Acts 17:16-34 Going To Where We Might Be Heard.
So as Paul waited for Silas and Timothy his spirit is stirred up because of the prevalence of idolatry in Athens. He still began his work at the synagogue, but he also branched out into the marketplace. In that marketplace he found a marketplace of ideas, from Epicureans to Stoics, and with these he also reasoned.* Some regarded Paul as a mere babbler, but others were prepared to hear what he had to say. It is ironic that some accused Paul of being a babbler or someone engaged in useless discussion, because this was in reality what they spent there time doing-debating worthless teachings (vv. 16-21). They remained in perpetual discontinuity-with Epicureans believing in indulgence, and Stoics in self-restraint. However, in looking for an opening to speak, Paul does comment upon their obvious interest in religion (v. 22). Furthermore, in the midst of these conflicting views there were those who admitted to not having all the answers, for they had an altar ‘TO THE UNKNOWN GOD’ (V. 23a).
Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, and the first thing he did was to speak the word (v. 23b). As an apostle of the Lord he was the Lord’s instrument in making His word known (Cf. 14:15). Secondly, he directs the attention of his hearers to God as the Creator of all, “Lord of heaven and earth” (v. 24a). As such He is not to be confused with that which He has made, nor contained in any way by man (v. 24b Cf. 7:48-50; Is. 66:1-2). Nor is true religion and worship manmade (v. 25 Cf. Is. 42:5). Thirdly, Paul moves on to anthropology, or the study of humanity. Of humanity he says that firstly, all stem from one man, all are of one blood (v. 26a). Secondly, the Lord also rules in the history of all peoples-He alone sets “their pre-appointed times” (v. 26b). Finally, he has also predestined “the boundaries of their dwellings” (v. 26c). As with the settlement of Israel in the land promised to them, God did all this that all peoples “should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27 Cf. Jer. 23:23-24; Rom. 1:20).
Many have and still do “grope” for the Lord. What Paul makes clear, is this is not of their own doing, but God also works in the hearts of those who may stand outside the covenant community. “He is not far from each of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said” (vv. 27c-28ab Cf. Heb. 1:3). Paul was not adverse to quoting non-biblical writers when it also served to make his point (Cf. Titus 1:12). Paul essentially rebuked the idea of a theology based on human sinful speculations (v. 29 Cf. Is. 40:18-21). At the same time he rejected the idea that human beings can worship any way they please. There is one sense in which the judgment of the Lord may not be as severe for those not having as full a knowledge as others, but when the word comes to a people, as here in the case of Paul, people need to take heed and repent in response to His command (v. 30 Cf. Rom. 3:25). “He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (v. 31 Cf. 10:42).
The resurrection of Jesus is, among other things, the sine qua non that justice will ultimately prevail. However, some in the crowd who gathered to hear Paul, mocked the idea of the resurrection, while others expressed some interest to hear more (v. 33). Such a belief would entail the concept of supernatural miracles, and theirs was a purely naturalistic faith. Yes they were very religious, but theirs was a religion which would fit in comfortably with a modern secular humanistic worldview. These were new agers before the designation ever found modern usage. However, it was time for Paul to depart, and those who mock and those who simply enjoy the discussion of various ideas, will both ultimately have to give an account, because Christian theology is more than just talk, it forces upon all who hear a decision. Some did believe and joined Paul on his journey, literally and figuratively (v. 34). Despite what may have seemed like a fruitless exercise, some received the word, and this should give us all heart to continue to bear witness.
* “Epicurus (342-270 B.C.) taught that the purpose of life was pleasure and freedom from pain, passions, and fears. On the other hand, the Cypriot Zeno (340-265 B.C.), founder of Stoicism, stressed living in harmony with nature and depending on reason and other self-sufficient powers. Both schools stressed the quest for peace of mind. Zeno viewed God pantheistically as the ‘world-soul.’” (NGSB p. 1742)