Idolatry is the product of rebellion, not confusion. While hearts and minds darkened by sin can’t find God on their own apart from His Word, the apostle Paul makes it clear that the root of idolatry is man’s rejection of creation’s testimony to its Creator.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Romans 1:18-23)
The sinner’s attempt to suppress the truth about God is foundational to all forms of idolatry and false religion. The unrepentant heart will subscribe to all sorts of farcical notions and obvious lies in the vain hope of shielding itself from the universe’s Creator and Judge.
Paul understood the unbelief that undergirded the plethora of deities in Athens. The closing words of his sermon on Mars’ Hill were a fatal shot at Athenian paganism, “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man” (Acts 17:29). In other words, if God made us, God Himself must be greater than any man-made image. This is a critical point. It was as if Paul took one enormous philosophical sledgehammer and smashed all their idols. If God is really the sovereign, infinite being even the poets acknowledged He must be, we can’t blasphemously reduce Him to a statue, a shrine, or any other graven image.
And while our culture isn’t dominated by temples, idol worship, and polytheism the way the first-century world was, we are not immune to the threat of idolatry. John Calvin said, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.”  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 55. Sinners still excel at erecting idols—today it simply takes place in individual hearts rather than the public square. It could be money, influence, career goals, athletic achievements, high-priced indulgences, or even another person—the vast galaxy of idols that rule in sinners’ hearts today likely dwarfs the gods of the ancient world.
Even Christians can at times succumb to the rebellious tendency to create false gods—or to simply redefine the God of the Bible. Every time the church attempts to define God on its own terms—contrary to His self-revelation in Scripture—it bands together with the idolaters of Mars’ Hill. That’s a particular danger today, when so many in the church want to round off the sharp edges of God’s attributes and reimagine Him as a kindly cosmic grandfather rather than a holy Judge. In that sense, there is very little difference between pretending God is not who He says He is, and worshiping the rocks and trees in a local park.
We need to understand that Paul’s blunt exchange with the philosophers of Athens is far more than a historical account from a distant land. It’s a timely warning about the futility of idolatry, and a call to repent of such foolishness while there is still time.
Paul’s sermon on Mars’ Hill comes to a climax with these urgent words of warning:
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31)
Paul’s direct approach with his unbelieving audience defies a lot of modern conventional wisdom regarding cross-cultural ministry. He didn’t pander to the false beliefs of his audience. He didn’t try to accommodate the Epicureans by promising them a wonderful and pleasure-filled life. And he didn’t attempt to win the Stoics by trying to make the gospel sound as much like their philosophy as possible. He called both groups and all other sinners present to repentance, referring to the golden age of Greek philosophy as “times of ignorance.”
The word “ignorance” comes from the same Greek root as “unknown” in verse twenty-three. And the word “overlooked” comes from a word that means “to not interfere.” It doesn’t mean God disregarded or was indifferent to sinful idolatry. It means He chose not to intervene in judgment by wiping Athens off the face of the earth.
As Paul told them, however, God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness. The agent of that judgment will be a Man whom He has ordained and given testimony to by raising Him from the dead. We know who that Man is, of course. It is Jesus Christ, to whom God has given all judgment (John 5:22).
But at this point Paul was interrupted, and he evidently never even got to name the name of Christ. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’ So Paul went out of their midst” (Acts 17:32–33). The Epicureans did not believe in a resurrection at all, while the Stoics believed in a spiritual resurrection but not the resurrection of the body. Perhaps stung by his call for repentance, they responded by collectively mocking Paul. In fact, as soon as he mentioned the resurrection, the skeptics began to scoff. Evidently some had heard enough to reject Paul’s message without even hearing him out. Others said they would hear more later. So Paul simply went out of their midst.
Not everyone doubted or delayed, however. “Some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (Acts 17:34). Enough of the truth had penetrated their hearts so that these people followed Paul to find out more. Obviously, Paul continued his sermon for those who wanted to hear, and some of them were converted. One of the converts was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus court. Another was a woman named Damaris. Since she is given no title, we can assume she was a common woman. So this sermon reached people at both ends of the social spectrum—philosophers and housewives, men and women, intellectuals and ordinary people. This little band of converts joined Paul and became the first Christians in Athens.
That seemingly meager harvest did not discourage Paul, nor did it provoke him to go back to Mars’ Hill and engage in a more culturally-sensitive discourse. As we’ll see next time, Paul had unshakable confidence in the unvarnished message of the gospel and God’s power at work through its faithful proclamation. As he would later write, the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
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