Acts 17 – Paul and the Poets

Paul quotes two Greek sources here as support for his point that the creator God does not need temples or service from humans.  The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan, a poet also cited in Titus 1:12.  The original poem no longer exists, but it appears in a number of other ancient writers. The second citation is from Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5).  The original line, “in him we move and live and have our being,” was pantheistic, but Paul spins this line into a statement about God as the source of our life.

We might ask how Paul came to know these lines of poetry.  There are not many modern readers who can quote freely from current poets or philosophers.  One possibility is that he had some secular education which could be applied to the preaching of the gospel. We might imagine Paul thinking through his task of being a light to the Gentiles and researching possible points of contact in order to preach to pagan audiences.  This is in fact a typical way of doing apologetics today.  Christians will study philosophy for the purpose of interacting with the philosophical world in their own terms.  While I do not think this is a bad idea at all, that may not be Paul’s point in using these sources.
On the other hand, these may very well have been well known bits of proverbial wisdom that were more or less “common knowledge.”  If so, then the allusion to Greek poets is more like the preacher who uses a common phrase in order to make his point.  Or better, Paul is quoting lyrics of popular songs to make his point.  I occasionally use a line from a popular movie or song in order to make a point (although with my taste in music, it usually does not work very well.)  This comes down to knowing your audience.  I have found that I can get a lot further with college age group with a Simpsons reference, while the same line is lost on an older adult group.  Perhaps that is what Paul is doing here in Acts 17 – he is riffing on the culture.

(Let me comment here that most of the books which try to use movies to teach the gospel with a popular movie are lame and probably only read by Christians who like the movie in the first place.  I cannot imagine that a pagan picks up “Finding Jesus with Frodo” and gets saved as a result.)

In both of the allusions Paul simply intends to show that his thinking is not all that far from authorities which the audience would have understood and appreciated.  To cite the Hebrew Bible would have been fruitless since the audience did not know it, nor where they well disposed to hearing from Jewish texts! Paul does not think that Jewish or Christian theology can be added to Stoicism in order to put one right with God – there must be a conversion to an entirely new worldview.

Does this mean that Acts 17 is permission to quote The Simpsons and Bob Dylan in sermons and Bible studies? Perhaps, but we need to couple cultural reference with a serious point from the text of the Bible.  It is one thing to mimic culture to attract attention to you point, but it is a fairly worthless strategy is if there is no point behind the reference. I think that you can (and should) illustrate serious theological points via cultural artifacts (like poets, books, movies, etc.)  If the point is obscured by the fact that you rolled a Family Guy clip in church, then you have missed Paul’s point.

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.

Acts 17:22-28 – Quoting the Philosophers?

homer missionaryPaul quotes two Greek writers as support for his case that the creator God does not need temples or temple services from humans. The use of this material has always prompted discussion among readers of Acts, especially with respect to application. Is Paul modelling how Christians ought to present the gospel in a non-Christian, non-Jewish environment?

The first allusion is to Epimenides the Cretan, the poet Paul cited in Titus 1:12. The original poem no longer exists, but fragments appear in other ancient writers. The second citation is from Aratus, a Cilcian poet (Phaenomena 5).  The original line, “in him we move and live and have our being,” was pantheistic, but Paul spins this line into a statement about God as the source of our life.

In other words, he ignores the writer’s original intention so that he can effective make his point. If Aratus had been in the audience in Acts 17, what would he have said in response to Paul? In modern scholarly writing, misrepresenting another scholar’s ideas is not just a mistake, but intellectual dishonesty. Someone who does this sort of thing today would be dismissed as a poor scholar or a crank (or possibly just a biblio-blogger). In some areas of scholarship, authorial intent is not important, so perhaps Paul is not out of line here. Can Paul legitimately pull this line out of context and reapply it to prove the God of the Bible is superior to the other gods?

Homer College DegreeA second problem is how Paul came to know these lines of poetry. There are not many modern readers who can quote freely from current poets or philosophers. One possibility is Paul had some secular education which could be applied to the preaching of the gospel. We might imagine Paul thinking through his task of being a light to the Gentiles and researching possible points of contact in order to preach to pagan audiences. This is in fact a typical way of doing apologetics today. Christians will study philosophy for the purpose of interacting with the philosophical world in their own terms.

While I do not think this kind of cultural education is a bad idea at all, that may not be Paul’s point in using these sources (or, Luke’s point in presenting Paul as using these sources). These lines may have been well known proverbial wisdom, common knowledge. If so, then the allusion to Greek poets is more like the preacher who uses a common phrase in order to make his point.

Or better, this is an example of a modern pastor quoting lyrics of popular songs to make a point. I occasionally use a line from a popular movie or song in order to make a point (although with my taste in music, it usually does not work very well).  This comes down to knowing your audience.  I have found that I can get a lot further with college age group with a Simpsons reference, while the same line is lost on an adult group.  Perhaps that is what Paul is doing here in Acts 17 – he is riffing on the culture.

In both of the allusions Paul simply intends to demonstrate his thinking is not too far from the culture the audience understood and appreciated.  To cite the Hebrew Bible would have been fruitless since the audience did not know it, nor were they inclined to listen to philosophy drawn Jewish texts.

Bob Dylan GospelDoes this mean Acts 17 gives permission for Pastors to quote Bob Dylan lyrics or use Simpsons clips in their sermons and Bible studies? Perhaps, but we need to couple cultural reference with a serious point from the text of the Bible.  It is one thing to mimic culture to attract attention to you point, but it is a fairly worthless strategy is if there is no point behind the reference. I think that you can (and should) illustrate serious theological points via cultural artifacts (like poets, books, movies, etc.), but this can be very dangerous if it overwhelms the Scripture.

If the message of the Gospel is obscured by the using Fifty Shades of Grey as a sermon title, or by playing U2 songs during your worship, or hosting a Dancing with the Stars night at church, then you have missed Paul’s point in Acts 17.

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.

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.

Applying Acts (Part 1)

It is fairly obvious that the main method of evangelism in the first century was oral.  Paul and other missionaries proclaimed the Gospel to people who “hear the word of God.”  Since travel was limited in the ancient world, the missionary had to travel to places where the most people will hear the message.  It is doubtful if Paul’s mission would have done very well at all if he had stayed in Antioch and taught people who came to hear his message.  Since he was called to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, he needed to travel to large cities where he could find public venues for his proclamation of the Gospel.

As Schnabel points out, this need for maximum exposure means the market place, where people were accustom to hearing various speeches (Paul the Missionary, 37).  Traveling orators frequently turned up in the agora, gathered a crowd and made philosophical speeches.  For example, Dio Chrysostom describes the Cynics as hanging around public places and publicly mocking other philosophers:

…still these Cynics, posting themselves at street-corners, in alley-ways, and at temple-gates, pass round the hata and play upon the credulity of lads and sailors and crowds of that sort, stringing together rough jokes and much tittle-tattle and that low badinage that smacks of the market-place. Accordingly they achieve no good at all, but rather the worst possible harm, for they accustom thoughtless people to deride philosophers in general, just as one might accustom lads to scorn their teachers, and, when they ought to knock the insolence out of their hearers, these Cynics merely increase it. (Orations, 32.9)

When describing orators in Tarsus, Dio Chrysostom says:

Accordingly men come forward to address you who are both empty-headed and notoriety-hunters to boot, and it is with mouth agape for the clamour of the crowd, and not at all from sound judgement or understanding, that they speak, but just as if walking in the dark they are always swept along according to the clapping and the shouting. (Orations, 34.32)

For Paul, this may have been a problem since he consciously separates himself from the orators. Because of the nature of his mission he must go to the market place and speak to crowds when possible, but he does not want to be confused with the others working these crowds.  In 1 Thess 2:3-8 he makes it clear that he does not use elements of rhetoric (flattery, etc), but rather the Gospel is successful because of the power of the Holy Spirit.  Because he proclaims the gospel Paul runs the risk of appearing as an orator, but he works very hard not to be confused with them.

But Paul did not go everywhere – there is no record of his preaching in a pagan temple.  He seems to avoid them altogether in his mission.  In Lystra, he may have been in the temple precincts since the priests of Zeus try to make a sacrifice to him (Acts 14), and in Athens he preaches on Mars Hill near the altar to the Unknown God.  Neither case went the way Paul would have liked.  If Paul had gone into a temple or temple court, how might the have addressed any crowd which might have gathered?

Here is the problem for the application of Paul’s mission to present mission efforts: How do we to people “where they are at” while making it clear that we are not “where they are at”?  Are there lines which cannot be crossed if the Gospel is to be genuinely given?