Now Paul stands up in the midst of the Areopagus. This is quite a dramatic thing, if we will stop and think about it. Here Paul stands in this place that was really the center of Gentile learning and philosophy. Over the centuries before this, hundreds of philosophers have stood in that same place and made their declarations to the listening crowd. Some have taught one thing and some another, but none have taught on behalf of God or set forth His truth accurately. Now, however, at this the very core of worldly philosophy, God’s representative now stands. Now for the first and perhaps the only time in its long history, God’s Word is going to be proclaimed within this stronghold of human knowledge. All before that has been proclaimed here has been a groping along in the darkness. Now the light of God’s truth is going to shine in this place at last. What a momentous occasion this was! No wonder God saw fit to record this for us in His Word.
So Paul begins to speak. Yet this address will be a very unique one for him, and very different from the other proclamations we have had recorded for us in the book of Acts. The reason is found in the very first statement he makes here, that this address is made to “men of Athens.” All the other messages recorded in Acts were given mainly to Israelites, or else to rulers. Only this message is addressed to a group of Gentiles uneducated in the Word of God and knowing next to nothing of Him and His ways. As we might expect, then, the way the Holy Spirit through Paul goes about making this proclamation is very different from the way He presents it to other audiences. We will notice some of these differences as we go through the proclamation.
Now Paul addresses these men of Athens and points out his observation that in all things they are very religious. This is a nice way of putting what he had noticed in verse 16, that the city was given over to idols. Yet it does not do any good to unnecessarily alienate your audience at the beginning of your argument, and so Paul puts it in this delicate way. And the fact is true: the Athenians were very religious, although their religion based on idols did not really amount to anything in the sight of God.
23. for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:
TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:
Paul now refers to something he had noticed as he was passing through their city and considering all these idols, the objects of their worship. He had come, not upon an altar, but upon a pedestal, such as an idol would usually be set upon. Upon this pedestal, however, there was no representation of any object of worship, either man, beast, or fanciful creature. Instead, it was empty, and upon the pedestal was written this inscription: “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” Probably, the reason for this was that these polytheists had filled their city with idols celebrating every claimed deity they had ever heard of. They did not want to miss a one of them, for it was thought that the gods were petty and vengeful, and any god who was not given his proper due might well curse a city and bring calamity upon it. So they had been careful to honor all they thought might be gods. However, they knew that there might be others that they had just never heard of, and so in case they had missed even one, they had created this pedestal to honor this unknown god. They probably hoped that this god they fancied they might have missed might look upon this pedestal and realize that they had not willfully neglected him, but that they had attempted at least to honor him by the erection of this pedestal.
Now Paul had just observed this pedestal, being a visitor to the city. The citizens, however, probably knew this pedestal well, and would all have nodded with recognition when Paul spoke of it. They knew of this pedestal, and of the idea behind it. Paul is now going to use this pedestal, in spite of the overabundance of superstition that went behind it, to present to these Athenians the true God, as being the very One Whom they worshipped at this pedestal without really knowing it.
24. God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.
So Paul proclaims to them in the name of this “unknown god” the true God, the very One Who made the world, that is, the kosmos or orderly system that exists on earth, and everything in it. And yes, He did! This world did not form itself over millions of years. The things in it did not create themselves over more millions of years. This world and everything it contains was made by God. He is the Creator of it, and everything that is in this world owes its origin to Him.
Now Paul proclaims God as the Lord of heaven and earth. It is not “the” heavens here, and so this could also mean “Lord of sky and land.” The Greek word kurios or “Lord” means “master,” and so Paul proclaims this One Who made everything as the One Who has the right to rule everything. Understand that these two facts go hand-in-hand. You cannot give up on the idea that God made everything, and yet still maintain the belief that God has the right to rule everything. The reason He has the right to determine what is right for you is because He made you. These two facts are essential to each other, and without both neither is true.
Paul also informs them that this true God Who made the world and everything in it also does not dwell in temples made with hands. In reading this passage so far, we might start to feel superior to these Athenians, as if they were so ridiculous in their thinking, but we today are much more intelligent. Yet this statement catches us in our pride, for this is one that modern man, and even the modern churchman, is just as guilty of as they were. Over and over again we hear these buildings men call “churches” referred to as “God’s house.” The larger and more beautifully made they are, the more men seem to feel that they are nearer to God by attending them. I have heard children told not to “run in the house of the Lord,” and other ridiculous things. Yet these buildings are just temples made with men’s hands, and the Lord does not dwell in them any more than He dwells in the bar or the whorehouse. We need to disassociate from our minds for all time this silly attachment between buildings made with hands and the true God. He is ruler over all. No building we make can ever contain Him. Only once did He ever associate Himself with a building, and even then it was just specially connected with His presence. He did not truly dwell there. Our God does not dwell in man-made buildings. This is a fact that we cannot overemphasize.
25. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.
This is something as well that modern men, including Christians, often have no conception of. That is, we are constantly thinking that the acts we do with our hands are somehow worshiping God. Even on Sunday mornings we conduct something we call a “worship service,” as if God could be worshipped by a program put on in a church building. On top of this we could list things like communion or the Lord’s supper, baptism, singing in the choir, lifting up of hands, the giving of offerings, and many other things that modern-day believers imagine are involved in worshiping God. Yet this passage puts the lie to all of our thinking on this. We are Gentiles like the Athenians, and our thinking about the true God is just as faulty as theirs. The true God is not worshiped with men’s hands.
Now the problem with so much of this worship is that it imagines that God needs something. These idolaters would come to their idols and brings sacrifices to them, imagining that they were honoring the gods and providing for their needs by doing so. Yet the true God has no needs. We imagine that when we bring our money to God and put it in the offering plate, we are giving to the Lord’s work. Yet the Lord does not need our offerings to do His work. Even our service which we render to Him, whether it is something truly valuable like proclaiming the Word, or something with less clear value, like mowing the church lawn, is not something that God cannot live without. The gospel would continue forward even without you to proclaim it. God would still be great even without anyone to mow the church lawn. You might imagine that you are doing some service for God great or small by your actions, but you are only kidding yourself. God does not need any of these things you do for Him. He was all-sufficient unto Himself before you were around to do these things, and He will still be all-sufficient long after you are gone and no longer able to do them. He does not need anything from you to accomplish the work He wants to do in this world. If He ever uses you in His work, that is your privilege. It is not you fulfilling His need. We need to banish from our minds once and for all the idea that we are important to God’s plan, and without us He would be more or less helpless. God needs nothing from us, and we need everything from Him. All we have, including our lives, our very breath, and everything we own and call our own, all of it belongs to Him anyway. What then can we give Him that He “needs”? Nothing!
26. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings,
This verse presents what I would call the Bible’s teaching on racism. That is, that there is just one race in this world, and that is the human race. God has made from one blood every nation of men. That is the Biblical view of the so-called “races”: they are just nations, nations that grew out of families of the past, all of which came from one, original family. The idea that there are such things as “races” among men is a Darwinian concept that did not exist before the theory of evolution was proposed. Before then, there were nationalities, not races. Yet now, men imagine that certain races are more or less evolved than others, and that certain men are more or less advanced from the apes. This is a foolish and unbiblical concept. No men are any closer or further from apes than any other men. We are all of one race, all of one blood, and all of one family in the beginning. We might have divided into many families, and then into many nations, but originally we are all of one blood. That is the truth about all of Adam’s race who dwell on all the face of the earth.
Paul also tells us that God has determined the preappointed times and boundaries of the dwellings of these nations. This is a mysterious thing, and I cannot say that I completely understand it. All nations ultimately trace back to those divisions of men that took place after the flood at the incident of the tower of Babel, when the language of humanity was divided. Since that time, nations have arisen, divided, combined, and disappeared. Yet all of this chaos has the orchestrating hand of God behind it. I am not saying that God is behind every revolution, every national split, every conquest of a nation by another nation that takes place. Yet God does have times and boundaries which He places on the nations, and those boundaries and times they cannot cross. Though He allows much to happen by the free will of men, He does have a providence that keeps all these things in check. That is what Paul is telling these Athenians here.
27. so that they 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;
Now Paul, speaking as God’s apostle, reveals God’s purpose in the boundaries and limitations He has placed upon men. He has done this so that they might seek after Him. This is what God wants of them. Even if they are blind, and many people are very blinded by the darkness and deception that is in this world, God is looking for them to grope, as it were, after Him, seeking by feeling their way along in the darkness to try in the hope of finding Him. Many complain of the darkness in this world. Multiple people today seem to have thrown up their hands and proclaimed themselves agnostics, unable to tell if there is a God or not. Yet we wonder if these would not give up and would seek to grope through the darkness after God, if they would find that after all He is not so far from each one of us as they might think. That is what Paul is saying here. Only to those who are not looking for Him does God seem so far away. If you truly seek after Him, you will find that He is not far from you. As Hebrews 11:6 says,
6. But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
Yes, God wants men to diligently seek Him. No matter how hopeless the search might seem to them at the start, He wants them to feel after Him at least and seek to find Him. All who do seek Him will not fail to attain their reward. Yet many do not even try. How sad, when God is right there, waiting to be found in the pages of His Word. It is so attainable to us in this Western society, yet many who are so near never even take the time to look.
28. for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’
Paul goes on to explain to the Athenians that it is in God that we live and move and have our being. This means that God is the source for our life, and our very breath comes from Him. Now, Paul gives a quotation to back up what he is saying. Yet what a different quotation this is from those we usually find in Paul’s proclamations in the book of Acts! Usually, what we find is Paul quoting Scripture. Here, however, Paul does not quote Scripture, for Scripture would mean nothing to these idolatrous Gentiles in the Areopagus. Instead, he quotes from one of their own poets, Aratus.
Aratus, it seems, was one of the most famous of the Greek poets, though little of his material has survived to our day. He was actually born in Cilicia, Paul’s home province, in the late fourth century before Christ. He studied the Stoic philosophy in Athens at the school founded by Zeno. He was quite prolific, but the only poem of his that survives today in its entirely is his poem entitled Phaenomena. Fortunately, that is the poem Paul quotes here. Dr. Riemer Faber, Professor of Classics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada writes about this poem in his article, “The Apostle and the Poet: Paul and Aratus.” He says of this poem, “The Phaenomena is a peculiar poem: it attempts to put into verse two fourth century prose works on the stars and on the weather.” This might seem like a strange topic for a poem, but Dr. Faber notes, “It appears that one of Aratus’ aims in writing this poem was to demonstrate his skill in providing detailed scientific information by means of non-technical, poetic language.” Apparently, he succeeded in his objective, at least in the minds of his contemporaries, and this poem was quite a famous one.
Dr. Faber quotes the section of the poem from which Paul quotes in an English translation thus:
Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring… (Phaenomena 1-5).
So now what Aratus ascribed to Zeus, their king of the gods, Paul ascribes to the true God of heaven. We are all offspring of God, and the life we have comes from Him. As Elihu said in Job 34:14-15:
14. If He should set His heart on it,
If He should gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath,
15. All flesh would perish together,
And man would return to dust.
The Companion Bible notes that this does not mean that God creates fresh every person who comes into the world. John 1:13 would deny this, contrasting the one born of God to those who are born “of blood,” “of the will of the flesh,” and “of the will of man” or the husband. What is meant is that all in the world are descended from Adam, who was made by God.
29. Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.
Now Paul argues, quite logically, that if we are the offspring of God, we should not think that He in His Divine Nature is like some idol, some gold or silver or stone statue made by the devising of some man using his artistic talent. These things reflect the mind of the artist who made them, but not the glory of the true God.
30. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent,
Paul characterizes the times when men did this as the times of their ignorance. God, he tells them, quite graciously overlooked these things. This is quite amazing, when you think of it, that God did not hold the idolatry of ignorant men against them. He knew what they knew and did not know, and He dealt with them based on the knowledge they had. This is ever God’s way, as it is set forth in Scripture. Yet most modern-day evangelicals teach that God holds people accountable for not believing a message that they never heard!
Though God overlooked such ignorance in the past, Paul reveals to them, the time has come for all such ignorance to pass away. God now commands all men everywhere to repent. Yet “repent” is a bad translation here, for the Greek word is metanoeo, which we have discussed before. What God was calling upon men everywhere to do was to submit to Him and His government, which was even then starting to take over the world. If it had completed its work, all people, including those in Athens, would have been required to turn from their idolatry, and to submit to the government God was establishing over the world. However, that government never came in, at least not fully. Instead, that work was stopped in its tracks, and God started doing a new and secret work. That work is His work today, as He reveals the riches of His gracious character in His dealings with the world. Because of this, men today are as free to be ignorant of God as they ever were. Yet whenever this dispensation is complete and that kingdom work starts up again, the time for ignorance and idolatry will have come to an end. As Paul says, men everywhere will then be expected to submit.
31. because 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.”
Now Paul explains to the Athenians why the time to give up on ignorance and submit to God has come. He tells them that God has appointed a day. This is not a twenty-four hour day, of course, but rather a long period of time. During this time, God will judge the world. Yet this is not some simple judgment wherein He decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, as the theology of many Biblically-ignorant theologians would teach. To judge means to determine what is right and then to set things right. That is exactly what God will do in that future day. He will determine what is right for the world, and then He will set things right. When He does this, this world will be governed by God Himself. When He does this, the government of God will have come at last.
The word for “world” here is the Greek word oikoumene, which means the inhabited world, or the world as it is made up of Adamkind. So He is going to determine what is right and set things right for the world of men, and He is going to do it in righteousness. What a change this will make in the world of men! We know that sometimes the governments of this world, no matter what country they represent, give rewards to the wicked and punishments to the righteous. Sometimes, the governments of the world are unequal. Sometimes, the governments of the world do exactly the wrong thing. Yet not so when God governs. He will govern in righteousness, and all that He sets in order will be fair, right, and good.
When God judges the world, Paul tells them, He will do it through a Man Whom He has ordained for the purpose. Notice that Paul does not even name that Man in his proclamation. Yet we well know that that Man is the Lord Jesus Christ. For Paul goes on to tell them how God has given assurance of this: through raising that Man from the dead. Do you realize this: that by raising Christ from the dead, God assured us that someday it is He Who will rule over this world and straighten out all the messes upon it? That He will someday take this dark planet and turn the light on over it? That He will make this world the way He always intended it to be? Too often, all we see in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus is personal salvation for individual sinners. Yet Paul assures us here that in that resurrection there also is salvation for the world of men dwelling upon the earth. Thank God for this salvation as well! For this truth brings hope to this evil world.
The word for “assurance” here is actually the Greek word pistis, which means “faith.” God has given faith to all regarding His future reign by raising Christ from the dead. We have no excuse for doubting the fact that Christ will someday set this world in order through righteousness. His resurrection gives us the faith we need to know this.
32. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.”
Paul’s proclamation was not finished, but at this point it is interrupted and never continued. As soon as he speaks of the resurrection of the dead, those in attendance at the Areopagus stop listening and interrupt him. Probably, this word was met with jeers and catcalls on the part of many. Greek philosophy was directly opposed to the idea of resurrection. The Greeks had observed all the many problems there are with our physical bodies. We know from the Bible record that this is because our bodies are fallen. When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, our bodies were corrupted, and they are no longer what God created them to be. However, the Greeks improperly interpreted the problems they saw to mean that our problem is that we have physical bodies to begin with. They decided that our spirits are pure, and they are held back by our corrupt bodies. In their minds, the best possible thing that could happen is for us to be separated from our physical bodies and become pure spirit. Then, they thought, we would have reached the most desirable state. Of course, by believing this, they were falling for Satan’s first lie, “Dying thou shalt not die, but shall be as gods,” hook, line, and sinker. The Bible knows nothing of a disembodied spirit existence. What it always holds out as our hope is the redemption of our bodies through resurrection. Then, when we have perfected human bodies, we will be what we were always meant to be.
Now because of their philosophy, there were few things more foolish to the Greek mind than the idea of a resurrection. To them, dying meant passing on to a better existence as a pure spirit. You were finally shed of what held you back: your physical body. To imagine a pure, unfettered spirit, and then imagine it being saddled back with a body again, to them was total lunacy. Therefore, when Paul spoke the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, many of them mocked, and ceased to listen to him altogether.
Some were more polite about it, however. They did not outright mock Paul. Nevertheless, they had had enough at this point, too. They seek to put Paul off gently, telling him that they will hear him speak of this new idea again sometime. Of course, this future time was highly unlikely ever to happen. So these people no more believed Paul than the others, though at least they were nice about it.
33. So Paul departed from among them.
Though he was not finished with his address, it is clear to Paul and the Spirit Who moved him that he had no more audience in the Areopagus. So, Paul departs. God has said his piece, and most of these philosophers have refused to hear Him. Yet someday, it will be the very word of God, which these men rejected, which will be used in judgment against them. They cannot escape God’s truth, for it is what will determine their fate in the end. No “pure spirit” existence truly awaited them. Believe it or not, their only hope, like all of us, is the resurrection.
34. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
However, we learn that not all of those who heard Paul in Athens that day rejected what he said. Some, though they may have been heathen philosophers before, heard what Paul spoke, and found that the truth of it resonated in their hearts. These were those men who were moved by the Holy Spirit, and responded to it. When Paul leaves the Areopagus, these leave with him. We read that they joined him and believed. No doubt he spoke more words to them, finishing the message that the rest would not hear, and they accept the message eagerly and believe.
Among these, we read, was Dionysius. This name means “Devoted to Bacchus,” who was the god of wine. This man, however, leaves his former devotion to false gods, and becomes a believer in and follower of the true God, the Lord Jesus Christ, at Paul’s word. Praise God for such an outcome! Moreover, this man was himself an Areopagite, which means that he was a leader of some authority in the school of the Areopagus. It is great indeed to see how God can move in the heart even of one who before was a wholehearted follower of godless philosophy and move in him to bring him to the truth! This Dionysius proves the power of God to change the hearts of men.
Another prominent one among those in the Areopagus that day who heard Paul and believed was a woman named Damaris. Her name means “A Heifer.” We do not learn why she was prominent enough to be singled out. We are gratified to learn that it was not just men who heard Paul’s word and believed it, however. This woman too, formerly a Greek philosopher, now comes to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His gospel and His truth is not just for the men, as this woman Damaris proves. She too had sought after truth in the wrong places before, but she too now finds the truth at last in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Others with them believe, we read. It was not just these two, though they are two prominent examples. So though the majority of these philosophers might have mocked or put Paul off, some were true-hearted and came to the truth. Praise God that His word can reach even the hardest of men and bring them to Himself. We see that in the past in the Areopagus of Athens, and it is still true today.