It was in Athens, in the ancient home of philosophers, that Paul was welcomed with open and inquiring minds. Although his message was a novel one, or perhaps because it was so novel, Athenian minds were eager to give him a hearing. They invited Paul to present his ideas in an open forum called the Areopagus.
"You have some new and interesting ideas," they said, "and we would like to know more about them and hear your reasoning behind them."
In some ways, the Greeks were like the ancient Jewish rabbis. While the rabbis were constantly discussing and delving into ancient lore and prophetic writings, the Greeks were constantly pondering and questioning everything in the search for knowledge.
Prior to Paul's presentation he spent several days touring the city. There was much to see, as it was a beautiful and ancient place, known as the birthplace for a wide spectrum of philosophical schools. He noticed many temples and statues and altars to various gods and goddesses throughout the city and was shocked by such a high level of idol worship.
All of a sudden Paul stopped and stared at a particular shrine.
"Look at this!" he said. Everyone looked, puzzled at what so intrigued Paul.
"Read the dedication!" he demanded. Everyone crowded up close to be able to make out the words. "To the Unknown God."
"That's it!" Paul cried. His gigantic smile revealing that he had come upon a marvelous concept. But he didn’t explain it until the next day at the Areopagus.
"Men of Athens," he began, "I have traveled throughout your magnificent city, and I have observed many wonderful and beautiful things. It appears to me that you are a very religious community, for everywhere I went I found altars and shrines to your gods. One is never far from God in Athens it seems."
His Greek listeners smiled and nodded their agreement. It never hurts to compliment your audience.
"I saw many beautiful statues and altars," Paul continued, "dedicated to your deities and even to some ancient philosophers. Then I came across a very interesting one, one that made me stop and think. It is an altar with a dedication: 'To the Unknown God.'"
A few heads nodded in recognition of the altar. They clearly knew what he was talking about.
"I am here today to tell you about that unknown God," he said. And now he really had their attention, for if there's any opportunity to learn something new the Greeks want to hear about it.
Paul then proceeded, with Gamaliel-schooled eloquence, to tell them about Jesus and his gift of eternal life. The crowd was quiet and obviously curious over this strange tale. He held them in the palm of his hand until he said, "although he died on a cross and was buried, he rose again on the third day and lives now in glory."
There were murmurs at this, and some snickering. This was the message that had started trouble for Paul at so many locations. But we were in Athens, and no one bent down to pick up stones to throw at him. There was no crowd of troublemakers. No loud voices, but a number of conversations erupted.
Paul didn't seem anxious. He saw their concern and stopped talking so he could listen to what they were saying. He smiled at what he heard:
"This is certainly a challenging thought."
"I would like to know more about this 'resurrection' he speaks of."
"I find the concept of eternal life difficult to grasp."
"Is an unknown god actually knowable?"
"That's one of my favorite shrines."
"Maybe it means more than we thought."
"I never really thought about it before."
"Maybe Paul knows what he's talking about."
Finally, a man at the front of the crowd who seemed to be a self-appointed spokesperson, said, "You must come again so we can hear more about this."
"How about sometime next week?" another added.
"That way I'll have time to tell my friends so they can hear you also," said another. And so the date was set as a few men stepped forward and began debating the concept of an Unknown God. Paul was at the center of the group, showing remarkable debating skills.
There was a major difference in the ways in which the Jewish rabbis and the Greek philosophers approached knowledge. The rabbis discussed it and dispensed it. The philosophers pursued it and debated it.
Pharisaical knowledge was settled. Philosophical knowledge was yet to be fully explored. Closed-minded Pharisees used their expertise to demonize and dominate others with often incomprehensible rules. No new ideas were anticipated or needed. The Greeks, by contrast, welcomed new ideas with excitement.
Rather than stone Paul for the blasphemy of claiming that Jesus rose from the dead, as had happened on several previous occasions, the Athenian listeners perked up their ears at the possibility of exploring a new concept. They wanted to hear more from Paul, and Paul, raised in a Greek community and well-versed in their ways, was more than up to the task.
As Paul continued meeting with the citizens of Athens their interest in Jesus and the concept of resurrection grew daily.
Many professed their faith in Jesus and were baptized. For a change Paul was not going to be driven out of town in fear of his life!
(Note: This article is adapted from The Big Tent, by Dave Mishur, which was published this month and is available on Amazon and other online retailers.)