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Return to 3rd Quarter 2018 articles.

The title of this month's lead article is First Century Athens and the 21st Century World.

The cover of our 3rd quarter 2018 journal shows a sunset over the city of Los Angeles.

As I read the history of the first-century church in the book of Acts and see the world today, I am amazed at how similar they are. In Acts 17:16-31 we read of Paul's confrontation with the world of his day. The affluent people “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (verse 21). That is such an accurate description of the world we live in today. Like the Athenians, the affluent world around us ignores the poverty and pain of their fellow humans. Instead, they spend their time talking about the latest ideas and wanting to hear something new. Verse 22 tells us that the Athenians were incredibly gullible and entertained any weird view of the day. Between the web and the tabloids, we see a gullible readership who just want to hear something new and then argue about it, be it political, religious, social, or medical.

Acts 17:20 tells us that the Athenians were searching for meaning in life and because Paul brought “strange ideas to our ears and we would like to know what they mean,” they were willing to give Paul a hearing. Paul responded by telling them that he observed they were religious, but they were ignorantly worshipping something which they called “the unknown God.” Paul pointed out three main mistakes the Athenians were making which people still make today.


The Athenians were treating God as if he were human with human characteristics. In verses 24 – 25 Paul says, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything.” The stories of God in the culture of Athens portrayed God with human weaknesses — sexual, racial, economic, psychological, and political. Tales of sexual exploits, wars, violence, and jealousy of the gods fill Greek literature. In verses 29 and 30, Paul tells the Athenians that God would no longer tolerate this ignorance.

The Parthenon in Athens Today

The Athenians centered their worship around appeasing their gods. To avoid the jealousy of the gods and stay on their good side, the Athenians had elaborate sacrifices and services. Skilled artisans constructed beautiful gold, silver, and stone images to please the gods and goddesses. Today we have many people who center their worship of God around shrines, temples, huge crosses, and elaborate religious services, all dependent upon human skill.

All of this is ignorant worship. We do not worship God because he needs our worship. Jealousy, bad self-images, depression, and ego problems are properties of human beings, but not God. We are called to worship God for our own well being. Worship helps us to build unity, to focus on a power higher than ourselves, to motivate us to service, and to encourage us to focus on life skills and attitudes that sustain us. We need the fellowship and encouragement of fellow Christians, and when we forsake services, we only hurt ourselves. Hebrews 10:25 tells us WE need worship, and James 5:13-20 spells out how our worship benefits us.


In verse 24 Paul tells the Athenians that he is presenting “God who made the world and everything in it.” Romans 1:18-32 finds Paul explaining how rejecting God brings immorality, violence, and chaos into the lives of people. Because they did not understand the nature of God and ignorantly placed God in a box that was human in nature and function, the Athenians viewed God as irrelevant to life. In today's world, most young people who have left faith in God have done so because they have not seen any evidence for God's existence, and they see faith as irrelevant to their lives. Paul tells the Athenians that everything points to God and his creation of the cosmos. Romans 1:18-32 explains to us that we can know there is a God through the things he has made.

The Areopagus (Mars Hill) in Athens Today

The notion of God as the creator has escaped our world today. Like the Athenians, we have not understood that there was a beginning, that God caused the beginning, and that his imprint is on all we see around us. We have been told that evolution explains all these things, but in reality, evolution does not address the question of creation. Evolution assumes that time has been created. Evolution assumes that space has been created and that matter/energy has been created within space/time. Evolution assumes that forces we are just beginning to understand shaped the matter/energy in space/time so that stable physical matter came into existence and that the properties of that matter/energy caused it to become organized into galaxies, and stars, and solar systems. Evolution assumes that within one of those solar systems a planet was created within the Goldilocks zone where water could exist as a liquid, and carbon and oxygen and heavy metals were produced to allow tangible matter to exist for long periods of time. Evolution assumes that within a limited time these materials came into existence in an environment and with a catalyst that could produce life. Once all those assumptions have been made, evolution attempts to explain how it changed from that first life to us. Evolution tries to explain how once the creation happened, things got to be as they are today. That is not creation.

The Athenians did not understand that they had a unique role in the purpose of the creation. God is not just the creator of space/time and matter/energy, but also he created us. In verses 26-28, Paul told the Athenians that God created them to have a special relationship with him.


Paul points out to the people of Athens that they were searching for God and not finding him. That was because they did not understand that “in him we live and move and have our being.” Jesus pointed out in Luke 16:15 that God knows our hearts. Matthew 6:8 finds Jesus telling us God knows what we need before we ask. Matthew 10:29-31 points out that even fine details are known to God.

Tourists on the Areopagus

We, like the Athenians, feel that God is “out there somewhere.” We seem to think that God does not know what we do, so we can hide from God. The Bible goes to great lengths to point out that this is a lack of understanding. David thought God would not know about his sin with Bathsheba. Jonah thought he could run and God could not keep up with him. Like the Athenians, we have detached God from reality, and that causes us to live two lives — one at church and one everywhere else. Hypocrisy results from ignorance about our relationship with God.

Acropolis and Parthenon from the Areopagus

That ignorance dilutes our prayer life making it a ritual instead of a loving partnership. That weakens us and makes us vulnerable to judgment. It is not just the judgment of humans that is at work here, but also the eternal judgment of God that is described in verses 30-31.

In twenty-first-century America, the “unknown God” may be football, or politics, or personalities, or money. The Athenians were with Paul and his message until he mentioned the resurrection of Christ from the dead. At that point, the Bible says, “when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some sneered, but others said, we want to hear you again on this subject.” In today's world, many mock any suggestion that there is a spiritual existence or that any claim about Jesus could be valid. In our world, people will mock any view that God is real and that the Bible is his word.

The Athenian world collapsed because of their disbelief. There is no substitute for God and his Spirit or for the Word that was given for all of us. Our world also hangs in the balance, torn by ignorance and lack of direction because of a rejection of the path God has called us to walk.

Modern Athens with ancient ruins

— John N. Clayton

Picture credits:
Cover: © Stoycho Stoychev. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
© Stoycho Stoychev. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
© rechitansorin. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
© lornet. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
© YaninaYana. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
© milang. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.
© Baloncici. Image from BigStockPhoto.com.

Scripture links/references are from BibleGateway.com.