Perhaps, my favorite speech (sermon) in the Bible is Paul’s address to an elite group of people in Athens. The people in Athens were fond of spending their time “in nothing except telling or hearing something new”. (Acts 17:21) When some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers heard Paul in the marketplace, they brought him to the Areopagus.
Do you know people like that? They like to talk philosophy, but they don’t do it out of a love for the truth. They just like the intellectual challenge or the exercise of the imagination. Those conversations are ultimately unfulfilling unless truth is the object.
When Paul came to Athens, he was struck by all the idols he saw. (Acts 16:17) Athens was filled philosophies and gods of unending variety. In this way, Athens was like the modern Internet: a person might not ever exhaust all the possibilities. A person could spend a lifetime trying without ever synthesizing all the information and fitting the pieces to the puzzle of life together.
Paul cut the chase. Referencing an inscription: “To the unknown god”, Paul opened his speech with the statement, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23)
I love that! Paul started where they were. He started with something familiar to them, and he used it as a segue into an introduction of “[t]he God who made the world and everything in it”. There were temples everywhere in Athens, but Paul was not shy in saying that the “Lord of heaven and earth does not live in temples made by men”. (Acts 17:24)
Paul wasn’t interested in small talk, or ideas for nothing but the novelty of them.
I also love that Paul quoted Greek philosophers and poets to them. He quoted Epimenides of Crete for the proposition that “In him [the God who made the heaven and earth] we live and move and have our being”; and he quoted Aratus for that proposition that we are His offspring. (Acts 17:28)
Paul was educated, and he could speak the language of educated people. He could take poetry and use it in a sermon on God. He didn’t play their games, though. He didn’t speak just to hear himself talk. He didn’t pander to their penchant for novel ideas.
He called them to account: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30)
Paul preached the Gospel, the good news that Jesus died for our sins, redeeming us from destruction and giving us the hope of everlasting life, but Paul lost most of his audience at that point. They weren’t interested in “dogma”. They took offense at the exclusivity of Paul’s message. They liked ideas, but they weren’t interested in truth. Sound familiar?
Truth, of course, is exclusive. That’s the nature of truth. People like the Athenians, and people who embrace post-modern thought today, don’t want to want to hear ideas that are exclusive. They want variety. They want to keep their options open, ironically even to the exclusion of truth.
A few people, though, were moved by Paul’s sermon. They wanted to hear more. Among them was Dionysius, the Areopagite. For Dionysius, Paul provided him the missing piece to the puzzle of his life.
An Areopagite was a member of the council of the Areopagus. The Areopagus was a prominent rock outcropping in Athens west of the Acropolis on which a court building stood. It was later called Mars Hill. The council of the elders of the city met there, and criminal cases were tried there.
Dionysius was, therefore, a member of the council of elders. He was among the elite in the city. He may have been a lawyer or a judge.
Dionysius would have been much like the other men of Athens, steeped in a culture of gods and ideas. He certainly would been accustomed to their attitudes, though he might have interest in truth then most. If he was involved in the council of elders or with the trying of criminals, he was involved in matters of more mundane importance, like life and death decisions.
Maybe the gravitas of these things weighed on his conscience. Maybe that is why Dionysius entertained Paul’s speech as something more than just another new idea…. Maybe something else was going on with Dionysius.
The historian, Eusebius, reports that Dionysius had an experience in Egypt that made him particularly interested in Paul’s message. It wasn’t just that Dionysius was more serious than his fellow Athenian elites, though perhaps he was that also. Dionysius had an experience as a youth to which Paul’s message spoke.
According to Eusebius, Dionysius was in Heliopolis, Egypt (near Cairo) at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem. The period of darkness that occurred that afternoon (see Matthew 27:45) left a strong impression on young Dionysius, and he made special note of the day and time.
Dionysius remembered the expression that left such an impression on his young mind when Paul talked about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Maybe Dionysius already knew that the period of darkness occurred at the very time that Jesus died in Jerusalem. Maybe the story prompted him to inquire of Paul about the details.
However the story unfolded for Dionysius, Paul put the pieces of the puzzle together for him. As a result, Dionysius believed and was baptized with his family around 50-52 AD, and he became the first Bishop of the Church in Athens. According to Eusebius, Dionysius was even martyred for his faith by burning.
The Gospel was no frivolous idea for Dionysius. It was the dénouement of a story that began in his youth and came to life for him, personally, through the preaching of Paul. Dionysius met the Living Word – Jesus Christ – at the Areopagus in Athens, and his life was changed for eternity.