Commentary on Acts 17:16-31
Likely if you have read critical commentaries on this passage before reading this essay, you have been overwhelmed with the number of complex, critical issues involved with interpreting this passage:
- the ambiguity of what is meant by Paul being led away to the Areopagus;
- the ancient stereotypes of Athens generally and Epicureans and Stoics specifically;
- the hints of the characterization of Paul echoing that of Socrates;
- the way polytheism functioned in the ancient Mediterranean world;
- Luke’s use of philosophical concepts, jargon, and quotes of the day that are foreign to us;
- the similarities and differences of Paul’s speech to the other speeches in Acts;
- Luke’s manner of shaping Paul’s speech using rhetorical formulations of his day;
- and the relation of Paul’s approach here to the presentation of the historical Paul and his proclamation in his letters.
Getting a handle on these interpretive conundrums will help the preacher appreciate the great skill Luke used in crafting this scene and bring that same sort of skill to presenting the scene for a contemporary congregation. In as short as an essay as this one, however, we cannot touch on all these issues. Instead, we will focus on Paul’s speech as an invitation for the way the contemporary church might engage the world/society. This focus does not render the other issues moot but instead will help the preacher decide how to draw those issues into a sermon with this particular focus.
Luke presents Paul’s Areopagus speech as being delivered to a Greco-Roman philosophically-oriented crowd unfamiliar with the Jewish tradition and scripture that ungirded the new Christian religion. The speech flows in three movements.
Acts 17:22-23 comprise the introduction to the speech. At this point Paul offers a greeting to the Athenian audience and names that he recognizes how religious they are. This element of praise is meant to encourage a positive hearing from the audience. He makes a connection with them in this way and sets up the unique claim he wants to make that will challenge their religious worldview. His pivot is based on an altar with the inscription “to an unknown God.”
In verses 24-29, Paul argues that the one about whom he is “babbling” (verse 18) is actually this God they fail to know. Were he preaching to Jews or God-fearers (Gentiles who Luke presents as attending synagogue and being attracted to elements of Jewish faith and practice), Paul could have referred to Jewish traditions and quote Jewish scripture to support his argument. Instead, he speaks of God as creator in a way that would have been familiar and acceptable to his audience. In verse 28 he quotes two Greek philosophers affirming we, all humanity, is this God’s offspring. This assertion serves to set up Paul’s critique of the very material objects of worship he praised in verse 23. The centerpiece of the speech then is a gentle condemnation of idolatry.
The speech concludes with a call for the audience to repent in preparation for the judgment by the one appointed by God. Proof that this man is the appointed judge is that God raised him from the dead (verses 30-31). Notice that while Paul condemned idolatry and called for repentance, he did not specifically condemn his hearers. This may seem like a game of semantics, but it is not. There is a vast difference between rejecting something another holds dear and rejecting the person.
We live in a day of religious pluralism. We live in a day of “spiritual but not religious.” We live in a day of an individualized, privatized cafeteria approach to picking and choosing what we “like” from different religious, political, and philosophical worldviews, often in ways that contain no logical consistency. We live in Luke’s version of Athens. Paul’s Areopagus speech, then, offers a helpful analogy for how the church should live in this new day. Simply saying the church is in but not of the world may not be enough.
The manner of the church’s engagement with the world modeled in this passage is one in which the church respects society and different expressions of it and speaks to the world on terms the world will respect. It recognizes good religious intent and desire in society. Still, however, the church presents its own unique faith for others to consider, offering an invitation for those interested and willing to join us. It is no wonder this passage has been so heavily used by the church through the years as a model for apologetics and evangelism.
An added element to the church’s necessary attitude toward the world is found in the lines immediately following our lection, lines which are actually the proper ending for this passage (verses 32-34). The lines explicitly describe that some in the audience scoffed at Paul’s words, some were interested in hearing more from him, and some joined him becoming believers. Implicitly, these lines describe the way the church should respond to the variety of responses our message gets in the world. Note that Paul does not condemn those who do not convert. He simply leaves. Luke does not say he left in a huff, so much as he simply indicates it was time for Paul to go, so he did.
We should not expect our faith to resonate with all those with whom we share it, and it is not our place to condemn those who choose a different path. We welcome in those who desire to join us and hopefully open ourselves to further conversation with those willing to engage us again.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of the unknown,
Your mysteries are astounding. Give us knowledge where you see fit, and let us sit comfortably with that which we can never understand. Amen.
Make my life a living prayer, Aaron David Miller