There were many theme ideas floating around this week: “Know Your Audience” because Paul has adjusted his language to the people of Athens; “An Unknown God” because of Paul’s hook for the Athenians. Personally I liked this one, “God’s Love Language”. It came from reading the scripture in The Message (another interpretation of the Bible) and really spoke in an eloquent way. How does God express his love to you? Through you? Here’s Paul’s story:
Scripture: Acts 17:16-34
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Background on the Text:
- Paul finds himself in Athens, not with the intent of preaching, but just to wait for Timothy and Silas to catch up with him. These three had been chased out of a number of cities after preaching the good news, and they had separated in Beroea.
- Paul is preaching to mixed crowds, of Jews and Gentiles, men and women. We need to be careful when the text says “the Jews:” this is referring not to all Jews but only to those Jews who were upset with Paul’s preaching.
- Athens was a leading city of the Roman Empire. It was known for its schools and its educated population.
Exegesis (close reading) of the Text:
- Paul does not remain idle in Athens. He observes how the Athenians were worshipping various gods, and the statues they have set up for this worship.
- Paul can’t contain himself. He preaches in the synagogues and the marketplace. This is one way of saying he was preaching to both Jews and Gentiles. The marketplace was often used by speakers to get their message out to the crowds. Adherents of two schools of philosophy, Epicureans and Stoics, enter into these debates with Paul.
- Some folks think it would be good to bring Paul to the Areopagus. This refers both to a place (Mars Hill) in Athens where famous debates had taken place, and to the city council which met on the Areopagus. In any case, the people are very polite and seem to truly want to hear what Paul has to say.
- Paul preaches, but he shapes his preaching to the audience. Paul never mentions Jesus’ name. Instead he focuses on God, and uses some quotes from famous poets. He doesn’t quote from the Hebrew Scriptures.
- His speech focuses on the idea of the existence of one God, who is creator of all, and how this one God cannot be contained within idols or shrines. His major point is that this one God is very immanent, or close to all people. Paul quotes to Greek philosophers to make his point, driving home the idea that his ideas are not new to the well educated Greeks.
- Then Paul tells his audience that times have changed, and this one God wants all humanity to repent (change their lives, toward righteousness), because God has appointed one man to be judge over all humanity. Paul knows this because God has raised that man from the dead.
- Naturally people are mixed in their reactions. Some want to hear more, others scoff, and others become followers. This entire scene is remarkable for its friendliness. No one is thrown in jail or whipped for their beliefs!
Questions the Text Asks of Us:
- This text is a prime example of situational preaching. Paul preaches in a way that his audience can understand. How do we “preach” the good news to our neighbors in a way that they can understand?
- Have you ever adjusted the telling of your faith story to your audience? How did it go?
- Paul speaks of a God who is very close, indeed within us. What are the advantages and disadvantages to having such an image of God?
- Paul’s tells the Athenians the need for repentance is because God plans on judging the world soon. Is this an effective argument for our times?