We are in Acts chapter 17, and in my last blog post, we ended our study with defining the belief systems of two groups that Paul encountered when in Athens: the Epicureans and the Stoics. These two groups in no way passed for religious or held themselves up as religions; rather they were philosophies. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that the goal of these two philosophical institutions was to be the replacement of religion.
It would also be accurate to say that Epicureanism and Stoicism philosophies were competitors to Judaism and therefore competitors to The Way. Essentially these human philosophies were alternative attempts to help pagans come to terms with life; something that Judaism (and true Biblical Hebrew-ism) had done successfully since the days of Moses.
And when given a fair hearing there is no doubt that Judaism and Christianity have never surpassed when it comes to creating a good, just, and workable system of law and society on earth because both of these ways of life are based on God’s truth as opposed to humanity’s inclinations.
Over the centuries the foundational premises of Epicureanism and Stoicism have hung around, just morphing into the latest cultural trends and political correctness, and being given new names. In the modern era, the European Enlightenment of the 18th century adopted these same beliefs (just in new packaging) with the goal of eradicating religion that contained any sort of mysticism from European society.
The primary targets were Christianity and Judaism; it has largely succeeded. In contemporary 21st century times, we call this same goal to abolish religion secularism; or we speak of it politically as Liberal Progressive ideals. So what Paul was confronting in Athens in the 1st century A.D., followers of the God of Israel are also facing today.
Thus (to a degree) just how Paul faced this great challenge is a good model for us in our time. And it is a rather simple example: don’t ever back down. That was Paul’s motto. Tell the divine truth and let the chips fall where they may. Don’t try to find a middle ground with those who choose secular philosophy over trust in God, because there isn’t any.
Whatever you might see is at best a mirage. Any attempt to find common ground will do nothing but frustrate you, or at worst draw you towards their way of thinking and away from the Lord.
2 Corinthians 6:14-18 CJB
Do not yoke yourselves together in a team with unbelievers. For how can righteousness and lawlessness be partners? What fellowship does light have with darkness? What harmony can there be between the Messiah and B’liya’al (Belial)? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever What agreement can there be between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God- as God said, “I will house myself in them,… and I will walk among you. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore ADONAI says, “‘Go out from their midst; separate yourselves; don’t even touch what is unclean. Then I myself will receive you. In fact, I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters.’ says ADONAI-Tzva’ot (the Lord Almighty).”
We see the effects of both Judaism and Christianity’s attempt to make peace with secular Liberal philosophy in the deteriorating health of both religions. In Judaism, the most popular and fastest growing segment is called Reform Judaism.
Reform Judaism is essentially Judaism with a lesser God, with a watered down Holy Book, and with fewer absolutes. Reform doctrines created by committee are their standard for living; they are designed to compromise with the ebb and flow of time and societal evolution.
In Christianity, we have many forms of it with the most recent being what is called the Emergent Church. While a belief in God remains, theirs is a God of tolerance who embraces all forms of religion and worship.
The Judeo-Christian Holy Book, the Bible, while not entirely obsolete, is mostly optional with all other of the world’s religions’ Holy Books seen as equally valid and worthy. Each person then is left to discern their truth and own way of life, none having more merit or value than another.
So let’s see how Paul handled this troubling situation he found in Athens that Luke says shook Paul to his core, and then see if we can derive from it how we ought to deal with in a similar situation in our day both within and without the Church and synagogue.
Read Acts 17:18-34
It is interesting how the Epicureans and the Stoics accused Paul of trying to introduce foreign gods. Let’s talk about that. These two philosophies had little regard for gods in the first place; they didn’t worship any gods or goddesses. So why would they care if Paul was introducing foreign gods into Athens?
- First was because they were mostly trying to rid Athens of religion and the last thing they needed was some new gods that might become popular when introduced.
- Second, then as now, people loved new fashion and new trends. They were also loyal to Greece. And even though they might not have any regard for these Greek gods, they didn’t want some foreigner bringing their gods into Greek society.
We find this same dynamic at play today among atheists, who are by definition secular and Liberal; they are the Stoics of our day. They don’t believe that God or gods exist, yet you or I can’t have a God or worship our God openly because that makes them feel threatened they say. How can they feel threatened by a God that is no more than a fantasy? I wonder if the Avengers make them feel threatened too since they don’t exist, either.
So just as Liberal secularists today take Christians and Jews to court to stop us from worshipping God publically (a god who doesn’t exist they say), so did the Stoics and Epicureans take Paul to court to stop him from praising God (who doesn’t live they say)?
This court in Athens is well known in history; it is called the Court of Areopagus. This court was established centuries earlier to regulate religion and morals. It is interesting that it received its name from the formal designation for the hill of Ares (Ares was the Greek god of war) where they met.
Now, in reality, Paul was not brought to a judicial trial; these people loved exploring new ideas and of course denigrating the ones they thought were unintelligent. So he was brought to the court to explain this religion of his to the religion experts whose job was to examine Paul’s claims.
Verse 21 comments that the city’s grand intellectual inquisitors spent all their time exploring the latest intellectual fads. Today this occupation seems to be the province of our most admired Universities. Not much new under the Sun, is there?
But Paul was no pansy. Paul was an intellectual, too; highly educated and trained, used to grinding debate, and unafraid of confrontation. Jewish literature is filled to the brim with recorded arguments between the brilliant Jewish sages and rabbis, and the many Gentile philosophers.
So this sort of debate wasn’t new to Paul. But he was also fluent in Greek, comfortable and familiar with the pagan world, and as we learn from his epistles, he was a fearless and able defender of the faith. Paul looked around and noticed that of this veritable garden of idols surrounding him at the hill of Ares stood one statue that was marked: “to an unknown god.”
So, says Paul, since you are already worshipping this god that you don’t know anything about, let me introduce him to you. Those words could not have been for those who brought him before the court of Areopagus because they were anything but religious.
However those on the court, and the many Athenian spectators who spent so much of their time in idleness listening in on these empty debates that were the daytime Television of the 1st century in Athens, they were religious and so Paul was addressing himself to them.
Remember: Paul’s goal isn’t to rebut the philosophers as much as it is to have a stage to speak the truth of the Gospel to these pagans. And so Paul begins to explain just who God is.
At first nothing, Paul is saying offends the audience. That is because he is but imparting new and exciting information. The first thing Paul does is to explain the sovereignty of God over all things, and he does this by making the logical argument that since his God created all things including life itself, therefore He is superior and above all things; especially above humanmade things.
Therefore it would be inappropriate for Paul’s God to live in Temples fashioned by human workmanship. And this God can’t be coddled and served with the finest things of earth because he doesn’t need people for anything whatsoever: the God of Israel is the epitome of self-reliance.
Paul continues in verse 26 to explain that God began the human race from one individual whom He created, and so every human being who populates the many nations of the earth came from this first individual; the audience included (is the implication). Even more, it was Paul’s God who decided not only the boundaries of nations but also the limitations of the earth itself.
Let me pause to make a point. I said a few minutes ago that Paul’s defense of the Gospel to pagans and especially to pagan intellectuals is a good model for us. Notice how (to this point at least) the outspoken and often harsh Paul has (for him) been pretty subdued and gentle. He hasn’t spoken down to these pagans about their ignorance of the truth.
But also notice that he begins at the beginning, and not one word of Holy Scripture quoted. Why not? Pagans would have no idea about the source of those Biblical passages and even if they did know they wouldn’t give those words any special credibility. So Paul has to debate them in a language and using terms that have meaning to them.
That is exactly what we must do in our era for speaking God’s truth to people who don’t know who God is. And it will necessarily have to be culturally specific. Paul was talking in a way that Athenians could understand (whether they agreed with him or not was another matter). So we don’t hear him use words like Messiah, redemption, blood of Christ, or Torah. First a context with a foundational base of knowledge has to be built.
So Paul says that God established humans and nations and gave them what they needed so that they would reach out to Him. That is, God would create evidence of Himself, and thus humanity would recognize that something greater than them had to have created all that they see and so begin a search for that “something.”
It might surprise you to learn that several things Paul says to the Athenians in these passages are taken directly from a source that these Greeks would recognize. He quotes from Epimenides, then Aratus. In vs. 28 when Paul says “For in him we live and move and exist” taken from a quatrain written by Epimenides written to criticize the tomb of the god Zeus.
And then when Paul says: “We are his children,” this was originally a sentence composed by the Greek poet Cleanthes and then made very popular by the book that was written by Aratus. And those words were meant to argue that God is willing to let humankind serve Him because He has many needs that need to be served.
But Paul turns this meaning into something else entirely and argues that since all humans are God’s children, then we shouldn’t be making human looking idols since we are made in the image of God and God is not a human.
So Paul is not so much building a case (yet) against the Greek gods as he is making a case of how God is to be properly characterized and worshipped. And if God is not a human, then it is improper to portray him in various human forms (idols).
But now Paul raises his oratory up a notch in vs. 30 as he says that in times past God, in His great mercy, didn’t act upon these wrong actions of gentile humanity because they were merely done in ignorance.
However now, God is commanding that the time has come to put away ignorance, and instead to gain knowledge of the true God, and to turn from sin. These are fighting words because Paul is telling these highly educated Athenians that their centuries-old god system is ignorance and it amounts to sin from which they must turn away.
Next, Paul begins to make his case for Yeshua. He tells his audience that a day is coming when God will judge the world, and it will be through the agency of a particular man that this judging occurs. And that the identity of this man is evident and the proof of it is that God resurrected this man from the dead.
And these thoughts were foreign to any Greek way of thinking; the only nation that had a tradition of a coming day of worldwide judgment by a god was the Hebrew nation: the Jews.
Considering whom he was dealing with, the very first thing that the Athenians had to learn was to turn away from idols. This was also the first thing that the pagan Thessalonians had to learn as we hear from Paul in 1st Thessalonians chapter 1.
1 Thessalonians 1:7-9 CJB
Thus you became a pattern for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia; for the Lord’s message sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but everywhere your trust toward God became known. The result is that we don’t need to say anything; since they themselves keep telling us about the welcome we received from you and how you turned to God from idols, to serve the true God, the one who is alive.
We don’t have to work too hard to imagine the growing upset among most of those listening to Paul. Paul was challenging the very core of Athenian religious life.
But Luke says that what brought many of the crowd to the boiling point was this issue of resurrection. Others didn’t dismiss it out of hand (intellectuals and academics have a habit, for the better or, the worse, of never closing off any line of thought in case new information might surface) and they wanted to hear more on this matter from Paul.
But an immortal soul was not unfamiliar within Greek thought (even though the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers would not accept such a thing). Even so, like with the Hebrew Sadducees, a bodily resurrection was seen as impossible.
Notice a couple of things before we move on. First, nothing is made of Paul’s Jewishness. There seems to be no ethnic bigotry going on here. In fact, Paul was given a pretty fair and respectful hearing. No doubt it was helpful that Paul spoke fluent Greek, but then again so did most Jews in that era (Jews who live in the Diaspora).
When Paul was done speaking, he left. There is no mention of him being detained, arrested, or harassed. Another thing to notice (and keep seeing right through the final words of the New Testament) is that no one perceived a Believer in Yeshua (like Paul) as being part of a new and distinct group of people.
Jews viewed The Way, (by now a mixture of Jews and famous), as but another of the several factions of Judaism. Gentiles didn’t know enough about Judaism or Jewishness to make any distinction about those Jewish sects, and so for them those who followed Christ were Jews, or they were gentiles who adhered to Judaism.
The point is that whereas we hear Bible teachers and commentators refer to the Believers at this time as “Christians” that creates a false mental picture because it imparts the sense that a new religion had been created called Christianity, which was separate from Judaism and different from paganism.
Eventually that would happen but not until after the close of the Bible. So nowhere in the New Testament will we ever find such a thought.
But what is truly astounding is how the Lord worked through Paul in this crowd of Greeks; surrounded by statue after statue of Greek gods and goddesses and examined by the best most persuasive philosophers, some of his listeners actually came to believe.
In fact one of the new Believers was Dionysius who was a member of the court. Interestingly it is a Christian Tradition (spoken about by the early Church Father Eusebius) that Dionysius became the first Church Bishop of Athens. Luke also informs us that a woman named Damaris came to Christ. What we do NOT read about is any baptisms, so no doubt this was a sad ending to Paul’s efforts in Athens.