I have to admit: the apostle Paul was a heck of a lot bolder than I will ever be.
Maybe it’s a matter of vocation. I was trained in both therapy and ministry, and now train others in turn. I try to teach people to be sensitive to their social context, to manage conflict by managing themselves, and to troubleshoot relationships.
Maybe it’s a matter of personality. I’m a flaming introvert (wait, can introverts “flame”?) and tend to be conflict-averse. I was also raised to obey authority, avoid self-promotion, and walk away from a fight.
Thus, I can’t imagine standing in the midst of a group that was putting me on trial and telling them they needed to repent or suffer the consequences.
But that is, in essence, what Paul did in Athens.
And he lived to tell Luke about it.
As we’ve seen, Paul had been taken before the Areopagus — the Athenian council responsible for ruling on an array of civic matters — to give an account of the strange, foreign gods he had been discussing with others in the marketplace. Capitalizing on an altar he had seen dedicated to “an unknown god,” he proceeded to make that god known. Here’s what Luke gives us of Paul’s sermon:
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.Acts 17:24-31, NRSV
Strategically, he quotes writers the council members would have respected. “In him we live and move and have our being,” Paul says, drawing upon Epimenides, a Cretan poet. “For we too are his offspring,” he says, quoting a Greek poet named Aratus.
Neither poet, of course, was speaking of the God of the Jews. Nor were they describing an “unknown” or unnamed god; they were referring to Zeus.
No matter. Paul leverages the quotes to tackle the Athenians’ idolatry head on.
This is not tame stuff. Paul pulls no rhetorical punches. Here, he’s not so much trying to tell them directly about Jesus as he is attempting to upend their worldview: Your so-called “unknown god” is the real God — and God isn’t anything like you think. Judgment Day is on his calendar, so now’s the time to repent.
Like I said, the guy had guts.
And he risked having them exposed to public view.
I will attempt a full paraphrase of Paul’s speech in the next post. For now, we can note that the reaction was mixed. Luke says that some merely scoffed at the idea of resurrection (Acts 17:32a). Having been told that their whole way of thinking was wrong (how would you react to that?), some only latched on to the last bit about some guy coming back from the dead, which gave them the opportunity to get back on their intellectual high-horse. “Ridiculous!” they sneered disdainfully, perhaps with the self-satisfaction of knowing that they were remaining true to their own tradition. As the playwright Aeschylus had written, the god Apollo, upon establishing the Areopagus, had flatly declared resurrection to be impossible.
Some were less dismissive and more open: “We will hear you again about this” (Acts 17:32b). That statement seemingly left the door to further discussion. Then again, it also signaled that the present discussion was over.
So Paul left. In one piece.
And some who had heard his words went with him and came to believe. Luke doesn’t tell us how many there were, but he names two. One was a woman named Damaris, who was probably part of the larger audience in the marketplace. The other was Dionysius — a council member. I imagine that his response is part of the reason that Paul was able to go his way unscathed.
Paul’s speech before the Areopagus is the most complete example Luke gives us of how the apostle confronted the paganism of the empire. In it, we see the apostle’s courage and determination, his passion to reach others with a true knowledge of God.
We might not use his words. We might not have his personality.
But from time to time, a dose of his boldness might be in order.