Biblical Places Spiritual Spaces Athens

Speaking to the Philosophers of This Age

 

Sunrise on the Athenian Acropolis

 As we go through our days at our job sites, offices, gyms, coffee shops, at the beach, or at the tennis or pickleball court, we might find ourselves engaging our friends in conversations about things that are important. As you have, perhaps you have heard these comments below in the course of a friendly conversation (in red). I have and here are some of my responses to each (in green). 

 “Your religious beliefs are personal and should be kept private. They don’t belong in the public square. You have no right to tell others what they should think or do.”

If I have no right to tell you what to think or do, why are you doing exactly that to me? 

 “The Miler-Urey Experiment at the University of Chicago in 1953 proved that life originated in a primordial swamp struck by lightning, and evolution began, resulting in the life forms we are today.”

The Miller experiment was a setup. They pumped a chamber full of ammonia and exposed it to high volts of electricity. Studies by NASA show that the Earth’s atmosphere never had a high percentage of ammonia. The amino acids produced by the experiment were very basic, and nothing like the chain of 128 amino acids needed to sustain life.

“Jesus was known and accepted as a great teacher and prophet. He never claimed to be any more than that. It was only his followers who later made that claim.”

Jesus did apply the name of Yahweh to Himself – “Before Abraham was born ‘I Am’” (John 8:58), and later the Jew attempted to stone him because of His claim to be God (John 10:33).

 “There is no historical records of Jesus. The Bible is not a historical book, but rather just Hebrew oral history passed on from generation to generation.”

According to many historians, the Bible meets the three tests of authenticity (manuscripts, internal evidence, external evidence) of ancient literature more than any other ancient work. The Dead Sea Scrolls lend definitive veracity and authenticity to the Bible. Supposed “contradictions’ in the text are often translation errors. There has never been an archeological discovery that has contradicted the Biblical record.

 “God does not exist. If He did, why would he permit suffering and evil? The 231 million people killed in wars in the 20th Century proves that.

God has given us our free will, and we chose what we want to do. That way we have a choice where we want to spend eternity. Ungodly men (Hitler, Stalin, Tojo and Mao) were responsible for those 20th Century killings. God so hates suffering and injustice that He became a man and suffered more than any of us, taking the entire sins of the world onto Himself. He will bring all evil to justice.

  We are our own judge of morality, and each of us can decide what is right and wrong.”

The natural order is ‘survival of the fittest’, or ‘might equals right’. Nature is brutal. The cheetah has no regard for the young impala. The peregrine falcon has no concern for the dove. Dictators of the 20th Century killed millions for their own power. Why do many of us humans have such a concern for human rights? Do we approve of honor killings, female circumcision, genocide, apartheid states, racial prejudice?  Aren’t we subconsciously responded to a Higher Moral Code? Where does this Higher Code come from?

 “Imagine there is no heaven, it isn’t hard if you try, No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today. Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.  Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you will join us, and the world will be as one.”

John, you are a dreamer. You are not dealing with the reality of human history.

 

Some modern philosophers in Athens 2001:

Randy Smith, Jason Spence, Michael, Hal Jones & Craig Englert

Engaging others in our community is the natural evangelism that the Bible models. Being ‘Salt & Light’ to our friends, or as Biblical culture understands the salt image, being loyal, faithful, unoffendable friends and serving them through random acts of kindness is the beginning to this process. At least that is what Jesus says in Matthew 5:13-16.

You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.
You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.   Matthew 5:13-16

That sets the stage for discussions of life and the issues facing us, in an uncontentious manner. Once people know that we care for them, they become more open to these chats. Genuine friendship is the key to effective discussions of life. But what is our goal in these friendship discussions?

The Parthenon with Thorsten, Michael, Tony & Craig 

Imagine for a moment that you have just had a long visit with your close relatives or friends. You are driven to the airport, and your bags are taken out of the car. You are standing on the curb. What is the last thing that you say to your friends?

Last words are important. Here are the last words that Matthew records Jesus saying to his friends:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

Laura at the Parthenon

The south side of the Parthenon showing the damage when a Venetian cannonball hit the Turkish gunpowder storage inside the Parthenon on September 26, 1687, which blew the roof off the building.

My understanding of this famous “Great Commission” based on the nuances of the original Greek text is;

“Proceed on the journey that we began together and make disciples of all the ethnic groups that you encounter where I take you, baptizing them in the name of our Heavenly Father, of me your savior and Lord, and the Holy Spirit whom will be in you. Teach them to observe all that I commanded you and remember that I will be with you as you do this.” 

This is a very challenging mandate that our Lord has left us, and quite risky if you ask me.

Trust us to carry out this all important mission?

However, faithful brothers and sisters have brought this message from generation to generation for the past two millennium, and we are the result of their collective efforts of obedience.

 We have seen many examples of how the early church accomplished the Great Commission through bold public preaching, through intimate gatherings, through sharing meals together, to caring for one another, to experiencing God through study of His Word and worship, and most importantly developing relationships of friendship, trust, and love.

We have many examples of men and women in the Bible who took this Great Commission seriously: Lydia, the purple cloth merchant from Thyatira; Peter, the former fisherman; Mary, the woman of ill repute. One of the most notable was the Pharisee Saul/Paul, whose encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus change everything in his world.

Women who take the Great Commission seriously in their modesty clothes:

Lisa, Didi, Denise, Christine, Laura, Margaret, Lana and Stephanie

In a monastery at Meteora Greece 2001

A significant part of the Book of Acts covers Paul and his team reaching out to the prominent cultures of his day- the Jews and the Greco-Romans. Each group has a mindset and cultural database of its own.  Paul describes his approach to cross-cultural ministry in his first letter to his friends in Corinth:

19 Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. 20 When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. 21 When I am with the Gentiles who do not follow the Jewish law, I too live apart from that law so I can bring them to Christ. But I do not ignore the law of God; I obey the law of Christ.
22 When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. 23 I do everything to spread the Good News and share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NLT

For Paul, it was important to know his audience, identify with them, and the present the Gospel in a manner in which they could understand it and receive the message within their own cultural context, using language and symbols that they could understand.

The original ladies who held up to porch on the Acropolis - now in the museum. 2001

One source in cross-cultural ministry for many has been Dr Paul Hiebert, a professor of anthropology at Fuller Seminary. His classic “Anthropological Insights for Missionaries” has helped many followers of Jesus reach cultures different from their own around the world.

There is a gulf between ourselves and the people to whom we go in service. There is an even greater gulf between the Bible’s historical  and cultural setting and contemporary life. How do we bridge these gulfs and make possible the effective cross-cultural and cross-historical communication of the Gospel?

Clearly we need to understand the gospel in its historical and cultural setting. Without this, we have no message. We also need a clear understanding our ourselves and the people we serve in diverse historical and cultural contexts. Without this, we are in danger of proclaiming a meaningless and irrelevant message.                                Anthropological Insights For Missionaries, p.14

It is important to know the message. It is equally important to know your audience. Paul’s training in Greco-Roman rhetoric, his knowledge of their culture, his training under the famous rabbi Gamaliel, and his passion for the Gospel prepared him for a historic encounter with the most famous philosophers of his time.

Overlooking the Agora  2008

13 But when some Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God in Berea, they went there and stirred up trouble. 14 The believers acted at once, sending Paul on to the coast, while Silas and Timothy remained behind. 15 Those escorting Paul went with him all the way to Athens; then they returned to Berea with instructions for Silas and Timothy to hurry and join him.  Acts 17:10-15

The Athenian Agora

Now Paul found himself waiting for the others in Athens, the philosophical center of the ancient world. Athens is dominated by the Acropolis, with the principal building, the Parthenon, visible from all parts of the city. Just to the northwest is the Areogapus, (Mars Hill), a small hill attached to the northwest side of the Acropolis, where the leading philosophers and city leaders often meet for discussions.  As one trained in logic and rhetoric, Paul knew the various philosophical schools, and their teachings. He was also well acquainted with Greek literature.

Walking through the ancient Agora

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. 17 He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square (Agora) to all who happened to be there.

18 He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”

Through the Agora below the Acropolis

 Who are the Epicureans and Stoics?

Epicurus (341-270 BC) concluded that “freedom from pain in the body and from trouble in the mind” is the ultimate aim of a happy lifeEpicureanism focused on pleasure as the chief good in life. His followers tried to live a life in a manner to derive the greatest amount of pleasure in a moderate way that would avoid the suffering of excesses and overindulgence. Epicurus believed that pleasures of the mind were more significant than physical pleasures. He also believed that fear was the chief cause of stress in one’s life- fear of the gods and death. He also taught that passionate love also brought strife to life but recreation sex was a natural pursuit of mankind. He placed a great emphasis on developing friendships as the basis of a pleasurable life.

“Of all the things which wisdom has contrived which contribute to a blessed life, none is more important, more fruitful, than friendship."     Epicurus quoted by Cicero

The Acropolis from the Areopagus 

Stoicism- founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd Cerntuiry BC. It is a philosophy of personal well-being and happiness (Greek: eudaemonia) declaring that the practice of virtue is both necessary and sufficient to achieve eudaimonia, by means of living an ethical life. For the Stoics, eudaimonia was the result of a life spent practicing the cardinal virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance, and living in accordance with nature.

Paul is stepping into the epicenter of the ancient cultural world with confidence. He is engaging the culture in the Agora, not preaching. He us using the “Socrates” style of asking questions, drawing out ideas, discerning their opinions, and using their own beliefs in a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue to prove his points. He’s not talking at them, but rather with them to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas that form their opinions. We should take our cues from Paul in these discussions.

The Akropolis By Leo von Klenze - Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Public Domain

with the Areopugus in the foreground

 19 Then they took him to the high council of the city (Areopugus). “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. 20 “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.” 21 (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)

22 So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.               Acts 17:16-23

 

Randy teaching at the Areopagus with the bronze plaque (over his left shoulder) with the Greek text from Acts 17.      2008

In the 3rd Century B.C. there was a plague in Athens, and many were dying. Offerings were made to the various gods, but to no avail. Finally, a poet named Epimenides decided that perhaps there was an unknown god that might help. He devised a plan to bring hungry sheep into the city and turn them loose to graze. If any of the hungry sheep decided to lay down on the grass instead of eating it, Epimenides thought it must be a sacred place, and he set up and altar on that spot and sacrificed the sheep as an offering to the “Unknown God”. According to Epimenides’ own account, this occurred in various places in the region, and other altars were built. Eventually the plague abated, and many believed that the Unknown God had indeed intervened.

Another Greek writer named Diogenes Laurtius mentions these altars: “Altars may be found all over Attica which have no names inscribed upon them, which are left as memorials to this atonement.” 

Randy teaching on the site of the debate 2001

Paul made a historical and cultural connection with this group of philosophers on Mars Hill. Now they are listening.

24 He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, 25 and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. 26 From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.

27 “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. 28 For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 29 And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone. Acts 17:24-29

 Paul now makes even more cultural connections by quoting two ancient writers, Aratus and Epimenides. Aratus (310 BC – 240 BC) wrote a famous poem, Phaenomena, which describes the stars, constellations and other celestial phenomena. In Phaenomena 1-5, Aratus writes:

 “Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken. For every street , every market-place is filled with Zeus. Even the sea and the harbors are full of his deity. Everywhere, everyone is indebted to Zeus. For we are indeed his offspring.”

Paul is claiming the Creator is not Zeus, but rather Yahweh. Now he quotes a second poet, Epimenides, who wrote in his work entitled Cretica:

“They fashion a tomb for thee. O holy and high one…But thou art not dead, thou livest and abides forever. For in thee we live and move and have our being.”

Paul now is making the connection between their own poet’s words and the death and resurrection of the one true God, Jesus Christ.

  “God overlooked people’s ignorance about these things in earlier times, but now he commands everyone everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him. 31 For he has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man he has appointed, and he proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard Paul speak about the resurrection of the dead, some laughed in contempt, but others said, “We want to hear more about this later.” 33 That ended Paul’s discussion with them, 34 but some joined him and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the council, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. Acts 17:30-34

 Through his cultural understanding, and knowledge of Greek literature, Paul reached into the minds of the Athenian elite. God made a connection to the heart of Dionysius, Damaris, and others, and they joined the Family. According to Rodney Stark, the sociologist who wrote ‘The Rise of Christianity”, the congregation in Athens grew over the next two centuries, becoming one of the largest in Greece.

Java Jake, Randy & Michael  Areopagus 2008

How did Paul do it?

Paul told them of a Bigger God that they all sensed existed. After all, where did the virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and temperance come from? He was appealing to their sense of a higher moral code than that of their gods or their culture.

Who is the source of this absolute moral code?

Why did Greeks have fear of their gods and death, when they all knew through Creation that there was a Creator of exquisite beauty and order? Didn’t Plato himself teach that there were metaphysical forms with which we intersect with in our soul and spirit, the most fundamental being “the Good”, who was a perfect entity that was eternal and constant that existed outside our space and time? When we do good things that we intersect and participate with this “Good.”

Who is this "Good" form?

These Athenian philosophers were all very familiar with these teachings and concepts. Paul appealed to these intrinsic principles, and brought a message not only to their minds, but to their hearts. Yahweh is the Creator. He is the perfect entity that wants a relationship with mankind. He even became a man and lived among us so that we would have no misunderstanding who He is, and what He desires from us. His public execution on a cross and subsequent Resurrection proved his Divinity, and that all He said was true.

It was a presentation of the Gospel that was logical and culturally relative which penetrated the hearts of his listeners on the Areopagus.

 

Chisako and Laura holding the map on a cold rainy day.

Our guide Maria describing every stone on the Acropolis on a cold rainy day

Craig, Jeff, Steph, Margaret, and Bev standing in the cold rain while Maria describes all the stones on the Acropolis......

Acropolis Amphitheater 

 From Paul’s experience in Athens, I conclude that we should

  1. Do our best preparation to reach that person in front of us where they are at.
  2. Allow ourselves to step into their world, their thinking, and their experiences, to point them in the direction of God through our modeling the Christian life.
  3. Do our best to show friendship and affection through hospitality and service.
  4. It is at this point that we allow God to do His part, and open their minds and heart to Him, just as he did for Lydia in Philippi.
  5. We let the conversations take place naturally.
  6. Remember that it is only Him who can do that! Jesus Himself said:

 For no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me, and at the last day I will raise them up.                   John 6:44

 The Swiss Air Force sent all their pilots to Vero Beach for flight training for over 30 years, until the COVID plandemic of 2020. Since we opened in 2011 there have been nine Swiss Air Force pilot training classes sent here for their four months flight and instrument training. Because we have friends in Switzerland that we have spent time with over the years, we like Swiss culture, and made an effort to reach out to these young military pilots. Often, we invited them into our home for meals, and spend much time with them when they came into the café, which is located directly across Runway 4 from their flight school.

One day two of these Swiss pilots invited me to go skydiving with them. Since I had never jumped out of an airplane before, I agreed, and that afternoon I found myself at 14,000 ft over Sebastian, rolling out of the door of a Twin Otter, attached to a skydiving instructor. It was exhilarating!!!

And too short. I almost signed up for the $1000 course that day to get my certification.

We discovered that skydiving makes you thirsty, so we went to a Mexican restaurant for refreshment. Soon Laura joined us. She is always a good addition to such gatherings.

As we sat there, one of the pilots asked Laura this question:

“Laura, we have been longing to ask you a question.  

We have a friend who is a Christian and member of the Free Church in Switzerland.

 He doesn’t have sex with his girlfriend.

Laura, why would he not have sex with his girlfriend?”

At this point, we had spent many hours with these two out and about in Vero Beach. We had often talked about our times in their home country, and shared many of our experiences there. As a military pilot, I had had many conversations with these two about my own military flying, as they progressed through their flight training. We had successfully stepped into their world on many occasions. Then they asked Laura this question.

She gave such a good answer! She talked about intimacy between a husband and wife, and the need to develop trust early on in the relationship, and God’s intentions for committed, intimate husband-wife relationships.

“Michael and I decided early on that we would not have sex until we married, and we did not until our wedding day. Now I am confident that I can trust Michael when I am away from him, because he demonstrated self-control to me in this area before we married.”

Our two Swiss friends sat quietly after hearing that. I’m sure they were reflecting on the relationship they both had with their girlfriends back home.

This was the moment where God touched their hearts. They had never heard anything like this, nor God’s desires for marriage relationships, and why a single man would not have sex before he married. Looking at us both sitting together, having spent many hours with us and our family, and finally hearing one of the Biblical principles that has guided our lives, we knew that Someone had touched their souls.

Taking the time to build a bridge into their worlds will create an atmosphere where God can reach their hearts.

That is our goal: To let God touch and change hearts.

 

 As Paul proclaimed the identity of the “unknown God” to the Athenian culture, we now have opportunity to speak the same message to those in our communities who have worshipped the gods of materialism, power, travel, sensuality, fame, fortune and self-contentment, yet have not seen the plague of strive, conflict and inner turmoil abated.

We can appeal to a Higher Moral Order that all mankind senses and desires. We can proclaim the Creator of nature, the Artist of the Sunrise and Sunset, the One who holds the planets in their orbits, as the One who desires all mankind to spend Eternity with Him.

 

 

Sunset over the Acropolis

 

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