“Something New”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
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. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. (Acts 17.16-21)
The Apostle Paul was a highly intelligent, educated, and accomplished man. He was born a Roman citizen (Ac 22.28), in a city characterized by prosperity and prestige (Ac 21.39). He was educated by the premier rabbi of the entire Jewish nation (Ac 22.33). He was the standout talent of his generation (Ga 1.14), and apparently sat on the ruling council of Jews, the Sanhedrin (e.g. Ac 6.15, 7.58), despite his youthful age. He was a man to watch, who could be expected to succeed his mentor, Gamaliel, as the preeminent interpreter of the law and the guide of the council, but also to bring to that position a zeal to act with harshness in service of the law. He wasn’t just a thinker—even before God singled him out for a more important and rewarding task, Paul was a man of action.
So imagine his frustration at the people of Athens. Athens was supposed to be the intellectual and philosophical capital of the world, and not so long ago it had wielded a tremendous amount of political and military power as well. When Paul visited, however, the city was just a superstitious, decadent has-been, coasting on the achievements of its inhabitants from 3 or 4 centuries prior. It still had the natural resources and population to be an important city, but there was no compelling reason for it to be the most important city anymore, and so its glory continued to fade. Meanwhile, its populace was unwilling to admit that their city had nothing more of value to offer the world. So what did they do? Most of them got on with life, working for a living. But others inherited the cultural and intellectual leadership positions—as well as enough in the way of property to finance a very idle lifestyle. It is amusing that they had the nerve to call Paul a “babbler.” The Greek word is σπερμολόγος-spermologos, which literally signifies one who scatters words like seed in a field. That’s exactly what Paul was doing, but they didn’t mean it as a compliment! They thought there was no good purpose to the word Paul spread around—much as they saw little value in the work of the hardworking farmers who ensured these idle affluents had something to eat each winter. What was their goal? What was their purpose in life? As Luke told us, it was “nothing except telling or hearing something new,” spewing their own meaningless words far and wide.
These were the people who had it all—the lifestyle others dream about, with no need to work, surrounded by great works of all types of art, plenty of money, plenty of prestige, plenty of diversions, and their whole long lives to sit and ponder whatever thought occurred to them. Even then, with all their desire to hear something new, it’s telling that Luke can neatly group them into two camps: the Stoics and the Epicureans—who, frankly, agreed on most points in practice, and hadn’t done much to advance their respective philosophies for the past couple of centuries.
Paul tried to jar them out of the clouds and back into reality. His sermon to them applauded their better tendencies, and included some well-placed references to Greek poetry. Then he dropped the hammer:
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Ac 17.30-31)
A handful were converted, but it appears the general reaction was apathy and mocking. They wanted something new, but they scoffed when it didn’t line up with their own preconceived notions. What they wanted wasn’t to learn, it was to be entertained.
Isn’t that what we see in our society today? There are many similarities between our own political and cultural situation and that of Athens in the 1st century AD. Increasingly it’s clear that we consume, but don’t produce nearly as much; we’re the wealthiest country in the world but also the most dissatisfied. We have everything our forebears could have wanted or dreamed of, but we don’t appreciate it, don’t produce much that’s worthwhile, and scorn the ones who keep us afloat. We’re addicted to 24-hour news, but we shout down anything that’s actually new, or spin it as part of a longstanding trend we’ve known for ages. We long for entertainment above all else. Our society is sick, in the same way Athens was sick, and this is not a recipe conducive to the church spreading and thriving. The good news is that there are a few who see through the cultural clouds to something far more important in Jesus, and through him they see everything else more clearly, too. They won’t worry themselves over what society will say. They’ll be ready when the time of judgment comes. Make sure you’re one of them—not a mocker, but a believer.