Paul speaking to the Areopagus in Athens..
Reading Paul’s speech out loud takes less than two minutes. I rather suspect Paul spoke for longer than that – he did after all have to raise Eutychus from the dead after he fell asleep – and out of a window! – during one of his sermons. Although what we have is truncated, it’s still really important, as one of the few occasions we have of an apostle speaking to an entirely non-Jewish audience.
How Big is Your God?
Taking his cue from the Old Testament prophets, Paul shows how ridiculous idolatry is.. Far from being made in a workshop, God the God ‘made the world and everything in it’ (v24). He is not created, he is the creator of everything else. And so, says Paul:
- He ‘does not live in temples built by human hands’ (v24)
- He ‘is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything’ (v25)
- He ‘gives everyone life and breath and everything else’ (v25)
- He ‘made all the nations, to inhabit the whole earth’ (v26)
- He ‘marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands’ (v26)
- In summary, he ‘is the Lord of heaven and earth’ (v24)
God is not gold or silver or stone, he is not the product of our imagination (v29). God is the creator and sustainer of all that is now, has ever been, and ever will be. How big is your God?
But that is not the source of Paul’s confidence. Yes, God is all-powerful, beyond our imagination. But if that were all, if God is far away in all his power, beyond anything we can conceive, what’s the point? Paul’s confidence comes not from an abstract truth about God, but from someone who really actually lived and breathed. The centre of the gospel is not an idea, an abstract truth, but a person: Jesus the Son of God.
In the church’s calendar we are in the Easter season, celebrating Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. And that, not an abstract truth but an event that happened, just like today is happening, that is the reason for Paul’s confidence (v31). It is the central event of the Christian faith, without which our faith is in vain.
‘Standing in Their Midst’
Paul was able to stand up in the midst of the ruling elite in Athens, and talk to them about Jesus, such was his confidence. We also need the confidence that comes from knowing that our faith is based on something that really happened – but if we simply exude confidence, people will think we are arrogant. Paul didn’t just speak with confidence, he made sure he spoke in a way that was appropriate to his audience. He spoke in a way that would engage them, rather than put them off. He presented an argument to philosophers – and philosophers love to argue!
That style was just right for those people, at that time. However, in modern Britain, my experience is that few people will be swayed by an argument, no matter how convincing you are! What people do respond to is genuine care and interest in their well-being. People respond to love, given with no expectation of getting anything in return. That is rare, almost unheard of in today’s world.
Now of course we need to be prepared to answer when asked to give an account of our faith. And then our answer should not be wishy-washy sentiments about love and the beauty of creation but to tell people – like Paul did – what happened, and what it means to you. Tell them God is not an old man with a big grey beard sitting on a cloud. Tell them about God’s love in Jesus.
Love is not fuzzy and warm, love is costly, it is what happened on a Roman cross. Love burns fiercely and brightly. Love is powerful, hopeful, faithful. Love is real, not abstract. Love happened in Israel 2000 years ago. Love lived and breathed, and love’s name is Jesus. If you want to talk about love, you need to talk about Jesus. If you don’t, you’re not talking about love.
Let this love, let his love shine through your life, and, like in Athens, some will join us and believe (v34).
Do Not Be Ashamed
Paul wrote to the church in Rome, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes’ (Romans 1.16).
Paul knew well enough that salvation is God’s business. We do not bring people to faith with clever or powerful words, nor through simple acts of kindness. Instead, our part is to point people in the right direction, and trust God to do the rest. Let’s share our faith as Paul did – with confidence and sensitivity, and let’s see what happens!