Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him,
when he saw that city wholly given to idolatry.
— Acts 17:16
I am honored to come from a family that has had multiple missionaries in our family tree and to be one of those whom the Lord has called in that capacity. Because I have observed various relatives make great sacrifices to fulfill their calling, I have gained great respect for people who leave their families and relocate to other parts of the world to preach the Gospel. Often they are required to live and minister in regions that are very dark spiritually. But as a result of their willingness to go where others don’t want to go, the Church has been established and societies have been trans- formed. Thank God for such heroic men and women of faith! We must not forget to pray for those who are ministering on the front lines.
You may not live on the spiritual “front lines” as many missionaries have been required to do. But wherever you live, you have probably found that it is not always easy to preach the Gospel. The devil hates the Gospel, and he tries with all his might to extinguish its light. And because he can’t put out the light itself, the enemy often attacks the light-bearer — the preacher. This is the reason we as ministers often find ourselves under attack. But regardless of the assaults that may be waged against us, we just need to stick to our mandate to preach and keep marching forward by faith. As we do, the forces of darkness that try to oppose us will eventually surrender to the shining light of truth!
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One such occasion occurred when the apostle Paul entered the city of Athens. Athens was so spiritually dark that Paul’s “…spirit was stirred in him, when he saw that city wholly given to idolatry” (Acts 17:16). I want to give you a brief glimpse into the environment Paul encountered the day he entered Athens nearly 2,000 years ago. I assure you that if Paul could preach in the midst of the wicked atmosphere of Athens, you can fulfill your ministry wherever God has called you to minister!
What Paul saw in the city of Athens was so appalling that the Bible says, “…His spirit was stirred in him….” In the Greek text, the word “stirred” is the Greek word paroxuneto, which is derived from the word paraxusmos, a compound of the words para and xusmos. The word para means alongside and carries the idea of being close. The second part of the word is the Greek word xusmos, which describes something sharp, such as a knife, and normally indicates a very sharp situation. When you put the two words together, the compound word describes someone who has taken something so close to heart that it has become a sharply felt agitation to him.
This word carries such a sense of agitation that the word paraxusmos has been translated to call into combat. I like this translation, because Paul didn’t retreat when he saw the darkness of the city. Instead, he charged full-steam ahead to wage warfare against the evil forces of the city.
Preaching God’s Word is the highest form of spiritual warfare, for the mighty two-edged sword called the Word of God has the greatest power available in this life to banish the forces of darkness from any environment! In the New Testament, the word paraxusmos usually means to irritate, to incite, to anger, to inflame, or to enrage. Based on multiple uses of this word in the New Testament (see Acts 15:39; Hebrews 10:24), we can easily ascertain that Paul was deeply troubled and ready to pull out his sword of the Spirit to fight because of the wickedness he saw all around him.
The verse goes on to tell us exactly what disturbed Paul so deeply: “…When he saw that city was wholly given to idolatry.” The word “saw” is the Greek word theoreo, which means to gaze at or to look upon. From this same root, the word theater is derived. The usage of this word is important in this context. It tells us that idolatry was so visible that Paul perceived the whole city as a huge stage set for the practice of idolatry. When the verse says Paul “saw” the idolatry, the Greek uses a participle. This means it could be translated that Paul “…saw and continually kept on seeing….”
Yes, that’s right! Everywhere Paul looked, he saw idols, statues, gods, and deities, for they could be found on every street and corner in the city of Athens. He found himself encircled with thousands of marble (but vividly painted flesh-colored), naked idols of Greek gods. As noted in the previous paragraphs, there were so many idols in Athens that the original Greek could literally be translated, “…he saw and continually kept on seeing…” that the city was “wholly given to idols.”
That phrase “wholly given to idols” is from the word kateidoolos, a compound of the words kata and doulos. The word kata gives the idea of domination or subjugation. The word doulos is the word for a slave who is sold to his owner and has no say-so in his life whatsoever. This slave completely belongs to and lives to fulfill the wishes and desires of his master. When the words kata and doulos are compounded, the new word forms the word kateidoolos that is used in Acts 17:17. It means to be completely dominated by, subject to, and sold out to the rule of idols. In other words, the idols were the masters and the people of Athens were the slaves, living their lives under the dominion of idolatry. The worship of idols and multiple gods was so woven into the fabric of Athens that it literally dominated every part of the inhabitants’ public and private lives.
One expositor says that the word kateidoolos can be translated sunk in idolatry, rife with idolatry, or gross idolatry. This makes sense, for it is a known fact from archeological findings and historical records that there were at least 30,000 idols on public display in Athens, not counting the thousands of miniature idols that were kept in people’s private residences. There were so many “gods” in Athens that one First Century historian wrote that it was “easier to find a god than to find a man” in Athens!
It was into this environment that Paul entered in Acts 17. With the sword of the Spirit and the Word of God in hand, he began to preach and wage spiritual warfare!
I realize that extensive information about the ancient city of Athens has already been written. Nevertheless, I would like to elaborate just a little more to give you the backdrop against which Paul stood as he began his preaching ministry in this city that was rife with idols and sunk in depravity. I believe this is important for you to understand because you might be thinking that your city or territory is too dark and difficult to take for the Kingdom of God. But if you compare your environment to what Paul faced in Athens, you will realize something: If Paul could preach in that evil atmosphere, then you can also fulfill your ministry — no matter where God has called you.
Athens was an intellectual city. It had been home to many famous people over the centuries, including the dramatic writers Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes and world-class historians such as Herodotos and Thucydides. In addition, seminal philosophers and orators such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, and Isocrates had also called Athens home. As a city, it was celebrated for its literature, history, music, and philosophy, and it was here that the idea of democracy was first born. Yet it was also in this highly educated, sophisticated atmosphere that homosexuality abounded, especially among the upper class who considered it fashionable to practice homosexuality.
Even today Athenian homosexuality is visible in the vast quantities of ancient Athenian vases that have survived from that period. These vases are covered with renderings of warfare, sports, relationships, life in the sauna, etc. — and an enormous number of them graphically portray homo- sexual relationships in every sphere of life. The vast quantities of these depictions make it clear that homosexuality was considered “normal” in Athenian society.
The Acropolis, the central mountain around which Athens was built, was a vast religious complex covered with a multitude of temples dedicated to a multiplicity of gods, including Apollo, Pan, and Asklepios (the Greek god of healing). The great theater of Dionysus was also there — a theater so enormous that it could accommodate thousands of people per event.
The Acropolis temples and their sculptures were beautiful almost beyond belief. Every temple and statue was not simply the white marble facades that we see today in museums; rather, they were painted in brilliant colors. The columns and ceilings of the buildings were all painted blue, red, and green, and real gold was applied to all the building ornaments. The figures in friezes were painted to look real. For example, flesh-colored warriors fought on a bright red background, and the armor and horse trappings on the sculptures were actually made of bronze. Blues and reds predominated. The temples of the Acropolis buildings were beautiful.
But the most outstanding of all temples on the Acropolis was the Parthenon — a temple so breathtakingly magnificent that it was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Deep inside this edifice was the monstrous statue of Athena. Forty feet in height, this massive statue was carved of wood and completely covered by ivory to represent flesh. She was also dressed in a huge garment that had substantial jewels and vast amounts of gold interwoven into its rich fabric. In her left hand rested on an enormous shield made of bronze. In her right hand, she held a Winged Victory that was the actual size of a human being. Upon her chest was the breastplate of the gods, and around the base of her shield was a coiled serpent. On Athena’s head was an immense helmet that gave the onlooker the impression that her power was unequaled, and all the gigantic weapons she wore were fashioned of the highest quality bronze.
A great altar was located at the front base of the statue. Upon this altar, nonstop sacrifices were made with as many as 100 or more oxen being offered at one time. Billowing swirls of smoke from all the sacrifices and incense used in worship filled the air, creating a mystical effect. Worshipers stood with mouths dropped open in awe as they looked up through the smoke at the majestic, gold-covered image and Athena’s lifelike eyes peered down at them.
Athena was definitely the main focus; however, there were so many deities in this city that one ancient historian wrote, “A day in Athens without taking account of the gods and their temples would be a day spent with your eyes half-closed.”5
Idols were on every street, at every street crossing, and at every prominent location in the city. The briefest stroll through the city would expose a visitor to countless gods. And none of this takes into account the diminutive temples built at the entrance of every house, where family members would place their own preferred idol and make sacrifices to it every day as a part of their daily routine.
All of this is just a brief taste of the wicked, dark, insidious idolatry that prevailed in ancient Athens. Now you can see why Acts 17:16 says, “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw that city wholly given to idolatry.” As noted earlier, the word “stirred” tells us that Paul was terribly troubled by all that he saw around him in Athens. Making this even more offensive to him was the fact that he was a Jew and wasn’t accustomed to idolatry at all. Idolatry was forbidden by God in the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:4 says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image….”) Therefore, this abundant display of idolatry would have made Paul feel especially uncomfortable and troubled.
5 William Stearns Davis, A Day in Old Athens: A Picture of Athenian Life (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1914), p.
Nevertheless, Paul recognized that for that moment in time, he was in Athens for a reason. So rather than grumble that the city was too hard, too dark, or too spiritually challenging, Paul took advantage of the situation for the sake of the Gospel! Acts 17:17 tells us, “Therefore disputed he in the synagogues with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.”
In other words, Paul found a place to preach and begin to declare the truth, thus combating the wickedness of the city! Acts 17:17 says he “disputed” in the synagogues and in the market daily. The word “dispute” comes from the Greek word dielegeto, which means to dispute, to argue, or to contend. The tense used means to repeatedly dispute. Because Paul did this repeatedly, we can assume that he probably ran into opposition. But he didn’t tuck his tail and run! Instead, Paul kept pressing and pushing forward to reach into the hearts and minds of his listeners.
When God calls us to fulfill our assignment, we must be willing to do what He asks and to go where He sends us, even if it means we must work in places that are difficult or in cities and nations where it is spiritually hard. Yes, we may encounter challenging situations that make it difficult for us to do our job. But regardless, we must decide that, with God’s help, we will push through each distraction or problematic situation and refuse to be affected by what we see, hear, or feel.
- What is the assignment God has given to you?
- Does it seem that you are in a hard and challenging environment?
- Are you tempted to give up because the opposition is great?
- Is your flesh recoiling from the place to which you know God has called you?
Don’t give up and give in to your flesh! I guarantee you that if the apostle Paul could do what God asked him to do in a place as dark and difficult as Athens, then you can also do what God has asked you to do where you live! Your situation may be tough; nevertheless, you are probably not surrounded by 30,000 idols! So it’s time to quit complaining about how difficult your situation is and make the rock-solid decision that you are going to conquer those evil forces and get the job done!
Never forget — you are not alone! You have the power of the Holy Spirit within and alongside you to help you fulfill your divine assignment!
MY PRAYER FOR TODAY
Father, I ask You to help me adjust my attitude about the difficult situation I am facing in life. I have been tempted to complain about how hard this assignment is. You have positioned me where I am for a reason. I repent for the times I have grumbled, complained, and entertained my feelings because I was relying upon my own strength instead of Your mighty power. Holy Spirit, You are my Helper and my Standby — I know that with Your power, I can do all things through Christ. From this moment onward, I ask You to help me focus my faith and confident expectation on You. Show me how to navigate my situation and my current station in life by the power of the Holy Spirit who will put me over the top every time!
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
MY CONFESSION FOR TODAY
I confess that I am an overcomer and can do all things through Jesus Christ. I can do whatever He calls me to do; I can go wherever He calls me to go; and I can fulfill whatever assignment He gives me because His Spirit lives within me and is empowering me! I look away from all that would distract or discourage me as I look to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of my faith! What You have called me to do, You have equipped and enabled me to do! I will not complain about the difficulties of life. Instead, I choose to take advantage of every opportunity God has given me and to make the most of every situation I encounter in life. With God’s help, I can turn any difficult situation into an opportunity for advancement and victory!
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
QUESTIONS FOR YOU TO CONSIDER
- Can you think of a time when you were challenged by a problematic situation that seemed insurmountable, yet you were able to forge through the ordeal and turn it into a glorious victory?
- What are you facing right now that tempts you to give up? After reading about what Paul encountered in Athens and how he refused to back down in the face of darkness, what changes are you going to make as you face your own situation?
- Can you think of a time in your life when you almost gave up — but because you kept going, it resulted in a new opportunity opening up for you? What would have happened if you had given up rather than pressed forward?