Near the end of his second missionary journey the Apostle Paul makes what appears to be a random unplanned stop in Athens. The text says that as he waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy to meet him, he realized the tremendous depth to which the Athenians were engulfed in idolatry. His spirit was provoked within him to reach these people with the truth, and he daily reasoned with them in the synagogues and in the marketplaces (17:17). It was there that he encountered two groups of people, the Stoics and the Epicureans. Only by understanding the world view of these two philosophic groups, and comprehending how they reason, do we begin to sense the genius in Paul's apologetic. The basis for Paul's appeal to the truth of the gospel is based upon his knowledge of what these men believe! When he understands how they think about their world, and the people in it, and their perception of its reality, it is those particular misunderstandings that he addresses with the truth of the gospel.
The Stoics were materialists, pantheists and empiricists. Anything that you could see, touch, taste, smell or hear (empiricism) was real. But only material things were real. There was no room for any sort of 'unseen spiritual' reality. They therefore necessarily discounted reality of spirit, angels, or a God Who is a living Spirit. After all, there was no empirical material proof for such things in their reality. Pantheism means literally that 'God is everything, and everything is God.' There was this mental 'Reason' that filled the whole universe, which was the ‘soul of the universe.’ But because all reality to them could only be realized in terms of materialism and empiricism, God, for the Stoics, was a vague, unidentifiable mentality within the universe.
For them, God could not be distinguished from the world, nor could their view of God allow them to differentiate any of his works from anything in the world. The thought of God creating and directing the flow of the unfolding events in time was a laugh to the Stoics. The ability to distinguish between the virtuous works of God and the sin of men hence became equally impossible. For the Stoics, there was this sense of sheer fatalism and apathy towards all circumstances that came to pass in life. There was nothing to be done about one's circumstances except learn to grin and bear it, and be unemotional in response to it. A "stoic" look today is considered to be one that shows no emotion in spite in the face of trials and difficulties. There was no sense of God being sovereign over circumstances and trials in life. Since God was essentially unidentifiable, and only some vague esoteric aspect of the world, He could not be someone who would intervene into the events of the world.
This apathy manifested itself most in how men related to each other. There was no sense of brotherhood, or unity among men. This of course led to a deep confusion as to the purpose of the lives of men in the world, and there were no efforts toward peace or compassion, other than on an intellectual level.Interestingly, Stoicism is the seed bed for many false religions in the world today. In its philosophy of life and its world view, we find the earliest forms of Humanism, Evolution, situational ethics, Fatalism, New Age, Islamism and others.
The Epicureans were 'garden philosophers.' They meditated on nature, and tried to see how nature and morality interrelated. They believed that the universe was eternal and infinite, though not created by God. It came about by accident really, because there were billions of little 'atoms' that had specific gravity and structure randomly colliding together which happened to make all that existed. Naturally, there was no plan or design behind the universe. It was, after all, an accident that anything was 'here.' They believed in ‘gods’, but they were separate from humanity and less than remotely concerned about men. These gods were engrossed in their own cosmic concerns that didn't concern humans. In the Epicurean mind the greatest evil was fear, particularly fear of the unknown, such as death and what the gods might do. The greatest possible achievement for men was to become completely free from any belief in the gods, because the gods only brought fear into life. Once men were free from the evil associated with the fear brought about by the gods, they could eat, drink, and be merry. That was the real purpose to living: “Exist in the now, that's all there is.” Any kind of judgment in the after-life could not be taken seriously, since all that there is, is 'now.'
There are multitudes of philosophical, theological and doctrinal differences between Christianity and the philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism. But reading Acts 17:24-31 reveals that the Apostle Paul didn't try to wrestle with every detail about the differences between these two philosophies and the many doctrines of Christianity. He focused on three essential doctrines that differentiated Stoicism and Epicureanism from the doctrines of Christianity (17:19). These three major differences were in how God, man and sin were viewed.
Foremost in our thoughts about sharing the gospel ought to be these three standard truths about Christianity: it is the one true religion that reveals the one true God and the truth about Him; it alone has the proper perspective about the nature, origin, and condition of men; and it reveals the truth about the future reality of judgment. These three errors in their thinking were so foundational to their misunderstanding about all of life that Paul probably felt that by helping to get a clearer understanding of these doctrinal differences would help them to see the truth of Christianity more clearly, and their own errors as well.
These Athenian philosophers were Gentiles. Paul does not use Old Testament prophesy or Scripture with Gentiles, only with Jews. Why? Because Jews already know who the One true God is. After all, that is foundational to their heritage. They already believe, at least for the most part, the God of the Bible. What they needed to learn is that Jesus of Nazareth is the One Who fulfills Old Testament prophesy about the Messiah. It is the Gentiles who need to hear about the One true God, and His relationship to men and what differentiated men from God. Paul never uses the Bible per se (the Old Testament Scriptures) to explain to Gentiles about this God either. Why should he? They don't understand that the only source of truth can be found in the true, inspired, inerrant Word of God like the Jews do. Certainly, all that Paul explains to Gentiles is couched in the truth of the Old Testament, but he does not hold up the Old Testament as being the source of that truth, because the Bible is just another book to them. You won't find Paul saying anything like "The Bible says," or "the Scriptures teach" when he is speaking to Gentiles in the book of Acts. In fact, even in the passage we are looking at, He reminds them of the writings of the Greek secular poets to suggest that what he is telling them is believable, not because it is in the Old Testament, but because it is common knowledge (17:28) even in their own culture.
God, Man and Judgment
Paul begins his conversation with these Gentiles by saying that the true God whom the Stoics and Epicureans did not know personally, "made the world and everything in it, since He is the Lord of heaven and earth (17:24)." But Paul doesn’t inform them of this only to give them correct information. He tells them this so they can distinguish the errors in their own thinking process. If this God made the world and everything in it, He cannot therefore logically be a part of the world, as pantheism suggests, since anything that anyone makes or creates, must be less than, and apart from, the One who makes it. Furthermore, the fact that He made it suggests purpose, intent, design and reason. It does not suggest randomness, senselessness and fatalism as the philosophers believed.
Two of the foundational truths of the Christian doctrine of God are that He transcends the universe that He created, and that He is at the same time immanent with it. The God Paul is instructing them about is too big to be only 'here', but too personal and caring to be only 'out there.' Since He is so much greater than we can conceive Him to be, and He is Spirit, it is ludicrous to think that He lives in these little idols they think represent Him that men make with their hands."Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath and all things (17:25)." In this statement Paul affirms that God is entirely self-sufficient. There is nothing He needs from anything to help Him exist. He is not dependent upon anything we might have or could give to Him so that He might continue living, unlike men. We are, on the contrary, utterly dependent upon Him for our life and even the breath within us, which He gives to everyone in His mercy, and takes away when He sees fit. He is the Creator and Sustainer of life! We are daily in need of His mercy and forgiveness, and His strength and love. There is a natural vacuum within us that longs for Him, yet we cannot identify it until He reveals to us that it is Him that we need.
Paul found it necessary to explain that there is no reason to be apathetic towards our fellow men because we are all from one flesh. We have the same ancestors, and we are all in the same predicament here regarding our existence. God made the earth for our dwelling place, and has in His sovereignty determined where we dwell: for the express reason of seeking Him and finding Him (17:27). He is not so unidentifiable that He cannot be readily seen and grasped by the human mind and spirit, at least in His creation. He is not just an indistinguishable force in the universe named 'Reason.' He reveals Himself through the works of His creation and His immanent relationship to each person who lives.It is "in Him that we live, and move, and have our being (17:28)." He sustains our lives in His mercy. We are daily swimming in His grace, providence, mercy, power and love. We were made in the image of God. It is our responsibility to honor Him with our worship and our understanding of His person, not with little molded images that cannot begin to represent Him as He exists in His true majesty.
Finally, this God Who made everything is the Judge of everything. He cannot be unjust, or too harsh, or uncaring, like men are. There will come a day when He will righteously judge the world by the standard of perfection established in the life of Jesus Christ. This we can be assured of because Christ was raised from the dead (17:31).
Paul’s Grace and Humility
Athens appeared to have all the potential for a successful evangelical crusade. These were the most intelligent, reason-possessed philosophers of that day. If anyone was capable of coming to terms with the ‘logic’ of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and rationalizing its timeless truths, it was the men of Athens. There are two characteristics that Paul demonstrates toward the philosophers of Athens after they reject the gospel message at Athens: Grace and humility.
Note first of all Paul's grace to these men as he responds to their rejection of him. Acts 17:18 says that when these philosophers encountered him they called him a "spermalogos." They were literally calling him a ‘gutter sparrow’, or a seed picker. They were in effect saying, "Paul, your message is unreasonable! You really haven't thought this thing through very well. All you have are little pieces of different philosophies that don't fit together. You're like these little gutter sparrows all around us who flit over to those crumbs and gobble them up, and then flit over to that table to gobble up some other crumbs. Your theology is a hodgepodge of nonsense. Our logic will not allow us to see life through the eyes of a gutter sparrow."
But note the total grace that flows from the lips of Paul when he finally has their undivided attention. He can be totally gracious because he knows that the result of evangelism is out of his hands entirely. He bears no bitterness toward them in their rejection of the gospel. He desires no vindication. A cursory reading of the Bible explains that it is God's work to bring men to the truth. Paul sees the Athenians as lost, spiritually dead men responding the only way they know how! He doesn't panic at their rejection of the truth. He doesn't show them his Apostle's badge and say "What's this 'gutter-sparrow' stuff? Open your eyes guys! Idolatry is sin, and you guys are floundering in it. The real God hates sin, and according to the Hebrew Scriptures you guys are going to fry in hell....love God."
There isn't any hint that somehow they can snap out of it if the gospel message gets laid out for them really nicely either. People don’t repent because of what you say or the way you say it. They repent because God grants to them eyes with which to see the truth. If you are opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, you are not in the truth, and it is God alone who will grant you repentance (Romans 2:4). Note also the humility that he brings with the gospel. In Acts 20:18-19, as he gets ready for one last time to speak with the elders from Ephesus, he says, "You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, serving the Lord with all humility...." Do you know why Paul can present the gospel with total humility? I think there are three reasons.
First, because he never lost focus from the very beginning that he was called as a servant. There was never a question in his mind that he was doing God's work for God. He wasn't taking any credit. He never said, "I led those people to the Lord through my skills of persuasion." He never lost focus from the beginning that he was an 'under-rower.' How do I know he never lost focus on it?The book of Acts closes with the Apostle Paul in a Roman prison in A.D. 63. His last epistle is Second Timothy written about A. D. 67, shortly before his death. In 2 Timothy 2:24-26, he writes to Timothy "And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him (the devil) to do his (God's) will."
What a magnificent commentary on the grace of God in evangelism! The Greek word for 'opposition', antidiatithimi, is in the middle voice. Paul reminds Timothy that the heretics he was speaking about literally "place themselves in opposition." They are wholly accountable for their opposition because they put themselves there due to their lost and sinful condition. Yet we can be humble because God grants repentance. Lost sinners don't sort of pupate out of their sin on their own power. Paul affirms that they are not even in their right senses! If they were, don't you suppose they might have a clue they were in the snare of the devil? And then Paul makes an absolutely astounding statement! Lost sinners not only place themselves in opposition to the gospel, but then he adds that they have also been taken captive by the prince of darkness to do God's will!
Secondly, Paul can be absolutely humble in the presentation of the gospel because he never lost focus that God is absolutely sovereign in salvation. No one fails to become a Christian because you didn't present the arguments correctly and they found the weak link in your thought process. The reason people don't become Christians is because they love darkness rather than light (John 3:19), and in their natural state the unbeliever is not only threatened by the gospel message, but he wants nothing to do with God. He willingly ignores and rejects the truth about himself and God until God enables him to understand the gospel that is being presented.
Thirdly, Paul learns humility because of the lack of response to the gospel in Athens. After departing from Athens, Paul arrived in Corinth. Corinth was the same kind of city; it had the same blossoming intellectuals, all convinced of the same types of philosophy. Paul must have been thinking of Dionysius, and Damaris, and the few others that came to Christ when he preached in Athens, as he strolled into Corinth. But I don't think he was wondering why it was a pitifully small number that came to Christ from the intellectual philosophers in Athens! No. Paul had two overwhelming thoughts on his mind as he came to Corinth as the Lord's servant: Power and Christ's crucifixion.
In today's huge arenas where alter calls go out to thousands upon thousands in the audience, and possibly millions more who have watched by television, we have a distorted concept of "the power of the gospel." Paul wasn't thinking in terms of thousands of people coming to Christ when he wracked his brain about the power of the gospel to save a few stragglers in Athens. But you'd almost expect him to, wouldn't you, if he were going to talk about that much power! Instead he was thinking about the few in Athens that the Lord had enabled to come! What a demonstration of power that was! Because he knew that whenever anyone comes to Christ it is for no other reason than the power of the gospel.
"And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Corinthians 2:4)." Paul came to the Corinthians in weakness, fear and in much trembling because the truth was that there was power in the message that Christ had died for sinners. All he desired to know was Christ and Him crucified. He had just witnessed how much intellectual garbage had been stuffed into the cerebrums of those Athenians, and how none of it could ever bring them one inch closer to coming to Christ, and all he wanted to know was Christ and His crucifixion! Everything else in evangelism is excess baggage. He trembled in weakness not so much because he knew the message of Christ was full of power, but because there wasn't any power at all, except God's power, exhibited through the truth of the gospel and Christ's crucifixion, that brought sinners to salvation.
copyright: Rick Brownell