Friends: This is the fifth chapter of a short book I wrote a couple of years ago. Comments welcome! Subsequent chapters to follow!
Saved! Chapter Five: LABELED!
The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. (Acts 11:26)
“To label someone is often to libel them!” (anonymous)
In our discussion of SAVED!, we have explored the issue of being lost, seen how Jesus loved the rich young ruler enough to tell him the truth, witnessed Jesus drafting His first disciples as He lured them into His man-catching force, and been educated in how we who follow Jesus are to be constantly learning about Him and His plans for this world.
We now move to the category of being labeled. Is this following of Jesus painless, without cost, without rejection? No, there is a price to pay to follow Jesus.
An Odor or a Fragrance?
The Apostle Paul put it this way: “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cor. 2:15-16). I would much rather go through life being thought of as a fragrance than as an odor. How about you?
When my daughter Amy was about twelve years old, we were snuggling on the couch, the way fathers and daughters are meant to do. I leaned over and smelled her hair and said, “Wow. You smell great!” She leaned over and smelled me. “You smell great too, Dad!” Then she smelled again and said, “No, that was still me!”
Here in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul emphasizes that believers have an impact upon two categories of people: those who
are being saved and those who are perishing. He stresses that our primary audience is actually God Himself (“we are to God”), but we will provoke responses to the gospel message we represent. Paul does not mince words. He prepares these Corinthian believers for rejection. To those who are “perishing,” Paul says that they will be considered “an aroma that brings death.” To those who are “being saved,” Christians are “an aroma that brings life.” Believers in Jesus do not have a choice to be either an aroma or a stench. Both are inevitable; both responses will manifest themselves. The question, “And who is equal to such a task?” reminds us that we depend upon Him for our strength, especially when we are rejected as something oderous to the world.
None of us cares for criticism. None of us wants to be derided, verbally abused, stereotyped, put down with labels which seem to say, “Oh, I know who you are! You’re one of those!”
None of us cares to be labeled. But criticism should not surprise us. One of the most blatant examples of labeling happens to the Apostle Paul in Acts 17. There we read the following:
“16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”
We see here in Acts 17 that as Paul was waiting for his friends, Silas and Timothy, he was not just waiting around. He was looking around at all the idols in the city of Athens (v. 16). And the multiplicity of idols grieved him. The Bible says he was “distressed.” If I claim to be a follower of Jesus, I ought to be distressed by all the cultural idolatry, if I take the time to observe.6
6 Timothy Keller’s excellent book Counterfeit Gods ably discusses our contemporary idols. 52
the Jews, the God-fearing Greeks, the daily intellectual loiterers, and the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers.
As he debates with these various groups, Paul gets labeled. Some of them ask, “What is this babbler trying to say?” (v. 18). The term “babbler” really means “seed-picker” and refers to a crow or some other scavenger-type bird who finds food where he can get it.
It appears that Paul’s critics are expressing an intellectual snobbery that the Apostle was advocating ideas that did not fit into their systems of thought. He certainly was not preaching the kind of strict Judaism which had rejected Jesus as Messiah. Nor was he simply affirming that non-Jews could simply convert to Judaism and be right with God (becoming “God- fearers”).
Paul was also not teaching Epicureanism. Founded about 300 years before Paul, this philosophy focused on the simple, modest and pleasure-filled life. Strongly materialistic, this worldview affirmed pleasure as life’s great good, and sought to pursue freedom from fear and pain.
This philosophy also taught that the gods do not interfere with human lives. The Epicureans are singled out as the first and worst heretics in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In some ways, Buddhism is Epicurean in that it affirms a lack of divine interference and the belief that great excess leads to great dissatisfaction.
Nor was Paul in agreement with Stoicism. Founded in the 3rd century B.C. by Zeno, Stoicism taught that destructive emotions come from errors in judgment. One’s philosophy, said the Stoics, could be judged by their behavior, not by what their words. They also
believed that a serious Stoic, if marked by self- control, could be immune from misfortune. Pursuing the Stoic way of life, one would gain clear thinking and be able to understand universal reason, which they called logos.
A deterministic view of life in Stoicism meant one could fit into the world, in the words of Epictetus, ”sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.” Among the best educated elite in the Roman Empire and in the Greek world, Stoicism was the most popular philosophy.
Later Stoicism would be described as classical pantheism. Its most famous modern representative would be the Dutch philosopher Spinoza.
So Paul interacted with these four groups: the Jews, the God-fearers, and the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. He reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearers. He openly debated with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.
In the marketplace he also engaged a fifth group I call the intellectual loiterers of the day. We read of that group that Paul reasoned with “as well in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (v. 17).
My, what readiness on Paul’s part to engage with a variety of audiences in several different venues on a daily basis! Perhaps his daily discussions with these intellectual loiterers caught the attention of the more formal Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who then began to debate with him.
None of us wishes to be labeled a parasitic plagiarist! Other Bible translations render this term “babbler” as “a talker of foolish words” (BBE), “an amateur” (CEB), an “ignorant show-off” (GNT), or a “pseudo- intellectual” (CSB). My favorite translation is that Paul is accused of being “an airhead” (the Message)!
We all care about how others, even those who oppose the gospel, think of us. One preacher said, “When I share the gospel, I worry about what people will think about Jesus. And I worry about what people will thing about me. But mostly I worry about what people will think of me.” How would you like to be called an amateur, an ignorant show-off, a pseudo-intellectual? And being called an airhead would put me over the top. Jesus did say somewhere, “Beware when men speak highly of you,” didn’t He?
Paul’s being labeled apparently did not come from the way he conducted himself, but from what he said. Because the next verse tells us that some verbally reacted: “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” (v.
18). Our culture has become so post-Christian that presenting the “old, old story” to many will sound like new, foreign gods!
While there may be certain value to nostalgia, if we faithfully preach the truth about Jesus, for many in our biblically-illiterate culture today our message will sound like a new cult, like a bizarre script recently rejected by the producers of the old TV show the X-Files!
Why did these philosophers react to Paul as they did? The text tells us that “they said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” (v. 18).
There have been some commentators who have suggested that Paul was wrong here in Acts 17 to engage with the philosophers of the day in intellectual argument, that he should have simply “preached Christ.”8 But verse 18 says he did preach Christ. He was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Paul’s Gospel Presentation
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant
8 Norman Geisler does a commendable job in defending Paul’s approach here in his article “An Apologetic for Apologetics” found at http://normangeisler.net/articles/apologetics/ AnApologeticForApologetics.htm
of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
The Wisdom of a Compliment
There are several steps in Paul’s approach here before the Athenians, steps that will help us in our witness for Christ. His first step is that of compliment. Paul compliments the Athenians for their religiosity. He says, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god.” (vv. 22-23).
If I had been Paul, I would have said (in my best Southern drawl) something like, “Ya’ll are a bunch of IDOLATORS! Ya’ll are going to HELL!” Paul begins with affirming their serious desire to worship. A writer by the name of Phyllis Theroux once said,”One of the commodities in life that most people can’t get enough of is compliments. The ego is never so intact that one can’t find a hole in which to plug a little praise. But compliments, by their nature, are highly biodegradable and tend to dissolve hours or days after we first receive them — which is why we can always use another.”
Let’s not misunderstand Paul’s approach. He is not saying, “Your religion is good enough! You all will be fine, just keep being sincere!” No, he establishes what my German friends call an Anknufungspunkt, a contact point. How hard do we work to develop a contact point with unbelievers?
The True God’s Uniqueness
24-25). He is the One who meets the needs of humanity, giving everyone “life and breath and everything else.” (v. 25). As the God of the whole earth, He has marked out man’s boundaries in terms of both history and geography (v. 26). God’s actions were intentional. He wants human beings to seek Him, reach out to Him, and find Him. “He is not far from any of us,” Paul says.
To strengthen this point, Paul quotes from several of their own poets. One says, “For in him we live and move and have our being.” This quotation appears to be from the poem Cretica, written by Epimenides around 600 B.C. The exact quote is:
“They fashioned a tomb for you,
Paul also says in verse 28, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” He appears to be quoting Aratus, a Cilician poet who lived about 275 years before Christ. Paul, being brought up in that area, knew the writings of Aratus. In his poem Phaenomena, Aratus writes:
“With Jove we must begin; nor from him rove; Him always praise, for all is full of Jove! He fills all places
where mankind resort,
A Command to Repent!
Paul goes beyond an intellectual disputation about novel theological ideas. He concludes his presentation by saying, “Therefore . . . God commands all people
9 I require my seminary students to read at least one book that challenges their Christian faith (I call it “a book that will boil your blood before you get past the preface”) for some of my classes. We need to know the objections of unbelievers so we can respond biblically to them.
everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Paul clearly declares that repentance and belief in the risen Jesus is the command of the true God. Recently, my wife and I have been counseling a young professional who has made some moral choices that jeopardize his entire family. He has confessed his sins, but it does not appear that he has repented. Confession is not repentance. Confession ought to involve a grieving over one’s sins, but sometimes it is simply admitting one’s wrongs to avoid further consequences. Repentance involves the heart — and we are notoriously capable of conforming without heart transformation.
Acts 17 is not simply a discussion about religious perspectives. Paul is issuing a gospel call to belief in Jesus and repentance of one’s sins. What is the alternative to Paul’s gospel call? Judgment. God has “set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” (v. 31). These Athenians are not fine with their religious pluralism. They need to turn from their idols, believe the gospel, and serve the true and living God!
And for that message Paul is willing to be called “a babbler,” “a seed-picker,” “an airhead.”