In the last post we described the Apostle Paul’s frame of mind and the philosophical and religious environment of Athens. He is about to speak to the highest audience in all of Greece, the philosophical leaders of all of Greece in an open-air forum. This audience, who spend all their time looking for something they have never heard before, has little knowledge of Jewish history or the ancient scriptures. Surely this is the most gentile of all Gentile audiences Paul has yet encountered. What will he say to them to try to win them to Christ? Will the Holy Spirit break through the hardness of their intellectual pride with the reality of Christ crucified for their sins? Surely this situation has striking parallels to the intellectual pride of today and the apparent ineffectiveness of the Gospel against it!
Please begin by reading Paul’s message in Acts 17:22-31 in its entirety. As you do, think about how this message differs from what Paul might have said in a Jewish synagogue.
Welcome back! Now let’s start at the top and carefully consider each segment of Paul’s message. As before, please read each of the following segments for yourself before reading my comments. As always, I plead with you to weight my comments in the light of God’s Word, and not the other way around!
17:22 — Paul begins by paying them a compliment. His first impression in the minds of the Stoics and Epicureans was that he had picked up on the signs of a religious culture of which they were very proud. The NASB translation usually remains pretty close to the sentence structure of the original Greek, but in this case it’s flip-flopped from how we say it in English. If you’re of German descent, you may be used to comprehending “throwing the horse over the fence some hay,” and that’s kind of what this passage is like. At the same time, I think the NASB does its usual exellent job of conveying full and correct meaning. In Greek, Luke recorded Paul as literally saying, “Men of Athens, down from all who reverence divine things you I perceive by keen observation.” Yes… well… ahem!
What can we glean from this? By the way, I can’t resist “juicy” Greek words, and this verse has a dandy one — deisidaimonesterous, and such words usually cannot be translated adequately into a single English word. The translators of the NASB translated it “religious,” and it’s one of the key words in the verse. It can be used to represent the degree to which the devout Jew practiced the Law scrupulously in all things, and it can also be used to represent superstitions held scrupulously. But I suspect Paul chose this word to emphasize the scrupulous nature of their religious practice, regardless of whether it was truth or superstition. Today missionaries recognize that superstitious religions in unreached tribal societies are strongly held by their practitioners and need to be overcome with the truth of the Gospel.
The second important word is theorow, the last word in the sentence, which the NASB translators moved into the middle of the sentence to make it read better in English — “I observe.” You may remember the difference between how John and Peter “looked” into the empty tomb. John “glanced” in, but Peter entered and looked intently, contemplating what his eyes brought to his mind, desiring to understand (John 20:5-6). The word Paul used is the same word that John used for Peter’s “observation.” It indicates thoughtful perception. It is the word from which we take our English word “theory” — Peter and Paul both saw and theorized about the meaning of what they saw.
Why are these two words important? Religiosity was important to the pride of the Athenians, whether true or false. Paul is not saying (yet) that the object of their religion is true or false, only that they are religious, which they would have taken as a compliment (at least the Stoics would have, and the Epicureans would have been proud of being religiously irreligious). At the same time Paul portrays himself as being intelligent among the intelligencia of Athens by his ability to observe and thoughtfully deduce the truth. No one had to teach him the rudiments of Greek religion, he understood them by observation and reason. (This was a hallmark of early Greek science, which partly forms the basis of modern science. The glaring omission in Greek science was that they left out experimental testing to see if their observation and reason had led them to a conclusion that actually worked in the real world.)
So Paul has, in few words, complimented his audience and hopefully placed himself in good standing with them as an intellectual peer!
17: 23 — Paul now explains the logical basis for his premise of the previous verse. Why does he think they are “thoroughly religious?” He says that as he was wandering around in the city and thinking about (anatheoreow = “theorizing”) the objects of their worship (the many statues and altars), he noticed one altar in particular — an altar “To the Unknown God.” We’ve already spent some time in the previous post describing the Athenians’ desire to leave no stone unturned, and this particular altar (perhaps more than one) was the ultimate expression of that desire. It was a fire insurance policy, just in case they had left any god out! It was an acknowledgment on their part that there may be a god unknown to them, who they would worship even if He was unknowable.
The word chosen by the translators as “ignorance” is agnoreow, which forms the basis for our English word “agnostic.” It doesn’t mean “stupid,” nor did his audience take it that way. An agnostic is a person who believes that there may be a God but He cannot be known. In truth, however, it’s not so much that such a God has made no effort to reveal himself to man, but that man has chosen to reject all purported evidence of any such efforts. This is an easy and convenient position to take today because modern science gives us an excuse to reject the miraculous. Such a God’s existence and knowability can’t be proved scientifically.
Men in general and theologians in particular have spent a great deal of time and thought concerning “proofs of God.” At its root is the question, “Can God’s existence be arrived at starting from within human consciousness through reason or evidence?” Personally I believe we can come close, but whatever gap remains must be taken by faith — and that is by God’s design, for “without faith it is impossible to please Him.” Can you imagine what effect any conclusive proof of God’s existence solely by human reason would have on his sinful pride? Even if such proof were available, it would not be sufficient for admission into Heaven!
In spite of such flawed thinking, Paul is about to explain to his audience that the god they thought could not be known, has, in fact, gone to unimaginable extremes throughout human history to make Himself known, culminating with coming down to Earth in person and …
17:24-26 — Paul begins by listing the characteristics of such a God. He would have to be pre-existent and therefore the creator of everything. He could not be contained in structures devised by humans (temples). He would not need anything — no food, no dancers, no sacrifices, … none of the things the Athenians commonly brought to their altars in acts of worship. In fact it’s the other way around — the Athenians received daily all the things they needed from this pre-existent creator Lord. Finally, starting with one man (Adam), He filled the earth with the human race — and set times and boundaries for the rise and fall of their civilizations!
This last point is important. While the Greeks took pride in their culture, they knew the nadir of Greek greatness had passed — they knew they were under Roman rule! This was an inspired approach (cliches aside, I mean that literally since the Holy Spirit was giving Paul the words and directions to use moment by moment). Why would such a God, if benevolent, allow great civilizations to fall and be replaced by others?
17:27-28 — This God above and before all other gods allows civilizations and the men that populate them to come and go in the flow of history to make them question the reason for their existence and be driven to seek Him in their uncertainty! Even though it’s like groping in the dark for the camera you dropped when they turned the lights out briefly during the cave tour, this God, like the tour guide with his hand on the light switch, is not far a way — a few feet at most. Even though we are in darkness like we have never experienced before, we continue to exist, to think, to touch, to hear. In a sense, a part of our being (our vision) now is “in” the tour guide, or at least in his hands.
Paul drives the point home by noting that some of the Greek poets have said as much. Which ones? Where? Most study Bibles don’t provide details here, but once again Conybeare and Howson come to the rescue:
“The quotation is from Aratus, a Greek poet, who was a native of Cilicia, a circumstance which would, perhaps, account for St. Paul’s familiarity with his writings. His astronomical poems were so celebrated, that Ovid declares his fame will live as long as the sun and moon endure. How little did the Athenian audience imagine that the poet’s immortality would really be owing to the quotation made by the despised provicial [Paul] who addressed them. Nearly the same words also appear in the hymn of Cleanthes… The opening lines of this hymn have been thus translated:–
‘Thou, who amid the Immortals art throned the highest in glory,
Giver and Lord of life, who by law disposest of all things,
Known by many a name, yet One Almighty for ever,
Hail, O Zeus! for to Thee should each mortal voice be uplifted:
Offspring are we too of thine, we and all that is mortal around us.”
As Conybeare and Howson noted, it no doubt came as a surprise that this unknown speaker of lowly stature is not only aware of their own poets but is able to quote them back to them to make his point!
17:29 — Paul then states a small conclusion, upon which he will base a much greater conclusion: If it is true that we are offspring of such a God (whether He is known to us or not), then it is foolish to think that such a God’s essence can be contained in or represented by anything made of earthly materials by man’s artistic skills. To do so only demonstrates our ignorance of Him.
17:30-31 — THEREFORE this God has now made a change. Until now, He has chosen to overlook such ignorance. (Remember ignorance is not the same as stupidity. Paul is not insulting them by saying they are of low IQ. He is simply saying that he has some information of which they are unaware.) But now He has done something undeniable, and from here on out he expects that when men become aware of this information they will see their former ignorance and change their minds. (All of this is wrapped up in the single word “repent”, metanoein, which literally means to do an “about-face” in thinking. It means to recognize wrong thinking and adopt right thinking.) Why should they do such a thing, and what has this God done that makes it apparent?
They should change their thinking immediately because this God has always had a date on his calendar when He will rightly judge the entire human race, calling them to account. He will do this through a Judge He has specifically appointed. How do we know who this Judge is? This God has already proved it by doing the impossible — raising Him from the dead…
17:32-34 — At this point I suspect we could have heard a pin drop. There were a few seconds of astonished silence — then someone started laughing. Then another and another. Luke tells us there were three reactions. Some laughed, holding Paul’s message in derision. Others were indifferent, telling Paul they’d hear more some other time.
Both reactions were inevitable given the humanistic intellectual culture that comprised the audience. They already held all gods, including those that could not be known, to be contained within the scope of their understanding, and therefore subject to their reason.It’s notable that they were uninterested in any evidence of Paul’s absurd claim that anyone could come back from the dead. We’ve already noted that Greek science was long on reason and short on evidence. Paul was summarily dismissed, having lost their interest at this point. It’s interesting, however, that Paul had their undivided attention, with a few surprises included, right up to the very end. The point at which they rejected his message was the resurrection. It wasn’t from lack of evidence — there was ample evidence then and now, including hundreds of eye-witnesses. It was their unwillingness to receive information that was radical to their own finite understanding. Their basic premise was that there was nothing outside the scope of their comprehension. The fact that their comprehension included recognition of things unknown to them was sufficient.
The resurrection, and therefore the whole Gospel, has always been radical to conventional thinking. It requires accepting that science and philosophy have inadequacies and limitations, boundaries to which God is not bound as we are. He reserves to Himself the right to cross those boundaries at will, and leave behind incontrovertible evidence of having done so. When we say the Gospel must be accepted by faith, it is not by blind faith unsupported by real evidence. It is faith that God is bigger than science, bigger than philosophy, bigger than anything that can originate in the mind of man. All of these things are bases of the pride of man, and to accept God on faith is hard because it requires setting aside this pride.
I said there were three reactions, but have only noted two. The third was very small. Verse 34 describes it — Dionysius, Damaris and others believed and joined with Paul.
Despite different schools of philosophy, what the Athenians had in common was a form of detailed religiosity that included an element of agnosticism. Sound familiar? How convenient! Motions to go through that make us feel accepted and approved, but no ultimate accountability. A world view whose boundaries are determined only by the capacity of our own minds, and a denial of the knowability of anything outside those boundaries. It’s a picture of American culture today.
To any potential reader who considers himself or herself to be an agnostic, allow me to summarize Paul’s message to ancient Athens:
- I can see that you may be a good person, and are serious about the observances you have chosen to incorporate into your life.
- You have considered whether or not God exists. Unlike the atheist, you are willing to recognize that it’s possible such a God exists but he’s outside the scope of your knowledge and experience — you’re convinced you just can’t know for sure.
- If so, it’s possible that someone else might have knowledge and experience in this area that you are simply lacking. Paul believed he had that information, and so do I.
- The God I know and you claim cannot be known pre-existed the universe, the Earth, the human race, and created them all. He is Lord of all of that and of the realm where he lives, which lies outside of that.
- He is too big and his nature is such that he cannot be contained in human-created buildings.
- He doesn’t need anyone to provide him with anything (since He created it all in the first place). Instead, He provides life, food, possessions, and all other things to us.
- He grew the entire human race starting with one man and one woman, and has regulated the rise and fall of the empires of human history at his decree and will, so that when man sees how inconstant and fleeting they are, they will seek Him instead.
- Even though we can’t see Him (we think it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack in pitch dark), He’s always very near us, offering us light for the taking.
- We exist because we are “in” Him, and because He is greater than we are in all these ways, it is foolish to think that we can represent him by paintings or statues or other objects of worship made of earthly materials and designed by the artistry of our own hands.
- In the past, God has overlooked this error in thinking, this lack of knowledge. But He has always had an appointed date in the future when He will call all men to make an account of their lives.
- As of the time when Jesus of Nazareth ministered in Israel and when Paul spoke to the Athenians, He will no longer excuse this lack of knowledge once it has been spoken by those who know and heard by those who don’t know.
This is the knowledge you have been missing:
- God crossed the boundary between his supernatural realm into our natural realm personally a little over two thousand years ago in the form of the man Jesus from Nazareth.
- Science cannot prove or disprove this, since science is by definition limited to the investigation of the natural realm. In short, this was a miracle, and accepting it as a possibility requires accepting that God, being supernatural, is able to do so.
- Since miracles cannot be adequately proved or disproved by science, we must simply ask the question, “Did it happen, and how do we know?” In other words, what evidence exists today that can certify that this happened? Today, as in Paul’s day, we ask, “Were there any reliable witnesses?” The answer is a resounding yes.
- The existence of reliable eye-witnesses and those historians who recorded their testimony. They bear witness to what appears to be impossible in our experience — that this Jesus died by crucifixion, was buried in a tomb for three days, and then came back to life. This is a miraculous exclamation point at the end of the miracle of God stepping into our world as a man in the first place, and it certifies the truth that God did this.
- On a personal level, Jesus did this so that those who believe it could participate with Him in His resurrection. God’s requirement is simply that we set aside our pride and rebellion against admitting that He has been right all along and we have been wrong. If we will make this about-face in our thinking (viz “repent”), then He will give us this same bodily resurrection on an appointed day in the future, and will come and live within us in the meantime. There is no other requirement. It is a free gift, one which we do not deserve. This is the “grace” we have been talking about all along on this blog. Accepting this free gift of grace results in spending eternity with Him instead of separated from Him (we are “saved by grace”). We have done nothing to earn it, and have nothing to boast about. In the process, Jesus has taken care of our sins, paying the penalty for them with his own blood and death.
Contrary to your agnostic point of view, this God has gone to great lengths to make himself “knowable” by the human race. The question of your eternal destiny rests on your willingness to recognize and admit that you’ve been uninformed, but now you know. The time of the judgement Paul mentioned is drawing near. I plead with you — set aside your intellectual pride, do an about-face in your thinking concerning Him, and receive the gifts He offers to you — because He made you, He loves you, and He doesn’t want to lose you!
Next time — on to Corinth!