The God Who is Near All People: A Meditation on Acts 17:15-34, Part Two
Updated: Apr 16
So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. Acts 17:17-21
When God is near he changes not only how we see the world, but how we respond to it. Take note that Paul didn't just feel something in response to the Athenian idolatry, he did something. He spoke.
When God is Near, You Respond to the World Differently
The words Paul spoke weren't apathetic. They also weren't condemning. They were intentional words in intentional places. Why the synagogue? It was where people should have already been eager to hear good news. Why the marketplace? It was where people gathered and talked. It all should have made for socially-appropriate conversation.
Even though God may be changing how we see the world, we sometimes fail to respond like Paul because we don't find the right places for conversation. For example, while working at a large insurance company downtown, I realized that the easiest place for conversation was outside during smoke breaks. However, that meant I not only had to traverse nine floors to the courtyard, I also had to endure second-hand smoke. Not my idea of a relaxing break. But if I wanted to speak intentional words of good news, I had to be willing to go to the appropriate place. I had to respond to my little world differently.
Paul didn't hesitate to do this. And apparently enough buzz was produced to get the attention of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. These were the religious and moral leaders of the day, the culture-makers. What was it that gained their interest?
It certainly was not Paul's speaking ability. We know this because they called him a "babbler". I'm no Greek historian, but that sounds less than endearing. A little research shows this description literally meant "a pecking chicken". Think Heihei, the hilariously stupid rooster from the film Moana. No, the Athenian elite were not impressed by Paul's pathos.
The appeal, it seems, was the content of Paul's babbling. Verse 18 tells us "he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection." Although Athens had seemingly enough room for every god known to man, there was no place for a resurrected deity. This was a foreign idea. And a foreign idea was welcome among philosophers' temple of learning, even if its teacher appeared to be a pecking idiot.
Sometimes we don’t respond to the world like Paul because we’re afraid we might say the wrong thing, or that we won’t say the right thing well enough. Thus we embrace the Western proverb, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt."
Yet the closer God comes, the less we find ourselves concerned with appearances. We are known as we are. We are free to be the fools who believe the "foolishness of God," the babble of a resurrected deity (1 Corinthians 1:22-25). We are free, even, to be the fools who speak, knowing it may well be our looking like idiots that manifests the power and wisdom of God. It may be the tremor in our voice that God delights to use. It may be the awkward pauses of our insecurity that drives deep the stake of his gospel.
If that's true, then it has the power to change our response to the world. Babbling can be our boast rather than our shame. We can find ourselves saying with Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).