Romans 1:28-32 by Robert Dean
We don't witness to everyone the same way. The apostles began with Abraham when talking to Jews and Gentiles with an Old Testament background, but with the God of creation, when talking to pagan Gentiles.When Paul came to Athens, he first went to the synagogue, and then to the agora, the marketplace. There he attracted the attention of the intellectual elites, the Stoics and Epicureans. They could not understand what he was talking about when speaking of the resurrection. It did not fit their preconceived notions, their religious framework. So they asked for more. They invited Paul to address them at Mar's Hill, a rock outcropping beneath the Acropolis. There we have a tremendous example of Paul's explanation of the gospel by defining God and then man.

Paul Confronts Paganism
Romans 1:28–32
Romans Lesson #017
April 28, 2011

We are looking at application of Romans 1:18-23. It is in those passages that we come to understand some things about the nature of every human being. What Paul emphasizes there is that everybody with no exception, no matter how much they protest they know in their dark, depraved, wicked little hearts that God exists. So we don’t really have to prove to them that God exists. Often these “proofs” for the existence of God really address the knowledge of God as if the problem is an intellectual one, as if the problem is an evidential one, that we just don’t have enough evidence and so we have to construct a logical argument to convince the unbeliever that God exists. What Scripture says is that he already knows that God exists. And often what happens is that we unwittingly compromise our own position by acting as if the problems are intellectual or evidential. The problem is a volitional and spiritual one; they have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness; they have rejected the truth. It is not that they don’t know it; it is not that it is not clear; it is not that there is not enough evidence; it is that they have made a decision to reject the authority of God at God-consciousness or consistently from God consciousness.

The knowledge of God is within the unbeliever because he is created in the image of God, and the heavens and the earth declare that (Ps. 92; Rom. 1:18, 19)—non-verbal evidence, witness. The unbeliever has just turned the volume down. What we are doing in witnessing what we are doing is turning the volume up a little bit and so the question becomes really a methodological question. It is not so much a question of do we or do we not use evidences, it is how we use those evidences. Do we appeal to those evidences as if they exist in independence of God’s Word? In other words, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ something that we look at just as an independent autonomous fact of history or, does it gain its meaning as a fact in history because God tells us what it means?

The issue is how to communicate as a believer committed to the authority of Scripture to an unbeliever who is committed to unbelief. Where is the common ground? What Paul is demonstrating is that the common ground is Scripture. What we see in Acts chapters 14 and 17 isn’t necessarily that Paul is coming to these unbelievers quoting chapter and verse but that everything that he is saying is based on Scripture. He is paraphrasing or summarizing but he is not necessarily coming in and quoting Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 9:6 or some other verse to make his point. Nevertheless he is still making Scriptural points from the Old Testament.

Now we want to look at Acts chapter seventeen in relationship to Paul’s message at Mars Hill. We have seen that when Paul witnesses to these unbelievers he demonstrates that he has a very well educated and informed view of what they believe. He knows his audience. The best way to know about the person we witness to is to understand something about his culture. That is why when a missionary is going to go some place the need is to study the culture in order to have some idea of how the locals think and what the vocabulary issues are. In the Greek culture Paul clearly understood that they had a lot of gods, but what they meant by the word THEOS wasn’t what he meant when he used the word “God.” So that had to be cleared up.

Greek culture had been dominated by the value of philosophy and intellectual pursuit of SOPHOS, wisdom. Wisdom was viewed not as the Hebrews viewed wisdom, which was something intensely practical, a skill at living. Wisdom in the Bible is not abstract reasoning, it is the ability to take what God has revealed to us and develop something that is aesthetically beautiful, attractive and shows skill because it results from what we have learned from God.

Paul is coming to Athens to present the gospel to the Greeks, and he being the extremely well educated man that he was, understood very much how they thought. He had read all of the significant pagan philosophers and writers and so understands all of their thought.

Acts 17:16 NASB “Now while Paul was waiting for them [Silas and Timothy] at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols.” As Paul had walked aro0und all he could see was one temple after another, one god or goddess after another, and because he is so committed to the truth he had a little righteous indignation. He could see the city was completely full of idols and it violated the second commandment of the Old Testament. So he follows his normal methodology, to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles. [17] “So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing {Gentiles} and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present.” He is having conversation with them, explaining the Scriptures; he is not going to a drive-by with his gospel gun.

In the market place what he was teaching focused on the resurrection, Not in an autonomous sense, but remember that when he talks to a Jewish audience with the Old Testament and to a God-fearing Gentile audience he is explaining the revelation in context. But he has some other people now in his audience—Epicureans and Stoics—and they are conversing with him. It is a dialogue. Acts 17:18 NASB “And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, ‘What would this idle babbler wish to say?’ Others, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” The Stoics were basically the pantheistic monists of their day, everything came from the one element of fire and everything ultimately will return into one cosmic conflagration, and then it starts all over again. There were the people in Greek thought who said history repeats itself over and over again. Christianity is the only way of thinking that has a linear view of history where it begins at one point and is resolved at another point. Other systems have come along since Christianity, Marxism being one of them, who have stolen the idea of a linear history and a purpose in history from Christianity. The Epicureans, on the other hand, were the atheist materialists of the day. So these were two very different people but they were both part of the paganism of the day; they both believed in human autonomy.  

First, Paul had been talking to groups with an Old Testament background, so he was talking about Jesus and the resurrection because they have a frame of reference to understand that. But when the pagans come and hear that it is just meaningless gibberish, and all they can do is just try to wrap their pagan thought around this idea. It doesn’t have any coherence for them because it is assuming a totally different reality and Paul is not going to compromise with them. 

Acts 17:19 NASB “And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? [20] For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.’” Intellectual curiosity. [21] “(Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)” They are not looking for truth, they just want to have their ears stimulated with something new. [22] “So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.’” That is Romans 1:18, 19—no matter what your view is you are religious. [23] “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. [24] The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; [25] nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all {people} life and breath and all things.”

Paul defines theology proper. There is a methodology here. The first thing he is going to do is make sure that the content of the Word of God is clear. He is not going to let them come up with their own ideas or read that into what he is saying. Then he is going to redefine who man is before he ever gets to anything close to the gospel. He wants to make sure they know who God is and who man is. They are not going to like either one. Acts 17:18 NASB “And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, ‘What would this idle babbler wish to say?’ Others, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” The translation “idle babbler” is the Greek word SPERMOLOGOS—SPERMA = seed; LOGOS = word or message or study. This was actually a pejorative term, an idiom that was used to describe someone who lacked any intellectual sophistication, someone who picked up little seeds or scraps of information here and there and then tried to act as if they knew something. So they are very insulting towards the apostle Paul. But he is communicating the gospel to all of these people and is clearly proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God whom God designated in power by His resurrection from the dead. So the resurrection is clearly a strong element of his gospel presentation.

Another thing that Paul recognizes here is that they are going to be antagonistic to him from the very beginning. They had a prior intellectual commitment in their suppression of truth in unrighteousness that no God like Paul proclaims could exist and something like the resurrection couldn’t exist—don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is already made up. But that doesn’t stop Paul. He knows that they have this predetermined precept commitment but he is going to explain things anyway because God the Holy Spirit works with His Word and there were some who did respond to the gospel. He is going to make sure he makes the gospel very clear. He knows that whatever it is that they say is all smoke and mirrors because every one of them knows in their heart of hearts that God exists and that God is who Paul says He is, and that they are what God says they are. They just don’t like it and they don’t want to admit it. Paul knows, as we know when we are communicating to somebody about the truth of the Scripture, that they know we are right. They don’t want to admit it, but we have a secret agent that has already put truth in their soul and who is exposing it, and that is the Holy Spirit. So we can just relax and do the best that we can.

But before Paul gets to the details he has to expose the error because he doesn’t want them to just envelop his ideas within their system. He is going to start and redefine who God is. He will begin by explaining the God of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the God of the Bible. He is going to authoritatively declare His reality to these philosophers. He is not going to try to convince them, he assumes and authoritatively proclaims that God exists; he doesn’t give any ground on that. “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” Paul is using this to expose the fact that every human being has the knowledge of God in his soul. So he just points this out: You have limited knowledge. He is challenging their basic epistemology. He begins to define this God and he declares that the God he is communicating to them about is the creator God. He is emphasizing this creator-creation distinction which is completely contrary to their monistic chain of being. So the first thing that comes out of his mouth is going to rattle their cage. That is not how to win friends and influence people in your evangelism methodology!

He says: “I am going to tell you about the God who made the world and all things in it.” He is starting with creation. “…since He is Lord of heaven and earth.” He is emphasizing authority here. Heaven and earth pretty well incorporates all of creation. He “does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all {people} life and breath and all things.” God doesn’t exist to be served; He is independent of His creation. Isaiah 42:5 NASB “Thus says God the LORD, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it And spirit to those who walk in it.” Paul is not compromising on his view of God. Paul is emphasizing just who this God is: creator of everything.