The Work in Athens: Part 6 of 6
by John Lowe
Only one course was open—repentance, a complete turnabout from their false worship and a turning to God. The concept of repentance must have sounded strange to the Athenians. Even stranger was Paul’s warning of God’s coming day of judgment (17:31). Greek theology, such as it was, had no concept of coming judgment. The apostle exploded that idea like a bombshell in the ears of his listeners. The offer of salvation in Christ carried with it the threat of judgment if that offer was refused. Men are accountable to their Creator for their action; the Day of Judgment has already been set. Paul’s train of thought was clear enough. God is the one true God and should be acknowledged as such by his creatures. All people must ultimately stand before God and give an account of their relationship to Him. God appointed “the man” who would carry out this judgment. (The “man” was Christ, “the Son of Man,” in His role as Judge; Daniel 7:1310.) God clearly demonstrated this truth by the miracle of raising Him from the dead. Just as Peter had pointed to the resurrection as proof to the Jews that Jesus is Messiah, so to the Gentiles Paul pointed to the resurrection as proof that He is the coming judge of all humanity. The judgment referred to here will take place when Christ returns to earth to put down His enemies and begin His Millennial Reign.
Paul touched the heart and soul of the Christian message—the resurrection of Christ. This was the triumphant truth he blazed across the world. This was the essence of the Christian message to the human heart. Jesus lives! He has conquered death. The grave has no more terrors. The Christian message does not concern itself solely with the immortality of the soul. Even pagans can grope their way to that. The Christian message is that death has been so completely conquered that the body itself can survive its onslaught. Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of our resurrection.
There is a resurrection unto life for the believer, but there is also a second resurrection, a dreadful resurrection, a resurrection to damnation for the unbeliever, and Christ’s resurrection guarantees that as well. All judgment has been committed by God to His Son, who being both God and man is equipped to act as mediator now and magistrate then. It is that aspect of Christ’s resurrection that Paul solemnly brought before the frivolous Athenians. There were to be no more excuses for their philosophical dabblings and their religious allusions.
Paul had reached the climax of his testimony and made his appeal. He may have had more to say, but he had said enough to convict at least one Areopagite (17:34). In any event, with the mention of resurrection, the jeering started, and Paul’s speech ended (17:32).
It should be noted that Paul never compromised the basic Christian principles of God as Creator and Judge and the resurrection of Christ. In the end these were the most difficult concepts for the Athenians to grasp, but there could be no accommodation on these. Bridge building is essential to Christian witness, particularly when addressing different cultures, as missionaries must often do. Paul’s Areopagus address provides both a precedent and a pattern for this essential task.
32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.
33 So Paul departed from among them.
Epicureans did not believe that there was any human existence after death. Stoics believe that only the immaterial spirit survived death. To Greeks, the idea of a body surviving death did not make any sense—even a transformed body. So many in the Areopagus simply scoffed at Paul’s reference to the resurrection. As so often with the preaching of the Gospel in Acts, however, the response was mixed. Others wanted to “hear him again.” There is no reason to see this response as anything but genuine. They were not convinced by Paul, but they were willing to listen to more of what he had to say. At this point, the scoffers must have had the majority, for Paul did not tarry before the Areopagus but left the assembly.
Paul’s preaching at Athens produced few good results. What happened at Athens is confirmed by history. The Gospel does not make its greatest impact among those who are wise after the flesh. Athens was the home of criticism, where everything was brought before the bar of the human intellect, weighed, and found wanting. In that city of philosophers, there was little room for Christianity. Indeed, no great church would be found in Athens during the first 300 years of Christianity.
34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
There was a third response to Paul’s witness in Athens, however. A few people responded in faith. At least one of these, Dionysius the Areopagite, seems to have been converted by Paul’s address before the council. Another convert is mentioned by name—Damaris. It is significant that of the two believers designated by name, one is male and the other female. One cannot fail to observe the prominence of women in Paul’s Greek congregations of Macedonia and Acadia. We have no further reliable information on eitherDionysius11 or Damaris. The “others” who are mentioned as converts in verse 34 may have resulted from Paul’s larger witness in the synagogue and Agora of Athens rather than from his address before the Areopagus. The same may have been true of Damaris.
This seventeenth chapter of Acts is not an anti-intellectual manifesto. It is a rather profound exposition of revelation and reason and still challenges the best minds. Paul’s determination to preach the crucified Christ was confirmed by hisAreopagus experience. He never did speak on any subject without including the center of the Gospel, the death, and resurrection of Christ. The climax of the Areopagus speech was the resurrection, and it received the predictable response—to the Greeks, folly (17:32; 1 Corinthians 1:2312). When Paul reminds the Corinthians how he arrived among them “in weakness and in much fear and trembling,” he is recalling the mood in which he left Athens with the sense of failure heavy upon him. Paul had learned his lesson. “He realized, what is as true today as then, that mere academic argument on behalf of Christianity seldom converts anybody.”
Some people criticize this sermon because it seems to praise the Athenians for their religiosity when actually they were gross idolaters; it supposes a recognition of the true God from an inscription that might have been intended for an idol; it seems to accommodate itself too much to the manners and customs of the Athenians; and it does not present the Gospel as clearly and forcibly as some other messages by the apostle. These criticisms are unjustified. We have already sought to explain that Paul first sought a point of contact, then by easy steps he led his hearers first to the knowledge of the true God, then to the necessity of repentance in view of Christ’s coming as judge. It is sufficient vindication of Paul’s preaching that souls were genuinely converted through it.
We concede that as the speech now stands it is too short to be all that Paul said on this occasion. But we can be certain the Holy Spirit has revealed all the Lord wants us to know at this time. We may hear the rest of the story from Paul himself when we meet him in person.
1 (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2; NIV) So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the Gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith.
2 Pantheon: a domed circular temple at Rome, erected a.d. 120–124 by Hadrian, used as a church since a.d.
3 Paroxysm: any sudden, violent outburst; a fit of violent action or emotion: paroxysms of rage. Or a severe attack or a sudden increase in intensity of a disease, usually recurring periodically.
4 Pantheists. The belief that God, or a group of gods, is identical with the whole natural world; pantheism comes from Greek roots meaning “belief that everything is a god.” Their doctrine equates God with the forces and laws of the universe
5 Devotions means objects of worship.
6 (Romans 1:19-20) Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
7 Pediment: a triangular space that forms the gable of a low-pitched roof and that is usually filled with relief sculpture in classical architecture
8 Providence. God omnisciently directing the universe and the affairs of humankind with wise benevolence.
9 (Romans 3:25; NIV) God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance patience he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished
10 (Daniel 7:13; NLT) As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence.
11 Dionysius. Eusebius on no good authority, makes him the first bishop of Athens
12 (1 Corinthians 1:23) But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.