In Acts 17 we read of the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill, using his mind to love God — and to share the gospel! I’m preparing for Emmaus Bible College’s “Christian MInistry Seminars” on February 6-7. One of my messages (the theme is “Anti-Intellectualism Isn’t Spirituality”) will take a look at Acts 17:19-34 to see how the Apostle Paul used his mind to reach five different groups.
Although we’ve seen much already, today I want to focus on Paul’s use of pagan literature to advance the gospel. In making his case that the unknown God, the true Creator of the universe, wants to be sought by human beings, Paul refers to God’s immanence (His closeness) when he says, “he is not far from any one of us” (v. 27). And to bolster his point of God’s nearness, Paul quotes two pagan writers (note the [b] and [c] in the NIV of this text). He quotes Cretan philosopher Epimenides when he says, “For in him we live and move and have our being” and the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus when he says, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.'” (v. 28).
Don’t miss this critical point! Somewhere C.S. Lewis said that one’s audience determines one’s language. Here it seems that one’s audience determines one’s sources. In other words, Paul uses non-Christian, non-biblical literature (with which some of his audience would have been familiar) to advance his gospel presentation. Is it too much to say that if you only know your Bible, you know too little? Paul knew pagan/Greek literature — and used it for his purposes.
He quotes the Cretan philosopher Epimenides,considered a semi-mythical 7th or 6th century BC Greek seer and philosopher-poet. While tending his father’s sheep, he is said to have fallen asleep for fifty-seven years in a Cretan cave sacred to Zeus, after which he reportedly awoke with the gift of prophecy. Epimenides’ Cretica (Κρητικά) is quoted twice in the New Testament. In the poem, Minos addresses Zeus thus: “They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one, Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies. But you are not dead: you live and abide forever, For in you we live and move and have our being.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epimenides).
Paul also quotes the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus when he says, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.'” A Greek didactic poet, Aratus might have been from Tarsus! His major extant work is his hexameter poem Phaenomena. Although somewhat ignorant of Greek astronomy, Aratus’ poem was very popular in the Greek and Roman world, as is proved by the large number of commentaries and Latin translations, some of which survive. The full stanza reads, “Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken. For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus. Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity. Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus. For we are indeed his offspring …” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aratus)
We will discuss this issue of being God’s “offspring” in our next post. But please don’t miss our main point today: We need to be aware of the influences which form the worldview of lost people — and use whatever is helpful in advancing the gospel!