In 1 Samuel 16:7, the Lord revealed the futility of human appraisal when compared to His divine insight. He exhorted His prophet Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
By God’s grace, He has granted His people a similar spiritual insight. While we cannot see into the hearts of men, we are able to look at the world through the lens of God’s Word, seeing past mere externals to the spiritual realities disguised beneath. Through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, we don’t need to be enticed by glitz, glamour, and outward appearance—we can see through those feeble façades. The apostle Paul’s time in Athens is a good example of how believers should not be swayed by those things the world finds important or impressive.
Paul (formerly Saul) was brought up under the strictest Pharisaical discipline. “A Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God” (Acts 22:3); “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee . . . as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5–6). He was also a Roman citizen, with knowledge of military and political matters. Tarsus, where Paul grew up and was trained, was very cosmopolitan, so Paul’s rich education equipped and acclimated him for almost any culture in the Roman Empire. Even Athens, for several centuries the very heart of the intellectual and art world, was no exception. Paul was thoroughly familiar with Greek culture, manners, religion, art, and philosophy. He was a scholar, well-read and well-traveled. By God’s design Paul’s entire life had equipped him for situations like the one he encountered on Mars’ Hill (cf. Acts 17:16–34).
In the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. Athens was considered by many the greatest city in the world. Some aspects of Athenian culture have never been equaled. Athens reached the pinnacle in art, literature, architecture, and philosophy. Never in history has any one city achieved the height of glory in those fields that was seen in Athens during the golden age of the Greek Empire. Athens was in the province of Achaia, where Corinth, not far away, was the capital city. But Athens was still the center of the cultural and intellectual world, just as Rome was the political center. Athens was sometimes referred to as the university of the world—all the great minds of the world congregated there.
Athens also offered a home to the pantheon of gods in Greek mythology. Every civic building in Athens was a shrine to a god. The place where public records were kept, for example, was dedicated to the Mother of the Gods. The centerpiece of the city council building was an idol of Apollo. A popular saying was, “It is easier to find a god in Athens than a man.” The city was pagan to the core; although they had gods for everything, they did not know the one true God.
It is interesting to note how Athens affected Paul. You might think that with his cultural and educational background, Paul would have been fascinated to see Athens. The city was filled with magnificent temples, glorious artwork, majestic buildings, engaging orators, ingenious philosophers, and spectacular sights to interest a scholar like Paul. And in Paul’s day the marble and gold still glittered.
What was Paul’s response to Athens? “His spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Instead of being awed by all the marvelous sights, Paul saw foremost a city full of idols, and it grieved him greatly.
A nineteenth-century Bible dictionary says,
Paul had at his feet the Theseion [a spectacular marble temple near the marketplace], and on his right hand the Akropolis, with its splendid temples intact. Such surroundings would fill with enthusiasm every cultured Christian of to-day. Wherever St. Paul turned, his glance must have fallen on the severe and lovely works of art which still adorned the decadent city. Thus a table was spread before him of which nineteenth century humanists are laboriously but thankfully gathering up the scattered crumbs. To St. Paul’s Semitic imagination nothing of all this appealed. It was to him just gold or silver or stone, graven by art and man’s device, the work of a period of ignorance at which God had mercifully winked.
One writer who lived in Paul’s time visited Athens and wrote six volumes describing the glories of the city. If Paul had been writing a travelogue, he would have said simply, “It’s full of idols.” Period. Obviously Paul was not obtuse or insensible. It wasn’t that he lacked the knowledge to appreciate Athenian culture; on the contrary, here was a man who was ideally suited for such a city. But he had a higher calling and more serious business than tourism, or curiosity, or even academic research. He saw deeper than the city’s glittering façade or the well-dressed, well-bred Athenian intellectuals. And what he saw were people on the precipice of hell.
Athens stirred Paul’s emotions. The phrase “his spirit was being provoked within him” employs a Greek word, paroxunō (“provoked”), which speaks of intense agitation. Our word paroxysm comes from this root. Paul was saddened, grieved, indignant, and outraged at the widespread idolatry he saw. He knew these people were giving stone idols glory, which rightfully belongs to God alone.
Paul could not maintain his silence in the face of such an affront to the one true God. Provoked to his godly core, he was about to unleash an amazing evangelistic sermon to his unbelieving audience.