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Acts 17:16-31 & Romans 1:18-22 by Robert Dean

What gods do you worship? Success? Money? Happiness? The pagan Athenians worshiped all the gods, betting that some of them would come to their aid. Listen to this lesson to learn how the Apostle Paul used their worship of the unknown god to show there is only one true God, the God of Creation. Find out how everyone has enough evidence to know that God exists but suppresses that truth. Begin the fascinating study of the Chain of Being and see how evolution grew out of it.

Click here to access Dr. Dean's paper presented at the Conservative Theological Society referenced in this Bible class.

Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:1 hr 3 mins 7 secs

Athens: GOD, Unknown gods, Stoics, Epicureans, Evolution, and the Chain of Being
Acts 17:16-31

The Stoics and the Epicurians are the primary audience of Paul's address and he is going to bring in something called evolution and also the chain of being.

There are four divisions in Bible study methods: 1.  Observation, which is what does the text say? 2.  Interpretation, which is what does the text mean? 3.  Correlation, which is taking what we think the text means and comparing it with other Scripture. 4.  Application.

If you spend a lot of time in observation you spend less time in interpretation. If you don't spend a lot of time in observation your interpretation is probably not going to be correct, and that is going to mess up your application. A lot of people think that interpretation is what does the text mean to me? Mostly, I don't ever care what the text means to you. I am only concerned about what the text meant to God the Holy Spirit and the human writer of Scripture. Once we can get that squared away it is pretty obvious what God wants you and I to do.

Under observation we ask the basic question, when, where, why, and how? Where here, when we get into this, is in Athens which is in ancient Greece and is now a little bit long in the tooth, so to speak, from its glory days in the 5th century BC. Paul gives a well-known message here, which I find is frequently not addressed very deeply. If it is, it is often misunderstood. There are two major addresses by the apostle Paul, one in Acts 13 and one in Acts 17, and he is addressing two different unbelieving bodies. One is Jewish with a background in Old Testament truth and one is purely pagan. There is a lot we can learn from these two presentations of the apostle Paul in presenting the gospel to different audiences.

The sermon in chapter 17 is in verses 22-31. He has an introduction and he uses a touchstone off the 'unknown god'. Then he uses that as a way to introduce the God of creation who he is not identifying as the unknown god. He gives a description of God, focusing on God as the creator God in vv. 24-29. This shows us why the doctrine of ex nihilo creation in Genesis chapter one is foundational. What you do with origins is the foundation of everything else that you think. That is, if you are logical and consistent. If you don't have the right God, the God who stands outside of creation everything else gets distorted. And this gets a little tricky to deal with because it is rather sophisticated in understanding the implications of these things.

So Paul spends six verses on this description of God and he challenges the audience with the implications. They get all upset because they can't really understand what he is saying. That points up another extremely important reality. That is, the more immersed your audience is in unbelief and the darkness of unbelief the less capable they are of understanding what you say. We have to come to a certain place where we have to understand what we can do to do the best job we can do to make the gospel as clear as we can. In spiritual depravity the unbelievers are so much in darkness. And it is not up to us to make it perfectly clear; God the Holy Spirit does that. Paul made it as clear as he could without compromising the truth about God. He didn't try to water things down and he does have some converts. We have to be careful because we live in a culture where if we don't have a lot we haven't really done it right. The problem is Noah stands as a judge against that view because he faithfully proclaimed the true gospel for over 100 years and didn't have a single convert. And he did it exactly right. Numbers may not tell the story.

Here in Athens Paul is provoked by the idolatry and he begins presenting the gospel to a group of intellectual, polytheistic pagans. Pagan is a technical term for people whose belief system is not influenced by a Judeo-Christian background. It is not a term that is pejorative; it is not an insult; it is not running somebody down. Acts 17:16 NASB "Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols." The word "provoked" is the Greek word paroxuno, which is a cognate of paroxysm, and it refers to a passion, of being upset, stirred up or angry. Every time Paul turned around there was another idol, another temple to another Greek god or goddess.

This is the apostle Paul who has grown up in a Greco-Roman culture in Tarsus, so he is not unfamiliar with this. But there was such a plethora of idols in Athens where it was said that there were more than anywhere else in the ancient world. There was just a market place of religious options—every god you could think of. In case you left some out, that is where the title 'to the unknown god' came from; just in case you missed one. You didn't want to offend one and so just to make sure you covered all your bases you put up an idol to the unknown god. It was not an idol to represent the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that they don't know about; it is just another god in case they missed one. But in their thinking that god would be part of their pantheon. This was in Paul's second missionary journey. It takes place in Athens and the Areopagus (Mars Hill).

Why is this is the Scripture? It is there in order to give us an illustration of the inability of unbelief to comprehend. Unbelief shrouds the mind in darkness so that the unbeliever becomes so immersed in his unbelief that when we take to him with our little pat Christian jargon phrases that we understand and all our Christian friends understand, he doesn't have a clue what we are talking about. This is what happens here. Paul mentions Jesus and Jesus' resurrection (iesous and anastasis) and they are thinking that iesous and anastasis are two new gods to stick up on the shelf with all their other gods. This is what happens in unbelief. They don't understand that when Paul talks about Jesus he is talking about the creator God of the universe who stands completely separate and distinct from everything they have ever thought of as religion.

When he talks about resurrection they can't take that literally because for them resurrection is the most ridiculous thing that anybody could ever think of, because in the Greek mind if you died your immaterial soul went to the place of the dead, Hades, and it was impossible for anyone to bodily return from Hades. They can't even fathom that somebody would talk about resurrection as a legitimate concept. So what their thinking does is automatically assume and redefine what Paul has said. They assume that he can't possibly believe there is a physical bodily resurrection and so he must be talking about another god.

That is how the unbeliever's mind works. You think you have made the gospel clear, and yet of you were to ask them to repeat it back to you what you get has nothing to do with what you said. So we see here an illustration of unbelief's inability to comprehend.

Acts 17:17 NASB "So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing {Gentiles,} and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present." To whoever walked along Paul would strike up a conversation and use that as an opportunity to talk about the gospel.

The how question is, how does he do it? So we have to ask how we can understand Paul's strategy to block this envelopment strategy of unbelief. Unbelief tries to envelop what you have said about God, reinterpret it and refashion it so that it fits within their frame of reference.

The reason we have trouble with this analysis is that we are not familiar with Greco-Roman thought. We are not familiar with the thinking of the Stoics and the Epicureans, but we are very familiar with the kind of thinking of the average person on the street in America. Here we have to understand the thinking of Greco-Roman culture and the thinking of the Stoics and the Epicureans a little bit.

Acts 17:18 NASB "And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, 'What would this idle babbler wish to say?' …" The Greek word translated "babbler" is the compound word sperma, meaning seed (talking about a little thing), and logos, referring to somebody who was an idea-picker—somebody who wanted to make themselves look brilliant, so they read a lot, listened to different people, and picked up all of the catch phrases and idioms of different erudite teachers. Then they would jumble them together to make themselves sound smart and sound, well read and intelligent, but they really didn't make sense. They just used a lot of these ideas. That is what they are accusing Paul of, that he has all of this verbiage and it sounds at the surface rather scholarly and erudite but it just doesn't mean anything. It is so incomprehensible that he is just another babbler. "… Others, 'He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,'—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection."

Acts 17:19 NASB "And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, 'May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming?" They want to evaluate what Paul is saying. It is not a trial. [20] 'For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.'" The question is, do they really want to know what they mean or are they just saying that out of a shallow intellectual curiosity that just wants to have their ears tickled, their minds stimulated, and yet really don't want to know truth?  

Acts 17:21 NASB (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)" They didn't want to know what truth was, they just wanted a new theory or a new way of explaining things—a lot like professional educators in our culture! 

Acts 17:22 NASB "So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, 'Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.'" This is very tongue-in-cheek. The Jews in the audience were really chuckling because he had just insulted nearly everybody there. He used the word deisidaimon. Part of that word, daimon, is where we get our word "demon." It is translated "religious" or "superstitious" or something of that nature, but there is a sort of double entendre there that indicates he is basically saying you are getting your ideas from the devil. Because other than the truth of the gospel all other ideas that make a competitive claim to truth against the Word of God ultimately comes from the devil—the devil's world is in competition with God's truth.

Acts 17:23 NASB "For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD' …" In their culture the unknown god was just another god. "Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you." He is not saying this idol to the unknown god is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He makes a separate statement and says, "the one you worship without knowing." In other words, you don't know anything about him.

The dynamics of what is happening here. One of the most important doctrines to understand is the nature of the sin nature and arrogance of the person who has turned against God. Romans 1:18 NASB "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness." The wrath of God isn't a term for future judgment; it is a term for God's judgment in historical time. We are looking at a sub-category of men, a category that is defined by being truth suppressors. They have rejected the non-verbal revelation of God in the heavens and are seeking to redefine reality on their own terms. This word translated "suppress" is katecho in the Greek, a present active participle which means this represents a continual action on their part. It characterizes them; they are truth suppressors. The meaning of the word has to do with preventing someone from doing something or causing it to be ineffective, to prevent it, to hinder, restrain or to hold down something. So it is to prevent something. What they are doing is prevent the knowledge of the truth from being exposed or being impressed upon their conscious mind. So they are pushing it down inside their soul. The last thing they want to know is the truth and every time you do something to tweak the truth that they know they get angry.

Culturally we are seeing that in our current generation. For a number of years there have been groups such as atheists, homosexuals, secular humanists, and evolutionists who have been operating in a culture that has been predominantly Christian and influenced by Christianity. But their numbers have been growing and now they have strength in numbers, and now they can let it all hang out. They write the most horrible letters to congressman and pastors and anyone who wants to stand up in the culture and say that there is right and there is wrong, and right and wrong never change. And homosexual deviant behavior is deviant behavior and is a sin just like any other sin. But it is wrong, and we can't call right wrong and wrong right; we have to take a stand for the truth.

We live in a world today where people have so denied the existence of God and that we were created in God's image that they are pushing that down and pushing it down into the sub, sub cellar of their soul. And what happens when a Christian comes along and says that behavior is wrong all of a sudden this truth that they are holding down starts to knock on the cellar door. When a bunch of Christians start getting vocal and the knocking gets louder they get really angry because they think they have won the battle and have been able to push this completely out of sight. They have been suppressing it. Another meaning for suppression has to do with confining it.

In Romans 1:18 God's wrath is revealed against men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness because [19] "that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them." This is a dogmatic statement of Scripture. What can be known about God is known to every single human being no matter how much they assert their atheism. The Word of God says that on the basis of the non-verbal witness of God in the heavens every human being has enough evidence to know with certainty that God exists. God has shown it to them. And what are they doing with it? They are burying it within the sub-basement and trying to put a lock on that basement door. [20] "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." 

What is going on here is the manifestation of the sin nature. The basic orientation of the sin nature is self-absorption, and when God comes along and says you are not supposed to be self-absorbed, you have to pay attention to Me, we want to bury Him down in the basement and lock the cellar door because it is not about Him it is about me. It is life is all about me and the more we practice truth suppression the more we give rein to arrogance and self-absorption. These are the basic arrogance skills that we develop, and when we increase our absorption with self then we become more and more self-indulgent. We give in to every little thing we want to do. We spoil ourselves, and the more we spoil ourselves the more we destroy our norms and standards. Then we have to justify it, so we become experts in self-justification.

What happens when somebody comes along with the truth is it exposes the lies that we tell ourselves. We don't like that so we get angry with those people. Self-justification practiced long enough leads to complete self-deception. We are so used to thinking in a wrong way that when somebody comes and tries to explain the right way it doesn't make sense to us anymore. At that point we have become so immersed in our own lies that it is almost unrecoverable. The end result of all this is self-deification.

Romans 1:21 NASB "For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks …" When you are self-absorbed you can't be very gracious or have much gratitude for things, especially if they go wrong. "… but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened." The darkness of unbelief shapes their thinking. [22] Professing to be wise, they became fools, [23] and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures." This is the background to developing idolatry. This was the problem in Athens: one idol after another. [24]  Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. [25] For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen."

That is the fundamental point that has happened in this decline and deterioration of negative volition. We end up serving and worshipping the creature rather than the creator. What makes Judeo-Christianity (Old and New Testament) unique and distinct among all of the world's religions and philosophies is their doctrine of origins. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob created, ex nihilo—out of nothing. He is not in any way, shape or form connected to the creation. He is totally distinct and totally other from the creation; He is not part of it.

The problem in all pagan religions and all pagan philosophies is the god or gods that they talk about are part of the creation, because there is no ex nihilo creation. Matter or something is always there, always eternal, and everything develops out of that.    

What is this thing called the chain of being? It was a commonly understood teaching if you had anything to do with academia from the Middle Ages up until the advent of modern science and modern Darwinism in the 19th century and maybe in the late 18th century. It was also known as the continuity of being, the scala naturae or the scale of nature by Aristotle, and sometimes referred to as the chain of being. It refers to a hierarchy of static unchanging forms with god [lower case] referred to as being itself in philosophical terms—the unmoved mover, the absolute, etc. at the top, and then there was angels in descending order. The reason they are all on the same scale is because they all participate in the same being. Some have more of this beingness and others have less than this beingness, and that depends on where they are on the scale. So this being or the unmoved mover, as Aristotle put it, are angels, then humans, animals, plants, down to inanimate objects. Each object has its object on the scale and the movement is from the top down and the forms are unchanging.

There are multiple web sites that are pure evolutionary web sites—Christian web sites have been doing this for a long time—that trace pre-scientific evolution to the early Greek philosophers, and even further back to pagan religions, the whole idea of the scale of being.

The classic work on the chain of being was written by Arthur Lovejoy. It was called simply The Chain of being. He says,

The essential and unbreakable links in the chain include the Divine Creator, the angelic heavenly the human, the animal, the world of plants and vegetation, and, the planet Earth itself with its minerals and waters.

So rocks and water participate in beingness but not at the same level as God who is at the top of the chain. God has the most, angels have a little bit less, humans have a little bit less, animals and then plants and then inanimate things. But they all participate out of the same chain of being.

This image became the basis for calling anything and everything sacred.

Pay attention to that. That, I think, has a role in the demonic roots of modern environmentalist movement, and the occult roots of the modern environmental movement. This is part of it, because everything becomes sacred if every one of us, from God to rocks, participates in the same being. Everything becomes equally sacred.

       The scale of being was thus an important social concept that was also used to justify many different many different types of social inequality.

So it was used to justify a lot of reasoning and arguments in favor of slavery. Whites are better than blacks, all the way down the chain. The more advanced races are superior to the primitive races, which is why the sub-title of Dawin's Origin of the Species was Why the Superior Races Will Supplant the More Primitive Races. The theory of evolution is a justification of white supremacy basically. All evolution and any belief in life based on evolution can't escape that. They may not like it but that is embedded in their philosophy of evolution.

The result was the conception of the plan and structure of the world which through the Middle Age and down to the late eighteenth century men of philosophy, most men of science, and indeed most educated men were to accept without question. This great chain of being composed of an immense or by the strict but seldom applied logic of the principle of continuity of an infinite number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existence which barely escapes non-existence through every possible grace up to the ens perfectissimum

That is, the perfect Being, which is God. The important thing I'm pointing out is everybody held to a chain of being, which was everybody. It excludes the creator-creature distinction. The Bible says God is totally different, totally other. He doesn't share His being with us at all.

Here is what Darwin said:

At some future period not very distant as measured by centuries the civilized races [white, European] of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races [colored races] throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphist apes will no doubt be exterminated, the break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state as we may hope even in the Caucasian and some ape as low as a baboon instead as now between the negro, Australian or the gorilla. 


 That is thrown out so everybody would understand what a racist Darwin was and what a racist philosophy Darwinism is. 

Lovejoy says,

What the school men called ens perfectissimum (the perfect being) the summit of the hierarchy of being, the ultimate and only completely satisfying object of contemplation and adoration, there can be little doubt that the idea of the good was the god of Plato, and there can be none that became the god of Aristotle. 

This is the point. This god isn't the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The god of Aristotle and the god of the philosophers, the god of the pagans, was part of this continuity of beings, and this came from the Greeks and entered into the theologies of the Middle Ages.

The diagram: What we have at the top is God, in white but you get less light as you go further down the line until you get down to astronomical, geophysical environment—including the climate! So climate shares in being, so the climate is now sacred. This so modern! We didn't come up with these ideas, but we have to understand where they came from.

Alexander Pope in his Essay on Man put it this way:

Vast chain of being, which from God began,
Natures ethereal, human, angel, man
Beast, bird, fish, insect! what no eye can see,
No glass can reach! from Infinite to thee,
From thee to Nothing! -- On superior pow'rs
Were we to press, inferior might on ours:
Or in the full creation leave a void,
Where, one step broken, the great scale's destoy'd:
From Nature's chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.

What is his point? Everything shares and is linked together in this great chain. That is where Greek pagan thought is coming from, that is where modern western European thought is coming from, that is where postmodern thought is coming from, that is where all pagan thought is coming from. 

When we understand something of the Epicureans and the Stoics we can understand why Paul does what he does. And we are talking to the same kind of people on the streets today. They may not have the terminology down and may never have heard of Aristotle or Plato, but they think that way. Paul understood that. That is why he put the gospel the way he did. And the way he did it is really simple. The issue is Paul is not going to sacrifice the doctrine, the creator-creature distinction, when he witnesses to them. There is no compromise and finding some sort of common ground between human viewpoint and divine viewpoint because human viewpoint or worldly thinking has nothing in common with the thinking of God. Too many people compromise biblical truth in order to make it more palatable to pagans. Pagans don't want it to be palatable, they want it to be so suppressed and buried in the basement that they will never hear from it again.

Our job is to give the gospel and to shine as lights in exposing the darkness.