Three Angels Over Mars HillPosted April 12th, 2012
by Richard Clark Jr.
One of the most intriguing events in Apostle Paul’s life was when he met with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece.
Paul found himself waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy, his fellow missionary travelers, to meet up with him from Berea (modern-day Veria). The crowds in Berea, the last city he visited, had been stirred up against Paul because he was preaching the word of God. And so, for his safety, Paul was sent out of town immediately. Some of the newly converted Christians from Berea escorted Paul to this, the global capital of science and philosophy. Paul had them tell Silas and Timothy to come join him with all speed.
During this unscheduled stopover, Paul was greatly distressed to find that Athens was given over to idols. One source states more than 3,000 images filled the city. And because of this, Paul was propelled to share his message all the more. He met with his fellow Jews and with the non-Jews who also worshipped Yahweh, reasoning with them in the synagogue. He also spoke daily with the passers-by in the bustling city center. It was undoubtedly here in the agora that the philosophers encountered Paul. He must have caught their attention with his unique beliefs and worldview.
“What is this babbler trying to say?” some asked. “He seems to be advocating foreign gods,” others said.
So what was Paul telling his audiences? Jesus was not only central to the message Paul shared, Jesus was the message! “He preached to them Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18, NKJV).
The philosophers wanted to hear more so they brought Paul to the Areopagus (Mars Hill), asking him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”
Would the philosophers cause trouble for Paul? Would he be forced out of this city, like he was Berea? Actually, the philosophers’ request probably wasn’t uncommon, for the Athenians, Luke tells us, spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas (Acts 17:21).
Instead of launching into a confrontation with the philosophers, Paul stood and gave a carefully crafted, culturally relevant oratorical presentation. He found an entering wedge he could use to share Jesus with them in a way these intellectuals could understand and relate to. He even found something that was praiseworthy in the Athenians.
Paul said, “I perceive that in all things you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.”
And with this positive opening, Paul introduced the Athenians to the God they may have been worshipping without being aware of it. “The One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you,” Paul announced.
He explained that God is the one who made the world and everything in it and that He is Lord of heaven and earth. From one, Paul said, God made every nation or people group. And He provides the way for all to reach out for Him and find Him, though, Paul notes, He is not far from each one of us (v24-27).
Paul showed that God is not an impersonal force or even an absentee landlord. On the contrary, He is a Being who acts concretely in history and is interested in what and whom He created. He desires a relationship with the beings that He formed in His own image. No one is to be excluded from hearing the good news about Jesus. No one is to be left without hope. In essence, Paul was saying, because God made the world and everything in it, He alone is worthy of worship.
But Paul also revealed that, as there is only one true God there is also a true way of worshipping Him. Paul didn’t leave the Athenian scholars to worship the Creator in the same way they worshipped other gods or to wonder about how to worship Him. God isn’t worshipped with men’s hands, Paul taught, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and everything else. Neither does God dwell in man-made temples—He is not limited to them (v24-25).
To illustrate his point, Paul quoted someone well-known to his listeners. “We are also His offspring,” Aratus, a friend of the man who began the Stoic school of thought, had said. Since we are God’s offspring, Paul reasoned, we should not think that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. The way of worshipping the Creator God is radically different from how people worship other gods, including “sacred” images, Paul was telling his audience.
Then Paul shared with his listeners how merciful God is. God overlooked such times of ignorance (He had been The Unknown God to the Athenians, in particular), but now commands all people to repent. They should repent because God has ordained Jesus to judge the world with justice on an appointed day (Acts 17:30-31, NIV). Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, Paul explained, is the assurance God gave of this. It ensures both resurrection and eternal life for those who accept Jesus and punishment for the unrepentant. God does have a standard by which people are to live. And unlike what the Stoics believed, people are unable to save themselves or make themselves righteous. Though there is a judgment, God doesn’t want it to catch anyone off guard—He wants everyone to know about it and come to Him to be ready for it.
Paul gave the Epicureans and Stoics much to think about that day. But for us, living a couple thousand years later, it might be easy to think, “Well, those philosophers had a lot to learn” or “Good old Paul sure told them!” and move on. However, Paul’s address to the philosophers in Athens is strikingly similar to the last messages given in Scripture. Three main themes in Paul’s presentation reappear in the book of Revelation, and with new urgency.
John the Apostle wrote this last book of the Bible and in an abrupt transition in the heart of that book, he tells of seeing three angels coming in succession, each proclaiming a message of universal significance.
The first angel bursts on the scene flying where all can see and hear. This symbolic messenger (the word “angel” means “messenger”) possesses, as did Paul, the everlasting gospel to preach to “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Revelation 14:6). Man and woman, gentile and Jew, slave and free—all are to hear and understand the good news about Jesus and the salvation He freely offers. None are left out.
The messenger proclaims with a loud voice, “Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14:7, NKJV). As in Paul’s discourse, the call to worship the Creator God is clearly sounded. The “times of ignorance” are past and the angel pleads for a change in relationship toward God. Honoring God as Creator, we also acknowledge Him as “the LORD who sanctifies” us or sets us apart as His (Exodus 31:13, Ezekiel 20:12). This is a safeguard against the lie that people can earn their own salvation. The angel also announces the arrival of a special hour—meaning time or period—of ongoing judgment that impacts all.
A second messenger follows. He warns of a counterfeit system of worship, symbolized by the ancient city that was the enemy of God’s people. This system, he broadcasts, has become a cosmopolitan power for evil, forcing its brew of filth and error on everyone. This system also leaves none out, but, unlike God, it forces its way on others. “Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her adulteries,” the angel cries (Revelation 14:8). Paul showed the Athenians that this system of false worship—worshipping idols and false gods—is wrong. But idols are not limited to objects made of metal, clay, or wood. They can also include one’s own self and even cherished false beliefs about the true God.
The third and final messenger, like the first, speaks with a loud voice. He gives the longest message yet, warning of the results of accepting a system of false worship—of worshipping a false god and of worshipping God in a false way (Revelation 14:9-11). The angel warns those who, after hearing the clarion of the preceding messages, choose to believe in this false worship, as well as those who, for expedience, choose to go along with it. This ultimate punishment of the willfully defiant comes in that specific day Paul spoke of, the appointed day on which God will “judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained.”
The third messenger reveals the folly and danger, not only in worshipping images, but in worshipping anyone, other than God Himself. The angel warns of the penalty that will fall on the people who worship in this way. This third angel’s voice is not vengeful. Instead it is filled with the pathos of God pleading with humanity before it is too late: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11, NIV).
Back on Mars Hill, the philosophers had been following Paul’s discourse closely. But when Paul mentioned that the dead would be raised to life again, his audience became polarized. Some of his listeners sneered at the idea of a bodily resurrection from the dead. Others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” But Paul stopped his discourse here and left.
The majority of philosophers on Mars Hill that day appear to have rejected the message Paul shared with them—either outright or by being ambivalent. “However, some men joined him and believed,” Luke reports, “among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others.” But what will be our response to Paul’s message today—now clarified and amplified by the three angels of Revelation? Will we worship the Creator God alone, in His way, allowing Him to make us ready for His judgment?
*This article is based on Acts 17 and Revelation 14.