In Paul’s missionary journeys, as described in the book of Acts, Paul seemed to have a certain routine when he visited a new city. Paul would go into a synagogue and preach how Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Some Jews would respond, while others would get angry and try to force him out of the city. Those that responded would grow in number, eventually becoming the core group of a new church in that city.
Paul in Athens
Paul’s method of operation was modified when he first visited Athens. After preaching in the synagogue, Paul was invited to the Areopagus—also known as Mars Hill—where philosophers would debate.
Paul’s sermon to the philosophers at Mars Hill—found in Acts 17:22-31—is unique for several reasons. Paul gears his sermon toward an exclusively Gentile audience, going so far as to quote Gentile poets. Since his audience likely did not have familiarity with the story of Israel in the Old Testament, Paul provides them with this background information. In this sermon, we can see how Paul summarizes the entirety of God’s redemption plan (creation, fall, redemption, restoration).
Paul describes the God of Israel as a god who created and continues to sustain everything. He is a god who does not need humans to survive, nor a god that needs a physical dwelling place.
God is described further as the one who made mankind, creating all the nations as descendants from one man. God does not depend on mankind; rather, mankind depends on God for our very breath. This is not a foreign concept for the Gentiles; Paul quotes their poets to drive this point home—we owe everything to the creator.
Paul’s description of the fall is found in his critique of idolatry. Having established that we depend on the creator God—and even quoting a Greek poet that we are children of the divine—Paul then explains how manmade idolatry is worthless. Idols are made from the best materials and skills that mankind has to offer, but it pales in comparison to the craftsmanship of God.
Paul also describes the effects of the fall, using the imagery of ignorance. The Athenians are guilty of not knowing the God of the cosmos and instead worshipping idols created by humans. Their worship is two steps removed from the true object of our worship; instead of worshipping God, they worship something created by humans, whom God created!
Because of ignorance and misplaced worship, mankind is far from God. But that relationship does not need to stay broken; Paul says that God is not that far off (verse 27). The god that they do not know (verse 23) is knowable, and Paul tell them how. The God of everything is giving mankind an opportunity to repent—to turn away from their idols and turn toward God.
Paul adds a sense of urgency for this repentance by mentioning a future day of judgment for mankind. For these philosophers, who were used to discussing and debating the merits of ideas, the idea of an ultimate judge who would evaluate them must have made them sweat just a little.
God’s plan of restoration, as Paul describes to the Athenian philosophers, hinges on the resurrection of the dead. Jesus—whom Paul never refers to by name in this sermon—is the first-fruit of the resurrection from the dead (verse 31), thus providing hope to the rest of mankind.
This final point—the resurrection of the dead—seems to have been a divisive one for the Athenians. Some rejected Paul’s message because of it, while others were drawn in, hoping to hear more about it (verse 32).
In this brief sermon, which only lasts 9 verses, Paul gives a decent summary of God’s redemption plan. While it is not exhaustive, it meets the Gentile philosophers on their level. Moreover, it stirred them to respond, with several becoming followers of Jesus (verse 34). While we might see it as lacking—it doesn’t even mention Jesus by name!—Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill is a good example of contextualizing your sermon to your audience, as well as summarizing God’s redemption plan.Tweet