Commentary on Acts 17:16-31
Arriving in Athens, Paul becomes distressed over the many idols adorning the city.
He decides not to wait for the arrival of his colleagues, Silas and Timothy (17:15) in order to share God’s good news with the Athenians. As has been his custom, Paul first visits the synagogues where he dialogues and debates with Jewish men and women (13:5, 14; 14:1) as well as those devout persons (hoi sebomenoi) in attendance (cf. 13:43; 16:14; 18:7). However, he does not limit himself to the synagogues; he also speaks to the people gathered in agora or marketplace (verse 17).
The Athenians and foreigners who frequented the market place were accustomed to hearing and engaging with new philosophical and religious ideas (verse 21). Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with Paul. Some concluded that Paul was a “Babbler” (spermologos, verse 18). That is, his message sounded piecemeal, like Paul had distributed crumbs of knowledge to them without the coherence and sophistication of the philosophers.
Others interpreted Paul’s words as promoting foreign divinities/religion because he spoke about the resurrection of Jesus. Neither party seemed to understand, but so that Paul should account for the perplexing intellectual and religious seeds he had scattered, he was escorted (epilambanomai) to the Areopagus (verse 19). It seems that Paul is being forced to officially explain himself before the city council.
Paul begins his speech by affirming the Athenians’ religiosity and by establishing some common ground between them. Despite his distress over the many idols in the city, Paul wisely refrains from demonizing their manner of religious expression. In the process of familiarizing himself with the religiosity of the Athenians, their idols and related accoutrements, Paul stumbled upon an altar inscribed with the words “To an unknown god” (verse 23).
Paul astutely makes a hermeneutical and theological connection between the “unknown god” of the inscription and the God whom he proclaims created the world and everything in it (verses 23b-24). The preacher might consider how we might follow Paul’s example by seeking and appealing to the commonalties we share with those whom we wish to share God’s good news, rather than constructing and highlighting our differences.
Conveniently, the Athenians had erected an altar for this “unknown god” but created no image. This absence of an image works well for Paul’s description of God as one who does not live in human-made shrines. Nor is God served or ministered to by humans as if God has a need or void that humans can fill. To say that God is “served by human hands” implies that God needs something from humans. Conversely, God gives everything (ta panta) to humans, including life (zoe) and breath (pnoe) (verse 25).
The preacher might preach that God does not need our service or worship. Worship and service are for the benefit of human beings. Therefore, we cannot bribe God with our service or our worship. But our service and worship should honor the God who created all human beings equally, without regard to gender, race, ethnicity, class, or orientation. We should treat one another with mutual dignity, justice, and parity in our service and worship.
The second point of common ground is the shared ancestry among human beings: From one God made every nation of people to dwell on the face of the earth and he set the boundaries for their dwelling places (verse 26). Therefore, all nations should seek God, feel after, and find God. The preacher might note that God honors both our intellectual and emotive searching for God. God is not far from each one that God has created. The preacher could consider a sermon that focuses on how God is equally available to and can be found by all whom God has created; that God shows no favoritism and is not more accessible to any one nation.
The third way that Paul identifies with the Athenians intellectually and theologically and meets them where they are is by invoking the Greek poets. Paul, as an educated Hellenistic Jewish man and a Roman citizen (16:38; 22:3, 25; Galatians 5:13-16), is familiar with the Greek poets and with famous cultural expressions, two of which he quotes in his speech: “In him (the ‘unknown god’ who is also the God who created and sustains all) we live and move and have our being.”
And the verse “for we too are his offspring” is from Aratus a third-century BCE/BC poet. These two quotes reiterate what Paul has stated about God; the Greek poets had already testified about the relationship between God and all that God created and sustains. In his sermon, Paul weaves together the good news about God with the writings of the Greek poets, creating an instance of intertextuality. Two texts are joined together in a new context (Paul’s speech) to create a relevant text.
The preacher might share how it is appropriate and necessary to dialogue with and create intertextualities in order to make the gospel relevant to people where they are situated. And sometimes this relevance-making involves broadening our intellectual reservoir so that we can draw parallels and find commonalities that we as humans share but that are not readily evident because of the differences we construct and the dualities we create (e.g., pagan/godly or heathen/Christian). The preacher should also consider that one need not be a Christian to express truths about God.
Paul concludes his speech by arguing that as God’s offspring the Athenians should adjust their view of the deity to match his status as creator-God (verse 29). God should not be confused with the things or persons he has created; God cannot be contained in human-made substances like silver, gold, or stone, regardless of how precious they might be. And God cannot be made into human-conceived images.
The preacher could address the various ways in which we, with our limited imagination, create God in our own image; that a god who can be restricted to metaphors and controlled by our imagination is not God. We do this in many ways, one of which is to imagine a God who is like us and unlike those we consider other or different than ourselves.
Significantly, Paul does not mention the name of Jesus in his speech, although Paul mentioned Jesus and his resurrection while he was in the agora. In times past ignorance may have been an excuse for crafting God into the image of human beings and human-made things, but this is no longer a good defense (verse 30). In fact, God will judge the world with justice (en dikaiosune) through a man (Greek: aner, biological man), no less. But this is no ordinary man; this man God raised from the dead (verses 31; 2:22-24).
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.
O Zion, haste ELW 668
He comes to us as one unknown ELW 737
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy ELW 587, 588, H82 469, 470, UMH 121, NCH 23
Make my life a living prayer, Aaron David Miller