This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on May 21, 2017.
Many believe this passage in Acts to be a summary rather than a verbatim manuscript of a sermon Paul spoke to the leading philosophers gathered in Athens on the Areopagus. It is highly unlikely that a preacher like Paul would preach only about a two-minute sermon when given the opportunity to stand before the most highly recognized court of philosophical influencers and worldview shapers of his day. This message he spoke in Athens, while highly criticized by biblical scholars and theologians throughout history, is one that brilliantly shows Paul understanding his audience as he attempts to live by his own strategy to become “all things to all people.” (1 Corinthians 9:22)
After Paul had engaged with the people of Athens day after day in the marketplace sharing ideas about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:17-18), he was brought before the Areopagus to explain his teachings (Acts 17:19-20). The Areopagus was an esteemed place and group who gathered as a sort of court of philosophical experts of that day based in Athens. From the 5th century BC Athens was the primary city of influence as it pertained to shaping the culture and the philosophical thought patterns of the ancient world with the Areopagus being the hub from where such influence emanated. When Paul was invited to share his case about Jesus and the resurrection to the Areopagus, this was a signal of honor for Paul, since only the most learned lecturers and scholars were invited to address the court, whose main job it was to determine religion and philosophy for the masses.
Paul’s sermon receives criticism by some because he never once explicitly mentions Jesus by name in this text. Some believe Paul later regrets his philosophical approach to his sermon among the Areopagus as the basis for what he wrote to the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Nonetheless, Paul’s preaching in Athens was used by God to open doors and hearts for further conversation about the gospel that did lead both men and women to repentant saving faith in Jesus (Acts 17:32-34).
Paul’s sermon also exhibits masterful and appropriate cultural engagement to the audience that was before him on this day in Athens. Paul had become both concerned and aware that his audience was confused regarding the teachings of Jesus and the story of his resurrection (Acts 17:18-21). Thus, Paul did what any savvy missiologist would do; he met them on common ground.
It would do no good for Paul to quote biblical texts to his audience who had no knowledge of such manuscripts of authority. Instead, he begins by exhorting them concerning their religiosity (Acts 17:22) as he references the altar with the inscription “To the unknown god.” (Acts 17:23) From here he pivots from a 600-year-old idea of an “unknown god” per the story from a Cretan poet named Epimenides, to proclaiming a new idea of being able to know such an unknowable god. While Paul specifically did not name this knowable God in his sermon, his teaching to the Areopagus was founded on biblical principles that God, indeed, can be known (Deuteronomy 4:35; 1 Kings 8:43; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Psalm 9:10). As Paul establishes the biblical perspective of a God who can be known, he then describes this knowable God as one who is creator of everything (Acts 17:24a), ruler over everything (Acts 17:24b), giver of everything (Acts 17:25), controller over everyone (Acts 17:26), and revealer to his creation (Acts 17:27-29).
These characteristics of a creator God who could be known by all and from whom all of humanity originates were different ideas than the Athenians understood. They believed all Athenians originated from the soil of their Attic homeland and thus were like no other people. Athenians believed there were two kinds of people: Greeks and barbarians. The first group being superior in all ways to the latter. However, Paul teaches new ideas that not only is this knowable God the creator of everyone on earth, but also every person created by God is equal. There is no racial inequality because all nations came from one man (Acts 17:26).
Paul continues to connect with his audience by quoting recognizable poets to help build bridges to his own teachings that supported biblical principles and doctrines about this God they could know. The lines from verse 28 are attributed to Epimenides from his poem Cretica. The words are spoken by Minos, Zeus’ son, in honor of his father: “They fashioned a tomb for thee, o holy and high one—the Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! But thou art not dead; thou livest and abides for ever, for in thee, we live and move and have our being.”
Verse 29 is a reference to the other poet the Athenians would have recognized named Aratus. These words also were about Zeus. “It is with Zeus that every one of us in every way has to do, for we are also his offspring.” Paul used both poems to connect known lines to new ideas for the Athenians to consider. As Paul concludes his speech, he lets his audience know the way to know this knowable God is to “repent” (Acts 17:30). Repentance literally means to rethink the way one thinks about something and go in a new direction. Paul invited his audience to rethink the way they had been thinking about God, and come to know the one God who will judge the world one day. This one who will judge is the one who has been resurrected from the dead by the power of this knowable God (Acts 17:31). Such a new idea was too far out for many to continue exploring and considering on that day. But others wanted to hear and know more. Soon they would rethink the way they think about God as they came to know him (Acts 17:32-34).
Dr. David Rogers
Arapaho Road Baptist Church, Garland, TX
Tags: evangelism, culture, repentance, racism, equality, missiology