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Through the noisy street of the center of the multicultural capital of the world, the man walked. With every stride forward, his eyes flitted back and forth noting with sad interest the little altars to nothing that adorned the buildings in the city.
Altars to nothing? The people who built them up must have thought that they meant something – at least in the beginning. The man scowled as he thought of it. One “god” to whom some prayed was credited for bringing abundant harvests. Another for granting fertility to would-be mothers. And yet another for bestowing health and healing.
In fact, as the man looked up and down the street of Athens, it was abundantly clear that the number of different “gods” worshiped by the residents of the city, as well as its immediate surroundings, outnumbered all his fingers and toes.
“But none of their prayers are ever really heard,” he sighed to himself. None of these supposed “gods” even had ears to hear the supplications of those who cried out to them. Nor had they eyes to see the faces of those who worshipped them. Whether blocks of stone, lumps of wood, or even precious metals like silver or gold, they didn’t have hearts to even care.
These little tables with offerings set upon them? These little stands by which people occasionally pause and pray? They really were altars to nothing.
The man, whose name was Paul, felt heartsick and deeply distressed by the misdirected devotion of the inhabitants of this little corner of the Roman Empire. As he made his way through the town, he could not quite make up his mind whether or not he wanted to grind his teeth in his frustration over the worship stolen from the one, true God; or if he would simply weep at the “lostness” of the people here who were blindly throwing away their lives on spiritual imposters.
During the few days that he waited in Athens for his friends and associates, Silas and Timothy, he was so moved that he finally began to boldly talk with whomever he had opportunity, challenging the spiritual dementia that had beset the city.
He pointed out to some that their ideas of “gods” were little more than people with super powers. They might throw a few lightning bolts around, or give a magical golden touch away, but they had little real control of the physical universe and virtually no control whatsoever over their own passions and prejudices.
“These ‘gods” that you worship,” he explained, “are fickle, spiteful, apathetic and altogether selfish. Even if they were real, why would you pray to them? They would just as likely squash you like an insect as reward you!”
In addition to the abundance of idol worship in the city, there were two powerful schools of philosophy as well, generally contending with one another, but both looking down their noses at the more “ignorant” religions that swirled around them.
The Stoics, on the one hand, were the scientifically minded. Everything has a cause and effect, they decided, and something isn’t necessarily true just because a person believes it to be true. Most Stoics adopted a simple lifestyle, disdaining lazy and purposeless living, and theorized that anything that is genuinely true is also discernable by the human senses. “Whatever is true can be discovered and if it cannot be discovered, it isn’t true.”
The group of Epicureans, on the other hand, said that life was all about happiness and pleasure. They believed and taught that truth was entirely in a person’s perception, and that even a madman upheld truth as long as he truly believed what he said he believed. Ultimately, “pleasure is good and pain is bad” was the mantra of the Epicurean philosophy.
Still, it was Athens, and being what was generally considered the cultural hub of the known world, the one thing that folks who lived there enjoyed was the arguing of ideas. As such, they became very interested (at first) in what Paul had to say. He soon found occasion to share, not only in the marketplace and in the synagogue, but also the biggest meeting place in town: the Areopagus (or “Mar’s Hill”).
So, after they had settled themselves down and were prepared to hear what he had to say, Paul took a deep breath and began. “Men 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’. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23 NIV).
And proclaim he did. He expounded to them the glory of a Creator Who is not the product of mere human hands or imagination. Indeed, even the great marble temples that dwarfed all other buildings in the city could not possibly house Him for all of heaven and earth could not contain Him.
Paul then declared to them the incomprehensible might and majesty of the One that human senses cannot fathom or absorb. He told them of the One Who is perfectly rational but is also mysterious, cloaked by His infinite transcendence.
And finally he spoke to them about justice, a clear and sharp warning to those in his presence that all men and women were in fact accountable for the choices that they make and the ways they live their lives.
As the idol worshipers, the Stoics, and the Epicureans listened to him, some began to sneer, particularly when he brought up Jesus and His resurrection. They had come to listen, but only to listen – just as they had always done. They had no interest in openness or truth or any message other than their own. They were there only for the entertainment value.
But some found themselves strangely stirred when Truth began to speak softly through the voice of Paul. When he had finished, they approached him and said, “We want to hear you again on this subject” (Acts 17:32 NIV). A hunger for more than human wisdom was awakening within them. And when Paul stepped down and started to leave the Areopagus, he found some who were following him. They wanted to know more. They wanted to receive more than just knowledge: they were ready to receive life. Soon Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus council, and a local woman named Damaris who was quite influential, turned from their sin and past selfishness, renounced all former and phony philosophies and religious ideas, and invited Jesus into their lives as Lord and Savior.
Even as they and others became spiritually reborn, Paul could only smile. When he had come, the city of Athens was nothing but a wasteland of moral and spiritual confusion, but here there were now a group of believers who would hold up the true light and life of Jesus Christ.
“God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28a NIV).
Copyright © Thom Mollohan.
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Awesome writing for the Glory of God. How true that there is Only One True God and that Jesus is The Way,The Truth,and the Life. Continue to write for His Glory. In Christ Jesus ,Your Sister Dee "Numbers 6:24,25,26"
Awesome work, Brother Thom. Sad, but true. So many do not see or receive what is freely offered to them. Blessing.