Acts 17:16-34

For some years now I have preached a sermon apropos Pentecost, in part to redress a double weakness of our Reformed tradition. The first is a longstanding tendency that we share with much of Christendom, to think of Pentecost primarily in terms of the experience of the Christian life, that is, to think of Pentecost as the beginning of a new and higher manner of believing life. This is understood in a variety of ways. Many still say that before the Spirit was with us but since Pentecost he is in us, whatever that is supposed to mean. Or they say that we now have by the Spirit a more direct access to God than was enjoyed by the saints of the ancient epoch, or that we are better able to overcome our sins, or that we have now an array of spiritual gifts unknown to believers in the ancient epoch. None of this, however, is actually taught in the New Testament or can be observed in the history of Christian life since. In fact, the Bible never actually teaches Pentecost to have anything to do with our experience of the Christian life and, on the contrary, teaches us to understand Pentecost in a very different way. Pentecost in the prediction of the prophets, the teaching of the Lord Jesus, and the narrative of Acts 2 is the empowerment of the church to take the gospel to the world. As John Stott put it, Pentecost is a missionary event. It is extensive in its effects, not intensive. It is not said to change the way Christians experience God’s grace, but is said dramatically to change who and how many will experience that grace. From a tiny group of Jewish followers of Jesus before Pentecost has come the worldwide church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And that leads us to the second weakness, the reverse of the first. Since we have tended to understand Pentecost in a subjective and intensive way, we have tended to make much less of its actual significance as the opening salvo in the war of conquest being waged by the King of Kings for the heart and soul of the world he made and loves. I reminded you a few Lord’s Days ago that Pentecost is not even mentioned in our Westminster Confession of Faith, though no one can deny its epoch-making place in the history of redemption. We need to work Pentecost into our understanding of the faith and the world in a deeper and more comprehensive way than it has characteristically been in our theological and spiritual tradition. I have chosen my text this morning to help us do that.

Text Comment

As we pick up the narrative, Paul is on what is typically referred to as his second missionary journey. On that journey he made his first foray into Europe, establishing churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. When opposition arose against Paul’s ministry in that last town, the Christian brothers hustled Paul out of town for fear for his safety. He made his way to Athens where he was to wait for his comrades, Silas and Timothy, to join him.

v.17     It was Paul’s ordinary missionary strategy to begin evangelistic work in a new city in the Jewish synagogue. He could gather an audience very easily there and find people better equipped to understand his message. From there he moved out into the markets and other places where people gathered.

v.18     Epicureanism and Stoicism were rival systems of philosophy. I needn’t describe their different views, except to say that Paul was thoroughly familiar with them, as his argument will demonstrate.

The suggestion has been made that these Athenian philosophers misunderstood Paul and thought that he was advocating two new gods: one named Jesus and the other, his female consort, Anastasis, the word translated here resurrection! If so, that is how little they were prepared to understand or believe Paul’s message!

v.19     The Areopagus has no exact equivalent today. Perhaps the closest would be the university, a place where scholars reason with one another in pursuit of knowledge and where ideas are discussed. It was originally a judicial council, the most venerable institution in Athens, but in the Roman period had had its powers curtailed. It exercised jurisdiction only in matters of religion and morals. [NBD, 80] What the council provided Paul was an opportunity to explain himself.

v.25     Verse 24 expresses a view of God that was not shared by Epicureans or Stoics, but v. 25 sounds like something they might say, though, obviously, Paul means something else than they would, the Epicureans believing God to be so remote as to have no influence on human affairs and the Stoics believing in God only in a pantheistic way. Neither had any robust confidence in life after death.

v.28     A quotation from the 6th century B.C. Greek poet, Epimenides of Crete.

v.30     Paul was not saying, of course, that the sins of Gentiles didn’t count before Pentecost or that God pardoned idolatry in the ancient world. All that is being said is that God did not make the issue of idolatry in the pagan world that he is now doing, commanding people everywhere to repent of this sin. Paul’s theology of man in sin, all men, and the judgment of their sin is found in Romans 1 and he makes it clear there that from the beginning false views of God have paid a wage!

v.31     The 5th century B.C. Greek playwright, Aeschylus, wrote a play about the origin of the Areopagus in which he denied the possibility of resurrection.

Though Athens was a much smaller town than Rome, and in most other ways less significant, it still boasted an unrivaled intellectual and artistic reputation, inherited from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and glorified by its great acropolis, with its commanding Parthenon, visible from great distances and magnificent in its marble splendor. Athens was proud of the fact that it remained the “empire’s intellectual metropolis.” [Stott, 276] No doubt Paul had heard about Athens all his life, as would have any educated citizen of the Roman Empire. Now he found himself there with some time on his hands. And as any visitor would, he strolled through the town. I’m sure like any other tourist, Paul would have appreciated the architecture and the many sculptures he saw as he walked the streets of Athens and toured the acropolis. But as a Jew and all the more as a Christian, what Paul noticed more than anything else was the idolatry. Athens was full of idols. Xenophon, the Greek historian, writing several centuries earlier, described Athens as “one great altar, one great sacrifice.” In the Parthenon itself was a gold and ivory statue of Athena, whose gleaming spear-point was said to be visible forty miles away. But she was not alone. Images of Apollo, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune and all the rest were there. Everywhere you turned there was an idol. Athens, indeed, was very religious! [Stott, 277]

It was easy to get a conversation going in Athens. People there were always up for a discussion about philosophy and religion. And the newer the ideas the better! So when a man with such obvious rhetorical powers as Paul began speaking of Jesus – someone they had never heard of before – there was keen interest.

So Paul began to explain his message. What he said demonstrated not only his learning and his intellectual power, but his determination to win his audience. Unlike in his other sermons or speeches in the book of Acts, here we find no citations from the Old Testament, but we do find citations of Greek poets and philosophers. He was using their own intellectual tradition to pave the way for the Christian gospel. He found where he could agree with their beliefs – those places where “they still had a grip on the hem of the robe of truth”– all truth being God’s truth and any part of it, if consistently followed, leading to all the rest, and built his case on that. He credited them with a desire to know and worship God and with their knowing that God is greater than man, that he doesn’t live in temples built by human hands. He challenged their belief system, but only after gaining sympathy and understanding. [J. Barrs at FPC, March 17, 1996]

Paul understood what we must always remember still today. When we explain the gospel, the message of Jesus Christ and salvation to people in our time, when we seek to introduce the living God to people, we have allies in their hearts. There are unseen convictions, understandings, and instincts deep within them that reinforce our words. As the poet has it:

Thou has great allies;

Thy friends are exultations, agonies,

And love, man’s unconquerable mind.

Or as John Duncan, Scotland’s Rabbi Duncan put it, “The belief in God presses multifariously upon man.” We Christians do not deny that there are difficulties in believing the Christian message. There are intellectual, spiritual, and emotional difficulties. But they pale compared to the difficulties that unbelief must face. The unbeliever finds himself facing problems far more severe, far more intractable, and far more embarrassing than the Christian ever will. Which is why so many people you know hardly ever think seriously about life or about the future. [J.S. Stewart, Heralds of God, 52-55] God has placed eternity in man’s heart, we read in Ecclesiastes. He knows he is not a piece of cosmic scrap; he knows that right and wrong are real things, not just personal opinions; he knows his life matters; he knows that he is not some chemical and biological accident; he knows very well that he is a sinner; he knows there is such a thing as justice and such a thing as love. These convictions are the foundation of his life and of his desires but only the believer can explain them and only God can satisfy them.

Today we too encounter people who are constantly agog over the latest thing. People are as proud today as they were in ancient Athens. But like the men of Athens, a town that was by Paul’s day a pale shadow of what it once was, people today are full of desires that they cannot fulfill and are well aware that for all our vaunted accomplishments in technology and the like we have not managed to solve a single one of the great problems or answer a single one of the great questions of human life. The human heart is still as restless as ever. For all our progress in technology, for all our pretentions to knowledge, as Malcolm Muggeridge once put it, the modern western world has educated itself into imbecility and amused itself into impotence. We are the Viagra generation: having to replace our lost manhood with a pill.

So what was it that Paul said to this people, so like people today, who thought themselves the smartest in the world, inheritors of a proud intellectual tradition? Surely anyone can see that he had his work cut out for him. The descendants of Plato and Aristotle were utterly unlikely to believe that they could live forever only if they committed themselves to some amateur Jewish rabbi who had been executed by the Roman state and then supposedly had risen from the dead! The very idea of the resurrection of the body and of a future life lived in the body was an affront to virtually everything any Athenian thought at that time. If they believed in salvation at all, it required escape from the body, not the resurrection of the body. It is not too much to say that the Christian gospel was as unlikely a message as could have been conceived in that time and place.

Salvation of the world through a Jew? The Jews were a despised race among the Greeks and Romans. Monotheism in a world that prided itself on its many gods? Salvation by death on a cross, a ghastly barbarity of which educated Greeks and Romans were ashamed? The whole message was getting more preposterous, not less as Paul continued.

Paul told them that there was but one God who had created all things and each one of them. This God is far above us and utterly beyond our manipulation by the worship that was commonplace in the Greco-Roman world. But God cares for us. He sustains our lives. He provides us what we require to live. What is more, he rules over the world that he has made. We can no more escape God than we can live without food or air. In him we live and move and have our being. More than that, the God who made us will also someday judge our lives. We are sinners and we have offended him and we must repent. Our lives must be turned toward God, the true God, the living God. And the proof of all of this is that Jesus, who will execute God’s judgment one day, rose from the dead! He not only said all of this, in saying it he plainly said that these people, who prided themselves on their wisdom, were ignorant of the most important things any human being could ever know. And he directly contradicted their notions of an afterlife, such as they were. Not a message calculated to win friends and influence people, we might think.

Of course, we have only Luke’s summary of Paul’s address. No doubt he said more than this. But it is remarkable that Paul seems to have said nothing of the cross as atonement for our sins, he said nothing about believing in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins. His argument was that we are God’s creatures, that we owe our lives, our very existence to him, and that we must face his judgment, a judgment we all know very well will reveal us to be sinners, and that a great, an astonishing event in history has vindicated this message as the truth about God and man. The fact is they had no one’s word for the fact that Jesus rose from the dead but that of this man whom they had just met and heard for the first time. So far as we know, no one who belonged to the Council of the Areopagus had ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth before Paul told them of his resurrection from the dead, though the news was out there; it was possible some of them had.

So, let’s sum up. These men, so proud of their philosophical traditions, now centuries old, proud of the marble idols, works of art that could be found everywhere in Athens, these men so completely the product of the Greco-Roman intellectual milieu, were being told that they had got everything wrong. They had God wrong, their idols were a dead end, and they had failed to address the crucial problem that faces human life, viz. that all men must face the judgment of God. Nothing in their philosophical or religious inheritance prepared them to face those realities.

Now, how likely is it, really, that anyone would have believed a message so contrary to their culture, to their intellectual tradition, to their national pride, and to their personal prejudices? To find salvation in a religion without gods and idols when everyone had gods and idols, to find the meaning of life in a Jew who had been put to death as a criminal, to find  hope for the future in the story that he had risen from the dead? It was all simply preposterous. Such people would never believe such things!

And yet, Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus itself – not a Jew, an Athenian Greek – and Damaris, likewise a woman of the city, did believe and with them a number of others. How are we to explain this? Was Dionysius some sort of mental weakling? No he was not. The Areopagus was a closed body and membership was a high distinction. Any member of that group had significant social standing. [Bruce, Acts (Greek Text), 341] Mental weaklings were not found among its membership. Indeed there is a tradition, taken as fact by the 4th century historian Eusebius, that Dionysius was the first bishop of Athens! Was Damaris your stereotypical airhead who would believe any snake-oil salesman? Of course not. There is some opinion in scholarship that she might have been herself a member of the Areopagus. Her presence there suggests at the very least that she was a woman of status. In any case, the reason we know their names at all is because they became well-known among the Christians, people who were admired, probably people who had significant ministries of their own once they were Christians. That’s why they are named and the others are not. When Acts was written there were lots of people who would have known who Dionysius and Damaris were.

It is also significant that believing responses came equally from men and women. Paul’s message applied to them both and was addressed to them both and no discrimination was made between the sexes in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In all the ways that matter most for time and eternity men and women are the same: equally in need of the forgiveness of sins, equally responsible for their lives before God, and equally able to respond in faith and love.

These were thoughtful people, able people, and, presumably, until they met and heard Paul, they had no thought of rejecting the worldview in which they had been raised. But they heard this man say these remarkable things and they detected the bell-like tone of the truth in what he said. Perhaps in a manner astonishing to themselves they realized by some spiritual and intellectual instinct that for the first time they were hearing someone explain things as they actually are. And they couldn’t ignore what they were hearing. It was too important and too wonderful! What Paul was describing was or should be, they understood, of vital concern to any human being. Of course this was how life was to be explained! This was where it was going! This was what explained their own experience! And this was both the explanation and the fulfillment of the longings of their heart!

To be sure, only a small company believed what Paul was saying. Others sneered or laughed, others were at least curious to hear more, perhaps after the fashion of people who congratulate themselves on their open-mindedness. But, no doubt, some of them eventually believed as well because it was not long before there was a sizeable church in Athens.

How did this happen? Well, if we had read the book of Acts up to this point, it would be perfectly obvious how this happened, how this utterly unlikely thing had come to pass: Greeks believing in Jesus Christ the first time they ever heard about him. It was the Holy Spirit at work in the hearts of people. It was the Holy Spirit, God himself, who opened their hearts to respond to Paul’s message. Now, if you read through our text you will not find any reference to the Holy Spirit. But it is unnecessary. The narrative so far has already explained how it is that people come to believe in Jesus Christ by the hundreds and then by the thousands and then by the thousands upon thousands.

It began on Pentecost when the Spirit descended with power on the Lord’s disciples and enabled them to declare the news about Jesus and his resurrection convincingly to thousands of people who were almost as unprepared to believe that message as were the members of the Areopagus in Athens. Thousands of them did nonetheless. And so it continued. Wherever the good news was preached the Holy Spirit opened hearts and minds to the truth and drew people to faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel was explained by men and women, but it was the Almighty Spirit who was convincing so many that what they heard was in fact true.

And this is precisely what Jesus had prophesied would happen before he left the world. In the Upper Room in Jerusalem, the night before his crucifixion, he had spoken to his disciples about the Helper or Counselor he would send in his place after he ascended to heaven and of what that Helper would do. He would convict the world of guilt and righteousness and judgment. And that is precisely what we see the Holy Spirit doing here in the case of Dionysius and Damaris and the others.

On another occasion the Lord Jesus said that when the Spirit came, he would empower his followers so that out of them would flow rivers of living water. “Rivers of living water” is an image of salvation drawn from the Old Testament. But the point is that salvation would be spread throughout the world by the Holy Spirit’s making powerful and effective the words of Christian men and women as they explained the good news about Christ and salvation to others. Because of Pentecost Christians have become the means of saving grace to the world. Because of Pentecost, because the Holy Spirit has been given to the church to empower its witness to the world, the words of a great thinker like Paul and the words of an ordinary believer like you and me can become the instrument of somebody else’s salvation and eternal life. The Holy Spirit is not mentioned in Acts 17, but his fingerprints are all over the history recorded there. We can see Paul standing there addressing the assembly sitting around him, sitting in a circle on stone benches in their robes, their togas. But we can’t see and what nobody could see that day was what was really happening: the Holy Spirit shedding bright light into a darkened human heart, drawing the human mind toward the truth and then bending the will to believe in Jesus Christ as these people sat there listening to the Apostle to the Gentiles.

So, why did I entitle this sermon “Dionysius and Damaris”? Because it is these two people, whose names we know, human beings like so many other human beings who walked the streets of Athens in those days, who thought like their contemporaries thought and lived like their contemporaries lived, who woke up that morning without a thought in their heads that their lives were going to be utterly transformed before they went to bed that night, are what Pentecost is all about. These people were Gentiles not Jews. They had no background in the Word of God. They didn’t know the vocabulary that Paul used in the synagogue to explain the person and the work of Jesus Christ to Jews. They were thoroughly steeped in the thought-world of Greco-Roman civilization. They had probably never heard of Jesus and if they had, they hadn’t understood what they heard. But God the Holy Spirit was deterred by none of that. He who made the world and who made the human mind and heart is certainly capable of changing them as he wishes.

And that is what the Holy Spirit did in Athens that day. Why he didn’t save many more members of the Areopagus that particular day we cannot say. Perhaps he did in days to come. But he saved Dionysius and Damaris and others and then as the days, weeks, and months passed he drew multitudes more to living faith in Jesus Christ.

In Athens today you can go to any number of churches and worship the Lord Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Florence and I have been in Athens twice on a Sunday and joined believers in a Presbyterian church there for Lord’s Day worship. Mr. Roukas, a dear old elder, in whose home and at whose Sunday table we spent a charmed afternoon some years ago, had an experience not so unlike Dionysius. Content with his life, unconcerned about the future, unreflective about the reason for it all and the nature of his life in the world, he was interrupted by the Spirit of God and became a follower of Jesus Christ. It is happening all the time, all over the world, every day. The Spirit of God is opening the hearts of people so that they will believe what Christian ministers and Christian laymen and laywomen are saying to them about Jesus Christ and about eternal life through faith in him.

What is so fabulously important about Pentecost is that you and I and the entire world, whether or not we know it, are still living – whether we know it or not – in the age of Pentecost, the age of the Spirit of God, the age when the world is being summoned to faith in Jesus Christ and the Spirit is at work to enable multitudes of men and women, boys and girls, to answer that summons. Perhaps there are some here this morning in whose hearts the Holy Spirit is now speaking as he spoke to Dionysius and Damaris that day long ago. And, if so, we very much hope they will believe as those two did long ago!