It’s been a long time since I posted any Bible studies on  I could say lots of things have been going on recently that have been preventing me from posting, like deployment, returning from deployment and getting used to stateside again, blah blah blah.  But in all reality I’ve just not made any time to post Bible studies and other thoughts.

I figure another contributing factor to my writer’s block might be related to a funny story:

Recently a good friend of mine decided it’d be an awesome idea to break my wrist with…wait for it…A SOCCER BALL.  When I told the Doctor this he exclaimed “Really? A soccer ball? I thought you weren’t allowed to touch the ball with your hands?”, to which I replied, “Unless you’re the goalie, Doc”, then he said, “Pretty crappy goalie neh?”, “Well I stopped the ball at least, that counts for something, right?”, “No,” he said, “it doesn’t, but what you can count are the four weeks I’m going to make you wear this cast for…”  Awesome. So needless to say, typing this is quite a chore, so you got to figure, why choose NOW to post something, I mean I haven’t posted anything since before I deployed, what’s another month?

Well, basically I’m stir crazy and I obviously think I have something interesting to write about.  So, enough of the bad personal anecdotes, and remember, when it rains it pours, so don’t hate me for the length of this post :)

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

24“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. 30In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

32When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33At that, Paul left the Council. 34A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.” Acts 17:16-34 (emphasis my own)

This past week I had been studying this section of Scripture, and the context surrounding it historically.  I had been reminded of it because of a conversation I was following in the comments section about an Anne Lamott quotation.  Somehow, whether because the conversation turned that way or the wheels in my head just started turning, it got me thinking about the veracity of using ‘truth’ wherever you find it.  That made me think of how we can relate and erm…be RELEVANT to others by using what we find along our way, or what ‘works’ for the situation, culture, or person.  It struck a note in my mind, I said to myself “Where have I seen someone do this before in Scripture?  I know there’s a good example…” which brought me to Acts 17, of course…

AreopagusThe Apostle Paul, as it seems, got really friendly with the Greeks and their culture one afternoon.  Paul, being the smart-cookie he was, found himself in an area rank with pagan deities and superstitious practices – this of course was troubling to him.  So he decides to preach the Good News about Jesus and the Resurrection, day after day.  As he’s ‘reasoning’ with the Jews and God-fearing Greeks one day, some Epicurean and Stoic philosopher busy-bodies-chatty-Cathys (because that’s what these guys did for recreation in Athens) decide to invite Paul to talk about his ‘foreign gods’ at Mars Hill–as the Romans called it, and “Areopagus” as the Greeks had called it for 500 years.  A little background here would serve us well in understanding Paul’s Message:

Philosophy, needless to say, was a huge factor in the Greek culture that Paul walked into.  While several schools of philosophical thought prevailed in the first century, two biggies were Epicureanism and Stoicism.   Both of these philosophical schools are important to how Paul tailors his Gospel message here.

Epicureanism held to a form of materialism that espoused no after-life and gods that were far off and uninterested with humanity, physically similar to humans (in make-up), yet perfectly happy (because they followed Epicurean principles, of course).  The philosophy regarded these gods as impartial, not involved with humanity at all, and having not created the universe we live in.  The primary thought process throughout was that since the present is all we have and the gods can’t help (if they existed at all) we should devote our efforts to freedom from fear, and freedom from bodily pain, which would lead to the highest level of happiness.  This was to be accomplished through the knowledge of how the world worked and modestly limiting ones desires and lusts.  It was basically a form of restricted hedonism, since it focused on attaining pleasure/happiness as the goal of all pursuits.  The founder, Epicurus, held that our own happiness and pleasure was the greatest good one could be a part of, and not worshiping/serving a god.  More or less these guys are a bunch of Agnostics/Deists.

Stoicism, which at the time Paul delivered his message was the main opponent of Epicureanism, held a world-view in which the universe was God or “nature” and everything in it was a part of “God” (Pantheism anyone?).  Reason and logic were the ultimate goal of human life, and “Universal Reason” (the Stoics used the word logos for this, not so coincidentally) was actually “God”.  Each person had ‘logos’ inside of them and this ultimate “logos” was throughout the universe controlling and creating everything.  Through the use of logic and reason, one was to become a master of one’s own emotions.   In the by-the-way department, this is where the modern use of the word “stoic” comes from. ::Cue NBC’s “the more you know rainbow”::

So the Greeks in general were a polytheistic group of people with a mish-mash of philosophical underpinnings, much different from the Jews of Judea.   Since this culture Paul was walking into was obviously of a very different mindset than what the Christians had been dealing with in Judea, a different approach to presenting his beliefs was required.  So, literally, to the Greeks Paul became a Greek.

Paul was brought up on to Mars’ Hill to further present his ’strange ideas’ to the philosophers congregating on this, the traditional site of Athenian justice.

Now stop, think, okay here’s the big-time (or not) Christian Apostle ready to go to town on some pagan philosophers and their evil ideas and ways of life.  Right?  He’s gonna let it rip, right?  Roman’s Road time, hit ‘em with the law, throw some guilt in, some Jewish Messiah talk, Deity becoming Man, forgiveness of sins, the God-Head, get to Heaven, go to Hell, all that ‘jazz’, all the ‘normal’ stuff we HAVE to preach or it’s not the Gospel, right?

Er…not so much.  No sir/ma’am, he most definitely did not let all that rip.


Compromiser?  Coward?  If he were Rick Warren or Rob Bell, yah, we’d be willing to light him up.  But no, not The Apostle Paul, no, it cannot be!

What Paul proceeds to do here in his discourse with these philosophers and onlookers (you didn’t think Paul and the Thinker-Squad were the only ones there did you?) is nothing short of an amazing display of RELATING and BEING RELEVANT.  He was understandable, he spoke in terms these people respected and comprehended.  He made his message valuable (as it so very much IS) for them.  He made it make sense.  And he did it all without trashing and insulting them.  Huuuuuuuh?  All kind of reminds me of Jesus in John 4, actually (check it out).

Well it pretty much gets even more ‘radical’ than that.  You see in v.24-31, he begins to explain to them how he will proclaim an unknown God (while not necessarily mocking them for their polytheism, pantheism, philosophies, and self-help ideas).  Then, he begins to describe this God’s character traits to them, His purposes, and His desires.  What you start to realize (now that you know what Epicureanism and Stoicism are all about) is that Paul begins to address and deftly counter the main pillars of the philosophies represented there on Mars’ Hill.  However, he’s not just countering, he’s also showing how some of their ideas are actually…CORRECT and gel with this “unknown God” who is in fact the real God.  Paul’s using Truth wherever he finds it to get the Message across.  For example:

v.24 is a specific counter point to the Epicurean principle of gods who were uninvolved in the creation of the universe (actually most Epicureans believed the universe was not created at all).  But is a ‘with-qualifications’ acceptance of the Stoic idea of a “God/Nature” who is active in creating and running the universe.

v.25 has Paul making the point that God needs nothing from us (i.e the Greek sacrificial system of worship, like the Jewish one) and that it is in fact God Himself that gives us everything.  This agrees with the Epicurean concept that physical sacrifices to gods are useless to them, but shows them that while our sacrifices are no good to God, He always provides for us in a personal way.  This statement also specifically turns the Epicurean concept of ‘making oneself’ through knowledge and personal pleasure upside-down, because God makes us who we are, and we work inside that.  Also it counters the idea that the ‘gods’ give nothing to man, blessings nor curses.  Paul’s statement here also counters the Stoic idea of self-sufficiency through reason and logic alone.

v. 26 is a style of determinism that might appeal to Stoics (who believe everything works to a master plan) while also showing people with an Epicurean mind-set that God is actively involved in every man’s life instead of being aloof and uncaring.  You should be starting to see now that Paul definitely knew his audience.

v.27 shows that God has a master plan (nod to Stoics) and desires us to seek Him, and find Him.  It also describes how God is very near to all of us (nod to Stoics again, counter to Epicureans).

I don’t think it’s coincidence that Paul uses and also counters specific aspects of both philosophical systems and general Greek mindset in this presentation.  Notice also how general he is being and that he is using the bits of truth that lie within these philosophies in order to relate to his audience.

What’s great is that all of these statements are only building up to an awesome revelation that Paul knows his audience and wants to reach them on terms they relate to, respect, and understand.

28For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Now he’s quoting pagan poets? Oh no he didn’t.  Oh yes, he did!  ::rends garments, cries ‘blasphemy!’::

Paul quotes from two different sources here and it’s really cool to find out where these quotations originated from and why he used them.

“For in him we live and move and have our being” is a quotation from a poem called “Cretica” written by a 6th century B.C. Greek Poet/Prophet named Epimenides.  It’s actually quoted from twice in the NT (See Titus 1:12 about Cretans).  This guy was held in very high regard by the Greeks and Romans due to his mythological status as a prophet.  Long story short, this guy falls asleep in a cave holy to Zeus for something like 60 years, and when he finally wakes up (hungry no doubt), bam, prophet-powers.  Ironically the poem from which Paul pulls this quotation is about Zeus (not a generic God) and how Cretans lie about him being mortal.  So Paul quotes from a poem about “Zeus The Immortal Highest God” and says it actually describes the Unknown God he’s been talking about.

The other quotation, “We are his offspring,” is from a poem called “Phaenomena” written by the Greek poet Aratus (310 B.C.-240 B.C.).  This guy wrote a lot of poems about nature and was influenced by Zeno, the founder of Stoicism (they heart “Nature”, remember?).  He was quite famous and well respected in Greek, Roman, and later, Muslim thinker-circles.  Once again this quotation is also speaking of the Greek deity Zeus.  It’s very interesting that Paul would use a line from a poet who was somewhat of a celebrity with the Stoics; talk about target audience, right?  Also funny how he uses a poem about Zeus again to describe the Unknown God.

So what do we have here?  Paul quoting pagan poets to an audience of philosophers and Greek/Roman onlookers who would have definitely known the authors and respected them highly.  They also would have known that both poems were about Zeus, and that this weird Jewish guy was trying to use them to describe a God they didn’t know about.  He does it all without trashing on their deities either.  Relevant much?  Know your audience much?  Definitely some relatable stuff.

But Paul doesn’t stop there.  Now comes the ‘gom-jabbar’, right?  Now comes “Jesus is God/Lord!”, the Cross, forgiveness of sins, Heaven/Hell, all that jazz, all the things we need in the Gospel, right?  Nope.

He does sum up and make his point however.  He just does it in a way that fits what he’s been talking about up to this point.  He pulls out some logic on them, saying that hey, since God made you in His image, why would you think he’s a big chunk of rock?  Or in some far away la-la land for that matter?  Why would you think He doesn’t care?  He tells them God actually CARES about what we do, that our personal gain/happiness, or personal ability to reason isn’t the end-all be-all of life.  Our actions have consequences, not just unto ourselves, but to others, and before this Unknown God.  This God commands us to CHANGE OUR WAYS!  To REPENT.  This is new.  This is radical.  He finishes by saying that God has chosen a day in which to judge the world in JUSTICE (remember Mars’ Hill is the justice court of Athens).  This is a stab at both philosophies which put personal gain and happiness above service to God and others.  It’s a stab because well, hey, the gods aren’t aloof and uninterested, God isn’t some happy warm force moving through the Universe doing whatever, no, God very much cares what we do, and that we know Him, and our lives have meaning and consequence. It also says “Hey, you guys have justice here?  Well God does too.” He appointed a Man to judge the world.  And Paul’s proof of this?

God raised this Man from the dead.  Huh?  That’s it?  No…”Accept Jesus in to your heart”?  No…”God became a man and died for your sins”?

Of course not, that wouldn’t make any more sense to these guys than Japanese Ritual Suicide would to you!

It wasn’t the appropriate forum for that talk.  That would come later, after some believed in this and followed Paul.    It says in v.32 that when some heard of the Resurrection they sneered/mocked (you can probably guess who), but others wanted to hear more.  And ultimately, some there believed in Paul’s message and followed him out.  Notice that it wasn’t until the mention of the Resurrection that Paul got people taking sides.  Why is the Resurrection such a big deal?  Well that’s another Bible study and I digress…

Some of you might be thinking: “Wow, Paul sure did leave out a lot of ‘important’ stuff…”, some may, if they’re honest with themselves, realize that if they judged Paul’s message here like they judge Rob Bell, Rick Warren, etc etc, well then Paul would be a flaming heretic, neh?

But Paul isn’t.  Paul was informed about his audience.  Paul was making himself Greek to the Greeks.  Epicurean to the Epicureans.  Stoic to the Stoics.  Paul used his knowledge of the culture he was surrounded by in order to reach that culture in a way that made sense to them.  He did what he could so that by all means he could save some.  He did everything short of sin (and by some peoples’ messed up standards he did sin) in order to get his message across to these people in way that was relevant to them!  Ultimately he was rewarded for this…pragmatic effort, if you can call it that.  I should say God rewarded his efforts in this regard.

Paul took the Truth wherever and however he found it, whether it be in vain philosophies about finding ultimate happiness, ideas about pantheism, concepts about logic and reason, pagan poems about pagan gods, or by appealing to plain old Athenian justice, and used that Truth found within to preach a new and radical message to a culture who hadn’t heard it before..  A message about an Unknown God who cares for us, is close to us and desires us to seek Him, a God who sets up and watches over our lives, a God who cares about what we do and sets consequences for our actions. A God who raises men from the dead.

Paul was not afraid to adapt his Message to the culture, individuals, and thought-processes he encountered.  Paul was the most successful evangelist, disciple-maker, life-changer in the New Testament, next to Jesus of course.  Who are you? You wanna be like Paul?  Are you afraid to use what God has put in your path to reach out to others?  Are you unwilling to get down in the dirt and really know someone and where they’re coming from?  Jesus did it too you know.  Do you want to be like Jesus?  Can you love a lost sheep enough to try whatever it takes to get them to understand that God loves them and desires to be with them?

Or do you want to be irrelevant?

Forget about what Paul did in Athens then, forget about Jesus at Jacob’s Well.  Just jeep judging things based on what was not said, instead of what was said.  Keep judging on what you think the message should be, regardless of audience or culture.  Forget that God gave us brains and the ability to emote with others, the ability to understand others and be understood, the ability to adapt to our surroundings, to use this power from God to reach others in whatever way we can.  Forget that Truth is Truth regardless of where you find it.  And while we’re at it, why don’t you just forget Christianity.

For the rest of us, I would hope we have learned a valuable lesson from Paul’s Message on The Areopagus.  I hope you learned that it’s okay to be informed about the people you’re talking to and more importantly to adapt that message to the information you have.  That you can make Christ and the Gospel relatable to people who would otherwise not understand what you’re getting at.  And that you can be successful in this endeavor where others may not be.  Don’t be afraid to let God use you in this way because there are too many people out there that we still have yet to reach with the Good News for us to think that the Roman’s Road is the only way to tell people about Christ.  Do it for the Gospel, do it for Christ.

So I ask again, do you want to be irrelevant?  Fine, then don’t follow Paul as he followed Christ.  Easy.  As for me…

“Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” 1 Cor. 9:19-23

Peace brothers and sisters,

Joe C

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This entry was posted on Monday, August 10th, 2009 at 6:18 pm and is filed under Devotional, Evangelism, Original Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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13 Comments(+Add)

1   Chris L
August 10th, 2009 at 8:55 pm

::Cue NBC’s “the more you know rainbow”::

Joe – amazing stuff, and great insight into the philosophical underpinnings of the day. It again makes me wonder how it is we get stuck in our insistence on the use of esoteric language (i.e. “Christianese”) – even when witnessing to those to whom it might as well be Klingon.

So are you in line to become a chaplain?

2   Joe C
August 10th, 2009 at 9:22 pm

Thanks Chris, (I would have put that picture in myself however I only just figured out how to use the wordpress editor to stick pictures in and make it look okay lol…the trick was…to not.)

I wrote that study because sometimes the Roman’s Road, and whatever other kinds of pet-evangelistic/discipleship techniques we have just doesn’t fit. You’re right about Christianese, though, heck I don’t even ‘get it’ half the time.

What I really was surprised by was the amount of effort Paul put in to relating his message to things those Greek philosophers etc would understand. It’s almost like word for word he’s either affirming or countering their beliefs, or putting them in the right context.

It also irks me how some bash on ‘relevancy’ and the like, and ’seeker-sensitive’ methods, when let’s face it, GOD and the Apostles are the best example of those things! I mean come on, a quotation from a Pagan PROPHET? Wow. Paul is so worldly, you know? lol.

As for being a chaplain, I’m not sure what God has planned for me exactly. Right now the military has been a great source of steady income and benefits for my family and I, and I’d like that to continue. But we’ll see. I rather like having a normal working job and using that to pay for para-church ministry, like the Bible study we do on Fridays. Who knows!? lol.


3   pastorboy
August 11th, 2009 at 12:42 am

Problem is, Paul recognized them for the pagans they were-and he certainly did not call the ones who he used Christians.

4   chris    
August 11th, 2009 at 12:57 am

Problem is, Paul recognized them for the pagans they were-and he certainly did not call the ones who he used Christians.

Problem is, nobody that you criticize has ever called them Christian either.

I know, I know…that one time at that one thing that one guy said that one statement that when ripped from context sounds exactly like that thing I heard that one guy say at that one thing. So HERETIC!

5   Aaron    
August 11th, 2009 at 3:02 am

even when witnessing to those to whom it might as well be Klingon.

I wonder what the Gospel would sound like in Klingon? Other than awesome, I mean. :)

6   Neil    
August 11th, 2009 at 8:55 am

Problem is, Paul recognized them for the pagans they were-and he certainly did not call the ones who he used Christians.

This is true. But they did not claim to be either.

In the case of Lamott, I do not know if whe claims to be a Christian or not… though I am unfamiliar with her, it appears from things quoted here, that if she does claim to be, or even is, a believer – some of her actions and beliefs seem at odds with this…

That said, in a comment a while back you took a brother in the Lord to task for quoting secular philosophers… as if he should not have.

7   nc    
August 11th, 2009 at 9:04 am

if behavior/beliefs being at odds with accepted christian belief was really the ultimate litmus test…well…then we’d all (read: ALL) would be in deep, deep trouble.

8   John Hughes    
August 11th, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Joe C.

Excellent article sir and I completely agree with your premise.

However, I don’t understand the comparison with Lamott. It does not seem to fit the situation of Paul at Mars Hill. I have not personally researched Ms. Lamott, but for sake of discussion I will take Rick Freuh’s report of her belief system on face value as I trust Rick. If the main point of quoting Lamott is that truth is truth and even though I don’t agree with a lot of her theology, I will favorably quote her anyway then I would ask this: do you have any qualms about using quotes in a favorable light from Rev. Phelps in any of your sermons? I would guess that Phelps’ core theological belief system is more orthodox than Lamott’s and yet somehow I doubt anyone here would be comfortable in quoting Phelps favorably even on points we would “agree” with him on.

This is an extreme example, but I really don’t buy the argument that a person’s “truths” with which we agree trump their core belief systems and that’s it’s OK to pick and choose quotes. I think we have a bigger responsibility than that.

9   John Hughes    
August 11th, 2009 at 12:45 pm

NC: if behavior/beliefs being at odds with accepted christian belief was really the ultimate litmus test…well…then we’d all (read: ALL) would be in deep, deep trouble.

True and yet there is a line **somewhere**.

10   Joe C
August 11th, 2009 at 1:10 pm


Thanks so much for your feedback, I appreciate the good questions.

To be honest I actually regret bringing up the Lamott thing in retrospect because I can see a few people have focused on that and I really only intended it to be a passing comment, not important to the article at all. Like I wrote, it was that forum that made me eventually think of finding Truth wherever it is and using it, not really anything to do with her specifically. And you’re right, Jerry (I think?) quoting Lamott is not even close to the same situation as Paul in Athens.

With that said, I think instead of wondering if we would quote Fred Phelps, we should wonder at just exactly WHO Paul quoted there in Athens, what were the quotes really about, and how did he use them?

In the article I show that he quotes from at least one pagan prophet (who might have not even existed) who was writing about the pagan god Zeus. Pretty “bad” by some standards.

If I had to quote Phelps to make a point about something, I would. But usually you pick who you quote based on your audience. Why quote Phelps (who no decent Christian respects or listens to) when I could quote someone much better? Paul chose Greek pagan poets because he was speaking to Greeks, and he used it in a way that said “hey even your own guys agree with me here”. If I were evangelizing to people indoctrinated with Phelps mentality, and I thought that by some ridiculous chance they respected him, I would gladly use TRUE statements from him (in context) that the people might find relevant and might actually get through to them.

Do you see what I mean?

Hope I answered your questions John, thanks again brother.


11   John Hughes    
August 11th, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Joe, I agree with your article and quoting the pagan poets is kosher in my view.

If I were evangelizing to people indoctrinated with Phelps mentality, and I thought that by some ridiculous chance they respected him, I would gladly use TRUE statements from him (in context) that the people might find relevant and might actually get through to them.

12   John Hughes    
August 11th, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Opps. Hit send too soon

If I were evangelizing to people indoctrinated with Phelps mentality, and I thought that by some ridiculous chance they respected him, I would gladly use TRUE statements from him (in context) that the people might find relevant and might actually get through to them.

Good point and I can certainly see where you are coming from.

13   Joe C    
August 11th, 2009 at 3:42 pm

Yup, I just see it as knowing your audience, basically. Glad we see eye to eye here!