30 May 2017

Acts 17:16-34

“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (v. 23b)

Psalm: Psalm 16


After leaving Philippi, Paul, Silas and Timothy travelled on to Thessalonica and then Beroea, making converts and establishing churches in both places, but also causing riots, to the extent that Paul had to be taken away to Athens (Acts 17:1-15). It is strange that Paul was surprised to find such widespread worship of the gods of classical mythology, since Athens had for so many centuries been the heart of the Greek civilisation and, by Paul's own time, was an important intellectual and cultural centre of the Roman Empire. Yet the wide range of religious cults and philosophical schools co-existing in the city seems to have given it a spirit of great openness and enquiry. Perhaps this context resonates with our own culture, in which interest in spirituality in myriad forms is increasing exponentially and a large number of people are open to discussion about spiritual things.

Unlike other cities where Paul was met with hostility, in Athens he seems to have encountered nothing worse than some ridicule, and also great interest, as he was invited to speak at the Areopagus, the court of the city-state, but also a venue for public debate. Here, with consummate skill, Paul demonstrated his understanding of the need to adapt his message to his audience and delivered a tour-de-force of preaching to the 'spiritual but not religious'. His strategy was essentially to speak in terms familiar to the Athenians and to identify beliefs held in common, before moving to specifically Christian claims. Totally absent are any references to Jewish salvation history or the life and work of Jesus Christ. The Athenians worked on a philosophical level, and so Paul pitched his message accordingly.

He began by praising the piety of the Athenians (verse 22) and their willingness to worship "an unknown god" (v. 23): God was already at work amongst them! Paul saw his task as simply to name that which they were already experiencing. This is consistent with Paul's own articulation of his theology in his letters, when he urges believers to 'become what they already are'. He then began to describe God as creator and Lord (v. 24), in terms familiar to the Greeks, whose chief god, Zeus, was commonly thought of as a creator and king. But Paul reasons from this shared belief that the God who is cosmic Creator neither needs, nor can be confined by, anything humans can create, thus invalidating the practice of worshipping idols (verses 24-25).

The belief that God created humanity from one ancestor was also shared with the Greeks, though Paul adds the idea that humans were created for relationship with God (verse 27) and in a masterstroke he appeals to Greek poets to support this more controversial assertion. Epimenides was a 6th-century BC philosopher-poet, who wrote "In him we live and move and have our being" (v. 28). Paul also quoted from Aratus, a 3rd-century BC Cilician poet, who said, "For we too are his offspring" (v. 28). Paul uses this statement to argue that God is a living God, who can never be adequately represented by lifeless images or objects, however beautiful (verse 29).

Only in the last sentence of his speech does Paul turn to distinctively Christian content, introducing the ideas of repentance, divine judgement and, most shockingly resurrection (verse 30-31). But even then he does not even mention the name of Jesus Christ.

Luke tells us that Paul's strategy was successful, since many wanted to know more and some joined him and became believers straight away (verses 32-34).

To Ponder

  • What can we learn from Paul about how to share our faith with those who are 'spiritual but not religious'?
  • Have you ever witnessed God already at work amongst people who did not yet know God's name? What happened? And what did you learn from it?
  • What impact does it make when you 'meet people where they are'?


Bible notes author

The Revd Anna Bishop

Anna Bishop is a wife, mother and Methodist presbyter. She is currently without appointment while her two small children teach her a spirituality of interruption! She is living in the Salisbury circuit, where she leads Baby-interrupted Bible Study and Little Blessings, a service of worship for babies, toddlers, pre-school children and their carers.