Greek Culture and Corinthian Carnality
Open your Bibles with me this morning to 1 Corinthians 1:17.
In 1 Corinthians 1 we are faced with a problem. It is instructive for us to learn how Paul handles this problem because this problem, like every other problem we face in life, has to be handled from a Divine viewpoint. It has to be handled from a framework of Scripture and not from the framework from human viewpoint or cultural procedures that we usually think need to be used to solve problems, whether it be marriage, financial, personal or whatever the problem might be. We always have in any culture, whether European, Russian, Asian, African, Indian, or whatever the culture might be, some sort of collective wisdom as to how to solve problems and how to come to a measure of stability in life. When we study the Scriptures what we need to realize is that the Scriptures present us with clear methodology for not just what to do, but how to do it.
I always remember when I was in seminary I would get engaged in various conversations with other students, and I was amazed how many students didn’t realize that methodology was just as important as what you do. Just because you do a right thing doesn’t mean it’s right. If you do a right thing in a wrong way, it’s wrong. If you do a wrong thing in a right way, it’s wrong. The only thing that’s correct is a right thing done in a right way. That involves every aspect of church life, whether it has to do with witnessing, giving, or how you conduct yourself in your Sunday school program. There’s a right way and a wrong way just as there is human viewpoint and divine viewpoint. That doesn’t mean there’s no flexibility, but it does means first and foremost that we need to stop and think about why we do things the way we do things.
That is true especially in the arena of evangelism. There are right ways and there are wrong ways to go about evangelism. There’s right and wrong ways to go about problem solving. Paul is faced with a problem in the Corinthian church. There is this divisiveness in the church. There are cliques forming in the church that are focusing on personalities. It’s important to understand that Paul is not dealing with a divisive problem in Corinth that is related to doctrine. When there’s a problem related to doctrine, you handle that one way. But this is a problem that relates to personalities and therefore calls for a different solution. The solution he gives in 1 Corinthians 1:10 which was a mandate to unity and not to divide up according to personalities.
This is not ecumenicalism. Ecumenicalism is unity despite doctrinal differences. In all ecumenical systems you basically ignore all doctrinal distinctives. It says that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, that we all just believe something so let’s just get together and emote over our common belief system. That’s usually what ecumenicalism boils down to. The more ecumenical you become, the less doctrinally distinct you become.
We see that today. One area of ecumenicalism that people notice is what’s happening in worship. I’m sure you’ve noticed as you drive around you will see churches here and there that have little signs that on Saturday night they have contemporary worship. I would guess that if you wanted to waste your time on three or four Saturday nights and go visit these contemporary worship services, what you would discover is that they all have something in common. They’re singing the same music and the same words. Now that is because this ecumenical impact that has taken place in the arena of worship in the last twenty years fails to appreciate the distinction of methodology.
Having distinctions is doing a right thing in a right way. It’s doing serious Biblical study on the nature of hymns, singing, and worship and what that involves. If you’ve been around for a while, as some of you have, and if you’ve grown up in other traditions, like Episcopal, then back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the songs that you sang for the most part in Episcopal church were quite different than the songs that you sang in a Presbyterian church. The Episcopal hymnal was quite different from the Presbyterian hymnal; and that hymnal was quite different from the Baptist hymnal which was different from the Lutheran hymnal. Protestant hymnals, for the most part, were different from the Catholic hymnal. The reason is that people wrote songs that reflected their doctrinal distinctive. Now, sure, there were a few songs like “Amazing Grace” that were common to all hymnals. What always amazed me is that one time I visited a Catholic church and they sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” written by Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation. But that’s because ecumenicalism was beginning to influence things even back in the 1960s and 1970s. See, I’m not that old so I don’t remember what it was like in the 1920s and 1930s.
When doctrinal distinctives don’t matter anymore, it affects even the songs that are sung in the churches. What happens is that you go to a Presbyterian church or Lutheran or Congregational or Baptist church, you’ll be singing the same songs. Now I could take time to critique both the lyrical as well as the musical content of those hymns and show that it’s usually shallow and vapid and lacks any kind of doctrinal distinctive. For the most part contemporary songs or choruses are “I-centered”, focusing on the individual’s personal experience with God which just shows the self-absorption of contemporary Christianity, as opposed as the Theo-centric, God-centric, Christo-centric nature of most of the traditional hymns.
It’s not true for all traditional hymns any more than it’s true for all contemporary hymns. It’s not always a conflict between contemporary versus traditional. The issue is a world-view and the world-view of the modern church is ecumenical and self-absorbed. The world-view of the older church was not that way and therefore, it impacted the way they wrote songs. So the way you do things and how you do things is just as important as what you do and that involves problem-solving and witnessing.
Paul had a problem in the Corinthian church, and the solution was to deal with it in terms of changing the way they’re thinking about the leadership in the Church. In 1 Corinthians 1:11 Paul reminds them that he got that report from some of the employees of Chloe who were traveling back and forth between Ephesus where Paul resides and Corinth where they would go on business. While they were there on business, they would discover these problems in the Corinthian church. Now the occasion for this division was baptism. They were looking upon whoever baptized them as some sort of leader/celebrity that they were associated with.
The question we need to address here is what is it that caused them to think that the person that baptized them was someone they ought to ally themselves in some sort of personality cult or association? And that’s exactly what they were doing. That’s why Paul brings this issue of baptism in. We need to ask the question of what caused that kind of mindset. What caused that mentality?
Then Paul moves from talking about their lining themselves up with different leaders to the subject of the gospel. He focuses on that in 1 Corinthians 1:17 where he says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize [that wasn’t his primary mission] but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech that the cross of Christ should not be made void.” I want you to notice how he addresses this problem of inter-personal quarrels. He moves from the problem and its solution to focusing on the Cross, that somehow this has to do with a methodology in how evangelism is carried out.
Paul says he was sent to proclaim the gospel. There we have the verb KERRUSO which means to proclaim, and it’s related to the function in the secular culture of a secular herald or announcer who was sent out from a court, a KERYX. The interesting thing about this word is that the verb KERRUSO and the noun KERYX for the preacher or proclaimer always seems to be associated with a particular content. That content always seems to be giving the gospel.
There are about twenty different words used in the Scripture for communicating doctrinal truth. KERRUSO is only one of those verbs. You have verbs like LALEO, to speak, DIDASKO, to teach, and others that we’re familiar with, but preaching is different. The Biblical concept of preaching seems to be associated with giving the gospel. What makes it a proclamation is that in the ancient world, the KERYX, or a herald, was sent out from the court with an announcement.
The king or the local governor or whoever the local administrator was did not have public access television or any sort of radio program where he could announce things. He didn’t have local newspapers. So they would send out a herald. The herald’s responsibility was to walk through the streets and to cry out the announcement. He was not to be distracted by people asking him questions. He was not to be diverted by entertainment. He was not to be distracted or hindered by the weather. He was simply to go forth, through the city or town, and deliver the message. He would go from block-to-block and cry out the message; then he would go to the next block and cry it out again. That is where the English got the concept of a town crier. He was not to be stopped or questioned because that related to his particular function.
Unfortunately, we have come to associate this one word preaching with everything that’s done from a pulpit. It has come to be associated with a particular style of oratory. That whole concept is somewhat unbiblical because it has not dealt honestly with the words in the text. What happens in most churches is that you have one form of oratory on Sunday morning where the pastor gets up and exhorts or encourages the congregation, and then teaching is somehow relegated to what happens on a Wednesday night or in Sunday school. The thing I find ironic is that what’s happened in churches today is that the senior pastor usually teaches only once a week. That has become the trend in the last twenty years. Sometimes he communicates twice a week, but the Sunday morning message, especially under the concept of church growth, has moved more and more to a lightweight message addressed to unbelievers or seekers who are coming into the congregation, and never more than thirty minutes. Usually it’s focused on something that’s encouraging. Rarely is it something that is doctrinal.
I heard one seminary professor bemoaning this fact several years ago. He made the comment in class that it had been years since he had heard a doctrinal message from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. By doctrinal message he meant simply an exposition of some doctrine like redemption, or propitiation, or the sovereignty of God, or some message like that. Usually most messages today are more psychological and relational than they are doctrinal or truly getting into the depths of the Scripture. The sad thing is that you have a man who ideally has gone through seminary training and has spent three or four years studying Greek and Hebrew and three or four years studying theology.
I know in most seminaries that doesn’t happen. In most seminaries you’re required to have two semesters of Greek and one semester of Hebrew which is enough to make you dangerous as opposed to anything else. There may be one survey course on theology about basic doctrine. The rest of the time they’re in seminary, they are taking courses on how to have a good educational program for your children, how to counsel those who are going through loss, how to counsel those going through marital difficulties, and all of these “more practical” things; but they never get into the Word which is the most practical of all things. What you have is a trained man who is supposed to be the guy who knows how to teach the Scripture, who is allegedly trained in the Scripture and is the Scriptural professional, spending 80% of his time in administrative functions.
That leaves 80% of the church’s Biblical program relegated to the backs of amateurs. That’s the other word for laymen. They’re amateurs who never had any professional training, at least in most churches. The Sunday school teachers are untrained. If they’re fortunate enough, perhaps they’ve had someone who’s had a year or two, but usually not. So they’ve gotten everything completely backwards, and the trained professional isn’t doing what he should have been trained to do. The untrained amateurs are doing what they’re not trained to do. No wonder churches are a mess. It’s because we’ve lost the principle emphasized in Scripture that we have to do a right thing in a right way.
Every person has a particular function, and the purpose of the pastor-teacher is to teach the Word, not simply to preach the gospel. In the process of teaching the Word he will proclaim the gospel and should do it on a regular basis. In fact, I believe that every time a pastor gets in a pulpit or any place where he’s speaking, he ought to take advantage of it and at least make the gospel clear no matter how brief it must be.
So Paul is faced with a problem here. The problem is that in the Corinthian church they’re dividing up according to the different leaders, and he has to address that at a fundamental level. How he addressed that shows us something about the methodology of teaching the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 1:17 he focuses on the gospel and contrasts the Biblical methodology of proclaiming the gospel with what apparently was going on in Corinth. That was evidently an emphasis on cleverness of speech.
What we have here is a question. What exactly is the contrast going on here, the contrast between preaching the gospel on the one hand and cleverness of speech on the other hand? In order to understand this we have to go back to the background of Greek culture which is exactly how Paul is going to handle this because he was a student of the secular culture. That tells us and reminds us that as believers we should be students of the secular culture around us just as missionaries to any culture should be students of that culture. If you’re a missionary to Russia, then you need to be a student of Russian history and Russian culture. You need to understand what their values are and what their cultural background is and why they do the things they do. Every single culture in human history, whether it’s a European culture, an African culture, Asian culture, Russian culture, or whatever it might be, is built on human viewpoint values for the most part.
This depends upon the impact the Bible has had on that culture historically. The mix varies, but primarily culture is not neutral. The statement that culture is not neutral is an extremely controversial statement if you don’t know that. I’ve sat around with seminary students, and if I say culture is not neutral they want to argue about that. Think about what culture is. I’m not talking about high culture such as art or literature or opera or ballet. I’m talking about just everyday culture, that is the norms and standards and values and the way people dress and think and operate in any given society. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a North America, South America, India, Australia, China, or Japan, every society has a certain culture, certain way in which they look at life.
At the core there are certain things that we have to take into account. First of all, it’s origins. At the core of every culture there is some concept of where that culture came from, how the earth came to be, how man was created, and how the universe came into being. Whether it is an ancient culture that sees the earth as sitting on the back of a giant tortoise, or whether it is a modern evolutionary culture that sees everything as a product of time plus chance with no God and everything basically material, these two both have a view of origins as having an ultimate deity, whether that deity is personal or impersonal.
When you look into many religions, you find they have an impersonal deity. They believe there’s just some ultimate force that controls the destiny of history and mankind. In other religious systems the ultimate realities are personal. In a polytheistic religion such as the Greeks had, they had many gods which were very personal but had very little power. So the concept of origins has something to do with the concept of whether there even is an ultimate deity or not.
Some peoples have an atheistic culture where there is no ultimate deity. This affects their view of reality, the ultimate nature of reality. It affects things like whether or not the culture as a whole is going to be mystical in its orientation or whether it’s going to be more rationalistic or empirical in its culture. If you have a pantheistic religious outlook where the gods are in everything and that everything is god, then everyone is god. Even every cow is a god and every tree is a god. Nature equals god and creation equals god.
This causes you to begin to worship creation so that god is going to speak to you and inside of everybody; everybody is going to have a little bit of god inside them. That will affect your view of man. If you have a Biblical view, a Christian view, of man, you see man as totally depraved and basically evil. But if you operate on either a mechanical or materialistic view of man or a pantheistic view of man, then you’re going to see man as basically good. How you see man, then, is going to radically affect how you understand social structure. If man is basically evil, that’s going to affect how you see the role of government and the way problems develop in a marriage. If you see man as basically good, then that’s going to change the way you solve the problems of man in a society and government and the way you solve the problems that develop in a marriage.
Origins affect the way you see deity. Deity affects the way you view ultimate reality. Your views on whether there is a god or what kind of god there is affects your understanding of who and what man is. Under an evolutionary world view like that which dominates western society, man is the product of time plus chance and is simply a random collection of molecules. Therefore, meaning does not come from outside somewhere, as if there is some divine purpose for mankind. Instead, in this view, man creates his own concept of meaning.
Of course all of that is going to affect your value system, meaning what you believe is right and what you believe is wrong. This includes what you think is important and what you think is not important. Do values come from inside? Are they the creation of human beings? Do they just develop their own values as to what’s right or wrong? Or are there absolute values?
If culture, then, is simply the product of man within the system creating his own concept of values, then values are relative to each social collection or culture. That means that every culture, therefore, would be equal in value. You can’t really judge from one culture to another because in this view each person just makes the most of whatever is handed to them. That’s what undergirds post-modernist thought and is what we call multi-culturism. It says that all cultures are of equal value and you don’t really have the right to judge or evaluate or critique anyone’s culture. They are what they are and we need to accept everyone and be tolerant. What that means in modern society is to approve of that culture, whatever it is, because it has the same equal value as your own culture.
This affects values whether you believe they come from inside the system, whether man develops them on his own, or whether they’re handed down as absolutes from outside the system. Christians believe that God has created these absolutes. They’re not up for discussion and they’re the same for every culture, whether they’re African, whether they’re South American, whether they’re Asian, whether they western European, or whether they’re Russian.
This in turn is going to affect ethics and all ethical systems. Ethics affect their social mores, or what the social standards are in each individual group. Social standards in turn are going to affect social structure and the understanding of the role of males and females in that society. In some societies that have no impact from Scripture, you may develop a matriarchal society. In other societies you develop a patriarchal society.
If there’s no input from the Scripture at all in those societies, they’re going to push to extremes so that rather than recognizing some sort of balance between the two, you end up with some sort of tyranny or tyranny of the female, but there’s no concept of true freedom and equality at the same time. Of course this is not only going to affect the roles of males and females, but that, in turn, would affect the entire understanding of marriage and family and the role of parents to children within that society.
That in turn is going to affect the whole concept of education and the very concept of law. Law is going to affect the concept of criminal justice and penalties for those who break the law in that society, and that in turn is going to affect politics and political form. What we see here is that at the core of culture are religious values. There is no such thing as a religiously neutral value system or a religiously neutral culture. Therefore, every culture is a mix of values.
If we could diagram this concept, you could have one culture which might be a mix of say, 2% influence from Bible doctrine and 98% influence from pagan culture. You might see that in some sort of society where there’s just been a very minor missionary impact. In another society like in Western Europe historically, not its manifestation today, probably 70% was pagan concepts of human viewpoint which we picked up from the Greeks and the Romans, and maybe 30% the impact of the Protestant Reformation.
That’s what made Western Europe, especially the British and American version of western culture, so radically different. That’s what gave birth to freedom, the concept or private ownership of property, the concept of success and succeeding and developing and building wealth. All of that came out of an understanding of the Scripture and we call it the Protestant work-ethic because it has its roots in an understanding of the purpose of man and the purpose of man in society. This happens in every culture that there is and every sub-culture.
Today we want to make all cultures equal no matter what the mix is. The problem is that we can’t, as Christians, just accept every culture as if everything is okay. The role of the Christian is to be critical of his culture, whether it’s African, American, Western-European, German, French, Asian, or Russian. We have to realize that only part of every culture is consistent with the Word of God. The vast majority of all cultural values are inconsistent with the Word of God. We grow up in that culture and we are impacted by that culture and that’s what the Bible calls worldliness.
That’s why the function of spiritual growth in a Christian’s life is not to be conformed to worldliness, that is the cultural values around us, but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, which comes from letting Scripture address every issue of life. So every culture is a mix of human viewpoint thought plus divine viewpoint thought. In some gray area in between we have something called establishment truth.
So ideally you have a body of knowledge called divine viewpoint which is how God views reality, ultimate reality, the nature of mankind and divine viewpoint values. On the other side we have human viewpoint. Somewhere in between we have what we are going to call establishment truth. In establishment truth, you have divine viewpoint absolutes that are for unbeliever and believer alike. Usually we call this something like morality. These are absolutes that God has built into the system that man must align himself with in his thinking in order to have any measure of stability in society.
Even unbelievers and cultures that have never had an impact from Christianity are going to have a belief in some things that are right and some things that are wrong. That’s what Romans 2 is all about. The very fact that they have a belief that some things are right and some things are wrong is a holdover from the fact that they are created in the image and likeness of God and is a testimony to the existence to God. The more human viewpoint there is in a culture, the more there’s going to be a breakdown in establishment truth. So, even though they believe in marriage and family, the way they look at marriage and family is going to be more and more diverse depending upon how far they are from divine viewpoint.
You can end up with all kinds of tyranny in marriage. Look, for example, at Islamic society. They believe in marriage and believe that man is the head of the home, just as the Bible teaches, but look at what bizarre lengths to which they take this belief and how tyrannical it is, how it mistreats women. That’s because they’ve taken an element of establishment truth and because there’s very little divine viewpoint there, they have pushed it beyond all limits to where it becomes something that is ugly and horrible.
The purpose of the believer is to think in terms of culture and to move towards divine viewpoint. Whenever we are doing anything, we need to operate on divine viewpoint. That is exactly what Paul is doing here in 1 Corinthians. He’s going to teach us how to face problems and handle this kind of division from a divine viewpoint framework. Before we get into it, we have to ask the question of what was going on in Greek culture at the time Paul was writing this. What was the Greek mindset that created this kind of environment that led to these kind of divisions?
In order to do that we have to turn back to Acts 17. We have already studied Acts 18 because that tells us about Paul’s first journey to Corinth. But in Acts 17 what we have is the episode of Paul’s visit to Athens just prior to going to Corinth. While he was in Athens, he followed his standard procedure to go first to the synagogue and then to Gentiles. In Acts 17:17 we are told that he was reasoning in the synagogue with Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be present.
Notice he had not only gone into the church and to those who had already demonstrated positive volition toward God, not necessarily those who believed, but he also went into the marketplace. The Greek term for the marketplace is the AGORA. This was a long open marketplace colonnade in Athens called PORTICO or STOA. That’s where we get the word in verse 18 for stoic philosophers because of where their original schools were located.
In Acts 17:18 we read, “When he went out into the marketplace, also some of the Epicureans and stoic philosophers were conversing with him and some were saying, ‘What does this idle blabber want to say?’ Others were saying, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities.’ This was because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.’” That’s where we run into that verb KERRUSO again indicating that he was proclaiming the gospel.
He was announcing the gospel which relates to two things, Jesus and the resurrection. That’s exactly what Paul said in his treatise on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. He said that Jesus Christ died according to the Scriptures, He was buried, and He rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures. That’s the core of the gospel message. It includes both the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ as emphasized in this particular passage as well.
So Paul came to Athens, intending to stay there. He expected he would have the same kind of response to the gospel that he had had in previous Greek towns such as Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. But he ran into something different here and that is the intellectual or academic arrogance of the Greeks. Athens was the cultural home for Greek civilization. It was the source for all that we think of when we think of Greek thought and Greek culture. It was the home of the Golden Age of Greece in the 5th century B.C. It was the home of Sophocles, Aristotle, and Plato, the founders of Greek thought and Greek philosophy. It was the home of Greek drama and the literature of Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. Here was much that has been magnified, idolized, and glorified in terms of human intellectual achievement. It was here that Paul is rejected.
The event here in Acts 17 gives us a clue as to why there is such a cultural problem in Greece and in Corinth later on. Now Paul is going to address these Epicurean and Stoic philosophers later on from Mars Hill, what is called the Areopagus. Mars Hill is where philosophers would gather together and sort of hold court and debate philosophical systems and philosophical ideas. The Greeks were in love with any new philosophical idea and philosophical system. They just loved it for the sake of argument and the sake of intellectual stimulation but they were not necessarily pursuing truth.
Two groups of Greek philosophers are mentioned in this verse. We need to understand these groups in order to understand some of the things Paul says. We’re talking about proclaiming God’s truth to unbelievers, which is called witnessing in the Bible. [1 Corinthians 1:17] and here we see an example of how Paul proclaimed the gospel here in Acts 17. To do that we need to understand something of the nature of his audience. The two groups are the Epicureans and the Stoics.
The Epicureans were the followers of a Greek philosopher named Epicurus. He lived from 341 to 270 B.C. so roughly 300 years before Christ. Epicureans taught that the chief end of mankind was pleasure and happiness. This was attained by avoiding any kind of excess. You weren’t going to be a glutton or a drunkard because that led to death. There was a fear of death because they really didn’t believe there was any kind of afterlife. They had an atomistic view of man which is that man is just a collection of material atoms, not too different from many modern views. They thought that if there were gods they were so far out there and so impersonal that they had no relationship to man and no impact on human history whatsoever. In Roman culture they were emphasized by Lucretius and Horace who popularized the Epicurean philosophy in their poems.
Paul is familiar with them. In fact in 1 Corinthians 15 where he is dealing with the whole issue of resurrection he quotes the slogan that most of us have heard associated with the Epicureans and that is “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” So this tells us that Paul is a student of the thinking of the unbelieving thinking culture to which he was taking the gospel.
On the other hand we have the Stoics who with the Epicureans at this time represented the opposite extremes in Greek thought. The Stoics were the followers of Zeno who lived about the same time from 320 to 250 B.C. and when he taught, he taught among these porches or porticos in the Agora, the marketplace. Remember the name of those colonnades were the stoa so people who listened were called Stoics. The Stoics were pantheists. That means they identified god with creation, so for them god was an impersonal purpose that somehow guides history.
Man’s responsibility, according to Zeno, was to align himself with that purpose. They had to guess what that purpose was because as an impersonal force it didn’t communicate and so you somehow had to guess what the purpose is and then align yourself to that purpose throughout all the good times and bad times in life. Whatever adversities and successes you met you had to just face with the same level of endurance. That’s where we get the concept of Stoicism, that no matter how bad things get you just face it like the British’s “stiff upper lip” and you just go on with the same even attitude.
Stoicism was popularized in Roman culture by Seneca, Epictecus, and later Marcus Aurelius. Later, one result of this was to promote self-sufficiency in Greek culture. They were arrogant. They thought they had it all under control and they could handle every and all situations on the basis of their Stoic philosophy. In Acts 17:18 we find Paul addressing these Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who are challenging what he is saying.
In verse 19 they take him up to Mars Hill to engage in a little intellectual stimulation. That’s from their viewpoint. Little do they know that they’re going to hear the greatest evangelist of all time give them the gospel. This is just a side point: no matter how good you are as an evangelist, how great your gift might be, no matter how clear your presentation might be as an evangelist, people have their own volition and they often will reject your gospel presentation. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, how good you are, how successful you are, how bad you are, how fumble bum you may be, it has to do with their volition.
The Apostle Paul was the best and clearest evangelist of all times and these hearers completely rejected him. This is one place where Paul had one of his greatest failures. It had nothing to do with who he was or what he did or how he went about doing it. How he goes about doing it is instructive to us. In Acts 17:19 we read, “They took him and brought him to the Areopagus saying, ‘May we know what this teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears and we want to know what these things mean.”
In verse 21 we have Luke [the author of Acts] parenthetical comment, “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.” Luke clues us into the fact that these people were like the ones Paul warns Timothy about that in the latter days there will be those who just want to have their ears tickled. They don’t really want to hear sound doctrine. They just want to be entertained. They want to hear a nice rhetorical message following all the skills of oratory so they will be entertained. They don’t want to hear truth and sound teaching.
In Acts 17:22 we read that Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus from which he could see the great Parthenon, the temple there in Athens, and he says, “Men of Athens. I observe that you are very religious in all aspects”. What a statement to make when he’s standing in front of all these Greek philosophers. This is like walking into a philosophy class at Harvard and accusing the agnostic professor that he’s religious. It would be like going into one of Stephen Jay Gould’s lectures on biology and paleontology and stopping him in the middle of class, raising your hand and standing up and saying, “Dr. Gould, I recognize that you are an extremely religious man.” Or maybe you stand up in front of the atheistic society and saying, “Well, you’re very religious, let’s talk about this.” That’s exactly how this would have been taken. It would have arrested their attention because the last word they would have used to describe themselves would have been the word “religious” and yet what Paul says to them is that they are very religious in all respects.
The point we need to understand from all of this is that no matter how philosophical or skeptical one might be, no matter how one might claim to be an atheist, no matter how much they claim to disbelieve in God, they are in fact extremely religious. Every human being is extremely religious. We think that religion means that someone believes in God. But if the statement, “I believe in God” is religious then the statement “I don’t believe in God” is just as religious. Therefore, atheism and secularism are just as much religions as Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam. There is no such thing as neutrality. Everyone is religious.
Why is that? Because when God created us, He created us in His image. When man rejects the God who created him, then that rejection is always expressed in some sort of religion. For example, if a person goes into rationalism, then they are going to end up worshipping human reason. If they go into empiricism, they’re going to end up worshiping science as their god. They’re going to take the limited data they come up with in observing science and try to project it out to some sort of absolute criteria from that limited data, whether it’s limited data of reason or empiricism.
If anyone rejects God and is worshipping nature or man’s innate ability and makes man a god, then he goes the mystical route. Whatever he comes up with intuitively, that’s what he’s going to worship and identify with God. So what we have here in Acts 17 is something that is important, and that is that every human being is inherently religious whether they claim to believe in God or not.
In Acts 17:23 Paul says, “While I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship…” This challenges most Christians. See Paul is passing through Athens and he is examining the objects of their worship. He is making himself a student of the false belief system of the culture around him. He’s not just hanging out with other Christians and teaching the Word of God and he’s not expecting people to just go to Bible class and fill up their notebooks with notes. He’s expecting them to interact with the culture around them so they can understand what they believe, why they believe it, what the weaknesses are in their belief system, so they can use that strategically in the way they present the gospel to the unbeliever
That’s exactly what Paul has done. He’s wandered around Athens, through the temples and up on Mars Hill before, and he has found that in this city there is an altar with an inscription “To an Unknown God”. He is going to focus in on this altar to an unknown god and he’s going to make that the touchstone of his teaching. He is clearly an observer of culture and he makes it clear from many things that he says in his epistles that he is very familiar with the mythologies, philosophies, thinkers,e and writers of the Greek culture around him.
It always amazes me when someone is upset that you’re reading about other beliefs. A friend of mine said, “Aren’t you afraid that you’ll come across some ideas that confuse you?” You know, that’s the sound of an ignorant person and someone who has never learned to apply the doctrine he believes. Applying doctrine means to confront the culture around you, at least in your own soul. That means you have to learn to think and not learn to simply regurgitate what you’ve heard. If you don’t learn to think you can never develop EPIGNOSIS doctrine in your soul, as the Bible calls it. All you do is follow in some sort of rigid manner what someone else tells you to do.
What we see from the Apostle Paul and the illustration of Scripture is that we are to think. What Paul is doing is thinking about the culture he’s in here and he’s thinking about the ultimate realities that are present in the Greek culture; and then he is going to challenge the underlying presupposition of that culture. See, a presupposition is an assumption. So often when you get involved in any kind of debate or any kind of discussion with anyone, assumptions are like the foundation on a house. In New England the foundations are down in the basement and you don’t see it. You see everything built on it, but you don’t look at the foundation. Now if you grant someone their assumptions, such as when talking to a Muslim, and you grant him his basic assumptions, which is that Mohammed had a literal revelation and that Gabriel interpreted that for him and that the Koran is legitimate, then you’ve already lost your argument. If everything is built on the foundation that’s logical and you don’t challenge the foundation, you don’t have an argument.
That’s what Paul does here. He challenges their foundation. Their foundational thought was that they weren’t religious. He goes to this altar and points out that they have an altar to an unknown god so basically they are religious. In Acts 17:34 he points this out to them, “The God who made the world and all things in it…” See how he starts. As Christians we want to start right in on how Christians have a happy and meaningful life. Paul doesn’t even start with, “God wants you to have eternal life.” While that’s absolutely true, Paul goes to more basic issues because if you start at that point in the gospel you’re going to be undercut because you haven’t dealt with the other person’s presuppositions.
This is why studying creation and evolution is important and why you need to become familiar with the various issues in the debate between the two because origins are foundational to evangelism many times. Paul doesn’t start with the Cross of Christ here. He doesn’t start with the incarnation of Christ. He doesn’t start with the fall of Adam. Where does he start? He starts with the God who made the world. He starts with creation and the fact that he is basically calling to what they know deep in their soul, that there is a God and that God exists.
He says, “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is the Lord of Heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.” So Paul begins with God as the Creator and as the Creator He is Sovereign of the universe and as Sovereign of the universe He is omnipresent. He doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands. This is a reminder of the principle in Romans 1:18 that every unbeliever knows beyond a shadow of a doubt, whether they’ll admit it or not, that God exists.
Romans 1:18 reads, “For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness because that which is known about God is evident within them.” God made it evident to them. God made it clear enough that every unbeliever knows that God exists. Verse 20, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes [His eternal power and divine nature] have been clearly seen.”
That means that through observation of the universe people come to believe in God. Even today you have Michael Behe who wrote the book, Darwin’s Black Box, who makes it clear that as a result of everything we’ve learned about molecular biology and DNA that it would be impossible for Darwin to come up with his theory today because he would know too much about all these details that have to come together just to create one molecule. So he argues that there is clearly purpose and design in creation and that that indicates a designer. That indicates God.
Verse 20 tells us that everything in creation is continuously announcing to every created human being that God exists. What unbelieving human beings do is suppress that truth in unrighteousness. In Acts 17:25 we read that Paul says, “This God is not served by human hands. He is not created by human beings as He Himself is the one who gives to all breath and life and all things.” Here he throws out something to the Epicureans. He is saying God transcends creation and is self-sufficient. This is something that would appeal to them. So he’s talking about a small speck of common ground here because it’s a holdover from the fact that everyone has this eternal knowledge that God exists.
Then he goes on to say in verse 26, “And He made from one every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.” Here Paul is pointing out that there is purpose in the creation and that would appeal to the Stoics. He’s showing that there’s an element of truth in their system but the whole system is false. Then he’s going to move from there and continue to build his argument.
Notice that in the midst of this, he’s saying that God made from one every nation of mankind, so he’s going to challenge the pride of the Athenians. They thought they were better than everyone else, but he’s saying they come from the same original human being as everyone did so don’t be so arrogant. He’s not afraid to challenge the assumptions of his audience and tell them that they’re wrong.
In verse 27 he goes on to say that “they should seek God if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him though He is not far from each one of us.” In other words there is sufficient information in general revelation for everyone to find God. It was either handed down in specific revelation or it was held over through various flood stories and legends in every culture. There’s stories about Noah’s flood in almost every culture and every society around the earth.
Now to emphasize his point he’s going to quote from pagan philosophers. Note: this doesn’t validate them but he points out that even pagan philosophers recognize moments of truth every now and then. Just because he quotes from them doesn’t mean he validates anything else that they say but he does indicate his own familiarity with the common philosophers and writers of his day. He is not culturally ignorant.
In verse 28 he quotes from Epimenides, the Cretan poet. He also quotes from him in Titus 1:12. He starts, “For in Him, we live and move and exist.” Then he says, “For we also are His offspring.” That’s a quote from Erastus, another writer in his book, “Phenomena” where he says that we are God’s offspring. So Paul is very deftly reaching into various cultural assumptions and pulling out the things that are consistent with divine viewpoint and then he is going to structure his gospel presentation on top of that.
Notice Paul is familiar with what’s going on in the thought of his day. He could quote form the common writers of his day. Can you quote from the common writers of our day? Are you familiar with the major thinkers of human viewpoint today? Christians in the 1st century were. Marcus Aurelius who was the Emperor of Rome at the end of the second century wanted to close all the libraries in Rome to Christians because the Christians were going into the library, reading all the philosophers and thinkers of their day and using them against everyone successfully. They knew more about the problems in the secular human viewpoint thinking of their day than the average Roman thinker did.
Today, unfortunately all we have is a lot of ignorant Christians because they want to isolate themselves in evangelical enclaves. In verse 30 then, Paul says, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance God is declaring to men that all men everywhere should repent because He has fixed a day when He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” Notice that he has furnished proof. What is that proof? It is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is why we celebrate Resurrection Day, the fact that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the grave. The grave is one of many convincing truths as Luke put it in Acts 1, one of many convincing demonstrations that Jesus is Who He claimed to be.
Faith in Christianity is not just some mindless acceptance that something is true. It is based on evidence, based on facts, based on data. As a Christian you don’t put your mind into neutral to believe the Bible. In fact you put your mind into high gear to believe the Bible. If you take anything out of this message, you ought to realize as a Christian how you should be more intellectually engaged in the world around you and society than anyone else you know. In other words, a Christian is not someone who just mindlessly accepts God, but rather someone who is learning, someone who is studying, someone who is advancing in their understanding of purpose of being able to skillfully take the gospel to the unbelievers in his periphery. And part of this is a presentation of the gospel.
Paul stops here. He never gets to a real presentation of the gospel. Why? Because in verses 32 and 33, they start reacting to this. We read in verse 32, “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead some began to sneer and some said [sarcastically] ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’” So Paul went out of their midst. There comes a time when you are witnessing to someone and you realize they are negative to the gospel, you just stop, shut up, and move on because they’re not positive.
There are other times when you realize someone is positive and you give the gospel to them. That’s what happens in verse 34. There were some who were interested, some who heard what Paul said and wanted to know more. We are told that one of these was Dionysus, the Areopagite. Apparently he was someone who went up to Areopagus quite frequently, so this was a nickname for him. He was a philosopher at the time and he loved philosophical speculation, but when he heard the gospel he responded.
Now the problem in Greek culture is that they tended to want to identify themselves with these particular leaders, the Stoics or the Epicureans or the Platonists. They were taking the same mentality of identifying with someone into the church. That’s why Paul has to address this as a personality problem in 1 Corinthians 1. We’ll continue with this in our next lesson.