Studies in the Book of Acts
What Paul does in his speech is to point out the weaknesses of popular idolatry. But he does this by relying on the insights of Greek philosophers to show that some pagans have an understanding of God that contradicts idolatry. However, Paul then points out that the philosophers don’t go far enough. Here Paul introduces a new understanding of God and his purpose, and calls on his listeners to abandon their ignorance, and to repent.
Paul immediately takes the side of his listeners by saying, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious” (17:22). Other people in antiquity are also impressed by the devoutness of the Athenians (Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.17.1; Strabo, Geography9.1.16; Livy, History 45.27). Josephus says the Athenians are considered to be “the most religious” (Against Apion 2.130).
Paul doesn’t accuse the Athenians of idolatry or any sin, but acknowledges their interest in the divine. Paul builds on their piety, he doesn’t condemn it. Privately, of course, he is very distressed by the fact that their worship is directed toward idols (17:16). The word for “religious” used here is ambiguous. It can mean either “superstitious” or “devout.” “Perhaps Paul deliberately chose the word with kindly ambiguity so as not to offend his hearers while, at the same time, expressing to his own satisfaction what he thought of their religion” (Williams, 304).
“To an unknown god” (17:23)
Paul next refers to an ignorance of the divine that the Athenians themselves admit. He says, “As I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscriptions: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship — and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (17:23).
We should notice a few things about the way Paul is approaching his “defense” before the Areopagus. First, he is not yet directly challenging their idolatry. Since the Athenians admit that they don’t know who or what this God is (since he is “unknown”), they are in no position to deny his nature as Paul explains it. Also, Paul is not attacking their gods and leaving himself open to a charge of atheism. The God he is speaking of is a “new” one.
Second, Paul does not use anything from the Jewish Scriptures in his speech. Paul is not trying to prove that Jesus is the Messiah — that would be meaningless for a council whose members were probably followers of the major philosophies of the day.
Paul does not begin his address by referring to Jewish history or by quoting Jewish Scriptures…He knew it would be futile to refer to a history no one knew or argue from fulfillment of prophecy no one was interested in or quote from a book no one read or accepted as authoritative. (Longenecker, 475)
Third, this is an excellent example of Paul’s willingness to “become all things to all people” in order to preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:22). To those like the pagan Athenian council members — “those not having the law” — Paul “became like one not having the law” to win them over to Christ (verse 21). The speech is a wonderful specimen of Paul’s approach to preaching to pagan Gentiles. The other example, of which Luke gave us a much briefer summary, we have already seen (in 14:15-17).
As to the actual altar, “To an Unknown God,” we have no direct evidence. However, we know from ancient writers that the Athenians have a penchant for setting up altars to unknown deities. Pausanias, the Greek traveler and geographer who lives around A.D. 150, mentions that there are “altars of gods both named and unknown” near Athens (Description of Greece1.1.4).
God made the world (17:24)
Paul’s next point is to establish that “the God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth” (17:24). Paul is telling the Athenians that God is Creator — the maker of all things, not one who can be created by human works. God is not detached from his creation, and the world did not come to exist by chance, but by design. Paul points out that God guides human history. Here he contradicts the beliefs of some philosophers. He appeals to the Athenians’ experience of the creation around them as something that reveals God.
It is said that there are two books about God — the Bible and nature itself. The latter is said to be the basis of a “natural theology,” and that is where Paul begins to explain who God is to these pagans.
In reasoning from the natural world toward faith in God, Luke’s Paul borders upon a “natural theology” — our observation of the natural world and its wonders as a forerunner of faith. How can people look up at the stars or ponder the mysteries of the world without imagining a real, though still unknown, divine force behind it all? (William H. Willimon, Acts [Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988], 143)
Jews already believe in the one true God, and in Scripture, so when Paul speaks to Jews, he begins with “revealed theology” — that is, the statements of Moses, David and the prophets. He tries to convince them that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptural requirements of the Messiah (Luke 24:27).
Of course, what Paul says about God as Creator is a major focus of Scripture as well (Isaiah 40:28; 42:5; 45:12). The Hebrew Scriptures provided plenty of ammunition to proclaim God’s sovereignty through the creation. But to persuade this audience in Athens, he cites examples and writings that are accepted by Greek philosophers. When the gospel is presented to pagans it is necessary to first establish who the one true God is. Paul claims that this God’s existence can be glimpsed by rightly understanding the creation (Romans 1:19-22).
The Athenians would first have to turn to God from idols before they can appreciate his saving work in Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:9). That is what Paul is driving at here, and the better part of his speech continues to be concerned with knowing God.
Does not live in temples (17:24-25)
The true God, said Paul, “does not live in temples built by human hands” (17:24). Stephen made the same statement in a Jewish context (7:48-50). Subtly, both the Jewish temple and pagan temples are placed in the same category. Neither in Jerusalem’s holy place — nor in any other holy place — will people truly find and worship God. Bruce writes, “If even the shrine at Jerusalem, erected for the worship of the true God, could not contain him, how much less the splendid shrines on the Athenian Acropolis, dedicated as they were to divinities that had no real existence!” (336)
But even here, Paul is not in conflict with the philosophers of the Areopagus. Stoic philosophers accept the premise that God (or the gods) is bigger than the temple. Bruce quotes a fragment from Euripides, who says, “What house built by craftsmen could enclose the form divine within enfolding walls?” (ibid.).
Paul continues by saying that “God is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (17:25). God needs nothing from us. It is we who need everything from God — even life and breath. This is something that even many pagans understand, so Paul is still on common ground here. The principle that God is self-sufficient is also basic Hebrew biblical theology (Psalm 50:7-15; 1 Chronicles 29:14). So we can see that as Paul speaks, he is continuing to run on parallel tracks between the Scriptures and the thoughts of the philosophers.
From one man made nations (17:26)
Paul next appeals to the idea that our common humanity has a single source, by which he means the one true God. “From one man he [God] made all the nations,” said Paul, “…he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands” (17:26). Presumably, Paul is alluding to the Genesis story of Adam as the first human (1 Corinthians 15:45) and the scattering during the building of the tower of Babel. Paul is veering a bit from common pagan speculation and might not be on the same page as the Areopagus philosophers.
They might ask, Who was that man? Didn’t the Athenians spring from the sacred ground of Attica? Is Paul implying that God determined Athens’ prominence in the world, and now its relative insignificance as well?
Paul may be attacking the smugness of the Athenians, who still think of themselves as a great cultural force in the world. He is saying that people shouldn’t think of themselves as racially superior. Their worldly station depends on God’s will, as Nebuchadnezzar discovered (Daniel 4:32).
He is not far from us (17:27)
Paul insists that God has a purpose in allowing the rise and fall of nations, and their geographical placement. “God did this so that they would seek him,” says Paul, “and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (17:27). Here again, Paul can be interpreted in two ways. The philosophers, Stoics for example, might think Paul is referring to the philosophical search for the truth.
What Paul means is that people should respond to the longing in their inner being and search for the one true God (Psalm 14:2; Proverbs 8:17; Isaiah 55:6-7; Jeremiah 29:13). The Hebrew Scriptures promise that, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18). Paul is saying, with the prophets, that God is nearby, not far away (Jeremiah 23:23) — and he wants to be discovered.
In him we live and move (17:28)
Paul wants to bolster his point that there is a relationship between humanity and God — that God wants to be sought and found in a particular way. Paul does this by quoting some pagan poet-philosophers. Paul says: “‘For in him [God] we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (17:28). There is some difficulty in knowing whether Paul is quoting the phrase “in him we live and move and have our being.” However, its equivalent is found in an ancient poem, Cretica, attributed to the Cretan poet Epimenides, who lived around 600 B.C. In this poem, Minos says this about Zeus:
They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one —
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead; thou livest and abidest for ever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.
The phrase, “We are his offspring,” is found in more than one poet. (Paul’s use of the plural “poets” may refer to this fact.) It is in a work by the Cilician poet (Paul is from Tarsus in Cilicia) Aratus (c. 315-240 B.C.), the Phainomena. The poem praises Zeus, and opens with these words:
Let us begin with Zeus. Never, O men, let us leave him unmentioned. All the ways are full of Zeus, and all the market-places of human beings. The sea is full of him; so are the harbors. In every way we have all to do with Zeus, for we are truly his offspring.
The phrase is also part of a poem by Cleanthes (331-233 B.C.), Hymn to Zeus, in a slightly different form. The first few lines are:
O God most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature’s great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by thy just decree
Controllest all, hail, Zeus, for unto thee
Behooves thy creatures in all lands to call.
We are thy children, we alone of all…
Paul has no problem in quoting material or ideas that were produced by pagans in honor of gods such as Zeus. He takes the principle — in this case, thoughts about the nature of God and humanity’s relationship to him — and applies it to the one true God.
By such maxims, Paul is not suggesting that God is to be thought of in terms of the Zeus of Greek polytheism, or Stoic pantheism. He is rather arguing that the poets his hearers recognized as authorities have to some extent corroborated his message. In his search for a measure of common ground with his hearers, he is, so to speak, disinfecting and rebaptizing the poets’ words for his own purposes. (Longenecker, 476)
Paul’s speech, as we shall see at its end, is thoroughly gospel-oriented and biblical in content. He simply cites pagan authorities in the same way he cites the giants of Scripture, such as Moses or David, to prove his point about God’s purpose in Jesus.
Paul doesn’t condemn the poets for groping after some understanding of God in a darkened world. He recognizes the common longing of humanity to connect with God. What Paul does in this speech is begin with the knowledge the philosophers and poets have. He uses it to help his hearers leap over their ignorance, and into the truth of God’s purpose in Christ.
Paul’s allusions to pagan worship and the thoughts of the philosophers are simple points of contact with his hearers. What the poets say about Zeus may have been correct, but only when applied to the one true God. In his speech, Paul seeks to make the proper shift.
God is not like the idol (17:29-30)
Paul now makes his concluding remarks about idolatry: “Since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone” (17:29). Paul is hitting closer to home now. Even the highly educated officials of the Areopagus must have some attachment to the gods, though perhaps not in the same way as the masses.
Paul next labels idolatry for what it is: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (17:30). Peter applied this same theme of excused ignorance to the Jews who rejected Jesus (3:17). Johnson writes, “It is of fundamental significance that they [the Gentiles] are called from where they began, just as were the Jews. Their ‘times of ignorance’ are not treated any differently than the ‘ignorance’ that excused the first rejection of Jesus the Prophet by the Jewish people” (319).
Paul notes that God patiently tolerated human ignorance in ages past (Romans 3:25). In Lystra, Paul says that God “let all nations go their own way” (14:16). While God “overlooks” sin, there is also retribution for people who suppress the truth about his eternal power and divine nature — he lets sin have its natural results (Romans 1:18-32).
But times have changed; a new beginning in God’s dealing with the human race has begun. Forgiveness for sin and intimate contact with God through the Holy Spirit is possible. Repentance and acceptance of Jesus as Savior is commanded. The days of groping in the dark and spiritual ignorance are over. The day of repentance is here and the time of judgment is coming.
Paul now warns the Areopagus that his speech is not idle philosophical speculation. His call to repentance is serious because God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice” (17:31). (The quote is from Psalm 96:13.) The New Testament makes clear in many places that a “day of judgment” is coming. The offer of salvation in Christ is counterpoised with the warning of judgment for those who reject him. (See the following scriptures where the judgment is discussed: Luke 10:12-15; 12:42-48; Romans 2:5-11, 16; 1 Corinthians 1:7-8; 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10; 2 Peter 3:10-13.)
Proof of resurrection (17:31)
Paul is near the end of his speech. He focuses on Christ, him crucified and resurrected. Paul insists that God will judge the world by “the man he has appointed” (17:31) — referring to Jesus, but not mentioning his name. Jesus has been given all power in heaven and earth. This reality is proven, insists Paul, in the fact that God raised him from the dead (17:31). As Paul tells the Romans, Jesus “was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (1:4).
Paul has come a long way from his introduction, arriving at the essence of the gospel — the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the words of William Barclay, “It is no unknown God but a Risen Christ with whom we have to deal” (132).
Up to this point, Paul has been attempting to demonstrate God’s existence, sovereignty and purpose by the “around” — by things that can be seen. The philosophers might argue about the meaning of nature, but they certainly cannot argue against the fact of its existence. Now, Paul asserts that a human being — Jesus — has been raised from the dead. He is insisting on something contrary to the philosophers’ observation of the way the world works. It is also contrary to the views of the popular philosophies of the day.
“In mentioning the resurrection, Paul risks rejection by his audience. They may agree to a created world and to our common humanity, but there is no possible ‘natural theology’ evidence for an assertion of the resurrection” (Willimon, 144).