19 May 2015

Acts 17:15-34

“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)

Psalm: Psalm 11:1-5


In this passage Paul is in Athens - the intellectual capital of the ancient world. It is here that Paul meets the ideas of the philosophers head on and encounters idols and altars to an amazing range of deities. This is a very different context for Paul - he has been used to addressing Jews or God-fearing Gentiles. This was a 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 of speakers and ideologies - like the Areopagus in Athens. Two of the philosophies Paul faced were those held by the Epicureans and the Stoics. The former thought that there was a great distance between God and the world, and that human beings had to get on with life as best they could. For the Stoics, gods were present within the world and within people - so for them good living consisted of getting in touch with the divine.

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

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

To Ponder

  • What do you think are the greatest intellectual challenges to the Christian faith today? And are we sufficiently knowledgeable about 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 have experienced a sermon or a Bible study which really began with the context of the hearers and took that seriously as a starting point for speaking of the gospel (good news of Jesus).

Bible notes author

The Revd Jennifer Potter

The Revd Jennifer Potter is a supernumerary minister in the Croydon Circuit and a part-time chaplain at Hall Grange Methodist Home for the Aged (MHA).

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