I want to thank all of those who so faithfully read these commentaries on the email list, the blog site, and on Facebook. I hope that you continue to find them helpful. I did want to let you know that I will not be able to post for about a month as we will be Africa on another ministry trip. This will be the last commentary until the middle of September. Thanks and God bless.
22 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. 23 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.
24 “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. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 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. 27 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. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]
29 “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. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 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.”
32 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.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 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.
As a new campus minister of a college ministry you would expect that you would be doing many more weddings than funerals, yet during my first two years in that role, I actually wound up performing more funeral ceremonies than weddings. The fact is, funerals are much tougher to do than weddings and I’m glad that over the years I have now evened that out and the number of weddings that I have done have actually surpassed the funerals. But I recall one funeral in particular where I felt like I was facing a bit of a hostile audience. I had been asked to perform the funeral for someone that I had never even met although they were close to a close family member of mine. To top it off, I knew hardly anyone that was actually at the funeral. Yet, I was asked to really preach the gospel and present it to a group of people that were necessarily starving for it at the moment. To make matters even more difficult, the audience was not a homogenous group. They varied from skeptics, atheists, and those that were very anti-God and anti-Christianity to those that were very religious (although the fruit of their lives seemed to belie their religiosity), and everything in between. But as I stood up and stared out at the audience, I had a daunting opportunity ahead of me, but it was an opportunity nonetheless. I found out that day just how difficult it can be to face an audience that is not immediately open to your message and who are coming from very different perspectives. It is not an easy task.
This is what was facing Paul in the Areopagus, only many times over. He had seized on the opportunity to preach the gospel in one of the most famous cities of the ancient world; a city that had a reputation for wisdom, knowledge, and philosophy. Athens was home to some of the greatest thinkers that the world had to offer. To top it off he was invited to the venue where the very best and brightest met and discussed the issues of the day. It doesn’t seem that Paul was being interrogated or asked to speak to a formal council or trial but all of the “big-wigs” of Athens were there and wanting to hear what Paul had to say. That’s not to imply that they were open to Paul’s message, they were mostly curious. They wanted to see what this babbler could come up with, primarily, it seems, for the purpose of amusing themselves.
So Paul had a huge task ahead of him. The audience was hostile but it was also full of men who held very different beliefs and philosophies. That meant that Paul had to present the gospel in such a way to make it approachable to people whose beliefs were sometimes in direct opposition to one another. He would have to try to be all things to all men but to do it at the same time. This was his chance. He was being given a hearing and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit he would do his best to take advantage of it. It is not, however, very likely at all that what Luke records here was the actual speech that Paul gave. What we have here is most likely a summary of what Paul said. This was after all the guy who could easily preach from sundown until past midnight so surely he took advantage of his moment before the Areopagus.
Many have taken Paul’s opening statement to the Areopagus as words of conciliation creating a bond of connection through compliment but ancient philosopher Lucian of Samosata recorded that complimentary openings “to secure the goodwill of the Areopagus were discouraged.” Therefore it was more likely simply an observation of fact that was neither complimentary or condescending. Athens was a very religious town that was very proud of its wisdom and knowledge so there was a bit of an irony that a town that was so sure of its own wisdom and that was so religious was also ignorant about the very gods that they sought to worship.
The Athenians had statues in honor of unknown gods as a safety precaution so that they weren’t slighting any gods that should have been receiving honor. This made sense for both the Epicureans who believed that if the gods did exist they were so distant that it would be difficult if not impossible to know them, and the Stoics who believed that the gods were one with the universe and not at all separate. Thus, the picture of the divine realm was fuzzy at best, so it was wise in their eyes to cover all of their bases.
What they did not know or understand Paul was going to declare to them in no uncertain terms. As he did so, he masterfully both identified with, at times, and challenged, at other points, both the Stoics and the Epicureans. He would show the Epicureans that they were correct that God was separate from his creation but that the true God was not unknowable. Rather, he was intensely knowable and wanted to be known intimately by the humans that he created. To the Stoics, Paul would agree that God was involved with every aspect of his creation but he would challenge them by demonstrating that he was separate from it and above it.
One amusing feature of the pagan gods that Paul seized upon was that they needed humans badly. They needed people to bring them food in order to eat and they needed people to build temples for them (see Isa. 46:1 and Jer. 10:5 for examples of the futility of the gods). But even at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem Solomon pointed out that Yahweh was bringing himself down to the level of his creation, he certainly did not need a Temple and most assuredly could not be contained within it (1 Ki. 8:27). This God that Paul was proclaiming to them was not just another of the gods. He was the creator of the entire world and everything in it and he needed nothing from human beings as he expressed in Psalm 50:12 while clearly sticking his thumb in the eye of the so-called gods, “If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” Rather than needing something from humans, God has given us humans everything including our life and breath and everything else we have, which makes denying him all the more sadly ironic.
God created one man, Adam, and from him brought forth all of the nations of men. This meant that nations need not compete against one another or feel that it was necessary or even natural to all have their own gods. No, the Most High God was responsible for all of the nations. He knew who they were and had set the boundaries for each nation. Nothing in all of history has happened by chance but is all subject to God’s ruling sovereignty. Paul points out that even some of the poets from that region at least understood this in part, although certainly not fully, as they declared that we are God’s offspring. Paul certainly doesn’t mean that all nations are part of God’s promised family but that all people find their origins in God’s creative power.
God’s purpose in everything that he did throughout history, especially culminating in the Messiah (as Paul will get to rather quickly), was that people would know him. Paul’s language implies a picture of groping around in the dark on the part of humans as they sought to find the truth of God even though he was right there all the time. The futile human search for God had been a bit like someone deciding the answer cannot be four and then groping around for years trying to determine what the answer to two plus two is.
Because all humans come from Yahweh, the one, true God it should be obvious that he is not one of the manmade Gods that have eyes but cannot see and ears but cannot hear (Ps. 115:3-8). He is not one of those worthless gods who turn their followers into shells of a human being that are just as worthless and just as spiritually blind as those images that are crafted by humans. Paul, in essence, points out the sheer lunacy of worshipping a god that you just created with your own hands. In contrast, the true God made everything including us.
But the obvious question that this would raise was, “If this God was truly supreme over all creation why would he allow the nations to live in such open defiance and ignorance of him.” Paul’s response to that is threefold. First, God overlooked such ignorance in the past but now things have changed. Second, he commands that all the nations repent and worship him as the only true God. Third, there is a coming judgment where all nations, indeed all humans will have to answer for their idolatry. This repentance is not an option that will bring some small advantage to those who choose that route. It is a command for all humans everywhere.
The proof of all of this was as truth was the resurrection of Jesus. That showed that God’s age to come had indeed already started in the resurrection of the Messiah and that now that his new creation had broken in and started to set things right in the world and once the train had left the station there was no holding it back. God would indeed set the whole world right by brining it into the life of the Messiah and under his authority. There was a great irony in the fact that Paul was declaring in the Areopagus that the solution to the problems of the entire world was found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In a fifth century play written by Aeschylus, the god Apollo dedicated the ground of the Areopagus saying, among other things, “when a man dies, and his blood is spilled on the ground, there is no resurrection.” What was ruled out as impossible, was now, Paul was telling them, the very thing on which the whole world was being turned right side up.
The resurrection, as Paul declared to the Corinthians, was foolishness to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23), and the Athenians were no different. Most of them sneered at the absurdity of such a thing. There idols were so firmly set in their own hearts that they were absolutely blind to the truth. But some were open to Paul’s message and wanted to hear more. A number of people in Athens did come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, including Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, who according to church tradition would later become the first church leader in Athens.
Paul had not only identified with both the Epicureans and Stoics but had also challenged them to the core of their beliefs. He had proven himself to be no mere babbler or one who scattered words around aimlessly. He had proclaimed to them the words of life, but the rest was up to them.
Paul was a particularly gifted thinker and preacher but what is most impressive here is that he was familiar with the beliefs of the people of his day and prepared to show them how the gospel both challenged their cherished beliefs and explained their unanswered questions. Do you make a serious effort to be just as prepared in our day as Paul was in his?