Acts of the Apostles 17.22-34
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The 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, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From 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, 27so 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. 28For ‘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.’ 29Since 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. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because 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.”
32When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Paul spoke to the philosophers and the people of Athens, people who, you will recall, spent their days debating new or different ideas. There is a wide variety of opinion on this particular sermon recorded by Luke. First of all, it is very different from what we have seen in Paul’s previous sermons in Acts which were directed to a Jewish audience, and thus began with their history with God. Here, Paul begins by connecting to what he has observed in the city – he finds some good, they must be very devout. He saw an altar with the description, “To an unknown God”, and he says that he comes to proclaim that which they worship as unknown to them. He speaks of God, the Creator of all that is, Lord of heaven and earth – he says this true God is not made by human hands and does not dwell in shrines made by human hands. Notice how his words have turned – from flattering them for their devotion, to saying that the gods they worship are inferior, are in fact, nothing, before this one great God! He says that God was always near them; if they had searched they would have found him, for in him, “We live, move, and have our being.” He connects back, then, to the Greek poets. But now, he says, a time of judgment is coming through the one whom God has appointed, and given assurance of this by raising him from the dead.
Some authors and professors will give this sermon as an example of a great sermon – Paul first connected to the audience, and then told them what they needed to know, connecting back to their own poets through his knowledge of Greek culture. Other authors believe this was a great failure – after all, they scoffed when he talked about the resurrection of the dead, and only a few joined him and became believers. In general, those who take the later position will use that as an indictment against thinking – it was because they were philosophers that they failed to believe. Well, of course it was! Given time with them Paul, as an expert debater, in his rhetorical skill, would have won more of them over. But not because they were or were not thinkers, because they needed a better argument than he gave in this introductory speech. He was first trying to convert them to monotheism, and then convince them that Christ was a part of the One God! These people were willing to add another god to their pantheon; they were not ready to reject the entire pantheon for the One God, with his Son, Jesus – a difficult concept even for us today! We must meet people where they are, and help them get acquainted with God over time, by loving. Love is more convincing than debating, but people also need to think, to ask questions, even to doubt, in order to come to an understanding; and they only believe in the love when we show our Love.