Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Acts 17:16-34

Ben Witherington asks two questions in his preface to Paul's time in Athens:
  1. How would Paul fare alone in a city that was the center of pagan philosophy and all things Greek?
  2. How would he relate the gospel to pagans who were not part of a synagogue.
New Testament History, page 264

It seems that Athens was different from the other cities that Paul had visited. On one hand, it was more Jewish than Philippi in that there was a Jewish synagogue. On the other hand, we learn that Paul was deeply troubled when he saw all of of the idols throughout the city. William Barclay, in his commentary on Acts, writes, "It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together and that in Athens it was easier to meet a god than a man" (130).

Athens was not the great city that it had once been. It was about a third of the size that it had been during the days of Plato, and was now kind of like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, longing for the glory days. However, as their importance and population shrunk, the number of gods in Athens continued to grow.

We're not sure how long Paul was in Athens, but we do know that each day he was there, he spent time both in the synagogue and in the marketplace. Luke did not have a very favorable view of the Athenians, believing that all who lived there "would spend their time in nothing new except telling or hearing something new" (Acts 17:21).

In the marketplace Paul encountered Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The Epicureans believed that pleasure and the avoidance of pain were the goals for man. They weren't completely atheistic, though they believed that the gods stayed out of man's business. The Stoics believed that the goal for man was to learn to be indifferent to pain and pleasure. They were pantheists. It's easy to see that these two groups could argue for days at a time. Their reaction to Paul was to take him to the Areopagus (a court) and ask him to give an account of this new teaching. Apparently he had violated the law by introducing a foreign deity, although a foreign deity was not so much the problem. Instead, they had a big problem with the idea of resurrection.

Paul was a true missiologist. He had been studying their culture ever since arriving to Athens, and now he put this knowledge to good use. Standing before the Areopagus, he pointed out an idol to an unknown god that he had come across. He explained to them that this unknown god was in fact the Most High God, a personal, loving God who created and sustains the world. He then quoted from Epimenides, a philosopher from Crete who lived during the sixth century. The belief during Epimenides' day was that Zeus was mortal. Epimenides believed that Zeus was immortal, and wrote, "In him we live and move and have our being." At some point in his life, Paul must have come across this writing and recognized it as a bridge to the gospel. And that's exactly what he used it as.

Paul had their attention as he shared the gospel. That is, until he started talking about the resurrection. At this point, some in the crowd began laughing. This was foolishness to them, and they refused to hear any more. There was no persecution, no riots breaking out...just indifference. One lawyer, Dionysius, from the Areopagus council believed, along with a woman named Damaris. No church was birthed, though.

Soon after this Timothy (and perhaps Silas) came to Athens, and Paul sent Timothy back to Thessalonica. Paul then decided that it was time to go to Corinth.

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