posted on Jul, 25 2014 @ 05:10 PM
We’ve got an account of Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles (or Luke’s version of it) in Acts ch17.
In the course of Paul’s “second missionary journey”, he and his party crossed over to Greece.
As their journey progressed they reached Athens, seeking refuge from the trouble they met further north.
The Holy Spirit had kept Paul away from the Roman province of Asia.
We don’t know why, but it’s possible that the rich field of mission which that province provided would have delayed his arrival in Greece.
Also, perhaps, a previous acquaintance with temple-filled cities like Ephesus and Pergamum would have reduced the impact of his first sight of Athens,
the heartland of Greek culture.
The spirit of Paul was “provoked within him” by the fact that the place was filled with “idols”, the many statues of the gods which had been
accumulating over the centuries.
This incited him to constant arguments with the people of the city, including the resident philosophers, who were mainly Stoics and Epicureans.
He argued so energetically, using strange words like “Jesus” and “resurrection”, that the people (not necessarily the philosophers) decided to
take him up to the Areopagus, so that he could explain himself properly in a more public setting.
In the past, this hill had been the site of the highest court in Athens, but it does not follow that Paul was “on trial” in any legal sense.
When Luke sets up a trial scene, there is normally some indication of a charge and some indication of an outcome.
In this case, Paul faces no accuser, and he makes no response to the supposed charge of “introducing new gods”.
If Athens was still prosecuting for that offence, he must have been found guilty, but there is no sign of any attempt to reach a verdict or follow one
So the hill was probably chosen as a convenient open space where people were already congregating and socialising, “spending their time in nothing
but telling or hearing something new”.
When Paul was preaching to the Jews, he based his case on their common heritage, and his argument came in two stages.
The “Old Testament” stage reminded them of their long-standing relation with God, followed by a “New Testament” explanation of the healing of
the relationship through the new teaching about Jesus.
Now that he’s addressing a new audience, the flow of the argument has to be modified, because they don’t have a common heritage.
The Gentiles don’t know the Old Testament, and they won’t recognise the events in its history.
So Paul has to find some substitute for the “Old Testament” stage of the argument, before he can move on to the “New Testament” stage.
He has already noticed that they are idolaters.
So he commends them, ironically, for their devotion to the gods, but suggests that their devotion is coupled with ignorance. How can they deny the
fact of their ignorance, when one of their own altars is openly dedicated in the name of “the unknown god”?
Then he promises to dispel their ignorance by revealing the true identity of the God they may have been worshipping as an unknown quantity.
He proceeds to present a series of claims which are based on the teaching of the Old Testament, even though he refrains from offering direct
The first claim is that this God made the world and everything in it- Genesis ch1.
And because he made heaven and earth and is the Lord over them, he does not need nourishment or shelter from human hands, which rebukes the practices
of idolatry- Isaiah ch46. (vv24-25)
Instead of needing to receive, he is the one who gives.
He gave the breath of life and everything they need for life to the human race- Genesis ch2
He made the whole human race, in fact, causing them to spring from one origin- Genesis ch5
The structure of the sentence (vv26-27) shows that he made the human race for two purposes.
One was that all the nations should occupy the world between them, in their allotted places -Genesis ch10.
The other purpose was that they should seek after and find the God who made them.
But if the search for God was part of God’s purpose in making them, it becomes a moral obligation.
Therefore it must be feasible to find God, and Paul supports that case by quoting two scraps of Greek poetry written in praise of Zeus.
If it is true that “we are his children” and “in him we live and move and have our being”, then there won’t be a long distance to travel
before we can find him.
This concept, it must be said, would have had more appeal for the Stoics in the audience than for the Epicureans.
The Stoics were able to find room in their theory for an overall deity of some kind.
But the Epicureans would have found all this teaching, right from the beginning of the speech, alien to their way of thinking.
They thought any gods that might exist would be far away and take no interest in human affairs.
So they could not have accepted Paul’s Biblical picture of a God closely involved in everything that happens on the earth.
Now Paul is ready at last to move on to the second stage of his argument and present a version of the gospel (vv29-31).
As children of God, they “ought not to think” that he can be truly represented by the artistic works which men have made.
This is not really an appeal to philosophy, whatever it looks like at first sight.
The philosophical “ought not” would have meant “It is folly to believe in the truth of images, it is not rational”.
But Paul’s “ought not”, as we see from the following verse, is meant as a moral “ought not”, based on his theology.
They have neglected their duty to “seek and find God”, by dwelling on the representations made in gold and silver and stone.
This counts as a sin against God, which sets up a need for repentance.
The call to repentance is associated with the fixing of a day of judgement.
Which is exactly the same point on which Paul concluded his preaching to the Jews.
And the evidence for the forthcoming judgement is that God has raised the appointed judge from the dead.
Once again, then, we see the basic elements of Paul’s gospel;
The state of sin, with a need for repentance.
The death and the resurrection of Christ, and the coming judgement
Modern commentators remark on the fact that Luke’s account includes no mention of the Cross.
However, Paul could hardly have talked about the Resurrection of Jesus without mentioning the fact that Jesus died first, so the point won’t have
been left out altogether.
But here the Resurrection itself seems to have been the doctrine which is rejected as “folly” by the Greeks.
When Paul spoke to the Jews, he found common ground in the Jewish heritage, because his theme was the relation between Israel’s God and the people
But when he speaks to the Gentiles, he is obliged to find his common ground in their shared humanity.
For the new theme is that God is now (as he always intended) extending the relation of “God-and-his-people” to the world at large.