Audience: A Greek council that included Philosophers (Epicurean and Stoic). The council was called the Areopagus because its original meeting place was on the hill of the Greek god Ares. The council was a prestigious group that had jurisdiction in matters of morals and religion.
Occasion: After debating with some philosophers in the marketplace in Athens, Paul was invited to a meeting of this council so they could hear more about his views. In New Testament times the council only met on “Mars Hill” (cf. KJV, Mars was the Roman counterpart of Ares) when investigating homicides. Otherwise, they met in the market place, and so this is probably where Paul preached this message.
Result: Some sneered, some wanted to hear more, and some believed and became followers of Paul (who followed Christ).
Once again God opened the door for his people to speak by having the Greek philosophers invite him to a meeting of their council to share his views. As we have also seen previously, however, Paul was showing initiative by going to the synagogue, where he knew would be invited to speak, and by going to the marketplace and talking with those who happened to be there. It is worth noting that Luke describes the Athenians and foreigners who lived there as spending their time “doing nothing except talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (17:21). Personally, I wouldn’t think such people would be very open to the gospel, and sure enough a number of these people were not. Some were, however, and it shows the wisdom of “making the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4:3-5), whether we think it will be fruitful or not.
Luke also gives us a summary of the message Paul was speaking in the synagogue and marketplace, namely, Jesus and the resurrection (17:18). The message that follows contains some other elements but Jesus and the resurrection is an apt summary. Luke says this is the good news (v. 18). If someone heard the good news you (would) speak to non-Christians, could it be summarized as “Jesus and the resurrection?” If not, perhaps we need to further hone the message we are telling others.
As we have noticed in other messages, the speaker (Paul in this case) begins with some words about the occasion. He comments on how religious his audience was and calls attention to an altar “to an unknown god.” Paul then says he is going to tell them about that God. The existence of this inscription seems to imply that they had a sense they were missing something or that their many gods were still leaving them unsatisfied.
The bulk of Paul’s message on this occasion is about the true nature and work of God (17:24-29). The messages we’ve read that were addressed to Jewish audiences did not make this particular point, although all of them speak of God’s work, and the message in chapter 13 describes a significant amount of it. An audience of Gentiles who believed in many gods, however, would need to hear more about the One true and living God. Paul describes the nature of God in Acts 14:14-18, as well, and again it is a Gentile audience. I did not include that passage in this series of posts because it does not contain anything about Jesus, who is so central to the gospel. Taken together, however, Acts 14 and 17 suggest that telling people about God is the right beginning place, if they don’t believe in him or have grossly distorted ideas about him. These two Scripture passages are also an important source for clarifying just what it is we should tell those who have mistaken ideas about God.
The teaching about God Paul emphasizes in Acts 17 is that he is the Creator and Lord of life. He is not confined to temples or served by humans as if he had needs. Instead, he gave people all they need and determined when and where they would live. His purpose in doing so was that people should seek him.
Paul then gives evidence for what he is saying, and the evidence may surprise us if we haven’t noticed it previously. He did not quote Scripture to this audience, presumably because they did not recognize the authority of the Jewish Scriptures. The ideas he taught were very biblical, but he did not support them with a source they would not have acknowledged. Nor did he begin by trying to convince his audience of the authority of the Scriptures so that he could then use them. This is in contrast to some approaches today. Obviously anyone who comes to Christ will need to be taught to respect and heed God’s word, but Paul’s example here shows us this does not have to be done before they come to Christ.
Instead of using Scripture, Paul bolster his points with evidence that his audience would have respected, namely Gentile philosophers (v. 28, see footnotes in NIV). That does not mean he agreed with everything those non-Christian philosophers thought, and he may not even be making the same point they were in the lines he quoted. Still, their words would have had a ring of truth to this audience so Paul pressed them into service for the gospel. This suggests we can and should carefully explore how we might use contemporary songs, movies or quotations as a way of helping people grasp and relate to various aspects of the the gospel.
Next Paul states his preliminary point, introduced by “therefore” (v. 29), namely, that they were mistaken about God’s true nature. God is not an image created by humans (as their idols and altars suggest). It is “ignorance” to think that is God’s nature (v. 30). I’m not sure whether this word would have had the powerfully negative emotional impact in their culture that it does when people use it today, but clearly they were without knowledge of God’s true nature.
The next two verses present us with some surprises and are different in some ways from the presentations of the gospel we’ve explored so far (vv. 30-31). Paul mentions the command to repent. There was a time when God overlooked ignorance, but not anymore. Unlike some earlier presentations, Paul does not directly address them with an imperative mode command to repent. Instead he uses the third person form to tell them that God commands “all people” to repent. Repentance is one of the right responses to the gospel, but it is somewhat surprising to me that he here states it before any of the core matters of the gospel are mentioned. Though repentance is the only response mentioned in the message, v. 34 implies that Paul also said something about believing.
The reason people need to repent is that God is going to judge the world. The only direct reference to judgment in the previous messages was in the one to Cornelius’ household (10:42). That audience Gentile also, though they were God-fearing Gentiles who were attracted to the teaching of the Jews and their Scriptures without becoming full-fledged proselytes. The judgment can be considered a part of the Gospel (cf. Romans 2:16) but may not have been as essential to mention it to Jewish audiences who would have been familiar with God’s judgment. Paul here says the judgment will be just and will be done through the one God has appointed.
From there Paul tells about Jesus’ resurrection (v. 31). Luke doesn’t record Paul mentioning Jesus’ name, but it is clear even from this summary that is who he is referring to (cf. 17:18). Be sure to read carefully enough to notice that Paul is not giving proof of the resurrection. Rather, he is stating the truth of the resurrection as proof that Jesus is the one through whom God is going to judge the world. The logic here is similar to what we see elsewhere: God’s raising Jesus from the dead shows that he is the one with all authority, even authority to judge the world (cf. Acts 2:24-36; 4:10-12; 5:30-31; 10:40-42).
Previously we’ve seen a number of examples of the spokesmen first telling about the death, resurrection and (consequent) identity of Jesus, followed by the ways people should respond (believing, repenting, being baptized) and the blessings they will receive (salvation, forgiveness, justification, the Spirit). Sometimes the order of the response(s) and the blessings is reversed sometimes they are intertwined, but they follow the death, resurrection, and identity of Jesus. In Acts 17, however, the sequence in which Paul mentioned matters is first the right response (repent), then the reason why (the judgment), and then Jesus’ identity (as judge) and the resurrection. The difference in order from what we have usually seen before suggests we do not have to present these truths in one particular order or way. At the same time, the key elements of the gospel here (repentance, judgment, Jesus’ identity, resurrection) overlap with the elements we have seen in previous messages.
It is striking that there is no mention of the death of Jesus in Paul’s message in Acts 17. I realize you can’t be raised from the dead unless you first die. I also realize that even these longer summaries of the message are indeed still summaries, so Paul may have mentioned Jesus’ death and Luke simply didn’t record it. Since a number of people became followers of Paul and believed (v. 34), I tend to think Paul probably did mention Jesus’ death on this occasion. Still, if we want to be truly guided by the Scriptures, we need to let them speak. Our authority source is not “what Paul probably said” or “what they should have said” but what is actually recorded in the Scriptures. Besides, even if Paul did mention Jesus’ death on this occasion, the Spirit still inspired Luke to record the message here with no reference to it. Please understand that I’m not arguing against the importance of Jesus’ death or trying to cut it out of the gospel. It clearly has a central place in all six of the other gospel messages we’ve explored in Acts as well as many other passages in the New Testament. The centrality of the death of Christ to the gospel is what makes it so astonishing that the summary of it here that does not mention it.
Rather, what I do hear in this passage is a strong emphasis on the resurrection of Christ. This matches the summary of Paul’s message in 17:18. Likewise, some of the other messages we’ve explored that do include Jesus’ death still put considerably more emphasis on the resurrection (notably Acts 2:24-35). And there are some passages in the Letters that summarize the gospel in terms of the resurrection without mention of Jesus’ death (Romans 1:1-4; 2 Timothy 2:8-9). Conversely, there are some that summarize it with mention of his death but not the resurrection. The context and needs of the audience seem to be what accounts for the slightly different (and not contradictory) ways the gospel is summarized in different passages. Based on all the passages together, I wouldn’t feel comfortable to omit either the death or resurrection of Christ from my presentations of the gospel to non-Christians. My reasons for mentioning all this now are to encourage us to keep on listening to what the Scriptures actually say (versus what we “thought they said,” “meant” or “should have said”) and also to point out that there is a much greater emphasis on the resurrection of Christ than we have sometimes noticed.
I believe this strong emphasis on the resurrection of Christ helps us understand the gospel more clearly. It seems to me that the death of Christ and even more so his resurrection are intended to help us grasp the true identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, and the Lord of all (Acts 2:36, based on vv. 24-35; Romans 1:4). Jesus is the ultimate authority in the universe (Matthew 28:18; Ephesians 1:19-23). The essential point people need to see is who Jesus is (Matthew 16:13-16; Mark 1:1; John 20:30-31; Acts 5:42; Romans 10:9-10; 2 Cor 4:4-5; Philippians 2:6-11; Hebrews 1:5-6, 8-9). To those who recognize Jesus’ true identity as Lord and Christ and respond to it by believing in him, repenting and being baptized in his name, Jesus mercifully gives forgiveness and salvation.
This presentation of the good news raises a few additional questions for us as we allow Scripture to help us clarify the message we (will) speak to non-Christians. Do we have only one way of sharing the message with others or can we adapt it appropriately to what we know about the one(s) we are speaking to? How central is the resurrection of Christ to our gospel message? If we can tell the gospel without mentioning the resurrection of Christ, we are not telling the same gospel they told in Acts.