Acts 17:18-21 “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.’ (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) ”
The apostle Paul had moved from the synagogue – where he began his evangelism in Athens speaking to his fellow countrymen on Sabbath days – to preaching every day in the city’s public square. And it was there, one day, that the big boys arrived, the Athenian intellectuals with their grand, elegant, incomprehensible abstractions about the human condition! They used to exist in Great Britain. When I was a boy there was a programme called ‘Brains Trust’ on the radio with one philosopher generally present, Bertrand Russell or Dr. Joad, or A.J. Ayer giving their answers to questions about morality and the purpose of life. Millions listened to it. But where are the philosophers today? The nearest thing today are the French ‘intellectuals’ though they increasingly are a dying breed. Jean Paul Sartre was the flamboyant personification of that kind of man. When he died in 1980 50,000 people followed his coffin. He dominated the French intellectual scene by his writings and his bohemian lifestyle and his contempt for Christian morality. There is no such tradition in Wales. We’ve never had a status role for philosophers, but Athens did.
So Paul stood in the marketplace day by day. He was serious; he was eloquent; he had a new message to bring to the people and so he stirred interest, and some people were impressed with him and what he told them about Jesus and his resurrection. People were talking about him, while some were even persuaded by what he said. Some of this interest was created purely because of the newness of Paul’s teaching. In Athens it wasn’t so much the latest fashions in clothes and musical hits and entertainments and such trends that got the populace excited as much as the most recent ideas. We are told this in Luke’s parenthesis in verse 21. Have you noticed it? “(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)” The Athenian obsession was with anything new, and it was contagious. Foreigners were drawn to settle and study and trade in Athens and they were soon infected by this ache to know the latest ideas.
We have seen something similar, a fascination with the new theology that had begun in Germany in the early 19th century and spread to the UK by the 1870s to be resisted by Spurgeon and J.C.Ryle. Then it crossed the Atlantic in the early 20th century to be resisted by Machen of the Presbyterians and C.F.W. Walther of the Lutherans. That it was contemporary and revolutionary was its attractiveness. It was exciting because it was new and challenged the old ways. Its advocates preached sermons with titles like, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” It was war. Puritanism and the old books were antiquated, it said. They were patronized like the most famous painting in Wales of that era. It was of a woman sitting in her pew dressed in a Welsh costume in a little chapel in the country, ‘Salem.’ “Ah,” people said sentimentally, “Those were the days, when people had simple faith. But of course that’s not possible today with the new ideas that have come in. A new message needed for a new age.” The 20th century was dawning, and all the theological colleges of every single denomination in Wales – all the teachers of men preparing for the ministry – believed and taught the capability of man to devise new solutions and new ways to happiness. So the rot settled into the pulpits of Wales, and those who opposed it were dismissed out of hand. They had not studied; they were not educated; they were looking backwards to the age of the dinosaurs and the Jurassic Park Church. How hard to resist a powerful trend, to take a stand for confessional teaching, for grounding the faith of a congregation in the Bible. There was a time in my life when I felt the power of the new. Young people do. Yet our only question as followers of Christ must be this, “What has God said?” Our only proof has to be God’s word. We are never to reach the point of thinking that we know more than the Bible. There are but two questions to be considered: [One] Is this the Word of God? and [Two] What does it mean? This ascertained there is nothing left but to believe and adore.
Paul once asked the people of another prominent Greek city the question, “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world?” (I Cor. 1:20). Where are they? We look around for them. They are here today and gone tomorrow. New trends, new personalities appear. In 2012 the French magazine Magazine Litteraire contained an article with the title “Does France Still Think?” Where is the thinker? In Acts 17 we are presented with an answer. Whenever their power and their monopoly of teaching is challenged by a gifted preacher of Jesus Christ and his resurrection then the wise men arrive on the scene! They stand up, and speak out in order to silence and discredit these ‘fundamentalists.’ They are claiming, “We have the latest scientific ideas.” They were considered the experts, with their elegant and sophisticated abstractions about the human condition.
So Luke tells us that the chief spokesmen of the leading two philosophies (or religions) of the city turned up one day in the market place. They joined the congregation listening to the apostle, and soon they were interrupting and commenting on Paul. Paul didn’t send for them. He was preaching the good news day after day, and this faithfulness was the factor that drew the so-called ‘wise’ and the ‘scholar.’ They came along to ‘dis’ him. That is the way it always happens. It happened to Spurgeon and to Machen and to Lloyd-Jones.
So what happened when men from the Greek intellectual tradition, so central to their city’s identity, met evangelical Christianity? How did Paul respond? You remember the exhortation of Peter, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (I Pet. 3:15). People are going to come to you, and they will be curious most of all about your optimism. “Why are you not in despair as others? Why do your beliefs affect you, even in the face of death visiting your family, even when those you love passing away? You have hope!” They will have noticed that. They must notice it, and so our duty is to strengthen those three graces, faith, hope and love that God has planted in out hearts. Of course we need to do more than that, but we daren’t do anything less than that. That is basic and non-negotiable, to stir up trust and hope and warm evangelical affection. Then that will colour and motivate us in every part of our lives. That will be a magnet in an age of despair, and people will be curious; “Give me a reason for your hope,” they will ask.
1. PAUL MET SOME EPICUREAN AND STOIC PHILOSOPHERS
How one admires Paul’s ability to speak to such a range of people, to casual passers by going about their shopping, to slaves and to young people, but then also to confront and challenge the cavalry sent in by those highly professional and jealous teachers from the main schools of philosophy of Athens, sent to put down and silence this new rival. They weren’t interested in truth were they? They were only interested in maintaining their influence. The two top groups – in fact fierce academic rivals – were the Epicureans and the Stoics. These rivals were now united in opposing Paul and his gospel. Those names are strange to us, but they are biblical names and Luke thinks it important to be specific, so we need to understand what they taught. In fact, their ideas are very common in the 21st century. I was reading the Spectator ten days ago and in a column written by Bruce Anderson his opening sentences were these. “I cannot remember a jollier lunch. There are two brothers, Sebastian and Nicholas Payne, both practical Epicureans” (The Spectator, 20 June 2015, p.62).
The Epicureans, or ‘philosophers of the Garden’, were founded by Epicurus (a man who’d died over 300 years before Paul). His followers’ beliefs were that the gods were so remote as to take no interest in, and have no influence upon human affairs. Epicureans believed the world was due to chance; the cosmos was a random concourse of atoms; there would be no after life; and so no judgment. Thus human beings should focus on finding pleasure, especially the serene enjoyment of a life lived in detachment from pains, passions and fears. It is a very common position in our day and age, maybe the supreme philosophy in Wales in the 21st century, that all are free to do what they like, just as long as it does not interfere with the happiness of anyone else: Epicureanism.
Then there were the Stoics, or ‘philosophers of the porch’ (the stoa or painted colonnade which was next to the agora [the market place], in fact that was their headquarters – just round the corner from Paul’s pitch). Stoicism was founded by a man named Zeno who also died 3 centuries before Paul. The Stoics acknowledged a supreme god but in some pantheistic way. They confused this god with what some might call the ‘world soul’. It’s referred to today by the word ‘nature.’ All of god is found in the universe itself; there’s no god outside of it. The world was determined by fate, and human beings have to pursue their duty. Don’t struggle against your circumstances; accept things as they are and resign yourselves to live in harmony with nature and reason, however painful that might be. Stoicism is basically fatalism, que sera sera, whatever will be will be, and your karma is chilling and impersonal and merciless. Stoicism says, “Don’t let your emotions control your life at all. Develop your own self-sufficiency. Search for the hero inside yourself.” In the film City Slickers the story relates a group of New York businessmen going on a vacation to ride as cowboys out west. There they meet the chief ranch hand who leads them. He is a laconic, strong man named ‘Curly’ played by the menacing actor Jack Palance. One night sitting around the camp fire one of the city boys finally asks him what life was all about. “Just one thing,” says Curly, very stoically. That was it, in other words you choose what you want to do in life; you focus on that goal alone, and you develop your own self-sufficiency in doing it.
You meet Stoicism all the time. In wartime people would say that if the bullet or the bomb ‘had their names on it’ then there was nothing they could do about it. You know how people are constantly warned of the danger of smoking cigarettes; their health will be affected and they will die much sooner, and painfully. The advertisements declaring that fact are lurid. The warnings are stark, and yet people glance and shrug their shoulders. You know what they say, “Well, we’re going to die anyway. You can get knocked down by a bus, so why worry?” Stoicism is alive and well. It is behind the cult of going to Switzerland and having your life terminated.
So (in an elementary summary of these two attitudes), it was characteristic of the Epicureans to emphasize chance, and devotion to pleasure, while the Stoics emphasized fatalism, submission and the brave endurance of pain. In Paul’s speech to the Areopagus in verses 24 through 31 we shall hear Paul answering some of those views. What we have in this chapter is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ confronting the philosophy of Greece. Paul will tell them of the living God and how good and caring he is as our personal Creator. He will address them concerning the dignity of human beings as God’s ‘offspring’, and the certainty of judgment. Paul will call on them to change, to give up those ideas and repent. Christians believe that in the final analysis the affairs of this world are ordered by a personal omnipotent God, one who is quite distinct from his creatures and yet one who has a personal relationship with them.
Here are two alternative expressions of paganism – Epicureanism and Stoicism – their spokesmen still express today their views of what they think life is all about, and how to handle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Nothing that has been invented in the last hundred years to deal with human pain is very different or even better than the teaching of the Epicureans or the Stoics. If you reject my Saviour what do you have? You are either at the mercy of a frivolous thing called chance – everything that happens to you is all a matter of luck. Or you are in the pitiless grip of a cold impersonal fate. John Lennon was spoken to by my friend the Rev. David Paterson in a hospital in the Scottish Highlands. John Lennon was on holiday in Scotland where he had totaled his Rolls Royce in a crash. He and Yoko had ended up in hospital in Fort William. David visited him as hospital chaplain. “This has all happened because of my Karma,” John Lennon said to him. “I am being punished for what I did in the past, or in a previous incarnation,” said Lennon, but David spoke to him about Jesus Christ having borne our karma on Golgotha. It was another similar encounter to this one on the Areopagus. There the Wee Frees were meeting an Epicurean Stoic, the late John Lennon.
2. PAUL WAS SCORNED BY THEM.
So we are told that these philosophers were drawn to join the congregation listening to Paul. They listened to him for a while, but soon some of them began to scoff and mock him publicly. “‘What is this babbler trying to say?’” (v.18). The first response was dismissive, just as it was of our Lord. They attacked Christ. They called Jesus a winebibber, a drunkard, a man who mixed with the wrong crowd, born in the wrong family (a carpenter’s son), coming from the wrong place (“does anything good come out of Nazareth?”), and that he did things by the power of Beelzebub. They accused him of blasphemy. So his followers have been warned by Jesus that it will be no better for them. They will be treated in the same way. The Athenian philosophers call the apostle a ‘babbler’. That word, apparently, was a piece of characteristic Athenian slang, literally, a ‘seed-picker’. It was used of various scavenging birds, the seagulls who dive on the rubbish dumps outside town. In the comedy of Aristophanes called The Birds, this word was used of rooks – carrion birds. Then it was used to describe beggars who lived off scraps of food from dumps and fly tipping – gutter snipes. Then it was used of teachers who had no original ideas themselves and stole messages from others, lazy seekers of the second rate at second hand. So the first response of these philosophers was to dismiss Paul as a man giving out a ragbag of ideas and sayings, not worth bothering with, a plagiarist, a parrot, an intellectual magpie. They rubbished him as a charlatan, an ignorant man, unworthy of serious interest, not a serious thinker – like them!
Then there was another response which indicated a total misunderstanding of what he said. “Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’” (v.18). Highly charged words. In fact this was the same charge brought against Socrates on this very spot 450 years earlier. Socrates went right against the established view that there were thousands of gods. There was just one supreme being, he said, and for the leaders in Athens that belief, rejecting and denying the many Greek gods, was atheism. Socrates was tried and found guilty of what was called ‘impiety’ and ‘corrupting the youth’ of Athens. He was condemned to death; he drank the cup of hemlock. This was a very famous incident in their world history. It was movingly written about and Socrates was defended by Plato in his Apology. The story was well-known in Paul’s day and perhaps Luke is setting up Paul for the readers of the book of Acts as a kind of Socrates, a man on trial for his radical ideas, someone who could equally be sentenced to death for what he believed.
3. PAUL WAS TAKEN TO A MEETING OF THE AREOPAGUS.
Arriving in the city of Athens Paul was firstly a sightseer, and then he was a preacher in the local synagogue, and then an evangelist in the marketplace, and now we find him an advocate at a meeting of the Areopagus. The name ‘Areopagus’ means literally ‘the Hill (pagos) of Ares.’ Ares is the Greek equivalent of Mars, and so Areopagus is Mar’s Hill. There is a famous evangelical church in the USA today with that title Mar’s Hill. In Athens Mar’s Hill is near the Acropolis, and Mar’s Hill had been the place where the supreme court of Greece met. Let’s ask a few questions; what was this Areopagus? By the time Paul was in Athens it was no longer a court, but it was still important. It was a sort of senate, a city council of leaders, men who discussed and legislated on the religion and morals and education of Athens, permitting or forbidding. They were considered the guardians of the culture and traditions of the city. We meet them today in the magistrates who pass judgment on open air preachers.
Another question is this; was Paul brought to that general area of the hillside of Mars Hill to have further discussions with these Stoics and Epicureans, or was it more official? Was he brought to an actual meeting of the court of the Areopagus? Luke does seem to suggest that this was an actual meeting of the whole court because we are told that he was in their midst (v.22) and that he went out from their midst (v.33). So we are being told that Paul from the marketplace was escorted by these two groups of philosophers right into the senate that met on Mars Hill.
Another question is this, was Paul forced to go there? In other words, was he being arrested? He was being accused by some of the philosophers of introducing new gods to Athens – “advocating foreign gods” (v.18). Could these be Persian gods – the gods of their old enemies? Was Paul a Trojan horse, a fifth columnist? Did this senate meeting on Mars Hill gather at this time to adjudicate whether Paul could persuade people in Athens to believe in his gods, and continue to worship them when he had gone? We are told in verse 19 that “they took him,” and you could translate that, ‘they took hold of him’ in other words, they arrested him. But that is not clear at all. There doesn’t seem to be a judicial process in this incident, no legal charge, no prosecutor, no formal interrogation, no presiding judge, no verdict, and no sentence. They are simply interrogating him, “Give us an account of your teaching.” It was a sort of informal inquiry by what we could refer to as the ‘educational commission of Athens.’ They had to decide whether the apostle had the freedom of the city of Athens to preach in the marketplace and gather converts who could continue to meet and preach and evangelize, or to be censored silenced. It was an important meeting.
So Paul finds himself on Mars Hill facing a group of distinguished men in their white togas, unsympathetic, hostile, scornful, aware that they had to make a big decision about this man that the political leaders of Athens would take into consideration, and then act accordingly. Would they allow Paul to continue to speak or would they close Athens to him? You can see what an important question it was for the foundation and growth of the gospel in this important centre. Paul the Christian is facing the most influential group of academics in the city. And this is what they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean” (vv.19&20). And the speech that follows is a summary by Luke of Paul’s response to that request, in this situation, at a meeting of the Areopagus.
4. PAUL WAS WELL EQUIPPED FOR THIS CHALLENGE.
You will remember the words of the Lord Jesus that he spoke to his disciples and so to all the church right up to today, words known in their power and comfort by the apostle Paul on many earlier occasions and by believers ever since they were first spoken. The Lord Jesus said this; “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say” (Luke 12:11&12). That day, when Paul stood very, very alone on Mars Hill facing these suspicious intellectuals God saw him there and God did not summon the angels and then ask if any one of them would be prepared to go and help Paul. No. The Father sent the Holy Spirit, equal to him in power and glory, to be with Paul. How eager the Spirit was to help Paul there. The Spirit’s love for the people of God is a measureless and everlasting love, he is the one who helps us when no other is there. His love is so infinite that we cannot get at the beginning of it, and we shall never see the end of it. It is from everlasting to everlasting, like God himself. As soon as the blood of Christ flowed on Golgotha then the Spirit came flowing down from heaven, applying the merit of Christi’s blood for our forgiveness and strength. That stream has flowed abundantly on all whom the Spirit loves ever since Golgotha, and he shall continue to love them and help them in every way to glorify Christ for evermore. What will deliver us from every atom of tedium in the new heavens? God the Holy Spirit in our lives. It’s his love that constrains him to help us eternally. We need no one else.
Consider the Holy Spirit coming, touching our lips and inspiring our hearts and clarifying our thinking and stopping our knees knocking with fear and strengthening us in every weakness and opening our mouths and filling them with things to say. That is what Paul experienced at the Areopagus as he had on many other occasions. The holiest and the most powerful and loving Being that has ever been, or ever will be, God the Holy Ghost, coming upon us and speaking through us. Surely here is courage! Here is strength! Here is our all sufficiency!
That is how it is. God the Holy Spirit himself, throbbing with love, comes for us when we are on trial, to help us think, and speak, and understand . . . and sometimes to be silent. Wouldn’t you tremble for your own defence if you thought the only help you had from heaven was some inexperienced, junior angel who had reluctantly volunteered to the task of helping you, someone who wished that he were really somewhere else helping someone else? Thank God we are not given an apprentice. We have the Master himself; God of very God was there to assist Paul to think and speak. He helps us too. We are so neglectful of God. Hours go by each day in which we never think of the Lord or speak to him. What if you treated your wife like that? How can the Spirit bear us? We know why! It is because of his immense love – patient, kind, always protecting, always trusting, always hoping, always persevering, never failing. He longs jealously for us amidst all the incredible stumbling blocks we put in front of him. He came into that biased trial when you felt terribly alone and inadequate and he helped you. He never stops. He who lives in us, teaches us at the same time what to say, Jesus says. He doesn’t make a speech of a lifetime in one golden moment and then disappears. He is there making our minds fresh, warming our hearts, checking our foolish words, giving us flashes of insight so that we can be surprised that we actually said what we said. There have been rare moments when we felt like spectators of ourselves not the principal actors.
The most powerful evidence for this is found throughout the book of Acts. Again and again the Spirit helps Peter and Stephen and Paul to speak as they should. And the history of the church over the last 2000 years has gloriously displayed the faithfulness of our Lord vindicating those words he gave his church. Paul was well equipped by that promise of Christ, that he would not be left alone to say some words for his Saviour. What power did Paul experience at this time? It was a threefold power.
i] The Power of the Word. Paul went to Mar’s Hill with a secret weapon that the Areopagus knew nothing about, the Sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. We are told that the, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword,” (Hebs. 4:12). The Areopagus had never heard anything that could compare to the sermon Paul preached to them that never to be forgotten day. As a result of this one sermon, Luke tells us in the last verse of the chapter, “A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (Acts 17:34). Wouldn’t we be mighty glad if one Sunday morning a few men were converted and a very significant woman, and others? Wouldn’t we say, “That was a wonderful Sunday wasn’t it? I’ll never forget it.” The reason was the Word. Paul did no miracles on Mar’s Hill, but he wielded the sword there and applied it to the hearts and lives of all who heard him, thrusting it home, telling them that “God had set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed,” (v.31), and God would not allow one syllable to fall to the ground. But there was another source of power exercised by Paul . . .
ii] The Power of his Faith in God. There is a whole chapter in the letter to the Hebrews describing the triumphs of men and women who had the same constitution and battles as we have and yet it speaks of the achievements of their faith. It ends like this, “through faith they conquered kingdoms . . . and gained what was promised; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle through faith” (Hebs.11:33&34). They did this simply by trusting in God. You understand what faith is? It is an appropriating grace. It grips God; it takes courage and strength from him. Faith sees God most clearly, and then it sees nothing else – Paul didn’t see the togas and the disapproving faces and the sneers. He saw Jesus Christ at the right hand of God praying for him – he saw our Lord by faith. So he wasn’t afraid. Do you understand? It is not that faith gets for us whatever we want, but faith gets what God wants us to have. Here on Mar’s Hill was an impossible situation. Paul was a foreigner; he was in a very antagonistic environment; he was all alone and yet the outcome was the conversion of numbers of people. Never despise what your faith can do. The flame from a single match is as much fire as a whole forest ablaze.
iii] The Power of Prayer. I love the familiar words of the Authorized Version toward the end of the letter of James: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). A faithful prayer was never lost . . . never, never, never. When we pray we receive either what we ask or what we should have asked. Either God gives us what we ask or he gives us something better. Our prayer runs along one road, and God’s answer by another road, and by and by they meet. God answers all true prayer, either in kind or in kindness. So we pray. Paul exhorted others to pray always. This was his practice.
Had God called Paul to be his servant and apostle? Yes. Had he told him that he must go into all the world with the gospel? Yes. Had he told him that he would never leave him, not for a moment? Yes. Did Paul ask Christians on almost half a dozen occasions to pray for him, that a great and effectual door was open to him, and there were many adversaries and so he wanted his brothers and sisters not to forget to pray? Yes. Did the churches continue to pray for Paul? Yes. Did he pray for himself? Yes. Then we know this, as John Newton said,
Beyond our utmost wants, his love and power can bless;
To praying souls he always grants more than they can express.
So there were the philosophers of Mar’s Hill and Paul prayed for God to be with him and then he saw these distinguished men as God saw them, tiny specks of dust, sustained moment by moment by the living God, unable to do or say or think anything except as God permitted. What courage, and what peace that gave to Paul. What excitement! What anticipation! What wisdom given to him by the Lord! God, the living God, can hear our prayers. God, the loving God, will hear them. God, the covenant keeping God has bound himself to hear us as our Father, our refuge and help at all times. What power came upon Paul as he looked around the tiers of seats, and the soberly dressed serious men summoned there to hear him, experiencing the promise of Jesus that the Holy Spirit would give him the words to garrison his heart, and the power of the Word of God, and of faith and of trust equipping him for his defence of the faith.
Let fancies fly away; we fear not what men say, but labour night and day to be a pilgrim.
28th June 2015 GEOFF THOMAS