Paul was a masterful preacher. His sermon to the Athenians in the verses which follow this statement demonstrate how gifted he was in relating to people through their culture and times. He walked through the bustling streets of the city and took note their lifestyle (v.16). He observed their belief that the gods had limited powers and ruled over small areas of the city. He knew that in Athens' history there had been a terrible plague six hundred years earlier. At the time the Cretan poet Epimondes proposed that a herd of black and white sheep be let loose from the Areopagus. Wherever the sheep would stop to rest, they would then be sacrificed to the nearest god. If there was no known god at that place, the sheep would be sacrificed to “The Unknown God”. It was believed that this would appease all the gods and the plague would then stop. Paul not only used this piece of history as his starting point in presenting the Gospel, but he also quotes Epimonides in his presentation (v.28).
Paul expertly moves his message from pagan belief to monotheism by emphasizing that God (the Unknown God to them) is not the one who is "made" as some of the Athenian gods were, but The One who made everything (v. 24-25). He states to his audience that it is God who guides history (v. 26) and that men who seek God will find His fullest expression in Jesus (v. 27, 31). However although the Athenians had decorated their illustrious city with wonderful architecture like the Parthenon and the Areopagus, they were not interested in decorating their hearts with the Truth (v.32).
Athens was a city known for its intellectual prowess. Philosophers spent hours teaching their students about the “spirit world” which was in their opinion far better than physical matter. The Epicureans sought pleasures; the Stoics a sense of duty and right (v.18). While ideas and ideologies abounded, Greek philosophy did not have room for this curious Jewish man who spoke of a bodily resurrection (v.32), even though they were intrigued by it (vv. 19-21). In the end it appears that Paul had little success in Athens. Acts 17:33 records that “he went out of their midst”. However some did believe and in spite of the fact that the majority of the council rejected his message, Dionysius the Areopagite, one of the council members accepted it, along with Damarias, who also must have shared a high status in Athens since her name is specifically made known to us (v.34).
The Gospel will always have three responses from those who hear it. Some will reject it. Some will resist it. And some will receive it. The outcome did not change Paul’s sense of mission to share the Gospel, nor his methods of presenting the Gospel message. He continued to go to the synagogues and reason with the “God-fearers” (v.17). He continued to set up shop in the market place and preach (v. 17). By the end of his life and through the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul had changed the course of the civilized world. We may not walk on exactly the same path as Paul. But we have the same resources he did. We are also actively engaged in our culture whether we realize it or not. There are holidays and events we commemorate. We deal with non-believers in our workplaces. We encounter people with opposing opinions and beliefs in many aspects of our lives. These relationships and arenas are very similar to the ones Paul operated in. And in each instance there were mixed reactions to his message. We can expect the same reactions. But we should never stop sharing the Gospel. And by God’s grace there may be a Dionysius or Damarias listening when we do.
Ann LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com; Olivetreeann@mail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/annhlefevre; https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre