Text Comment

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 StoicismEpicureanism 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.