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.
A little over a week ago I wrote a post about what it means to “weep for the lost.” This past Sunday we again visited a text that deals with the issue of gospel-witness. What I want to posit here is simply this: when confronted with godlessness in the culture around us, the Christian is either provoked to gospel-witness or desensitized by the mess.
Ancient Athens was a city swimming in idolatry. One Roman satirist of the period joked: “It is easier to find a god in Athens than it is to find a man.” As Paul was left alone to stay in the city while he awaited his travelling companions, kicking back by the hotel pool didn’t seem to interest him. Apparently, he went sight-seeing. What he saw motivated him to take action.
The text says “his spirit was provoked.” This word “provoked” is in the passive tense in this text (meaning something happened to Paul, as in “something came over him”). He found himself provoked, irritated, urged on, motivated to action. Being provoked in his spirit when confronted by idolatry was certainly evidence of God’s Spirit within him. Remember, Paul would later state:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
There was something within Paul (God’s Spirit?) that provoked him to take action when he saw the people of Athens, hungry though they were for knowledge and spirituality, lost and confused and drowning in the worship of idols.
I know many Christians who live this way, and who are engaged in leading others to the gospel as a result. But growing up as a Christian, I know the other side of the coin as well. Too often in the Christian world we can get into the discussions and debates focused on issues like “How worldly is too worldly for the Christian?” or “What should we or shouldn’t we watch/listen to/expose ourselves to?” or “How separate should we be from culture?” or “How can we form Christian versions of cool things we see in culture so that we can stay a safe distance away but still have a good time?”
I think we may be missing the point. If we’re provoked by the lostness around us, we’ll be motivated to engage our culture with the gospel. If we’re desensitized to it, we’ll either abandon and isolate, or assimilate and compromise. If we’re walking by the Spirit of God, I think we can expect to live a life that is constantly provoked and moved to gospel-proclamation. Warning: you can’t lead others to the gospel from a safe distance across a barbwire fence. Spirit of God, help us.
 John Stott, The Message of Acts, p. 277.
 Romans 8:5
 Romans 8:14-16