16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. 17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. 18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.
19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” 21 For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.
22 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:
TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one blood[c] every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”
32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
In giving only one sermon addressed to Gentiles by the great Apostle to the Gentiles, namely the Aeropagus speech in Athens, his (Luke’s) primary purpose is to give an example of how the Christian missionary should approach cultured Gentiles.
Studies in the Acts Of The Apostles
The Apostle having emphasized the self proclaimed ignorance of the Athenians (23) proceeds on to authoritatively proclaim the God of the Bible and His Christ. Immediately what is noticed is the comparison between Athenian ignorance and an inspired Apostle invested with the authority to proclaim God’s truth over against that ignorance. This idea of heathen ignorance is a theme that one finds in the inspired Scriptures.
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.
They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.
not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God;
He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Such passages reveal that the Apostle understood that the thinking of the believer vis a vis the thinking of those who denied the God of the Bible are, in principle, set in antithesis to one another. General revelation, or natural law apart from regeneration could only serve to make the pagan guilty and condemned before God since the pagan, consistent with their fallen epistemology, would sooner insist on building altars to unknown gods before they would ever reason savingly about God or His Word. Because unbelievers have an ax to grind what they make of general revelation or natural law ends up revealing how ‘professing themselves to be wise they become fools who become vain in their reasoning (Romans 1:21,22).
As a quick aside, one thing that the Apostolic methodology teaches us is that general revelation will not be articulated aright by God deniers unless it is first read through special revelation. Where God deniers do articulate aright general revelation (Unknown Gods exist that we should be concerned about) it is to be reckoned as a felicitous inconsistency serving the larger purpose of attacking God. As Van Til noted, ‘they are climbing up on Daddy’s lap in order to slap him in the face.’
As the Apostle begins to proclaim God it is clear that his starting point is God and His revelation. Whether dealing with Gentiles or Jews the Apostolic epistemological starting point always remained God and His revealed Word. What the Apostle will ‘proclaim’ (a word denoting a solemn declaration made with authority) has nothing in common with the belief system of the Athenians. Because the antithesis, in principle, between Athenian unbelief and Pauline belief is total there is no common ideas or beliefs upon which the Apostle could build without compromising his message. Remember, since, for the pagan, facts are what they are according to how they fit into Worldview structures — structures which are devoted to not accepting the God of the Bible — one cannot offer them the facts of the Gospel without seeking to challenge the Worldview structure in which the pagan will place the proffered facts. This is what the Apostle does in Acts 17. Their Worldview allows for a universe filled with gods, including unknown gods. The Apostle gives them a God who is singular and known. Consistent with the contradictory nature of unbelief the Athenian Worldview was, at one and the same time, both ultimately monistic and ultimately pluralistic. The Apostle speaks to them of a Creator that is distinct from his creation while at the same time governing that creation. Their thinking was totally immanentistic. The Apostle offers them a Transcendent God who has revealed Himself. Their gods needed temples in which to live, and being dependent upon men, their gods needed acolytes to serve them. The God of the Bible having created the universe does not live in temples and having created all that is, is independent and so is not dependent upon the service of acolytes. In defiance of the Greek notion of ultimate chance the Apostle speaks of a predestinating God. In defiance of the Greek notion of ultimate fate the Apostle speaks of men who are responsible and so ‘should seek the Lord.’ The Greeks made images of God in order to worship. The Apostle condemns such behavior. In short, the Apostle attacks the Athenian Worldview thus revealing that the proper metaphor for Biblical Evangelism is ‘train wreck’ and not ‘bridge building.’
But what of the Greek poets that the Apostle cites (28)? Some might wonder if this citation by the Apostle was a nod in the direction of Natural Theology. Some might contend that the citation of such poetry proves that men can read general revelation aright and so construct a Natural Theology that is useful in knowing god.
First, we should note the way in which the Apostle cites this poetry. He cites the poetry not in order to congratulate them on their wisdom and insight into the character of God but rather he cites the poetry in order to reveal their contradictions. Remember, no pagan world view, including the Athenian world view, can be successful in its God denying without importing capital from the Biblical world view. In other words pagan world views must assume God in order to deny God. Because this is so all pagan world views are contradictory in nature. When the Apostle cites the pagan poetry in Acts 17 he cites it in order to expose the contradiction in their thinking and in their World view. He uses their own avowed presuppositions in order to hoist them on their own petard. He does not use their own avowed presuppositions without putting them in stark contrast to other avowed presuppositions they hold in their World view that are clearly contradictory. When the Apostle cites Greek poets in Acts 17 it is not done in order to give them kudos, but rather it is done in order that they might see how stupid their world view is.
The first contradiction that is put in bold relief by the Apostles citing of their poetry is that while on one hand the Athenians worship an ‘Unknown God’, on the other hand their own poets have said that ‘in God we live and move and have our being.’ If God is unknown then how could he be known enough, to say of him, ‘that in him we live and move and have our being.'(?) In short what Paul seems to be saying is, “Look, either you know this unknown God or you don’t. Which is it?’
The second contradiction that is put in bold relief by Paul is that while on one hand the Athenians make images of God made of gold, silver and stone, on the other hand the Athenian poets say that ‘we are God’s offspring.’ It is as if the Apostle is saying, ‘now if living men are God’s offspring then why do you think the Divine nature can be captured by gold, silver, and stone?’
There is something else though that is going on in this Greek poetry citation to which we should pay attention. What we see here is evidence that man cannot totally escape the sense of the divine. Man knows God as the poetry reveals, but as their larger actions reveal, they are suppressing that truth in unrighteousness. The poetry citations reveals that the ignorance of the Athenians is culpable. At some level they know the truth, but they are willfully self deceiving themselves. They know the truth, but they claim they don’t know, and further they know that they know and they know that their claim of not knowing is pretense. The knowledge of the one true God, that pagans enter into self-deception in order to deny, is like the kept woman who knows her powerful and wealthy husband is cheating on her, but because she enjoys being the wife of a powerful and rich man, she lies to herself about her husbands cheating no matter what evidence is brought forward in order to maintain her place. Because General Revelation is true and because men cannot avoid the conclusions of general revelation men are culpable for their ignorance, since their avowed ignorance manifests that what they rightly receive they twist to their own undoing.
When dealing with pagans we must constantly be on the lookout for true truth to leak out of their world views in spite of their pagans denials of God and then when we find it in their world views we must lance them with it like a wild boar being lanced with a spear, or, in recognition that different types of encounters require different types of metaphors, we must gently insist that the wife recognize and admit that her self deception about her husbands cheating is not serving her well.