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« “For the Sake of the Gospel”—The Apologetic Speeches of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts (Third and Final Part) | Main | Luther on Galatians -- A New Translation »

“For the Sake of the Gospel”—The Apologetic Speeches of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts (Part Two)

Part One

Paul in the Synagogue

Throughout the first and second missionary journeys of Acts, Paul begins his efforts in each new city by finding the local synagogue, and then immediately making it the base of his operations (See for example, Acts 13:5, 14 ff; Acts 14:1 ff., Acts 17:2, 10, 17; 18:4, 19 etc.).  As Luke puts it in Acts 17:2, Paul went to the Synagogue in Thessalonica, “as was his custom,” and for three successive weeks “Paul went in . . .  and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, `This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2-3).

By taking a closer look at this, we can learn a great deal about Paul’s approach to proclamation-defense with those with whom he found common ground in the pages of the Old Testament.  Unlike the pagan Gentiles, who did not have and did not know the Old Testament, when dealing with Jews and “God-fearing” Gentiles who knew and believed the Old Testament, Paul could go to the synagogue, find a willing audience, and then “reason” with them directly from the Scriptures.  Paul did this by “explaining” and “proving” that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer unto death and to rise again from the dead as Paul tried to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah promised to Israel throughout the Old Testament (6).  In the original language we are given a bit more of a clue as to how Paul did this, when Luke tells us that Paul set the Old Testament teaching regarding the Messiah, “side by side” with the account of the historical events of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.  Paul used what are apologetic arguments from fulfilled prophecy and miracle to demonstrate the truth of the Christian faith.  Jesus was the one of whom the Scriptures spoke, because the events of his life and death, and especially his resurrection, are exactly what the Old Testament predicates of the coming Messiah.  The very fact that the expectations of Israel’s prophets all come to fruition in the historical events surrounding the life, death and burial of Jesus Christ is a very powerful and compelling argument, and Paul uses it repeatedly.
Paul and Barnabas in Lystra

Things were markedly different when Paul encountered pagan Gentiles who did not know much, if anything, of the Old Testament and the God of Israel.  We have two accounts of such incidents, the first being that of Paul and Barnabas’ encounter with indigenous paganism recounted in Acts 14:8 ff.  According to Luke, the whole incident began with an amazing miracle.  “Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet.  He was crippled from birth and had never walked.  He listened to Paul speaking.  And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, `Stand upright on your feet.’  And he sprang up and began walking” (vv. 8-10).

This should sound vaguely familiar if you know the earlier chapters of Acts.  Luke is, no doubt, drawing a parallel here between the ministry of Peter and that of Paul.  What Peter had done in the Jerusalem temple before watching Israel (Acts 3:1 ff.), Paul is doing here before the Gentiles.  The reference to bold preaching supported by signs and wonders occurs not only here, but also in Iconium (Acts 14:1 ff.).  In both cases, Paul proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ and God himself confirms the content of the preaching by the miraculous signs that follow.  The parallels to Peter healing the man crippled from birth and Paul doing the same here in Lystra, serves to put Paul on the same footing as Peter, and the mission to the Gentiles on the same footing with the original work in Jerusalem, especially in the accounts we find in Acts 3-4 (7).  God confirms the truth of his word as proclaimed by Paul when the lame man stands up at Paul’s command, jumps around and begins to walk.  This serves to confirm the legitimacy of the Gentile mission, a point that will be especially germane in the debate that takes place in the next chapter (Acts 15).

The result of this is recounted by Luke. 

“And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, `The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’   Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker.  And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds” (Acts 14:11-13).  

As Luke puts it, the crowds present were so amazed at what had happened, word quickly spread throughout the city that Zeus and Hermes had come to them disguised in human form.  The background to this is important.  Some fifty years earlier, a legend began circulating throughout the region of southern Galatia that Zeus and Hermes had wandered through the local hill country disguised as mere mortals seeking lodging.  They supposedly stopped at nearly a thousand homes but were not able to find a place to stay and were refused hospitality wherever they went.  When a humble peasant took them in, his home was transformed into a glorious temple.  He and his wife were transformed into beautiful oak trees which still stood in the region.  Those who refused to take the gods in, instead, saw their homes destroyed and they were left destitute.  This legend, along with the presence of a temple to Zeus just outside the city, meant that the expectation of the return of the gods to the region for a repeat performance was quite prominent in the minds of the Lyconians.  When Paul healed the lame man, it must have meant that Zeus and Hermes had returned. (8)  As a result, Paul finds himself face to face with superstitious pagans wanting to worship him!

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things?  We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.  In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.  Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.  Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:14-18).

Paul and Barnabas rush headlong into the crowds which had gathered, tearing their clothes, which was an act of pious Jews in the presence of blasphemers.  Paul shouted to them, “why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you” (Acts 14:15).
Once the miraculous healing had gotten the Lyconian’s attention, Paul begins to proclaim to them the true and living God.  Luke gives us but a very brief summary of Paul’s proclamation-defense (9).  In this case, even though the Lyconians had no Old Testament, the Apostle begins by proclaiming “the good news to them,” but he also attempts to show them the untenable nature of paganism, pointing out the uselessness of idolatry and telling his hearers to turn from “these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (v. 15).  In this, we see a simple form of the argument from contingency, as created things depend upon a creator.  Paul is also very clear that unbelief has serious consequences, for Paul also tells his hearers that the same God who has created all things, will not let these false religious practices go on.  God has demonstrated his common grace to the Lyconians in the fact that the rain falls upon their crops and thereby provides them with food and joy, and the Lyconians are, therefore, without excuse.  Where his audience is not familiar with the Old Testament, Paul proclaims the “good news” of Christ crucified, but the proclamation is, apparently, soon followed by a direct challenge to those false notions upon which Lyconian paganism was based.  The pattern here is clearly “proclamation-defense,” as the good news is proclaimed and pagan assumptions are challenged.  But all this was of little avail, for as Luke tells us in verse 18, “even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.”  This must have been an amazing scene
Paul Before the Areopagus

In Acts 17:16-34, Luke recounts for us Paul’s visit to Athens during what is known as the Second Missionary Journey.  We have no idea if Paul’s previous travels had ever brought him to Athens before, but we can just imagine what was going through the mind of the apostle as he walked through the city, which beyond all others, represented the high water mark of paganism and the “wisdom of the age.”  According to Luke, Paul’s reaction was one of great distress.  As with all of the kingdoms of Satan, “the bloom was off the rose,” so to speak.  By the first century, the city of Athens was but a faint shadow of its former self, for the glories of the city of man are always fading as moth and rust go about their inevitable and tireless work of decay.  With the faded glories of Athen’s past still everywhere evident, Luke tells us that as the Apostle wandered through the city “his spirit was provoked” when he saw that the city was so full of idols.

Once again, Paul finds the local synagogue and “as was his custom,” the Apostle was soon reasoning with Jews and “God fearers,” from the Old Testament, probably following the same methodology that he had used while in Thessalonica–setting the Old Testament prophetic expectation of a coming Messiah, “side by side” with the historical events of the life of Christ, and in doing so “proving” that Jesus was the Christ.  But while in Athens, Paul also took the opportunity to go into the Agora (the marketplace), where the Apostle preached Christ to those who happened to be there.

According to Luke, it was not long before Paul attracted the attention of some of the more influential locals, a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, two of the major schools of philosophy then found among the intelligentsia of Athens.  When Paul, then, proclaims  the gospel to them, the Stoics and Epicureans begin disputing with Paul, calling him “a babbler,” a word which is literally translated as “seed-picker,” but which came to mean a “charlatan,” or a kind of amateur dabbler in esoterica.  Others among the group saw Paul as a “proclaimer of foreign deities,” “a propagandist,” for some kind of unknown foreign religion.  These philosophers take Paul before the Areopagus.  

Meeting upon the “Hill of Ares” – hence “Mars Hill” to the Romans–the Areopagus had a long and illustrious history and is often regarded as the historic birthplace of democracy.  By the first century, the Areopagus no longer exercised political authority over the city (as in the case of the magistrates of the other Greek cities), but its authority was limited to passing judgement in matters of religion, philosophy and ethics.  Paul was brought here, not for a trial, nor likely against his will, but instead so that his strange views regarding this novel religion could be evaluated by these experts in Greek religion and philosophy.  While Paul is horribly distressed by the idolatry he sees in the city, the Athenians, on the other hand are, apparently, quite amused and intrigued by this novel teaching from Paul.  The Athenians took great delight in listening to novel ideas and speculating about religious claims and Luke does not exaggerate when he declares about them in verse 21—“ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”  The following encounter between Paul and Greek paganism results from his prior proclamation of the gospel.  The balance of Luke’s account includes Paul’s defense before the Areopagus.

Paul’s approach will naturally be similar to that we saw him take in Acts 14:15-17, only here in Athens, the audience is much more sophisticated than were the citizens of of a rural backwater like Lystra.  These were men, who, while aware of all of the latest religious speculations of the day, also knew very little, if anything, of the Old Testament or the God of Israel, as would the Jews and “God-fearers” in the synagogue.

Standing before the professional philosophers, Paul begins his speech by again appealing to the common ground that he holds with his hearers—the religious nature of humanity.  “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.”  Paul does not see human religious nature as an end in itself.  He immediately moves on to point these religious men to the source of that religious nature and intuition, the true and living God, the creator of all things.  This is precisely the point that Calvin makes in the opening words of the Institutes

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.  But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.  For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone....On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself (10).

If one starts with humanities’ innate religious nature, we are quickly pushed to the existence of God for an explanation.  On the contrary, when we start with God’s existence, only then are we able to explain the human predicament.  In this case, Paul thought it best to begin by appealing to the religious nature of the Athenians, again finding common ground with his audience.

Next, Paul reminds the Athenians that their own philosophy amounts to practical atheism.  For as he was passing through their city, he saw an altar dedicated “to the [or] an unknown god.”  The reference to an “unknown God,” is very likely a reference to an altar dedicated to a “god” whose original name had been defaced many years before, and which was now long-since forgotten to subsequent generations.  The altar may have been repaired and re-dedicated, “to an unknown god.”  While the Athenians were willing to worship one whom they did not know, Paul now sets before them “the God who is there” —to use Francis Schaeffer’s term.  “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you!”

Consistent with the records of Paul’s previous encounters with paganism, he now sets forth the God of Israel, the only true God who has made the heavens and the earth and everything in them without appeal to what we call the so-called classic proofs.  God’s existence is not “proven”– it is proclaimed!  For Paul, there is no middle man between God and created order, typical of Greek cosmology and its stress upon a demiurge, who placed himself between matter [evil] and pure Spirit [good].  Though Paul doesn’t specifically cite the Old Testament here, the language that he uses is clearly full of Old Testament echoes.  Paul’s God is the creator of all, therefore, no temple made from human hands no matter how glorious can contain him or his glory.
As the “Lord of heaven” the true and living God proclaimed by Paul is utterly transcendent and eternal, and, therefore, in no way subject to the whims of men.  This leads to Paul’s next point recounted in verse 25: “ nor is [the creator] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”   In fact, it is the other way around.  He depends upon his creatures for nothing, but his creatures depend upon him for everything!  Again, Paul uses a form of the argument from contingency, all created things depend upon a creator.

But the God of Israel is not only the creator of all things, he is also the sustainer of all.  Paul now appeals to the providence of God, that is, his fatherly superintendence of the world he has made.  Here we find a clear echo from Deuteronomy 32:8–“when the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God”– in Paul’s argument.  To the Athenians, Paul declares in verse 26, “and he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.”   Since Paul’s God is the creator of all men and nations, all men are descendants of the “first man,” and all nations belong where God has placed them.
But God does this not merely in an exercise of brute power—this ordering of the affairs of the nations is also part of God’s purpose to draw men and women unto himself.  It is important to note that Paul does not quote the Hebrew Scriptures directly, though he constantly alludes to them.  But at this point in his speech, Paul does quote directly from two Greek poets, Epimenedes and Aratus, demonstrating to his audience that even their own philosophers have correctly analyzed the human dilemma, even if, apart from special revelation, they had no solutions to them.  First, Paul cites from Epimenedes, “‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”  The point is that because God is creator and sustainer of all he is never far from his any of creatures.  This is virtually the same point that Paul will later make in Romans 1:20:  “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  As creator, God is not only transcendent and beyond his creation in such a way that he is distinct from the world he has made, nevertheless, as sustainer of the world he has made he is also immanent, always being near us since we are his creatures.  This is, perhaps, a shot at the deistic tendencies of the Stoics in the audience.
The second Greek poet that Paul cites is Aratus, “for; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”  Paul is able to point out that some of the Athenians “had realized the folly of trying to represent the divine nature by material images, worship at material altars, or house it in material temples, and had perceived, however dimly, how near God was to those who truly sought him” (11).  We are the offspring of God, not because we are part of God, a kind of “little spark off the big flame” so to speak, but we are God’s offspring because we are created in his very own image.  At this point, the Athenians were no doubt perplexed and taken aback by the force of Paul’s arguments, who as Cornelius Van Til has noted, certainly challenged the “entire framework of non-Christian thought” (12).

But Paul is not finished.  Immediately he calls for repentance.  “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).  With the coming of Jesus Christ, the man God has appointed to judge the earth, the period of time when God overlooked such ignorance in his forbearance is now past.  The Athenians must repent and turn from their false conception of God, and instead embrace the true knowledge of God as found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  God has commanded this and there is a coming day of judgement when those who do not obey him will be punished.  Paul’s point is simply that since God is creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all men, he is also the judge of his creation.  Indeed, says Paul, there is coming a day when he will judge the world in righteousness—an idea quite foreign to Greek thinking.

But the climax of Paul’s apologetic speech occurs when he turns to his great apologetic argument, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The God who created, sustains and governs all things, enters into human history in the person of Jesus Christ.  This same Jesus has died for our sins under Roman justice after being rejected by his own people, and his resurrection from the dead is “proof” that God has dealt with human sin once for all, since the wages of sin—death, is overcome in Christ’s resurrection.  Paul, no doubt, appeals to the Areopagus on the basis of his own encounter with the Risen Christ while Paul was on his way to Damascus (as we see elsewhere in Acts, 22:3-16; 26:9-18).  For the God who has made the world, in whom we live and move and have our being, became man, died and was buried, and rose again.  This is the great apologetic fact for the Christian faith!

The idea of the resurrection of the body was difficult for Paul’s hearers to comprehend.  The Greeks almost universally believed in the immorality of the soul, but the concept of the resurrection of the body [the prison house of the soul] was apparently seen merely as another foreign novelty from this “seed-picker.”  A number of the members of the Areopagus sneered at Paul’s demand for repentance.  And true to form, a number of those present thought that Paul’s little “chat” was very interesting and would make a great topic for yet more interesting and seemingly endless discussion.  But in the sovereign grace of God, several believed, including Damaris and Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus.

Part Three



(6).   For the use of these terms by Luke, see Richard N. Longenecker, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 468-69.

(7).   Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994) 177.

(8).  This is effectively summarized in Longenecker, “The Acts of the Apostles,” 435.

(9).   F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1977), 36 ff.

(10).   John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.i.1-2.

(11).   F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT, Revised ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 338.

(12).   Van Til, Paul at Athens, 18.

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