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.