The following is from an article by Don Carson on the evangelistic methodology of the apostle Paul as seen in his Acts 17 address.
Paul confronted a society as different in worldview to the Judeo Christian worldview as is our current society. For a start, it was a pluralistic society with many gods. It was also extraordinarily pluralistic in its wealth of worldviews (the so called ‘philosophies’ of groups such as the Stoics and Epicureans).
For our purposes, the important thing to note is the framework Paul establishes in the Areopagus address. He takes a big picture approach. He presents the Judeo Christian worldview and confronts their diverse Athenian worldviews, before introducing Jesus.
We can read Paul’s address in Acts 17 in about two minutes. However, addresses in the Areopagus could go on for hours. This suggests that every clause in Paul’s address is a point that was expounded upon at length. If we want to know what Paul would have said on a particular point, in virtually every case Paul has some treatment of that point elsewhere in his New Testament writings.
He starts by saying,
“I see that in every way you are very religious.”
Paul here is neither commending nor denying their religious practices. Rather he is noting their interest in spiritual things.
He goes on to say,
“I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an Unknown God.”
In Athenian culture there were so many gods with so many domains that, in an effort to ensure they did not miss one and suffer the consequences, they had an altar to an unknown god.
Paul perceives a deeper ignorance in their worship of an ‘unknown god’:
“What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”
Paul claims that God is knowable. He is being polite, but a challenge has been cast down.
He then goes on to establish that God
“made the world and everything in it.”
God, Paul says, is transcendent. Being distinct from the universe, he is not a pantheistic being. Paul is providing a doctrine of creation, thus ruling out the idea that gods make other gods who make other gods until we finally get down to a god who is willing to soil his hands by making something material. Paul is saying that we have one God who made everything.
He then says that God
“is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.”
God cannot be domesticated by religion. Paul is not denying that God disclosed himself in special ways in the Old Testament temple. What he is saying is that at the end of the day you cannot domesticate God by properly performing sacrifices and religious rites so as to squeeze blessings out of him.
“is not served by human hands as if he needed anything.”
God is self-existent – not only in terms of his origins but in terms of his independence. He does not need us at all. Rather it is we who are completely and utterly dependent on God, right down to our very breathing –
“he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”
This is quite a reversal of the first century pagan perspective, and of many contemporary popular perceptions of God.
He then says,
“From one man he created every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth”
– thus highlighting the fact that all people have the same ancestor. Many of the ancients thought that different races had different origins.
Paul then hints that something is wrong:
“God did this so that men should seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”
This says that there is a need to seek God, but suggests that the human race is alienated from him. It also establishes that however transcendent God is, he is also immanent – he is everywhere, inescapable, and always near us.
Paul has now established an entire framework, and challenged the Athenian worldview at many points, before moving on to sin. He now deals with sin in a fundamental way. He also confronts the dominant Greek view of history – that history is cyclical. The biblical revelation speaks of history as having a beginning, then a period of time during which God does certain things, and then a finally an end. Paul says that
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance,”
“now he commands all people everywhere to repent”
“he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.”
Paul at the Areopagus in Athens has established an entire frame of reference before he gets to Jesus. He has challenged the Greek worldview with his JudeoChristian worldview. If he had presented clichés like ‘Jesus died for your sins’ before he had established the appropriate frame of reference, people would necessarily have misunderstood what he was saying.
We too, today, in our biblically illiterate society need to establish this biblical framework. This might take five minutes, five hours or five years, but at some stage we have to do it.