From Athens to Oak Park: Why God Put Us Here
May 31, 1998
Let me imagine a situation for a moment and ask how you would respond. Let’s suppose that you are a missionary arriving for service in a country you have never visited. Although you didn’t plan to visit the capital city, your itinerary was suddenly changed and now you find yourself alone in a place filled with people whose education and intelligence equals your own—and in many cases surpasses it. The city is filled with people discussing art and debating philosophy. They love it when someone proposes a new idea because it means they have something to argue about during the hot afternoon hours. People come from many countries to join in the ongoing discussion and to admire the many works of art that line the city streets. This is truly a world-class city.
You are the first Christian ever to visit this city. There are no churches, no Christian bookstores, no Christian colleges or radio stations. You can’t find a Christian symbol of any kind in the entire city. You venture further, walking down one street, then another, studying the many statues that line the street and reading the many inscriptions. It is very clear that the people in this highly-educated city have never heard of Jesus Christ. If you say his name, all you get in return is a blank stare. They know nothing about his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection or his ascension into heaven.
You are the first Christian in this city and you are the only Christian. No one has come before you to prepare the way. No one invited you to come. No one expected your arrival. No one welcomed your appearance. Here you are in the center of the greatest city in the world representing Jesus Christ.
What will you do? Where will you stay? How will you find an opening for the gospel? Let me repeat that you never intended to come to this city but your plans changed and here you are. Alone. The people of this city pride themselves on their intellect, their culture, and their philosophy. No one comes in and teaches them anything. In modern terms, they have “home court advantage.”
What will you do now? Where will you begin? How will you find someone to talk to? And who will listen to your message?
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I didn’t make up this story. What I have described is precisely the situation a man named Paul faced when he came to the city of Athens alone. We know he was alone from his comments in 1 Thessalonians 3:1. We know what he did from the record in Acts 17:16-34.
These 19 verses tell of one of the most dramatic encounters in the history of the Christian faith. Wilbur Smith comments that relatively few men ever change the world. Most men live and die without making even a small ripple and they leave no trace when they are gone. Not so with Paul. His ministry changed the world forever—and it is still changed because of what he did 20 centuries later.
I. What Paul Saw—A City Full of Idols
Most of us know Athens as the cradle of Western civilization. When we think of Athens, we think of names like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pericles, Sophocles, and Aristophanes. These are men whose words are still studied in every major university in the world. In Paul’s day there were three great universities in the Roman Empire—Tarsus, Alexandria, and the greatest of all in Athens. Here you could find the Academy of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Porch of Zeno, and the Garden of Epicurus.
We also connect Athens with Mount Olympus and the pantheon of Greek gods such as Zeus, Athena, and Aphrodite. During the Golden Age of Pericles, the Athenians built the renowned Parthenon on top of the Acropolis—the massive hill dominating the city. They also built untold statues in honor of their gods on almost every corner. According to Pliny there were over 30,000 statues in Athens. Petronius says that it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man. Pausanius adds that there were more statues of gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece.
Most of those were built several hundred years before the New Testament era. By the time Paul arrived sometime in the year AD 50, Athens was in the late afternoon of its glory. Though Rome was the capital of the empire, Athens was the intellectual and cultural capital of the world.
We pick up the story in Acts 17:16, “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Paul never intended to come to Athens—and certainly not alone. He spent time there waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive. Since he had some time on his hands, he toured the city, saw its many famous sites, and concluded it was “full of idols.” That phrase is actually one word in Greek—an unusual word that means the city was completely given over to idol-worship. Eugene Peterson says that Athens was “a junkyard of idols.” The Athenians would have been shocked by this assessment because they didn’t consider these marvelous works of art to be idols. They erected statues in honor of their gods—and to aid in the worship of those gods. To call them idols seems so degrading of objects so stunningly beautiful. But Paul wasn’t fooled by their outward appearance. He knew an idol when he saw one—and in Athens he saw a city wholly given over to idolatry. Wilbur Smith comments that “a man’s character, a man’s interest, the purposes of a man’s life, will determine what he sees, wherever he goes.” Some see works of art, Paul saw idols.
II. What Paul Felt—Great Distress
What you look for determines what you see; what you see determines what you feel; what you feel determines what you do. Paul had a single eye for the glory of God, and therefore when he saw these statues honoring false gods, he wasn’t fooled by their beauty, he knew they were idols. Verse 16 tells us he was “greatly distressed.” It’s a very strong word that describes a deep emotional reaction to the idolatry of Athens. It is a combination of anger and sadness. It’s the same word used in the Old Testament to describe God’s anger over the sin of his people.
What does it take to make you angry? Ecclesiastes 3:1 says “there is a time for everything,” which means there is a time for anger. There is a time to be silent and then there is a time to speak out against moral corruption and sinful pride. The men of Athens thought they had built the greatest city on earth–the epitome of pagan humanism. It was if they had erected a sign that read, “Welcome to Athens: City of a Thousand Gods.
Paul got angry when he toured Athens. His moral conscience was offended by their pagan idol-worship. It didn’t matter to him that the Parthenon was one of the wonders of the ancient world or that this was the hometown of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. What good was the human mind unless it be offered up in the service of the living God? And why praise the work of men whose architecture exists to honor pagan deities?
There are some things that ought to make us angry. We ought to be angry at the legalized killing of the unborn. We ought to be angry about the celebration of homosexuality in our society. We ought to be angry about rampant divorce, deadbeat dads, broken homes, child abuse, spouse abuse, racial prejudice, moral apostasy by so-called Christian leaders, dishonesty in high places, and the brutal treatment of the poor and the homeless. Most of all we ought to be angry when we see God’s name mocked, his Word ignored, and his people persecuted around the world.
The ability to get angry about the right things at the right time in the right way is one sign of good mental health. Paul didn’t lose his temper, but on the other hand he didn’t turn away and say, “Well, it’s a beautiful city. I think I’ll go somewhere else and preach.” He wasn’t fooled by the splendor of Athens. He saw behind the beauty to the emptiness of idol-worship. Then he determined to do something about it.
So Paul now takes on Athens. It’s David versus Goliath all over again. Only this time there’s one David surrounded by a thousand Goliaths.
III. What Paul Did—Reasoned in the Marketplace
“So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). This verse reveals Paul’s basic strategy in Athens. First, he started on the most familiar territory by going to the Jewish synagogue in Athens. There he reasoned with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks. The word “reasoned” actually means to debate. It has the idea of discussing issues of importance with a view to winning another person to your own point of view. This is not just a breezy chat where you give your opinion and I give mine and we both walk away happy. This was a serious debate over issues of eternal importance. In this case, it meant that Paul used the Old Testament to show the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah.
This was Paul’s strategy everywhere he went. Since he himself was a Jew, it was only natural that he started by trying to reach his own people (cf. Romans 9:1-3). He knew their language and shared the same background. He could “talk the talk” with the best of them. If they wanted to quote Rabbi so-and-so, Paul could answer that quote by quoting a half-dozen other rabbis. He knew the Old Testament as well as they did and he could debate it for hours, always with a view to leading his countrymen to faith in Christ. He did what Jews For Jesus does today—one Jew reaching out to other Jews in the name of Jesus Christ.
Start Where You Are
Paul’s first step makes sense for those who want to share Christ. Start where you are and reach the people who are nearest to you. This week I ate lunch with a man who directs the Executive Ministries in the Chicago area for Campus Crusade For Christ. Basically they set up meetings where top-level Christian business men and women can invite their unsaved friends to a nice banquet at a home or a nice hotel, have a lovely meal and then hear a gifted speaker share Christ. Sometimes it’s a sports figure or it might be someone like Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri. In that kind of setting, these high-level business people come to Christ because they feel comfortable hearing the gospel. The man told some amazing stories of highly-educated, high-powered, highly-placed executives coming to Christ in great numbers through this ministry.
That was on Wednesday. On Thursday I spent two hours with Glen Kehrein, the director of Circle Urban Ministries. We toured the buildings on Central Avenue in the Austin Community and I saw with my own eyes the miracles being wrought in human lives through 11 separate ministries, including a medical clinic, a legal aid clinic, a tutoring program, a food pantry, and a Christian school. They are also reclaiming abandoned buildings used by drug dealers and gang members and turning them into affordable housing. You could hardly find a cultural setting more different from the Executive Ministry of Campus Crusade. But the principle is exactly the same. You start where you are and you reach out to friends, your co-workers, your neighbors, and your family. In July Circle Urban Ministries will see hundreds saved during their annual Harvest Festival when they put up a huge tent and have meetings, meals and gospel services all day long for a week. That is good evangelism. It’s peer to peer, friend to friend, family to family. Evangelism begins by reaching out to the people you know the best. That’s what Paul did in Athens.
In the Marketplace
But he didn’t stop there. Our text says that he also discussed Christ in the marketplace with anyone he happened to meet. There’s a particular word for the place where he went. In Greek it’s called the Agora. If you go to Athens today—as I did last October—you’ll find that the Agora is still there after 2000 years. It’s a section of town just north of the Acropolis with narrow streets and lots of shops and restaurants crowded together. That’s where people gathered in ancient Athens. Men and women would go to the Agora to shop, to meet their friends, to catch up on the latest news, and to discuss philosophy and religion.
That’s where Paul went. But remember that he didn’t know a soul in Athens. This wasn’t like a Billy Graham crusade where they start three years in advance with a team of people moving into town to lay the groundwork and to do PR for Mr. Graham. It’s true that Paul had his team but at this moment Timothy and Silas were somewhere else. Paul had to do his own advance work. Our text tells us that he went to the Agora day after day, chatting with anyone who would stop to talk to him. In doing this, he was following the practice of Socrates who went to the same place several hundred years earlier to discuss philosophy using the Socratic method—questions and answers.
What do you do in a strange town when you want to share Christ? You find out where the action is and you go there. It’s as simple as that. In our day going where the action is might be the mall or it might be a college campus or it might be an Internet discussion group or it might be the cafeteria at lunch or it might be around the water cooler or it might be a public park.
Yesterday Oak Park sponsored an event called May Madness. The police blocked off the intersection of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue and the intersection of Oak Park Avenue and the el tracks. There were carnival rides and food stands and lots of very loud music. And there were thousands of people milling around. Yesterday at 5 PM a band called Someday Soon played on the stage at Scoville Park. Who or what is Someday Soon? It’s a band made up of students who attend our Allied Force high school ministry. For an hour they played Christian music—loudly!–in Scoville Park. It’s not my style of music, which is good because the audience was almost entirely under the age of 20. They chose music that talked about the need to know Jesus Christ personally. And at the end Matt Claus told the audience that the band was all about relationships—and that the most important relationship in the world is knowing God. As I looked around Scoville Park I saw lots of people who have never visited Calvary Memorial Church listening intently to the music and to Matt as he shared.
I think the Apostle Paul would heartily approve. He might not understand the music, but he would approve taking the gospel out into the marketplace of life. Yesterday Scoville Park was an agora—a place where ideas could be presented and discussed. I’m proud of our high schoolers for taking Jesus to May Madness. It’s exactly what Paul did when he visited Athens 2000 years ago.
Cleverly Disguised Missionaries
Now how does this text apply to us today? We might give many answers—and in the weeks ahead we’ll be looking at Paul’s message on Mars Hill in more detail to find some of those answers. But for this morning I want to suggest that one primary application. Every Christian is a missionary just like Paul only most of us are cleverly disguised as something else. Paul was a missionary who didn’t look like a missionary. He looked like a Jew from Tarsus, which is what he was. And for all anyone knew, he was just one more visitor coming to see the glories of Athens and to gaze on the splendor of its architecture and join in the philosophical discussions. When people saw Paul, they didn’t think, “Aha! There’s a missionary. I can spot one a mile away.”
That’s a key point, isn’t it? The best missionaries I know don’t look like missionaries at all. Paul looked like a tourist and no one knew differently until he opened his mouth. Then suddenly everyone knew here was a man on a mission from God. The same should be true of you and me.
Last night about 8 PM I went back to May Madness because I knew the crowds would be larger after sunset. Along the way I ran into quite a few church members enjoying the festivities. While I was standing in the blocked-off intersection of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue, a woman with three children stopped me and said, “Hi, Pastor Ray.” She and her husband run a cheesecake shop on Oak Park Avenue, a block south of the el tracks. We talked for a few moments, and I told her that at the Oak Park Christian Academy auction in March, her store had donated a $50 cheesecake and that I had won it with a bid of $200. We still haven’t claimed the cheesecake but I’m planning on doing it soon. We chatted for a bit and then she went one way and I went another. A few minutes later I was walking home when I passed by their shop and saw that it was open. I went inside and immediately noticed a sign above the counter with two Scripture references from Proverbs and a point to ponder. They put it where every customer is bound to see it. The woman came in and explained the sign on the chalk board. Lots of people comment about it—most like it, but some people have said, “That offends me,” and they leave the store. She told me that a close friend said, “Why do you have that sign? You’re not in the ministry.” “Oh yes we are,” she replied, “This is our ministry.”
Should I Talk to an Atheist?
She’s right. They are missionaries cleverly disguised as the proprietors of a cheesecake store here in Oak Park. They look just like everyone else until you go in their store and then you discover they’re undercover missionaries for Jesus who happen to sell cheesecake on the side.
It’s the same with all of us. We’re all missionaries. Some of us are cleverly disguised as doctors, teachers, sales reps, athletes, secretaries, nurses, lawyers, professors, homemakers, senior citizens, junior high school students, high school students, college students, graduate students, small business owners, administrators, shift workers, plant managers, and department heads. On and on the list goes. If someone asks you, “What do you do?” there’s only one biblical answer: “I’m a missionary for Jesus Christ cleverly disguised as ______________________.”
Last Sunday after one of the worship services a woman met me in the lobby and told me that she had been talking with a friend who says he is an atheist. She also said that her Christian friends advised her not to talk to him again because he could drag her down spiritually. She wanted to know if she should talk to him even though he is an atheist. What do you think Paul would say? If we all refuse to talk to non-Christians, how will they ever hear the gospel? If they don’t hear the gospel, how will they ever be saved (cf. Romans 10:14-17)?
Where Cross the Crowded Ways
My friend Brian Bill told me once that Oak Park is a lot like Athens in the New Testament. I think he’s right. Oak Park is a haven for every strange ism of modern life. To borrow a phrase, we’re on the cutting edge of societal evolution—and it’s not always a pretty picture. If Paul were to visit Oak Park, he would be provoked for the same reason he was provoked in Athens. Lives are being ruined by idolatry, and people worship idols because they have do not know the living God.
Do we care? Are our hearts stirred as Paul’s was? Almost a century ago Frank Mason North wrote the hymn “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life.” Do not these words speak to us who live in a modern-day Athens:
Where cross the crowded ways of life,
Where sound the cries of race and clan,
Above the noise of selfish strife,
We hear your voice, O Son of Man!
In haunts of wretchedness and need,
On shadowed thresholds dark with fears,
From paths where hide the lures of greed,
We catch the vision of your tears.
O Master, from the mountainside,
Make haste to heal these hearts of pain,
Among these restless throngs abide,
O tread the city’s streets again.
Our challenge is the same as Paul’s 2000 years ago. The Lord Jesus can’t be here in person so he’s delegated you and me to represent him this week. May the Lord Jesus once again walk the streets of Oak Park incarnated in his people. Now go from this place as missionaries of Jesus Christ. Go and the Lord be with you. Amen.