As I was preparing to teach a lesson on Acts 17:16-34 this weekend I was excited to see the passage from a new perspective. In the past my attention had most often been drawn to Paul’s use of their altar to an unknown god as a springboard to introduce his message. What I saw was how he used the familiar to move to the unfamiliar (“For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” – Acts 17:23 ESV) I saw how he approached them (at least initially) in a non-threatening way (“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” – Acts 17:22 ESV). However, as I looked at the passage with a fresh set of eyes I began to see a larger picture drawn by Luke (the author of Acts). It intrigued me to find a dichotomy set up between what the philosophers thought of Paul and what Luke revealed about Paul through his speech to them. I must stress though, what’s important is not the dichotomy itself but what it points out. Let me show you what I mean.
(“Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” – Acts 17:18 ESV) The main word to notice hear is “babbler“. As I looked at commentary about this word in the ESV Study Bible I found that the word, in it’s original language, insinuated the idea of a person that pecked at ideas (like a chicken) only to spout them off without fully understanding them first. In other words, they saw him as a man of very shallow understanding. They themselves were men that stood around pondering and debating the most current thoughts in philosophy. Thus, they saw themselves as mental giants. By contrast they thought of Paul as an inferior philosopher. I even suspect that in summoning him to speak more extensively about the message he was proclaiming, they were intending to “take him to school” proverbially speaking.
However, as I said before Luke contrasts their opinion of Paul with a speech that paints quite a different picture as to who Paul was. Through his speech we see a man that was completely prepared to argue the Gospel to the greatest minds of the city. Amazingly, he embarked on his speech without any evidence of preparation. Yet, despite the fact that the speech was spontaneous, he skillfully wove a word picture of who God was and what He was doing through Jesus. Furthermore, he used their own thoughts, poems, and practices to demonstrate their inconsistency in thought and to further point to who exactly God was. If I might borrow a phrase from a recent blog by Jeff Vanderstelt, Paul demonstrated a tremendous degree of “Gospel Fluency“. So as I read this passage the desire I have is to be prepared. I want to be prepared to proclaim the Gospel (as Paul told Timothy) “in season and out.” How bout’ you?