Saturday, November 06, 2021

Debating in Athens

All photos courtesy of Unsplash

The apostle Paul, who wrote nearly half of the New Testament, had sensibly travelled far south to Athens following hostility to his preaching in northern Greece. While waiting for his friends Silas and Timothy to catch up, Paul, like any other tourist today, looked around the city and viewed the Acropolis. Athens was then the cultural centre of the Roman Empire. It had been the cradle of democracy and was the centre of learning in just about every field of human interest: philosophy, music, theatre, religion, mathematics and science.  Indeed, the Bible says, the whole city seemed to be given over to the full-time pursuit of novelty; ‘hearing and telling some new thing’.
Paul followed his normal practice of preaching to Jews and gentile proselytes in the local synagogue. To meet other people, he went to the marketplace, with its public debating place, the Hyde Park Corner of its day, and engaged in street preaching and debating with the people he met.  A crowd of passing philosophers heard him discussing his Ideas. Interestingly, the philosophers represented the extremes of views about human life.

The Epicureans were a light-hearted bunch; 
eat, drink and be merry; 
make the best of life; 
get as much pleasure as you can; 
take it easy; 
life is just chance anyway.  

The Stoics, on the other hand, were more serious; 
tough it out; 
accept your fate; 
be proud of yourself; 
if you tried hard, you could be equal to any god! 

So that was it - chance and fate, lighthearted or serious? 
They listened to Paul, but they could not make out exactly what he was saying. Finally, some said disrespectfully, ‘What is this seed-picker saying? He seems to be announcing two foreign gods - Jesus and the resurrection’.  However, Paul’s preaching obviously satisfied the criterion of being novel because they took him away from the hustle and bustle of the marketplace to the calm of Mars Hill, the site of the open-air supreme court of Athens, then out of session.
In his sermon on Mars Hill, Paul skillfully built on what his hearers knew. First, he conceded that they were extremely religious people, given that the city was ‘covered with idols’, probably more than 30,000. Petronius, a contemporary writer at Emperor Nero's court, had said sarcastically that it was easier to find a god at Athens than a man. 
Paul then said that he had come across an altar to “an unknown god during his trips around the city.” He said that they obviously worshipped Him, not knowing who He was.  So Paul said, “I am announcing Him to you.” 

He told them seven things about God. 
He is the God:
• Who made the universe
• Who gives to all life, and breath, and all things
• Who has a hand in events, in terms of time and space
• Who wants people to seek Him
• Who is not far from anyone
• Who now commands all men everywhere to repent
• Who will judge the world by His Son Jesus as the judge,
   Whom He had raised from the dead. 

Paul did not get any further because when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of his hearers ridiculed him, bringing his sermon to a premature end. Some procrastinated and said, ‘we’ll hear you again’; however, some did believe. 

For the unresponsive philosophers, pleasure on the one hand or pride on the other obviously overrode any other considerations and held them back from the Christian faith. So what's holding you back today - pleasure or pride?

Written by Peter Francis for Messages with Meaning (04/11/21) and Your542Day 


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