The Sermon at Mar’s Hill (3-11-18)

In first century Athens, the Areopagus was the most celebrated tribunal in the world. It was believed to be the best place to have a fair trial and receive a righteous verdict. Its fame originated through the tales found in Greek mythology. It was told that upon this hill Ares (Mars for the Romans), the Greek god of war, was tried by twelve gods for the murder of Poseidon’s (Neptune for the Romans) son, Halirrhothius. From this fable came the name Areopagus, which translates to Ares’ Hill or Mar’s Hill. Upon this hill approximately thirty members of the Athenian court would assemble to try cases of immorality, impiety against the gods, and other crimes. Some believe that it was also upon this hill where the ancient philosopher Socrates was found guilty of impiety against the pantheon of Athens, and for corruption of the youth. However, crimes and law were not the sole purpose for the assembly of the areopagites. We must remember that Athens was also the city where the educated men of the world traveled to if they wanted to increase their knowledge. It was also the city that was home to some of the most popular schools of philosophy such as the Epicureans and the Stoics. Thus, it was not uncommon for those who were teaching a new philosophy or speaking of a foreign god to be brought to the Areopagus so that he could share his philosophy with the bustling marketplace of Athens. In ancient Athens, the marketplace was where all the locals and visitors would assemble to discuss and interchange philosophical ideals with one another. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to read that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:18). As the apostle waited for the arrival of Timothy and Silas, Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols” (Acts 17:16). It is ironic that a city famous for its love of wisdom, had been heavily plagued by idolatry. Despite being the greatest university town in the first century, history reveals that in Athens there were more statues and altars paying homage to the gods than all of Greece put together. The city was so engulfed in idolatry, that it was even said that in Athens it was easier to find a god than it was to find a man. Indeed, it becomes comprehensible the reason Paul’s spirit stirred with zeal to brighten the darkened minds of those who claimed to be wise. This also lends a hand in understanding why the teachings of Epicurus (founder of the Epicureans) and Zeno (founder of the Stoics) had been the most embraced by the Athenians. Although these two schools of thought were antipodal, they concurred in the rejection of the resurrection of the dead. The Epicurean philosophy was that the purpose of life was to obtain happiness through the pleasures of this life. Their mentality in essence was “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1st Corinthians 15:32). The Stoics were pantheists and therefore believed that God is everything and everything is God. For example, they believed that God was a tree and that the tree was also God. For this reason, they believed that virtue was to be achieved by the means of self-denial. It was Zeno’s philosophy that man should be indifferent to all emotion and should welcome pain and suffering as a means to gain virtue in life. However, his train of thought was also that the soul of man was material, therefore he had only one opportunity in achieving this goal. It now becomes clear why when they heard Paul’s conversations in the marketplace they believed him “‘to be a proclaimer of foreign gods’ because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18b). Undeniably the fact that they were ignorant of whom Jesus was, and could not understand the meaning of a Messianic prophecy, presented a complex challenge for the apostle. Additionally, the fact that the intrigued Epicurean and Stoic philosophers invited Paul to share his message with the multitudes of Athenians from the greatest and most respected platform known to them truly would have intimidated anyone else. Yet, the best man to confront these daunting challenges had been placed by God in Athens. It would have been fruitless for Paul to begin by quoting Scripture, and unwise to despondently denounce their idolatry. Thus, the inspired apostle astutely analyzed his audience and wisely realized that he needed to begin by showing them their ignorance of God, inoffensively. He found his answer among the sea of idols before him and pointed out to them “for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23, emphasis added). Wisely did the apostle evaluate that the people of Athens, despite the plethora of idols and high levels of education, were unconsciously admitting that they did not know God. Had they known Him, never would they have succumbed to superstition and vain worship. Yet, it is valuable to learn from the apostle’s gentle approach in exposing the weakness of their philosophies. Paul demonstrated to the Epicureans and the Stoics that their schools of thought fell short due to their lack of understanding that “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24, emphasis added). This was the primary reason Epicurus and Zeno had failed in discovering the true purpose of life. They had erroneously limited God to be a physical being and ignored that He is a Spiritual being. Because this was so, both philosophers were unable to see the reality of resurrection and did not believe in an afterlife. However, even after Paul was able to teach them about the presence of the one, true God, they stood in their own way of salvation. Luke writes, “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘We will hear you again on this matter’” (Acts 17:32). It is truly ironic that they were willing to accept their ignorance about God, but unwilling to accept that He is powerful to resurrect the dead. This is tragic because “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1st Corinthians 1:18a, emphasis added). Therefore, do we know the God we worship?

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