Acts 17:22-31 – Paul at the Areopagus/Mars Hill in Athens. Altar to an unknown God. In him we live and move and have our being, as your own poets have said…
Psalm 66:8-20 – Make a joyful noise to God all the earth. Come and see what he has done.
1 Peter 3:13-22 – For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.
John 14:15-21 – If you love me, you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father to send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.
On his second missionary journey (Acts 15-18), in 50 A. D. Paul arrives in Athens, the philosophical center of the universe. Plato established a school there, just outside the city gates, in 387 B.C.
Paul would have heard Plato’s ideas filtered through Cicero and Seneca, who believed that virtue was its own reward and that righteousness was a human quality. They believed righteousness was a craft that could be learned. In The Republic, Socrates says that righteousness is beneficial to rulers (whereas Thrasymachus says that crime does pay). But Paul teaches that righteousness is unattainable by humans. Righteousness is not a human quality but a divine quality.
For Paul, to reflect on the law is to contemplate the huge gulf between human perception of what is good and our ability to attain it. (Romans 7). No one can do good except by the grace of God. The world has gone awry. The condemned criminal, the crucified righteous one, becomes not just the savior of Israel, but of the whole ruined cosmos. The powerless tentmaker is laying the foundation for a European religious/political/cultural upheaval: a confrontation between Caesar and Christ. The exalted divine emperor versus the crucified powerless criminal.
Aristocracy versus the people.
The Areopagus is the Hill of Ares (or Mars). It is a spur, jutting out from the western end of the Acropolis, and used as a place for legal processes and debates. The pictures here was taken by Pastor Don Carlson on the LEAD trip “In Search of Paul” April/May 2014.
The first is from the Areopagus (Mars Hill), looking up at the Acropolis. The second is from the Acropolis looking down upon the Areopagus (Mars Hill).
The legend had it that Mars here cleared himself of the murder of Hallirhothius, son of Neptune, hence its other name: Mars Hill. (A. N. Wilson, “Paul,” p. 156).
Here we have a study of interfaith dialog. Paul respectfully interacts. He does not denigrate their religious beliefs. He affirms their religiosity. “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way (v. 22).”
Rather than smashing the idols, he picks one. Looking through their pantheon, their “objects of worship,” he points out an altar to “an unknown god.” Let me tell you about this unknowable deity you worship. He doesn’t exclude, he incorporates. Later there will be other things to work out, but this is a beginning conversation. One step at a time.
Let me tell you about the God who gives life, who doesn’t live in shrines, “in whom we live and move and have our being, as your poets have said. We too are the offspring.”
Paul is quoting Epimenides and Aratus (a Stoic), their own philosophers. I find this a fascinating lesson in interfaith dialog. Paul makes his case for the gospel not by trashing their beliefs and philosophers, but rather by quoting them. He immerses himself in their thinking and uses their symbols and ideas. Imagine having a respectful dialog with Muslims and quoting the Koran to them. One cannot dialog without immersing oneself in the other’s worldview.
Paul is building bridges, just as Jesus did with the woman at the well in John 4, where Jesus did not trash her beliefs. “Yeah, you worship on this mountain and we worship on that one, but the days are coming when we will worship God in Spirit and truth.”
The apostle who wrote the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, follows closely the Lord of love, who taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor (Shemah, Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:36-40). In the coming Sunday’s gospel, Jesus says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” This phrase “my commandments” or “my commandment” only appears four times in the New Testament, all in John (14:15, 21 and 15:10, 12). What is Jesus’ commandment? John 15:12: “My commandment is this – to love one another just as I have loved you.” And how did Jesus love his disciples? To the end, as a shepherd, as a servant, washing their feet, and in the end by giving his life. “No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
Living in the love of Christ means sharing our faith in a respectful, loving way. “Love does not insist upon its own way.” (1 Corinthians 13)
Here then is Paul’s proclamation of God in Christ, his apologetics in Athens, according to Luke.
An Athenian creed if you will:
- God made the world and everything in it
- God does not live in temples made by humans
- God is not served by humans, as if God needed something
- God gives life and breath to everyone
- God made every race from one person
- God set times and fixed the limits of the places where humans live
- God is somewhat hidden, so that we must search, but those who do inevitably will find God (Echoes of Jesus: “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…” This is also picked up in Luther’s lectures on the Deus absconditus, the hidden God).
- God is not far, not removed (as the Greek gods are)
- We live and move and have our being in God
- We are God’s offspring
- Even pagan poets understand this
- This God is not made out of handcrafted silver and gold
- This God calls us to repent
- God will judge the world on judgement day
- God has appointed Jesus to be that judge
- Jesus’ resurrection is proof of this
This kerygma has considerable shades of Luke’s theology (it is Luke’s document after all), but we still get a glimpse of Paul’s missionary preaching and approach through the eyes of a third party.
This text may help us think through how we talk about the gospel to unchurched folks out in the world, who are nevertheless religious. At our synod assembly Dr. Michael Pasquier reminded us that most of those “nones” (no religious affiliation) believe in God, pray and believe in ghosts.
Even more, for the preachers, I hope it will remind us that we do not preach to a homogenous group as we sometimes imagine. Every Sunday we are preaching to a pluralistic community with a wide range of beliefs. In our increasingly secular society, we must imagine ourselves standing before the Areopagus, speaking in love about the God of Jesus in whom we live and move and have our being.