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).
We live in a culture obsessed with innovations. People are always ready for the next new and improved product, seeking after the newest technology with the best features. Many are interested in the most recent “news” and gossip regarding celebrities, politics, and sports figures. Billions of dollars can be made or lost on the stock market based on the quality and newness of information.
These innovations have both contributed to and are a result of a major shift in thinking about ourselves and our ancestors. On the whole people tend to feel that newer is better; what is old is considered obsolete or irrelevant. Many have come to believe in progress and have great confidence in human ability to develop and innovate.
As Luke relates the story of Paul’s discourses with the philosophers in Athens he notes how the people there spent their time in telling or hearing “new” things. As the intellectual capital of the ancient Greco-Roman world, Athens tended to collect all sorts of people with various ideas to promote, and therefore it is not surprising that its citizens would spend their leisure time in talking about all these “new” ideas.
Luke’s use of “new” in Acts 17:21 is not positive: in ancient Greek, “new” was often a way of talking about something dangerous or troubling. The ancients believed the glory days were in the past, a “golden age” of heroes whose valor, insight, and accomplishments far excelled anything done by people in the present. This became a major challenge for early Christians: many were suspicious of this new “superstition” claiming that God had come in the flesh, died, and was raised again in the days of Tiberius Caesar, not many years earlier!
We do well to consider the perspective of the ancients. We tend to associate newness with benefits and progress, but that which is new remains untested and potentially dangerous, as many who have suffered the unintended side effects of drugs and other medical treatments can attest. Just because something is “new and improved” does not necessarily make it better.
The time is long past since Christianity was considered something “new.” Even though Christianity is not new, many who profess Christianity are quite like the Athenians of old and spend much time in telling or hearing some new thing. They have been deeply affected by their culture and believe that what is newer is better. Few things are too sacred to be overthrown in their quest for “relevancy.” In their estimation many aspects of Christian faith and practice must be overhauled if the faith will survive.
As Christians we must always judge righteous judgment (John 7:24). There are many ways in which Christian faith and practice are expressed that seem old but have only existed for the past century or two, and were as strongly protested as innovations in their own day as the changes being sought after today. No aspect of our faith and practice has merit merely because it is old or because it is new (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:10, Acts 17:21); nothing is made right either because “it is the way we have always done it” nor because “it is the great new fad of the day.”
Instead, right or wrong is based on fidelity to the faith revealed in Scripture once for all to the saints, able to equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17, Jude 1:3). The events described in the New Testament took place over 1900 years ago and yet the faith remains; history is littered with the stories of people who have diverged from the faith and have taught a false and watered-down gospel in the name of “improving” the faith, “updating” it, or making it more “relevant.” In truth the faith which is in Christ is always able to improve those who come to Jesus and remains relevant to every generation (Romans 1:16). Let us hold firm not to tradition, either new or old, but the faith, and express it in our own time for God’s honor and glory in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry