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Preaching the First Principles in a Post-Christian World – Part 2

When preaching to the Gentiles, Paul found people willing to leave their cultic rituals and turn to the one true and living God. We can experience the same thing.
Read Time: 8 minutes

The Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey found him preaching for the first time in the predominantly Gentile world of darkness. His route took him through Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea until he ended up in Athens, a city famous for classical philosophy, including men like Socrates, who lived there his whole life a few hundred years before Paul.

Despite having lost its luster of previous years, Athens was still considered in Paul’s day a center of learning, alongside his home city of Tarsus and Alexandria in Egypt.

Luke records, “While Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16).1 The phrase “full of idols” is one word in Greek, katedidoios, carrying with it the idea that Athens was like a forest of idolatry. Roman satirist Petronius, a contemporary of Paul, wrote concerning Athens, “It is easier to meet a god in the street than a human.” 

Perhaps Paul’s mind went to these words from Isaiah, “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.” (Isa 2:8). However, there’s another clear echo with Deuteronomy 32, the passage we looked at in last month’s article. There, we’re told of God’s reaction to idolatry that “stirred him to jealousy with strange gods” (v.16) and “they have provoked me to anger with their idols” (v. 21). In other words, Paul felt how God felt when he looked at the forest of idols.

Isaiah also talks about provocation. “A people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and making offerings on bricks” (Isa. 65:3), a passage which hints at the gospel going to the Gentiles in the first verse:

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that was not called by my name. (Isa 65:1).

Indeed, Paul himself quoted this verse in Romans 10 in a passage where he contrasts Jewish and Gentile responses to the gospel message. In Romans 10, he quotes from that passage in Deuteronomy we just looked at, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” (Rom 10:19). Then he quotes the verse from Isaiah, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” (Rom 10:20), speaking of the Gentiles. 

We saw last month how Paul experienced the different reactions from Jews and Gentiles to his preaching. In Pisidian Antioch, the Jews rejected the message, so he turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13:44-47). The Jews were guilty of idolatry in the sense of their dependence on cultic ritualism.

However, when preaching to the Gentiles, he found people willing to leave their cultic rituals and turn to the one true and living God. We can experience the same thing. Preaching to fellow Christians about the one true God can be difficult, but when we turn to the “Gentiles” of the world around us, we can succeed if we follow Paul’s example in Athens.

the people in the world around us see no reason to seek God

Note again, those words from Isaiah 65:1 quoted in Romans 10:20, “I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.” The Gentiles had no reason to seek Yahweh, God of Israel. Still, during his speech in Athens, Paul told them “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” (Acts 17:27).

Likewise, the people in the world around us see no reason to seek God. Still, we have the tools to be able to preach about the one true God so that they might end up seeking after him and finding him.

Having been provoked by the forest of idols in Athens, what did Paul do? Luke records, “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” (Acts 17:17).

Paul encountered three types of people: Jews, people steeped in superstitious religion (the devout persons), and those he encountered in the marketplace—the Agora—which was a marketplace of philosophical ideas. We know some of those more specifically because, in the next verse, we’re told that among them were “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.” We, too, will meet a mix of people when preaching—Christians, people devoted to various superstitions, and the equivalent of Epicureans and Stoics. 

The word “reasoned” in verse 17 in Greek is dialoegomai, which contains the idea of having a dialog within it. In other words, Paul had a conversation with the people he met. He wasn’t just standing up and delivering a talk. This style is interesting because Athens had been the home of Socrates, one of the most famous Greek philosophers.

Socrates’ favorite teaching method was called the Elenchus technique, or the Socratic Method, often described using dialoegomai. Socrates employed his technique in a dialog, asking many questions about a particular concept. The aim of this back-and-forth dialog was to wake people out of their dogmatism into genuine intellectual curiosity. 

While Acts 17 contains a speech by the Apostle Paul, it was also the result of him using the Elenchus technique that he reached the hearts and minds of his listeners. It’s a great lesson for us when we try to preach first principle doctrines. It is one thing to tell people the Truth as we understand it simply, but a far better way is to ask questions–to get people to really think about important matters. 

Luke presents Paul as a Socrates redivivus (revived). Socrates spent his whole time in Athens and used to converse with sophists and philosophers, as Paul does in the marketplace, using the Elenchus technique. But there’s one other connection between the two men. Socrates was executed after he was charged with introducing foreign deities to Athens. Paul is charged with the same thing.

Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” (v. 18). Verse 19 then records that “they took him and brought him to the Areopagus,” which probably means he was arrested and brought before a tribunal to answer the charge against him, just as happened to Socrates.

In fact, the word for “preacher,” katangeleus, in verse 18, a hapax legomenon (a term only used once) in Scripture, is the same word used in the charge against Socrates.

Paul is on a par with one of the greatest of all philosophers.

Why does Luke paint the picture of Paul being a Socrates redivivus? In verse 18, they call him a “babbler” which literally means a “seed picker” or someone who scavenges. The idea behind the word is of someone philosophically untrained novice who spouts forth bits of street philosophy. However, Luke wants us to be assured that Paul is no such thing but instead is on a par with one of the greatest of all philosophers.

Sometimes, we can seem unsophisticated in this world of modern-day philosophical thinking. We believe and teach unfashionable and old Bible concepts like Jesus and the resurrection. It seems like a lot of babble to those whose ideas align with more up-to-date philosophies like postmodernism, scientism, and relativism. But we have the answers to the big questions of life. Our task is to use the Elenchus technique by asking the right questions and bringing people to realize that the Bible is right after all.

Now, of all the sophisticated thinkers in Athens, it is significant that Luke singles out the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Remember, Paul will try to convince people to leave the idolatry and cultic ritualism of their pagan ideas and embrace the true and living God of the Bible. What is interesting about the Epicureans and Stoics is that, of the groups in Athens, these were the most critical of religious ritualism and idolatry. At least theoretically.

The highest goal in the life of the Epicureans was pleasure. Diogenes Laertius says it was “absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul.” (Vit. 10.131). They believed in the theory of Atomism—that everything, including the gods, was made up of atoms that were always in motion. Things form when atoms collide, something they call the “swerve.”

Since these collisions were entirely random, the Epicureans believed in the concept of free will. They did not have any belief in an afterlife. The soul did not survive death, and the atoms disintegrated into nothing. They did believe that gods existed, but they lived in a far-off realm of supreme pleasure and had no dealings with human beings. As a result, they had no fear of the supernatural and were not superstitious, meaning they were functional atheists.

The Stoics said that God was the divine Logos or Cosmic Reason. They were pantheists, meaning everything is God, and God is in everything. They believed humans have a divine spark, which returns to the divine Logos at death. According to the Stoics, the way to encounter God was by looking for him using reason.

They lived by an austere moral code and said that to desire things such as wealth and reputation was irrational and the cause of misery. The only good humans can do is to control their own moral choices. Unlike the Epicureans, the Stoics believed that all events are predetermined, so there is no free will.

Perhaps you’ve met the modern-day equivalents of the Epicureans and Stoics? For instance, as functional atheists and believing in an ancient form of evolution, the Epicureans have a lot in common with the atheists and naturalists of today. These people deny all forms of supernaturalism. On the other hand, some live reasonable lives, trying to be good people, like the Stoics. In today’s world, pantheism is seen in the appeal of Eastern religion and the idea that spirituality is found in nature rather than in a personal God.

What most of these people have in common is a rejection of organized religion, much like the Epicureans and Stoics of Paul’s day. While organized religion is still extant in Western society (the equivalent to the first-century Jewish synagogue model), it is on the wane, and more and more people we meet fall into the Epicurean or Stoic mold.

As we shall see in his speech, Paul could expertly weave into his argument an ability to find common ground with people who had no idea—or any initial interest—in the God of the Bible. He also appealed to those “devout persons” of verse 17, the main populous of Athens, who we see today in people who are devoutly religious or superstitious.

However, Paul’s attempts to find common ground did not interfere with his direct preaching of the first principles of our faith. But he was misunderstood when he preached “Jesus and the resurrection” (v. 18). They thought he was teaching about new gods called “Jesus” and “Anastasis.” The Athenians had no concept in their combined philosophies of physical resurrection of the day, so Paul’s words sounded more like he was preaching about a goddess called Anastasis—the Greek word for resurrection but also a female name.

We, too, are going to say things that sound like gobbledygook to many people. But when people do accuse us of being babblers, and we’re misunderstood, we can take our opportunity, as Paul does in his speech, and find a way to reach into the darkness and open some blind eyes.

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA


  1. All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version, unless specifically noted.
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