March 21, 2015

 

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

 

Topic #IV. The Church Advancing to the End of the Earth (Acts 13-28)   

                    

Subtopic C: The Missionary Journey (15:36-18:22)                 

                          

                                                                            

         Lesson: IV.C.7: The Work in Athens (17:15-34)                                                      

 

 

 

Acts 17:15-34 (KJV)

 

15 And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed.

16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.

17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.

18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.

19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?

20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.

21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)

22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.

23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

25 Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;

27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.

30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:

31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.

33 So Paul departed from among them.

34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

 

 

 

Introduction

 

This section could well be called “Witnessing to the Athenian Intellectuals.” Paul’s brief visit to Athens is a centerpiece for the entire book of Acts.  The scene revolves around Paul’s famous address before the Areopagus (17:22-31).  This is preceded by an introductory narrative that portrays the “Athenian scene” in vivid local color (17:16-21).  This narrative is very much keyed to the content of the speech and provides the framework for its major themes.  The same is true for the conclusion of the Athenian narrative (17:32-34), which is primarily a conclusion to the speech.  As a whole, one can scarcely speak of an Athenian “mission.” Although there were several converts and a fellowship may well have grown out of Paul’s ministry there, Luke did not dwell on this or mention the establishment of a church in Athens. It would be a mistake, however, to see Paul’s Athenian experience as a “maverick” episode.  The opposite is true.  The central item, the speech on the Areopagus, is the prime example in Acts of Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles.  The only other example is the brief sermon at Lystra (14:15-17), which is itself almost a recap of this one.  In the following narrative Paul works among Gentiles for eighteen months in Corinth and for nearly three years in Ephesus, but no example of his preaching is given.  The reason quite simply is that it has already been given—in Athens, in the very center of Gentile culture and intellect.

 

 

 

Commentary

 

15 And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed.

 

Whether Paul went to Athens by boat or by land is not known.  In either case some brothers accompanied Paul to guarantee his safety arrival.

 

There is an important question which needs to be settled before we begin our study.  The question is, “when did Timothy and Silas join Paul in Athens?”  First Thessalonians 3:1-2[1], indicates that Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica from Athens.  This leads many scholars to argue that Luke must have been in error in seeing Paul as traveling to Athens alone; Timothy was with him and was then sent from Athens back to Thessalonica.  However, it is possible that both Luke and Paul are right, if each gave only part of the picture.  Paul may have traveled to Athens alone, but, once there, he summoned Timothy and Silas to join him there as soon as possible.  They did so, and then Paul dispatched both from Athens, Timothy to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:1-21) and Silas to parts unknown.  One can never be dogmatic (pig-headed) about any detail which the text itself doesn’t specifically warrant, but the possibility of some such simple solution guards against forming hasty conclusions about the unreliability of a text.  In any event, Timothy and Silas did finally join Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:5).

 

Athens was the university city of the ancient world, filled with all the cynicism and snobbery of such a city.  The Acropolis, with its magnificent square and deified heroes, looked down upon the intellectual capital of mankind.  Everywhere there were objects that expressed the Athenian love of beauty and the hopeless quest of Greece to find God. West of the Acropolis and rising above the busy marketplace of the Agora was Mars Hill, where the judicial body of the Areopagus held court.

 

Art, literature, oratory, and religion were the stuff of which Athens was made.  This was the native home of Socrates and Plato, the adopted home of Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno.  Here was the cradle of democracy.  Out of respect for her illustrious past, the Romans left Athens alone, a free city, at liberty as an ally of Rome to pursue her own goals.  As a Hellenist and Jew, Paul would already know much about the place.

 

 

THE ATHENIANS’ CURIOSITY (17:16-21)

 

In Paul’s day Athens was only a shadow of the former glory that it had in its “golden age”; the fourth and fifth centuries b.c.  Corinth was now the leading city of Greece commercially and politically.  Even Athens’s native population had dwindled to an estimated 5,000 voting citizens.  But this was considerably augmented by the nonnative population, particularly the artists, the students, and the tourists.  And there were the buildings and the works of art, mute testimony to its former grandeur.  It was still considered the cultural an intellectual center of the Roman Empire, and it is in this perspective that Luke portrayed it.

 

 

16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.

 

Athens was known the world over for its magnificent art and architecture.  The art, however, characteristically portrayed the exploits of the various gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon[2], and most of the impressive buildings were temples to the pagan gods—almost every deity known to man could be worshipped there.  Athens illustrates to what great heights of achievement man can ascend and still be ignorant of God.  For Paul, Jew that he was with his strong monotheism and distaste for graven images, the scene was most disturbing.  The NIV is too gentle in saying that he was “greatly distressed.” The Greek word Luke used is much stronger (paroxyno).  We get our word “paroxysm[3]” from it.  Paul was “infuriated” at the sight.  Ancient descriptions testify that the marketplace was virtually lined with idols, particularly the “herms,” the monuments to Hermes with the head of the god on top.  For Paul a thing of beauty was definitely not a joy forever, particularly when it embodied so distorted a view of divinity.

 

For all it had going for it, Greek civilization was spiritually bankrupt.  They populated Mount Olympus with gods made in the image and likeness of men.  They projected the family lines of human personality into infinity, and, because the lines they projected were those of fallen men, they created a pantheon of fallen gods.  The savagery and immortality of their gods was fabled, and their theology was a mass of contradictory fables.  They had no knowledge of salvation, no divine inspiration.  If a Greek wanted to get drunk he turned to Dionysius; if he wanted to indulge his lust he had Aphrodite; Hermes helped him if he decided to steal.  Zeus, who headed the Greek pantheon, was savage and lustful.  The Greeks had no church, no creed, and no systematic theology.  Since their gods had no morals, how then could their worshippers?  Neither purity, humanity, nor mercies found a patron among the gods.  Greek philosophy found out many truths but never found THE truth.

 

Eight hundred years of Greek mythology and five hundred years of Greek philosophy came and went.  God gave human wisdom ample time to demonstrate what it could do.  After the Greek world demonstrated its moral and spiritual bankruptcy and showed that human knowledge and intellectualism was not only incapable of finding God but was actually wandering further and further from God, Christ came. 

 

Paul knew that idolatry was demonic (1 Corinthians 10:14-23) and that the many gods of the Greeks were only characters in stories who were unable to change men’s lives (1 Corinthians 8:1-6).  With all of their culture and wisdom, the Greeks did not know the true God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).  To see that great city so completely given over to idolatry filled Paul with righteous wrath.  Paul viewed Athens as a city of lost humanity, all doomed to a Christless eternity because of rampant pagan idolatry.  To see such a victory for the powers of darkness!  To see Satan binding men and holding them in such degrading superstition and despair!

 

 

17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.

 

Evidently Paul stuck to his usual method of missionary evangelism. The synagogue was the logical place to begin.  Here, at least, he could expect to find Jews and God-fearing (devout) Gentiles who held his own views about idolatry.  But there was not much hope of stirring-up the Jews to crusade against idolatry; they had long since come to terms with it.  Their response was to withdraw from it in disdainful scorn. On the Sabbath he debated with the Jews, apparently following the same method that he used at Thessalonica to prove that Christ was Messiah.  The Jews were probably not numerous in Athens, but as usual their community provided him with a base from which to work.  But during the week, on a daily basis, he shared his testimony in the Agora, the famous marketplace and hub of Athenian life.  The apostle reasoned with men about the true Godand His only begotten and well-beloved Son   There he got his most noticeable response, especially from some of the philosophers.  The Epicureans and Stoics were among the leading educators and philosophers of the day, and they served as representative of the confusion caused by Paul’s preaching. 

 

Evidently he made quite a stir.  People began to talk about this strange Jew who spoke of a true and living God, of God being manifest in flash and a God-Man crucified by the Romans and raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit.  Soon he became the talk of the town, and gossip about him reached the ears of the authorities.

 

 

18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.

 

Athens was a cosmopolitan city, and Paul would have found himself with a motley crowd in the Agora.  But it was not only with hoi polloi that he came into contact, but with some of the philosophers who also frequented that place, Epicureans and Stoics.  The philosophers’ interest in Paul’s teaching was probably no more than academic, but there may have been just a hint of threat in them, because in Athens the introduction of “strange gods,” though common enough, was a capital offence if for this reason the local deities were rejected and the state religion was disturbed.

 

Epicureans were materialistic and atheists through and through, believing that everything came from atoms or particles of matter.  There was no life beyond this one; all that was human returned to matter at death.  Though the Epicureans did not deny the existence of god’s, they saw them as totally indifferent to humanity.  They did not believe in providence of any sort.  The main purpose of life, the Epicureans held, was pleasure, which was to be sought in a happy and tranquil life, free from pain or trouble or fear, especially the fear of death.

 

The Stoics had a more dynamic view of the gods than the Epicureans, believing very much in the divine providence.  They were pantheists[4], believing that the ultimate divine principle was to be found in all of nature, including human beings.  This part of divinity, which they refer to as the logos, was the cohesive rational principle that bound the entire cosmic order together.  Humans thus realized their fullest potential when they lived by reason.  By reason, i.e., the divine principle within them which linked them with the gods and nature—they could discover ultimate truth for themselves.  The Stoics generally were men with high moral principles and excessive pride; men who put great stock in self-sufficiency (They taught men that they did not need the help of God.), personal discipline, and self-control.  Since they viewed all humans as bound together by common possession of the divine logos, they also had a strong sense of universal brotherhood.

 

It was not particularly complementary when the philosophers dubbed Paul a “babbler.” They used a colorful word, “seed-speaker,” which evoked images of a bird pecking indiscriminately at seeds in a barnyard.  It referred to a dilettante, someone who picked up scraps of ideas here and there and passed them off as profound thought, even though they had no depth of understanding whatsoever.  They could not understand Paul’s concept of resurrection at all.  Epicureans did not believe in any existence after death, and Stoics believed that only the soul, the divine spark, survived death.  So, Paul, what was this idea of a bodily resurrection?  “He must be speaking of a new god named resurrection along with this new God Jesus he keeps talking about.” The resurrection of the body was to them as absurd as it was undesirable.  It is still as much a stumbling-block to many as it was to the Athenians, but it is integral to the Christian faith.

 

It did not take long for the philosophers to hear about this “new thing” that was going on in the Agora, and they came and listened to Paul and probably debated with him.

 

Some years later Paul would write to the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (Romans 1:16).  He was not ashamed of that Gospel when preaching to the ruling Romans, to the religious Jews, or to the rationalistic Athenians.  He knew that in the Gospel, however much it might be scorned by men, he had the real answer to man’s spiritual needs.

 

 

19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?

20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.

 

Verse 19 has created one of the liveliest discussions surrounding Paul’s Areopagus discourse.  Was Paul tried before a formal Athenian court named Areopagus, or did he deliver a public address from a hill known as the Areopagus?  The NIV has already solved the problem by translating “a meeting of the Areopagus,” which clearly indicates the first possibility.  The Greek is not so unambiguous, merely stating that the Athenians took hold of Paul and lead him “to the Areopagus.” The Areopagus was both a court and a hill, due to the fact that the court traditionally met on that hill.  The term Areopagus means hill of Ares.  Ares was the Greek god of war.  The Roman equivalent god was Mars, hence the KJV “Mars hill” (17:22).  All that remains today is a flight of stairs cut into the southeastern side of the hill and rock-hewn benches where the assembly used to meet.

 

This hill was located beneath the Acropolis and above the Agora.  From ancient times a court met there that decided on civil and criminal cases and it seems to have had some jurisdiction in matters of religion.  Since it traditionally met on the Areopagus, it came eventually to be known by the name of the hill.  So the name will not help in deciding whether Paul gave a public lecture on the hill or made a formal appearance before the court.  Although many scholars are in favor of the public lecture view, several factors tip the scale toward the possibility that Paul appeared before the Athenian Court.  Paul was described as “introducing” (17:20) “strange ideas,” which in verse 18 are described as “foreign gods (lit., “demons”).” Second, that one of Paul’s converts was Dionysius, a member of theAreopagus (17:34), is all the more likely if Paul appeared before that body.  Finally, one should note that throughout Acts Paul appeared before the leading magisterial bodies—the magistrates of Philippi, the proconsul at Corinth, the Roman governors at Caesarea, the Jewish Sanhedrim, the Jewish King Agrippa, and finally, at least in anticipation, the Roman emperor.  It would fit the pattern well if he appeared here before the venerable Athenian court.

 

It is probably erroneous to see it as a trial in any formal sense.  Paul was not formally charged.  Once they were finished questioning him, he made an easy exit—there was no deliberations.  Perhaps it was nothing but a more-or-less public hearing of the new teacher to satisfy the curiosity of the philosophers who led him there; a kind of preliminary hearing to ascertain whether charges should be brought against the apostle.  It probably was not even on the hill of Ares where Paul spoke.  The evidence is that in his day the Areopagus met in the Royal Portico in the northwest corner of the Agora.  This would be all the more likely, since the portico frequented by the philosophers, whom Paul had just encountered, was adjacent to the Royal Portico.

 

In any event, Paul was questioned before the Areopagus, and during that time he faced a situation that could have quickly developed into one of personal peril, but he stood up boldly for Christ without any concern for himself.  He spoke to a group of men who are completely in the dark.  They are worse off than the Galatians or the people in Philippi and Thessalonica.  Why?  Because they think they know something.  The very hardest people in the world to reach with the Word of God and the Gospel are church members because they think they don’t need it.  They think the Gospel is for the man on skid row and for some of their friends.  Some church members can be mean and sinful and not recognize they really need a Savior, not only to save them from sin, but also to make their lives count for God.

 

 

21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)

 

Luke ended his narrative introduction to Paul’s speech by mentioning the insatiable curiosity of the Athenians.  He also said that there were many in Athens who spend their leisure hours just hanging around [Sound familiar?  It’s clear that Luke was not impressed with the Athenians.], hoping for some new piece of news, looking for some new philosophy that could be picked up and bandied about until interest in it faded.  Their love for novel ideas was well-known.  Their curiosity had a beneficial side to it, however, it sets the stage for Paul’s witness.

 

 

PAUL’S TESTAMONY BEFORE THE AREOPAGUS (17:22-31)

 

No text in Acts has received more scholarly attention than the ten verses of Paul’s speech before the Areopagus.  The gist of the speech is, however, thoroughly rooted in Old Testament thought.  The main theme is God as Creator and the proper worship of this Creator God.  The language often has the ring of Greek philosophy, for Paul was attempting to build what bridges he could to reach the Athenian intellectuals.  The underlying thought remains thoroughly biblical.

 

 

22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.

 

The apostle’s opening remark—“. . . as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about”(17:23-24; NLT)—would indicate that he had observed the Athenians in every respect to be “very religious (too superstitious).” They had a god for practically everything.  When he said, “I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious [a better translation is “religious”];” they would have understood him to say, “I perceive you are more religiously disposed than others.” Many commentators have described this remark as an effort to win the favor of his audience and thus get their attention.  Such introductions were a standard ploy used in Greek speechmaking, and Paul probably did have that intention.  He surely did not wish to alienate his audience at the very outset.  The Greek term he used for “religious,” however, had a definite ambiguity in the language of that time.  It could be used in a positive sense for one who was very devoted to religious matters.  It was also used with a negative connotation for those who were overly conscientious, even superstitious, in their religious observance.  The context in which the word is used determines which connotation it has.  Perhaps Paul deliberately chose the ambiguous word.  For the Athenians his remark would be taken as commending their piety.  For Paul, who was already fuming over their idolatry (17:16), the negative connotation would be uppermost in his mind.  By the end of the speech, the Athenians themselves would have little doubt about Paul’s real opinion of their religiosity.

 

 

23a For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions[5], I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God.

 

As it so often happens in the speeches of Acts, Paul began his sermon with a point of contact with his audience.  When evangelizing pagans, Paul started from creation, the general revelation of God (14:15-17) when evangelizing Jews, he started from the Old Testament (17: 10-13).  In this case it was the alters which Paul had already observed in the city (17:16).  One in particular caught his attention.  It was dedicated “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” This gave him the perfect launching pad for his presentation of monotheism to the polytheistic and pantheistic Athenians.  Piety had no doubt led the Athenians to erect such an alter for fear they might offend some deity of whom they were unaware and had failed to give the proper worship.  Paul would now proclaimed a God who was unknown to them. In fact, this God, totally unknown to them, was the only true divinity that exists. 

 

There is ample literary evidence to show that Paul did not fabricate his assertion that he had seen an altar with the inscription “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” There were, in fact, such altars in Athens.  Whether they were invariably inscribed in the plural (GODS) or whether there was one dedicated to a single “UNKNOWN GOD” remains an open question.  This “UNKNOWN GOD” was the Athenians god called Agnostos, the unknown.  Athens knew about everything that was knowable, but she did not know God.  Public or private disasters indicated to the Athenians the existence of some god they did not know and could not invent, who needed to be appeased.  This god was Agnostos.  Jesus had come to reveal to men the true God, and Paul had come to Athens to proclaim Him. 

 

 

23b Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

 

Verse 23b sets the tone for the remainder of the speech.  There is a play on the concept of ignorance.  To worship an unknown god is to admit one’s ignorance.  If he is unknown to you, you are then in total ignorance of his true nature.  Thus Paul said, in essence, “What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” Two things should be noted.  First, Paul referred to “what” they worshipped, not “who” they worshipped.  Their worship was totally foolish and misguided.  They did not know God; they didn’t worship Him at all.  Their worship object was a thing, a “what,” and not a personal God at all.  Second, there is a strong emphasis on ignorance, on not knowing.  But for Greeks, as for Stoics, ignorance was a cardinal sin.  The greatest virtue was to discover truth through pursuing the divine reason within oneself.  Not to live in accordance with reason, to live in ignorance, was the greatest foolishness imaginable.  Paul accused them of precisely this ignorance, this sin.  He would return to this theme in verse 30 with his call for repentance.  The time had arrived when such ignorance of God was wholly without excuse.  Men have no excuse for not knowing about God because He has revealed Himself in man’s conscience and in the physical world (Romans 1:19, 20[6]; 2:15).

 

Paul knew this unknown God.  As a Jew he had known Him, by means of His inspired Word, since his earliest boyhood days.  He had known Him as Elohim, Adonai, and Jehovah, as Jehovah Jireh, Jehovah Nissi, and Jehovah Tsidkenu.  He had known Him as Creator and sustainer of the universe, as the rock of ages, the shepherd of Israel, the fountain of living water.  As a Christian he knew Him to be the incarnate Word, God manifest in flash, Jesus Christ the Lord.  No man in all the world was better equipped to make known to the Athenian intellectuals and dilettantes this unknown God than was Paul.  The image to the unknown god had nearly bridged the gap for Paul and had given him the opening he needed.

 

 

24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

25 Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

 

Paul began with the basic premise that runs throughout his speech: God is Creator.  He referred to God as the Maker of the “world,” a term that would be familiar to every Greek.  The concept of God as an absolute Creator, however, would not be so easy for them to grasp.  For them divinity was to be found in the heavens, in nature, in humanity.  The idea of a single supreme being who stood over the world, who created all that exists, was totally foreign to them.  This was indeed an “UNKNOWN GOD.”

 

Once the premise that God is Creator is granted, two things follow.  First, God “does not live in Temples built by hands.” This is a thoroughly Biblical thought.  God had made very clear all the way through the Old Testament—even when He gave to Israel the pattern for the tabernacle and the templethat He did not dwell in one geographical spot. Solomon acknowledged this in his prayer at the dedication of the temple: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?” (1 Kings 8:27).  These men in the Old Testament recognized that God the Creator, the living God, could not live in a building that had been made by man.  Man lives in a universe that God has made.  Why does man get the idea that he can build a building for God to live in?  The more philosophically minded Athenians would have had no problem with this.  The philosophers also would have had no problem with Paul’s second critique of human worship, “he is not served by human hands.” (17:25). Not only do the Temples not contain God, but the services in the Temples add nothing to God!  In two brief statements Paul completely wiped-out the entire religious system of Greece!  Paul’s qualifier, “as if he needed anything,” would particularly have resonated with them.  It was a commonplace of Greek philosophy to view divinity as complete within itself, totally self-sufficient, totally without need.  And they would have agreed with Paul also that the divinity is the giver of “life and breath and everything else.” But there was a world of difference between the philosophers’ pantheism and Paul’s strict monotheism.  The best commentary on this verse is found in 1 Chronicles 29:14.  David prays: “Who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give [anything to you, i.e., to God]?  Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”

 

Everywhere he looked Paul saw the work of genius.  Fifty colossal figures featuring pediment[7] style architecture and more than 520 feet of continuous fluted columns on bases and a band of richly ornamented scenes—horses of the sun god, throwing up their magnificent heads and the horse of the Moon goddess, which seemed poised to leap out of the very stone.

 

Paul dismissed it all as worthless, that is, as a sanctuary for true faith.  Their flashed into his mind something he had heard Stephen say years before about the Temple in Jerusalem: “The Most High dwelleth not in Temples made with hands” (Acts 7:48).  “Made with hands” was an expression commonly used by Greek philosophers and Jews alike in their attacks on idolatry.  Once Paul was prepared to stone a man to death for a statement like that.  Now he picked it up and hurled it at the men of Athens.  God is independent of sacrifices, sanctuaries, and service alike; God does not need anything from us.  It is not the work of men’s hands God wants, it is the worship of men’s hearts.  It is impossible either to corner God in a temple or to conceptualize him with an idol.

 

Every statement Paul made was rooted in Old Testament thought.  The idea of God being the grantor of life and breath, which is the entire point of verses 24-25, can be found in passages like Isaiah 42:5 and psalms 50:7-15.  It is not the philosophical concept of a divine imminent principle that pervades all nature and humankind.  It is the Biblical concept of a sovereign Creator God who stands above His creation and in Whom humanity as creature is ultimately responsible.  Such a God could not be enshrined in human temples or manipulated by human cults.  Much of the conceptuality may have struck a responsive chord with the Athenians.  Paul probably was struggling to communicate the Gospel in terms understandable to them.  But on the basic premise there was no compromise.  There is but one sovereign God, Creator of all.  It is God who gives to us what we need; “life, and breath, and all things.” God is the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).  He gave us life and He sustains that life by his goodness (Matthew 5:45).  It is the goodness of God that should lead men to repentance (Romans 2:4).  But instead of worshipping the Creator and glorifying Him, men worship His creation and glorify themselves (Romans 1:18-25).   The point that he was making was that the world was not a thing of chance, but the work of God.  To Him they must abandon all their other gods.  Otherwise He would remain to them the “UNKNOWN GOD.”

 

 

 

THE PROVIDENTIAL GOD (17:26-27)

 

These verses form the heart of the speech.  As such, they should be central to Paul’s argument, and they are.  They contain two emphases: (1) God’s providence over humanity and (2) human responsibility to God.  The thought that runs through these verses is: God made humanity for two purposes: (1) to inhabit the earth (v. 26) and (2) to seek Him (v. 27).  The dominating thought is still that of God as Creator.

 

 

26a And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.

 

So much has been made of this “one blood” business that I think we need to disperse with any wrong notions here.  God “made” every human nation.  There is the added distinction, however, that He made every nation “from one man.” The reference is most likely to Adam, and the emphasis is on the universality of humankind’s relationship to God.  Although there are many nations, though they are scattered over the face of the earth, they are one in their common ancestry and in their relationship to their Creator.  One can see the significance of this in an address before Gentiles.  The God whom Paul proclaimed was no local Jewish cult God.  He was the one sovereign Lord of all humankind.

 

This verse is not talking about brotherhood.  The only brotherhood which Scripture knows is the brotherhood of those who are in Christ Jesus.  Perhaps I should amend that by saying there is a brotherhood of sin.  We are all sinners.

 

Paul left no room for a theory of a master race through the Greeks; the Athenians considered themselves to be such a race.  It was popularly held among the Athenians that they had “sprung from the soil,” i.e., that they were indigenous and therefore different—superior—to others. Other peoples were “barbarians” to them.  But actually all races had a common origin; all trace their decent from Adam.

 

 

 

26b And hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.

 

The exact meaning of verse 26b is to some degree problematic.  To what do the “times” refer?  They could either refer to the seasons or to historical epochs (eras, times, ages).  The same uncertainty exists in the expression “the bounds of their habitation” (exact places where they should live).” Does this refer to the livable areas of the planet or to the boundaries between nations?  If Paul was talking about seasons and habitable zones, he was pointing to God’s providence[8] in nature.  If the reference is to historical times and national boundaries, the emphasis is on God’s lordship over history.  In either instance Paul’s point would be the same—the care and providence of God in His creation.  The statements do seem to contain an underlying thought of “natural revelation.” Much as Paul argued in Romans 1:18-20 and in the speech at Lystra (14:17), God made himself known in some sense by the works of His creation.  All people, Gentiles included, have experienced this and to that extent are responsible before God.  This led to the climactic statement about seeking God in verse 27.

 

The rise and fall of nations, like the coming and going of the tides is not determined by man, but is under God’s control.  It was God who first determined where national ethnic groups should find their homes.  Many factors set the boundaries of nations: rivers and mountains, language and weather, oceans and deserts.  Genesis 2 makes it clear that national distinctions, far from being a bad thing, are ordained of God.  Man’s cultural problems are largely the result of slavery and war, and of man’s lawless interference in the affairs of other peoples.  Yet over it all—wars, famines, slave raids, terrorism, migrations—God has remained sovereign.  The times as well as the territories of the nations are in his hand.  It is interesting that the thing that has produced the wars of the past is that nation’s don’t want to stay where they belong; they want someone else’s territory.  That has been the ultimate cause for almost every war that has ever been fought.

 

 

27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

 

I believe the NIV has made this verse easier to understand: “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.”

 

 Verse 27 gives the second purpose of humankind in God’s creation—“that men would seek him.” The idea of seeking God is common in the Old Testament, but that does not seem to be the background here.  For the Old Testament writers, the invitation to “seek God” was always made to those within the covenant community, to Israel to whom God had already made Himself known.  In the present context it is an offer made to Gentiles for whom the true God is “unknown.” The connection is with the preceding verse and its emphasis on God’s providence in His creation.  God’s purpose in all this is stated as His desire that people might seek him and find him.  The Stoics would have been in complete agreement.  They would have argued that the divine principle was to be found in all of nature and that one should strive to grasp it as fully as possible through cultivating reason, that part of divinity that dwelt in one’s own human nature.  They firmly believed that through the proper application of reason one could come to a knowledge of divinity.  Paul would not have agreed.  Even a knowledge of God from nature would still not be a human attainment but a revelation of God in His works.  But Paul was not confident in the human ability to grasp such a natural revelation.  Perhaps that is why he used the operative mood in verse 27, a mode of Greek grammar that is used here to express strong doubt.  God created humans, Paul said, so they might seek Him and just possibly grope after Him and find Him.  He had His doubts.  People likely would not discover God in this fashion, even “though he be not far from every one of us.”  There is no question about God’s providence; there is about humanity’s ability to make the proper response.  There is also no question about God’s purposes.  God did create humans “to seek Him.” This is the proper response of the creature.  The responsibility of humanity is the worship of God.  And notice this use of the phrase “every one of us.” It reminds us again that this God seeks to establish personal relationships; we know God is near since we depend upon Him at every turn.

 

 

28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

 

Verse 28 is transitional, linking up the theme of God’s proximity in verse 27b with the critique of idolatrous worship in verse 29.  It also serves the rather unique function of providing the “scriptural base” for the speech. In this instance, though, it isn’t a matter of Scripture at all but rather a quote from a pagan philosopher.  Scripture would have been meaningless to the Athenians.  Paul still continued to address them as much as possible on their own terms.  The phrase “in Him we live, and move, and have our being” seems to have been a more-or-less traditional Greek saying.  Paul surely did not understand this in the Greek sense, which would emphasize the pantheistic view of the divinity residing in human nature.  Through God people live and move and have existence.

 

The last part the verse is introduced by Paul as a quote from the Greek poets.  In the context of Paul’s speech, it referred to God and to humanity’s being His creation.  Paul was not saying that all people on earth are the spiritual children of God, for sinners become God’s children only by faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:11-13).

 

 

29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.

 

In verse 29 Paul returned to his earlier critique of artificial worship with which the speech began (17:24-25).  Earlier he had critiqued both the temple and cults.  Now he boldly attacked idolatry.  The attack was based on the previous statement that humans are God’s offspring.  The idea is that of people being made in God’s image.  If humankind is the true image of God, the work of God’s hands, it follows that no image made by human hands can render proper homage to God.  If humanity is like God, then God is not like gold or silver or any such material representation.  Only the creature can express the true worship of the Creator, not the creation of the creature, not something made from human imagination and by human skill.

 

Because human beings are both like God and dependent upon God, it is absurd to think that the divine being can be portrayed by human art.  The work of art is dependent on the artist’s imagination; it is also inanimate.  On both counts it is inferior to the person who made it.  How much more, then, to the God who made human beings!  Paul’s thought is best expressed by the phrase “God is Spirit” (John 4:24), for what is spiritual cannot be represented by an image of gold or silver or stone (psalm 115:4; Isaiah 37:19; 40:19; 46:7).  But even as he condemns idolatry, he is concerned to placate his hearers.  Notice his use of the first person—not “you,” but “we” should not think along these lines.

 

Here Paul spoke very much in line with the Old Testament critique of idolatry.  The Stoics would have agreed.  They too saw idolatry as the irrationality of popular religion. But if they truly understood Paul’s teaching of the one true Creator God, they would have realized that they too were idolatrous.  In their attempt to reach the divine through their own striving, in their view that the divine indwelt their own human nature, they had transgressed the relationship of creature to Creator.  If they had generally accepted Paul’s major premise that God is Creator, they would have had to acknowledge their own self-idolatry, their own need for repentance.  We should not forget that exposing error is as much a part of the Christian faith as is explaining truth. 

 

 

30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:

31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

 

Paul now directed his attention to the Athenians, returning to the theme of ignorance with which he began.  They were guilty of ignorance.  As Paul later put it more bluntly to the Romans: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22). All their acts of piety were in vain, for they did not know or worship the one true God.  In His patience God formerly “overlooked” such ignorance (14:16; Romans 3:25[9]).  He made allowance for the depraving ravages of sin, which could cause men to change “the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things” (Romans 1:23).  This does not mean that men were not guilty (Romans 1:19-206), but only that God held back divine wrath.  In due time, God sent a Savior, and now He commands all to repent of their foolish ways.  The times of forbearance had now ended because their ignorance had now ended.  Now they knew the one true God through Paul’s preaching.  He was no longer an “unknown God”; and should they continue in their false worship and fail to acknowledge His sole lordship of heaven and earth, their sin would no longer be a sin of ignorance but a high-handed sin.

 

Only one course was open—repentance, a complete turnabout from their false worship and a turning to God.  The concept of repentance must have sounded strange to the Athenians.  Even stranger was Paul’s warning of God’s coming day of judgment (17:31).  Greek theology, such as it was, had no concept of coming judgment.  The apostle exploded that idea like a bombshell in the ears of his listeners.  The offer of salvation in Christ carried with it the threat of judgment if that offer was refused.  Men are accountable to their Creator for their action; the Day of Judgment has already been set.  Paul’s train of thought was clear enough.  God is the one true God and should be acknowledged as such by his creatures.  All people must ultimately stand before God and give an account of their relationship to Him.  God appointed “the man” who would carry out this judgment.  (The “man” was Christ, “the Son of Man,” in His role as Judge; Daniel 7:13[10].) God clearly demonstrated this truth by the miracle of raising Him from the dead.  Just as Peter had pointed to the resurrection as proof to the Jews that Jesus is Messiah, so to the Gentiles Paul pointed to the resurrection as proof that He is the coming judge of all humanity.  The judgment referred to here will take place when Christ returns to earth to put down His enemies and begin His Millennial Reign.

 

Paul touched the heart and soul of the Christian message—the resurrection of Christ.  This was the triumphant truth he blazed across the world.  This was the essence of the Christian message to the human heart.  Jesus lives!  He has conquered death.  The grave has no more terrors.  The Christian message does not concern itself solely with the immortality of the soul.  Even pagans can grope their way to that.  The Christian message is that death has been so completely conquered that the body itself can survive its onslaught.  Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection.

 

There is a resurrection unto life for the believer, but there is also a second resurrection, a dreadful resurrection, a resurrection to damnation for the unbeliever, and Christ’s resurrection guarantees that as well.  All judgment has been committed by God to His Son, who being both God and man is equipped to act as mediator now and magistrate then.  It is that aspect of Christ’s resurrection that Paul solemnly brought before the frivolous Athenians.  There was to be no more excuses for their philosophical dabblings and their religious allusions.

 

Paul had reached the climax of his testimony and made his appeal.  He may have had more to say, but he had said enough to convict at least one Areopagite (17:34).  In any event, with the mention of resurrection the jeering started, and Paul’s speech ended (17:32).

 

It should be noted that Paul never compromised the basic Christian principles of God as Creator and Judge and the resurrection of Christ.  In the end these were the most difficult concepts for the Athenians to grasp, but there could be no accommodation on these.  Bridge building is essential to Christian witness, particularly when addressing different cultures, as missionaries must often do.  Paul’s Areopagus address provides both a precedent and a pattern for this essential task.

 

 

32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.

33 So Paul departed from among them.

 

Epicureans did not believe that there was any human existence after death.  Stoics believe that only the immaterial spirit survived death.  To Greeks the idea of a body surviving death did not make any sense—even a transformed body.  So many in the Areopagus simply scoffed at Paul’s reference to the resurrection.  As so often with the preaching of the Gospel in Acts, however, the response was mixed.  Others wanted to “hear [him] again.” There is no reason to see this response as anything but genuine.  They were not convinced by Paul, but they were willing to listen to more of what he had to say.  At this point the scoffers must have had the majority, for Paul did not tarry before theAreopagus but left the assembly.

 

Paul’s preaching at Athens produced few good results.  What happened at Athens is confirmed by history.  The Gospel does not make its greatest impact among those who are wise after the flesh.  Athens was the home of criticism, where everything was brought before the bar of the human intellect, weighed, and found wanting.  In that city of philosophers there was little room for Christianity.  Indeed, no great church would be found in Athens during the first 300 years of Christianity.

 

 

34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

 

There was a third response to Paul’s witness in Athens, however.  A few people responded in faith.  At least one of these, Dionysius the Areopagite, seems to have been converted by Paul’s address before the council.  Another convert is mentioned by name—Damaris.  It is significant that of the two believers designated by name, one is male and the other female.  One cannot fail to observe the prominence of women in Paul’s Greek congregations of Macedonia and Acadia.  We have no further reliable information on eitherDionysius[11] or Damaris.  The “others” who are mentioned as converts in verse 34 may have resulted from Paul’s larger witness in the synagogue and Agora of Athens rather than from his address before the Areopagus.  The same may have been true of Damaris.

 

This seventeenth chapter of Acts is not an anti-intellectual manifesto.  It is a rather profound exposition of revelation and reason and still challenges the best minds.  Paul’s determination to preach the crucified Christ was confirmed by hisAreopagus experience.  He never did speak on any subject without including the center of the Gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ.  The climax of theAreopagus speech was the resurrection, and it received the predictable response—to the Greeks, folly (17:32; 1 Corinthians 1:23[12]).  When Paul reminds the Corinthians how he arrived among them “in weakness and in much fear and trembling,” he is recalling the mood in which he left Athens with the sense of failure heavy upon him.  Paul had learned his lesson.  “He realized, what is as true today as then, that mere academic argument on behalf of Christianity seldom converts anybody.”

 

Some people criticize this sermon because it seems to praise the Athenians for their religiosity when actually they were gross idolaters; it supposes a recognition of the true God from an inscription that might have been intended for and idol; it seems to accommodate itself too much to the manners and customs of the Athenians; and it does not present the Gospel as clearly and forcibly as some other messages by the apostle.  These criticisms are unjustified.  We have already sought to explain that Paul first sought a point of contact, then by easy steps he led his hearers first to the knowledge of the true God, then to the necessity of repentance in view of Christ’s coming as judge.  It is sufficient vindication of Paul’s preaching that souls were genuinely converted through it.

 

We concede that as the speech now stands it is too short to be all that Paul said on this occasion.  But we can be certain the Holy Spirit has revealed all the Lord wants us to know at this time. We may hear the rest of the story from Paul himself when we meet him in person.

 

 

 


[1] (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2; NIV) So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the Gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith.

[2] Pantheon: a domed circular temple at Rome, erected a.d. 120–124 by Hadrian, used as a church since a.d.

[3] Paroxysm: any sudden, violent outburst; a fit of violent action or emotion: paroxysms of rage. Or a severe attack or a sudden increase in intensity of a disease, usually recurring periodically.

[4] Pantheists. The belief that God, or a group of gods, is identical with the whole natural world; pantheism comes from Greek roots meaning “belief that everything is a god.” Their doctrine equates God with the forces and laws of the universe

 

[5] Devotions means objects of worship.

[6] (Romans 1:19-20) Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

[7] Pediment: a triangular space that forms the gable of a low-pitched roof and that is usually filled with relief sculpture in classical architecture

[8] Providence. God omnisciently directing the universe and the affairs of humankind with wise benevolence.

[9] (Romans 3:25; NIV) God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance [patience] he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished

[10] (Daniel 7:13; NLT) As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence.

[11] Dionysius. Eusebius on no good authority, makes him the first bishop of Athens

[12] (1 Corinthians 1:23) But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

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