Richard Halverson, former US Senate Chaplain, quoted Sam Pascoe, “Christianity started out in Palestine as a fellowship; it moved to Greece and became a philosophy; it moved to Italy and became an institution; it moved to Europe and became a culture; it came to America and became an enterprise.” That is a sobering statement to ponder. But the first time the gospel went to Greece it did not become a philosophy. It really offered an alternative narrative to every other system of belief on the intellectual yard.
Acts 16 offered a template for whom the gospel could embrace—good people like Lydia, oppressed people like the slave girl (some translations indicate she had “a spirit of divination,” or in the original language, “a spirit, a python”), and indifferent people like the jailer. In Acts 17 the gospel was embraced by those higher up the social ladder (Thessalonica, the capital of the area; Berea, where the people were described as “noble-raced”; and Athens, the intellectual capital of the ancient world). In Acts 18, 19 the gospel was embraced by those farther down the social ladder (at least morally speaking—particularly in Corinth and Ephesus). The church grew in Greece.
In Spite of the Tough Audience
By the time Paul arrived in Athens the city was living on past laurels. The city might have only had a population of about 15,000 people. But this was the city of the three great philosophers (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle). Paul had been chased out of Berea by adversaries who came from Thessalonica. Silas and Timothy tried to calm things down in Berea while Paul stopped in Athens. Some scholars believe that Athens was not really on Paul’s radar, but he was a good steward of this evangelistic opportunity.
Idolatry made Paul angry. Paul was troubled when people had a wrong view of God. This motivated him to reason (dialogue) in the synagogue and marketplace. The agora was not only the center of business but also a place for philosophical discussion. Paul grabbed any pulpit available. Besides Jews and God-fearing Greeks Paul’s audience consisted of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Their worldviews were not identical, but they were different than Paul’s biblical worldview. They thought Paul advocated foreign gods because his message of Jesus and the resurrection seemed like something from a babbler (literally, “seed-picker”). They allowed Paul to speak on a rock (one can stand on it to this very day) called the Areopagus. The crowd thought Paul’s message was strange, but they were willing to listen to the latest ideas (new things).
Through a Life-Giving Message
Paul’s speech in Athens was nothing short of brilliant. Following some typical protocols for speech making at this time, he began by being “somewhat” complimentary. He acknowledged that they were very religious (today we would use the word “spiritual.” It actually has the word for “demon” in it). Paul took advantage of a generic altar with the inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” for his introduction. Paul may not have endorsed the supposed tradition behind this altar (Mark Moore, The College Press NIV Commentary, 305), but he used it to preach the gospel.
In contrast to man-made gods which are built by human hands, made of gold, silver or stone, and created by human design and skill, Paul’s God was the Creator and Redeemer of the universe. Paul’s message was life giving because God is a life-giver. He gives everyone life and breath and everything else. In addition to being Creator, God is a sustainer. He made nations to inhabit the earth and even ordained times and boundaries for people. He is not withdrawn from his creation; he is intimately involved with it. His involvement was for the purpose of people seeking him and recognizing their origin in him (Paul quoted a pagan poet to get this point across).
This life-giving message has a goal, and that is repentance. God looked beyond the ignorance of idolatry but commanded all people to repent before it is too late. Just like God appointed times and fixed boundaries, so he has appointed a day of judgment, and that judgment is based on one’s response to the resurrected Christ.
With “Some” Success
Some scholars are pessimistic about Paul’s success in Athens. Yes, some sneered (scoff or mock), and some essentially said, “Later.” But some believed. In fact, two people are mentioned by name, Dionysius and Damaris. “Others” who believed are also mentioned.
Christianity had established a beachhead in an influential city. Wherever wrong-headed thinking exists about God, there idolatry flourishes—even in the most intellectual centers. But Paul offered the people of Greece a different narrative so that the unknown God became known.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Lesson study ©2018, Christian Standard Media. Lesson based on The Lookout’s Scope and Sequence ©2018. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.