A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 17:16-34. Paul in Athens – What Paul felt.
*He was greatly distressed* (16). The Greek verb *paroxyno*, from which ‘paroxysm’ comes, originally had medical associations and was used of a seizure or epileptic fit. It also meant to ‘stimulate’, especially to irritate, provoke, rouse to anger’ (GT). Its only other occurrence in the New Testament is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, where he describes love as ‘not easily angered’ (1 Cor. 13:5). Did Paul then not practice in Athens what he preached in Corinth? Was he roused to sinful anger by the city’s idolatry? Is it right to say that he was ‘irritated’ (Moffatt), and even ‘exasperated’ (NEB), JBP)? No, I think not. To begin with, the verb is in the imperfect tense, which expresses not a sudden loss of temper but rather a continuous, settled reaction to what Paul saw. Besides, he was alone. Nobody witnessed his paroxysm. So this must have been the word which he himself used when later describing his feelings to Luke; evidently he was not ashamed of them.
The clue to interpreting the nature of Paul’s emotion is that *paroxyno* is the verb which is regularly used in the LXX of the Holy One of Israel, and in particular (such is the consistency of Scripture) of his reaction to idolatry. Thus, when the Israelites made the golden calf at Mount Sinai, when later they were guilty of gross idolatry and immorality is relation to Baal of Peor, and when the Northern Kingdom made another calf to worship in Samaria, they ‘provoked’ the Lord God to anger. Indeed, he described Israel as an ‘obstinate people…who continually provoke me to my very face’ (Is.65:2-3; see Dt. 9:7, 18, 22; Ps. 106:28-29; Hos. 8:5). So Paul was ‘provoked (RSV) by idolatry and provoked to anger, grief and indignation, just as God is himself, and for the same reason, namely, for the honour and glory of his name. Scripture sometimes calls this emotion ‘jealousy’. For example, it is written of Yahweh, ‘whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God’ (Ex.34:14). Now jealousy is the resentment of rivals, and whether it is good or evil depends on whether the rival has any business to be there. To be jealous of someone who threatens to outshine us in beauty, brains or sport is sinful, because we cannot claim a monopoly of talent in those areas. If, on the other had, a third party enters a marriage, the jealousy of the injured person, who is being displaced, is righteous, because the intruder has no right to be there. It is the same with God, who says ‘I am the Lord, that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols (Is. 42:8). Our Creator and Redeemer has a right to our exclusive allegiance, and is ‘jealous’ if we transfer it to anyone or anything else. Moreover, the people of God, who love God’s name, should share in his ‘jealousy’ for it. For example, Elijah at the time of national apostasy said, ‘I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts’, (1 Kings 19:10, RSV), so distressed was he that God’s honour was being profaned. Similarly, Paul wrote to the backsliding Corinthians. ‘I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy’ (2 Cor. 11:2ff.); he longed for them to remain loyal to Jesus, to whom he had betrothed them.
So the pain or ‘paroxysm’ which Paul felt for Athens was due neither to bad temper, not to pity for the Athenians’ ignorance, nor even to fear for their eternal salvation. It was due rather to his abhorrence of idolatry, which aroused within him deep stirrings of jealousy for the Name of God, as he saw human beings so depraved as to be giving idols the honour and glory which were due to the one, living and true God alone. ‘His whole soul was revolted at the sight of a city given over to idolatry’ (JB).
Moreover this inward pain and horror, which moved Paul to share the good news with idolaters at Athens, should similarly move us. Incentives are important in every sphere. Being rational human beings, we need to know not only what we should be doing, but why we should be doing it. And motivation for mission is specially important, not least in our day in which the comparative study of religion had led many to deny finality and uniqueness to Jesus Christ and to reject the very concept of evangelizing and converting people. How then, in the face of growing opposition to it, can Christians justify the continuance of the world evangelization? The commonest answer is to point to the Great Commission, and indeed obedience to it provides a strong stimulus. Compassion is higher than obedience, however, namely, love for people who do not know Jesus Christ, and who on that account are alienated, disorientated, and indeed lost. But the highest incentive of all is zeal or jealousy for the glory of Jesus Christ. God has promoted him to the supreme place of honour, in order that every knee and tongue should acknowledge his lordship. Whenever he is denied his rightful place in people’s lives, therefore, we should feel inwardly wounded, and jealous for his name. As Henry Martyn expressed it in Moslem Persia at the beginning of the last century, ‘I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified; it would be hell to me if he were to be always…. dishonoured.
Tomorrow: 3). What Paul did.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.