It irritated Paul. My bible says it “provoked” his spirit within him. It riled him up. He couldn’t keep from being exasperated by it. He couldn’t stem the rising anger. Love the way Peterson puts it:
The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got—all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols.
(Acts 17:16 MSG)
Paul was placed among the pagans and it provoked him. He found himself standing amidst the secular and it stirred something within him. Who doesn’t get that? Especially in light of this last year. How many things have we seen, how many things have we heard, how many unbelievable things have been done which stir within us a righteous wrath? More than a few, I’m thinking. But it’s not just the connection with Paul’s vexation that grabs me, but the example of Paul’s response of mediation.
Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 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.
(Acts 17:16-17 ESV)
Paul was disgusted by what he saw, yet he determined to discuss it with those who would engage. He reasoned with them. My Greek lexicon indicates he mingled thought with thought with those who thought different. He conversed with those of contrary mind. Entered into discourse with those of a differing worldview.
He talked about the idol problem with the religious folks, those inside the synagogue — both Jew and Greek. He also engaged those outside “the church,” those in the public square. And what hits me is that Paul’s irritation at idolatry didn’t become a barrier but a bridge. Rather than a reason to rail against those who walked in spiritual darkness, he used it as an on-ramp to direct them to marvelous light. He addressed divergent viewpoints by arguing from a common ground.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
(Acts 17:22-23 ESV)
I can’t help but think how many divergent and disputable matters have been presented to the church over this past year and how many times we’ve thrown them up as barriers rather than leveraged them as bridges. Rather than look for the on-ramps in the irritating, sinful ways of a secular society, we denigrate, escalate, and alienate rather than try to engage in constructive debate. We rail at those who are dead in trespass in sin for being dead and trespassing in sin rather than reason respectfully from whatever connections we can make from our common human experience.
We should be riled up by sin. We should be grieved by spiritual darkness. We should be vexed by pagan practices. We should be choked by secular pseudo-intellectualism (“Claiming to be wise, they became fools” – Rom. 1:22). But Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He came to bring into light those who were once in darkness. To change wrong behaviors through right belief. To take those wise in their own minds and transform them, through the renewing of their minds, into those who have the mind of Christ. And that only happens as people hear the gospel. And that only happens as we leverage bridges to a lost world rather than throw up more barriers.
Provoked yet prepared to reason. Recognizing the barriers yet seeking to find the bridges.
By His grace. For His glory.