In Acts 17:16-31 we find Paul in Athens waiting for the arrival of Silas and Timothy from Thessalonica. Paul spends his time in Athens well. He goes into the synagogues to proclaim Christ to the Jews and into the marketplace each day to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles. Paul’s single-minded purpose is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people – so that all people, both Jews and Gentiles, may be incorporated into the Church.
The text says that some of the Greek Epicurean and Stoic philosophers come to speak with Paul. These two Greek philosophies were polar opposites of each other. The Epicureans followed the teachings of the philosopher Epicurus who taught that pleasure in life was achieved through the avoidance of pain and fear. The Stoics followed the teachings of a philosopher named Zeno who taught that the purpose of life was to have a will that was in accord with nature. In addition, while the Epicureans tended to emphasize feelings, the Stoics tended to emphasize thoughts.
As lovers of knowledge, they come to Paul to speak with him about this new thing he is teaching. Some mock him, but others want to know more, so they bring him to the place called the Areopagus so that Paul could tell them more about Jesus and the resurrection.
The Areopagus is a rocky hill overlooking Athens where the philosophers of the time met to teach; the Romans called it Mars‘ Hill. In even older times it had been used as the supreme law court of Athens where trials would be held and decided. In fact, in modern Greece today, their supreme court is called the Areopagus.
So, Paul is brought to the Areopagus to bear witness to the truth of God in this court. For, this is where “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
Paul stands in the midst of the gathered people to bear witness to the Lord and delivers to them a sermon like they had never heard before. He tells them that they must be very religious, because while in Athens he has seen a great many altars to a great many gods. He even saw an altar dedicated to the “unknown god.”
The Greeks had names for all their gods and altars dedicated to them on which to sacrifice, but yet they also had an altar dedicated to the “unknown god.” According to legend, in the 6th Century B.C. a Greek shepherd and philosopher from the island of Crete – a Cretan – named Epimenides released a flock of sheep on the Areopagus to placate the Greek gods to avert a plague which was ravaging Athens. Wherever a sheep stopped or laid down, the Athenians built an altar to a god and sacrificed a sheep on it. Now, according to this legend, most of the places where the sheep stopped were already associated with a particular Greek god or goddess. But, one place where a lot of sheep stopped was not associated with any god, so on that spot the Athenians built an altar dedicated to the “unknown god” and made sacrifices to Him.
This altar to the unknown god is the one to which Paul is referring in his sermon. He tells the people that what they have been worshipping as unknown, he is here today to make known to them through his proclamation. He tells the people that this God is the Creator of all things and Lord over everything. And as the Creator, He does not live in temples made by man or served by people, “as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
Indeed, all that we have has been given to us by God Himself. But, we often act otherwise. The way that the Greeks worshipped their false gods was to attempt to give the gods something in order to get the gods to do what they wanted. They would try to placate their idols by offering them sacrifices. The mentality was similar to that used in a vending machine; if you put in the right amount, then you can make your selection and get what you want. The false Greek gods, their idols, were like vending machines, dispensing what the Greeks wanted and justifying their actions in response to the right inputs. Sometimes, we fall into that trap as well; thinking that we can give God something to make Him do what we want.
But, Paul is saying that we can give nothing to God, because He is the creator of all things. When I was a kid, my school would have a Christmas gift fair every year. My parents would give me some money, and I would go to the fair to buy them presents for Christmas. Really, though, they’re the ones who were actually buying their own presents. I was simply entrusted with what they had given to me, and my gift to them was simply giving back to them what they had given me first. It’s the same with us and the Lord; everything we have was given to us by Him first, and so we can’t give Him anything that was not first His, because He created all things.
That’s also why we, as Lutherans, call our worship service the Divine Service; it’s not us serving God in worship, it’s Him serving us. When we come to worship, God is giving us His Holy Spirit in His Word and His Sacraments. And in the Lord’s Supper, He is giving us Christ’s body and blood. Unlike the sheep released by Epimenides who were sacrificed by the Greeks to placate their false gods, Christ is the true, perfect, holy lamb of God who was sacrificed by God Himself for our sins on the altar of the cross. God made the sacrifice, not us, and He did it for our salvation. And so God is always the giver and we are simply the receivers who are entrusted with the care of what God has given us. He is always serving us out of His love and grace for us as our Creator and our Redeemer through Christ.
So, Paul, in his sermon, after noting that the Greeks had been blindly searching for God, quotes the Cretan philosopher Epimenides who had instituted the altar to the unknown God. In verse 28, Paul quotes a part of one of Epimenides writings, the full text of which reads:
“They fashioned a tomb for thee. O holy and high one… But thou art not dead, thou livest and abidest forever. For in thee we live and move and have our being.”
And the next reference that Paul quotes comes from the Stoic philosopher Aratus who said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”
So, Paul, the former Jewish Pharisee, called to be an apostle and now bearing witness to the Lord in the court of the Gentiles on the Areopagus, quotes from the Greeks’ own philosophers to demonstrate that the Greeks themselves had always been grasping towards the Lord. But, they did so blindly and therefore made images in the “art and imagination of men” and carved idols of “gold or silver or stone” and gave Him false names fashioned in their imaginations.
But, now God was calling the Greeks out of this time of blind ignorance to reveal Himself to them through the proclamation of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the dead. The Lord was sending His witnesses, such as Paul, into the world to proclaim His Word. No longer would the Lord be the unknown God to the Greeks, no longer would He be falsely worshipped according to the art and imagination of men under the name of false gods like Zeus. No, now the one, true God who created all things was calling all people to repentance and revealing Himself to them through Jesus Christ. And the proof of Christ, the assurance of who he is, is given by the fact that God raised him from the dead.
This revealing of God through Christ has been continuing through the bloodline of the Church. Each generation of the Church proclaims to the next generation of people Jesus Christ and the resurrection. Each generation baptizes the next into the faith, making new Christians. In Baptism, God gives us Christ’s righteousness that he won for us through his death and resurrection – the benefits of his sacrifice – and gives us the Holy Spirit, our Helper who builds us up in faith and keeps us in faith in Christ for our salvation. And He works to sanctify us to live according to God’s will for our lives.
So Christ says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” and “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:15-21). For, without Christ’s righteousness we are unable to stand before God, and without the Helper we are unable to live according to God’s will. But, now that we have been called and baptized by God Himself, given Christ’s righteousness and given the Helper – the Holy Spirit – we are both justified before God in His sight and sanctified for life in this world.
So, in all of this we begin to see the difference between the religion of the Greeks and the Christian faith. The Greeks searched for “salvation” through their own efforts. The Epicureans sought salvation through the avoidance of pain and fear; the Stoics sought salvation through the acceptance of fate. When they worshipped their false gods, they made sacrifices to them in order to placate them and get something from them. They were blindly searching in the dark for the God who was unknown to them.
There is little difference between the religious system of the Greeks of Paul’s day and the modern religious systems of many people today. How many people talk about God as if they don’t know who He is or if He exists or if He even cares about us if He did? They are creating altars to the unknown God. And how many people place the Lord on one altar among many, treating the Lord as one of many gods (like money, pleasure, power), like the Greeks with their many altars? And how many people treat the Lord as if He is an idol, expected to dispense the “right” output with the “right” input?
All of these are false religions; they twist the proper relationship between God and humanity. These are false because they attempt to give to God what is already His. They are false because they continue to treat our Lord as the unknown God, rather than as the God who makes Himself and His free gift of grace and mercy known to us through His Son Jesus Christ.
The true Christian faith, though, recognizes that the proper relationship between God and humanity is that God gives and we receive; and true faith sees this as the grace and gift of God that it is. And true faith is generated by the proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Christ and the resurrection of the dead, for through this proclamation the Holy Spirit comes to His hearers.
For God found us in our blind wanderings and revealed Himself to us through the light of Christ. God gave us salvation through His own efforts. Christ sacrificed Himself on the cross for you in order to give you the free gift of salvation. And then He applies this gift to you personally when He baptizes you into the name of the Triune God. He continues to apply this gift to you personally each week in the Lord’s Supper when Christ gives you his body and blood.
So, the initiative lies with God and He gets the glory for our salvation, because He is a God who acts and He has done so on our behalf. The Greeks had sacrificed a sheep on the altar to the unknown God, but God has sacrificed Christ – the Lamb of God – on the altar of the cross for your salvation. God has done it all; he is “God for us.”
(Image: Uploaded by Immanuel Giel 08:25, 24 January 2007 (UTC) – Greek Wikipedia Εικόνα:Ariospagos.jpg (‘διαγραφή’) (παρόν) 19:22, 29 Μαΐου 2006 . . Odd (Συζήτηση | Συνεισφορά) . (Άποψη του Άρειου Πάγου απέναντι από την Ακρόπολη.), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1595220
Engraved sermon of St. Paul on the Areopagus (Greek: Άρειος Πάγος) in Athens. His sermon, at the suggestion of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who encountered him, was delivered in fall of A.D. 50, or Feb/March 51. The plaque cites Acts 17:22-32: So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. …”)