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Paul’s message to the intellectuals in Athens

November 17, 2023

Daily Scripture

Acts 17:15-31

15 Those who escorted Paul led him as far as Athens, then returned with instructions for Silas and Timothy to come to him as quickly as possible.
16 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17 He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18 Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20 You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (21 They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)
22 Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23 As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. 25 Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26 From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. 28 In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30 God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31 This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, “We’ll hear from you about this again.” 33 At that, Paul left the council. 34 Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others.

Daily Reflection & Prayer

The apostle Paul traveled widely in Greece, starting Christian groups in major cities like Thessalonica and Corinth. At one key point, he ended up in Athens. In its day, Athens was what we might call a university town, with lots of novelty-loving philosophers. Commanded to speak to a council meeting on Mars Hill, Paul declared his faith in a way that showed his learning to appeal to his audience. He left us a model for dealing respectfully and caringly with people of different faith traditions.

  • Some ideas about “evangelism” would say Paul (and Christians after him) should denounce the Athenians as pagan libertines and idolaters, going straight to hell. Paul’s actual sermon had a respectful, inclusive tone. (In verse 28, he quoted Epimenides, a Cretan philosopher, and the Stoic poet Aratus.) Did quoting pagan writers “sell out” his faith? How can learning about faiths and cultures other than your own allow you to create conversation rather than condemnation?
  • Luke, maybe with a wry smile, wrote that the Athenians and their foreign guests “used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.” Paul’s message about Jesus, especially his resurrection, seemed very novel in Athens—they’d never heard anything like it. Could it be that in increasingly non-religious parts of our culture and world, the “novelty” of the good news might get more of a hearing from some people than its antiquity?

King Jesus, when Paul preached in Athens, he quoted Greek poets and Cretan philosophers. Help me know the culture around me well enough to use it to communicate, without losing my faith to that culture. Amen.

GPS Insights

Picture of Leah Swank-Miller

Leah Swank-Miller

Leah Swank-Miller is Director of Student Ministries at Resurrection Overland Park. A Kansas native, she has been a professional actress for nearly two decades, and she loves to see the vastness of God’s creation through theatre and the arts. Leah is pursuing an M.Div. from Saint Paul School of Theology. Leah, Brian, and their two children love to play tennis, golf, soccer, and board games.

In both my occupations–as an actor and a pastor–the most compelling conversations I’ve encountered were/are with those from a different faith or theology on spirituality. I remember the days when young Leah thought her calling was to defend her narrow-minded beliefs to all around her. Instead of being open to seeing God’s presence in others, I mindlessly pointed fingers and made a mockery of my faith. Thankfully I learned that learning about faiths and cultures other than mine is crucial in fostering understanding, empathy, and open dialogue. These are the essence of Jesus’s call to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Career coaches will tell you you must find common ground to build credibility and trust with clients. Being open to widening one’s worldview provides the knowledge and perspective needed to approach conversations with openness and understanding. This approach creates a space for dialogue rather than condemnation, fostering a more inclusive and harmonious society.

I’m struck by the concept of widening our worldview to allow space for perspective and, ultimately, empathy. I’m reminded of a line from the musical “Hamilton” where Aaron Burr laments at the outcome of his fatal battle with Alexander Hamilton:
“Now I’m the villain in your history.
 I was too young and blind to see
 I should’ve known.
 I should’ve known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me.”

This phrase sticks with me and pops up on the occasions when I see division and discourse. We are foolish to assume the world isn’t wide enough for multiple ways of thinking and understanding. We can be misguided to believe that God isn’t wide enough for our multifaceted understandings and questions. The existence of diversity in faith doesn’t diminish God, as if we could ever. Despite our best efforts to fit God in our boxes, God’s love, grace, and mercy will always be wide enough for all creation.

Learning from and acknowledging other religions or spiritualities should not compromise our ability to witness for Christ. When we encounter different beliefs and cultures, we can do so with an authentic understanding of Christ’s love working in and through us as an extension of Christ’s love to all humans. Paul knew this. Paul saw the importance of meeting people where they were and respecting their origins. He spoke from what spoke to them and found common ground. What if we chose to see how God was already moving and responded in each culture we encountered? What would happen if we didn’t come in with our agenda but acknowledged the worth of the people we met with compassion and empathy? What if we were fearless in widening our worldview so we could more authentically point toward the hope of Christ?

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Scripture quotations are taken from The Common English Bible ©2011. Used by permission. All rights reserved.