The Apostle Paul passed through the city of Athens on his second journey. The entire story is found in Acts 17:16-33. Scroll through the images and commentary below. You can download these images in a PowerPoint and a pack of .jpeg images for your own preaching, teaching and personal study. Enjoy!
Paul saw all the idols in Athens and discussed it openly in the synagogue and int he streets. He proclaimed the risen Christ and people got both annoyed and intrigued. So, they “invited” him to come to the Aeropagus.
I put “invited” in quotation marks because it is debated whether he was politely invited because the city leaders wanted to hear more, or if he was arrested for disruption and brought to defend himself before the city leaders.
The latter is possible because the Aeropagus, aka the Hill of Ares or Mars’ Hill (Roman name), was historically the place where the leaders would judge important cases.
Either way, the leaders asked Paul to present his argument.
He began by complimenting them. He says, “I see that you are very religious.”
That’s an interesting word. The Greek word is deisidaimon and this is the only time it is found in the Christian Scripture. It literally means fearing gods (daimons).
In today’s language, he may have said, “I see that you are deeply spiritual people.”
“In fact,” he continues, “I see that you have an altar to the unknown god.”
It is important to note that Greek theology and culture was experiencing its own tactonic shift. Most people were steeped in the ancient religion of the Greek pantheon–Zeus, Apollo, Athena, etc. However, ever since Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle–500 years earlier–many Greeks questioned the integrity of the gods and believed that there must be something “higher” and “better” than the depravity of the gods.
They were open and willing to listen.
Paul makes a bold claim. “I’d like to proclaim this God you call ‘unknown’.”
The rest of Paul’s speech is a theological contruction of what he believes to be the ulitmate reality for which the Greeks seek.
Paul names this “unknown God” as “The one having made all things and Lord of Heaven and Earth.”
Paul names two important qualities of God:
First, God cannot be contained in a box. This is interesting coming from a Jewish man whose tradition places high value on a building that is fixed in one location. He is speaking to his own tradition as well.
Second, God does not need human help. This is a tricky passage. The Greek word is therapeuo. It is where we get the English word therapy. It is everywhere else translated as “cured” or “healed.” Most English Bibles translate it here as “doesn’t need to be served as if God needed anything.” I wonder if Paul is addressing the Greek gods depravity and the philosopher’s acknowledgement that the gods are as wounded and depraved as humans.
The gods we make seem to be simply other beings in the universe, created just as we.
The God Paul proclaims is the giver of all life and breath.
Here Paul’s speech turns political.
God established all nations. This is a radical shift from the idea that each god is the god of a nation and the wars are to defend the gods.
The God Paul proclaims actually established all nations and made them to do three things:
- seek God
- touch God
- find God
Then Paul proclaims the boldest truth. God is not far. God is close. God is there. God is with each nation, and each nation can touch and find god.
Paul reemphasizes his point by quoting Greek wisdom literature. The God Paul proclaims is like the air we breath.
As Paul Tillich said, God is the ground of being from which all being springs forth.
Another Greek poet said that we are all born of God. “YES!” Paul asserts, “we are all children of God.”
Given the universal and non-created nature of God, how then can we reduce God to a solid object–like a statue–that was created with human hands and the human imagination.
It is important to note that Paul is not targeting Greek religion as evil and his own tradition as superior. He makes equally aggressive accusations toward the Jewish tradition that the Jews had reduced God to the Law of Moses and to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Allow me to slip into our present moment. If Paul were speaking to 21st century Christians, I believe he would level the same accusations. Ironically, we have turned Paul’s own words, in his letters, into a new form of idol, exalting them above the God that Paul proclaims in this speech.
This is the trickiest passage in the text. Here, more than anywhere, we see how dramatically our own theological presuppostitions color the lenses through which we read Paul’s words.
Here is the text, in English, but in the syntax of the Greek:
Indeed, then, the times of unknowing God having overlooked, the now God commands all humanity in all places to repent, just as that God established the day in which God is about to judge the world in rightness, in a man in whom God designated, trust having held to all having raised him from the dead.
There are three key words that must be unpacked:
repent. The greek word is metanoia. It literally means to change one’s mind or perception of reality.
judge. It literally means to pick out, to discern, to separate. Jesus tells us not to judge, because we are not to distinguish one person as more valuable than another. Only God can separate and determine who is “good” and who is “bad.”
rightness. The Greek word is dikaiosune. It is most often translated “righteousness.” That word is loaded with theological baggage. Christians have debated over it for centuries. We usually use it to mean “goodness” or “value” and create a hierarchy of righteousness which then empowers us to condemn and marginalize the “unrighteous.”
This is not helpful. An equally valid translation of dikaiosune is the word justice.
What if Paul is actually saying, “The time has come to get over ourselves and the petty little gods that we have created that divide us. We need to change our perception and realize that we are all God’s Children and it is not our place to divide and condemn. The Creator of All Things is the only one who can judge us. Here’s the thing. When God judges, God does it with justice. God sees us all as God’s children, the nations that God established to seek, touch, and find God. We’re getting there.”
How can we trust this to be true?
Here’s the really controversial part.
This judgment has been proclaimed by the man that God raised from the dead. There is life after death. We need to die to our humanly-crafted theological schemes and step into a resurrection life of freedom, peace, and love.
That’s where Paul lost the crowd. Some mocked him. Others were intrigued. Some repented–changed their perspective–and wanted to follow this resurrection way of life.
What do we do with this text today? I write these words from my own place in the world. I am a white male ELCA Pastor with a conservative Evangelical background living in the Upper Midwest of the USA.
I believe that people like me, church leaders who carry 500 years of protestant baggage, who have created paper idols of scripture, creeds, and confessions, need to have our own Damascus Road encounter with the Risen Christ all over again. Paul’s speech on Mars Hill disrupts our idolatry. It disrupts our tendency to draw dividing lines of theology, ideaology, race, and culture and reminds us of these things:
- God is the creator of ALL people and ALL nations.
- We are ALL God’s children, equal in value.
- Our uniqueness is valuable, because God created it.
- Only God can judge the value of the other, and God values ALL of it.
- We can trust in this proclamation, because God raised Jesus from the dead, proving that there is life after we completely mess things up, and there is always new life in God.
- We can only know the resurrection life after we die to the things that divide us.
- The Risen Christ is beyond our doctrinal statements and leads us into the great unknown of peace on Earth, good will to ALL people.