Paul had a fruitful ministry in Berea until the troublemakers from Thessalonica came, and the people urged Paul to move on (Acts 17:14, 15). The next city after the noble Bereans, was Athens (Acts 17:16) where we have to ask how some people who knew so much could really know so little. Some of Paul’s companions left him for a time while he waited in Athens (Acts 17:15, 16). It is here that Paul notices all of the idols around town.
I did not fully understand this passage until I traveled to Kathmandu Nepal. While there I discovered a cross section of Hinduism and Buddhism that manifested the city with countless shrines, statues and idols. I would walk down the streets and find shrine after shrine along the sidewalks, with candles and items of devotion in front of these little altars erected to one of the 330 million gods of Hinduism. I even discovered what they called the Kumari, who lives in a palace in the center of the city. This young girl is considered to be a living goddess, the bodily incarnation of the goddess Taleju until she menstruates, after which it is believed that the goddess vacates her body (she was also called the vestal virgin). The whole experience caused me to wonder why so many people around the world consider the resurrection to be just a silly story.
So Paul sees these altars all over town and concludes the Athenians to be religious people (Acts 17:22). I can hear him saying to them, “Let me tell you about this God you don’t know, and I’ll tell you His name.” Of all of Paul’s visits, this city is different from others he has visited so far.
The city itself was different: much smaller and less sophisticated, perhaps 100 years past her glory days. They had a reputation of being the center of higher learning with universities, philosophers and freethinkers.
Paul’s team was different: he entered the city by himself, without Timothy and Silas. They did not catch up to him in Athens (Acts 17:15, 16), which left him without the emotional, physical and spiritual support he had in other cities. No one would have known if he was too intimidated to preach, or blamed him for not engaging people with the gospel (Acts 17:17).
Paul’s speech was different: this may be one of the best sermons Paul preached, building a relevant bridge to the people and using a creative object lesson.
The response to the gospel was different: only a few people became believers (Acts 17:34). Paul does not mention a church being planted, and he never mentions any other contact with them. I suppose the lesson for us is that sometimes the best sermon will not penetrate an unwilling heart.
Paul’s leaving was different: he was not persecuted or even run out of town, he simply left (Acts 17:33, 18:1). Why no persecution? Perhaps they were too cold to care. They were so open minded that anything goes could have been the town’s motto. Live and let live, if it works for you, do it. Come to think of it, would you rather have someone hate you or be apathetic towards you? I submit that apathy is worse because if someone hates you, at least they have some sort of emotion towards you. Beth Moore says that persecution is not nearly the enemy that indifference is. The Athenians did not care if Paul left of not. Everyone was entitled to his own god.
Application: We live in a tolerant society. We also have a message that no one comes to the Father except through Christ. He is the way the truth and the life (John 14:6). He who has the Son has life while he who does not have the Son does not have life (John 3:36, 1 John 5:11-12). Don’t allow your tolerance for other faiths compromise the unique claims of the gospel story. We must discover how to build a bridge to lost people around us; but remember that the results are not up to us, they are up to God. We are called to be faithful, not necessarily successful. If one method does not work, keep trying until you can find something that makes the gospel click with them. Sometimes it is only a matter of readiness to receive the message. Most of all, never allow yourself to become indifferent to Christ. Maintain your passion for the One who saved your soul and brought peace to your life, work, marriage and family. Keep Him at the center.