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Knowledge with Zeal: Biblical Examples of Using God-Anointed Intellect in His Service


Perhaps the clearest example of the combination of his intellect and piety is found during his time in Athens, and specifically in his sermon on Mar’s Hill (Acts 17:16-34). While Athens had long passed its Golden Age, it was still the philosophical center of the Mediterranean world. In the market place, which doubled as the center for public life, Paul reasoned (v. 17 NKJV) with the philosophers of the day. John R.W. Stott suggests that Paul used the Socratic method of questions and answers, a methodology which with the Athenians would have been very familiar.29 This means that he was well schooled in the communication patterns of his target audience and was able to communicate the gospel in thought forms known to the Greeks even if they did not understand his message. He was taken to the Areopagus, an august group of the intelligentsia of Athens, apparently involuntarily, to explain his philosophy. F.F. Bruce explains that this group had considerable authority in matters of religion and morals. Although Paul was not on trial in a “forensic sense,” he was required to give an account of his teaching.30

One must agree with Bruce that while Paul’s message presented here by Luke was likely an edited edition of the original, it is a brilliant apologetic of the gospel to educated unbelievers.31 Here, his intellect and mental agility to apply what he knew are readily apparent in his message. First, he demonstrates knowledge of their history and literature in making reference to the unknown God (v. 23). Don Richardson writes that 600 years before Christ, a plague that was attributed to a curse broke out in the city of Athens. In response to an oracle, a poet philosopher named Epimenides was summoned from Crete, who called for sacrifices to an unknown deity, and the plague stopped. Several altars were built in the region to this unknown power.32 While it is possible that Paul did not know the story behind the altar, it is more likely that he was familiar with it. He had read the writings of Epimenides and quotes him in 17:28.33 It also seems unlikely that he would use this altar as an illustration if the background of it was unknown to him.

From the reference to this altar, Paul builds his case for Christ using linear logic and moving from the general revelation of God in nature to the specific revelation of God in Christ. Paul began with the understood concept of creation to explain the rationale for something they emphatically did not understand—the need for repentance and the reality of the coming judgment. Notably absent is any direct reference to the Old Testament, an unknown and therefore unauthoratative book to the Greeks.

As mentioned above, Paul was also familiar with the classical literature of the day, using quotes from Greek poets to support his argument for divine revelation.34 In verse 28, he quotes from Epimenides and in verse 29 he quotes from Aratus, a native of his home province in Cilicia. Both writers referred to a Supreme Being, but not the God of the Bible. In using their writings to proclaim Christ, Bruce rightly says that Paul opened himself to the charge of misquoting their poets, but also explains that Paul’s general theological position allowed him to borrow from others to the extent that what they said was in line with biblical revelation.35 Stott argues that Paul’s example in using the literature of his day is adequate warrant for today’s believer to do the same in the intellectual debates of today for the purpose of pointing people to Christ.36

But Paul’s intellectual brilliance was not motivated by a desire to win an argument but to bring people to Christ (vv. 30-31). Simply stated, Paul, his mind steeped both in the Scriptures and the literature of his day, was obviously anointed by the Holy Spirit to introduce the gospel to those who had never heard it. He was a first rate apologist and evangelist.


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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2008

About the Author: Dave Johnson, M.Div., D.Miss. (Asia Graduate School of Theology, Philippines), is an Assemblies of God missionary to the Philippines. Dave and his wife Debbie have been involved in evangelism, church planting, and Bible school and mission leadership. Dave is the Managing Editor of Asian Journal of Pentecostal Studies, the director of APTS Press in Baguio City, Philippines and coordinator for the Asian Pentecostal Theological Seminary's Master of Theology Program. Facebook Twitter

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