Are You Not Provoked?
From Gospel Translations
The Jealousy of Godly Men
I remember a line in the television show that men in the Poldark family were known for being “hasty, sharp-tempered, and strong in their likes and dislikes.” This sentiment has struck me as masculine. Not because God approves of hastiness or sharp tempers (he doesn’t), but because men ought to have something of what lies behind them: strong convictions.
How rare are warm-blooded men of zeal these days, men of strong likes and dislikes — even within the church? When ambitious men of the world spend time around men of the church — men supposedly imaging Christ’s likeness, possessing Christ’s Spirit, and commissioned to win eternal spoils — do we fault them for sensing an absence of purpose, a coolness of flame, a dryness of ambition? Do they see men “who by patience in well-doing seek for glory, honor, and immortality” (Romans 2:7)? Do they feel ashamed of their small pursuits and eager to cast them off for the Christian man’s pulse and existence?
Or do they not wonder what these Christian men really wake up for in the morning? It isn’t clear. They’re moderate in their likes; moderate in their dislikes. They remain room-temperature. They never have that look in their eye. They smile and smile, but never laugh from the belly, nor give a firm handshake or word when the occasion calls. That man, that weapon, that sword is beat into a plow.
Relaxing Among Idols
Can you imagine such men sitting by peacefully in Athens in the first century? They rest among the commotion, waiting for friends to arrive. Initially they may have been startled by the many idols bought, sold, and displayed. Beautiful statues of Greek gods and goddesses fill the city, some saying it was “easier to find a god than a man.” This is not true worship, the thought might come. But as a few moments pass, they begin to wonder, What’s for lunch? . . . And what’s taking Timothy and Silas so long to get here?” Now witness another man of God, a man of strong likes and dislikes, seated in the very same place.
Now while Paul was waiting for them [Timothy and Silas] at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:16–17)
We can imagine him looking around, tapping his fingers at first. Then we see him begin to sway and nod and take a deep breath. Perhaps he bites his lip; then clenches his fist. A fire is kindled in his chest, fed by the words seared on his heart — “I am Yahweh; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:8).
Why should these exquisite nothings receive the praise that belonged exclusively to his God? Why do men buy “not-gods” and call them gods? How dare they embrace false deities in the Lord’s marketplace, while breathing the Lord’s air, under the Lord’s sun? Why did their idolatry feel comfortable parading at noonday? What are these but offenses against the Holy One; Philistines mocking to be answered?
He cannot, like so many other men, sit quietly and watch. He must open his mouth and speak of Christ to give vent his fuming soul.
Jews were tracking Paul. They recently stirred a mob against him in Thessalonica, then agitated the crowds against him in Berea. They would eventually follow him to Athens as well. If anyone had an excuse to keep a low profile, it was him. If anyone had a reason to take this time “off,” it was him. Yet he did not pour water on the flame from those buckets of “practicality” so plentiful in our own day. Troopless, he went in alone.
He rose to his feet as a man possessed — a man who did not count his life of any value nor as precious to himself, if only he could finish his course and his ministry to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24). He walked over to the people, looked at a group of potential attackers, and spoke grace. In the synagogues, he reasoned with Jews; in the marketplace, he open-air preached to Gentiles. Not occasionally, but daily.
He soon became a spectacle to the people. “What does this babbler wish to say?” some asked. “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities,” others answered (Acts 17:18). They requested to hear more of this strange teaching, news of this “Jesus” (Acts 17:18–21).
When he’s invited to preach in the Areopagus, he concludes his sermon,
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30–31)
When they heard of resurrection, some mocked. Others said they would hear him again. “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (Acts 17:34).
On Active Duty
When you witness Paul provoked into preaching day after day, what do you see?
When I see Paul risking his life to charge into the hostile city alone, I witness the New Testament equivalent of David running at Goliath, Jonathan and his armor-bearer charging the Philistines, Phineas piercing the rebellious couple, Joshua campaigning into the Promised Land. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” Paul explains, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). According to Paul, our armor, our enemy, our warfare, is not less urgent or real for being unseen, but more.
When we hear him standing and heralding to anyone who would listen, there stands one who descends from a lineage of men possessed with God’s own jealousy. God is passionately, rightly jealous for his name on earth; Paul shares that jealousy. God detests his praises going to idols; Paul does too. Paul’s Master did not sit idly in heaven, but came to earth calling for repentance and announcing the good news and becoming good news — how could the servant sit idly after Jesus had proclaimed, “It is finished” (John 19:30)?
And can you see Paul’s great conquest at Athens? Paul took the battlefield proclaiming Jesus — dead and now alive. Some laughed, some procrastinated, but others believed. He walked away with immortal gains — the souls of Dionysius and Damaris and the others won to King Jesus.
Where Flags of Satan Fly
When you consider the man wondering about his lunch and the apostle Paul fighting demons over souls, which man are you more like? Which man do you want to be?
This contrast challenges me because, too often, I find myself identifying with the docile man. “What should I have for lunch?” is the daily theme — while Rome burns, devils laugh, and Christ is belittled or altogether ignored.
But I want to be more alive. I want to feel more concern for Christ’s name. I want to be consumed in the flames of my Lord’s likes and dislikes. I long for my little candle to be engulfed in his forest fire. And I want to turn with vengeance upon any and all distractions from this devotion to Christ. Don’t you?
Don’t you want to look around at the flags of Satan flying overhead and care about Jesus and souls enough to be provoked? The sins of his city so affected Lot that he lived day after day “tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:8). Don’t you want these reminders to affect you and spur you on to greater love, greater prayer, greater boldness?
Stirred by the Zeal of God
What could happen if a group of men and women awoke from complacent slumbers, provoked and sent forth with God’s own jealousy into a community? If more professing Christians felt triggered by idols and shared a “divine jealousy” for the church (2 Corinthians 11:2)? If we obeyed Paul to “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Romans 12:9). Genuine love. Genuine abhorrence. Genuine clinging to what is good, stirred by God’s own zeal to do what is good.
With these, under the blessing of God, the world can yet again be turned upside down.