Paul’s sermon on Areopagus is one of the most famous sermons in the entire Bible for several reasons. Converting people from one belief into another is one of the most thankless tasks ever, and, perhaps, the least rewarding one. When people’s moral and cultural values are at stake, however, the significance of changing people’s minds towards accepting the Christian faith, where the ultimate goals concern not thoughtless worshipping of a stone-cold idol, but a conversation with loving and caring God increases impressively.
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Paul’s Sermon can be seen as manifestation of Christian faith since it does not tend to attack the cultural and religious values of the Athenians1. On the opposite, it calls its audience for taking a closer look at their moral standpoints and figuring out whether the latter can serve as the life principles that the Athenians can be proud of and that they will willingly adhere to.
The sermon is, hence, not another attempt to recruit people into a different cult, but a reasonable argument and a tactical reproach that helped the Athenians mend their ways and heralded a new stage in Christianity development.
In this paper, I will argue that the Areopagus sermon delivered by Paul in Athens, which concerned the absurdity of the pagan beliefs of the Athenians, stands out among the rest of sermons delivered by Paul not because it attacked the weaknesses of the pagan beliefs or because he addressed the dread of the Judgment Day, but because it introduced a completely new principle of building relationships with God, i.e., the principle of cognizing God.
While the emphasis is seemingly put on the necessity to convince the residents of Athens that their religious beliefs are inconsistent and that the gods that they pay tribute to can in no way provide them with love and care that Christian God can, after a careful consideration of the content of the sermon, one will be able to see that Paul stresses the specifics of the relationships between Christian God and His children, instead.
Although at first glance, one might fail to find the arguments that support the given idea directly, after a thorough consideration of the sermon, one will be able to define the elements that define the peculiarities of Christians’ relationships with God, as well as the call for cognizing God.
Analyzing the sermon from the very start, one must mention the fact that Paul addresses a particular audience with a particular goal in mind: “So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects” (Acts 17:22). It is remarkable that Paul neither diminishes the role of idolatry in people’s lives nor mocks their beliefs; instead, he is guided by understanding and the need to introduce the true concept of God, the communication with Whom can be reciprocal.
At the next stage of his sermon, however, Paul finally specifies the subject of his concerns. Paul defines the religious beliefs of the Athenians as idolatry, therefore, defining the wrongfulness of their system of religious beliefs and making it clear that the actual process of communication with the Lord must not be washed down to the basic worshipping of a dummy.
After Paul mentions that he found an altar of an unknown god, whom people were worshipping, he accuses the Athenians in religious and spiritual ignorance (Acts 17:23). Remarkably enough, the mild warning that can be traced in the given part of Paul’s sermon corresponds to the definition of God that Paul provides. Following into His footsteps, Paul does not judge or defy – instead, he voices his concern for people’s spirituality and the possible fall of their moral and spiritual values.
Finally, Paul conveys the image of truly loving God to his audience, putting the emphasis on the fact that communication with the Lord is an integral part of being a Christian: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (in Acts 17:24).
Another peculiar detail about Paul’s sermon concerns the numerous references that he makes to the rest of the Biblical passages. For instance, there is an obvious reference to John 4:22 in Acts 17:24, the former claiming that worshipping of an unknown god is unacceptable and that one should worship only one true God.
In the next part of his sermon, Paul provides the defining feature of Christian God and nearly offers the actual definition of Him: “nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything since He gives to all people life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). Thus, Paul outlines the key problems with idolatry, making it clear that the true Lord does not need any kind of sacrificial offering and, instead, breathes life into people Himself.
It is remarkable that the given part of the sermon not only opposes the opportunity for personal communication with the Lord to unreciprocated worshipping but also rebuts the entire idea of idolatry as the concept of a god who is not only unwilling but also possibly unable to give his followers any kind of emotional and spiritual feedback.
In the next part of his sermon, Paul addresses the Genesis and the origin of men, stressing the fact that God is the only Father and that He takes care of all His children: “and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). Act 17:26 chime in with the Psalms 50:12, seeing how both stress the fact that God is the only Creator of the Earth and all the creatures inhabiting it.
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Parallels can also be drawn between Acts 17:26 and Genesis 3:20, though the given idea seems quite a stretch. Claiming that all people are equal and are, in fact, related to each other, the given passage refers its readers to the origin of a man, and the idea that all people are sons and daughters of Adam and Eve: “And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26).
It is remarkable that Paul stresses one of the basic principles of Christianity in the given sentence by explaining that there is, in fact, no actual hierarchy stipulated by the Biblical law; instead, equality between people as God’s creatures. Therefore, it could be argued that in the given passage, Paul explains the essence of relationships between a man and God, opposing the given link to the one – or, to be more exact, the lack of one – in idolatry.
The next part of the sermon sheds even more light on the Christian idea of communication with God. Paul conveys the essence of the Christian interpretation of communication with the Lord: “That they would seek God if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).
At the given point of the sermon, it becomes obvious that Apostle Paul’s audience evolves with him, gradually accepting his ideas and coming to grips with the fact that idolatry does not guarantee its adepts adequate relationships with God. While some of the people listening to the sermon may still be skeptical about the idea of addressing God directly and establishing contact with Him, most of the people who decided to pay attention to the sermon have been interested.
The change in the mood of the audience can be indicated by the fact that Paul uses the pronoun “we” instead of “you” – a small part of it might ready to accept the fact that they have an opportunity to cognize the Lord and his love to all of the humanity.
In their turn, Acts 17:25 can be related to Isaiah 55:6, with the key message being the interpretation of the personality of God as a loving Father. Moreover, the link between God and the humankind is finally established openly: “For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we also are His children” (Acts 17:28). Therefore, Paul makes it obvious that Christian God guides His children, in contrast to the pagan idols that the Athenians worship.
It is important that Paul mentions the culture of the Athenians in his sermon; thus, Paul stresses that there is, in fact, little to no difference between the Christian believers and the Athenian pagans – Christian God will readily accept every child of His.
The next passage from the Areopagus Sermon shows Paul’s attempt at tying in the concept of the nature of a man and the relations between God and the humankind: “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man” (Acts 17:29).
What makes Paul’s sermon especially powerful is that it does not shy away from the elements that could be easily causing the audience’s aversion and unwillingness to become Christians. For example, at some point of his sermon, Paul touches upon the issue of repentance as the ultimate goal of a Christian believer: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30).
While one might argue that the given element of the sermon must have been the key reason for the Athenians to rebut the principles of the Christian faith, it still plays an important role in the sermon, since it sheds even more light on how close the relationships between the Christian God and His children are.
While Athenian pagan religion demanded that its adepts should solely worship particular gods without actually putting any thought into why these gods should be worshipped and what the result of this worshipping will be, Paul’s sermon makes it clear that the Christian God calls people to repent and to make amends for their sins. Therefore, the sermon conveys in a very clear manner that repentance and the readiness for purification is the ultimate goal of a true Christian.
Paul’s sermon defines not only the specifics of relationships between a Christian believer and God. In addition to the discussion of the given issue, Paul also manages to outline the character of God rather clearly; apart from His supremacy over His creatures, Paul also makes it clear that God is a kind and caring Father to all of His children. There is a chance even for the so-called “prodigal sons,” i.e., the Athenians who persisted in their pagan beliefs, to convert to the Christian religion and be brought back to the fold.
The issue of resurrection, which Paul also touches upon in his sermon, can be related to the distinction between the pagan religion and the Christian one. Concluding his sermon, Paul claims that “He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
The topic of resurrection also partially sets the Christian religion and the pagan beliefs of the Athenians aside, since it mentions the meaning of Christ’s death and the following resurrection. Thus, Paul stresses that, in contrast to pagan gods that the Athenians believed in and whose resurrection was a part of their divine transformation, the Christian God – or, to be more exact, His Son – died for the sins of the humankind, His resurrection is the sign that the humankind has another chance.
The last, but not the least, the structure of the sermon helps understand its purpose greatly. It is important that the sermon does not come out of nowhere – there is a coherent story that shows what exactly makes Paul address the Athenians and promote the ideas of Christianity to them. The first two passages are very slow; they serve as the means to convey Paul’s emotions and the purpose of his sermon to the audience, as well as define the skeptic mood of the latter.
The next passage that marks the beginning of the sermon is a striking contrast to the latter two since it starts with a straightforward accusation of the Athenians and their idolatry; for instance, Paul mentions the altar to the unknown god, which he found as he was passing by (Acts 17:23).
Creating the environment in which Paul’s agitated speech unwinds, the given part of the sermon sets the pace for the introduction of the Christian ideas to the pagans, therefore, convincing the latter to reconsider their beliefs and to convert to the Christian faith as the religion that allows for communication between God and people.
As the sermon unwinds, Paul becomes increasingly more passionate about his speech; the given section of the sermon culminates in Paul providing his understanding of what being a Christian means: “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man” (Acts 17:29). Thus, the sermon reaches its logical climax.
Finally, the sermon ends on a bittersweet note with some of the people listening to the sermon responding in an ironic sneer, yet others finally finding the will to combat their ideas regarding the pointless idolatry and preparing for a more fruitful and spiritual communication with the Christian God.
It would be wrong to assume that the Areopagus Sermon changed people’s vision of the Christian religion entirely; there was doubtlessly much more to fight for so that more people could learn about the key principles of Christianity and realize what incredible opportunities in terms of spiritual growth it provides.
However, the sermon has admittedly become the point at which the Christian religion became more than merely another set of myths and legends and was finally recognized as another means to envision the relationships between a believer and God. More to the point, the given sermon helped people figure out that God and His words are to be cognized, which was contrary to the idea of a mere cult following, which idolatry presupposed.
One of the strongest aspects of the sermon is that it addresses the problem directly, yet does not accuse people of their mistake – instead, it lends its audience a helping hand and suggests showing them the way of God. Rather unusual for the traditional religious methods, which were accepted at the time among the pagan members of the Athenian society, the given approach helped settle trustworthy relationships between Paul and Areopagus visitors, thus, preparing the ground for further changes within the Athenian society.
Paul’s sermon has a lot for its audience to learn both in terms of the Christian faith in general and how Christians envision their communication with the Lord in particular. The sermon has shown me that Christianity does not attack other religions – instead, it argues its way to the adepts of these religions to provide them with some food for thoughts and come to their conclusions. It is remarkable that the given feature of the Christian religion presupposes that it may coexist with other forms of worshipping God.
Thus, the sermon takes some of the blemishes on the Christianity reputation off, making it clear that its followers are ready for building peaceful relationships with the representatives of other religions. While the sermon is aimed at changing the Athenians’ mind and helping them convert into the Christian religion, it does not persuades them to do so, per se; instead, it addresses the audience’s need for having strong moral principles to follow.
Coogan, Michael D., et al., eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.
1. Michael D. Coogan et al., Eds., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2007), 1947.