- Paul was a missionary. Since his sudden, dramatic, and utterly unexpected transformation from an enemy of Christianity to its champion – recounted in Acts chapter 9 – he had been traveling all over the Greco-Roman world telling people about Jesus Christ and about how men and women can find salvation in him. This was his assignment given by Christ himself. Everywhere he went people believed and churches were formed. As it happens, Athens was not on his missionary agenda, but while waiting there for his assistants to join him, he took full advantage of the opportunity to tell the Athenians about Christ. Now these Athenians were not Jews. He couldn’t quote the Bible to them because they didn’t know the Bible. He couldn’t talk about the Messiah because they knew nothing about any Messiah. He had to approach them in a different way.
Athens was in those years very like modern cities today where sophisticated, urbane philosophy jostles cheek to jowl with primitive superstitions. It was like today’s American cities where you find in mall bookstores erudite defenses of naturalism and evolution side by side with books on UFOs, astrology, and Transcendental Meditation. The Athenian philosophers were a mixture of both erudition and superstition.
The educated folk in Athens followed one of two philosophical schools of thought. Stoicism stressed reason and self-sufficiency, had a pantheistic view of God as a world-soul – a God that is in everything sort of idea – and thus emphasized the unity of mankind. God is in every man. Let’s all get along. That was Stoicism. Epicureanism saw pleasure as the chief end of life, but pleasure in a serious form, tranquility being the chief of all pleasures. Epicureanism has sometimes been described as a kind of hedonism, a sensual delight in pleasure for pleasure’s sake, but that was not the idea. Epicureans attacked superstitions and irrational religious faith. They were generally materialists or naturalists – that is nature is all there is – who believed that the gods either didn’t exist or, if they did, were far removed from the life of mankind. What is important about all of this is that views like these are as popular today as they ever were. Paul could and would use the same approach and same arguments today. What Paul is going to do is to side with both of them up to a point and then demonstrate that neither goes far enough. And, of course, neither viewpoint had any real hope of overcoming the sinfulness and moral failure of man or of providing any answer to the problem of death. Paul will finish there.
- The Areopagus was a court of philosophers in Athens which had authority over religion and morals. It was also the name of the hill, near the Acropolis on which the Parthenon still sits today, where this court sometimes met.
- Luke is being sarcastic. He is saying that the Athenians substituted talk for serious thinking about real issues. They were interested more in intellectual titillation than serious engagement with questions of truth bearing on life and death. It is worth our noticing that this has increasingly become true of the American people. Whatever is new, the TV show, the sports event, the exotic technology, distracts us from hard thinking about the real issues of life.
- The Bible insists on a self-named God, a God who reveals himself and discloses his name to men and women. In the Bible there is but one name for God, Yahweh, or Jehovah, and one title, “God,” though there are adjectives that are sometimes used, “Almighty,” for example. In the ancient Near East there were literally thousands of names for gods and more were being made up all the time. The Babylonians had 50 names for Marduk alone. All of that, of course, bred uncertainty: do we really know God, who is he really, and are we calling on him in the right way? A Babylonian penitential prayer is addressed to “the God whom it may concern.” That is like this Athenian altar to an unknown God. It was an effort to cover all the bases. “Perhaps,” they thought, “we are forgetting one?”
When men name God, whether as the philosophers do – “Being,” “The Unconditioned,” or “The Absolute” – or as worshippers do – Baal, Astaroth, Aton, Zeus, etc. – or as modern ideologues do – Gaia, Self, Nature, and the like – we learn nothing about God; we only learn about mankind and its different opinions. Theology has become anthropology; the study of God has become a study of man.
So Paul rightly cuts through all of this to assert that there not only is a living and true God, not only can he be known, but he has revealed himself by name to mankind.
- That statement is important in context because the first part is words any Epicurean would recognize and resonate with and the second part any Stoic.
- These are citations from Greek poets expressing Stoic philosophy.
- Paul’s point is that if man is God’s offspring – he is, in a sense, agreeing with the Stoic philosophers – then obviously images of gold and silver do not correctly represent God or his nature. We didn’t come from metal statuettes!
- Paul has now come full circle, back to his original message: Christ is Lord and the judge of all the earth and the proof of that is his resurrection from the dead. The idea of resurrection, which indicates that the human body is an object of God’s interest, that man would have physical existence in the world to come, was an alien thought in the Greco-Roman world of that time. There was a strong preference for the spiritual and a general dislike of matter and the material world in philosophical and religious thinking. Matter, including the human body, was thought to be the origin of all our problems. It may be that Paul knew of the Greek poet Aeschylus who, in his play about the inauguration of the Areopagus, had the god Apollo deny the possibility of resurrection. Anyway, resurrection was a hard sell to this group. It cut across the grain of their way of thinking, but it was the truth and they had to know it and Christ sent Paul to tell them.
- A later tradition – it is not certain how reliable – makes this Dionysius the first minister of the church in Athens.
The Apostle Paul, the first man of towering intellect to defend the Christian message before its despisers, here began a tradition. He was to be followed by many others: Justin Martyr in the second century writing his defense of the gospel of Jesus Christ and sending it to the Roman emperor to read; Augustine writing his immortal City of God, one of the greatest literary performances of human history,for the educated readership of the Roman world of the 5th century;Patrick proclaiming the risen Christ to the hard-nosed pagan Irish later in that same 5th century; Raymond Lull to the Muslims of North Africa in the 14th century; Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, mathematician, and man of letters making the case for Christ to the French rationalists of the 17th century; Henry Martyn, the 19th century missionary explaining and defending the Gospel of Christ to the King of Persia; and C.S. Lewis both by public speaking and writing explaining and defending the faith before its cultured despisers in the second half of the 20th century.
Paul started, where wise men always start, with what he and the Athenian philosophers believed in common. C.S. Lewis was a master of this as well. There are things every human being knows – like it or not; however willing or unwilling he may sometimes be to admit it – and it is always wise to begin there. That is one reason why Lewis’ writings are so popular. He trades first on fundamental convictions and experiences that human beings share. There is a common sense of right and wrong; there is a common conviction of the importance of human life; there are common longings in the human heart; there are common ways human beings think, and so on. These Athenian men had a desire to know God. In one way or another every human being does. Human beings can’t escape God. They use his name as an interjection all the time. “My God…” They carry about with them a sense of God. The fact that the city was full of idols was proof enough of that. They had a sense that it was very important to be right with the gods. But all their idols were also proof that they were groping in the dark. That there were so many gods meant that they had little certainty about the existence of their gods or about how to approach them or about what the gods had to offer them. Their many idols were a testimony to their spiritual uncertainty. And still more their altar to an unknown god.
The philosophers had no answer for this uncertainty. They had no way of putting their doubts to rest. They seemed to be looking for God but they had not found him. Some of them, at least, had an idea of his greatness and of the dependence of the world upon him but he remained remote, unpredictable, unknown, unnamed, and shrouded in mystery. I don’t doubt that there are people here today who, if the truth be told, are in the same situation. They are uncertain about God and, as a result, uncertain about everything that can’t be known without knowing God: supremely such questions as why am I here? Where am I going? What does God think about me? Is there life after death? How do I obtain it?
These are the very questions that Paul gets to at the end of his speech. You shouldn’t think that we have the whole of it here; Luke has given us only a summary. We’d love to have Paul’s whole speech and his whole argument. But we get only the gist. But Paul’s opening leads him finally to this: It is not enough to dabble with questions about the relationship between God and the world. The real question is: what is God’s relationship to me? God is holy; I am a sinner. God is just and I must face his justice. These, says Paul, are the real issues. And God has not left us in the dark about these things. We don’t have to guess, to grope in the dark. He has spoken. He has told us about himself and about how to find eternal life. He has not only told us about these things; he has shown us! He has come into the world; God the Son has become a man for men and women and for their salvation. That is why Paul’s message is a message about Jesus Christ. He is, as Paul says here, “the man God appointed.” If you want to know God, Jesus Christ is the way. Elsewhere Paul will say much more about who Jesus is – God the Son come in human nature – but here he is talking to men who know nothing of the Hebrew Scriptures, nothing of the prophesies of a coming Messiah, nothing of a king who would also be the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, nothing of a suffering servant who would redeem us by suffering in our place.
But here, as his argument comes to Jesus Christ, Paul must part company with both the Stoics and the Epicureans, with the rationalists, the naturalists and the do-it-yourself-ers. They may be right about some things, but they are wrong about many others and about the most important things. Paul may share some convictions with them, but they do not go far enough. They don’t know how to find the living and true God; they don’t know how to be right with God; and they don’t know how to obtain eternal life.
But, said the Stoics and the Epicureans that day, “How do you know that Jesus Christ is God, that he is the Judge whom all men must some day face, and who alone is the way to right living in this world and to eternal life in the next?
I know it, Paul said because of Christ’s resurrection. I know it because Jesus who died on the cross on Friday was alive again on the following Sunday. I know it because the same man the Romans crucified later made himself known to me. Listen; there was no man in all the world less likely to become a follower and a servant of Jesus Christ than I. I hated his name and his followers; I did my best to destroy his movement. I thought I would destroy it because I thought he was dead! But he appeared to me and my whole confident theory of the world suddenly lay in tatters about my feet. Jesus himself proved that what he claimed about himself was true. He proved that he has power over death. It is not a theory in his case, it is not a philosophy, it is not wishful thinking; it is historical fact! What is more, despite all I had done to harm his name and cause, he loved me still; he did not hate me.
But the response of most of the men who heard Paul that day was not excited interest in this phenomenal news. Some sneered; some were indifferent and put Paul off; only some believed. Why was that message so difficult for the Athenian philosophers to believe? Why has it proved difficult for so many to believe over the centuries since?
It is not because the argument is weak. Some claim that it is but, through the ages, advocates for the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection have always had among their number some of the most powerful minds in the world. It is so today. Whether it was C.S. Lewis a generation ago – perhaps the best educated and the most learned man of his time – or John Polkinghorne, sometime Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University; or Richard Swinburne, the philosopher at Oxford University; or Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, who sits at the pinnacle of American professional philosophers; all these men believe that Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter Sunday morning; all have written extensively as to why they believe it. The problem is not intellectual credibility. It is not historical argument. The problem lies elsewhere.
For the Athenians and for many others, the reason they found Paul’s message about Jesus’ resurrection a positive offense was two-fold.
- First, the resurrection, as Paul says here, carries with it the immensely important implication that human beings are spiritually bankrupt, they are estranged and alienated from God, and God has pronounced a negative judgment upon their lives.
Paul goes straight to this implication in vv. 29-30. I suspect his full argument went something like this. In the final analysis all of the typical idolatries of human life – whether bowing down to wood and stone or, as in our modern life, to money, pleasure, and power – are a failure to take God seriously and to revere him as our Maker. Idols of all kinds make God small, as small as we are. We are his offspring, and down deep, everyone knows this. We owe him our lives and we ought to live them in a way that pleases him. But we have put other gods in his place. We have kept God at a distance. And, says Paul, that makes it necessary that we repent. To repent is to admit that we have been wrong and have done what is wrong and to promise God that we will change. And that is a problem for many human beings.
They are loathe to admit that they have been as wrong as God says they have been or that they have done as much wrong as God says they have done. The desire to defend ourselves and to protect ourselves is very strong. But Jesus claimed to be mankind’s judge. He often spoke of the judgment of mankind. He warned us of that coming judgment in the most solemn terms. He spoke of himself as the one who would execute that judgment. He spoke of the very real danger of that judgment finding us out and laying bare our true selves, which we cannot hide from God however we might them from others. No doubt Paul spoke at length about this to the Athenian philosophers.
You can’t understand the good news unless you have faced the bad. You can’t begin to understand what it means to be saved unless you first accept that you are lost. There is a lot in the Bible that is hard for us to take. There is a lot that is hard on our pride, a lot that is hard on our stomach, a lot that is hard on our nerves. One must pass through difficulties, fears, and embarrassments to reach the light and joy of salvation. The Athenians had to face the fact that they could not stand in God’s judgment with their lives as they were then living them. Hard truth as that was, it was what they needed to know. True repentance depends upon an honest reckoning with our lives. Difficult, embarrassing, fearful as that truth is, it is the way to light and to peace with God. But that difficulty, fear, and embarrassment have stopped great multitudes in their tracks. To admit the truth about themselves was more than they would do.
We might thank that Paul should have tried a different tactic, a more positive one. He might have spoken of God’s love instead of his justice. But Athenian culture was much like ours today and it needed a stiff dose of realism. We live in a culture that has made a massive investment in the protection of people from exposure. We have made the condemning of the practices of others the unforgivable sin in our society. We have provided excuses for every form and manner of bad behavior and taught generations of people not to condemn themselves for it. But all of that is for nothing if our lives are at last to be brought into God’s judgment. God knows. He knows the truth down to the bottom of our hearts.
People don’t want to believe this because they don’t want to admit the truth about themselves and because they are afraid of God’s judgment. They have an uneasy conscience. We know very well, don’t we, how easily, how naturally we hold at bay reality that we fear. We are afraid of death and so what do we do? We don’t think about it. We don’t want to think about it. And we don’t appreciate people forcing us to think about it. But, take seriously the resurrection of Jesus Christ and we must immediately take seriously God’s judgment of our lives. That was Paul’s point. Others may give their religious opinions but Jesus rose from the dead! He said that he would come again to judge the living and the dead and his resurrection validated all those claims. All their idols notwithstanding, all their supposed religious interest notwithstanding, Paul said to the Athenians and he says to us that there is a God who will require us to stand before him in judgment. The resurrection proves that.
- Second, the resurrection, in the nature of the case, proves that salvation, peace with God, the favor of God is not something that we can achieve. It is not natural, but supernatural. It is not human, but divine. It is not an accomplishment, but a gift.
This also is something human beings are loathe to believe. We want to be in control. We don’t want to be in desperate need of something that only someone else can give to us if he will. This is, for example, what makes serious illness so terrifying to us. We suddenly realize that there is nothing that we can do. We are dependent upon others, upon therapies that may or may not work. We are, in ourselves, helpless. We can’t eat our way or exercise our way or think our way or meditate our way out of cancer or heart disease. Well, the resurrection, Paul says, forces a similar realization upon us. Obviously we can’t bring ourselves back from the dead. Nothing is more obvious. If we can’t evade death in the first place we certainly can’t come back from it. We haven’t the power.
That is why Paul speaks of “good news” in v. 18. He gave the Athenians “good news.” Good news means that something unexpected, something wonderful has happened, something that these men needed to know. Something wonderful had happened. That something was the resurrection. It was an event, a piece of history. What makes Christ’s resurrection good news? Well, I’m sure Paul went on to say something like this. Christ didn’t have to die. He gave himself to death and not for himself but for us, to pay the penalty for our sins. And when he rose from the dead the following Sunday, his death on the cross was vindicated. The greatest sinner who ever lived died on that cross – because he was bearing all our sins – and yet he was full of life again on Sunday. The sacrifice he made for us had been accepted by God. Sin and death – which is the punishment of sin – had been conquered, justice had been done, and God’s holy wrath turned aside. Christ went into the tomb a dead sinner; he came out of it brimming with perfect life!
As Martin Luther said in an Easter sermon preached in 1529,
“On Good Friday [my sins] are all laid around [Jesus’] neck. But on Easter I also look at him, and then he has none. Thus sin is completely taken away at the resurrection.”
That is good news! But it is news about something someone else did for us, not about something we can do ourselves. It is news about something that happened in the past, away from us, apart from us, without our knowledge or our consent; not about something we can do today. This is news that takes our salvation out of our hands and places it in God’s hands. And that humbling of oneself to take a gift from God’s hand, to acknowledge that I was in desperate need and God intervened by sending his Son to die for me, that is more than many people will do, alas. Their pride, their self-importance keeps them from stretching out their hand to take a gift only God can give them. How sad.
Some sneer; some put it off, but some believe. They are noble enough to admit the hard truth about themselves and to look to Christ for what they now realize they could never accomplish by themselves: rid themselves of their sin and guilt and make peace with a just and holy God.
I remember reading, some years ago, an autobiographical confession by Prof. Alvin Plantinga now of the University of Notre Dame. Plantinga is among the most celebrated of philosophers in the English speaking world, a titan in the community of professional philosophers. So, to put it bluntly, he’s a lot smarter than we are! A lot smarter! But listen to what he admitted about himself.
“A few years back I several times found myself thinking about a certain person, and feeling obliged to call him and speak with him about Christianity; this was a person for whom I had a lot of respect but who, I thought, had nothing but disdain for Christianity. I felt obliged to call [him], but always did my best to put the thought out of my mind, being impeded by fear and embarrassment: what would I say? ‘Hello, have you found Jesus?’ And wouldn’t this person think I was completely out of my mind, not to mention really weird? Then later I heard that during this very time the person in question was in the process of becoming a Christian. I had been invited to take part in something of real importance and refused the invitation out of cowardice and stupidity.” [Philosophers who Believe, 279-280, n. 21]
Here is one of the smartest fellows in the world, a man whose mind is so powerful that it is intimidating to almost everyone else. A friend of mine studied with Alvin Plantinga when they were both students at Princeton, and he says that, even when Plantinga was a student, when he would raise his hand, the professor in the class would visibly wince, for fear that the question that was coming would reveal that the student knew more than the professor did. But here is Prof. Plantinga, of all people, worried that if he told someone what he had discovered about Jesus Christ, that person might think he was weird! He was afraid of the sneer, the very sneer that Paul got in Athens. You might have thought he would have thought, “Hey, this other fellow knows how smart I am, how well-respected a philosopher I am; he will be required to take seriously whatever I tell him. I’m smarter than he is, after all!” But he admits, instead, he was afraid about what the other fellow would think of him. And multitudes of ordinary Christians struggle with the same fear, the same reserve.
And the reason they do is because they know that so many people will not welcome the message of Christ and his resurrection. They want them to welcome it. They know they must welcome it. But they know how the human heart works. Paul knew it too. But he was willing to be thought foolish by the Athenian philosophers because they needed to hear what he had to tell them, whether they liked it or not. He was like the doctor who has to bring bad news to the patient because until that news is brought there can be no talk about a cure. They had to admit they were wrong about so much before they could finally be put right!
But are there some among you like Dionysius and Damaris? Are there some who will face the implications of Christ’s resurrection and this truth squarely and not be deterred by them? Are you noble enough to come to Jesus, not because you are smart but because you have been so foolish; not because you are better than others but precisely because you admit the worst about yourself; not because you have found a way to God but because you have learned of the way that God has found to you? Here is what you need — forgiveness and peace with God – here is where to find it: with Jesus Christ, risen from the dead! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.