In Part I (See May 1992 issue) we saw how Paul came to be in Athens and the background for this sermon. Paul was invited to the Areopagus (Hill of Mars) so that all who wanted to could hear him speak. Here were gathered many Athenians who had never heard of the one true and living God; the God Whom Paul preached! Let us try to get the complete setting and see the full picture in order that we may understand Paul's intention in this great sermon. It was a glorious opportunity to proclaim the one true and living God to those who had never heard of Him.
"Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:22-23). What a dramatic moment for this great man! A Jew in a Gentile city and the prominent men of the city ask him to speak to them! All eyes were upon him. Probably at no other time did he need the direct help of God through the power of the Holy Spirit more than on this occasion. Without effort on his part this audience had assembled to hear anything he might say. He was there by invitation with the freedom to speak.
"In the midst of the Areopagus" means "in the midst of the assembly" -- in the midst of this body of notables who were called "the Areopagus." Surely he felt the responsibility that was upon him. QUESTION: If YOU had stood In Paul's place that day, what would you have said?
This is one of the most difficult decisions that faces a conscientious teacher/preacher. What governs one in the choice of a subject? Certainly if there is a need for teaching on any vital matter of faith or practice, this should determine the subject. Also, the presence of people who have the need for the teaching. We should remember, however, that there is a difference between "having to say something" and in really "having something to say." Possibly more than preachers I teachers realize or admit, they preach what the people want to hear rather than what they need. Sermons on love, heaven, and "make-the-people-feel-good" sermons are popular. Sermons that are general, light, and entertaining are usually well received. Woe be unto the preacher who feels that he must expose the sins of the people, especially in public discourse!
Sermons that condemn or expose denominationalism and religious errors are unpopular. Sometimes the members ask the preachers not to say anything that might offend their denominational friends. They prefer that the preachers "Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative." They do not want names called and error exposed in plain speech; just speak in generalities and let the people guess at what may be specifically meant, if anything is intended at all! It is not acceptable in most churches to point out sin and error among God's people. Did Stephen modify his language and refrain from preaching the truth to avoid offending his audience? (Acts 7.) Did Paul preach what Felix needed or ignore that truth lest Felix be offended? He told Felix what he needed to hear, "discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come" (Acts 24:24-25.) So pointed and powerful was the sermon that "Felix became frightened and said, "Go away for the present, and when I find time, I will summon you.'" Poor Felix never found the time! No doubt millions of others have followed the same course of being convicted without obedience.
The greatest and strongest example of preaching the truth and "letting the chips fall where they may," was done by our Lord Jesus Christ. In Mark 7:1-13 and Matt. 23 we have two classic examples of this type of preaching. In John 6:66, we read of one instance when Jesus was teaching in plain, strong language, and "as a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore". They could not accept the truth, that is, what the Lord required of them. Jesus said: "You shall KNOW the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). Certainly we should never try to deliberately offend people or be so harsh or rude that we turn them away from objective hearing and honest evaluation of the truth that we are teaching. The eternal destiny of souls is involved when we preach the gospel to those who have not heard it in its purity and simplicity.
Jesus said: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit..." (Matt. 28:19.) Here Jesus tells us how disciples are "made." He uses only one requirement or condition in this instance, the culminating act of immersion in water, which stands for the whole of how people are saved. Of course sinners must hear the gospel, believe its message about Jesus Christ, as Savior and Lord: and they must repent, that is, turn away from their sins. There should be no question in the mind of those believers who take Jesus at His word and believe what He says, that immersion in water (the culminating act in salvation: Acts 2:38) is absolutely essential to salvation. However, a large part of the religious world goes against this teaching of Jesus and His apostles, denying that immersion in the name of Jesus Christ has anything whatever to do with being saved from their sins. They have been taught that salvation comes before and without being immersed, immersion in water is taught simply as "an outward sign of an inward obedience," something Scripture says absolutely nothing about! Keep in mind that denominations of every kind all originated from the will and wisdom of men: not from God! This is true of the Church of Christ denomination also. The truth is that Jesus did not establish a church or a religious organization of any sort or kind! Nor did any of His apostles or disciples do such a thing. Churches are from men, not from God!
Paul could not begin by quoting the Scriptures and speaking of the long expected Messiah for whom the Jews had looked. Neither the Scriptures nor the Messiah were known to the people in Athens. Before he could preach Jesus Christ as the Son of God, he must first make them acquainted with God Himself: and for this purpose Paul's observations in the city had supplied him with an excellent text. Paul's sermon is a masterpiece in every way; in its introduction, in the line of thought, in the aptness for the audience, and in its climax. It was bold, but it did not offend in a bungling manner. It refuted some of the beliefs of the hearers, yet in a manner to convince and win. He stated the truth squarely and fully but so as to lift it above the follies of error. It was reasonable and directed to the heart or mind. He sought to win men but only by glorifying God and the Lord Jesus Christ. He was not able to finish his discourse, but it did not fail of divinely-given fruit as we shall see. He boldly proclaimed the "Unknown God" to them, saying, "What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you" (v. 23).
Paul's introduction is a gem because it led so simply and directly to his subject. He recognized that they were very religious, meaning that they were "very demon fearing". Athens stood in the front rank of "demon worshipers" because of the number of their divinities and the multiplicity of statues and shrines. The word "demon" was used in their sense of "divinities", all kinds of Gods, deified heroes, virtues, and such like. The Athenians were not "more religious" than pagans generally, but they had far more divinities to occupy their attention.
Paul tells them that among their divinities he had found "an altar with this inscription, "TO AN UNKNOWN GOD." What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you" (v.23) .By this fine turn he eluded the force of that law which made it a capital offence to introduce any new God into the state, as he could have been accused of doing (v.18). Thus he showed that he was not bringing a new God or a new worship, but only explaining the worship of one already acknowledged by the state, though not as yet known. He intended to regard this altar and its inscription only as a confession on their part, that despite their multitude of divinities, one God existed of whom they themselves said that, while they knew of Him, they did not in any way know Hind Paul was there to proclaim the very God Who was far from their knowledge: namely the truth about this one and only true God, the facts that will make them realize that all of their other Gods and divinities are fictions, base delusions, to be forever cast aside.
First, Paul labors to prove that God is not an idol (vs.24-28). He proves this by citing some things that God is and has done: 1) This God "made the world and all things in it..." 2) "He is Lord of heaven and earth..." 3) He "does not dwell in temples made with hands...; 4) "neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything..." 5) "He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things'...; 6) "He made from one (man), every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth..."; 7) He "determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation...'; 8) "that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us'; 9) "for in Him we live and move and exist..."; 10) "as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His offspring." These are powerful, far-reaching claims that they had never heard made on behalf of any God they had ever known. They must have been astounded by the reminder from this stranger that their own poets had claimed that even the Greeks were the offspring of this One Almighty God! The contrast between this God whom Paul declared and all those lifeless idols that they worshiped must have been overwhelming to them. There was not a God for this and another God for that like the 30,000 Gods of the Athenians.
The Greek Stoics believed the universe was eternal, self-existing, not made by any outside agency; something like the unbelievers and atheists believe today. Since God made all things, this made Him Lord, not of the sea, as Neptune; nor of the sky, as Jupiter; but "Lord of heaven and earth." God is Lord of all things and of all people! Even the Athenians had wisdom enough to know that their Gods had made nothing at all and they ruled nothing at all. Yet in their ignorance they knew of nothing better as an explanation of how the world, people, and all things came into being.
(Turn to Romans 1:18-32 and read Paul's explanation of how the Athenians and most of the rest of the world, became so ignorant about the one true and living God. It was the result of their own evil hearts as they turned away from God. And so it is today on the part of millions and millions, in the various nations of the world. In my view, this is also what is happening in this beloved country of America!)
Paul now begins to tell them about this God who is "unknown" to them. He says: "What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you" (vs.23). First, he told them that "The God who made the world and all things In it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands..." (vs. 24). It is so sad that such a truth is not recognized by people today; even those who claim to be Christians. God does not dwell in a temple, church, or in a building of any kind. There is no specific place to which we must go to find and worship God! You won't find God at such a place anymore than the Greeks could find Him in their temples! Such places are far, far too small to contain the God of heaven and earth! No doubt Paul alluded or pointed to some of the magnificent marble temples which were in sight around him. Their Gods did indeed dwell in a temple made by human hands and that was their only place of abode, unless someone moved them. Man could carry about his Gods. They were all man-made images; and men worshiped the creations of their own hands. How ignorant and sad.
Paul affirmed that "neither Is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things..." (V. 25). God does not need anything from His creatures. He does not need our worship or obedience for His benefit. It is for our personal benefit that we need to worship and serve Him. Thus we can be more like Him; more of His Image can be seen in us. By our obedience we profit and benefit; but It provides nothing for God other than the pleasure of seeing us obeying and serving for our own eternal good.
Paul said that God needed nothing from man "since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things..." (V. 25.) God is the Giver; man is the receiver if he believes and obeys God. The Gods of the Greeks gave them nothing at all. Idols can neither give nor bless the devotees! Any imagined "benefit" came to them from their own beliefs and action.
Paul further claimed that this one God "made from one [man] every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation..." (v.26). Note that Paul affirms that the whole human race started with one man; and Adam (with Eve) was that man! Thus we here find it clearly stated, with the information direct from God Himself, that mankind is not the result of the process of organic evolution over thousands and thousands of years! All of us, "every nation of mankind" (red, yellow, black, brown, and white -- all are precious in HIS sight!) have a common ancestry, which goes back to the beginning, to Adam and Eve. The various nationalities have not accepted this basic truth.
Paul affirmed that this One God "determined" for the various nations, "their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation" (v. 26). The seasons of prosperity and adversity of all these nations, along with their national boundaries, were determined, and controlled, by this one God. It was not and is not done by separate national Gods. There is no such thing as "the God of the land,' "the God of the sea," or the "God of the sky." None of these things were left to mere chance. God controls it all. God still rules in the affairs of men, even if it is difficult to recognize this reality.
Now all of this had a purpose: "...that they (men} should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us..." (Vs. 27). The purpose is that God wants men to seek after Him come to know Him, and obey Him for our individual benefit. There is no benefit to God if we thus serve Him; it is all for our personal good. We can have no nobler pursuit in life than to "seek after God", even though we have to "grope for Him, though He Is not far from each of us..." He is not far away, but round about us at all times and in all places. Praise be to Him for His mercy and grace!
Paul proclaimed the nearness of God: "...for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we are his offspring" (V.28). Paul offers this as another reason why we should easily find Him -- "for we are His offspring." Here Paul apparently quotes from a Greek poet, Aratus thus showing his knowledge of Greek writers. Others had said the same thing Aratus had written. On two other occasions Paul quoted from such sources: 1 Cor. 15:33 and Titus 1:12.
Continuing his speech to them, Paul said: "Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man" (vs.29). It seems that Paul Is saying that since man is the offspring of God, they should have certainly found God sufficiently, so that they would know that as the One in whom they live, move, and are, no images of gold, silver, or stone, things fashioned by the creature, could in the least be like God. In other words, their own self-respect should forbid them to believe that the God from whom they derived their beings came from the likes of these dead works of their own hands, however skillfully and beautifully wrought out they were.
Just think of being God's offspring! That's what those Greeks were to whom Paul spoke; and that is what we are, God's children. God would not leave His children to grope after Him in the dark, and to call him "an unknown God". Idols do not have children! Psalm 115:1-8 describes in detail the idolatry of the Greeks and nearly all of the world in Paul's day, and much of the world in this age. Please turn and read that passage now. All their images and idols came from "the art and thought of man."
Having made known the one true God, Paul next calls upon them to repent of their idolatry and turn from it. He said: "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man [Jesus] whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead." By "the times of ignorance", Paul means the time previous to the coming of Christ with the good news for all. He speaks of the time of idolatry of the Gentiles, when they were left to their own ways. (cf. Rom. 1:18-32.) Even then God left them without excuse for their ignorance and sins, revealing Himself to them in nature and providence. God overlooked this ignorance: but this does not mean that God excused it for that would have been inconsistent with Paul's call to repentance. They were responsible for their sins and were without excuse (Rom. 1:20). God had not before attempted to break it up, as He now does, by sending forth preachers of the truth.
God then. and now, demands that men everywhere repent. Paul assigns a powerful motive to prompt repentance: because God "has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead." That Man is Jesus Christ. Jesus is here introduced not as a loving Savior, but as the universal Judge of all men.
It seems that Paul's order in the sermon was 1) to make these idol worshipers acquainted with God; 2) to call on them to repent toward God; and 3) to present Jesus as the One through whom their repentance might be available in enabling them to obtain the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.
Having reached the chief point, Paul's sermon was interrupted. He was not permitted to finish.
Some sneered and mocked when they heard of the resurrection of the dead. The idea of such was preposterous to these scoffers. Just who they were, whether Epicureans or Stoics, or both, is not certain. They laughed at needed truth. So have millions of others acted in like manner.
"Others said, We will hear you again concerning this." Whether they were sincere or not we cannot know. Probably they were just being polite, since they were likely part of those who had invited Paul to speak. Like so many in every age of the world, they pushed it aside for later consideration, which never took place. Verse 33 tells us that "Paul went out of their midst." He had done his best to reach them with the message of the God of heaven.
GLORIOUS RESULT: "But some men joined him and believed, among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them." They were closely drawn to Paul and could not tear themselves away. Luke tells us that they "believed." It is thought by some that Dionysius was one of the twelve judges of the Athenian Court. Eusebius, the historian, says that he became afterwards bishop of the church at Athens and died a martyr.
There was also the woman named Damaris. It was unusual for a woman to be found in an audience of philosophers. Who she was is not certain, but she was likely a prominent woman in the city.
Thus we come to the end of this study of this special experience of the great apostle to the Gentiles. He was a unique man in a unique situation who made the best of it. Perhaps when we see him in heaven we can hear him tell of many more of his experiences in the service of his Lord and Master whom he served so faithfully. Let us pray that we, too, may serve our Lord faithfully to the end. May God bless and care for each one of you as you serve Him. CAH