TRA Wordtalks

"Sunday, 12th October, 1997 - Proclaim the Unknown God"

34/97 12.10.97 Scripture: Acts 17:10-34

EVERY city church has to learn to speak the language of its own city. We have to listen to what the streets are saying, and learn to communicate with people our message in a language they understand. Too often the church talks to itself in its own language, and the people outside in the city do not understand. This is not new. Paul used this approach when he entered the great cities of the Mediterranean world in the first century. He spoke to the citizens of each city in their own culture.

We have followed Paul as he travelled through Asia Minor and Turkey, past Troy and Gallipoli, into Macedonia, Philippi, Salonica (then known as Thessalonica) down to Berea where he was well received by Christians who were devoted to the Scriptures, until he came to the beautiful Greek city of Athens. There he shows us how to communicate in Sydney.


The Apostle Paul was a man of massive intellect and noble character. There are few more significant figures in classical history. Just as Moses strode right across the story of Israel in the Old Testament, so Paul stands astride the course of the Gospel in the New Testament.

He was at home in no less than three worlds in the Mediterranean civilisation: a Hebrew of the Hebrews; a Hellenist who could write or think perfectly in Greek; a Citizen of Rome who could appeal over the head of the provincial governor to the Emperor himself. His passionate loyalties, his versatile genius, his world-wide mission, his manifold adventures, cast a brilliant light on many aspects of his era, and influences multitudes of people today.

Dr. E.M. Blaiklock, famous New Zealand classicist, summed this up: "Paul is shown in subtle debate before a collaborating hierarchy, quoting Stoic poets with equal facility before a cultured Athenian court, bringing a hasty colonial magistracy to heel, conducting a case for Christianity before a puppet king and two Roman procurators, and taking moral control of a panic-ridden corn ship, helpless in a November gale. From the mechanism of a citizen's appeal to Caesar, to an itinerant preacher's manipulation of the Mediterranean trade-routes; from the power of the guilds in an Asiatic town to the influence of the synagogues of the Dispersion in distant Greece, the life of one Hellenistic Jew, ably recorded by his physician friend Luke, is invaluable and vivid comment on life as it was lived from Jerusalem to Asia, Athens, Malta and Rome in the sixth decade of the first century." ("The Century of the N. T.". p9).

Paul was born in Tarsus in Turkey. Paul was a Roman citizen. He was a Jew by race and religion. He was a Greek-speaking intellectual who studied at the famous university of Tarsus and later at the university in Jerusalem. He became the leader of a group of fanatics pledged by any means to promote the harshest aspects of the Jewish religion. He called himself a "Pharisee of the Pharisees," and led the persecution of early Christians, including a journey of hate to Damascus when Christ stopped him. The living Christ appeared to him and he found the Jesus he was persecuting was both Lord and Saviour. He was a changed man. Instead of being a persecutor of the faith, he became its most famous preacher. Instead of rooting out congregations, he became the great planter of new churches.

On his extraordinarily successful missionary journeys, he walked through Asia Minor and everywhere he went he preached, literally every day, and groups of Christians came into being and new churches formed. He travelled into Europe, and to the great city of Athens. His new friends travelled with him to Athens while Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea to nurture the young church. What Paul saw in Athens caused him to ask his friends to instruct Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.


Athens was the greatest of ancient cities. The 5th century B.C. saw tremendous energy in thought, custom and war. A small force of Athenians fought the huge, victorious Persian army at Marathon and won. An Athenian ran the 42 kilometres back to Athens to announce the news, the distance of the arduous race called the Marathon. During the wars, Athens was partly destroyed. They rebuilt under the inspiration of Pericles. On top of the rocky hill, Acropolis, they built The Parthenon (447BC), one of the world's most pleasing buildings. All about were temples, theatres, the market, and the magnificent colonnades of the Stoa of Attulus.

There was also a prodigious burst of mental energy. Some of the world's greatest writers, dramatists, poets, historians, and philosophers burst upon the scene in a comparatively short period. Writers like Sophocles and Aeschylus; historians like Thucydides and Euripides; philosophers like Plato and Socrates. For years I translated them from classical Greek into modern English, and lived in the company of the world's greatest writers, a privilege to learn from the world's greatest thinkers.

In Sydney we still copy the architecture of Athens, lecture on Greek philosophy, and teach Classical Greek, unspoken for 2000 years by any community, yet the world's most perfect expression of human speech. When Paul arrived in Athens it was no longer a world power, but still the great centre of culture, architecture and philosophy.


In the time of Paul there were two schools of philosophy: the Epicureans and Stoics. They debated him. The Stoics aim was to attain personal supremacy over all areas of life and to control human passions. The Epicureans aim was pleasure, the happiness the mind finds in freedom from physical excesses.

Athens was also a city of idols, one for every god they knew and in case they missed any, altars "to the Unknown God." They did not want any god to be upset by being left out! "While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there." There were three groups being confronted by Paul: Jews following their traditional religion, Greeks who believed in God and were searching for truth, and in the market-place, "a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (who) began to dispute with him." They were skilled in debating, but Paul had one of the finest minds in the world.

Our philosophers are not in our market-places. We keep them safely in universities! Yet in modern Sydney there are many anti-Christian philosophies.

As the philosophers debated Paul, "some of them asked, `What is this babbler trying to say?'" The word for "babbler" is "spermologos." It means a "picker-up of scraps", a gutter-sparrow that picks up little bits of rubbish or seeds. They said Paul picked up bits of wisdom, scraps of thoughts from here and there. The philosophers despised him.

But Paul raised issues they could not answer. "Some said, `He seems to be advocating foreign gods.' They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection." When Paul spoke of "Jesus and the resurrection," the Greeks mistook the word "anastasis", translated "resurrection" for a girl's name, "Anastasia." They thought Paul was speaking about two gods, Jesus and Anastasia. So "they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said, `May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.' (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)"


In response, Paul preached a short and remarkable sermon which conveys more and more no matter how often you study it. He begins politely, not with flattery, but with an observation about their sincerity. "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you."

The city fathers nodded in agreement. Every city alderman likes to be told that he has a fine respectable city. Paul went on, "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else." This pleased the Stoics. Paul said God created the world. That refuted the Epicureans who declared that the universe came by chance. Paul also agreed with Plato that God is a spirit. But then Paul went on with the devastating words "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us." Paul is now at the crunch of the gospel but to show them how close God is to them he does not quote Old Testament poets. Greek city councillors are not going to listen to Hebrew poets. When he spoke to Jews he quoted Hebrew poets, but when he spoke to Greek city aldermen he quoted Greek poets. "`For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, `We are his offspring.' Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone--an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." Resurrection! That shocked them.

That is the heart of the gospel: God made us, loves us, redeems us, and will judge us by Jesus Christ, the same Jesus slain upon the Cross, but now raised from the dead. The Greeks had argued about resurrection. Aeschylus said when a man dies, his blood seeps into the ground, and there is no resurrection of the body. They believed in the immortality of the soul, but not the resurrection of the soul. Christianity is based upon resurrection, not immortality. God gives a new life and a new body, incorruptible and eternal in the heavens.


What was the response to Paul's sermon to the city fathers? "When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, `We want to hear you again on this subject.' At that, Paul left the Council." There was a third group. "A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others." Dionysius became the first bishop of Athens. Damaris became a Christian. Their names are remembered while the names of the philosophers are forgotten. For all their wisdom the Greeks had not found God. Paul's teaching survived while the philosophers were picking up crumbs of human wisdom. We all will be judged by Christ. We all can be saved through faith. Jesus Christ can make you a new person. You cannot come to faith and eternal life in any other way. "God commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." Paul has taught us to be relevant to our own city's culture and to speak to it the Gospel.

Gordon Moyes

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