So far we have seen Paul run out Philippi, only after being jailed. We have seen him be run out of Thesslonica, only after his friend Jason had to pay the people of Thesslonica a surety or bond that guaranteed Paul would. We have seen Paul run out of Berea. And it was after Paul was run out of Berea that we see Paul journeying to Athens, which is what we will be dealing with today. Because today we are going to see Paul in Athens.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.—17:16-17
Athens was known even by the pagans as being overrun by idols. Pliny the Younger estimated no fewer than 73,000 idols in Athens. Given that estimate, calling Athens a city “full of idols” seems like an understatement. Luke’s description of Paul’s emotions is rather broad, likely to encapsulate a range of feelings (anger, grief and/or concern). The text describes Paul reasoning on the Sabbath and in the marketplace every single day.
A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)—17:18-21
The Epicurean and Stoic schools—two philosophical schools both founded around 300 BC—were in stark contrast to each other. The Epicureans devalued religion, thought the gods were uninterested in humanity, and sought pleasure as the highest goal of humanity. The Stoics, on the other hand, considered the gods more immanent, sought consistency on a rational basis and valued self-sufficiency. Both denigrated Paul as an ignorant showoff. When a opponent can only muster name-calling (in other words a personal attack) as a defense, it surely does not demonstrate intellectual superiority. Others, however, understood Paul as promoting foreign deities.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship —and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.—17:22-23
Paul’s speech here is an excellent model for cross-cultural communication of the gospel. He does not lead off with a resounding denunciation of idolatry. Instead, he mentions the people’s altar to the unknown god. He then discloses who the unknown god is. There have been no remains discovered of an altar to an unknown god, but Greco-Roman literature outside the Bible makes frequent reference to such an altar. Paul exposes the people’s inconsistency between seeking a transcendent reality and use of idols and temples.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.—17:24-29
Paul’s speech here has three movements identifying the unknown God. The first movement concerns who God is and echoes Isaiah 42:5. The true God is transcendent. He does not live in temples built by humans, nor does he need the services of humans, for he is the source of life. The second movement describes what God desires from human beings. He is the creator of all humans, who have descended through one man. The distribution of humanity was a determination of God. Alluding to Deuteronomy 32:8, Paul asserts that this determination took place before creation. The length and boundaries of all habitation are determined by God. The purpose is so that people will seek God and find him. Several pagan ideas are contested: the Athenians believed in their own creation separate from other humans, while the Epicureans believed in distant and uninterested gods. Verse 28 consists of two quotations from Greek poets. In the first quote, Epimendes refers to God as the atmosphere around humanity, in other words not far away. The second quote, calling humanity the offspring of God, is from Aratus Soli. Both citations are talking about Zeus, but Paul applies them to the unnamed God and advocates the abandonment of idolatry. The third and final moment draws the conclusion to Paul’s message. Because all humans are God’s children by creation, the unknown God is not like gold, silver or stone. Furthermore, he is not the product of human imagination or skill in craftsmanship. He is above and beyond his creation. He is transcendent.
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.—17:30-34
Paul calls his listeners to repentance. God will judge all human beings, so they should repent of their idolatry. While the gospel declares the immense value of all human beings, it also declares the systemic problem of humanity’s sinfulness. Some listeners scoffed at the notion of resurrection, for Greek philosophy had little contact with that concept. Bodily resurrection would have been utter foolishness to them. But among those with a more open mind, several were saved, including Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus. Being one of the council members, he was the most high-born convert since Sergius Paulus. And that is where we will pick up tomorrow as we see Paul move on into Corinth.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
Nehemiah 1:1-3:14, 1 Corinthians 7:1-24, Psalm 31:19-24 and Proverbs 21:4
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