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The Christadelphian | September 2015

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial The coming day
  • Letters to the Editor
  • 100 years ago
  • Sunday morning Glory in the Lord | Hamilton Wilson
  • The seven last sayings of Christ (3) | Paul Cresswell
  • Paul on Mars Hill and the Old Testament | Peter Forbes
  • Archaeology in focus Book Review | James Andrews
  • Book Review A Light to the Gentiles by Jonathan Cope | Amy Parkin
  • Creation or Evolution – debating with evolutionists | Stephen Palmer
  • An A-Z of discipleship ‘C’ for Children of Light | Amy Parkin
  • A unique solace | Sandy Robson
  • Faith Alive! Timothy – No man like-minded | David Simpson
  • Bible Learning Centre, Wakefield May 9 – June 20, 2015 | Ken Hardy
  • Signs of the times “Many shall run to and fro …” | Jonathan Cope
  • Israel and their Land Iran & Russia | Roger Long
  • Epilogue Slaves of righteousness | David Caudery
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Paul on Mars Hill and the Old Testament

The Apostle Paul’s words to the philosophers in Athens, alluding to a number of Old Testament passages, are very relevant to the twenty-first century.

Whilst waiting at Athens for Silas and Timotheus, Paul saw the idolatrous disposition of the Athenians with their multitude of altars to different gods. He had been preaching to “the devout persons” in the synagogue and the market. His activities, being noticed by the ‘learned’ in the city, prompted them to see Paul as a “babbler”. So, because of the way they spent their time telling and hearing new things, they invited Paul to Mars Hill to explain what his preaching meant (Acts 17:16‑34).

A summary

The whole of Paul’s presentation of the Gospel in Acts 17 could be spoken in just a few minutes. It is likely that he spoke for considerably longer than the time it would take us to read the speech. So probably the record in Acts 17 is an inspired summary of what Paul said. We have an indication that at least Peter’s speech in Acts 2 is a summary because at the end of the record of what he said we are told that, “with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation” (Acts 2:40).

The fact that at the end of his speech Paul speaks of “that man …” without naming Jesus would add to the view that what is recorded is a summary of the words spoken on Mars Hill.

General knowledge

The Stoics and Epicureans were great debaters, and would be well read in the literature available at the time. This would include the writings of earlier philosophers, such as the founders and previous adherents of their particular disciplines. It is probable that their reading extended beyond the scope of their own teachers and would have included other learned works. It is very likely that they were familiar with the Hebrew scriptures. They would not view the Hebrew writings as being as authoritative as those of their teachers. They would not see them in the same way as Paul – as the inspired words of God. But the Hebrew scriptures would be a happy debating topic, one can imagine. It is the teaching of Messiah in those writings that Paul is keen to highlight in his speech to them.

The basis of the speech

Paul’s objective is to show that the God who made the world has a plan which revolves around the resurrection and return of Jesus Christ. It is not surprising, therefore, that he makes extensive use of the Hebrew scriptures – our Old Testament. His use of it is blended with words from other writings that they would know, where the sentiments therein could also be found in the Hebrew scriptures.

The table below shows the major references to the Old Testament and their poets. It is suggested that these references formed the basis of what Paul said and that Paul expanded on each Old Testament reference, probably setting the context for his audience.

Acts 17 Words Origin
17:24 God that made the world Isaiah 42:5
17:24 Lord of heaven and earth Genesis 14:19; Matthew 11:25
17:24 Dwelleth not in temples made with hands Acts 7:48; Isaiah 66:1
17:25 Giveth to all breath Isaiah 42:5
17:26 Bounds of their habitation Deuteronomy 32:8
17:27 Not far from us Deuteronomy 30:11
17:28 For in him we live and move and have our being Epimenides; Job 12:10
17:28 We are his offspring Aratus, Phaenomena 5
17:29 Godhead like gold, silver, graven Isaiah 40:18,19
17:31 Judge the world in righteousness Psalm 96:13

The record of the speech is valuable to us today as society manifests elements of both Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. Therefore Paul’s presentation should teach us how to rebut such philosophies when we encounter them.

Whilst this consideration will not investigate in depth the philosophies of the Stoics and Epicureans, it will be helpful to summarise the main characteristics of the philosophy of the two groups [1] before considering the material to which Paul makes reference.

Stoic philosophy

Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason. A primary aspect of Stoicism involves improving the individual’s ethical and moral well-being: Virtue consists in a will that is in agreement with Nature.

As a philosophy it is in opposition to the Christian Gospel.The major difference between Christianity and Stoicism relates to God. Stoics believed in a multitude of gods; Christians believe that there is one God. Stoics did not consider that there was a beginning of the universe; Christians accept that God created the universe at a finite point in time.

Epicurean philosophy

Epicurean philosophy saw individual pleasure as the sole or chief good in life. Hence, Epicurus advocated living in such a way as to derive the greatest amount of pleasure possible during one’s lifetime, yet doing so moderately in order to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence in such pleasure. On the matter of authority for right and wrong Epicureanism was characterised by an absence of divine principle. Law-breaking was counselled against because of both the shame associated with detection and the punishment it might bring. They also believed in an expanding universe with no Creator. In due course their philosophy opposed that of the Stoics.

The rampant consumerism we see in Western society today is a manifestation of the principles of the Epicureans. Further their attitude to morality – that there is no absolute authority but rather one’s own feelings – contradicts the principles of the Gospel which teaches that right and wrong are absolute and defined in scripture.

Isaiah 42

We know that Isaiah 42 is speaking of the work of Messiah. Verses 1-3 speak of the “servant … [who] shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles … [and] judgment unto truth” and Matthew 12:17-21 shows this is fulfilled in Jesus. So when Paul quoted two phrases from Isaiah 42:5 he quoted an area of scripture which speaks of the Lord Jesus. Isaiah’s mention of “truth” contrasts with the philosophies of both the Stoics and Epicureans who were in error. Paul will return to the matter of “judgment” at the end of the record of his speech. If we were quoting from Isaiah we would highlight and explain the context: it would seem likely that Paul did too.

Genesis 14

We find God as “Lord of heaven and earth” in Genesis 14:19 and Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11:25. We might think that Genesis 14 is an obscure passage to use and that Matthew’s Gospel record was not available at the time Paul spoke on Mars Hill. That Genesis 14 may well be relevant to Paul’s preaching on Mars Hill is supported by the way in which the New Testament develops the teaching of Jesus as a priest after the order of Melchisedec. Peter, in Acts 2:34,35, quotes Psalm 110 to prove to those in Jerusalem that the Aaronic priesthood has been superseded by Jesus. This is because of his resurrection. The various forms of idolatrous worship in Athens would have associated with it men and women officiating in that worship. To present the risen Jesus as the authority which God cites as the basis for a call to repentance would be most appropriate.

Isaiah 66 and Acts 7

When Stephen was stoned Paul was present (Acts 7:58) and so would have heard him say that God does not dwell in man-made temples. Stephen based his argument on Isaiah 66:1,2. Isaiah speaks of how God abhors idol worship (verse 3) and refers to the “delusions” (verse 4) of the people. This is contrasted with those who have respect for His word (verses 2,5). Paul’s argument in Acts 17 is that men should forsake their idolatry and have respect for God’s word. So using the ideas in Isaiah 66 was most appropriate.

Deuteronomy 30 and 32

At the end of the wilderness journey Moses spoke to the nation that was to cross Jordan into the land of promise. In doing so he laid out certain principles. In Deuteronomy 30:11-14 Israel were taught that God was not distant – and by implication unknowable. In Romans 10:6-8 Paul explains that this area of Deuteronomy 30 is speaking of the righteousness of faith. He then speaks of salvation through a belief in the resurrection of Jesus (Romans 10:9).

In Deuteronomy 32:8 Moses asserted that the “Most High” determined where nations would reside. Paul makes this point (Acts 17:26-28) which counters the philosophical view of the Stoics of a multitude of gods. Further Moses, in Deuteronomy 32:36, spoke of God judging His people. Paul generalises on this where he refers to the world being judged (Acts 17:31).

Their poets and Job

Further rebutting the philosophical views of his audience Paul, alluding to Job 12:10, said that God is aware of all our actions. Lest his audience were to reject his words as merely Hebrew opinion, he asserts that also (RV, even) their own poets said the same (Acts 17:28). He develops the point further by quoting, “for we are also his offspring” (Aratus, Phaenomena 5), which highlighted yet another Biblical teaching. Whilst the philosophers might argue that God is above mankind and uninterested in people, Paul reminded them that a poet whom they might revere contradicted that opinion. Of course the philosophical view contradicts that of the Bible: for example, “Now are we the sons of God …” (1 John 3:2).

Isaiah 40

Against the background of the revelation of God’s glory in the person of Jesus, who will be seen by “all flesh”, Isaiah says that “all flesh is grass” (40:5,6). The prophet then invites his audience to reflect on how they think of God (verses 18‑20). This context matches precisely the situation Paul met in Athens. So the apostle, utilising the language of Isaiah 40:18,19, opposes the idea of making idols and altars like the ones he saw in Athens. He observes that because “we are his offspring” we should not think of God as a man-made idol (17:29). The context of Isaiah 40 provides substantial evidence to support Paul’s argument.

Psalm 96

Paul draws his argument to a close focussing on the fact that because mankind is part of God’s creation it has responsibilities towards Him. Psalm 96 teaches that “all the gods of the nations are idols” (verse 5) and, against that background, that glory should be given to God (verses 7-9).

Paul now appeals to Psalm 96:13 in asserting that God will involve Himself in world affairs. The assurance is that God had raised Jesus from the dead, which was the point at issue and had prompted the invitation to address the philosophers on Mars Hill (17:18,19).

Relevant today?

Doubtless the apostles made more speeches than those recorded in scripture. The Father has chosen to preserve this speech “for our learning” (Romans 15:4). It is valuable for us because Paul dealt with issues which we see today. Elements of Stoicism and Epicureanism are still present. In particular:

  • Self-gratification is seen as the basis for life.
  • Right and wrong is a matter of personal preference.
  • Creation is not seen as a matter of fact; it is opposed by so much of modern education.

The antidote is to be seen in the recognition of our personal responsibility to a God who is involved in His creation and His children. The assurance that this is so is the fact that He raised Jesus from the dead. The terminus will be the judgement at the return of Christ. Paul’s speech to the philosophers of his day speaks loudly to us in the twenty-first century.

Peter Forbes

[1] Further discussion on the Stoics and Epicureans can be found on the internet: for example, on Wikipedia – the online encyclopaedia.


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