Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
Paul is the master of cultural context as well as biblical context. He knows his Bible and the culture in which he finds himself. This may be most evident in his encounter with the philosophers in Athens. Paul could have easily began his speech with a condemnation of the Athenians for their idol worship. He doesn’t. He starts by commending them for being very religious. In fact, the Athenians had covered all the bases by having an idol to the unknown God. In so doing they recognized that there were things they just could not understand or explain. All the other gods were made in their image, but not, it seems, this God.
Paul points out their ignorance. Often, in our culture, when we say that someone is ignorant, it is usually not a compliment or meant in a nice way. But not so here. Ignorance is simply not knowing. Yes, some people choose to be ignorant, but that is stupidity. Anyway, Paul goes on to tell them that the God who made everything is not an idol confined to a temple. He is not something fashioned by man’s hand from silver, gold, wood, or any other substance. He is the only God who created all that is, especially human beings.
Paul shows his knowledge of pagan authors to show this point. He quotes the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, “For in him we live and move and have our being,” and the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus, “We are his offspring.” Both men’s writings and reputations were well known in Athens. Paul is aware and wisely uses them as a catalyst for his message to these philosophers.
Paul’s point is ignorance worked as an excuse before, but not now because God sent His Son to reveal Himself to mankind. The incarnation is vital to the gospel. If Jesus had not come in bodily form, the rest of the story wouldn’t make any sense. And the culmination, as always in Paul’s gospel presentation, is the resurrection. This presents itself as a stumbling block for many in attendance that day. They had never heard of such a thing, someone rising from the dead. Yet others wanted to hear more, and still others followed Paul and believed in Jesus.
I’ve heard many people say over the years that Paul was a failure in Athens. That’s plain stupid. First of all, he was faithful in presenting the message of God, which he was called to do. Faithfulness is the way God measures success. Second, Luke lists a couple of people by name and says others also followed. Paul was not a failure.
Once again, it is extremely important that we know who it is we are trying to reach with the gospel message. The use of literature, movies, music, news, and other cultural media is so important to our sharing the gospel. We need to know the bible, yes, but we also need to know how to infuse that Bible into the lives of those we are trying to share that gospel with. If we don’t take the time to learn where people are coming from then how can we effectively communicate God’s truth to them?
Lord, grant me the ability to discern and see Your truth in other people’s sources of knowledge, whether that be literature, movies, TV, the Internet, sacred writings. Give me the patience and insight of Paul in order to find a common ground with those I am faithfully sharing Your truth this day and the rest of my life. In Your name, Amen.
Until next time,
TO THE GLORY OF GOD!