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May 7, 2017

Sermon Acts 17:32-34 . . . “People to meet in heaven:  Dionysius the Areopagite”

“People to meet in heaven:  Dionysius the Areopagite”

Acts 17:32-34

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

“Ancient and modern, with equal measures of grunge and grace, bustling Athens is a heady mix of history and edginess.  Iconic monuments mingle with first-rate museums, lively cafes and al fresco dining—and it’s downright fun.”  At least that’s what the brochure says.

And if you have the time and the money, there’s any number of places to visit, like the Acropolis, what’s called the most important ancient site in the Western world, a literal showcase of temples, buildings and statues, some made of bronze, some of marble, and some plated with gold.  At the very top sits the Parthenon, clearly seen from almost anywhere in the city, the glory of ancient Greece.  A wonder of architecture, craftsmanship and engineering, its foundation is slightly concave and its columns are slightly convex to make both look straight.  It’s the home of Athena, Greek goddess of reason, arts and literature.  Its ceiling was once painted blue and gilded with stars.

And just a short walking-distance from the Parthenon is the Temple of Poseidon, built four hundred years before Christ, and the Keramikos, a millennia-old cemetery, and the National Archaeological Museum with its thousands of sculptures, pottery and jewelry.  Among its many treasures are six stone jars, trophies of ancient Olympic games.

Athens is truly one of the oldest and most spectacular cities in the world.

And if you ever have the chance to visit, you’ll also want to stop and see a place called, in Greek, the “Areopagus.”  In English, it’s “Mars Hill.”  It’s not much more than a rocky outcropping, a bare marble hill, just northwest of the Acropolis.

We’re not really sure just how it got its name.  The word “pagos,” simply means, “big piece of rock,” and “Ares,” is another name for Mars, the Greek god of war.  Put them together, and you get, “Mars’ hill,” or “Areopagus.”  It was a place of politics, justice and government.  And it’s a place once visited by none other than the apostle Paul.

Please turn with me in your Bible to page 1178 as I read the words of our text.  I’ll start at chapter 17, verse 16:  “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.  So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.  Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.  And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’  Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.  And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  For you bring some strange things to our ears.  We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’  Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

We’ll stop there.

Paul was now on the second of his three missionary journeys.  He had already visited places like Syria and Cilicia, Derbe and Lystra, Philippi and Thessalonica.  In ten short years, he’ll die in the city of Rome.

And, at the moment, he was alone.  Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea, while Paul went on to Athens alone.

And as it says in verse sixteen, “His spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”

It’s no surprise.  The Greeks had gods and goddesses of all kinds, like Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Hephaestus, the god of fire, and Zeus, the king of all gods.  And for every god and goddess, there was an altar and a statue and a temple of every shape and kind.  The Bible says there was even an altar to the unknown god, just in case they missed one.

And, as it says in verse 17, every day Paul reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and in the marketplace with anyone who happened to be there.  He even spoke with the culturally elite, Stoics and Epicureans, the best and brightest philosophers Athens had to offer.

But there was a problem.  As it says in verse 18, “Some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ while others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities,’ because he spoke of Jesus and the resurrection.”

So what did they do?  The Bible says in verse 19, “They took him and they brought him to the Areopagus.”

And that’s important.  You see, about five centuries before Christ, there was someone else they hauled up to that great stone hill, a philosopher named Socrates.  And there they found him guilty of speaking against the gods, and sentenced him to death by poison.

So when they brought Paul to the Areopagus, it was a big deal.  Something very important was about to happen.

So what’s the Areopagus?  Or rather I should ask, who’s the Areopagus?  It’s kind of complicated, so I’ll try to keep it simple.

The Areopagus wasn’t just some rocky mound.  It was the ruling court, the supreme court, the highest court in all the land.  There men tried cases and crimes of assault, murder, and adultery.  They didn’t accuse.  They didn’t defend.  They simply declared judgment, and ruled if a man was innocent or guilty, and worthy of death. 

Even more, they guarded the laws, oversaw the constitution, and kept watch over the greatest and most important affairs of state.  They were sort of like our United States Congress and Supreme Court all rolled into one.

Five centuries before Christ, they were called, “a rock in times of trouble,” and “Athens’ greatest salvation of its time.”

And to be a member of that high court was a big deal.  You couldn’t be a member unless you had already served as one of the nine “archons,” a lower court ruler or judge.

Each member of the Areopagus was held in high honor and was worthy of full respect.  It was a position you held for life.

So when Paul was brought before them, it was a big deal, for it was the Greek’s supreme court, the highest court in all the land.

Now look at what he said, beginning at verse 22:  “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said:  ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  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.  The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him.  Yet He is actually not far from each one of us, for “In Him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, ”For we are indeed His offspring.”  Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.  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.’”

And when his speech was done, what happened?  Verse 32 says some mocked him, thinking he was little more than a foolish waste of time, while others said, “We will hear you again about this.”

But as it says in verse 34:  “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”

“Dionysius the Areopagite,” it says, a member of the council, a man of rules and laws, of knowledge and wisdom, of power and authority to judge a man innocent or guilty and worthy of death.

But he didn’t scoff at Paul, nor did he think him a waste of time.  Instead, the Bible says, he believed.

The gospel, it seems, never ceases to amaze us.  It calls the highest and the lowest of all men.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, who came to worship Him but the lowest of the low--shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Then, just a short time later, came wise men, advisers to a king.  There in Bethlehem, both rich and poor knelt down and worshipped Him.

And when He called men to follow Him, He could have chosen the best and the brightest all of Israel had to offer.  Instead, He called Matthew, a tax collector, Simon, a zealot, and Andrew, Peter, James and John, fishermen.

And who believed in Him?  Not the scribes and Pharisees.  They accused Him and tried to find fault with Him.  They called Him a devil and said He blasphemed.  Instead, it was the prostitutes and tax collectors who sat, listening at His feet.

And wonder of wonders, the gospel calls us too.  No matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, no matter what you’ve done, it calls even you to follow Him.

That is, after all, what Jesus once said to Nicodemus:  “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”  And that’s what Peter once preached at Pentecost:  “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”--wise men, fishermen, prostitutes, and tax collectors, even Dionysius, a member of Athens’ supreme court.

Before we leave this text, there’s one thing you need to know.  In Paul’s day, at the foot of the Areopagus, there was a temple dedicated to Erinyes, the Greek goddesses of vengeance and retribution.  It was a place where even murderers could find sanctuary and refuge.

But our place of sanctuary isn’t found at the foot of some rocky mound in Athens, Greece.  It’s found on another hill called Calvary, at the foot of Jesus’ cross.

As a hymnwriter once put it so well:  “Come to Calvary’s holy mountain, sinners, ruined by the Fall; here a pure and healing fountain flows to you, to me, to all, in a full perpetual tide, opened when our Savior died.”


Thank You, dear Father, for once calling a man named Dionysius the Areopagite.  Call even us, in spite of who we are and what we’ve done, to faithfully follow You.  We pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen


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