In our last essay we studied Acts 17:1-21, which is a record of Paul’s mission to Thessalonica, Beroea, and part of his mission to Athens on his second missionary journey. In this essay we are studying Paul’s sermon or speech that he gave to the Areopagus Court in Athens. Scholars debate whether the Areopagus group was functioning as a court, or as a council during Paul’s appearance among them. The scholars also debate the related question of whether Paul’s address was a speech made in his defense, or a sermon in which he preached the gospel. As we read through the passage, we will see that there is no sign of a formal charge, prosecutor, judge, verdict or sentence. There was not even any interrogation. Therefore it seems that the group was functioning as a council, and that Paul’s address was a sermon in which he shared his views about God, Christ, and Jesus’ resurrection.
Paul has been both lauded and criticized for his approach to the Athenian leaders. Personally, I think his way of making a point of contact with them was fairly clever. Remember, this was not a synagogue where the congregation had a monotheistic background and a cultural identity with Paul. This was the Areopagus, where not only was Paul dealing with the best minds in the Greek culture, but he was dealing with people who either believed in many gods, or were skeptical of gods altogether. So Paul needed a religious point of contact with them in order to get them to listen to what he had to say about the true God and Jesus. Therefore he began by acknowledging that they were a religious people. Next, he made reference to an altar to an unknown god that he had seen somewhere in the city. And then he announced that he was going to proclaim to them who this unknown God was.
Some unhappy critics have claimed that Paul’s approach gave some level of approval to Greek paganism. But when he stated that the Athenians were religious, he simply was stating a fact. And as far as the unknown god is concerned, John Stott credits Ned B. Stonehouse with the suggestion that Paul wasn’t commenting on the Athenians’ worship. Rather he was commenting on their open acknowledgement of ignorance about “an unknown god.”
In verse 24 Paul begins to tell the Areopagus Council about the true God. In this sermon, Paul informs the Athenians of several things about this true God. First, he is the direct creator of the universe (v. 24). This is significant, because most pagans believed that a lower god of some kind, a demiurge, created the universe. Plato and Zeno are examples of philosophers who believed that. Stoicism, which was a competitor of Christianity in the first and second centuries, also held that view. But Paul was saying that the true God, “made the world and everything in it.”
Second, not only is the true God the creator of everything, he is Lord of everything. He “is Lord of heaven and earth.” This second truth follows naturally from the first. If God made it all, he is Lord of it all.
Third, the true God “does not live in shrines made by human hands.” Paul obviously made note of this, because of the near-countless shrines in Athens. It is hard to tell how many people in Paul’s day, whether pagan or Jew, understood this truth. Some Jews undoubtedly believed that God lived in the temple in Jerusalem. And many pagans undoubtedly did not believe that the gods lived in the shrines built to honor them. But Paul’s point is important nevertheless. God cannot be put in a box. He cannot be limited or confined in any way. Nor can we control or manipulate him. He is the Lord, and we answer to him.
Fourth, in verses 25 we see that God is not “served by human hands, as if he needed anything.” The word translated “served” here is interesting. It is the Greek word therapeuo, from which we get our English words, therapy and theraputic. The root meaning of the word is “to heal.” Human hands cannot help or heal God. Therefore he needs nothing from us. The reality is, we need everything from him. God provides our very life, because he is the source of all life. He provides our breath, which on a moment-by-moment basis sustains our life. And he provides “all things,” meaning all things we need to carry on our lives from day to day.
In verses 26-27 we see, fifth, that all human kind, and therefore all nations, came from a single ancestor whom God created. Paul doesn’t mention his name, but we know it, Adam. The Greek literally says “from one,” which could be translated “one person,” “one man” (NIV) or “one ancestor” (NRSV). There is a lesser textual tradition (Western text) that reads, “one blood,” which of course means the same thing.
The importance of this in Paul’s context was to undercut racial and national pride, which would have been an issue in Athens, as among most peoples and nations. Of course it still carries force in our day, because racial and national prejudices are as rampant today as ever.
According to the NRSV, Paul went on to say that God “allotted” the nations “the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they should live.” The NIV translates, “determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”
Calvinists would interpret this as evidence that God determines everything that happens. But Paul was not saying that God determines when each nation would begin and end, or what its physical boundaries would be. Indeed the one nation that God did determine its beginning and its location, Israel, forfeited its sovereignty and thus its land by disobedience.
In Acts 14:16 when he was at Lystra, Paul declared the opposite of what we seem to see here, “In past generations, he [God] allowed all the nations to follow their own ways,” or we could say follow their own wills. Therefore Paul has to be speaking broadly here in verses 26-27. He is not saying that God predetermines all the details of the lives of all the nations. Rather he is saying that whatever the nations decide to do, God ultimately is in control of them.
As you can see, in verses 27, Paul gives a reason for God’s working with the nations. It is so that their people will have the opportunity to seek for, and perhaps find, God. So Paul is declaring that God’s ultimate purpose in working with humanity is our salvation. Notice that Paul quickly adds that God is near to us all. In other words, God is not trying to make it difficult for us to find him. He is nearby, and he is waiting for us to search for him (vv. 27-28). Moreover, the fact that we are God’s offspring tells us that idolatry is not appropriate (v. 29).
In verses 30-31 Paul offers a sixth point of information about the true God. Here Paul returns to the theme of ignorance, with which he started. He tells the Athenians that God overlooked religious ignorance prior to the resurrection of Jesus. But now that the resurrected Jesus has come, God requires all to repent.
And finally, seventh, Paul declares that God’s resurrected man, Jesus, will judge the world (v. 31). Thus God’s judgment will be universal, involving the entire world. It will be a just judgment, done in righteousness. And its coming is certain, because the judge already has been chosen.
In verses 32-34 we see the Athenian’s response to Paul’s sermon. As usual, the response to Paul’s preaching was mixed. Paul’s reference to the resurrection seems to have brought the debate to an end. Some, probably most, of the Athenian’s scoffed at the idea. The idea of resurrection from the dead was not something that the Greek culture was open to. Some of the more open-minded listeners wanted to hear more from Paul. A few even believed his message. Among the believers was a man named Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus.