On more than one occasion, Luke records that the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles “turned the world upside down.” In Acts 17 it was Athens’s turn to be capsized. Jerusalem had come to Athens and sent one of her finest ambassadors, Paul. He brought a Word of peace as foolish as the cross but as living as the Giver of the message. In Athens the wisdom of the world collided with true Wisdom; the intellectual center of the pagan world met in dialog with the Center (and creator and sustainer and Savior) of all things, Christ. Jesus’ death and resurrection bookends Acts 17, First in Thessalonica, then among the Bereans, later in the synagogues and finally in the Areopagus. Christ Crucified was the center of Paul’s message to both Jew and Greek alike. In Acts 17, Paul provides a pattern for the Church’s proclamation of the Christian faith today. Consider the following main points:
· Paul is in the public square, the synagogues, the marketplace and known pagan facilities (Acts 17:2-3, 10, 17, 22ff) preaching the Gospel and reasoning, giving evidence for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Although this is only sanctified speculation, I think the evidence cited sounded a lot like 1 Corinthians 15. Christians need to be in the public sphere. The Greek philosophers invited Paul into the Areopagus to speak. Without compromising the truth of the Gospel there are many occasions we can engage in today in a similar manner. College campuses across the U.S. provide free speech areas as a modern marketplace of ideas. And there are numerous other places where Christians are free to declare and defend the Gospel: swap meets, state fairs, neighborhoods, etc. The Christian message with all its historical veracity and reliability, and the performative power of the Word (Isaiah 55), is thoroughly equipped to challenge the ideas of current religious and atheistic worldviews by providing truth for those who inquire with an open mind and. The Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims understand this. They put forth massive amounts of money and manpower, especially near colleges, for this very reason, to be in the public square and to infiltrate people’s hearts and minds with their message. We should be as willing to work for the truth as they do for a lie.
· Paul moves like a lawyer, moving his case from God’s natural revelation to divine revelation in Christ. With the Jews he argues from the Scriptures, but with the philosophers he cites nature and reason. Paul’s entire argument rests on empirical reasoning. He begins with common ground facts that both Christians and pagans know: natural revelation. This is Romans 1 in action. We see nature. We recognize there is a creator god. We don’t know anything about him except that he is god and we are not. End of story. But that’s precisely where Paul begins. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown this I proclaim to you…”
· Paul is observant. He uses his surroundings to communicate the Gospel. And he moves from the evidence of nature to the evidence for Christ’s work in creation and finally his death and resurrection for all creation. In other words, how is the unknown god made known? In the person of Jesus Christ. How do you know he is God and will do as he promises? His death and resurrection are the guarantee.
· Paul also displays a deep knowledge of the Stoic philosophers’ own works. He quotes from Epimenides of Crete and Aratus’ poem Phainomena. His careful observation of the surrounding religious architecture mirrors his calculated understanding of the foundational literature in Greek philosophical thought. Paul knew what was on the Athens Times Best Seller List. And he read them well enough to quote them in conversation. Paul also dismisses any silly notion that Christians are somehow anti-intellectual, as if Christians are called to check their brains at the door. Quite the opposite. Paul goes cerebellum to cerebellum with the best minds of his day and provides a compelling theological and logical argument. The fact that some mocked the message and walked away only proves that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and not a product of the intellect. Our intellect and reason is an instrument and a gift used in service of the Gospel. Thankfully we can leave the work of conversion to the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Christians ought not to shy away from reading other religious works or atheists’ books. What better way to know your audience, how they think, what makes their brains tick, what presuppositions they have, what is their epistemology and so on? If we know the way people think and why they think the way they do, we will be better equipped to communicate with them and apply the Gospel to their specific need.
· Paul also turns their philosophical worldview on its head. Many of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers were influenced by Platonic thought. This meant that the non-material and abstract forms had ultimate meaning and foundation, not the material world. The true Forms of reality were located (above and beyond) in a place in the heavens while the outward and changing sensible world was located here on earth in what was often called the Intelligible Realm. Therefore, what we perceive as reality is in fact a copy of its true Form. Plato often used the example of a table. There are many tables in the world all of which receive their true Form, or tableness, from the essence of the ideal table. Paul also works from the unknown to the known, but opposite of the way a Platonist would. Paul works from the abstract to the concrete, from God’s natural revelation to God’s flesh and blood revelation in the resurrection of Christ. In Christ the shadow takes true form and it is the form of a man born, born of a virgin, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, buried and dead. A man who rose from the grave. Instead of man reasoning from the shadows of earth to the true forms of heaven. The ideal, everlasting man came from heaven to earth, not abstractly but clothed in skin and bone. The Creator became a creature. God became man. And the assurance of Paul’s entire argument is made on the basis of this God-Man dying and rising from the dead.
· Paul drove right to the crux of the Christian faith: Christ Crucified. He avoided any number of apologetic rabbit trails and deliberately, methodically and skillfully moved the conversation to Christ’s death and resurrection, the source of all Wisdom and Truth. Here in the cross of Christ all our ignorance is put to rest and true knowledge is found. For we preach Christ Crucified: foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews but for us who are being saved it is both the power of God and the wisdom of God.
In Athens, Paul reveals that both philosophy and myth have met their fulfillment in Christ. Here is the truth they searched so desperately for. Here is the story that sounded too good to be true, but in fact, is real.
It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World…It is the realization both of mythology and philosophy. It is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story. It is a philosophy and in that sense like a hundred philosophies; only it is a philosophy that is like life. (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 173 & 159).