Now all the Athenians and the strangers sojourning there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing (Acts 17:21).
New! Improved! Updated! Revised!
It is no secret that our society praises that which is new. It is exciting and different. Companies devote a good part of their resources to research and development to come up with new or improved products. Marketers are always trying to find ways to make things seem new or fresh.
But why are so many resources devoted to making things seem new? If we twenty-first century Americans prized the old and reliable and put emphasis on those qualities, then there is little doubt that the companies and marketers would follow suit. Yet society at large does not value “old and reliable.” The belief exists that there is constant progress, and to look to the past or to keep something the same for a long period of time, it is believed, leads to stagnation and obsolescence. And no one– young or old– wants to be considered obsolete!
Have we ever stopped to think why that is? In reality, it is a major change in comparison to what was believed in the past, as Luke obliquely indicates in Acts 17:21.
It is very easy to pass over Luke’s commentary in Acts 17:21. He is telling the story of how Paul goes to Athens and begins promoting the Gospel in the marketplace there and how many of the philosophers and townspeople were interested in hearing more about this Jesus. Luke is explaining for us why the Athenians seem to be so eager to learn. It is not because of some noble impulse, as if they knew they were ignorant of the One True God and wanted to learn of Him to serve Him. No– they wanted to learn more because it was something new and different. Paul’s message was the “flavor of the week.” Therefore, it should not surprise us that many mocked, some wanted more information, and only a very few believed (cf. Acts 17:32-34). They only wanted to hear something new.
While it may not be immediately apparent to the modern reader, Luke is in fact censuring the Athenians. Today many would find this life of ease and luxury, discussing the newest theories in science or philosophy, appealing. Yet, in the Greek language, the word for “new,” when used in a context like this, often refers to something dangerous or suspicious. In earlier Greek literature, when people begged their gods to not bring disaster or calamity upon them, they asked that the gods would not bring down to them “anything new.”
The Greeks– along with many other ancient cultures, and most people until rather recently– looked at the world in an entirely different way from ourselves. In their estimation, the best time for humanity– the “golden age”– was in the distant past, and as time wore on, people became less strong and less noble. Their own day was dim in comparison. That which was old was proven, tested, and reliable. That which was new was looked upon suspiciously, for it was unproven, untested, and perhaps unreliable. Thus the early Christians felt that they needed to show the age of their belief system by appealing to the long history of Israel– the Greeks and Romans were naturally suspicious of a religion that was claimed to have begun in the days of Tiberius Caesar!
The Athenians, therefore, are considered strange. They just sit around and talk about the “new things,” that which is suspicious, untested, and unproven.
How attitudes have changed! Today the Athenian attitude is in the majority, and those who go back to what is old, tested, proven, and reliable are considered antiquated and quaint!
In reality, age, on its own, is not necessarily a good standard. There are plenty of newly developed technologies and ideas that are good. There are plenty of old attitudes and functions that are best relegated to the dustbin of history. Nevertheless, we must remember in our youth- and new-loving society that many ideas and functions of the past can still have value today, and just because something can be believed or done does not mean that it should be believed or done. That which is new may have unforeseen consequences and may prove quite unreliable!
The “new” message that Paul had for the Athenians is now considered “old.” In the eyes of many, it is antiquated and obsolete. Nevertheless, the Gospel has held firm for two thousand years and has been tested, proven, and remains reliable (Hebrews 11:6, 13:8). Let us promote the “old” Gospel of Christ in a “new” world, and put it into practice in our lives!
Ethan R. Longhenry