A Bridge to Mars Hill – Acts 17:18-34

by Roger McCay
30 August 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 17:18-34
Link to Audio Version

When it comes to building, well, anything, it takes quite a bit to get from nothing to the completed goal. Building bridges are no exception, whether physically or metaphorically. Even the simplest bridge consists of laying something over, perhaps, a stream, maybe just a log. Yet, that still requires finding the log and then moving it into place. More complex bridges … well, I don’t have to tell you. Metaphorically, it’s not much different. Building a bridge to reach from one person to the next for the purpose of sharing ideas or even grounding a friendship requires work and finding points of commonality upon which to connect. Indeed, all bridges require a solid place upon which to connect, to anchor, on both sides, in order to support the weight of whatever or whomever would cross or be transported across the bridge.

Such is no different for the bridge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Solid points of commonality exist for both the hearer and the evangelist in the form of truths of reality, “true truths” attested to by the Scriptures. As Francis Schaffer wrote in He is There and He is Not Silent,

The truth of Christianity is that it is true to what is there. You can go to the end of the world and you never need be afraid, like the ancients, that you will fall off the end and the dragons will eat you up. You can carry out your intellectual discussion to the end of the discussion because Christianity is not only true to the dogmas, it is not only true to what God has said in the Bible, but it is also true to what is there, and you will never fall off the end of the world! It is not just an approximate model; it is true to what is there.[1]

As such, we can have confidence to build the bridge upon these points of truth, these foundations of truth common to all mankind, in order to carry the gospel message across to the other side.

Depending upon the situation, and with whom you are sharing the gospel, building bridges for the gospel can be difficult. For some folks the bridge is just a log across a stream, but, for others, it’s a complex undertaking, much like building the 1.4 mile, 3-span, cable suspension Cochrane-Africatown Bridge over the Mobile River down in Mobile. At a minimum, building any bridge for the gospel requires thoughtful work to find the anchor points of common truth and then diligent work to build the bridge. Being so, for some, the effort is too much to bother with, for any number of reasons. Christ, however, remains unsympathetic to such excuses (Mark 8:34; Matt. 28:19).

In our passage today, we see a master bridge-builder for the gospel, the apostle Paul, build, in faithful obedience, a bridge to Mars Hill, the Areopagus, in Athens. Accordingly, we witness Paul’s method of approach along with the content of his message, as he boldly proclaimed the gospel to this esteemed body of intellectuals and leaders in the Athenian community.

Now, you may remember, from last week, how Paul, seeing idols and idols everywhere in Athens, was moved with a great zeal for the Lord’s name to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ.

So, he set to work proclaiming the gospel in the Jewish synagogue and also in the Agora, the heart of the city’s life. It was in the Agora, as he dialogued with whomever would talk with him about the gospel of Jesus Christ, that Paul came to the attention of some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

Now, who were these people? Well, they represented well-established schools of philosophy, in Athens, whose philosophies were quite different.

Briefly, the Epicureans were materialists who had no use for gods, whom they considered too remote, having nothing to do with humanity or nature. They believed that life is what it is, and when you die you’re dead. Hence, although they were not Hedonists, their goal in life was to pursue pleasure (the chief good) and minimize pain (the chief evil). It was likely the Epicureans who were mocking Paul, in v. 18, calling him a babbler, as one who had picked up a bit of this and a bit of that and was throwing it around like he knew something, but didn’t.

As for the Stoics, they acknowledged a supreme God, but in a pantheistic way, as “the world soul.” They also “spoke of the Logos that designed and governed the cosmos,”[2] and they believed that gods existed who governed the world and cared for humanity’s needs. They believed in fate and felt that humans must do their duty in harmony with nature and reason, whether this meant pain or pleasure (although they associated pleasure with vice and valued enduring pain). They had the attitude that since they could not control the world, they could control themselves. They would just take whatever comes and deal with it. It was probably the Stoics who were bemused with Paul, saying he was proclaiming “foreign deities,” since Paul was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection.”

As for points of truth upon which to anchor a bridge, Craig Keener observes that there was “some common ground with Epicureans, such as lack of need for temples, but much more with Stoics.”[3] As it was, these two very different groups decided Paul needed to be brought before the Areopagus, the council of Ares, to be heard. After all, like Luke says in v. 21, “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” Hearing new ideas was like Netflix for them, and they loved binge-watching. They probably looked forward to what he was going to say, thinking, with a smug superiority, “This should be entertaining, if not interesting.”

Verse 21 also clues us in on the method Paul was going to use to begin bridging with the philosophers. He was going to focus on one of three basic questions common across religions and philosophies—the question of epistemology, the question of knowledge (“how we know and how we know we know”). It was a brilliant move, as anchoring on epistemology put them all on the same track, in order to engage truth, for the epistemological question, “how we know,” is foundational. As Schaffer explains, “Unless our epistemology is right, everything is going to be wrong.”[4] What Paul showed the Areopagus was the facts, pointing to the harmony of creation and history with divine revelation as how we know the truth of the gospel. As a bonus, Paul also touches upon two other major philosophical questions: the question of “Being” (what exists)” – metaphysics; and the question of “man and his dilemma” (morals) – ethics. [5]

Paul begins his speech in v. 22 with a compliment, of sorts. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” And Paul wasn’t exaggerating, Athens was known as religious city, evidenced by the three-to-one ratio of idols to people.

Yet, in their idols, there was an admittance to something lacking. Verse 23: “I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’” These people, who valued knowledge so highly, had an admitted lack when it came to knowledge of a certain god. This was absolutely true—a true truth. So, Paul sent across a line to anchor to that truth with the truth of the gospel.

They had a hunger for something, and they were not sure, exactly, for what it was. As we looked at last week, their idolatry was a cry for Jesus not knowing it was Jesus for whom they cried. But Paul knew. And, he didn’t just say he had an answer. He said he had the true answer, with the answer to how we know it is true. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

In vv. 24-25, Paul starts with what might be called a creational epistemology—i.e. how we know what we know about the Lord God, as revealed in creation. Creation itself, all of nature, the world and everything in it, is evidence of God’s transcendence and power. Creation itself speaks to the reality of God. Observing creation, and all that is in it, is how we know of the Lord God and his attributes. In Romans 1:19-20, Paul puts it this way,

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

The Lord of heaven and earth, the creator, is the originator of all things, giving man not only life, but everything. Considering his vast majesty and power, what does an all-powerful creator God need with temples or shrines? What does he need that man can give him? In comparison to the creator of the cosmos, man’s misguided worship and even the most beautiful of idols are shown to be nothing but paltry and base.

In vv. 26-27, Paul moves into what might be called historical/relational epistemology—i.e. how we know what we know about the Lord God, as revealed in history and the personal nature of man. Paul began touching on the question of Being in v. 25, as the Lord created man, giving him everything. In history, God initially created one man, a personal, relational being, from whom descended all the nations. As man is personal, the Lord, who created man in his image, is personal, enabling God and man to have a relationship. The Greeks poets, who carried authority in Greek life, even speak to that personal relationship, the true truth to which Paul anchors (in harmony with Gen. 1:27). Paul quotes Aratus, in v. 28, “For we are indeed his offspring.” As offspring, man was created in the image of God, like children are in the image of their parents, with a personal parent/child relationship, including the elements of authority and subordination—hence, his sovereignty over nations.

Thus, Paul explains that the God they know is there, but is unknown to them, that the Lord, as creator of all things and sustainer of life, is not only a transcendent God, but a personal God. He has been and is active in the history of mankind, sovereignly ruling over the nations, determining their times and scope, according to his purpose, which is to have a relationship with mankind, his offspring. Paul, too, here, you may notice, had shifted into the full concept of monotheism, as evidenced in creational, historical and relational epistemology, harmonizing with revelation.

Do you see how Paul was building a bridge upon these foundational true truths?

Paul alludes, as demonstrated in mankind’s ignorance (v. 30), that something had gone wrong (what Christians know of as the fall in Genesis 3). Why must the God and Father of mankind work in history to achieve a relationship with his offspring, who were somehow blinded to him? How is it that God would work in history so that, perhaps, mankind might “feel their way toward him and find him” (v. 27)? It was plain that something was wrong. God working to have a relationship with mankind, a relationship that was part of mankind’s original creation? God’s efforts indicate a broken relationship. Thousands of idols, an idol dedicated to the unknown god, and philosophies that grope all around without finding him, further made obvious this brokenness.

So, Paul bridges to the true truth. Despite the broken relationship, the Lord has always been close (Ps. 145:18; Jer. 23:23–24). The Greek poet (maybe Epimenides of Crete) touches upon this true truth, having said, “‘In him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28). How closer can one get? The broken relationship with the God that is always near also indicates that something must be done in order to heal the relationship.

Mankind has obviously failed at this point, unable to bridge the gap to the unknown God through religion or philosophy. Indeed, as Paul points out in v. 29, their efforts are ridiculous, foolish, in thinking “gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man,” can somehow encompass the Divine being of the living and true God.

Even more, through the audacity of idolatry, they have wronged God. To think that man, made in God’s image, would dare make images of the Divine? Their blindness to the Lord requires that their images were false. And, considering the completeness of God, as Paul has revealed, the incompleteness of the gods they had made is evidence that those were not gods. The logical conclusion was that, due to their ignorance (having wronged the one, true, living God), mankind was out of sync with the Lord’s character and what he rightly demands of them. So it was that Paul touched on that third question of philosophy, the question of man and his dilemma (morals).

Now, having revealed the unknown God to the Areopagus and the nature of their problem concerning him, Paul did not leave them hanging. He offered them hope, the hope for which they’d been crying all along. Verses 30-31:

30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 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.”

Although wronged, we know of the Lord’s patience, his forbearance, his mercy, by his overlooking, for a time, mankind’s ignorance concerning him, which would include their idolatry and immorality (Rom. 3:25). Hence, we know the kindness of God, which is meant to lead to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God is not unjust, however. He is a just and righteous God, as evidenced by his fixing a day for judgment. So, while God may not have judged mankind for its idolatry, as severely as he might have, that time had come to an end. Judgment is coming.

How do we know judgment is coming? How do we know we need to repent? Paul, again, appeals to historical epistemology. We know because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, the man whom God appointed to judge the world. The historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection is how we know that judgment is coming and that the need to repent is urgent. God has acted in history to correct the problem of the broken relationship. They dare not wait; they must repent.

It is at this point the members of the Areopagus had had enough. The idea of resurrection was too far, and there were limited, if, in fact, zero anchor points for resurrection in Greek philosophy. So, they ended the meeting, shutting Paul down.

Notice, too, the various reactions to Paul’s proclamation, in vv. 32-34. Some mocked; others said, “We will hear you again about this;” and others joined Paul and believed. These are pretty typical reactions. Despite Paul’s brilliance, there were the typical scoffers, put-offers, and believers. But, at least, there were some whom the Lord saved. The bridge was built, the gospel was carried across, and some received it by God’s grace through faith. We know two of the believers by name: one was a woman by the name of Demaris; the other was a member of the council of Ares, Dionysius the Areopagite.

So, are you ready to go argue for the gospel, like Paul, before the ivory tower intellectuals of the day? The fact is not too many people get to the level of bridge-building Paul demonstrated at the Areopagus. Paul was off the chart brilliant and educated, bold and determined, experienced and proven, zealous for God’s name, equipped to the max, called as an apostle, having direct access to revelation from God, empowered by the Spirit of God to such a point he could even raise the dead (Acts 20:7-12). Paul was absolutely the right man to go before the intimidating Areopagus. Even so, consider the results—very few believed.

We can find hope and encouragement in this. however. Only God knows what your limits are, when it comes to what you might be capable of accomplishing in witness. Perhaps you are one who can or may one day be capable of handling such an undertaking of bridge-building at the level of Paul’s Areopagus speech. You don’t know. Only God knows. But remember, Paul did not start with the Areopagus. He started small, just like everyone, first laying a log across a stream.

God will prepare you. He has provided his Word for knowledge of true truth (2 Tim. 3:16-17). He has given you spiritual gifts of some kind (1 Cor. 12). He will provide the words when you need them (Luke 12:12; Luke 21:14-15). He providentially provides opportunities (Rom. 8:28; Gal. 1:15; Acts 26:14). He provides you with the strength to be faithful (Phil. 2:13). And the truth of the Lord’s Word has power and will accomplish his purposes (Isaiah 55:11; Rom. 1:16). Yet, he also requires you to prepare yourself and to be ready to execute his mission (1 Peter 3:15).

Now, if all this (evangelism, sharing Christ, witnessing, explaining the hope of Christ you possess—i.e. bridge-building) … if all this is, for whatever reason, a new undertaking for you, start small by laying a log across a stream, and then advance from there. Whatever the case might be for you, what God wants is willing and faithful laborers, as “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2).

If you are faithful, as a result of your efforts, some will scoff; some will put you off; some will believe. That’s the way of things. Praise God that all we have to do is be faithful to him, in gospel bridge-building. He handles the heart change and faith of the hearer.

And we just keep doing it, and doing it, and doing it. In the process, we get better, and better, and better. As a result, God keeps bringing those whom he has chosen and called into his kingdom by means of your faithfulness. What a wonder!

Brothers and sisters, go out there and make some disciples! Because the world is crying out for Jesus, we must introduce him to them.


[1] Francis A. Schaeffer, He is There and He is Not Silent; The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer: A Christian Worldview, vol. 1 (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982), 290.

[2] Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: 15:1–23:35, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 2594.

[3] Ibid., 2581.

[4] Schaeffer, 275–276.

[5] Ibid., 279.