Provoked to Jealousy for Christ’s Name


“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”
(Acts 17:16)

Read: Acts 17:16-34

Devotion: In Acts 17, Paul is in the midst of his second missionary trip. After being guided by the Holy Spirit to the region of Macedonia, Paul preached in and established churches in the major cities of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. As was the case during his first missionary trip to the Galatian region, however, Paul met some serious opposition to the work of the gospel. Indeed, the opposition has been so strong that when we come to v. 16, Paul has left Macedonia and been pushed to the region of Achaia, specifically to the city of Athens.

As Paul arrived in Athens, his original plan appeared to be to wait for Silas and Timothy (who had remained in Berea) to join him in Athens before he continued his ministry. As the apostle waited in Athens and took in the sights of that illustrious city, however, Luke writes that “[Paul’s] spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” The Greek word that Luke uses is a strong word: it refers to being provoked or aroused to anger. But there is more to this provocation than just an irritation that Paul had over a bunch of idols in a pagan city. This word is only used twice in the New Testament, here and in 1 Corinthians 13:5, but it is used semi-frequently in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). In the Septuagint, it is often used to describe God’s jealousy toward idols (e.g, Isa 65:2-5). Yes, God is a jealous God (Exod 20:5, 34:14; Deut 4:24; etc.). But his jealousy for his glory and his people isn’t the sinful type of jealousy that mankind often displays. What’s the difference? John Stott defines divine jealousy and makes a clear distinction between righteous and sinful jealousy:

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 sports is sinful, because we cannot claim a monopoly of talent in those areas. If, on the other hand, 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.” 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 ‘jealous’ for it.[1]

John Stott. The Message of Acts (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 278-79.

Paul observes all the idols around him, even an altar devoted to ‘the unknown god’ (v. 23), and he becomes rightly jealous for the Lord’s name. All of the Athenian’s devotion, worship, and honor that rightly belong to the immortal and living Christ are going to lifeless pieces of gold, silver, and stone that were born out of man’s imagination (v. 29). As he encountered such misplaced worship, Paul could not continue to wait for Silas and Timothy to catch up with him before he began preaching the gospel again. So, he starts preaching everywhere and to everybody. Paul preached Christ and the resurrection in the synagogue to his fellow Jews, and in the marketplace to the market-goers and the many philosophers of Athens. Then when he was asked to further explain this “strange thing” that he was bringing to the Athenian’s ears, he utilized this opportunity to its fullest extent, explicitly proclaiming the truth about the unique God and Lord of heaven and earth who is calling all people to repent of their sins and believe in the man Jesus Christ whom he has appointed to be judge of the world, as proved through Christ’s resurrection from the dead (vv. 22-31).

You may not live in a city that has gold and silver idols littering its streets, but I would argue that no matter where you live, you live in a city full of idolatry. Idolatry is putting anything, whether that is a false god, money, good grades, family, friends, a job, or “success” where God rightly deserves to be. It’s treasuring anything above God and giving to that thing the devotion, worship, and honor that God deserves. It’s insidious and pervasive in this world and it’s a sin that even genuine worshippers of Christ battle on a daily basis. Therefore, we should ask, are we jealous over God’s honor and glory? Do we have a burning desire to not only see our loved ones and neighbors turn from their idolatry, but to also see it eradicated in our own hearts as well so that Christ finally receives what is due his holy name? Let us then resolve to have the gospel of Christ always in our minds and on our lips.

Ponder and Pray: Consider this difference between sinful and righteous jealousy. How can we put off the former and put on the latter? Use your prayer time to give glory to God and ask him to remove any idols that may be your heart.

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