Apostle Paul Preaches in Athens

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The place where the Athenians took the Apostle Paul was the summit of the hill of Areopagus, where the most awful court of judicature had sat from time immemorial, to pass sentence on the greatest criminals, and to decide the most solemn questions connected with religion. The judges sat in the open air, upon seats hewn out in the rock, on a platform which was ascended by a flight of stone steps immediately from the Agora.

On this spot a long series of awful causes, connected with crime and religion, had been determined, beginning with the legendary trial of Mars, which gave to the place its name of "Mars' Hill." A temple of the god, as we have seen, was on the brow of the eminence; and an additional solemnity was given to the place by the sanctuary of the Furies, in a broken cleft of the rock, immediately below the judges' seats.

Even in the political decay of Athens, this spot and this court were regarded by the people with superstitious reverence. It was a scene with which the dread recollections of centuries were associated. It was a place of silent awe in the midst of the gay and frivolous city.

Those who withdrew to the Areopagus from the Agora, came, as it were, into the presence of a higher power. No place in Athens was so suitable for a discourse upon the mysteries of religion. We are not, however, to regard Apostle Paul's discourse on the Areopagus as a formal defense, in a trial before the court. The whole aspect of the narrative in the Acts, and the whole tenor of the discourse itself, militate against this supposition.

The words, half derisive, half courteous, addressed to the Apostle before he spoke to his audience, "May we know what this new doctrine is?" are not like the words which would have been addressed to a prisoner at the bar; and still more unlike a judge's sentence are the words with which he was dismissed at the conclusion, "We will hear thee again of this matter."

In this scene Apostle Paul spoke, probably in his wonted attitude, "stretching out his hand;" his bodily aspect still showing what he had suffered from weakness, toil, and pain; and the traces of sadness and anxiety mingled on his countenance with the expression of unshaken faith. Whatever his personal appearance may have been, we know the words which he spoke. And we are struck with the more admiration, the more narrowly we scrutinize the characteristics of his address.

Paul Preaching in Athens
Paul Preaching in Athens
Raffaello Sanzio, 1515

Paul's message

Then Paul stood in the center of Mars' hill and said, "Men, Athenians, I perceive that in all things you are very reverent to deities;

For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your veneration, I also found an altar on which was inscribed, 'To an unknown God.' So then, He Whom you worship in ignorance is the One that I proclaim to you.

He is the God Who made the world and all things that are in it. Being the Lord of heaven and earth, He does not dwell in temples made by hands; Nor is He served by the hands of men, as though He needs anything, for He gives to all life and breath and all things.

And He made of one blood all the nations of men to dwell upon all the face of the earth, having determined beforehand their appointed times and the boundaries of their dwelling; In order that they might seek the Lord, if perhaps they might feel after Him and might find Him; though truly, He is not far from each one of us,

For in Him we live and move and have our being; as some of the poets among you also have said, 'For we are His offspring.' Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we should not think that the Godhead is like that which is made of gold, or silver, or stone - a graven thing of art devised by the imagination of man;

For although God has indeed overlooked the times of this ignorance, He now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has set a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness by a Man Whom He has appointed, having given proof to all by raising Him from the dead." (Acts 17:22 - 31, HBFV).

Technique

We observe how the whole course of the oration was regulated by his own peculiar prudence. He was placed in a position, when he might easily have been insnared into the use of words which would have brought down upon him the indignation of all the city. Had he begun by attacking the national gods in the midst of their sanctuaries and with the Areopagites on the seats near him, he would have been in almost as great danger as Socrates before him. Yet he not only avoids the snare, but uses the very difficulty of his position to make a road to the convictions of those who heard him.

Paul becomes a Heathen to the Heathen. He does not say that he is introducing new divinities. He rather implies the contrary, and gently draws his hearers away from polytheism by telling them that he was making known the God whom they themselves were ignorantly endeavoring to worship.

Apostle Paul was here suddenly interrupted, as was no doubt frequently the case with his speeches both to Jews and Gentiles. Some of those who listened broke out into laughter and derision. The doctrine of the "resurrection" was to them ridiculous, as the notion of equal religious rights with the "Gentiles" was offensive and intolerable to the Hebrew audience at Jerusalem. (Acts 22:22)

Others of those who were present on the Areopagus said, with courteous indifference, that they would "hear him again on the subject." The words were spoken in the spirit of Felix, who had no due sense of the importance of the matter, and who waited for "a convenient season." Thus, amidst the derision of some, and the indifference of others, Apostle Paul was dismissed, and the assembly dispersed.

But though the Apostle "departed" thus "from among them," and though most of his hearers appeared to be unimpressed, yet many of them may have carried away in their hearts the seeds of truth, destined to grow up into the maturity of Christian faith and practice. We cannot fail to notice how the sentences of this interrupted speech are constructed to meet the cases in succession of every class of which the audience was composed.

To win and to rebuke

Each word in the address is adapted at once to win and to rebuke. The Athenians were proud of every thing that related to the origin of their race and the home where they dwelt. Apostle Paul tells them that he was struck by the aspect of their city; but he shows them that the place and the time appointed for each nation's existence are parts of one great scheme of Providence, and that one God is the common Father of all nations of the earth.

And when the Stoic heard the Apostle say that we ought to rise to the contemplation of the Deity without the intervention of earthly objects, and that we live and move and have our being in Him - it might have seemed like an echo of his own thought - until the proud philosopher learnt that it was no pantheistic diffusion of power and order of which the Apostle spoke, but a living center of government and love - that the world was ruled, not by the iron necessity of Pate, but by the providence of a personal God - and that from the proudest philosopher repentance and meek submission were sternly exacted.

Above all, we are called upon to notice how the attention of the whole audience is concenterd at the last upon Jesus Christ, though His name is not mentioned in the whole-speech. Before Apostle Paul was taken to the Areopagus, he had been preaching "Jesus and the resurrection" (Acts 17:18) and though his discourse was interrupted, this was the last impression he left on the minds of those who heard him. And the impression was such as not merely to excite or gratify an intellectual curiosity, but to startle and search the conscience. Not only had a revival from the dead been granted to that man whom God had ordained - but a day had been appointed on which by Him the world must be judged in righteousness.

Of the immediate results of this speech we have no further knowledge, than that Dionysius, a member of the Court of Areopagus, and a woman whose name was Damaris, with some others, were induced to join themselves to the Apostle, and became converts to Christianity.

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