The Apostle Paul and the Areopagus Address
In Acts 17 we find Paul the Apostle alone in Athens. He is waiting for his friends to catch up with him after he had been violently chased out of yet another city.
The section we are looking at, verses 16-33 breaks up into four sections:
- What Paul saw as he walked around Athens, and how he felt about it.
- What he did about it.
- What he said when he got the chance.
- What happened as a result of what he said.
In the context of what he said Paul tells us five things about God that are well worth remembering.
- God is the creator of the universe.
- God provides for us.
- God arranges our affairs to make it easy to find and approach Him.
- God is our Father.
- God is a righteous judge. He will call mankind to account for what they have done about His Son. Judgement day is certain and the time is set. After all, He is God, and He demands repentance.
What Paul saw and how he felt about it
Paul must have been very excited to be in Athens. He spoke fluent Greek and was a scholar of Greek literature and culture. For more than 500 years Athens had been the leading centre of culture in the world. Rome was the centre of political and military power, and nobody had the slightest doubt about that. But Athens was the site of the great and ancient university. It was the home of philosophers, mathematicians and artists. It was a centre of architecture, and expertise in engineering and building. The Parthenon was already hundreds of years old when Paul was there.
Paul probably would have been up at first light and out and about to explore for himself the great city about which he knew so much. We read that he was shocked and ‘greatly distressed’ because he saw the city awash with the worship of idols. From the top of the town, where the elegant Parthenon was a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena, to the dockyards of Piraeus, the city was a maze of temples to a horde of gods and goddesses. The people were consumed with the services required by the priests and priestesses. The city was given over to idolatry and it pained him to the depths of his heart. But he was not one to let it pass. His heart was full of the love of the Lord and gratitude for his salvation and he longed to tell people how they might be saved and set free.
What Paul did
Paul went out and talked about Jesus Christ and salvation to anyone who would listen. He went to the synagogue and spoke to the people there who might reasonably have been expected to know something of the God of Israel and the salvation that was promised. When he ran out of people to talk to there, he went on to the great market place known as the Agora, which was full of pagans who knew nothing of the Lord Jesus.
In the course of this he found himself in a debate with two groups of philosophers. Luke explicitly records that they were the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans were followers of Epicurus. They were rationalists and materialists. If there were any gods, and they didn’t believe that there were, then those gods had no interest in man at all. What was left was to have a good time because that was all there is. They certainly did not believe in any form of afterlife. When you died you were dead, and that was that. The Stoics on the other hand were followers of a philosopher called Zeno. Like some today, they would have talked of the power of nature and the creation and are happy to talk about some profound life force (‘mother nature’ or earth spirits). They claimed that this life force controlled everything and was indifferent to humans provided they did not disturb the environment. But, and this is important, they believed in life after death.
Paul talked all the time about Jesus and the resurrection. However, some who heard apparently thought that Paul was just introducing another ‘god’ and to preach new ‘gods’ without authority was against the law. You needed a licence. So Paul was taken to the authority that issued such licences which was known as the Council of the Areopagus. The Areopagus was the name of the place where they met — a building on the top of Mars Hill; a hill near the larger hill called the Acropolis, on top of which stands the Parthenon.
There is no modern equivalent of the Council of the Areopagus. A senate of immense prestige and antiquity, it was responsible for matters of morality, education, and religion in Athens. It comprised intellectual leaders such as the heads of the university and the various schools of philosophy. It was the peak body of the foremost intellectual community of that time, and the members would have been equal to the best scholars, politicians, lawyers and philosophers in the world today. Paul was invited to stand before this committee, and was politely asked to explain himself. But note Luke’s little aside indicating that they were more interested in discussing problems and issues than in finding solutions to them (verse 21). So Paul marshals his thoughts in his mind, takes a deep breath, and serves up the phenomenal little speech that Luke has recorded for us, the so-called ‘Areopagus Address’.
What Paul said
He starts out politely but boldly. ‘You know nothing about the Lord God or what He has done, but I Paul do, and I will tell you’. With the Parthenon behind him, the home that they had built for the goddess Athena, Paul makes his points.
He tells them ‘God made the universe. He made a home for us. He doesn’t need us to build a house for Him! He runs the universe’.
‘God provides us with everything we need. He has no need of anything from us’. Paul dared to say this in a city where vast resources were consumed in offerings to the legion of idols the people served and the priests that organised this service.
‘God orders all our affairs. He determines where we live and lines up the circumstances of our lives. And why? Because He wants us to reach out to Him and find Him. And frankly, He has made it easy’. In verse 28 Paul quotes a Greek poet named Epimenides who made exactly that point. It should not have been news to his audience.
Paul makes his fourth point on the back of another quotation, this time from a Greek poet named Aratus, and this time the point is that we are God’s children. ‘God created us all. We received life itself from Him. It is silly to think of Him in terms of stone or metal.’
In these four points Paul provides four reasons why idolatry is wrong, and why it is time for the pagans to reconsider their position. To summarise:
- Idolatry seeks to localise God, to confine Him within limits that we set. But the fact is that He has no limits; He is the creator of the universe.
- Idolatry tries to domesticate God, to tame Him, and make Him dependent on us. But He sustains all of life.
- Idolatry seeks to alienate God, to blame Him for His distance and silence. But He is the ruler of the nations and not far from any of us. To find Him and obey Him is not hard.
- Idolatry seeks to dethrone God and demote Him to the status of some image we have made with our hands. But He is our Father, from whom we derive our being.
Idolatry is a perverse expression of mankind’s rebellion against God, and the inexcusable nature of this leads into Paul’s fifth and last point.
This is found in verses 30 and 31, and is that God is the judge of the world. Unless you know the Lord Jesus, this is very bad news, because God is holy, and God wants us to be holy, and without Him we are not. The council that Paul addressed would have vividly understood the implication that you cannot treat with contempt the clear wish of the Lord of all. To ignore the wishes of the Romans was to invite massive retribution. The best they could expect from judgement at the hands of the holy God would be more devastating and far-reaching, but Paul tells them it doesn’t have to be like that.
Paul tells them that the recent resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is the pledge that by the agency of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, God will judge the world in righteousness, and that it is time to repent. God had previously in His mercy overlooked mankind’s ignorance of Him, but the time for that was finished, and their ignorance was now culpable and without excuse. Paul tells them that God commands them to repent because judgement day is coming. Furthermore, that judgement will be:
God has committed this responsibility of righteous judgement to His Son, and has given public proof of this by raising Him from the dead. The Council Paul is addressing (and by implication, all mankind) need, urgently, to find out what God wants them to do, and to do it (i.e. to repent).
There is a certain irony in reading this passage. We tend to ask people if they would like to meet the Lord Jesus. The fact is that they all will come face to face with Him as their Lord and Judge whether they like it or not. And they will have to give to Him an account of what they did in response to the fact that He died for them.
What happened as a result of Paul’s remarks
The mention of the resurrection causes the proceedings of the Council, and Paul’s address, to come to an abrupt stop, and the meeting breaks up in uproar. Some sneered (the Epicureans?). Others were more interested (the Stoics?). Paul left. I rather doubt that he got his public speaking permit.
The lovely bit about this passage is that Paul’s speech, in which he witnesses to the Council, was not for nothing. We read that Dionysius (a member of the Council) Damaris and a number of others listened, were saved, and became important in the Church (verse 24). The Lord blessed Paul’s efforts. He will bless our efforts similarly if we will stand up and speak for Him as Paul did.
Paul clearly told the Athenians that to disobey the Lord God was to invite their own destruction. This is still equally true, and applies to us, whether we like it or not. We should be profoundly glad and grateful for the fact that the Lord Jesus himself stands between God and us, and, by virtue of His death, provides for us His righteousness and presents us to God justified. Every day we should thank the Lord Jesus for dying in our place to redeem us and save us from the consequences of sin and for adopting us into His family to be with Him forever. We need to find out what pleases the Lord (Ephesians5:10), and to do it. In the fullness of time, nothing else will be important.
(Article originally appeared in the Voice of Revival, September 2002.)
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