The Areopagus sermon. 17:22-31
Paul continues his second missionary journey, moving from Philippi to Thessalonica and finally to Athens. In this foremost of Greek cities, Paul proclaims the gospel ("the good news about Jesus and the resurrection"), first in the local synagogue, then in the "marketplace day by day." The local philosophers then invite him to speak of his beliefs at the Areopagus.
v22. Rather than faint praise, Paul begins with a factual observation. The Athenians are religious (a vague term that could mean "superstitious", but it is probably a factual statement).
v23. Their religious bent has encouraged the Athenians to build at least one edifice to the God whom they may have inadvertently overlooked. Paul uses their admitted ignorance as an opportunity to inform them of the character of this "unknown" God.
v24. Paul first defines God in Old Testament terms. He is the creator of the universe and the Lord of heaven and earth. Such a God cannot be contained in any human structure, nor represented by any human craft. Sophisticated Greeks would agree that the divine nature cannot be contained in even the most magnificent of buildings.
v25. Neither is God dependent on his creatures; he does not need us. In fact, we are dependent on God for he supplies our every need.
v26. So God sustains us, and this for our pleasure. Although the Greeks tended to see themselves racially superior to the "barbarians", all humanity descends from one common God-designed ancestor. The earth is created as a home for the human race, with defined areas for each extended family (nation). "The times set for them" may mean appointed seasons, or historical epochs. Each tribe receives its annual provision, or its moment in history.
v27. The ultimate purpose of this unique human design and the extensive provision of resources, is that we might know God - "feel after him and find him." Paul held that nature imaged God's presence, therefore, those who fail to honour him, seek after him and find him, are without excuse, Rom.1:20f. We are designed to know God. For those who would seek him, he is not far away.
v28. Paul illustrates his point (ie. humans find their center of being in God) by quoting from two poems, one possibly by Epimendides the Cretan, and the second by Aratus the Cilician. Even the Greek poets understood where to find the center of their being.
v29. Given that humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, it is absurd to assume that God is made of inanimate materials. The trouble is, this is exactly how we see the divine - we pursue the creation rather than the creator. Paul now touches on the human condition, sin.
v30. God may delay his action against such ignorance, but the inevitable day of judgment is now upon the human race and there is but one way to escape the terrible coming day and that is to repent - turn to the living God for mercy.
v31. Paul now comes to the punch-line of his address. It is often said the reaction of his audience cuts his speech short, but this is probably not the case. His finale is purely Biblical, although as with the rest of his speech, he presents Biblical truth within a secular context. Greek thought had no room for an eschatological judgement, but says Paul, there is one coming, and this at the hands of "the man" (Daniel's Son of Man, Dan.7:13) whom God has appointed. The authentication of the coming day at this man's hand is found in his resurrection from the dead. So indeed, "repent."
A gospel presentation to the unchurched
Paul introduces his hearers to the gospel with a short background briefing on God's interrelationship with humanity. He is creator of the universe, such that humans find their origin in Him (created in the image and likeness of God). He is the sustainer of the universe, such that we are dependent on Him and He is independent of us. The purpose of God's creating and sustaining role is that we may know Him - enter into a relationship with Him. It is for this purpose we are created and sustained. Such is the essence of our being and the purpose of our existence.
Paul then goes on to identify the human condition. Building edifices to house the "unknown God", seeking the ground of our being in the things we can see or touch, exposes the lost condition of the human race. God, out of the store of his mercy, may overlook such stupidity for a time, but that times is coming to an end - the day of judgment is at hand.
The proclamation of the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead, that he is ascended on high and reigning at the right hand of God, carries with it the positive implication that we may live, that we may know God and enjoy him for eternity. Yet, this good news also carries with it bad news - without the help of the risen Christ we face annihilation, judgement. In speaking with the Greek philosophers at the Areopagus, Paul chooses to draw out the negative implication of the kingdom's present reality in Christ. If we choose not to seek after God through Christ then we will find ourselves cast out from His presence. Repentance, turning to Christ, is the only way of escape.
The Areopagus sermon, although most likely only a summary of the real thing, is an important example of a gospel message to the unchurched (cf. Paul's Lystran speech Acts 4:14-18). Identify its main elements and produce a simple gospel presentation suitable for unchurched people.