Robert D. Decker
If the life of the apostle Paul indicates anything at all it indicates that the work of a faithful missionary/preacher of the gospel of the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ is incredibly difficult. Acts 17 records the history of the apostle's preaching in Thessalonica and Berea while he was on his second missionary journey. In both places there was much positive fruit upon the preaching of Paul. Many believed and churches were established. In both places, however, the apostle encountered fierce opposition and persecution. In Thessalonica certain Jews, who were moved with envy, provoked "lewd fellows of the baser sort" to set the whole city in an uproar while attempting to capture Paul and his co-workers (vv. 5-9). The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas by night to Berea. These same unbelieving Jews from Thessalonica followed the apostle to Berea and stirred up the people there. Under these circumstances the apostle fled to Athens alone (vv. 10-15). While waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him, Paul first disputed with the Jews and certain devout persons in the synagogue and, in the market place, with whomever he met. During this time, at the request of the pagan Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, Paul preached his famous sermon on Mars' hill (vv. 16-34). It is to this incident, and especially to this sermon of the apostle, that we wish to direct our attention. It has, we are convinced, much to teach us concerning the proper method of performing mission work among those who have never heard the gospel. Paul is involved here in Athens in cross-cultural evangelism.
Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is in Athens. He is very really in the world but not of the world. The apostle is in the very heart of the world. Athens was the seat of the culture of the Graeco-Roman world not only, but also she was destined to be the seat of the culture of the whole of Western civilization. Politically Athens was of little or no importance. It was the university seat of the world with all its rich environment and traditions of philosophy and learning, of literature and the arts. Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, was in the city of Pericles and Demosthenes, Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Euripides. In its Agora (market place) Socrates had employed what became known as the "socratic method" of teaching (getting his students into the material by asking questions). Here was the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle, the porch of Zeno (founder of Stoicism), and the Garden of Epicurus (founder of Epicureanism). Here men still talked about philosophy, poetry, history, religion, and anything anyone wished to discuss. Athens was the art center of the world. The Parthenon, that most beautiful of temples, crowned the Acropolis.
It is likely, at least that is the impression one receives from the narrative of Acts 17, that the apostle did not intend to go to Athens to preach. Once there, however, he will not be idle. God in His providence will not leave Himself without witness in this heart of the antichristian, godless culture and learning of the world. The apostle will preach the gospel of God's sovereign grace in the crucified, risen Lord Jesus Christ. Also here the world's most brilliant philosophers and learned men must respond to the question, "What think ye of Jesus who is called Christ?"
While waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive from Thessalonica (Acts 17:15-16), Paul's spirit was stirred, or provoked, when he saw that the city was wholly given to idolatry (more correctly translated, "the city being full of idols," v. 16). This is no exaggeration. Ancient historians inform us that Athens was "all altar, all sacrifice and offering to the gods." The idolatry and the sensualism of it all leered at Paul from every side. Ancient historians inform us that Athens had more idols than all the rest of Greece put together. We are told that at the time of the emperor Nero, Athens had over thirty thousand public statues, besides countless private ones in the homes. One wag sneered that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Every gateway or porch had its god of protection. Idols lined the streets and caught the eye at every prominent place.
What this means is that there was no place on earth where it was more unlikely that the preaching of the gospel would gain converts for Christ than in Athens. Is it any wonder that the spirit of this holy man of God was provoked within him? Paul was zealous for the Lord and His Christ. He simply could not stand all this blatant blasphemy of the holy name of His God. At the sight of all this corruption the apostle was saying in his heart, "Woe is me if I preach not the gospel."
First Paul went to the synagogue and disputed with the Jews. The literal meaning of the verb "dispute" is "reason." In other words, the apostle was explaining and defending the gospel of Jesus Christ over against the idolatry of the Athenians to the Jews and God-fearers. No doubt he was showing the Jews in the synagogue that Jesus of Nazareth, by means of His crucifixion and resurrection, is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. At other times, and along with this preaching in the synagogue, the apostle went to the market place where he reasoned with anyone who happened by (vv. 17-18).
It was in this market place that there stood the "Painted Porch" where Zeno, the Stoic, held forth. Thus it is not at all strange that the apostle encountered the Stoics and Epicureans (v. 18). These professional philosophers and professors were always ready for an argument, so they frequented the market place. It is quite clear from the text that these two groups were united in their love of arguing and in their attitude of opposition toward Paul and his preaching. Some dismissed the apostle as a mere babbler of foolish and vain things, but others wished to hear more of Paul. These took the apostle to the Areopagus where Paul would preach. Before we examine the apostle's sermon we must know something of these Stoics and Epicureans.
While they were united in their opposition to the apostle and the gospel of the crucified, risen Christ, the Stoics and the Epicureans were in fact two rival schools of philosophical thought. The rivalry was rather intense as well. From a certain point of view both were born out of the earlier, classical Greek philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. At the same time, however, they were also reactions to the more abstruse philosophy of the earlier period. Socrates had turned men's thought inward. His theme was "Know Thyself." This was fundamental and more basic than the study of physics. Plato followed with a profound development of the inner self (metaphysics). Aristotle sought to unite and relate both physics and metaphysics. Both Zeno and Epicurus took a more practical turn in this intellectual, philosophical turmoil and raised issues that touched on matters of everyday life.
Zeno (336-264 B.C.) was the father of Stoicism. This philosophy was called Stoicism after the porch (stoa in the Greek) in the market place where Zeno taught his students. The tenets of this philosophy are rather difficult to sum. This is true for two reasons. The first of these is the influence of Platonism on Zeno's thought, and the second is the fact that Zeno's thought underwent several modifications. A. T. Robertson comments, "He (Zeno) taught self-mastery and hardness with an austerity that ministered to pride or suicide in case of failure, a distinctly selfish and unloving view of life....."1 Already at this point it is obvious that Stoicism is the very antithesis of the gospel of Christ which the apostle was preaching. What is more, the Stoics were Pantheists. They identified God with the universe. And still more, they were determinists or fatalists in the strictest sense. They believed in the repetitive, successive cycles of existence. (Might this be an influence of the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, who taught that everything is in a state of flux, change?) Not even the gods could intervene and save a man from his fate. Thus they faced the experiences of everyday life and "took it as it came" almost without emotion. From this latter aspect of their philosophy is derived the meaning of the English word "stoic." This philosophy was subjected to further modifications and, to a certain degree, it was popularized by three Stoics of the later Roman period: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Concerning Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) Robertson makes this comment: "Epicurus considered practical atheism the true view of the universe and denied a future life and claimed pleasure as the chief thing to be gotten out of life."2 Epicurus was a disciple of Democritus. This philosopher taught that the world came into existence by the accidental coming together of constituent atoms (a flat contradiction of the Creator God of Holy Scripture). These thought that the ultimate aim in life was the pursuit of happiness. Epicurus himself, however, constantly counseled his followers against sensual indulgences of any kind. Further, these philosophers denied the existence and intervention of God in the affairs of human life. Hence they denied life after death and any kind of punishment or reward after death. The followers of Epicurus con-veniently overlooked his insistence that sensuality was incompatible with pleasure. These, consequently, were known in New Testament times for their immorality and coarse corruption. They pursued pleasure for its own sake. They held that there was no absolute moral law by which men must conduct their lives. "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" was their credo.
These Stoics and Epicureans made up Paul's audience on Mars' hill. God's servant was in the heart of the antichristian world. In an environment which could hardly have been more inimical to the Christian faith the apostle would do just one thing. He does not attempt to meet and refute these ungodly philosophers on their own philosophical grounds. Much less does the apostle accommodate the gospel to these corrupt philosophies. Paul brooks no compromise. He does what every faithful missionary/preacher must do no matter where he finds himself. Paul preaches the gospel of the sovereign God in Christ who commands all men everywhere to repent because He has appointed a judgment day (vv. 30, 31)!
This entire incident in the missionary ministry of Paul, it strikes us, is a beautiful example of proper, biblical cross-cultural evangelism. The apostle's audience had never heard the gospel, nor were they familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures and the Jewish religion. The sermon Paul preached illustrates that of which he spoke to the Corinthians:
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without the law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without the law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.3
Note well, the apostle does not compromise either the content of the gospel or his method of presenting the gospel. He proclaims the gospel of the crucified, risen Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. But the apostle does that in terms to which the Athenians can relate. Paul, pointing to their extreme superstition (their sin), to their idols, and to their poets, commands them to repent of all this and believe in the resurrected Christ. Note too that the apostle does not do this on the basis of an exposition of the law and the prophets as he always did when preaching to the Jews. Rather, Paul points to the God of creation. To the Athenians he became as an Athenian, that by all means he might save some of them.
According to verse twenty-two the apostle " ... stood in the midst of Mars' hill." Concerning the significance of this, John Peter Lange comments, "With all the confidence of faith he takes a position in the middle of the plateau on the hill.... He saw before him the Acropolis, which rose above him, and was adorned with numerous works of art; beneath the spot on which he stood, was the magnificent temple of Theseus; around him were numerous temples, altars, and images of the gods."4 The apostle was standing on the very platform of the antichristian philosophy, art, science, religion, and culture of the Graeco-Roman world! Here he will preach the gospel of the sovereign Creator God as revealed in the resurrected Jesus Christ.
In his introductory comments on Paul's sermon (vv. 22 - 31), Calvin writes:
We may divide this sermon of Paul into five members. For though Luke doth only briefly touch those things which he set down in many words, yet I do not doubt but that he did comprehend the sum, so that he did omit none of the principal points. First, Paul layeth superstition to the charge of the men of Athens, because they worship their gods all at a very venture ("at a very venture" is a poor translation of the Latin, fortuito. A better translation would be "fortuitously" RDD); secondly he showeth by natural arguments who and what God is, and how he is rightly worshipped; thirdly, he inveigheth against the blockishness of men, who, though they be created to this end, that they may know their Creator and Maker, yet do they wander and err in darkness like blind men; fourthly, he showeth that nothing is more absurd than to draw any portraiture of God,5 seeing that the mind of man is his true image; in the fifth place, he descendeth at length unto Christ and the resurrection of the dead. For it was requisite to handle those four points generally, before he did descend unto the faith of the gospel.6
Observing all their idolatry, the apostle proclaims, "Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious" (v. 22). "Too superstitious" means "very or extremely superstitious." Not a few commentators attempt to soften the blow by interpreting Paul to mean that the Athenians were a very religious, even God-fearing people.7 This simply is not true. The apostle points to the very heart of the problem of these Athenian philosophers. They were very superstitious! This means they were wholly given to idolatry and vain philosophy. They had turned from the living God, the one true God, to the worship of idols of their own making. The apostle certainly does not compromise the gospel or accommodate himself to this heathen audience. He begins his sermon by pointing to their unbelief as that was manifest in their idolatry. This is where every missionary must begin. Paul simply tells them that in all of their affairs they are very superstitious.
As evidence of all this superstition the apostle cites this: "For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with the inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you" (v. 23). Among the multitude of altars and shrines to the many gods was this one with the inscription, "To The Unknown God." Apparently the Athenians were concerned lest they miss one of the gods. They feared the anger of the god they may have overlooked. More than this, the altar to the unknown god indicates the weakness and the utter futility and foolishness of their idolatry. To this point the Rev. George C. Lubbers wrote convincingly,
So morbid is their fear that they even have an altar erected to the UNKNOWN GOD. They had written that superscription on that altar. And it should be quite evident that Paul is not here teaching or suggesting that the Pagan was in real spiritual quest after the living God. They were not seeking God. Paul only cites this as evidence that the Athenians' multiplicity of "gods" shows that none of these are truly gods, for else they would not have still built an altar to another. Paul points to the "Achilles' heel" in their idolatry. It is here that he points to the deep spiritual-psychological bankruptcy of all the other "gods," and even this unknown god does not avail them aught. Notice well that Paul is here not merely engaging himself is some clever witticism, but is giving, by implication, a profound, basic and soul searching psychoanalysis of all their religiosity. With this one observation he points out the "Achilles' heel" of the vaunted invulnerableness of the religion of these Epicureans and Stoics!
Paul is not engaging in a philosophical discussion of "comparative religions," that he may come to the "conclusion" that the Christian religion excels that of paganism on certain points as to doctrine and ethics, being careful not to expose "Athens" as being entirely corrupt and worse than useless, but he is preaching! And all the world must stand "under sin," and all the world must stand guilty before God, and every mouth must be stopped (Romans 3:19). The entire world must become ... guilty before God. Also here in Athens on Mars' hill! Here the glories of the Graeco-Roman world stand in the condemnation; the Greek moralist too is guilty; thus he stands in his own conscience. The altar to the UNKNOWN GOD attests to this fact. Thus Paul preaches.
Have we not pointed out that Paul here too knows himself a debtor to the Greek as well as to the barbarian?
Well, then, all the philosophic constructions with which the Greek attempts to bolster his idolatrous world with his "wisdom" must be shown to have this one "Achilles' heel." And here too Paul will be caused to triumph in Christ, making the savour of His knowledge known in every place, to the one the savour of death unto death, and to the other the savour of life unto life. For Paul is not as many, which corrupt the Word of God; but of sincerity, but as of God, in the presence of God he speaks in Christ! And in this preaching he does not find a spiritual-ethical good point of contact with these pagans. There is none. There is only a point of "apprehension" for those who are "grasped" by the Spirit of grace, and plucked out of this evil world. And these were but few here in Athens!
Still Paul appeals here to the "conscience" of these men, an evil conscience, a non-sanctified conscience! Thus we read in II Corinthians 4: 1, 2, "Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God." Here is no mere sparring for advantageous position in debate, no cheap trafficking of the gospel as done by ancient and modern "gospel hucksters," but a commending to the consciences of these haughty Epicureans and Stoics! These are weighed in their own consciences and found wanting. All their "gods" are found wanting! The altar to the "UNKNOWN GOD" attests to this fact. And the imaginary impregnable fortress topples, as did Dagon of old when he fell prostrate to the ground.8
Concerning this altar to the "UNKNOWN GOD" the apostle continues, " ... Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you" (v. 23). There is another reading of this sentence which is translated, "What therefore ye ignorantly worship, this declare I unto you." This latter reading has the better support and we accept it as the correct one. It was not, therefore, as many commentators explain, that the Athenians ignorantly worshiped Jehovah by means of their altar to the "UNKNOWN GOD." Not at all! What they worshiped in their spiritual ignorance and blindness out of the hardness of their hearts was not the Almighty God, but an idol! They worshiped a conception of their own minds, and that is an idol. In their spiritual ignorance they rejected God as He was plainly revealed to them "in the things which are made." In the creation all about them those Athenians could see even God's "eternal power and Godhead." But they had changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of the image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts and creeping things (cf. Rom. 1:18ff.). This accounts for all their foolish wickedness and futile superstition. This is what I declare to you, says Paul. He speaks plainly of their spiritual ignorance and blindness. The apostle did not, therefore, proclaim an idol unto them, nor did he commend them for seeking after the true God. He pointed them to their idolatry, which came from their spiritual blindness and rejection of the one, true God. Paul proclaimed the sovereign God of heaven and earth, the Creator God.
Note well, Paul declared God to them. That word means to announce, promulgate, make known, proclaim publicly, publish abroad. One thing it does not mean is to offer or invite! The apostle simply published abroad, there on Mars' hill, the glorious gospel of sovereign grace in God's Christ. And Paul did that against the black background of idolatry, vain philosophy, and foolishness of the learned Athenian philosophers.
The God that the apostle declared to them is the one, true, and living God. This God, thus Paul preaches, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Temples constructed by men cannot contain God. Temples can only contain the productions of men's hands and those are idols. God cannot be limited in any way by man. God is the Creator! God made the world and all things therein, proclaimed the apostle. This means that God is Lord, the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. That God is the sovereign Lord of all things created means that it is utterly impossible that God should dwell in temples made with hands. Solomon declared that even the heaven of heavens cannot contain God (I Kings 8:27).
Because God is the Creator of heaven and earth He is not worshiped with men's hands as though He needed anything. God gives to all men life and breath and all things. Not only is God self-sufficient, but God is the source of all life. The moment the Lord withholds the breath of a man he dies and returns to the dust. Thus these Athenians and all men everywhere, if they are to know God and worship Him properly, must have the proper conception of God. That proper conception of God comes only from God through His Holy Spirit. Apart from that, there is only idolatry in all its vanity and futility.
The apostle continues by telling them that God made of one blood "all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth" (v. 26). At this point Paul preaches the great truth of Scripture that all nations of men on the face of the earth came from one man. This is the truth of the organic unity of the human race. God did not create individuals or individual nations. God created a race, a race which fell in Adam and was saved in the last Adam. This truth stood in direct opposition to the notion of the Greek and Roman philosophers who believed that each nation had its origin in its god. Polytheism had no conception at all of the unity of the human race.
But there is more that these Athenians had to learn. This Creator God who made of one blood all nations of men also "hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitations" (v. 26). The Creator God is also the God of providence. God determined the history of the human race. God governed and upheld the nations. God determined where and when and for how long they should exist in time and history. God ruled them too so that they served His purpose in Christ.
This is borne out by what we read in Genesis 11:1-9, "The whole earth was of one speech and of one language." There were no separate nations prior to the confusion of tongues at Babel! God made the nations! It is stupid pride and horrible unbelief that would make each nation come from a national god or primordial. It is a denial of the judgment of God and of God's Christological purpose in all things, namely, that Japheth shall dwell in the tents of Shem. But here the record is set straight. Of this Moses sings in Deuteronomy 32:7-9, where we read, "Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations (generation and generation): ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders and they will tell thee. When the Most High divided the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. For the Lord's portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance."9
The apostle proclaimed God's eternal purpose in Christ in all of this. God made the nations of one blood. God set the boundaries of their habitations. God determined the times of their existence. God in His providence ruled them. God did all this, "That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring" (vv. 27-28). God's purpose was that men should serve him, "find him and feel after him." The vast majority (the Athenians among them) refused to do this. In spite of the fact that through "glimmerings of natural light"10 even some of their own poets recognized the unity of the human race, they refused to seek the Lord. In spite of the fact too that God is not far from everyone of us, so that in him we live and move and have our being, they refused to seek Him. God is indeed near to man in His creation. Even His invisible things, His eternal power and godhead, are clearly seen through the things that are made (Rom. 1:18-20). In spite of all this, man changes the glory of God into an image made like to corruptible man (Rom. 1:23).
Having established the fact that God is the Creator of the human race, Paul instructed them not to think that God can be compared to gold or silver or stone, "graven by art and man's device" (v. 29). This is impossible! This too points to the futility of Greek philosophy and religion. The gods of the Greeks were less than those who presumably worshiped them! They could be manipulated by their worshippers. What folly! What nonsense! Paul brooks no compromise. There is no syncretism in the apostle's preaching! He simply proclaimed the gospel of sovereign grace over against the background of their spiritual ignorance and terrible sin of idolatry! This is what every missionary/preacher must have the courage to do in every cultural context.
Paul continued, "And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent" (v. 30). The translation "winked at," of the Authorized Version, is both incorrect and unfortunate. It implies that God for a time condoned the idolatry of the ungodly. This simply is not true. God is angry with the wicked every day. God's wrath is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness of men. The word literally means, to overlook, take no notice of, not attend to. The point is that in the Old Testament times, before Christ came, salvation was limited to Israel. To Israel was the promise, the type, the shadow, the law. Not all Israelites were children of the promise, but all the children of the promise were Israelites. In that sense God overlooked the heathen. God kept them, with but very few exceptions (Rahab, Ruth, et. al.), in ignorance. But now all of that is changed. Christ has come, and through His cross and resurrection (v. 31) He has brought redemption. Now God will gather His church out of all nations. Therefore God " ... now commandeth all men everywhere to repent" (v. 30).
Paul also gives the reason for this universal command to repent: "Because he (God) hath appointed a day, in which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead" (v. 31). That day of judgment has already come. That day came with the incarnation of "that man whom he hath ordained," viz., our Lord Jesus Christ. He Himself to whom all judgment has been committed (John 5:22) said not long before He went to the cross, "Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die" (John 12:31-33). The cross of Jesus Christ as sealed in His blessed resurrection from the dead is most emphatically the judgment of the whole world. For this reason the command to repent must be preached to all universally. All men everywhere must be confronted with the command of the gospel. All must give answer. The elect will respond in faith (v. 24) and the ungodly will respond in unbelief (v. 32). All are rendered without excuse. That day of judgment, ordained of God, will culminate in the final judgment at the end of the ages. Then all shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive according to the deeds done in the body, whether good or evil (II Cor. 5:10).
Consider now what Paul has done here in Athens. He has without compromise exposed these philosophers of Athens in all their superstition and idolatry. He has preached the God of creation and providence. He has instructed them concerning the proper worship of Jehovah. He has preached Christ crucified and raised. He has announced the judgment of the world by Jesus Christ. He has preached the universal command of the gospel to repent. Once more, what the apostle did not do is preach an offer of the gospel. He preached the gospel of the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ against the dark background of human depravity, which renders all men everywhere incapable of any good. The overwhelming testimony, not only of apostolic preaching, but also of all of Scripture, contradicts all notions of free will, offers of the gospel, and universal atonement. The only possibility of salvation for those who are dead in trespasses and sins is this: "... by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Eph. 2:1-8).
The fruit of Paul's preaching? Some mocked. Others said, " We will hear thee again of this matter." A few believed (vv. 32-34). But Athens was confronted with the sovereign God in Jesus Christ. The Athenians were commanded to repent. They gave their answer, and the vast majority stood condemned under the just judgment of God. The elect believed and were saved.
Thus it is always, wherever the gospel is preached in truth according to the Scriptures. This must characterize all mission preaching. With the same boldness of faith must Christ's ambassadors open their mouths to make known the mystery of the gospel of sovereign grace to the glory of God (Eph. 6:19). In this way will the church be gathered out of the nations. The world will be brought into judgment. God will be praised.