Commentary on Acts 17:22-31
The gospel sounds different everyplace it is told.
That’s because the gospel does not exist in some unadulterated form in isolation from human language, culture, or presuppositions. It’s always enfleshed in some way–linguistically, culturally, personally. How would we understand it, or recognize it as good news for us, if it weren’t? Then we’d all be gnostics, which would be insufferable. Take my word for it.
A Sermon Tailor-Made for the Athenian Elite
Paul’s sermon to the Athenians illustrates both the inescapable reality of this enfleshing and the importance of paying attention to it. This sermon is like no other in Acts, because Athens is a cultural context like no other in Acts. In Acts 17 the gospel comes to one of the ancient Mediterranean world’s centers of intellectual sophistication. There it endeavors to find a foothold. Watching it do so, we learn something about Christian preaching and Christian faith.
The book of Acts has fun telling the story. Ancient historians described Athens as a very intellectually curious and very religious place. Acts does much of the same when it says, tongue in cheek, that the Athenians “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (17:21).
Extending the humorous undertones, it seems that Paul does not come to Athens to preach, but to wait for Silas and Timothy while things cool off in Thessalonica and Beroea (17:1-15). But he cannot restrain himself, having become too aggravated by the locals’ religious vitality that he understands as laudable but ultimately misguided.
Although he had just been forced out of two other major cities, in Athens a crowd of intellectuals (or wannabe intellectuals; the narrative leaves us wondering) enthusiastically ushers Paul before the Areopagite council, the city’s governing authorities. He is not in legal jeopardy; the amused crowd wants its leaders to hear what he has to say.
Paul does not disappoint in this, the only major speech in Acts addressing a polytheistic audience (save, to a degree, Acts 26). Flashing his cultural bona fides, he quotes two Greek poets to the elite crowd. “In him we live and move and have our being” is probably from Epimenides (6th century BCE), and “We are his offspring” likely comes from Aratus (3rd century BCE). In these rhetorical moves, Paul secures a basic point of agreement with his audience: neither party thinks that deities dwell inside manufactured things (17:24-25). Everyone knows better than that. (Compare Stephen’s comments in Acts 7:48, which formed the context for last week’s reading from Acts 7:55-60)
Laying a foundation of common ground is an important part of this speech. (That’s what this passage commends for Christian preaching.) After acknowledging the Athenians’ religious fervor, Paul launches a critique of simplistic notions of idolatry in 17:24-29. Handmade gods have their limits. God appoints the natural order, precisely so that God may be found in human existence. We should infer that his audience nods and replies, “Amen.”
The Scandal of Resurrection
Up to 17:30, Paul does not say anything especially controversial. The climactic moment comes then, at his mention of repentance, judgment, and resurrection. At that point the speech is interrupted and the audience divides into those who scoff, those willing to hear more, and those (men and women) who believe. What happens?
By referring to Jesus’ resurrection and implying that all people will likewise be raised from the dead, Paul steers the Athenians toward a notion of communing with the Divine that does not square with their presuppositions. To a crowd interested in the immortality of the soul (and an accompanying contempt for bodies and the limitations they impose), Paul preaches about a God who resurrects bodies. It’s a difficult thing for the Athenians to hear as good news. Why would people want to keep their bodies? It strikes them as icky.
In the end, Paul cannot preach the gospel without making reference to the particularity of Jesus. He roots the significance of Jesus in humanity’s yearning for knowledge of the Divine. Jesus fits within basic Greek religious ideas, but he also confounds them. He brings something new, something unfamiliar.
As I mentioned earlier, this passage commends preaching that seeks to establish a foundation of common ground with an audience. The uniqueness of the Athenian sermon within the book of Acts allows it to emphasize this point: you don’t need to quote the Bible or recite the history of Israel in order to explain the gospel. Sometimes poetry, natural theology, and human experience provide an excellent starting point.1
Some may object, however, that by including this peculiar sermon Acts risks confusing the gospel with Athenian religion or somehow “baptizes” the cultural assumptions of Paul’s hearers. Such objections are exposed as foolish when we consider that the whole of Acts (Luke, too) offers us a presentation of “all that Jesus did and taught” (Acts 1:1) that is clearly integrated with assumptions and religious longings nourished within other cultures–Galilee’s, Judea’s, Lystra’s, and so on. One cannot bear witness to the gospel if one cannot find a way to help audiences make sense of it according to what they hope for and according to what they know.
This passage also characterizes the Christian faith as a faith about resurrection. Paul takes his audience’s context seriously, but he also tells these people something that blows their minds. Something surprising. Something potentially distasteful. The resurrected Jesus still has a body–a different kind of body, sure, but a body nonetheless.
So that sermons on this passage don’t veer toward marveling at those silly Athenians or diagramming foolproof strategies for evangelism, preachers should take account of Easter’s insistence on embodied resurrection. This is a topic that makes people squeamish in places beyond Athens, too. Bad theology has left far too many Christians thinking that they should despise embodied existence. Bad cultural assumptions have left others thinking that they should adulate bodies. Revisit 1 Corinthians 15 and think with your congregation about what Easter promises for us, as flesh-and-blood creatures who look to a flesh-and-blood Savior.
Then preach the sermon again–but differently–when you talk with adolescents learning to navigate their own corporeality and to construct their identities in light of it. And again when you feed the hungry. Again when you visit your shut-ins, the local hospitals, and the memory-care facility.
Because the gospel isn’t embedded in just our peculiar linguistic and cultural matrices. It’s in our whole selves, as well. Thus it’s connected to our embodied existence, which itself is also pretty peculiar.
1 Some commentators have questioned whether this sermon is adequately “Christian,” because Paul never explicitly refers to the cross but focuses instead on the resurrection. I’d say these commentators must be operating with defective criteria for what is required for “Christian preaching.”