by Phil Johnson
gain: there is an obvious and legitimate need to speak a language people understand if you want to reach them. Paul didn't go into Athens and speak Hebrew to the Areopagites. He spoke Greek. There's nothing the least bit remarkable about that. What Paul did not do was adapt his message to suit the basic values and belief systems of that culture.
Observe what he did do. Every dyed-in-the-wool contextualizer will tell you that he quoted the philosophers' favorite poets right back at them. "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'" (v. 28). He quoted two well-known Greek poets in quick succession. Epimenides, a poet from the island of Crete in the sixth century BC, wrote the line, "In Him we live and move and have our being." And Aratus, a Macedonian poet from the third century BC, wrote "we are also His offspring." Two lines from poets who were already ancient in Paul's lifetime.
Epimenides and Aratus weren't exactly the Lennon and McCartney of 1st-century Athens. Paul was not embracing aspects of the first-century Greek worldview or culture just to relate with the Athenians; he was not affirming something just because he wanted to seem hip and this poetry was fashionable in the Greek academy of his own day. Quite the opposite. He was quoting from their ancient literature to express his own worldview. His point was that these were truths about God that their own ancient ancestors once recognized also. Common grace had made these truths obvious (Romans 1:19), but the Athenian intellectuals had suppressed them. In other words, those quotations from the literature of their forefathers actually confronted the more contemporary and popular worldview of that generation.
As a matter of fact, Paul was doing his utmost to demolish their worldview, so he went systemically through a list of ideas they held in error, and he confronted them with true ideas instead.
There he stood in Athens, amid countless temples and idols. Talking to the culture's most enlightened minds, all of whom held worldviews that were for all practical purposes atheistic, materialistic, and superstitious all at once. Half of them (the Stoics) believed in an afterlife, but it was a disembodied, spiritual notion of the afterlife. The other half (the Epicureans) were such hardened materialists that they believed when the body died and the molecules went back to dust, that was it. By their way of thinking, there was no such thing as a human soul and thus no conscious existence after death.
It was very much like our secularized, atheistic culture today. So Paul is surrounded by these massive stone temples that were relics of a mostly-discarded belief system when he says what he is about to say:
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. Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood 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, 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; 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.' 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. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 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 (vv. 24-31).
He could hardly have said anything more counter-cultural, more in conflict with the prevailing worldview, and less contextualized for Athenian philosophers.
Without trying to exegete every word of Paul's speech, let's notice a handful of his major pointsat least six points in the span of six versesthat would have been deeply offensive to the Athenian philosophers. And Paul knew enough about their beliefs to know that he was challenging their most precious presuppositionsthe building blocks of their whole worldview.
For one thing, in verse 24-25, when he says, "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything"Paul was summarily dismissing all the fundamentals of Greek-style religion. Paul certainly knew what Greek mythology taught. And the Athenian Philosophers weren't naive about world religions either. It wasn't as if they were clueless about Judaism or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Paul wasn't introducing them to a God they had never heard of. He was telling them as plainly as possible that their beliefs were wrong.
He was declaring the truth about Godnot in the philosophical style they were accustomed to, as if to make himself seem enlightened and wise, but he was preaching authoritative truth from God Himself. Furthermore, He stressed that the God of Scripture is not just another character who belonged in the Greek Pantheon. Notice: Paul insists that God is "Lord of heaven and earth"; He "does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands," but is fully self-sufficient and sovereign over all. It was tantamount to a bold and wholesale dismissal of every aspect of Greek religion. And you can bet those Athenians got the point.
Furthermore, when he said in verse 26 that God "has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth" he was attacking one of the common assumptions of the Athenian elite, because they were convinced the Greek race was superior to every other strain of humanity. When he said God "has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings," he was emphatically affirming the sovereignty of the one true God to this bunch of materialistic determinists who believed in the sovereignty of blind, mechanistic chance.
In verse 27, where Paul says, "God is not far from each one of us" (and then emphasizes that truth again in verse 28) he was declaring the immanence of God, an idea that was considered utterly ludicrous by Athenian intellectuals. And when (in verse 29) he ridiculed the idea "that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising"and then in verse 30 described that idea as the defining mark of "these times of ignorance"we have to remember that he was talking to the one crowd in the entire world who were least likely to admit that anything they believed could properly be labeled "ignorant."
It begins to look like Paul was deliberately trying to provoke them. And in a true sense he was. He caps the sermon in verse 30 with a demand for repentance. And believe me: that was no less offensive on the Areopagus in the first century than it would be in the UN general council today. Paul could have hardly packed more hard truth and counter-cultural commentary into those few words. Every sentence Paul said had something in it that would be offensive to those philosophers.
Now, it should be obvious that in the sense postmodern evangelicals use the term, Paul was not contextualizing the gospel in order to reach these philosophers with a message that would sound friendly, comfortable, and easy for them to embrace.
Next time, we'll wrap this up with a word about "charitableness."