First Read: Acts 17:16-34 MSG
In his second journey spreading the gospel Paul came to, and for a brief time stayed in the once great city of Athens, still an important center of thought in that day. In those days the city would have been positively littered with statues, altars, and temples to Gods and emperors. Even when Paul was Saul it would not be surprising to find him distressed at the sight of so many objects of worship. So he went first to the synagogue there in the city and met with fellow followers of Christ. No doubt he wanted to meet with brothers and sisters to investigate how they were faring in such a sea of divergent beliefs and to bolster his faith that even in a place such as this Jesus was drawing men to himself. Next he went out into the streets and proclaimed the Gospel openly. In doing this he came to be known by some of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who invited them to speak to them formally in their highest court, The Areopagus. He made his case by appealing to the “open-mindedness” of their religious traditions noting that they had even built an altar to an unknown god almost as a precaution in case there was a god they had missed. In practical terms he told them that the unknown god they looked to was the only god that was real, the only god that mattered.
The passage is deep and wide in the breadth of information that is available to inform, encourage, and educate the believer who is engaging in defending the faith to unbelievers, but what I want to highlight today is that there were three distinct reactions from the elite crowd of thinkers who heard Paul’s speech that day. Some laughed at him, some said “we want to hear more”, but some (two in particular) turned their lives over to Jesus that very day.
The two main philosophies represented on Mars Hill (the name by which the Roman’s called the Areopagus) that day were, as we’ve already said, Epicureanism and Stoicism. These lines of thought had already existed for hundreds of years before Paul stepped into their world. The Epicureans believed that there was a God or Gods but that they were unconcerned and uninvolved with humans lives. Significantly, Epicureanism is credited with originating a crude atomic theory of matter. The Stoics, on the other hand espoused the immanence of the divine spirit, in other words they believed that God is not a being apart from all other beings but that God is in everything and connects all things, a universal spirit. This is very similar to pantheistic religions like Hinduism where the “worshiper” is encouraged to look within and become one with the divine nature of all things.
It’s no wonder then that Paul’s message about a God who became a man in order to save mankind from his broken nature through his life, death, and resurrection would have been extremely challenging and new to this group. At first he must have been something of a novelty. We can be fairly certain, due to his prominence in the persecution of the followers of “The Way” prior to his conversion, that Paul was a reasonably well educated man for his time. They must have looked at him and thought, “How have we never heard this before?” Yet most of them were not converted. And we’re given very little detail to indicate how Paul handled the rejection. In the NIV verse 33 simply says, ” At that, Paul left the Council.” Perhaps he celebrated the two converts that followed him out, perhaps he strategized his next arguments to the ones that wanted to hear more, and perhaps he wondered what more he could have said to change the minds of the ones who laughed. We’ll never know, but we do know that as Apologists we will deal with these reactions frequently. It was probably in the early 50’s AD that Paul was in Athens so he had been dealing with these reactions for at least a decade since his conversion. At a minimum we can say that Paul kept his wits about him. He left with followers, people over whom the Holy Spirit had given him influence, and he left others interested. He planted a seed. As Greg Koukl, author of Tactics, A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions, is fond of saying, he “put a stone in their shoe.” That is the heart of our mission as Apologists, to give them something to think about while they’re telling us how little we think about what we believe. Elements of the stoic and epicurean philosophies permeate our societies and even the philosophies of many sincere Christians. Paul’s situation is as relevant now as it was in his day. Our world is littered with altars to false gods supported by false beliefs and bolstered by elite thinkers who barely consider the notion of a life in service to a Risen Savior.
The call to action is this, study the passage, think about Paul’s approach, and go out and mimic it. Meet with fellow believers wherever you find yourself. Then “hit the streets” and share the news of the Gospel. Do it at work or the gym. Do it at the grocery store or the mall. You don’t have to stand on a box and wave a Bible just speak plainly and openly in the course of normal conversation, but keep an eye out for the altars to the unknown god. These will be the superstitions, those just-in-case actions you and the people around you take to make sure things go your way. Those are the openings you can exploit to say, “you think doing that little move is keeping you safe or making you money, but God is doing that. He’s blessing you to let you know He’s there and he wants you to know him.” A lot of people will laugh you off, so be prepared, but some will ask to hear more and if they do take encouragement from that. And study and pray like crazy so that you’ll have more to give when they do.