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Preaching the First Principles in a Post-Christian World – Part 5

Our task is to help people turn from the idolatry of the world to embrace the one true God.
Read Time: 8 minutes

During his speech before the Areopagus council, Paul criticized temples (Acts 17:24), cultic services (v. 25), and idols (v. 29). He demonstrated that by adherence to these things, the Athenians haven’t obtained a true knowledge of God, and are groping in the dark. He has also illustrated that God has revealed Himself in creation (v. 24), history (v. 26), and ultimately in humanity (v. 28-29). 

It is here that Paul’s address takes a crucial turn. By alluding to Gen. 1:26, where man was made in God’s image in contrast with the graven images of idolatry, Paul will finish his speech with an appeal centered on the one who is the ultimate reflection of the image of God.

In verse 30, Paul says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent”1 which is a call to [turn] to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” (1 Thess 1:9). Paul said a similar thing earlier in his ministry, during his first missionary journey while in Lystra.

Paul had just performed a miracle, healing a man crippled from birth. The people of Lystra thought he and Barnabas were gods, so Paul had to tell them quickly that was not the case. Note the similarities with his speech in Athens:

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things?
We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.
In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.
Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:14-17).

In verse 15, Paul’s call to repentance is for them to “turn from these vain things to a living God.” The “vain” things are the same things Paul talked about in Athens—worshiping idols. In 1 Corinthians 3:20, he wrote, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile,” using the same word “vain” here translated “futile.” He quotes here from Psalm 94:11, where the context is insightful:

Understand, O dullest of the people! Fools, when will you be wise? He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see? He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke? He who teaches man knowledge [the LORD] knows the thoughts of man, that they are but a breath. (Psa 94:8-11).

The psalm alludes to the contrast between the all-hearing, seeing, and feeling God and the immobile, deaf, blind idols of the nations—utter futility. Peter also mentions vain things when he writes, “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.” (1 Pet. 1:18).

The lesson is much closer to home here because Peter isn’t talking about pagan idolatry, but the ritualism of Judaism. He says we are ransomed “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (v. 18-19). The “silver and gold” things of Judaism, for instance, in the temple, could not save anyone. Only the man ordained by God could save. In that sense, therefore, the Jewish problem was the same as that of the Gentiles.

Paul’s final appeal continues with the reason the people need to repent: “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness.” (v. 30). This is perhaps the most direct quotation from Scripture in Paul’s speech, with the phrase “He will judge the world in righteousness” found in
two psalms. 

First, in Psalm 96:13, the context directly relates to Paul’s preaching efforts. Verse 3 says, “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!” This statement is precisely what Paul is doing by speaking to the Athenians. The next couple of verses then continue:

For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. (Psa 96:4-5).

In the Septuagint, verse 5 uses the word daimonion and reads, “For all the gods of the people are demons,” which is interesting considering Paul told the Athenians they were “religious.” (Acts 17:22). We saw in a previous article the word, deisidaimonesteros with the literal meaning “fear of demons.” But, as verse 4 of the psalm says, Yahweh “is to be feared above all gods.”

It is likely with Paul’s Scriptural knowledge, when he thought about this psalm, he told the Athenians about God judging the world in righteousness. But he was probably also thinking about Psalm 9, which uses the same phrase in verse 8. Verse 10 then goes on to say, “You, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you,” reminding us of Paul’s appeal for the people to “seek God.” (Acts 17:27).

The next verse (v. 11) then says, “Tell among the peoples his deeds!” which, again, is exactly what Paul is doing in Athens. Finally, in verse 16, we are told, “The LORD has made himself known; he has executed judgment; the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands,” which is a neat summary of Paul’s speech in Athens.

How Yahweh has made himself known is ultimately seen in the Lord Jesus Christ. So Paul ends his message about the folly of idols and the importance of humanity manifesting God with the words “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31). Thus, Paul answered the initial question about “Jesus and the resurrection” (v18). 

Paul’s use of the term “appointed” in verse 31 is noteworthy because it focuses on the sovereignty and providence of God, which Paul has hinted at in verses 24-26. There, God is described as making all things, Lord of heaven and earth, giving everything it needs to humanity, and even in charge of human history. And now he has “appointed” the man, Christ Jesus, to judge the world in righteousness.

Paul used the same Greek word horizo (related to the word proorizo—predestined) in verse 26 when he said, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,” here translated “determined.” The God who “[declares] the end from the beginning” (Isa 46:10) is in full control of human history.

The word horizo is also used in Acts 2:23, which says, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” In Acts 10:42, Peter wrote, “He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” 

Perhaps there is another nod here to the Stoics who believed that the divine Logos predetermines all events. For instance, the Stoic academic Chrysippus wrote:

Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you. (Meditations, 10.5).

Paul wouldn’t have agreed with the extreme determinism of classical Stoicism, but by speaking of things “determined” and “appointed” he found enough common ground, as he did throughout his whole speech, to meet people halfway.

Perhaps throughout his whole speech, Paul was thinking back to an earlier speech he had heard before he repented. Stephen was addressing the Jewish religious leaders when he reminded them of their history of the golden calf “and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.” (Acts 7:41). Stephen then went on to say:

But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: “Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.” (Acts 7:42-43).

He finished his speech by reminding his listeners that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48), the same as Paul is saying in Athens. To prove his point, Stephen quoted Isaiah 66:1-2. The next verse in that passage says the following:

He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol. These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations. (Isa 66:3).

In Stephen’s speech and this passage from Isaiah, we are reminded that the problem of idolatry isn’t exclusive to the Gentiles. As the prophet says, if your religion consists of empty ritualism, you might as well be blessing an idol. 

After Paul ended his speech, we learn that he had mixed results. 

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed. (Acts 17:32-34). 

Those who believed included “Dionysius the Areopagite.” So Paul even got through to one of the men conducting the tribunal.

We, too, will have mixed results when we preach first principles like the resurrection of the dead. That kind of thing is outside the normal human experience, so people will struggle to hear the gospel message. 

build bridges and establish common ground

But one thing we can do is follow the example of the Apostle Paul in Athens. Like Socrates, Paul’s method was to enter into dialog with people he met. By doing that, he could understand something about their present worldview. He had also done his homework, understanding something about the philosophies of the world and the writings that went along with them.

If we stand up and give a Bible talk, we might do an excellent job, but if we don’t know what the audience is thinking about and what they believe, we will struggle to reach them. 

Our task is to help people turn from the idolatry of the world to embrace the one true God. We can facilitate the process by building bridges and establishing common ground, even though we won’t agree with other philosophies. But there are some things we can agree on, and that’s what Paul latched onto.

We, too, can confirm in people’s minds that the God of the Bible does fit into some of the ideas that people have, that he is not a God of empty formalism and ritualism, and that there is a purpose in the universe. Then, having established that common ground, we can fill in the gaps and bring people to a place where they can more readily accept the other first principles of the one true faith. 

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA


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

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