Ps Rob described how Paul was culturally savvy.
Paul is on his second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-18:32); preaching the gospel in cities such as Antioch, Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. He has endured intense persecution (flogging, imprisonment & riots) and yet he has marvelled at the supernatural move of God and the rapid growth of the First Century Church. When Paul finally arrives in the ancient city of Athens (c 51 A.D.) he knew the city was a shadow of her golden age that began in the 5th century B.C. but nonetheless Athens was a source of fascination and concern. Athens has been the centre of culture, philosophy and religion. Like Paul when we think of Athens we think of Alexander the Great, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Athens is the cradle of western civilization and democracy.
Keep in mind that Paul is currently in Athens alone, awaiting his missionary partners Silas and Timothy to join him (17:15-16). What does Paul do? Does he book himself at the Holiday Inn or local backpackers? Does he buy souvenirs for his family and friends? Paul isn’t a tourist – he’s a missionary.
1. Finger on the pulse
While Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy he strolled through the crowded streets of Athens (17:23) and took a pulse of the city. What is the heartbeat of Athens? What is the cities personality?
Paul was not a tourist but a student of culture, explorer and an evangelist. He walked, listened, observed, asked questions, ate their Souvlaki and drank their red wine. For a few days Paul was temporarily immersed in their culture. You can imagine Paul visiting the public library and the national art gallery. He overheard conversations while having an espresso; he listened to poetry recited, historians teaching and intellectuals debating. Paul saw Greek plays and observed the Athenian architecture, music halls, theatres and sculptures.
Paul looked carefully at their numerous objects of worship and he was overwhelmed by what he saw. He saw Olympus, Zeus, Apollo, Neptune, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Nike, Coca-Cola, Gucci, Apple, Billabong, Sony, Prada, McDonalds, LG, Tiffany, Rolex, Levi’s, Armani, Fender and Lamborghini. Paul realised that the ancient saying was true - “It was easier to find a god than a man in Athens.” (Petronious).
Like Daniel (last weeks sermon) Paul’s senses were on high alert, especially his spirit. Athens on the one hand was a very cultural and sophisticated city, but it was also flooded with idols, gods, goddesses, shrines, altars, superstition, myths, philosophers and brothels. He was overwhelmed by the smell from pagan sacrifices and the sounds of demonic religious festivals.
We read in verse 16 that Paul was distressed (provoked, irritated) to see that the city was full of gods; i.e. they had given herself over to idols. However a message of transformation was getting birthed on the inside. As part of his observation and interaction with this new culture Paul went to the local Synagogue and reasoned, explained or discussed (17:17 c/f 17:2, 10) with Jews and the God-fearing Greeks about Jesus. It was amazing that this Jewish community existed in this pagan city.
Paul also went to the marketplace (centre of civic life) – where intellectuals and philosophers debated (17:17). His listening turned into Paul preaching and many found his teaching amusing, suspicious, insulting and intriguing. Two philosophical parties wanted to take the matter of Paul’s discussion further but in a different place (18). They escorted Paul to the Areopagus or Mars Hill (19). This was an ancient rocky hill NW of the Acropolis and a council meeting overseeing religion in Athens.
Who were they?
The Epicureans: named after their founder Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) and believed the essential purpose of life was pleasure - “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor 15:32) They were essentially atheists but if there were gods they’re not involved with humanity. For the Epicureans life is a party. A contemporary expression of Epicureans is – If it feels good, do it!
The Stoics: were founded by the philosopher Zeno from Cyprus and they believed that god indwelt all things (pantheism) and they emphasised self-discipline, self-control and self-sufficiency. For the Stoics life is to be endured. It is interesting that the first two leaders of the Stoic school committed suicide. We sometime use the expression – that person is so Stoic (don’t show feelings & unaffected by pleasure or pain); e.g. Jason Bourne, The Bourne Trilogy. A contemporary expression of Stoicism is – Life wasn’t meant to be easy.
The Athenian and foreigners spent their time doing nothing and listening to the latest religious ideas and fads (21).
2. Building bridges
Paul is at the historic Mars Hill – what an amazing opportunity. How does Paul commence? How does Paul as a missionary connect with this new culture? He didn’t read the first commandment – You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make an idol… (Ex 20:3-4) and spoke words of condemnation.
After all the city was full of idols, i.e. given themselves over to idolatry (17:16, 23). An idol is simply a god substitute. But he starts where they’re at.
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 the inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. (17:22-23)
Men of Athens (22a) – typical and formal Athenian opening of address spoken in Greek (Greek was the primary trade language of the time).
His message is about to be birthed from what he has experienced while staying in Athens. Remember Paul is speaking out of distress (16) and compassion. Paul begins with his first impression of them – I see that in every way you are very religious (22b). He is not condemning, critical or cynical.
In a sense Paul validates their spiritual hunger, yet graciously reveals that their zeal has been tragically misplaced. G. Campbell Morgan said, “In every system of false religion there is an open door for the true.” He then begins to expose the futility of their deception and ignorance to the one true God. Paul rightly discerns that Athens is a demonic stronghold of darkness.
Paul then said he noticed the intriguing plaque – To an unknown God (23). They know the plaque – they probably walk pass it every day. He’s answering a question they’ve been asking - who is this unknown God? Paul draws them in by saying he knows the name of their unknown God? I have encountered Him. He has transformed me. Wherever I go I proclaim Him. I will make known what has been unknown (23b)
For in him we live and move and have our being (28a)
However this is not a quote from the Old Testament (no cross references) but an expression found substantially in several ancient Greek poets, e.g. the Cretan poet Epimenides (a poem written to Zeus).
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever, for in thee we live and move and have our being.
We are his offspring (28b)
Paul now quotes from the Cilician poet Aratus (315-240 BCE): “It is with Zeus that every one of us in every way has to do, for we are also his offspring” (Phaenonlena 5).
This quote is from a hymn to Zeus by the Greek poet Aratus. Paul uses a quote from the world to reveal spiritual truth. Is Paul compromising the gospel?
Build a bridge to what?
1. Eternity of God (24) i.e. created the heavens and the earth
2. Sovereignty of God (26) i.e. God oversees the expansion of humanity
3. Accessibility of God (27) i.e. God is near to those who seek Him
4. Repentance (30) i.e. ignorance doesn’t cut it
5. Final judgment (31) i.e. Jesus has been appointed the righteous judge
6. Resurrection of Jesus (31) i.e. foundation of Paul’s preaching
The purpose of preaching (cultural mandate) is to point people to Jesus. Lives are transformed when we preach and reveal Jesus – it’s all about Jesus.
Ministry in the market place – lessons from Paul in Athens
1. Walk, look and feel: vision often starts with distress, agitation and holy discontentment; e.g. education, homelessness, disease, idolatry etc
2. Build bridges in conversations: i.e. start where people are at. Start with the familiar and get into their world
3. Paul quoted pagan poetry: what are the songs, books or movies that carry a redemptive message or reveals spiritual truth
4. Where is our marketplace or Mars Hill? E.g. Cafes, universities, shopping centre, office, school, football oval, beach, movies, neighbours etc
5. Point people to Jesus:
We will look for Him and reach out and find Him. (Acts 17:27)