Paul Preaches to Pagan Athenians
This sermon of Paul is very important as it shows how he approached Gentiles, very intelligent but idolatrous Gentiles, with the gospel of Jesus Christ. He starts out in what we might call a “friendly” sort of way (“I see you’re very religious”), not wanting to offend but instead gain their trust as he speaks. (This shows us that Paul understood the dynamics of rhetoric or public speaking. Contemporary Christians should do likewise.) But though he wants to be friendly, Paul refuses to compromise the truth of the gospel. He knows these men have no knowledge of the law and the prophets, so he will have to speak of the God revealed by those Scriptures and make contacts where he can with some of their own pagan authors. In doing so, Paul preaches some good basic theology that all Christians can use if and when in a similar situation, that is, speaking to unbelievers who know nothing of Scripture, which is quite common in America nowadays.
Athens had altars to every god the human imagination can afford; indeed, even pagans joked that one could find more gods than men in Athens. So as not to offend any god they might have missed, they even raised an altar “to the unknown god.” Paul then said he would proclaim this god to them, that is, the true God whom they did not know.
Paul makes several claims over which we should rejoice. First, God is maker of heaven and earth and Lord of the same. This speaks to God’s greatness, sovereignty, and ownership over all things. He reigns supreme and no one or anything is His equal. Many pagans would have agreed with this as common sense leads one to this conclusion upon mere observation of the world. Second, such a God can hardly be contained by manmade buildings, another rational deduction. Third, this God needs nothing from us. He was never lonely, never needy. He is the giver, we are the receivers, and it can be no other way. Fourth, He made all of mankind from one original pair (giving apostolic sanction to the historicity of the creation account in Genesis 1-2) which condemns all racism as an unequivocal evil. Fifth, that He has determined the times and places of kingdoms and empires throughout world history. And finally, that He did all of this so that man might seek Him, the true God, and give him praise and glory. Paul even quotes approvingly one of their own pagan authors who said, “In him we live and move and have our being.” But even so, men did not seek him but became darkened in mind and heart, choosing the creature over the Creator (Romans 1:18-23). But now Paul will preach Christ to them—God’s answer to man’s rebellion.