“For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (v. 23)

Acts 17:15-34 Tuesday 19 May 2015

Psalm: Psalm 11:1-5


In this passage Paul is in Athens - the intellectual capital ofthe ancient world. It is here that Paul meets the ideas of thephilosophers head on and encounters idols and altars to an amazingrange of deities. This is a very different context for Paul - hehas been used to addressing Jews or God-fearing Gentiles. This wasa real challenge - his new, 'young' faith coming up against old,tried and tested philosophies.

Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park used to provide a similar market place for a diversity ofspeakers and ideologies - like the Areopagus in Athens. Two of thephilosophies Paul faced were those held by the Epicureans and theStoics. The former thought that there was a great distance betweenGod and the world, and that human beings had to get on with life asbest they could. For the Stoics, gods were present within the worldand within people - so for them good living consisted of getting intouch with the divine.

The request for Paul to speak on the Areopagus was not a politeor innocent invitation, but a challenge pregnant with a danger.Athenians were suspicious of "foreign divinities" (v. 18) and dealtharshly with those who propagated them.

Paul faced this challenge and rose to it by making links betweenJesus and the ideas of the Athenians. He picked up on the fact thatthey had an altar to an unknown god and anchored his message there.In modern terminology Paul contextualised his message and presentedJesus as God's answer to the ignorance that their altar showed.Paul presented the God of Jesus as the divinity who has givenhumankind everything and requires no sacrifice from people.

To Ponder

  • What do you think are the greatest intellectual challenges tothe Christian faith today? And are we sufficiently knowledgeableabout our faith to engage with those challenges?
  • Paul began his engagement with the Athenians by noticing their'altar to an unknown god'. Think of some examples where you haveexperienced a sermon or a Bible study which really began with thecontext of the hearers and took that seriously as a starting pointfor speaking of the gospel (good news of Jesus).
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