3.18 Acts -- The Athenians

Paul and Silas stirred up trouble wherever they went:

           a. in Philippi, they were imprisoned for casting a spirit out of a slavegirl. The earthquake loosened their chains, but instead of running off, they led the jailer to a knowledge of Christ, and ended up baptizing him and his family! (Acts 16:16-40).

           b. in Thessalonica and Berea, they preached in the synagogue to Jews and Greeks.  Traditional Jews stirred up the mob and forced them to leave those cities (Acts 17:1-15).

           c. Paul's visit to Athens marked another step in Paul's outreach to Gentiles (Acts 17:16-34).  Athens was the cultural capital of Hellenism, the site of numerous shrines and idols, as well as home to many philosophical sects (Acts 17:16-18).  As usual, Paul began in the synagogue, where he could use his customary message with its references to the Old Testament Scriptures.  But he also ventured into the marketplace, which required an entirely different presentation.  He even spoke on the Areopagus, a hill near the Acropolis which had once been a center of government, but under Roman rule was more of an advisory council.  This audience was different from the "God-fearing" Greeks in the synagogues!  They were outright pagans -- pantheists, Stoics, Epicureans and others.  The Jewish worldview was entirely alien to them.  In fact, some of them called him a "babbler" (Acts 17:18), meaning that he made no sense to them.

          

Paul now "becomes all things to all men" -- which is the antithesis of racism.  Paul's attitude was: "Instead of forcing the other party to adapt to my ways of thinking, I will adapt myself and try to enter his world."  This goes far beyond modern virtues of tolerance and coexistence.  It is an attempt to meet the other on their homeground.  Let us look at his sermon in detail:

           a. He starts by complimenting the Greeks on their evident religious enthusiasm.  In his former life, this would have given him an apoplectic fit -- idols everywhere!  It is really a stretch for him to praise them for this.
           b. He finds a point of contact: the altar dedicated "to an unknown god."  This gives him an opening to present his message.
           c. He speaks of one God as the Creator of heaven and earth.
           d. This God does not live in temples or shrines.  For Paul, this statement shows how far he has come from Judaism, with its reverence for the Jerusalem Temple.
           e. He does not even mention the Old Testament, Abraham, Israel, the Law!
           f. "From one man" God made all men and set their national boundaries (see the analysis of this critical text later).
          g. God intends that men should seek Him and find Him, He is not far away.
          h. He quotes two classical Greek poets!  This is a master stroke -- it shows his own education and preparation, demonstrates respect for their heritage, and legitimizes his message in their eyes.
           i.  He characterizes the worship of idols as "ignorance" -- another bow to Greek concepts.  A traditional Jew would have condemned idolatry as a moral evil, an affront to God's holiness.  But Paul used the thought categories of his hearers:  to them, the greatest sin was ignorance, not unrighteousness.  
           j.  now is the time to repent.
          k. God has appointed a man to judge the world, a man whom God raised from the dead.

         

Paul did not get a standing ovation for this message.  There were a lot of scoffers, several curious people who wanted to hear more, and a few believers. One of these, Dionysius, may have become the second bishop of Athens (according to Eusebius).  On the other hand,  he did not cause a riot in Athens.  And he did no miracles here.  Paul presented an ideological challenge to a centuries-old mindset, one that was entirely opposed to the Jewish worldview.  Even in such unfavorable surroundings , Paul was able to find common ground with the Athenians, and managed to get across the kernel of the message of the Kingdom of God.

         

His sermon is both a model of Christian witness, and a reproof to many "cultural imperialists,"  who are slow to learn the ways of their audiences, but quick to fling some Bible verses at them.