Sermons by the Monday Club
And they that conducted Paul brought him to Athens: and receiving a commandment to Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed…
1. No moment in the annals of the Church has larger significance than that in which the gospel of the living Christ comes to its first contact with the worn faiths of paganism, — its philosophy and its science.
2. The very inequalities in social position of this meeting between the Jewish tent maker — "whose bodily presence is weak, and whose speech is of no account" — and the classic and proud city of the ancient world, and the contrasted weapons of the debate — in the warm personal faith of the one, and the lifeless but cultivated ignorance of the other — all conspire to make this apostolic visit of historic significance, and this address a model in the missionary records of the Church.
I. THE PULPIT.
1. The apostle was in that "Holy Land of the Ideal," to which the ancient world of art and letters made pilgrimage. Here was the shrine at which "the fair humanities" of the pagan faith were worshipped — here the gymnasium, in which the human form came to its most perfect development in grace and beauty. Here, also, the human mind, the laws of thought, and that language which became the chosen medium of God's truth, attained an almost ideal acuteness and expansion, while in the age of Pericles art, poetry, and philosophy reached such consummate excellence as to become classic models of form and style to all the generations. It was in the market place at Athens that Socrates, "the wisest of men," asked his immortal questions; and yonder in the olive groves by the brook Plato founded the academy; to the east, under the shadow of the mountain, was the lyceum of Aristotle, while near at hand, in the agora, were the garden of Epicurus and the painted porch of the Stoics. Here was the home of the drama, and the scholar speaks with pride the names of AEschylus and Sophocles. Here spoke the orators of Greece, not only to the civil issues of that time, but also to the listening ears of the future, and here wrote historians like Thucydides and Xenophon; while in her temples was deified the national spirit in the marble images of her heroes and soldiers, in the trophies of her victories, and the memory of her defeats, until we may say with truth that no city of like limits ever gathered to itself so much of history, so many objects of interest, and such prestige as Athens.
2. In the midst of such surroundings Paul was waiting for the coming of Silas and Timothy from Berea. As his eyes rested upon the images of gods and goddesses which filled the temples and lined the avenues of the city — where, the historian says, it was easier to find a god than a man — "his spirit was stirred within him as he beheld the city full of idols." The apostle was not destitute of that fine sense of the beautiful which belongs to all great souls, nor did the mind of the Jewish scholar fail in quick response to real culture; but the beautiful in art or letters was subordinate to the truth in Jesus, which filled his soul.
3. He was not of choice nor as a student in this university city, but in the providence of God he was a delayed messenger of the Cross; and, true to the great mission which possessed him, he engages the loiterers of the market place in religious debate. For such street colloquies the Athenians had particular liking. It was through such that their great philosophers had come into prominence; and, having abundant leisure on their hands, the citizens generally found both occupation and excitement in taking part in them.
4. We can easily picture the amused curiosity, and the half-serious, half-sneering questions of the crowd which gathered around him: "What would this babbler say?" "He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods." As the circle grew larger, and hearing more difficult, curiosity in the new religion became more earnest, until, in the spirit of mischief or half-mirth, "they laid hold upon him," and led him up the stone steps to the top of the Areopagus, the ancient judgment seat of Athens, where in the crescent of stone seats had sat the judges, who, three hundred years before, had condemned Socrates to die. Beyond the tribunal, in the cleft of the rock, was the menacing sanctuary of the Furies, while above was the great temple of Mars, the god of blood. Here, then, was the pulpit of the apostle — such a pulpit as no man, unless sent of God, and filled with the courage of the truth, would have dared to occupy!
II. THE AUDIENCE. Their temper and character have exhibition in the half-earnest, half-contemptuous, inquisitive spirit with which they placed the apostle on "the stone of impudence" — where the accused were wont to plead their cause before the council — and with mocking judicial tones bade him speak.
1. The Athenian was religious: the innumerable temples, statues, and altars prove his "carefulness in religion"; but it reveals also what his religion was. It was one which made him a splendid animal with a splendid intellect, which had no holding power against profligacy and fatalism, but, like the sun, while it preserves the living, it hastens the decay of the dead. The same temper of mind and life had gone over into philosophy.
(1) Three hundred years before, in his little garden beside the market place, Epicurus had taught his followers that happiness is the great purpose and pursuit of life. In close alliance with this standard of life was a material theory of the universe, which made the world "a fortuitous combination of atoms," so that Providence became accident, and chance the disposer of events.
(2) The Stoics taught a system of ethics radically at variance with this; for, while the Epicurean had made the world conform to self, the Stoic had made self conform to nature; thus self-gratification became the maxim of the one, and self-denial of the other. And while the Epicurean avoided pain, the Stoic welcomed it in or let to despise it, and found the secret of life in living in conformity to nature, receiving its bitter as sweet, and its sweet as bitter, with equal composure. But while its austere morality commands our admiration, its theories of the universe are degrading and material. Mind and matter were not distinguishable. God is only the reasoning principle in the universe — one with the material world. The very souls of men, like their bodies, were material.
(3) One other class of hearers were represented; the gossips who spent their time in hearing and telling some new thing. This sect needs no analysis; their creed is simple and their history is familiar. Every community knows them, and every successor of the apostle addresses them.
2. We have outlined the character and creeds of the company that we may note one or two facts.
(1) That, while unbelief is a revolving wheel, it is not a progressive one; for the very phases of unbelief against which the Church is contending today Paul met on Mars' Hill. Our materialistic philosophy which rules out God; our advanced thought in natural science; where do they receive better statement or definition than in that old poem of Lucretius "On the Nature of Things"? Our selfish and infidel systems of ethics — what are they but echoes of voices across that line which has divided the centuries? Unbelief always carries its ball and chain; it has no progress, and it cannot build.
(2) In the focused light of Christianity in which we live today it would seem impossible for the worn pagan faiths of Epicurus and Zeno to exist among us. But such is not the case. For multitudes are living upon the unformulated theories and unspoken creeds of heathendom. Self is the centre of the universe, pleasure the great end of life; and as regards conduct they have no souls; there is no hereafter, and God is a fiction. Or they are austere, stern moralists, complacent in their own rightness, conforming to the events of life with stoical composure; scorning that humility which comes from repentance, and treating with disdain an atonement for its guilt and death.
3. Athens teaches us that culture cannot save a man nor a city from moral decay. Not commerce nor national era, not wealth nor taste, not even the library nor the college, convey the forces of permanent power or real welfare to men; but the gospel is the power of God unto life to the man and the state.
III. THE SERMON. Note the courteous prudence with which he begins as he raises his hand for silence — "Men of Athens, in all things I observe that you are unusually religious" — a compliment which carries the truth and the attentive favour of his audience; and yet such conciliation does not compromise the man nor his message. He continues "For as I passed through your city," etc. (ver. 23). Paul might have denounced their idolatry with a sledge hammer blow, for his spirit had boiled within him as he beheld it; but alert to every circumstance which should serve a Christian purpose, he uses the very errors of heathendom to guide their feet and thought to Him who was the way and the truth. And now every sentence is packed with "the deep things of God" as he proceeds, and every word is a battle blow to the false philosophy of his hearers.
IV. ITS RECEPTION (ver. 32). The same old story wherever the truth is taught. Mockers, procrastinators, believers; to which class do we belong?
(Sermons by the Monday Club.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed.