A provoked spirit
July 24, 2010 Leave a comment
Last week I was giving consideration to the section of Acts 17 where Paul arrives in Athens. We are told that when Paul had a look around the city ‘his spirit was provoked within him’ (v16). We are also told the reason: ‘he saw that the city was full of idols’ or ‘was given to idolatry’.
But why should Paul be provoked (N.B. the only other time you find that word used in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 13 where Paul describes love as ‘not easily provoked‘) within himself at such a spectacle? I put it to you that there are two main reasons that Paul was so stirred to see the idolatrous city:
The first is his concern for the honour of God’s name. In the Greek Old Testament the same word (‘provoked’ in this case) is used by God Himself to describe his reaction to idolatry. For example:
I have stretched out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, Who walk in a way that is not good, According to their own thoughts; A people who provoke Me to anger continually to My face; Who sacrifice in gardens, And burn incense on altars of brick;
I think it is a mark of Paul’s genuine love for God that seeing Him dishonoured by a city given to idolatry ‘broke his heart’ (as Warren Wiersbe puts it in his commentary). There is no contradiction between my quoting 1 Corinthians 13 about love not being easily provoked and Paul’s reaction here – Paul’s provocation was not selfish nor was it because he himself was being dishonoured. Rather, we could rightly describe this as a righteous indignation, for it was concerned with God’s glory and honour.
The second reason for provocation, I suggest, is because Paul saw just how lost the people of Athens were. Such idolatry testifies to how utterly hopeless the spiritual condition of this people was. There are a number of occasions in the Gospels when we read of the Lord Jesus seeing the crowds and being ‘moved with compassion’ towards them (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; Luke 7:13). I think Paul had the same heart.
There are challenges here for us. We live in a world of idolatry very similar to Athens in Paul’s day – that is the type of idolatry (and there is more than one type!) which puts something else in the place of God or, more correctly, does not give God His rightful place. But when we see people waste their lives on things which will ultimately pass away, are we moved in our hearts? Are we provoked within us? Or are we merely looking at a reflection of our own lives?