EPICUREAN PHILOSOPHY. Epicurus (342-270 B.C.) held that pleasure was the chief goal of life, with the pleasure most worth enjoying being a life of tranquility free from pain, disturbing passions, superstitious fears, and anxiety about death. He did not deny the existence of gods but argued in deistic fashion that they took no interest in the lives of men. Epicureans taught that the body must be satisfied if the mind was to know happiness.
STOIC PHILOSOPHY. The Cyproiote Zeon (340-265 B.C.) was the founder of Stoicism, which took its name from the “painted Stoa” (colonnade or portico) where he habitually taught in the Athenian agora. His teaching centered on living harmoniously with nature and it emphasized man’s rational abilities and individual self-sufficiency. Theologically, he was essentially pantheistic and thought of God as “the World-soul.” The Stoics felt that the body should be controlled, denied, even ignored in order to free the mind.
Epicureanism and Stoicism represented the popular Gentile alternatives for dealing with the plight of humanity and coming to terms with life apart from the biblical revelation and God’s work in Jesus Christ.
These philosophers thought Paul a “babbler” (one who sounds like birds picking up grain or scrap collectors searching for junk) because he was preaching about Jesus and the resurrection. They were amused. Paul promoted not just a crucified Savior, but a risen One! It was not logical! Amused, they asked him to accompany them up the slope of the Acropolis and on to the small steep rock, the Hill of Ares (sometimes called Mars Hill), from which the Court (Areopagus) took its name. There Athenians, with a modern day “talk show” mentality, spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.
It was a bold thing that Paul did when he stood up to tell the men of Athens the nature of the true God. The philosophers of an earlier time, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, had done very little to enlighten the people.
In the meeting of the Areopagus, Paul attempts to build bridges for he knew God has His testimony in every human heart. Spiritual Monists or Pluralists, Pragmatists or Humanists seek in their own way the reality of God.
Paul presents ideas to communicate—bridge the Gospel to religious people who want to worship. So he starts with the greatness of God and the uniqueness of human beings. He wants to gain the right to be heard. In the synagogues, he proved Jesus was the Messiah from the OT. With this audience that was ignorant of the Scriptures, he took a different approach.
Paul delighted in the evidence of God’s truth in the life and thinking of a person. It is obvious Paul has done his homework. He acknowledged Epicurean and Stoic philosophy by quoting their poets. He had discovered the ‘scared corner’ in their life—an altar to an unknown god.
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 (Acts 17:22-23).
The message that follows is entirely theologically consistent with his teaching in Romans 1-2. It stands as a masterpiece with its four points:
1. God is Creator, Acts 1:24-25
2. God is Lord, 1:26-29
3. God is Savior, 1:30
4. God is Judge, 1:31
Paul explains that the revelation of God in nature is that of an omnipresent, all-embracing, all-working Power, an Infinite Reason that is manifested in the order of the world. The apostle reveals that God is not only the Creator, who, having once completed His work, and arranged for its maintenance, but also He continues to superintend the workings of the universe. He presides at the helm of providence. He is “the Lord,” the possessor and master of heaven and earth. And being so great, and high, and infinite, of Almighty power, spirituality, and presence, His being cannot be made by man’s design and skill. Furthermore, God had revealed Himself in the Appointed Man (Christ Jesus) and He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. The proof of this is Christ’s
resurrection from the dead.
The message seemed to be going along fine until Paul mentioned the resurrection of the dead; with that, many were sneering on the outside, laughing on the inside. 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.
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. Here is the universal appeal of the Gospel: an intellectual philosopher, a woman, and a number of others.
Additionally, the response to the Gospel was threefold: (1) some mocked; (2) some postponed making a decision; and (3) some believed. This illustrates what the mocker, simple and wise do with Wisdom’s invitation in Proverbs 9. Thessalonica opposed the Word; Berea received the Word; and Athens mocked the Word.
The apostle’s experiences with the Jews and with the intellectuals of Athens laid the groundwork for what he wrote to the saints in Corinth; see 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.
As with Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, little did Paul realize that his speech would go down to posterity beside the Funeral Oration of Pericles as one of the great speeches of Athens. Nineteen centuries later, when Greece, after long suppression, became once more a sovereign state, the national flag which flies beside the ruins of the Parthenon would be lowered to half-mast each Good Friday, and raised on Easter Day in honor of Christ’s resurrection. There they sneered at Paul; God got the last laugh!
Most of the soil at Athens was hard, but there was a small harvest. Dionysius and Damaris must be eternally grateful that Paul came their way. And after all, one soul is worth it all!
Yet, Paul is human. He was distressed by what he saw in Athens, and he appears to leave for Corinth depressed. Not one Jew received Christ; he was sneered at; and only a few Gentiles believed at the meeting at the Areopagus. Greece and the rest of Europe was a stronghold—in the grip of Satan, “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30). This prince resisted the invasion of his territory and fought Paul wherever he went. And to make matters worst, he’s off to Corinth—the cesspool—sin capital of the world. “Where are Silas and Timothy?” Paul is all alone!