Acts 17 – Paul’s Speech on Mars Hill

Luke’s description of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill is well known from the many modern ministries which have taken their name from this chapter.  The intention is quite good, since Paul on Mars Hill attempts to meet the culture the Greek world where it is, granting a few of their premises and arguing on their own ground that there is a God who created all humans and that God is about to judge sin left unpunished before this time.

The fact that Paul cites Greek poets is often used as an foundation for doing ministry that uses our culture as a starting point.  This is an excellent method and does in fact work well, but it there are some dangers from taking only one element of the sermon in Acts 17 as a “mission statement.”  Culture is only one side of the equation, Paul is clearly teaching biblical theology on Mars Hill!

While it is true that Paul could stand in the Aeropagus and discuss Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, and even cite Greek poets, he cannot be confused with a Greek philosopher.  His point is the story of the Bible, told without direct reference to the Bible since the audience simply does not know the scriptures.  He is not saying that a Greek can add Jesus on to their Stoic beliefs and they can be right with God; he is not saying that an Epicurean is “almost saved” and just needs a little bit of Jesus to get them into the Body of Christ.  As Witherington observes, Paul is using somewhat familiar idea in order to pass judgment on the idolatry of the Athenians – he is not meeting polytheism halfway! (Witherington, Acts, 518)

Let me illustrate this with one key element of the speech.  Paul says that God has determined where men should live over the whole earth (Acts 17:27).  This is a phrase which would resonate with Stoics, but it is entirely possibly Paul is alluding to Deut 32:8.  He is using the idea of a single God who has created all people and determines the times and seasons for them to argue for a single God.

This seems to run counter to Romans 1 (all men suppress the truth of God), but the syntax used by Luke at this point indicates the unlikeliness of the possibility of men seeking God.  Luke uses an aorist optative of ψηλαφάω, “to grope for” and an optative of εὑρίσκω, to find.  An optative expresses wish or hope:  “would that men would grope around in the darkness for God and find him!”  It is a hope, but of all the ways this idea could be expressed, this is the least likely possibility.

Ironically, the name Mars Hill is commonly associated with a seeker-sensitive congregation, but Paul says here that the seekers are in such total darkness that there is very little possibility they will find what they are looking for, they are incapable of finding God in the darkness.  If we are going to persist in using Mars Hill as a model for ministry, we need to realize that the task of the church is to take a light into the dark world and help those lost in the dark to find the truth. The church cannot “meet them half way,” we need to go all the way to where the darkness is and shine the light.

Epilogue: In contrast to most American attempts, here is an example of a Mars Hill ministry which has had the right idea for a good many years.  I stole the image for this post from their website, sorry Kevin.  Jumpin’ Llama is a great coffee.

Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit

Eerdmans’ blog ErdWorld has a nice book notice for Jodi Magness’ new book, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus.  Aside from having of the best titles in the history of books on archeology, the book will be a contribution to our knowledge of regular life in the first century. Too many pastors rely on Edersheim’s outdated Life of Jesus the Messiah and simply pass along information which is late in origin and not at all reflective of the Second Temple Period.  Jeremias’ classic Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus is better, but in need of an update which take into consideration recent archaeology.

Magness says that she examines “various aspects of Jewish daily life in the time of Jesus based on a combination of archaeological evidence and literary information, including ritual purification, diet, household vessels, dining customs, Sabbath observance, fasting, coins, clothing, oil, spit, toilet habits, and tombs and burial customs.” Having read Magness’ fine book on the archaeology of Qumran, I expect a highly detailed and well research collection of essays on the archaeology of the Second Temple Period.

I look forward to this book as a detailed update to Jeremias and will post a full review in the future.

Psalm 60 – God Has Rejected his People

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….) ]

An Edomite Temple at Tamar in the Arabah

I am glad to be back at the Psalms on Sunday Night. While I appreciate the break, I miss the regular work in the Hebrew Bible. Let me take a moment and review the point of the series.  I am reading through the 14 Psalms which have a header relating to the life of David.  Each Sunday evening I examine the context in 1-2 Samuel then reflect on how David responds to a historical situation in worship.  When I introduced the series I admitted that these Psalms might very well have been written much later, but the assumption of the Psalm header is that they related to these episodes.  I am choosing to “stay within the world of the story” as an exegetical strategy.

This Psalm is a bit different since it refers to events which are not particularly well described in the 2 Samuel 8.  That chapter is an appendix listing the various conquests of David without much detail.  Psalm 60 indicates that David did always defeat his enemies, in fact, the Edomites have routed David’s army, prompting the Psalmist to cry out to the Lord for deliverance.  In this case the header informs the reader of a bit more than the text of 2 Sam 8.

Because Israel has been defeated, the Psalmist believes that God has rejected Israel and he is now fighting for the enemy (vs 1, 11).  The verb זנח (zanach) appears in the quite a few times in the Psalms to describe the despair of a worshiper who feels cut off from God completely (Ps 43:2, 44:10, 24).  It can be used for the utensils used by King Ahaz for idolatry (they were rejected as unusable for holy purposes, 1 Chron 29:19).

The reason for this rejection is that the Lord is angry.  Taken along with the cup of wine in verse 3a, this anger is a just judgment on Israel.  There have been several times in the history where Israel has broken a clear command of the Lord for the conduct of war and were judged with a defeat (Jericho and Ai, for example).

It is possible that Israel has lost the battle against Edom and her allies because David has not conducted the war in an appropriate manner.  The only a hint of the reason for the judgment is the header: Joab slew 12000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt. There are no details given and the event is not described as a victory in war against the army of Edom, but simply the killing of Edomites in general.

Given Joab’s reputation for violent revenge, it is possible that this slaughter was not considered to be a fair practice of war, perhaps Joab conducted a war against non-participants, killing more than just soldiers, but also women and children. He went beyond the need of killing in war and as a result, Israel was judged. I realize this is speculation, but I think that it is supported by the Psalm header.

The verb נכה (nacah) is common and mean anything from tapping something to violent killing and slaughter.  For example, “to rout violently; to cause a great bloodbath,” (Esther 9:5, see  HALOT).  Recall that Joab is the man who assassinated Abner, the commander of the army of Israel during the brief civil war and later drove his own troops into the walls of Ammon in order to kill Uriah. He will also assassinate his own replacement after David removes him as commander after Absalom’s revolt.  It is possible that the “Valley of Salt” refers to the Arabah, the extreme southern border of Judah and a region often inhabited by Edomites.  Joab may have attacked settlements indiscriminately, incurring the wrath of God on Israel for improper conduct of war.

If this is on the right track, then God is justly punishing Israel for their conduct of a war against an enemy.  This Psalm would therefore be part of a “theology of war” in the Hebrew Bible which limits proper conduct of war in important ways – God does not justify the indiscriminate killing of civilians and he will punish those who conduct war improperly.

Hell Under Fire Giveaway

I do not think that it is any coincidence, but Zondervan is giving away a copy of Hell Under Fire.  This book came out in 2004 and should get a nice bump in sales in the wake of the release of Rob bell’s Love WinsHell Under Fire is a collection of essays on the topic of Hell from the perspective of  historical systematic and biblical theology.  The final chapter is a nice reflection on preaching the topic of hell (or not).   The title is not supposed to be funny; this book is part of a mini-series from Zondervan.  Jesus Under Fire was a collection of essays written in response to Jesus Seminar style Historical Jesus studies and God Under Fire was written in response to so-called Open Theism.

There are ten chapters, 259 pages.  A topical index is included.

  1. Albert Mohler Jr.:  Modern Theology: the Disappearance of Hell
  2. Daniel I. Block:  The Old Testament on Hell
  3. Robert W. Yarbrough:   Jesus on Hell
  4. Douglas J. Moo Paul on Hell
  5. Gregory K. Beale:  The Revelation on Hell
  6. Christopher W. Morgan:   Biblical Theology: Three Pictures of Hell
  7. Robert A. Peterson:  Systematic Theology: Three Vantage Points of Hell
  8. J. I. Packer:   Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately be Saved?
  9. Christopher W. Morgan:  Annihilationism: Will the Unsaved Be Punished Forever?
  10. Sinclair. B. Ferguson:   Pastoral Theology: The Preacher and Hell

Even if you do not win a copy, check out this important resource.

Paul at Lystra (Part 2)

Paul and Barnabas finally realize what is going on they attempt to calm the crowd (verse 14-18).   Paul explains who they are and what God they represent.  This is an opportunity to see how Paul speaks to completely non-Jewish audience, in complete contrast to the synagogue sermon in chapter 13.  Later Paul speaks to a pagan crowd in Acts 17, but in that context the crowd is rather intellectual and philosophical.  In this case, Paul is addressing a group of average people, ones who can be described as real pagans since they worship Zeus with sacrifices.  It is unlikely that the Stoic and Epicureans on Mars Hill would have participated in this sort of thing!

When people discuss Mars Hill these days, it is usually in the context of preaching the gospel as Paul did in Acts 17.  We ought to engage culture and use the elements of culture in order to share Jesus with the unsaved world.  I agree, however, I am not sure that Paul would, based on this sermon to a crowd of pagans.  Paul is not seeker-sensitive, nor does he embrace their culture in order to preach the gospel, and in no way does Paul weaken the Gospel before this pagan crowd.

There are several things we need to see in this sermon.  For this list, I am following Eckhard Schnabel, Paul the Missionary, 164-6.

First, Paul states emphatically that the gods worshiped in Lystra are worthless (14:15). You have to see this scene in your mind in order to fully understand the impact of Paul’s statement that these gods are worthless.  There are priests standing right in front of him, about to sacrifice bulls to Zeus, and a large crowd of people are about to participate in that worship of Zeus.  Paul is not making this statement from a safe distance (from his academic office preparing a lecture, for example).  He is telling a priest of Zeus that Zeus is nothing at all.

Second, since these idols are worthless, the people of Lystra ought to turn away from them (14:15). This is culturally shattering. Schnabel points out that this means that the people of Lystra ought to no longer prayer to Tychos, the god of luck, before tossing the dice.  No more praying to Asclepius, the god of healing, when they are sick. No more praying to Artemis, the goddess of childbirth, for the protection of a mother and child before a birth.  The entire culture of the Greco-Roman world was integrated with the worship of gods, yet Paul says to turn away from them since they simply do not exist.

Third, if they turn from the worthless gods, they ought to turn to the living God. This is the demand of the Gospel, they must make a decision to worship the real God.

Fourth, that living God is the creator and preserver of life. Rather than point out the many acts of God in the Hebrew Bible, Paul uses God’s preservation of men through the giving of rain and crops as an example of his power.  In fact, this “general revelation” is God’s witness to the world, drawing the pagan nations to a knowledge of God (cf., Romans 1:18-20).

Face with a potentially hostile pagan crowd, Paul does not give up on the biblical story in this sermon.  He begins with God’s creation and provision.  He says that he represents the creator, something which this group can understand within their own worldview, but Paul uses the language of Genesis (the heaven, the earth, and the sea, along with everything in them.)

This speech does not have the desired effect: the crowd still wanted to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas as gods.  It is only with “difficulty” that Paul is able to persuade the crowd to stop the sacrifices.  Perhaps this is a hint that out best efforts to engage culture will encounter “great difficulty.”  However, this is no reason to give up on that engagement.

Paul at Lystra (Part 1)

Lystra was an important Roman colony, having been established by Augustus in 26 B.C. The location of the city was clearly established when an inscription was discovered in 1885 (including the full name of the city was Julia Felix Geminia Lustra.)  Among the many inscriptions associated with Lystra is a dedication to Zeus of a statue of Hermes.  There are other inscriptions which mention priests of Zeus and an altar dedicated to the “hearer of prayer,” presumably Zeus (Witherington, Acts, 422. ).  The local Zeus was known as Zeus Ampelites and was pictured as an elderly man with a beard, accompanied by Hermes, a young male assistant (The krater to the left depicts Zeus and Hermes in this way, althoug it dates to about 450 B.C.)  Witherington suggests that we have a hint of the relative ages of Barnabas (called Zeus here) and Paul; Barnabas was the elder, Paul was likely no more than 40 by this time.

Paul heals a man who was crippled in the feet.  When he heals the man he creates a sensation, and a crowd forms claiming that the gods have come in human form. Paul is called Hermes, (or Mercurias in the Latin, KJV, the Greek is Hermes).  Hermes was the messenger of the gods, Paul is given this name because he was the chief spokesperson. Barnabas is called Zeus (or Jupiter, Latin, KJV), Zeus was the “father” of the gods.  Why does the crowd make the connection between Paul and Hermes?  There is a legend which may shed some light on this incident.

In Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.626ff there is a legend that Zeus and Hermes had visited the towns and villages of the region in human form, but did not receive any hospitality.  When they came to the home of the poor and elderly Baucis and Philemon they were invited in, the couple gave them the last of their food and the best comfort they could.  As Baucis prepared the meal, there was plenty of food and the wine kept “welling up of itself.”  The couple became greatly afraid because of the miracle, so the gods revealed themselves and told them that they were the only people to welcome them; they would be blessed while the whole region was destroyed.  The couple asked only to be priests in the temple of Zeus and that they die at the same time, so that neither had to see the tomb of the other.

Paul spoke Greek, but the crowd spoke in the Lycaonian language.  As a result, Paul and Barnabas do not know what is going on! The crowd swells and preparations for sacrifices are made by the Priest of Zeus.  The Temple of Zeus was just outside, the city, perhaps on the main road into the city.  Bulls and wreaths are brought for the sacrifices (the wreaths were flowery decorations for the bulls). Notice that in the Ahenobarbus altar relief (right, click to enlarge), pigs are shown.  Pigs were sacrifices to Ares / Mars, so it is unlikely a pig was in this procession. If there is any connection between this story and the legend from Ovid mentioned above, then it is quite likely that the crowd was not going to allow Zeus to visit them again without proper worship.

What is the point of this story in Acts?  As far as we know in Acts, this is the first time Paul has preached the gospel to an entirely pagan audience.  The miracle generates a crowd which thinks Paul is a god.  There are priests there as well as people about to honor Paul and Barnabas as a pagan god. This is not a comfortable synagogue where people are ready to discuss  what the scripture might say about the Christ.  These people are as unprepared for the gospel as could be imagined!  Paul’s sermon will therefore need to be much different than what we read in Acts 13.  Here, he must contextualize the gospel for a pagan world.

This is another opportunity  to think about applying the book of Acts – should Paul’s sermon in Acts 14 be used as a model for contextualizing the preaching of the Gospel today?

John Piper has Crossed the Line

I could take it when he went postal on N. T. Wright, I can roll with the punches when he attacked Rob Bell.  But now John Piper has re-written lyrics to a Bob Dylan song.  There is something just sort of wrong about that.  Although I do appreciate the fact that he quotes Paul, Jesus, and Bob in that order. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a huge Dylan fan, often describing myself as Bobsessive.  So this “remix” comes as a shock to the system.

Piper writes:

You may be emergent now and worship on a rug,
You may think that doctrine is a bourgeois drug,
You may call yourself Reformed, with a torn pair of jeans,
You may specialize in church for cool libertines.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody . . . .

Words fail me… I Guess it could be worse.  Piper could have remixed Rainy Day Women #12 & 35:  “Everyone Must Get Reformed!”