Paul’s chat with the Athenians at the Areopagus is probably one of the most important evangelistic conversations in the Bible. Which makes it weird that we often manage to learn things from it that it doesn’t actually teach.
By that I mean that we frequently carry some of its actual lessons places where they don’t work so well. Or at least I do.
Our story opens in Athens, the centerpiece of the Greek culture that dominates the Roman Empire. Athens’ culture and philosophy won out over other Greek cultures and then the Romans adopted it as the high point of human achievement. In certain areas, of course, because the Romans knew they’d conquered Greece and that was a sort of hint they’d bettered the Greeks in a couple of things here and there.
As a centerpiece of culture, Athens hosted many visitors and many people who moved into it as a large city with opportunities for newcomers. Most of these newcomers brought their own religions and gods with them.
The Athenians already had many temples and shrines to their own gods. Some were the old familiar names of the Olympus mythology, like Zeus and Athena. Or Ares, the god of war whose hill this little discussion takes place on. Some were newer understandings about the divine, following the philosophers who had pared the list down to one and thought of that god as what they called the “prime mover.”
Now Paul, as a nice Jewish boy and as a Pharisee to boot, has learned from the time he could walk that all other religions are false and all other gods just idols and hot air. He wouldn’t deal with their followers and wouldn’t even go into their homes, because doing so rendered him ritually unclean.
As a Christian, he’s relaxed a little bit – he probably enters the homes of unbelievers and speaks with them regularly. But he still knows each and every god with an altar in Athens is false.
Yet when he wants to speak with them, he doesn’t start out with a broadside blast against idolaters, heathens and blasphemers. Maybe the old Paul would have sneered at the Athenians, “You are very religious in every way,” but Paul the apostle says it as a compliment. He still knows their religions are false, but he will treat them with respect anyway. They are God’s children, after all, and if God isn’t going to blast them into oblivion for their misguided worship of idols, why should Paul think he can?
When we proclaim the gospel to others, we need to remember they may not know about it. They may not know about Christ or if they do they may know only bad things because they met mean churchpeople or had bad experiences.
Paul knew the Athenians wouldn’t know Yahweh from a highway and probably only a handful had ever heard of Israel or Judea. So he had to speak to them on their terms, as well as with respect.
And when we learn the lessons of Areopagus, we try to do that also. Sometimes, though, we go too far and adapt our message to another culture so much the gospel disappears.
Which Paul definitely does not do, if you notice. He speaks to the Athenians on their terms, but he keeps his gospel message. The “unknown god” was partly a way to honor the Prime Mover concept of the philosophers, but also a way to cover bases in case there was some god the Athenians should have worshipped but didn’t know about.
All of the other shrines and temples were to real gods, but the one Paul mentions was to a maybe-real god. Which is where he flips the entire system on its head.
That god isn’t unknown at all, Paul said. In fact, he’s not only known, he’s the only one of the whole bunch you’ve got up there who’s real.
He doesn’t need a shrine or a temple built with human hands because he makes his home in the whole universe. We don’t have to go to a certain place or building to meet him – we live and move in him every day. You all may have put up this altar to cover your behinds, but instead he showed up to save them. I may have added that last part myself.
When the gospel enters another culture, its truth may take on some of that culture’s features, and it may look like just another piece of that culture. But the eternal truth of God is still its core, and that shows through every time.