Today’s reading: Acts 16-17.
Paul found himself alone in Athens, the philosophical center of the world. After getting angry at all the idols he saw in the city, he climbed up to Mars Hill and began talking with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who gathered there. They welcomed him with the skeptical minds of those who are more interested in the curiosity of a thing than in the truth or application of it. The Epicureans pursued pleasure or happiness as their main goal, but looked for it through wise living rather than pure hedonism. They believed the gods were detached from human affairs. The Stoics sought the virtue of living according to reason. They believed God was the source of reason who acted to create everything, but that he or it was a fiery force permeating the universe rather than a person. Paul presented the truth about Jesus, at times appealing to the beliefs of these philosophies and at times arguing against them.
Religion is not in sacrifices but in relationship.
“Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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.” Acts 17:22-23
Paul despised the idolatry of the Athenians, but rather than criticize them he praised their religious activity in order to make an appeal to them. His goal was to show them that God was not an inanimate idol but a knowable person who sought fellowship with them.
God is not unknown but revealed.
“Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. 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 hands.” Acts 17:23-24
All the philosophers looked upon God as unknowable, either because of his indifference to men or because of his lack of personhood. Paul declared the opposite, that God had made himself known by his word and by his presence in the person of Jesus Christ.
Our circumstances are not our own but are under God’s providence.
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” Acts 17:26-27
Rather than ignoring men as the Epicureans thought, God made the world so they would seek him out. God providentially placed men in situations where they would have access to knowledge of him. This was especially true of the men on Mars Hill who heard Paul preach the Good News.
Time is not circular but linear.
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 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 all men by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:30-31
The Stoics taught that the universe went through endless cycles of creation and destruction with each cycle identical to the previous one. Many people today still believe in this “circle of life.” Paul preached instead that time was moving in a line from original creation to final judgment, with the life and resurrection of Jesus as the most unique and significant event on that timeline. Judgment Day was coming, and men needed to prepare for it.
Some men sneered at Paul’s talk of resurrection, but others wanted to hear more. A few even believed and became disciples. Paul understood the worldviews of his audience and used that to make his appeal compelling.
There were many altars to unknown gods in Athens. Six hundred years before this a terrible pestilence had fallen on the city which nothing could halt. A Cretan poet, Epimenides, had come forward with a plan. A flock of black and white sheep were let loose throughout the city from the Areopagus. Wherever each lay down it was sacrificed to the nearest god; and if a sheep lay down near the shrine of no known god it was sacrificed to “The Unknown God.” From this situation Paul takes his starting point. There are a series of steps in his sermon.
- The days of groping and ignorance are past. So long as men had to search in the shadows they could not know God and he excused their follies and their mistakes; but now in Christ the full blaze of the knowledge of God has come and the day of excuses is past.
- The day of judgment is coming. Life is neither a progress to extinction, as it was to the Epicureans, nor a pathway to absorption to God, as it was to the Stoics; it is a journey to the judgment seat of God where Jesus Christ is Judge.
- The proof of the preeminence of Christ is the resurrection. It is no unknown God but a Risen Christ with whom we have to deal. – William Barclay, Daily Study Bible
Image, “Akropolis,” by Leo von Klenze