issues and started to debate with him. He was offending and confusing them, and some of them got pretty vocal about it, thinking he had just scrapped together his own philosophy to add to the mix of philosophies. Quite frankly, he wasn't making much sense. To them, he was just talking gibberish. Paul tells us why elsewhere: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
Others thought he was just trying to throw more gods into the mix of all the other gods. That's how they took his talk of a Jesus coming back from the dead.
We have to remember that people are all muddled up. We have to patiently remember that when we initially approach them, a lot of people are going to think that we are just trying to throw something else into the mix for them to figure out - something that doesn't make much sense to them - maybe something that we have pieced together to put our own brand on for our own profit - maybe even something that will just fit into what they already have going on.
That leads us to the...
2nd Part of the Situation: Excessive Expression of Everybody's Ideas
19 They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, and said, “May we learn about this new teaching you’re speaking of? 20 For what you say sounds strange to us, and we want to know what these ideas mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners residing there spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new.
Paul didn't just raise their hackles - he also raised their curiosity. Yes, his ideas were troubling, but they were also novel and interesting to them. So, they got him by the arm and led him to their academic arena where philosophy was a spectator sport. Ideas were the game balls they tossed around, about religion, politics, the reality of and reason for existence, etc. You name it, they talked about it. They were academic junkies. They lived for the exchange of ideas, and when someone showed up with something new to throw in, they loosened their tongues, cleaned out their ears, and got a fresh bowl of popcorn. Here was the problem, though: They enjoyed the exchange of ideas more than the ideas themselves.
We live in a world exploding with technology, and with all of this technology, people have more ideas at their fingertips than ever before. People do still gather at universities and in coffee shops to exchange ideas, but the internet is now the worldwide Areopagus. The internet houses zillions of bytes of information on any conceivable subject, and there are millions of blogs and websites on which millions of people are posting their ideas on almost all of it.
We come along as Christians, with the Gospel, and many people invite us to join the discussion. Like Paul, we take the invitation, but, also like Paul, we step into the circle, not merely to join and enjoy the conversation, but to tell the truth that their lives literally depend on. We must take advantage of the enormous mountain of resources we have at our fingertips, with which we can display and discuss our faith. We have opportunities to explain ourselves like never before.
Now, we are under scrutiny, but true worshipers are not silent about their worship of the one, true God. If our spirits are in tune with His Spirit, we will be troubled and stirred up by ignorance of and offenses against Him. If the truth is in us, we will not be able keep silent as His Spirit stirs us up to tell it. Because of this, we will draw the ire and the interest of false worshipers. Like Paul, they do have us on trial in the court of public opinion, but, also like Paul, we must remember that God has us on display to display Christ.
**Scripture quotations in this study are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, HCSB®, and Holman CSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.