Paul Among the Philosophers

Paul Among the Philosophers

Acts 17:16-34

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Written Sermon:

Have you ever been given an invitation to share your faith before a group of non-believers? I don’t mean a time when you took the initiative to witness to others and they were receptive, but an occasion when a non-believer invited you into their world and then created a stage for you to share your faith with their friends or co-workers. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it is challenging, if not terrifying.

For six years Mickey Cook and I coached softball for Homestead High School. After the completion of our final season, I received a phone call telling me that the younger brother of one our former players had been killed in a car accident. I immediately called his parents, and they asked me to officiate at his memorial service. The service was held here in our church to a packed house of grieving students, teachers and friends. At the end I shared a brief word as a dad who had lost a son and explained why I believe in heaven. A couple of weeks later, one of Katie’s teachers invited me to speak in his classes. He explained that I would be part of a larger collection of guests who would be sharing their philosophy of life and would be given the entire class period for all five of his classes—180 students. It was challenging, but not quite terrifying. I knew if I was going to be able to connect with high school students who, for the most part, had no Biblical knowledge or church background, I needed to think in new and creative ways. My daughter, Katie, said, “Now dad, don’t teach and be boring. Just share your story.” Good advice, but I still needed a way to frame my message that would grab their attention. When I arrived in the class, I wrote on the board, Framing a Philosophy of Life: Five Essentials for a Sound Philosophy.

In our text today, the apostle Paul is given the invitation to share his “philosophy” to a court of aristocrats and philosophers in Athens, and he could have titled it, Framing a Philosophy of Life: Five Life-changing Truths about God. Paul’s speech is a model for how we should communicate the gospel in terms that are understandable to other cultures and emphasize common ground, without watering down the message to gain greater acceptance.

I. The “Glory” of Athens Confronts Paul (Acts 17:16–18)

A. A Prophet, Not a Tourist

16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:1617 ESV)

Athens was not originally part of Paul’s agenda for his mission, but God had other plans and divinely orchestrated the apostle’s itinerary to place him right in the heart of the intellectual and cultural capital of the world. Though Athens had lost much of its political status, it “continued to represent the highest level of culture attained in classical antiquity. The sculpture, literature and oratory of Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. have indeed, never been surpassed.”1

The fact that God placed Paul in Athens demonstrates that the gospel message is meant not only for the workplace and the home, but also for the highest levels of learning—the university.

This was Paul’s first visit to Athens where he could experience the glories of ancient Greece firsthand. Though we might have been enamored by the incredible workmanship of Athens’ architects and skilled sculptors, what Paul saw caused a different reaction. While he was waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him, he “saw” a city “full of idols” (kateidōlos, literally, “under” the spell of “idols”); or as we might say, swamped with idols, or drowning in idols. One of their satirists remarked, “there were more gods in Athens than in all the rest of the country, and…it was easier to find a god there than a man.”2

 The city derived its name from Athena, the goddess of wisdom, mathematics, courage, law and justice, and most specifically known for strategic skill in warfare. Any traveler approaching Athens by sea would be able to view Athens’ temples on the Acropolis and the huge statue of Athena (15 meters high) long before they ever reached the harbor. The second century geographer Pausanias notes that sailors coming into port “could see the sun glisten off the tops of the statue’s spear and helmet crest.”3

As Paul intently looked at rampant idolatry flourishing everywhere, his spirit was “provoked,” a term which is used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures to describe God’s righteous anger and indignation over Israel’s idolatry (Isa 65:2–3; Deut 9:7, 18; 32:19; Ps 106:28–29). Beneath the magnificent artistry and breath-taking architecture, Paul could see sinister spiritual forces enslaving entire populations with immoral and perverted passions. It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to see that idolatry dehumanizes people and mars the image of God. As Tom Wright suggests, all it takes is one trip to a museum: “A glance at vase-paintings, statues, cult objects and so on in museums today leaves little to the imagination. Worship these gods, and your body (and everybody else’s, too) becomes a toy.” 4

One day in Athens and Paul became consumed with a “burning fire” shut up in his bones (Jer 20:9–10) that compelled him to proclaim the good news of the Messiah, not only on the Sabbath to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue, but also daily dialoguing in the agora (the marketplace) with anyone willing to listen.

B. Reactions by the Athenian philosophers

18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. (17:18)

It was in the agora that Paul encountered the two leading philosophical schools of the day, the Epicureans and the Stoics. N. T. Wright gives a summary of their beliefs:

Briefly, the Epicureans held a theory according to which the world and the gods were a long way away from one another with little or no communication. The result was that one should get on with life as best one could, discovering how to gain maximum pleasure from a quiet, sedate existence. The Stoics however, believed that divinity lay within the present world and within each human being, so that this divine force, though hardly personal, could be discovered and harnessed. Good human living then (“virtue”) consisted in getting in touch with, and living according to, this inner divine “rationality.”5

The Epicureans were probably the ones who mocked him, saying, “What does this babbler (spermologos – lit. “seed picker”) wish to say?” The word was originally used of birds picking up seeds and then it was applied to beggars who pick up scraps of food, and finally to teachers who gathered up the scraps of ideas of others and peddled them as their own. The Stoics, on the other hand, befuddled by their misunderstanding of Paul’s message, thought he was introducing foreign deities, Jesus and Anastasis (“resurrection”). Anastasis was a common women’s name, and they may have assumed he meant some female consort. In any case, it isn’t difficult to hear the disdain and prejudice in the voice of Athens’ elite philosophers, and it reflects the difficulty early Christians had in communicating their message across cultural divides.

C. Brought before the Areopagus

19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. (17:19–21)

The fact that the Paul was perceived to be proclaiming “foreign deities” was probably the reason he was brought before to the Court of the Areopagus. The court received its name from the rocky hill Areopagus (“the Hill of Ares,” or in Latin, “Mars Hill”) where they met. The council consisted of about one hundred members, who were highly respected and had considerable power to exercise jurisdiction in matters of morality and religion. One of their responsibilities was evaluating foreign cults and new teachers who came into town. So Paul was brought before them to give account of his “philosophy” and to secure the approval of the court, in order to continue teaching.

At first glance, the Court’s request “to know” the meaning of Paul’s message might lead you to think that their hearts were genuinely open and that the gospel could bear much fruit in Athens. But Dr. Luke warns, “Don’t get your hopes up. Their desire ‘to know’ is an intellectual game, not a moral commitment.” Luke’s assessment that the Athenians were held captive to the newest trends and fashion was an Athenian trademark and, I’m told, it still is. Paul certainly has his work cut out for him, for it is hard to imagine a less receptive or more scornful audience. Wouldn’t you have liked to have been there?

Just for imagination’s sake, imagine that you are Dionysius, a distinguished member of the Areopagus. It’s early Tuesday morning. You enter the court and take your usual seat. As the court clerk reads the day’s agenda, you are captivated by one item in particular— Case # 465: Paul, a Jew from Tarsus and proclaimer of foreign deities.

What you are about to hear will stir your heart and change the course of your life.

II. Paul Confronts the Idolatry of Athens (Acts 17:22–30)

A. A Rhetorical Masterpiece

Gifted with a massive intellect and an excellent education in Tarsus, Paul puts together a masterpiece of classical rhetoric to defend his teaching before the court. Rhetorical critics have identified several elements that suggest his delivery was given “with explosive force.” Keener continues,

Whereas judicial rhetoric advises turning the tables on one’s accusers, this speech can be construed as convicting Athenian Gentiles as a whole. Accused of preaching strange deities, Paul follows Hellenistic Jewish apologetic in critiquing pagan temples (17:24), cults (17:25), and idols (17:29)…Witherington suggests the following outline:

    1.  Exordium with captatio benevolentiae: Introduction winning goodwill (17:22–23)
    1.  Propositio: Main proposition (17:23b)
    1.  Probatio Proofs supporting the proposition (17:24–29)
  1.  Peroratio: Concluding argument (17:30–31)6

A. Introduction and Main Proposition

22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ (17:22–23)

The exordium is designed to introduce the main points and secure the favor of the hearers, awakening interest in the rest of the speech. Paul creates a bridge by entering their world and makes an observation about them that has impressed him. They are a very religious (or “superstitious”) people. It wasn’t necessarily a compliment, just a fact, but it demonstrated Paul’s attentiveness to their city and culture. Then he gives his main proposition: “What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” Paul starts where they are then captures their attention by offering to address the ignorance they confess, which frames his speech.

B. Proofs to Support the Main Proposition

24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually 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 are indeed his offspring.’ 29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. (17:24–29)

Typically the proofs supporting the main proposition would present the least important evidence first and the most important last, becoming more convincing and emphatic as it moves along. Paul proofs follow a similar patter as he proclaims the character of the living and true God in order to correct their understanding and to challenge their idolatry. It is important to note that there was broad range of beliefs within these philosophical schools. Each proposition, except the last given at the conclusion, had many adherents so that, at least on some level, Paul was building on common ground.

This is an important point regarding evangelism. Christians often have the reputation of being weak-minded and dogmatic about their beliefs, showing little understanding or compassion toward others of differing viewpoints. Nabeel Qureshi, grew up as a devout Muslim. In his book, Seeking Allah Finding Jesus, he explains,

There is a simple reason I never listened to street preachers: They didn’t seem to care about me…Effective evangelism requires relationships. In my case, I knew of no Christian who truly cared about me, no one who had been a part of my life through thick and thin. I had plenty of Christian acquaintances, and I’m sure they would have been my friend if I had become a Christian, but that kind of friendship is conditional. There were none that I knew who cared about me unconditionally. Since no Christian cared about me, I did not care about their message.7

Fortunately Nabeel found such a friend in college. Six years of a deep and abiding friendship with intense study of the Koran and the Bible paved the way for Nabeel to follow Jesus.

1. God is Creator of the Universe (v. 24)

In contrast to the Epicurean view of an impersonal universe or the Stoics’ view that the divine was in all of us, Paul goes beyond anything they had imagined. He proclaims the true God is both transcendent, the all-powerful Creator, and immanent, the personal Lord of everything that he has made. He is set apart from the world, but he is not detached from it. Therefore it is absurd to think that the one who created everything can be enshrined in buildings humans have made.

2. God is the Sustainer of Life (v. 25)

“Epicureans would have endorsed the first half of this verse, the Stoics the second half.”8

God not only created everything, he continues to sustain the life he created. It is absurd to think that the one who supplies all our needs, from the air we breathe, to the water we drink and crops we eat, should need anything from us. As John Stott affirms,

Any attempt to tame or domesticate God, to reduce to the level of a household pet dependent on us for food and shelter, is again ridiculous reversal of roles. We depend on God; he does not depend on us.9

3. God is the Sovereign Ruler of all Nations (vv. 26–27a)

The Creator and Sustainer of life is also the Sovereign Ruler of nations. Keener observes, “God demonstrates his majesty by ‘separating’ both time and space (Gen 1:4, 7), but he also ‘separated’ peoples (Gen 10:5, 32; Deut 32:8).”10

 There are several implications of this. First, by claiming that God created all people from “one” person implies that no group can claim superiority over another. This subverts “the local Athenian beliefs that Athenians sprang exclusively from Attic soil.”11

Secondly, to strengthen his earlier proposition that God does not “dwell in temples made by man,” Paul argues, “God demonstrated his benevolence and power by filling all the inhabited earth with people (cf. Gen 1:28); if God caused them to “dwell” in such vast regions, how could anyone expect God to “dwell” in mere human houses?”12

Thirdly, God establishes the nations’ boundaries and the times of their rising and falling (as he did with Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and now Rome) to one end—that they might grope for God, like a blind man stumbling in the darkness, and find him. That is not a very encouraging way of describing the quest. The point Paul will go on to make is that “God is not far, but this proximity is because of his kindness, not because of human perceptivity.”13

4. God is the Father of all Human Beings (vv. 27b–29)

“God is not far’ from each one of us; therefore Paul is not proclaiming a foreign deity. But how accessible is he? God is extremely near to everyone because we are all his children, created in his image.”14

 To strengthen his argument Paul quotes two of their poets—the Cretan poet Epimenides and Aratus, giving it new meaning in a new context. Biblically speaking, all of creation is God’s temple and man is God’s image in the midst of that temple. But the Athenians missed the boat, by diminishing and desecrating God’s image. “If people are God’s offspring (and hence his workmanship), God cannot be people’s workmanship,”15

no matter how costly the gold, silver or stone or how great the imagination of the craftsman.

5. Conclusion: God is our Judge (vv. 30–31)

30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (17:30–31)

Paul ends his speech where he began, with the issue of ignorance about the divine nature, which the Athenians acknowledged in their altar inscription, and for which Paul has been giving evidence. Having established the point that God determined (horizō) both times and nations, Paul supported his final point, that God therefore has the right to determine (horizō) both the time and the individual who will judge all mankind. The Stoic’s thought history was cyclical, going around in endless circles. But Paul proclaims that history is linear; it is going somewhere and will end in a grand climax when God will judge all nations and set the world right.

Paul saves the most controversial truth for the end, that God “has given assurance to all by raising him from dead.” The implications of this fact are huge, as Stott asserts,

Now he declares such ignorance to be culpable. In the past God overlooked it. Not that he did not notice it, nor did think it was excusable, but that in his forbearing mercy he did not visit upon it the judgment it deserved. But “now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”16

III. The Response to the Gospel (17:32–34)

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (17:32–34)

Stott notes, “The mention of the resurrection, which had prompted the philosophers to ask to hear more, was no enough to bring the meeting to an abrupt end.”17

 How ironic that Paul had been brought before the Council because of new and unfamiliar ideas, which in reality were as old as history, but fulfilled in such a new way that the entire court was unable to grasp it, except for Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris.

IV. Five Essentials for a Sound Philosophy of Life

It was 8:05 Tuesday morning when I entered my daughter’s classroom at Homestead High School. To arouse their interest and hold their attention, I gave them an outline of five essentials for a sound philosophy of life.

1. A good philosophy must explain our origins: This gives birth to our ideals

Understanding both individual and collective origins gives a rootedness to our being, explaining the “who” and “why” we are here. We must start with the question whether the universe is personal or impersonal. If it is impersonal and we are only a product of “time, plus space, plus chance,” then our quest for something transcendent is at an end. But if it is personal, then there is the possibility for meaning outside of ourselves. If that is the case then we must come to know whether the possibility of knowing God is entirely based on our efforts through personal knowledge, or God has indeed spoken and revealed himself through the created order, or through divine messengers. A true understanding of origins gives our dreams and yearnings validity.

2. A good philosophy must somehow come to grips with suffering and evil: Realism

    • Why does the “agony of defeat” last longer than the “thrill of victory”?
    • Has mankind fallen from a higher calling? What explains personal alienation?
    • Have human beings lost their way in a war of greed, racism and murder?
    • Why do people have a propensity toward evil?
  • Can humans find their way home?

3. A good philosophy must have “historical teeth:” Purpose

Anyone can pull ideas out of the air and proclaim them with authority. The question is, does a particular philosophy bring healing to suffering on both a communal and individual level? Has the philosophy proven itself and perhaps even driven history with a larger purpose? A good philosophy of life should allow us to experience a high “quality of life” in poor or even evil circumstances. Our philosophy must be big enough to embrace all ages, races and nationalities to have validity. What historical individuals modeled this philosophy consistently to the grave?

4. A good philosophy of life integrates us: Integration

A good philosophy will integrate us with creation, family and work rather than isolating us from the world and relationships in which we live, or fragmenting us to live with a false identity in different worlds.

5. Finally, does the philosophy speak to the issue of death? – Ultimate hope

If death has the last word, then death is God. Is there life beyond the grave? Are there hints in the present creation of renewal or justice or of a final judgment? Is it possible to experience a higher quality of life, while we now yet live?

After going through the outline, I shared my story for 55 minutes in five consecutive classes. It was indeed challenging and exhausting, but extremely fulfilling, as each class was attentive, engaged and appreciative. I came away thankful to God for the privilege of proclaiming his name at the high school and prayed I might have more opportunities. Shortly thereafter the teacher called me to invite me back the following year.

You may have noticed that, though Paul’s address to the Areopagus was comprehensive in its philosophical scope, he did not mention Jesus’ name or the specifics of the cross. When we are sharing the gospel with people of different cultures it is important remember that we are sowing seeds, not transplanting trees. For the seeds to grow, hearts must be receptive. For the kingdom of God is like a man who scatters his seed on the ground, then goes to sleep (Mark 4:26–29). When the man awakes and finds hearts that have been receptive, “more shall be given” (Mark 4:25). With the exception of Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, the Athens’ court, upon hearing the idea of resurrection, dismissed Paul with polite contempt. Paul would find more fertile ground in the commercial seaport of Corinth.

“For since, in the wisdom of God,
the world did not know God through wisdom,
it pleased God through the folly of what we preach
to save those who believe.”
1 Cor 1:21

    1.  F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 348.
    1. Blaiklock, as quoted by Stott, The Message of Acts, 277.
    1. Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 25.
    1. N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone: Part Two, Chapters 13–28 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 83.
    1. Wright, Acts for Everyone, 84.
    1. Craig S. Keener, Acts, An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 3:2618.
    1. Nabeel Qureshi, Seeking Allah Finding Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 120–21.
    1. Keener, Acts, 3:2641.
    1. John Stott, The Message of Acts, BST (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990), 285.
    1. Keener, Acts, 3:2649.
    1. Keener, Acts, 3:2648.
    1. Keener, Acts, 3:2648.
    1. Keener, Acts, 3:2652–53.
    1. Keener, Acts, 3:2653.
    1. Keener, Acts, 3:2665.
    1. Stott, The Message of Acts, 287.
  1. Stott, The Message of Acts, 288.