Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is likely one of the most studied and debated speeches in the book of Acts. For more detail see a much longer piece: THE AREOPAGUS: A STUDY IN CONTINUITY AND DISCONTINUITY featured in the June, St. Francis Magazine.
Just what kind of people were in Paul’s audience?
- Are they on the right track and just need a bit of guidance?
- Were they on the right track and went off the rails?
- Are they slightly sick and just need some kind of medication?
- Are they dead in sin and need resurrection power to even hear the Word?
This is more than a theoretical question, as it has a huge influence on mission strategy. Think of Islam, for instance which teaches that Adam and Eve did make a mistake and now through proper guidance can come back to Allah. What is presupposed in Islam then, is that it is within human power to come back to God.
One might picture the fall in Islam as someone who falls into a pit that is less than 2 meters deep and then gets some coaching on how to climb back out.
Now before we get too smug, this view about human ability was debated in the early church, after it was introduced by a monk called Pelagius. Although branded a heretic, the ideas of Pelagius—although toned down a whole lot— exist to this day, and now come out in statements to the effect: “if we make this translation just a bit more Muslim-friendly they will come to the Lord in droves” “if you incarnate the gospel just right then results will be guaranteed;” “those people, much more than some others, are resistant to the gospel;”.
Compare this with a Biblical view, what some might call the Augustinian view which states that humans are dead in their sin, and wholly unable without a change of their nature to come to God. Consider the data.
1. Are spiritually dead: (Eph 2:1) “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins …”
2. Cannot understand or receive spiritual truth: (1 Cor 2:14) “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. …”
3. Cannot please God: (Rom 8:8) “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God …”
4. Cannot come to Christ: (John 6:44) “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him…” “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father” (John 6:65)
5. Cannot repent: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then may you do good who are accustomed to evil” (Jer. 13:23). “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one” (Job 14:4). “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit” (Mt. 7:18).
6. Are under the power of Satan: (1 John 5:19) “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one”
7. Dwell in darkness: (Ephesians 5:8) “… for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light”
8. Do not seek God: (Rom 3:11) “There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God ”
9. Are helpless: (Rom 8:8) “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly ”
10. Have uncircumcised hearts of stone: (Ezek 36:26) “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
11. Offer sacrifices which are an abomination to God: (Proverbs 15.8)
12. Are hostile towards God: (Rom 8:7) “…because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God”
Paul would have seen the unregenerate Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and those in the marketplace as lying dead in a pit 100 meters deep. They did not need good advice, more information, or some coaching. They needed Resurrection. Paul made no excuse for preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
This put Paul in a place of humility. All of his persuasive rhetorical skills, knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, and knowledge of the Greek culture at Athens were not enough. Only Gospel proclamation in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit working powerfully to bring that Word home would have any effect. It was effective. “Some believed…” (v. 34).
Paul knew that he too had had a heart of stone and had shown open hostility to God in Christ by persecuting Christians. This helped him to show compassion to his fellow human beings. Note the kindness in the words “we ought” (v.29) “men of Athens” (v. 22). There is patience in his presentation as he connects with their thought world…”I carefully observed “(v.23) and takes them methodically and systematically to Jesus, even though he is irritated to the core with their idolatry (v. 16).
Paul knows with a certainty that he is God’s authorized representative. This gives authority to his words…. “this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (v.23).
Paul fears God more than he fears the people in front of him, who had not wasted any time to label him with a slur as a “babbler”–a wannabee philosopher (v. 17). Paul does not return the insult but leads his audience from what they can observe in the created order to the fact that they will have to bow their knees in repentance to King Jesus who is going to Judge them.
How do you see the people in front of you? Do your methods reflect a humanistic view of people with inherent human ability like that of Pelagius and Islam, or do they reflect the Biblical view?