There is a fascinating adjective that Paul uses to describe the city of Athens. In Acts 17:16 as he saw the city he described it with this transliterated Greek word, “kateidols.” The last five letters, “idols” point us to the main focus of this word. The word begins with the preposition, “kata” which serves as an intensifier. This one word is translated with a variety of phrases in our English translations such as, “wholly given to idolatry” or “given over to idols” or “full of idols.” When Paul saw the city of Athens, he observed an idolatrous city. What makes a community, city, or nation idolatrous? What adjective would Paul use to describe our local region? Why did he describe Athens as “kateidols”?
Athens had a synagogue, was inhabited by religious people, was economically prosperous, and was marked by human philosophy (Acts 17:17-18). Paul later describes them as very religious (Acts 17:22). Yet, he describes them as fully given to idolatry. What brings him to the conclusion that this city is “kateidols”? The answer can be summarized by the reality that the city didn’t know or recognize the true God. When Paul preached to them Jesus and the resurrection, they knew nothing of that truth. To them, Paul was preaching a “foreign god” (vs. 18). Later as Paul comes across a statue to the unknown God (vs. 23), he makes it known that the city doesn’t know the true God. They had gods, but they didn’t know the true God. And the gods that they worshipped had replaced the true God! They devised their own gods (vs. 29) through their educational systems, business adventures, art and entertainment platforms, political establishments, and philosophical systems to the point where the true God was no longer acknowledged or recognized.
Because the true God was replaced with gods that the people of Athens devised, Paul was able to easily tell that the city was wholly given to idolatry. Idolatrous beliefs affect the policies, the principles, and the practices of the city. Ideas and beliefs have consequences. They worshipped the earth and the sun and the moon and the stars instead of the Creator of the heavens and the earth (vs. 24). They had gods that they worshipped that would provide health and fertility instead of worshipping God who gives life and breath and all things to us (vs. 25). Yes, they had stone idols dedicated to those gods, but those gods permeated from their religious and philosophical institutions into everyday life in the marketplace. It is good for us to ask, who is worshipped in our day and age when it comes to giving us breath or life? Do we recognize the true God as our sustainer? Or is He not even recognized? For example, our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made by our Creator God. He therefore made our immune system! For years scientist have acknowledged something called “natural immunity.” It should not surprise God-fearing believers when we hear studies showing how effective “natural immunity” is against COVID! Sadly, what should be a reason to worship our Creator God, the one in whom we live and move and have our being (vs. 28), is often times not even acknowledged because of philosophies that devise an idolatrous god as the supreme god for our life and health.
Another consequence of idolatry is the usurping of power and authority that ultimately belongs to the Lord of heaven and earth (vs. 24). Idolatry doesn’t acknowledge that someday Jesus Christ will judge the world in righteousness (vs. 32). The majority of the people mocked (vs. 32) Paul when he preached about Jesus and the resurrection. Mockery is a form of persecution that wants people to suffer for their religious beliefs. Mockery doesn’t allow for religious liberty, but rather it usurps the Lord’s authority and sets itself up as the final authority.
Thankfully in Athens there were some who wanted to hear the gospel message again. And some who were marked by “kateidols”, yet they repented and believed (vs. 32). Let us, like Paul, take opportunity to daily testify of Jesus Christ and the resurrection in a context that is increasingly marked by “kateidols” and not knowing or acknowledging the true God.