It had been a most strenuous journey for Paul. He had responded to the man in the Macedonian vision and came over to preach Jesus. At Philippi, he and Silas had been beaten for the faith and cast into prison. Even so, the Lord made something good happen as the jailor and his family had been saved. Luke had been left there to get the church started, and Paul’s letter to them years later shows the fruit of his suffering work there. But Paul was thrown out of town the next day.
Paul then came to Thessaloniki. He passed through several towns and villages along the way. Why he did not stop is a mystery to us. Paul went first as was his custom to the synagogue in Thessaloniki for several weeks. But his message there was for the most part rejected, and when the Jews stirred up the rabble of the city to violence, Paul was forced to leave quickly. Things went initially a bit better at Berea, but the Jews from Thessaloniki came and stirred up trouble. Paul was forced to leave and ended up at Athens.
Exposition of the Text
Paul had left his fellow missionaries at other churches to tend to the new works there and was alone. Paul was not the type to wait quietly for his colleagues to rejoin him, so he took a survey of the city. The days of Athens political greatness were long gone, but the city was revered for the great minds it had produced. It was a great university city, the birthplace of the philosophers.
Even though most of the philosophers had reduced the number of gods in favor of an abstract monotheism of an unknowable god or in the case of the Epicureans were on the verge of Atheism, Paul found plenty of temples, monuments, and inscriptions there to the ancient gods. This troubled Paul greatly who was a true monotheist. Somewhere during his survey of the city he found an empty pedestal with the inscription “to the unknown god” or perhaps “to the unknowable god”.
After Paul finished the survey of Athens, he went to the marketplace called the Agora in Greek. This was more than just our mall of today. Yes there where shops where goods and services were bought and sold. It was also a marketplace for ideas. Just like in some cities where one can see a musician or artist playing for tips and recognition in the public spaces, the Agora served as a platform for philosophers to try out their philosophy. I would suppose that the intellectuals of the place would come down to hear the “would be” philosophers babble for entertainment. For the philosophers themselves, they had grown weary of trying to find the answer to life and settled down to criticize anyone who thought that they did.
Paul saw an opportunity to preach Jesus there. The people of the city were almost entirely Pagan. There were a few Jews there, but Paul did not seem to find a synagogue there. So he started to preach about Jesus and his resurrection there. The people had no Old Testament background to support what Paul was teaching, so they supplied their own heathen background. Many took the Greek word for “resurrection” (anastasis) as being the name of a new goddess who was Jesus’ consort. The Greeks thought this as being a new and exotic fertility cult. This seems to explain why the Epicureans and Stiocs took notice.
The Epicureans and Stoics were about as different as night and day, even more than the division between the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Epicureans were the Darwinists of their day. They held to a philosophy of maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain. They were not wild hedonists who believed in debauchery but were pragmatic. Their avoidance of painful stimuli meant that they would avoid pleasures that had painful hangovers. They had virtually excluded God from their thoughts.
The Stoics, on the other hand, were Pantheists. They believed in the divinity of the universe. This means that all humans were in part divine. Everyone had at least a spark of the divine. The Stoics believed that hardship developed character and did not try to avoid it. Rather they sought to find purpose in it. They believed in virtue and truth. So we can see from this that the Epicureans and Stoics held little in common.
It says that the Epicureans and Stoics came to the marketplace and found Paul preaching there. They were looking for amusement and thought they had found the perfect jester. So they invited Paul to come and explain himself to the Aerophagus which was a type of city council. The intellectuals there would have a field day amusing themselves with Paul. Or so they thought.
After Paul was placed in front of the council at Mars Hill, Paul took the opportunity to preach Jesus to a very skeptical audience. He began by telling them of the discovery he had made of an empty pedestal with the inscription in Greek “Agnostoi theoi”. We get the word “agnostic” from the first word. The second word is the Greek word for God. Whether the Greeks were covering their bases in erecting a monument to a catch-all god in case they had left one out or that the previous statue and inscription destroyed and they did not know who to dedicate it to, we do not know,
Paul noted an inconsistency in the Greeks when he reminds them of their superstition. The educated elite had long dismissed the ancient gods and winked at them. They were for the devotion of the ignorant. To most of the educated Greeks who had a concept of god at all, it was of one who was totally unknown or unknowable. This god could not have contact with anything including humans, or else it would involve changeability in God.
Paul now goes on to explain the God they had ignorantly erected an empty pedestal and inscription to. The so-called wise of the world love to call themselves by the sophisticated Greek word “agnostic”, but it is interesting that the word translated through Latin is “ignoramus”. The irony here is that the men of the council probably took the first meaning, whereas Paul who was disturbed by what he saw in Athens took it in the Latin sense.
In telling the men of Athens about the God they did not know, Paul was telling the Greeks that they were wrong in their thinking. He was declaring that God can be known and how He is known. If the Epicureans and Stoics had found his talking in the Agora strange, what Paul was about to say was really strange. Some of the Greeks who followed Aristotle believed in what is called the “unmoved mover” or first cause of the universe. Others held that matter and creation is eternal. But none of them held to the idea of God being a creator. Most of the Greeks considered creation and being in the body as a kind of prison house for the soul, a prison escaped by the liberation of death. Even though Paul does not quote Genesis or any other Scripture in his sermon at Athens, he is clearly echoing the thought of Genesis 1.
Paul continues to explain that this God needs no physical temple, nor does He need anything made by human hands. God is the one who provides, not the one who needs provision. He does not need to be represented by idols and carried from place to place. Instead God is the one who moves humans. He appoints nations their territory and times. In other words, the true God is not just creator, he is the sustainer of the universe as well. He did not just throw the universe into motion and then retire to amuse himself with what His creatures would do. The God Paul presents to the Athenians is no Deistic god. He is sovereign over the universe. In this Paul was truly expounding God who the Greeks had been entirely ignorant of.
The Athenians held great pride in their city, its history, and their wisdom. But Paul tells them that all human beings descend from one person. In other words, the Greeks were nothing special. Even that which they had was a gift of God’s grace to fulfill His purpose. God sets up nations and peoples for a time and casts them down, according to His will. The God Paul proclaims has left His stamp everywhere. Without citing Scripture, He is scriptural. He is not compromising his faith in order to gain a better hearing. He is confronting the willful unbelief of the Athenians.
Paul describes this willful blindness to that of groping for God. The word for grope here is the one Homer uses in the Odyssey for the attempt of the Cyclops to catch Odysseus and his men after Odysseus had poked out the Cyclops’ eye. It was a blind stab in the dark. As Homer was one of the greatest and earliest of the Greek epic poets and revered in Athens, this unusual word would certainly have captured their attention. The wise and proud Athenians were being compared to the blinded monster groping to catch and devour Odysseus and his men. This was not a great affirmation to those who heard Paul. Like the Cyclops which was not far from the men he was trying to catch, the Athenians were surrounded by the truth of God, yet blind to it.
Paul then goes on and actually quotes a Greek philosopher, Aratus who had lived some three hundred years earlier. Interestingly enough, he was a expositor of Homer, from Paul’s home country of Tarsus, and a Stoic. He may have quoted from Epimenides also, whom he also quotes in the book of Titus. Does Paul’s use of the Greek poets and Homer instead of Scripture affirm the wisdom of the Greeks? I would rather think it proves their blindness. Even though Paul quotes a Stoic, the God which Paul presents to the Athenians is anything but Stoic.
Paul then goes on to tell the Athenians about the judgment. This is certainly not a Stoic, Epicurean, or and other Greek idea, If man is basically divine, as much as he is real at all, they thought, how could there be a future judgment. If anything life on earth was hell and death liberation. This idea of judgment would really have struck a sour note in the council. This presentation of Paul was not the amusement they had come to hear.
Paul had just gotten to preach Jesus whom God had raised from the dead as proof of this judgment when he was cut off from the council. This was more than they could bear, and they curtly dismissed him. Apart from a handful of believers, the mission to Athens was by human appearance unsuccessful. But from the point of view of God, people were added to the kingdom including a member of the city council. God’s purpose for Paul was exactly what was ordained. God will save the one or the many. Jesus had preached to crowds, and He also preached to the Samaritan woman. We also do not know how many people through the few converts ended up being reached for Christ.
I can remember going to Gatlinburg in January to attend the Conference youth retreat called “Resurrection.” The music was loud and the youth rushed the stage as if programmed like robots. In fact, it as a whole felt programmed. I can remember the preacher who talked about himself, his visions, what his church was doing, and his call. He gave out his number for anyone to call. In all, he tried to play the rock star. He preached from one word from Psalm 27:14 for three straight services. Any reference to Scripture was in passing, just like Paul’s quotes from Greek philosophers. Has the church gotten to the place that it can preach Jesus without using the Scripture? I was as troubled in spirit as much as Paul was in Athens.
In Athens, Paul was addressing unbelievers who had never heard of Scripture and didn’t quote it. Nevertheless, the message was Scriptural in its content. Here the preacher was addressing church youth and not quoting Scripture. And the content was not very Biblical either. There were vague references to Christ, brokenness and healing, but nothing like what was used to be preached in the Methodist Church. Wesley was a man of one book, the Bible. This preacher was a man of no book.
I can understand Paul’s approach. But I see no justification for the approach to Resurrection. It was entirely engineered to people’s emotions and intended to bypass the head. I am certainly no supporter of a heartless orthodoxy that can spit out the correct doctrine, but I cannot support mindless religion either. All in all, it resembled Baal worship more than Christian.
The correct approach is spelled out in Deuteronomy 6. Because Jehovah was to be Israel’s only God who demanded singleness of service, the Israelites were commanded to engage all of their person in worship. This means all of one’s mind as well as all of one’s soul and strength. What God wants is the total person, not just the intellectual person or the emotional one.
We also don’t preach Jesus Christ who is coming to judge the living and the dead any more. We preach only the love of God and not the wrath. We don’t want to offend anyone. But Paul was not afraid to offend the intellectually minded Athenians. And when Paul started to get to the judgment and was cut off, it showed that he was right on the message of the Gospel. What he said before Jesus when he talked about God was challenging, but this did not end his speech. What ended it was when he mentioned that the resurrection of Jesus was the proof that God was going to judge the earth through Him. The Athenians needed to repent or else because the death and resurrection of Christ was the end of the winking by God at the Athenians.
The same message needs to resound from American pulpits again. As Paul told Timothy to preach the word “in season and out of season” we need to realize that rebuke is part of the message. This is never popular preaching, but it is the only preaching that can save. Until it is clear that the unconverted are lost, not merely broken of unfulfilled, and that Jesus is going to hold them accountable unless they repent, then we have not done our bounden duty. God will require this of the preacher who failed to utter a clear warning.
If we don’t sound out the warning. Jesus is coming back to judge the living and the dead anyway, ready or not.