The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE ACTS OF
Continuing our study of the Acts of the Apostles, at our last meeting we finished with chapter sixteen where after being beaten and imprisoned for casting out a demon from a young girl who was a medium/fortune-teller in Phillipi, Paul and Silas were released and together with Timothy departed for Thessalonica.
Chapter seventeen begins telling us that the three apostles passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia on their way to Thessalonica, but it seems they didn't preach there but continued on their journey until they reached Thessalonica. In Thessalonica there was a synagogue which suggests that there were many Jews living there. As was now the custom for Paul he first went to the synagogue and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them through the scriptures how the Christ and Messiah had to suffer and rise again from the dead and this Christ whom the scriptures speak of is Jesus. Some of the men were convinced and became disciples, but a great many of the Greeks who were proselytes to the Jewish faith believed and became Christians and a great many women of the noble classes.
But the Jews who didn't believe were moved with envy and paying for the services of some low-down layabouts, they gathered a mob who went around the city making disturbances. The apostles had been staying with a certain Jew named Jason and the mob forced their way into his house so that they could bring out the apostles, but they must have been warned of the assault and hid themselves. Not finding the apostles, the mob took hold of Jason and others that were in his house and brought them before the rulers of the city, shouting that those who have turned the world upside down have now come unto us also, and this Jason has received them into his house. He and all those in his house go against the decrees of Caesar saying that there is another king named Jesus. It would seem that in Thessalonica, Paul had preached about the Second Coming and that Christ would be the universal King. The accusation troubled the people and the rulers because the Romans severely punished any projection of another king other than the emperor. But as Jason and those with him weren't actually responsible for preaching Christ, the rulers demanded a promise from them that they would insist from their guests that they leave the city and then they were set free. With the demand there must have been a threat on their lives, because they immediately sent Paul and Silas to Berea. Paul's departure from Thessalonica was supposed to be a temporary measure to allow the situation to die down and then he would return again, but from his Epistle to the Thessalonians we can deduce that he never had the opportunity to return, because he writes that "he would have come to them again but Satan hindered him". (1 Thess. 2:18)
At Berea Paul went into the synagogue of the Jews and preached to them of Jesus Christ showing them through the scriptures that he is the Messiah. The Jews of Berea were more dignified than the Jews of Thessalonica and received the word with an open mind and searched the scriptures daily to see whether they were in agreement with the things Paul spoke of. As a result many of the Jews believed Paul as also did many of the Greek women from the higher classes. When the Jews of Thessalonica heard that the word of God was being accepted in Berea they came and stirred up the people. Their anger was chiefly against Paul so the brethren of Berea sent Paul down to the sea so that he could sail to Athens, but Silas and Timothy, not being in immediate danger, stayed behind to continue Paul's work. Once Paul reached Athens, he sent word to Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed.
As he waited for them to come, Paul was disturbed at how the city was totally given over to idolatry. The city was full of idol statues. An ancient writer tells us that at the time there were 30,000 statues of gods in Athens. Paul recognized that these were not merely objects of art, but were actually gods being worshipped by the people of Athens. Each idol revealed that these men and women of Athens had a great capacity for God. It showed that they knew there was something beyond man, and they were seeking for it.
Paul went to the synagogue where he disputed with the Jews. These Jews (and the Greeks who were following Judaism) were opposed to the idolatry of the city, but could do nothing to prevent it. He then spoke with various people at the market place. These were common people who as tradesmen went about their business. He then encountered certain philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics.
Ancient Greek philosophy extends from as far as the seventh century B.C. up until the beginning of the Roman Empire, in first century A.D. During this period five great philosophical traditions originated: the Platonist, the Aristotelian, the Stoic, the Epicurean, and the Skeptic. Here we have philosophers from two of the schools.
The Epicureans were atheists; they denied God's existence. They denied a life after death. They were also materialists, and felt that this life was the only thing that really existed and that, therefore, men should get the most out of it. They felt that pleasure was the highest virtue, and that pain was the opposite. Their motto (and it still persists to this day) was "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." They were what we would call today "existentialists," living for the experience of the moment. This is a widespread philosophy in our day, although it is no longer called Epicureanism.
The Stoics, followers of the philosopher Zeno, were pantheists. That is, they believed that everything is God, and that he does not exist as a separate entity, but is in the rocks and trees and every material thing. Their attitude toward life was one of ultimate resignation, and they prided themselves on their ability to take whatever came. Their motto, in modern terms, would be "Grin and bear it." They urged moderation: "Don't get over-emotional, either about tragedy or happiness." Apathy was regarded as the highest virtue of life.
Luke gives us the initial reaction of these two philosophical groups to Paul: one group said "What will this babbler say?" These were probably the Epicureans. Others said "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities" because he preached Jesus and the resurrection and these were probably the Stoics. The two philosophical schools react very differently towards Paul. The Epicureans, who were basically atheistic and materialists, were contemptuous of what they heard from Paul. They treated him with utter disdain. They said, "What would this babbler say?" The word babbler in the Greek literally means "seed-pecker." They saw Paul as one of the little birds in the marketplace going around pecking at seeds here and there. They regarded him as a mere collector of fragments of truth, gathering a few choice words from philosophies that he had picked up along the way and trying to impress people. They smiled and dismissed him contemptuously.
On the other hand the Stoics were interested. Yet Luke is careful to tell us that their interest did not arise out of a genuine desire to know and understand what Paul said, but out of a shallow curiosity that was intrigued by the fact that he seemed to present to them two new and strange gods, a masculine god named Jesus and a feminine god named Resurrection (Anastasi).
Now the Athenians were very different from the others Greeks. They were not threatened by strange gods and as Luke tells us they spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing. So in a friendly attitude they took Paul and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine is of what you speak of? Because you bring some strange things to our ears; we wish to know therefore what these things mean.
They brought Paul to the Areopagus – what then is the Areopagus. The word itself is a composite word from Aris who was the Greek god of war and pagos meaning rock. Literally it means Aris' rock known also by its Latin name Mar's hill. It was a hill above the market place north-west of the Acropolis and received its name from Greek mythology which says that on this hill Aris was tried by the 12 gods of Olympus for the murder of Poseidon's son. In pre-classical times (before the 5th century BC), the Areopagus was the council of elders of the city, similar to the Roman Senate and like the Senate, its membership was restricted to those who had held high public office. In classical times, it functioned as the Supreme high Court where cases of murder were judged. The name Areopagus, in Greek Areios Pagos, still exists today. In 1834 after the independence of Greece in 1821, and by royal command, the Modern Greek Supreme Court was instituted and officially named Areios pagos in honour of the ancient court.
So Paul standing in the middle of the Areopagus, begins his introduction: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are too superstitious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To an unknown god.' This god whom you say is unknown to you yet you ignorantly worship, him do I declare to you. This is a most thoughtful introduction. He did not denounce them, he did not attack their idolatry; in fact, he paid them a compliment as far as he could. He said that in all things you are too superstitious, but this was not an attack on their character, because what he was actually saying was that they were a very religious people and showed they had the capacity and interest to come to know the true God. There were 30,000 gods in Athens, but clearly these were not enough for them or didn't fulfil all their religious needs that they had an altar erected to an unknown god. They acknowledged, by the presence of that altar, that their “gods” were insufficient and left room for one more. How clearly this voices the agony of humanity, the cry for a God they know exists, but cannot find. This is what Paul sensed at Athens, the hunger for the God they cannot find.
The altar is not an idol. An idol of a “god” required an identification of that god. The name of the god must be known, and the characteristics and attributes must also be known, if one was going to have an image of it. An idol is a representation of a god, but this altar had no name or characteristics of a god. It was like the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in this regard—you could not put a name on the headstone, not knowing the identity of the soldier buried there.
With this introduction Paul sets about to introduce them to the truth about this unknown but living God. The God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwells not in temples made with hands; nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. What is Paul saying here? God is the maker of all things, he is the One who makes man and everything else that exists in all the universe. He is the originator of all things, he is not made by human hands as their idols are, he cannot dwell or be contained within temples made by human hands as their idols are, he is not served by men's hands unlike their own gods who are served with food and wine and other things as though they have need of gifts being continually offered to them to appease them. On the contrary God has no need of all these things; he is not a receiver, but a giver and gives to us life and breath and everything else we need to live.
Having declared who God is, Paul now focuses on mankind because the Greeks believed that whoever was not a Greek was a barbarian and that Zeus the Olympian god loved only the Greeks. God, he said, has made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us. Here Paul is telling them that all men are brothers because they have the same forefathers Adam and Eve. God has determined where they shall live, and how long they will live there, how long a nation or empire should take to rise and then fall again, the boundaries of every nation, the climate, the language and geographical size of the various nations. But in spite of all these differences they all have a common father, a common beginning, and therefore the same common and high calling. And this high calling is to seek for the Lord, that they might feel after him and find him. The Athenians sought after God, but they sought for him in the wrong places far from where he is. Yet God is not far from everyone of us; he reveals himself to those who truly seek for him.
Paul continues: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Paul is telling them that God is not far from us because he is within us and we are in him as some of the poets have said, and Paul finishes his thoughts by quoting a line from the poem called "Phaenomena" by the poet Aratus "For we are also his offspring"
Aratus' Phaenomena literally meaning "Appearances" is a didactic poem -- a practical manual in verse that teaches the reader to identify constellations and other celestial phenomena and to predict weather. The first verse begins by praising Zeus as the creator of the universe:
"Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is
full of Zeus.
Paul tells them that whatever they did in the past everything is overlooked by God because they were ignorant of him; he does not judge them, he does not hate them and doesn't reject them, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, to no longer act as they did before. Now that they know the truth they have a responsibility to change their lives. From now on God will no longer overlook their sins because he has appointed a day, the future judgement day, in which the world will be judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed to be the judge of the world. A Man, someone who has lived right here with us, who knows what human life is like, who has felt everything we feel. He will be the One who passes judgment on that day and as an assurance of this fact God has raised him from the dead. Paul, of course was referring to Christ, but he didn't have the opportunity to give them his name because he was interrupted by some of the listeners who laughed at the idea of the resurrection. These were probably the Epicureans. Another group told him that they would hear of this matter again, in other words they needed more evidence to believe, however there were others who believed and accepted the Christian faith. Among them Luke mentions two names Dionysius the Areopagite, who was a judge of the Areopagus and later became bishop of Athens and a woman named Damaris.
Dionysius the Areopagite is an important figure in the Orthodox Church. Four theological works of great significance are attributed to him: The Divine Names, The Mystical Theology, The Celestial Hierarchy, and The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, as well as eleven letters to various people. After his conversion to Christianity he remained a companion of Paul for three years until Paul selected him as bishop of Athens. Twice he journeyed to Jerusalem, the first time to meet the Mother of God and the Second time to be present at her repose in the year 57 AD.
Having met the Mother of God Dionysius wrote to his teacher Paul about his encounter with her.
“I witness by God, that besides the very God Himself, there is nothing else filled with such divine power and grace. No one can fully comprehend what I saw. I confess before God: when I was with John, who shone among the Apostles like the sun in the sky, when I was brought before the countenance of the Most Holy Virgin, I experienced an inexpressible sensation. Before me gleamed a sort of divine radiance which transfixed my spirit. I perceived the fragrance of indescribable aromas and was filled with such delight that my very body became faint, and my spirit could hardly endure these signs and marks of eternal majesty and heavenly power. The grace from her overwhelmed my heart and shook my very spirit. If I did not have in mind your instruction, I should have mistaken her for the very God. It is impossible to stand before greater blessedness than this which I beheld.”
After the death of the Apostle Paul, St Dionysius wanted to continue with his work, and therefore went off preaching in the West, accompanied by the Presbyter Rusticus and Deacon Eleutherius. They converted many to Christ at Rome, and then in Germany, and then in Spain. In France, during a persecution against Christians by the pagan authorities, all three confessors were arrested and thrown into prison. By night St Dionysius celebrated the Divine Liturgy with angels of the Lord. In the morning the martyrs were beheaded. This was in the year 96 during the persecution under the Roman emperor Dometian. According to an old tradition, St Dionysius took up his head, proceeded with it to the church and fell down dead there. A pious woman named Catulla buried the relics of the saint.
For many centuries Dionysius was identified as St. Denis, the patron saint of Paris, but most scholars and theologians today believe that they were two separate saints whose identities became fused and confused. If they are two different saints they share the same martyrdom, both having been beheaded at Lutetia which later became Paris with the only difference being that St. Dionysius lived and died in the first century while according to Roman Catholic sources Denis lived and died in the third century. In both cases with them were also martyred a priest named Rusticus and a deacon named Eleutherius and a woman named Catulla buried the relics of the saints.
Chapter eighteen. Paul departs from Athens and goes to Corinth and there finds a certain Jew named Aquila, who was born in Pontus and had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla because the Emperor Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome. Paul stayed with the couple, because like himself, they were tentmakers by trade and so worked with them.
In Corinth, every Sabbath, Paul reasoned with the Jews and the Greek proselytes to Judaism, but it would seem that he was careful in his words and didn't actually preach that Jesus was the Christ and expected Messiah. Probably because he was alone and feared their reaction, but when Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul's spirits were lifted and encouraged by the fact that he was no longer alone, he boldly testified to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. They opposed his testimony and blasphemed so Paul shook the dust from his garments and said "your blood be upon your own head, I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles," in other words, I have done what I could to preach to you the truth, but as you reject the truth, from now on I have no responsibility for your spiritual suicide and will no longer preach to you, but will go and preach to the gentiles of Corinth.
So leaving the synagogue he entered the house of a certain Justus who was a proselyte to Judaism, but believed in Christ and his house was adjoined to the synagogue and seemed the ideal place for both Jews and Greeks to come together to hear the word of God. Among those who came was Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, who believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians Paul writes that he personally only baptised Crispus and Gaius and the household of Stephanos.
Paul must have feared for his life in Corinth because we are then told that during the night he saw a vision of the Lord who told him to not be afraid, but to speak and not keep silent because he would be with him and no man would do him harm because he had many people in that city that believed. So Paul continued preaching the word of God in Corinth for eighteen months. From here we know that he wrote his two Epistles to the Thessalonians.
When Gallio beame proconsul of Achaia (Greece) the Jews plotted to destroy Paul by bringing him before Gallio's judgment seat. Gallio, whose full name was Junius Annaeus Gallio, was appointed proconsul of Greece in 52 or 53 AD. by the Roman Senate under the Emperor Claudius. He was the elder brother of the Roman philosopher Seneca who was tutor and for some time minister of the emperor Nero. His brother says of Gallio that he was a very modest man, of a sweet disposition, and greatly beloved.
Standing before the judgement seat, Paul was accused of persuading men to worship God contrary to the Jewish law. Gallio may have had a mild and sweet disposition but he was not going to allow the Jews to complain to him of what was not within his office. He believed that when it came to matters of religion, he should leave the Jews settle matters on their own, but at the same time he was not going to allow them to use this liberty to persecute another, neither was he going to allow the Jews' spiteful manoeuvre into entrapping him into persecuting Christians.
Paul was about to defend himself and show that he did not teach men to worship God contrary to law, but Gallio intervened and said to the Jews: If it were a matter of wrong or wicked doing I would be forced into giving you a hearing, but if it be a question of words and named and of your law then take care of it yourselves because I will not be a judge of such matters. It would seem though that the Jews continued to insist that he judge the case because Gallio was forced to drive them from the judgement seat. The Greeks who were there, sympathizing with the proconsul's disgust at the Jews' intolerance, beat Sosthenes the chief ruler of the Jews' synagogue "before the judgment seat. Gallio ignored the beating because the Jewish persecutor was only getting himself what he had intended for Paul. Sosthenes must have become the chief ruler of the Synagogue after Crispus had become a Christian, but according to First Corinthians he also abandoned the Jewish faith and embraced Christianity.
After this event, Paul remained in Corinth for a good while yet and then took leave of the brethren there and sailed to go to Syria by Ephesus taking with him Aquila and Priscilla, but before setting of Paul had his head shorn at nearby Cenchrea because he had made a vow. In times of a great illness or in danger of their lives, the Jews made a vow to God known as the Nazarite vow. During this vow they had to abstain from alcohol for thirty days and not cut their hair. After the thirty days they would pray and offer a sacrifice in the temple of Jerusalem and then have their heads shaven and throw the hairs into the fire of the sacrificial altar. If they were travelling, they could shave their head on the thirtieth day, but within a limited time had to bring the hairs to the temple to throw them into the fire. We are not told why Paul made the vow, but probably it was because of the difficulties he encountered in Corinth. What we can deduce from the vow is that as long as it didn't harm his Christian convictions Paul was also a Jew and fulfilled the Jewish law.
The company reach Ephesus and Paul left Aquila and Priscilla there to set sail for Caesarea, but as he had a little time before leaving, he entered the synagogue and spoke with the Jews there. They received him openly and desired him to stay with them a few more days but he refused saying that he must keep the upcoming feast in Jerusalem probably to fulfil his vow, but he promised them that if it was God's will he would return. So he bade them farewell and set off from Ephesus and landed at Caesarea. From there he travelled to Jerusalem and greeted the church there and then travelled to Antioch from where he began his second apostolic journey.
Having stayed there some time Paul departed on his third apostolic journey going over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia strengthening all the disciples and from there he intended to return to Ephesus. Before he reached Ephesus, a certain Greek Jew named Apollos from Alexandria came to Ephesus. Apollo was well educated and had great knowledge of the Old Testament. He had been taught of the Christian faith and spoke and taught attentively the things of the Lord, but his knowledge of Christ was incomplete because he only knew of the baptism of John and was probably taught by the disciples of St. John the Baptist. In other words he knew that Jesus was the Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world as John had taught, but was ignorant of Christ's crucifixion and Resurrection. Apollo began to speak boldly in the synagogue and when Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him into their home and taught him the Christian faith more completely and probably baptized him.
Apollo then desired to travel to Greece and the brethren of Ephesus wrote an introductory letter exhorting the disciples at Corinth to receive him as a Christian. This was the first introductory letter from one local church to another local church. In Corinth Apollo proved to be a great strength for the disciples there, helping all those who had believed through grace. Through his great knowledge of the Old Testament, he publicly proved to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. Apollos great success at Corinth is acknowledged by Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. (3: 4-6)
Apollos eloquent speaking had raised his popularity to superstar status and the Corinthians, instead of being followers of Christ became divided and became followers of the teachers saying I am of Paul or I am of Apollo. Paul writing to them tells them that these things were childish and foolish because both of them were simply ministers who preached the word of God. I, he said have planted, Apollos has watered, but God gave the increase.