Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” – because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (Acts 17:16-34 ESV)
A few years ago Charlotte and I visited Athens and walked the city – enjoyed the food, marvelled at the museums and churches, visited the Parthenon and as we left the Acropolis we headed downwards to the rocky outcrop called the Hill of Ares where today there are no buildings or ruins – it is just a rocky outcrop where the Areopagus was – a place for rulings, judgements, discussions in Ancient Greece. It is between the agora (market) further down the hill and the temple above it and it is the site where Paul explained his ‘babbling’ – his talk about foreign divinities. And yes, it was good to stand still and imagine the scene of our text, slowly turn and see the Athenian skyline while imagining it nearly 2,000 years ago. I imagined the scene, the drama that it is and thought it all pretty exciting.
Why? Because as any speaker knows, the job is so much easier when people are listening; when they want to listen.
Listening is hard work – which is one reason it is hard to do. To really listen is to give of yourself to the speaker – take in the words, images, metaphors, landscape so you see what they see. Often our listening is picking up snippets so we are ready to reply – we are not listening necessarily to understand, we are listening to speak – listening is the means to speaking, rather than the means to understanding, communication – and this is especially so when the people are very different – because it can be hard to hear which is why negotiators and diplomats work very hard at getting people to understand what is being said – making sure what is heard is what was said.
Paul’s presentation is straightforward. You Athenians are religious – that is obvious – you worship all the gods you know – even ones you don’t know – just in case, eh? Well, you’re right about not knowing the true God and I have a message from him.
Let me pause for a second. The Athenians and the Greeks knew many gods. They weren’t short of them. Zeus was often viewed as the Supreme Being – not actually a pleasant fellow – and viewed more philosophically than devotionally – in the ‘living and moving and having our being’ description. People might want to be like Zeus but not want to really meet him.
The Greek plays were full of gods. Aeschylus wrote Greek tragedies and the third play in the Orestia trilogy – The Eumenides – is about Athena organising a trial for Orestes for killing his mother the outcome of which will result that crimes in Athens are to taken to court – the Areopagus – rather than summary justice or vengeance. What is interesting are lines from Apollo who has spoken about Zeus caring for the deaths of fathers (parents) only to have the Chorus mock him by reminding him that Zeus locked up his father Cronos to which he replies:
You loathsome subhumans, detestable to the gods, chains can be loosed, imprisonments can end— and Zeus can end them any way he likes. But once a man’s blood’s been sucked into the earth, he dies, and there can be no resurrection. No magic my father’s made will bring him back. Zeus orders all things, as effortless as a breath; yet in all Zeus’ world you will find no cure for death.
(The Eumenides line 643-650)
My point is that this classical Greek tragedy is part of the air the Athenians are breathing. Listen to how the gods speak. Notice how the gods react to humans who question them. Hear the gods’ judgement about death.
So when Paul is talking about God, he brings his one God now revealed in Jesus perspective to the speech. God does not need our worship or anything we make for him and he has made it possible for us to know that he has created and made us. Our lives only make sense when we realise that there is a God. You, Athenians, know this – hence all your worship of gods, your idols, gold and silver. But this gets you no where – look at all your altars – you just don’t know, do you, who or what is god – and what you know about your gods isn’t comforting. In reality you’re guessing. In reality you’re hoping for something better; something more. Well, I am here to tell you that God has acted to make himself known through one man and that all people are to repent and follow him. Why? Because God raised this man from the dead!
Paul took the Athenian landscape – the gods and their autonomy, the gods and the vagaries of justice – though one can work towards it, and he took humanity hoping for more than this world but conceding that death is supreme, and living is a mixture of hopes and dreams but there is nothing certain and that means that people are not really accountable in any big scheme of things – though they may face justice and consequence in this world, everyone knows the world is unfair – and he turned it on its head by saying there is only one God who made all and humanity is accountable to him and he has acted so that people can live with God through this one man. How do we know all this? Because God raised this one man from the dead!
Can you sense how revolutionary this message is?! It takes the same parts of the story – gods, people, life and death and reorganises them into a story about God rescuing people from death so they can live with him now and always. And the clincher?! The point where the rubber hits the road? I think – and it was more threatening and challenging than the message of the resurrection – was the call to repent! If we are not cosmically accountable – if we just fade into dust – then life is what you can make of it, grab out of it. But if there is meaning to creation – a meaning to us – a personal meaning for each of us – then the call to repent challenges us more than probably anything else!
“How dare you say I need to repent!” That’s humanity’s inner response – rebellion. But the call to repentance makes sense when we hear about Jesus’ cross and empty tomb and ‘daily repentance’ is how we follow this living resurrected Jesus.
Today the gods aren’t feared but regarded as tame personal choices and humans are masters of their own destinies. The fears of the ancient world have largely gone – though COVID-19, I think, has ramped up anxiety and worries, fears and grief – and what Paul did by listening and seeing how people think and feel and live gave him contact points to tell them about Jesus. His defence of Jesus – today we call this apologetics – was not hellfire and brimstone but the beginning of a respectful dialogue. He did not impose his message. He did not enforce his message. In effect he trusted the Holy Spirit to use his words – however they came out – to draw people to Jesus. And that is what we can learn from his sermon on the Areopagus. Paul observed and listened. And then there was a moment when the Athenians said we will listen to you.
Paul was speaking the truth with a goal – and we tend to describe it as “that the Athenians would believe in Jesus” and it isn’t wrong but I think it makes it too rational, too cerebral, too much in the head so to speak. I think Paul’s sermon’s goal was comfort and he was hitting those points about life that were worrying or fearful and saying in effect, “Jesus can help, Jesus cares, Jesus doesn’t abandon his people, Jesus is with us, Jesus is kind, Jesus forgives, Jesus loves you”. Paul wanted his hearers to discover not a remote fearful God but a God who walks with them and cares.
Is that insane?
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
- Acts 17:16 - 34