Monday last, we looked at how nations forget God, seeing in light of Deuteronomy 8 and Romans 1 - 2, how apostasy opens the door to paganisation -- and to judgement. Now, we need to see how this can be reversed, through observing how Paul spoke to the Athenians at their moment of kairos in about 50 AD.
As Luke records:
AC 17:16 While Paul was . . . in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 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. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Here, we first see a restlessness, a hunger for something better, for a rumour of the truth -- indeed, a blind groping after the echoes of truth that linger in the mind and heart, long after a nation has forgotten God.
For, the chaos caused by sin leaves a profound dissatisfaction in our hearts and our minds cannot truly rest unless they are anchored to God. Sooner or later, the concatenation of the disastrous consequences of sin without, and the unmet yearnings of heart and mind within, bring such a nation to crisis. And it is at that possible hinge of history -- i.e. kairos -- that God sends his spokesman to provide prophetic intellectual and cultural leadership.
So, here we see Paul, harried and hounded from one city to the next during his dangerous and strenuous Macedonian adventures, comes to Athens. And, there, we see him stirred and disturbed by the empty futility of idolatry and conscience-numbed sensuality, grimly turning as a great lion at bay. So, first he goes to the Synagogue then he begins disputing in the Market place as five centuries earlier Socrates once did.
Similar to Socrates, he drew the attention of the Areopagus, but their intent was now to find intellectual entertainment, not the notorious trial for life on the accusation of corrupting the youth and undermining the gods that led to Socrates' judicial murder.
So, courtesy those bored Stoics and Epicureans, we come to the immortal words of Paul's Areopagus address:
AC 17:22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 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.
AC 17:24 "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. 25 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. 26 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. 27 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. 28 `For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, `We are his offspring.'
AC 17:29 "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. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 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."
As the 2002 JTS/CGST Ethics Lecture notes:
. . . the Athenian leaders got more than they bargained for. For, Paul made straight for the rotten intellectual foundation of Pagan thought and culture. Pointing to its beautiful temples and monuments, he picked the altar that exposed the critical instability: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. That is, on the most important possible point of knowledge, the Athenians — the fountainhead and proud guardians of the Western intellectual, artistic and democratic traditions — were forced to admit their ignorance, in a public monument!
Paul then pointedly stated the decisive prophetic issue: “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” That is, the true key to the field of Knowledge is Revelation (rather than merely human speculation, argument or experiment), starting from our God-given intuition that an orderly universe without and a rational mind and ever-probing conscience within jointly testify to a Rational, Orderly, Moral Creator. [Cf. Romans 1:18 – 32.]
Of course, and as . . . Spong, Freud, Marx, Skinner, Ayer, Crick and many others illustrate today, we may suppress or becloud such intuitions; but plainly to our intellectual, moral, and social peril; with damaging environmental and sustainability implications. However, since God knows perfectly, he can communicate additional significant — though obviously not exhaustive — truth to guide us in the face of such intellectual dilemmas, moral conundrums, and sustainability challenges. Hence, the prophetic force of Paul’s key word: “proclaim.”
The substance of Paul’s prophetic proclamation to the Athenians (and thus to Western Culture and the wider world) is therefore pregnant with beneficial implications for community order, national life, blessing and truly sustainable development:
1) The Creator-Redeemer God does not live in temples we can make with our hands. Nor does he depend on our religious leaders and institutions, rituals, gifts or offerings. Instead, it is he who made us and gave us everything we have. We are therefore his stewards in — and of — his world, for “in Him we live and move and have our being.”
2) From one man, God created the nations, setting their times & seasons [kairous], and their places, “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” That is, the diverse fraternity of nations [ethnoi, people groups] was created to foster opportunities to demonstrate godly, harmonious social order -- not least, by restraining the possibilities for the rise of a corrupt, globally dominant regime. (Further to this, when nations choose instead to forget God and His ways, making false loyalties, power, prestige, pleasure and prosperity their chief values, they walk down a road to ruin; cf. Deut. 8:17 – 20.)
3) “In the past, God overlooked [our] ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day in which 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”:
4) The time for ignorant pursuit of false loyalties and foolish agendas is over; God has intervened globally, decisively and publicly by Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection: “he has made this same Jesus . . . both Lord and Christ.” [Acts 2:36.]
5) God therefore commands that we repent, undergoing a comprehensive change of heart and mind driven by recognition of the truth and godly sorrow over sin, leading to a transformed way of life [1 Cor. 6:9 – 11]. In particular, we are to receive as Lord and Saviour him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” [John 14:6, cf. Acts 4:12.]
6) This command to repent is universal, but does not demand blind obedience: God offers public proof to us by raising Jesus from the dead. In evidence of this, we have over five hundred eyewitnesses, most of whom were still alive when the record was made, and the continued manifestation of resurrection power — in manifold ways — in the church to this day. [1 Cor. 15:1- 8, Eph. 1:17 – 23.]
7) Flowing from this, human culture is not autonomous or absolute: there is a set day for judgement of the world, a comprehensive audit carried out with perfect justice. Thus, communities and their citizens are servants of God, accountable before their Creator for truth, right, justice and the proper stewardship of resources in their care, starting with their land. This opens the door for prophetic commentary on public morality, policy and issues linked to development and sustainability. [Cf. Rom. 1:18 – 32 & 13:1 – 10.]
8) Moreover, since we are created from one ancestor, there can be no justification for nationally-, or racially-, or class-, or otherwise- motivated oppression, aggression, exploitation or prejudice. Community extends to the fraternity of all peoples, and so God refuses to answer the foolish question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Paul’s audience, however, mostly reacted with an ill-advised, illogical sneer: in effect, never mind the evidence and our acknowledged ignorance on the subject — God can’t be like that!
And, so it is today. For, worldviews profoundly shape what we perceive, and how we respond to resulting perceptions, often making us utterly and even foolishly blind to the absurdities in what we are thinking, saying and doing. That immediately shows Paul's underlying strategy: addressing the critical instabilities that exist at the foundation of worldviews that have shut their minds and hearts to God, thus opening the door for those who are truly searching -- and not just looking for entertainment or to play intellectual one-upmanship.
There were just a few in that Athenian audience, but a vital few. As the lecture continues:
However, some were willing to listen further, and a few openly turned to Christ. Scanty immediate results. But the truth had been proclaimed and backed up with adequate evidence. And, Paul, too, had made a decisive turn, seizing the intellectual and cultural initiative.
From Athens, the Apostle would go on to Corinth and Ephesus, building bases from which the Christian Faith would ultimately triumph in Greek culture. Intellectually, he would go on to expand his Mars Hill thesis, through penning the Epistle to the Romans, which articulated in greater detail the case that would at length prevail over classical paganism.
So, two thousand years later, we know who had the better case that fateful day. For, Paganism’s hollow intellectual and moral core now stood exposed for those with eyes to observe, and ears to listen. The future therefore belonged to the Apostle, not to the Philosophers and Politicians. Thus, from small beginnings, the churches planted in Athens and other Greek cities grew strong and prevailed.
This means that we have to be realistic in entering into debates in the face of entrenched worldviews and agendas, which often cause people to be deaf to reason and blind to the absurdities and hypocrisies in their own thought and action.
For, as Jesus warns:
Jn 3:19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."
Sadly, the latter are all too often a scanty few in a community. But those few are a vital few. For, through discipleship, sustained evangelism and demonstration of the life-transforming truth and power of the gospel, scripture and history show us that those few, over the years, can grow to attain the tipping point in a culture, where the culture as a whole shifts its worldview, As that happens, then the second danger is that the remaining deceptions among the powerful and influential can capture the church, instead of the church transforming the culture.
So, now, the challenge is to understand and apply this Mars Hill strategy in the Caribbean and beyond in our day. That will require a major focus on listening to and critically analysing the intellectual and cultural currents of our day, then addressing the key apologetics issues and challenges that flow from that, and developing and implementing church renewal and discipling strategies that prepare the vital few for the uphill task of being a Christian counter-culture in our absurdly apostate, rapidly repaganising era in Western Culture.
In the Islam-influenced world, we face the even stiffer challenge of breaking through open hostility, major misrepresentations of the Gospel, a history that bleeds with the sins of the crusades and the colonial era, as well as the notorious all-too-frequently met with willingness of too many radicalised Muslims to resort to violence to retain the control on minds and consciences.
But, in the grace of God, we have plainly come to the kingdom for such a time as this. END