In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.
Last week, if you will remember we were tracing Paul’s movements during his Second Missionary Journey. When we left Paul, he was being hustled onto a ship in the dead of night to prevent the Thessalonican Jews from lynching him to avoid any legal proceedings. The ship was headed 250 miles away (three days by see, twelve by land) to Athens, which is where we pick up the story.
This is THE cultural center of the Mediterranean, nay, the Western world. This would be like going to New York City nowadays. This place should be like Disney land for a scholar such as Paul—so many super smart people just hanging around waiting to be engaged by Paul. You can see Paul just walking around trying to get his bearings and doing a little sightseeing—it is Athens after all. So off he goes checking out the sites and the more he sees the more sick to his stomach he gets.
He sees all this knowledge being perverted by all the idol worship going on in the town, so he goes back to what he knows—the synagogue. Ah the safe haven in the midst of much silliness. So as he tried to win the city, Paul would begin in the synagogue with the sane people, and then venture out to famous agora—the market place—where Socrates and Plato would hold court to pass on their greatness to listeners.
Paul goes there and begins teaching about Jesus Christ. As he is doing this some professional philosophers happen by and overhear Paul. As are all philosophers, these men are suckers for a good argument, so they strike up a conversation with him.
One of the philosophers leans over to another and begins to mock Paul: “What does this babbler wish to say.” The definition of babbler in Greek is “a gossiper or one who picks up seeds and trifles as does a bird. A seed picker—one who picks up scraps of knowledge.” This man is obviously mocking Paul. Dr. Bill Creasy (remember, I am mercilessly stealing from him) claims the man is basically saying: “What is this seed picker—this hay seed, saying?” What is this guy from the sticks saying here?
The other philosopher says, “I don’t know. He seems to be preaching some sort of preacher of foreign divinities.” Basically, the other guy throws up his hands and says, “Who knows, but let’s have a little fun with him. Let’s invite him to the Areopagus so that we can all make fun of him. Who knows it might be fun?” So the make the formal invitation: “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”
In a city as culturally aware as Athens, apparently one became quite the “it-person” by finding and bringing in a new idea that they may toss around in their culturally aware brains. These people Dr. Creasy equates to Humanities professors at a large university. These are the fellows who have no real practical applications outside of academia and so they have nothing better to do that sit around all day and try to find new ideas. So the philosophers bring Paul to the big leagues and march him into the Aeropagus where they give him his little soapbox and say, “Impress us.”
So Paul goes off the top of his head and tries to dazzle them—this is going to be the only way to win these guys over. “Men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘to the unknown God.’” Paul has done his homework on his sightseeing. He has been walking around becoming more and more disgusted, but as he does, he finds his hook—this altar to the unknown God. So he jumps on it when given the opportunity.
“What you therefore worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temple made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. “
So far he is doing pretty well. I’m sure he had their attention, so he switches it into another gear. He is really going to wow them: “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being;’ as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” Paul has just quoted a 6th century BC Athenian philosopher named Epimenides and then a 3rd c BC Athenian poet named Aratus.
Paul isn’t supposed to know these things. These things are for the culturally elite—not some seed-picker foreign bumpkin. It is like hearing someone on one of these redneck reality shows that has a working knowledge of Shakespeare and from which he quotes regularly. It is not what you would expect and causes you to have immediate respect for said redneck’s intelligence. (I love seeing stuff like this happen.)
Now that Paul has their full and undivided attention, he presses on: “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.”
Paul can see it in their eyes; they are putty in his hand. He has just gotten them to make the journey in their minds from gods whom they worship, to seeing that they are creations of their own imagination made of gold and silver items, to believing these things to be worthless in relation to the one true God, and that God will be merciful to them for their ignorance as he judges them through his appoint man. This is quite a trip for a really short and off-the-cuff speech by Paul. Paul is now going to seal the deal and bring the cream of the crop of the intellectuals of the Western World’s most intellectual group into the fold and accept Jesus and make plans to be baptized. He can just feel it.
“And God has given assurance to all by raising him [his appointed man] from the dead.” And everyone yelled “Amen” and ran for the nearest water source…right? No, rather than “Amen,” Paul hear the sting of riotous laughter in his ears. I’m sure he could hear those philosophers from earlier gasping from laughter and saying, “See, I told you we should have brought him here.” One of them comes up and puts an arm around Paul and escorts him out say, “We will hear about this again,” placating him like some little child.
In all his excitement, Paul forgot himself and his audience. These philosophers had no belief in the afterlife, nor did they care about such things. Paul’s main argument has been lost on them and caused his excellent argument to come crashing down around him—causing them to see him as a mere child among grown men. Sure he won a few converts, but nothing like he was expecting with such a speech and such an audience. He was supposed to convert the whole place.
This affected Paul so much that he changed his entire approach to converting people. In 1 Corinthians chapter 2 we read: “And when I came to you (Corinth was the next place Paul went after Athens), I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speeches or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Sprit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
Paul was humbled that day, and shaken to the core. He was supposed to be the greatest mind in mind in Judaism, but he forgot that his mind was not enough. He was to rely on God and the Holy Spirit to work on the hearts of the hearers. Paul learned a great lesson that we too should take to heart, sometimes even the most well-formed argument is not going to convince someone to repent and follow, only the Holy Spirit working through us can do that. But we are called to try, and to be flexible enough to try a number of different ways, and humble enough to realize that we are not the ones converting their heart, but functioning as a tool of the Holy Spirit which is plenty enough to win the hearts of entire cities.
In the name of the F, S, and Hs. Amen.