Acts 17: 16 – 34 In Athens
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the market place day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.’ (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
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 that 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.
* * *
As Rome was the centre of civil power in the pagan world in the 1st century AD, Athens was its spiritual heart. The Athenians had a long tradition of intellectual enquiry, which, at the time of Paul’s visit, dated back at least 500 years. St Luke describes it rather scornfully – “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”
Paul started his visit by going to the synagogue where he would doubtless have used the Scriptures to show the significance of Jesus as the Messiah. However, he also went to the market and spoke to the people there.
It wasn’t long before a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Epicurean philosophers were materialists, rejecting superstition and divine intervention. They thought that the greatest good was to seek modest sustainable pleasures through knowing the workings of the world and limiting desires. Stoic philosophy, by contrast, held that one should accept the moment, not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or the fear of pain. One should use one’s mind to understand the world, do one’s part in nature’s plan, and work together, treating others fairly and justly.
At first there was mockery: “What is this babbler trying to say?” – but it wasn’t long before Paul was invited to speak in a formal meeting of the Areopagus.
He started from an observation he’d made while walking around the city. He had found an altar inscribed “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD”. Paul tells his listeners that this refers to God the Creator. He works from there, via quotations from Greek writers, to proclaiming the good news of Jesus. He then says that God has proved the significance of Jesus by raising him from the dead.
For most of them, this was a step too far. Some sneered openly, while others said ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ (with an implied – “but not right now” added silently). Nevertheless, even from this sophisticated group of intellectuals, Paul found some who were receptive to what he had to teach them.
I want now to look a little at Stoic philosophy. It’s an admirable set of principles. If you suspected that Christianity has something in common with its teaching, you would be right. Stoicism has informed Christian ethical teaching in many ways.
But – and it’s a big but – Stoicism gravely underestimates the strength of sinfulness in human beings. None of us are exempt from sin, and sin damages individuals, families and society. The judgment on sin is here and now; we see how it damages others; we feel how it damages us.
It is only the love of God that can overcome sin, and even then the struggle is mortal. God loves each one of us far more than we can comprehend. As we start to experience that love, we are strengthened to do his will. As we learn how to listen to him, we know better what it is he wants us to do.
And God has given us a supreme example to follow, the example of Jesus. His death on the cross is a statement of the worst that sin can do. Betrayed, abandoned, unjustly condemned, tortured, humiliated and killed. It is God saying, “I know this is what the world is like, I know this is what you humans do to each other and to the world…BUT…
…nevertheless, I love you, and I have overcome the world.” And there is the empty tomb, and the resurrected Jesus greeting his disciples, and the flames of the Holy Spirit dancing on the foreheads of the believers, and the love of God in our hearts as we pray in the Spirit. How could we not want to do his will?
Thank you for your love. Thank you that you answer prayer. Thank you for faithful witnesses to your love.
In Jesus’ name, Amen