News, Views and Idols
(Acts 17:16) Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
(Acts 17:17) Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.
(Acts 17:18) Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
(Acts 17:19) And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
(Acts 17:20) For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
(Acts 17:21) (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
Athens was a citadel of human wisdom but Paul’s spirit was stirred in him (ACT 17:16), not because of their philosophy, but rather their idolatry. Like the Psalmist, he “...beheld the transgressors, and was grieved...” (PSA 119:158). In that city where human learning most flourished, idolatry most abounded (a connection Paul accurately noted elsewhere):
(Rom 1:22) Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
(Rom 1:23) And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.
Paul’s response should be the response of a Christian to our modern education system which has made gods out of random change, time, and purposelessness (an evolutionist’s version of a trinity). Too many Christians have chosen rather to accommodate evolutionary theory and so distort the plain, unbroken continuity of the “six days” of GEN 1. Paul’s response to idolatry in a heathen city would be less than if he saw it in a Christian church (1CO 10:7-22; 2CO 6:16), say, for example, if he saw a church incorporating into its worship rabbits, eggs, or green trees (JER 10:1-4). Paul praised saints who turned to God FROM idols (1TH 1:9), not WITH idols.
Upon seeing the city wholly given to idolatry, “Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews,...” (ACT 17:17). This may imply that the Jews were tinkering with idolatry as they had done in the past, or that while rendering monotheistic lip-service to God were too content with the idolatrous culture in which they had chosen to live. Otherwise, it is likely that Paul was sticking to his pattern of taking the gospel to the Jew first, then to the Gentile (ROM 1:16; ACT 13:46, etc.), for it was his manner to do so upon coming into Gentile communities where there was a synagogue (ACT 17:1-2), that his elect countrymen who were first heirs of God’s promises might first have a chance to have a zeal of God according to knowledge (ROM 10:1-2). If the Jews be first converted to Christ, the overturning of the Gentiles’ idolatry would be enhanced by monotheistic Jewish Christian helpers, and the converted Gentiles have a better alternative to turn into: the gospel church.
In today’s text we see Paul was challenged by two schools of philosophy: the Epicureans (who believed in unfettered luxury and pleasure) and the Stoicks (who believed in austerity and rigid repression of desires and emotions). It was the “touch, taste, handle everything” crowd (ISA 22:13) versus the “touch not, taste not, handle not” crowd (COL 2:20-22), extremes that Bible-believers need to avoid. Some, hearing Paul’s gospel, called him a babbler (ACT 17:18), implying a childish ignorance. For the same gospel, Paul was elsewhere accused, “...much learning doth make thee mad” (ACT 26:24). He was an ignoramus one day, intelligentsia the next. The reception depends upon the receiver and you can’t please everyone: trying to do so is a certain formula for failure and loss of respect. Preachers must give little heed to how their words are received since bending to accommodate one crowd will do no good, and perhaps much evil, for the other crowd’s sake. It is sufficient that a preacher knows he will be a spectacle unto the world (1CO 4:9), beside himself or sober (depending on the hearer’s presuppositions, 2CO 5:13), a savour of life or death to the hearer but to God a sweet savour of Christ in all cases (2CO 2:14-17).
Athens’ character is instructive, particularly that of the wise fools at Areopagus/Mars’ hill. They “...spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (ACT 17:21). They were obsessed with news. How applicable this is to our culture which wiles away its time on the internet, consumed with frivolous, unnecessary research, discussion and news, news, news! And here is the dirty truth that stands by itself: aside from whatever benefit or corruption the internet represents, it is a colossal consumer of time and tends to be a substitute for substantive thought or activity (work, social, exercise, etc.). Idle perusal of information to the neglect of good works for necessary uses (TIT 3:14) is not the meditative study that profits (1TI 4:13-15) and may be nothing more than a form of “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2TI 3:7). It may further be a weak form of dealing with the world, people and one’s own insecurities: it’s easier to live a detached, insulated existence where one controls his own reality and relationships from behind a screen without fear of “in person” challenges or scrutiny than to engage life with all of its troubles by faith and become a real conqueror, not a “gamer” or Keyboard Rambo. If deluging oneself with information of any kind does not improve one’s grasp of God and concurrently also improve one’s duties before God as touching the issues of life, the study is vain (ECC 1:16-18). “In the multitude of words (and nerds, perhaps), there wanteth not sin...” (PRO 10:19).
At this point, I turn the meditation over to a “guest commentator,” Matthew Henry (his remarks on our text). His words need no polishing on my part. Give heed:
“The general character of the people of that city given upon this occasion (Act 17:21): All the Athenians, that is natives of the place, and strangers who sojourned there for their improvement, spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing, which comes in as the reason why they were inquisitive concerning Paul's doctrine, not because it was good, but because it was new. It is a very sorry character which is here given of these people, yet many transcribe it. (1.) They were all for conversation. St. Paul exhorts his pupil to give attendance to reading and meditation (1Ti 4:13, 1Ti 4:15), but these people despised those old-fashioned ways of getting knowledge, and preferred that of telling and hearing. It is true that good company is of great use to a man, and will polish one that has laid a good foundation in study; but that knowledge will be very flashy and superficial which is got by conversation only. (2.) They affected novelty; they were for telling and hearing some new thing. They were for new schemes and new notions in philosophy, new forms and plans of government in politics, and, in religion, for new gods that came newly up (Deut 32:17), new demons, new-fashioned images and altars (2Ki 16:10); they were given to change. Demosthenes, an orator of their own, had charged this upon them long before, in one of his Philippics, that their common question in the markets, or wherever they met, was ei ti le etai neōteron - whether there was any news. (3.) They meddled in other people's business, and were inquisitive concerning that, and never minded their own. Tattlers are always busy bodies, 1Ti 5:13. (4.) They spent their time in nothing else, and a very uncomfortable account those must needs have to make of their time who thus spend it. Time is precious, and we are concerned to be good husbands of it, because eternity depends upon it, and it is hastening apace into eternity, but abundance of it is wasted in unprofitable converse. To tell or hear the new occurrences of providence concerning the public in our own or other nations, and concerning our neighbours and friends, is of good use now and then; but to set up for newsmongers, and to spend our time in nothing else, is to lose that which is very precious for the gain of that which is worth little.”