Paul Brings Good News to Athens
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2014
Part 2 — Teaching Fallen People — Acts 17:19-23
When the Apostle Paul came to Athens, he waited to be joined by Timothy and Silas who had remained a little longer in Berea. While he waited, he reasoned from the Scriptures with the Jews in the Synagogue, and spoke openly in the market place of the Agora with the philosophers. While some scoffed, others wanted to hear more.
Acts 17:19-20 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.”
The Areopagus (Ἄρειος Πάγος) was a place dedicated to Ares, the Greek god of war. It had become a place for hearing new ideas.
In ancient times the supreme council of Athens met on a hill in that area to conduct its business. The Areopagates were the city Archons (rulers) at that time. They served for life once elected. They constituted a court where cases were tried and testimony was heard. As Athenian democracy grew in the 5th century BC the Areopagus lost its civil authority, but it continued to strongly influence the city’s religious and moral beliefs. At some point it no longer met up on the hill. It moved down to the city market, the Agora. It probably met in one of the famous porches there. It was in such places that philosophers had addressed crowds for centuries.
The request to hear Paul was a trademark of Athenian curiosity. They loved philosophical debate. His message about a Messiah was clearly something new, something foreign. To them it just had to be heard.
Luke added a comment recorded in verse 21.
Acts 17:21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
This was a well attested pastime, and the Athenians themselves were proud of it. It’s said that 400 years before Paul came, Demosthenes rebuked the Athenians for their idle discussions of philosophy there. For many, all they did was look around for new idea to hear, and to debate in the market place. Thucidideds also rebuked them for their superficial passion.
Fallen humanity has more of a passion for the new, than it does for what’s true. It goes with the trend, and what doesn’t offend. Religious traditions change like hemlines and ties.
Though their desire to hear Paul was just a shallow curiosity, Paul took advantage of the opportunity. He knew that God’s elect may be out there among the scoffers and philosophers. He had seen members of the Jewish Sanhedrin come to faith in the Risen Christ (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea), so why not some of the Areopagites too? (Verse 34 shows us that some did believe and trust in the Savior.)
The Holy Spirit may as easily convert a superstitious fool, a member of a cult, or a professing atheist, as he could a hungry student of religion. We are not to pre-qualify those to whom we bring the gospel.
In the second head of doctrine in the Canons of Dort, article 5 makes this comment about the proclaiming of the gospel, “… This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”
When I worked for a short time in sales we were told to pre-qualify those we called on. Some would never need our product. Some would not be able to afford it. It would be a waste our time to call on such businesses. We sought out those most likely to buy what we could provide, and who would be able to pay the price we needed to charge.
Sadly many in churches use exactly those methods. They do demographic studies to find groups of people likely to be enticed into the church, and likely to be able to pay to support a healthy budget. They determine what entertains this group, and design their whole ministry and message to meet those particular expectations.
That’s not the example we have in Scripture of how the gospel was spread by Jesus and his Disciples. The Holy Spirit knows only the boundaries of God’s gracious decrees. He builds his church out of redeemed souls, not out of a prospective marketing target.
When God gives us an opportunity, at work, at school, with friends, in the market place, it’s our duty to do our best to present God’s truth in love, and to present it wisely so that we will be understood. This is exactly what we see Paul do in these next verses.
Acts 17:22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.
What a dramatic moment! Paul stood there by himself in a pagan city in that anciently overwhelming setting. World famous philosophers were his critical audience. Their attention was focused on him and what he was about to say.
Paul began by using an ancient standard form for public speeches. He addressed them as Athenian men. These were Gentiles, pagans, non-covenant people. They had not been raised with the books of Moses and the Prophets as were the Jews. He could not assume that what he said about God would be understood aside from their pagan assumptions. We need to consider how to best communicate clearly to the unchurched.
In Lystra, Paul recognized the different background of his listeners there, but he never abandoned the authority of God’s revelation. He begins at the most logical starting point establishing man’s separation from God and need for redemption.
Here at Athens Paul mentions how religious they were. Ancient records show how famous the Athenians were in worshiping all kinds of gods. However, Paul’s comment was neither a compliment, nor a clear insult either. The term had a broad use in Greek. Like the word “religion” in English, it can be either a good or an evil thing. He said a most uncomplimentary thing in an honest way, but it was to make his point, not to insult them. Tact is an important element in communication of any kind. The Apostle was concerned that they hear him out before they tuned him out.
The nature of fallen man is to pervert deity. The polytheists make everything into a god. The idea of one God who made all things and who rules all things is bizarre to them.
Even the so-called atheists and rationalists have a perverted sense of deity. They think of themselves as god-like experts. They deify their own reason. They believe they are able to shape the world and history. Their lusts, reason or riches become the standard for good and truth. Or they deify nature by exalting the creation over the Creator (Rom 1:25). When the supernatural is denied, then the natural is deified to account for the unexplainable. Nature becomes the almighty that accounts for all that is.
Paul then got more specific about his message.
Acts 17:23 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.
Paul had seen an altar that read literally, “to unknown God“. The Greek words were Agnosto Theo (᾿Αγνώστῳ Θεῷ). The word “Unknown” is where we get our word “agnostic”, someone who doesn’t know for sure about something. The words here are “anarthrous” — they lack a definite article. When a noun by itself or with its modifiers has no article in Greek, the focus is on the quality represented rather than a specific object. Therefore it’s not best to think of this as an altar to “The Unknown God”, but to god whose quality is unknown. A prevailing philosophy in Athens was that if there is a god, or many gods, they are mainly unknowable. The Greeks were proud of what they thought was an open mind, one that accepted no certainties or absolutes. Such altars are mentioned in ancient secular writings as well.
Many today boast of being “open-minded”. In all fairness, few who boast that way really are. They have principles and assumptions which they are not willing to yield to examination. There is none so close minded as those who claim to have an “open mind”.
This world-view presumes there are no absolute or unchangeable standards that must be preserved, except the assumption that there are no absolutes or unchangeable standards. This predisposes them to certain ideas about god, creation, man’s nature, morality and truth. In a sense he could say, “There absolutely can be no absolutes.” That seems to be a bit self-contradicting.
Given this attitude that god and any absolute moral principle are unknowable, lying is not always wrong since it’s the way things are perceived rather than the way they really are. “Withholding the truth” may be the most proper thing to those who hold to that position. Similarly it produces a loose view of sex and marriage, since neither is absolutely defined. It promotes a low view of human life, since life is not absolutely valuable as if it was made in God’s image for some divine purpose. This is why abortion is seen as allowable if it relieves the parents of challenges they would rather not face when a pregnancy occurs.
The alternative to the “open-mind” is not necessarily a “closed-mind”. The most desirable world-view is that of the “anchored-mind”. It recognizes an absolute standard which must be “conserved”. For the Christian, this anchor is what God has made known in the promises and teachings of Scripture. They are the standard by which all else is measured and tested. The teachings of God’s Word shape every area of life.
Since we and the whole universe are created by God, there are things that are always true and binding upon us. Even those who deny being able to know things for sure, speak and act upon things they assume are certain and unchangeable. Their basic principles are accepted without question. They stand upon ground which they deny can exist.
All of us would live in that self-denial if it was not for God’s transforming grace secured by the Savior’s death in our place. Our duty is to explain what God tells us in his word. The convincing of hearts is out of our hands. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.
This was Paul’s approach to the proud agnosticism of the Greeks. He said, “… What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
He boldly dared to tell God’s truth. But he did it in love hoping to set them free. Our purpose is not to win debates or to prove that we are right and others are wrong. We need to be moved with compassion for lost humans, and by our supreme love for God and all he has said and done.
We know that God redeems unbelievers, sinners, to become his children. Many we meet during the week are confused by false ideas they have heard. How can we withhold the gospel from those who hurt so deeply? It is like seeing a man choking, and doing nothing to help him. To act as if the lost are just a little direction-confused, it like trying to engage the choking victim in light conversation while he dies.
The uncertainty that is part of this self-deceptive world-view is epitomized in this altar Paul saw in Athens. Perhaps the polytheists believed there may be a god they missed. The rationalist agnostics believed that god can at best be unknowable. They both admitted there was something they likely did not know.
If uncertainty can be disproven for even one thing, the whole agnostic system crashes to ruin under the weight of an absolute standard that makes some things certain and knowable.
We need to be ready when the opportunity comes. As God puts us in a place where we can tell his truth, we need to do as Paul did. We dare not talk as if Christianity is just one of many religions. The gospel is not just a better or more satisfying answer to man’s needs. It is the only possible way, and is the way that God himself has revealed as true. The word “gospel” means “good news”. It’s very good news for fallen man. There is a real solution to a real problem that is based upon God’s promise and decree, not upon our inadequate human efforts.
The distinction Paul made is this: God is knowable! It is possible to know him because He has made himself known.
The Greek rationalists turned their unbelief into their major doctrine. To them, the unknown must remain unknowable, otherwise the whole universe can’t be as he says it is. The Greeks could allow Paul to introduce another god or another philosophy, but he must not claim that there is an absolutely true God and philosophy. The liberal mind can have a Bible, but it must not be an absolutely true Bible.
Rationalistic Humanism does this today. The Humanist Manifesto II says on p.17, “Moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest.”
In other words, the humanistic outlook is that we develop ideas of right and wrong from our situations. There are no absolute values that apply to everyone all the time. To promote what they see as a better circumstance — they can justify lying, theft, killing unwanted babies, redefining marriage, redistributing money from those who earn it to those who feel they are entitled to what they don’t earn.
There is a more personal reason why God remains unknowable to them. If they admitted that God the Creator of everything is a real, personal, and knowable being, they would be responsible to him. They would be guilty of not being what God made them to be. They would deserve eternal damnation for a guilt they cannot remove. Their whole set of beliefs, values, and practices would have to be rejected. The fallen heart cannot concede these things.
But there is good news. God can be known. We can find out what really pleases the Creator. We can know what is true about him, his universe, and about ourselves. We have that truth in our hands when we hold a Bible. We can know and understand that truth by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.
We have a wonderful and powerful remedy for the lost. We can tell the truth, and watch it stir life in the hearts of those God calls to himself by grace.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.