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ST. PAUL AT ATHENS.
Acts xvii. 22.
Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are
too superstitious : for, as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To the unknown God.
The address of St. Paul to the Athenians is amongst the most remarkable passages, which the records of the Christian history convey to us. It is interesting no less from the peculiarity of circumstances which gave occasion to it, than from the important matter which it contains.
We here behold the Apostle of the Gentiles, not conversing in towns of inferior note, and places unknown to civilization ; but in the proudest city of the ancient world, the nursery of science and of art, the seat of polite learning, and of abstruse philosophy. We find him, not mixing with the low and vulgar merely, not ad
dressing himself to the unlettered mechanic, or the uneducated husbandman; but confronted with the great, the learned, and the wise ; with the Epicurean, the Stoic, and the Senator of the land; with those whom the pride of knowledge, and worldly exaltation prepared to look down with contemptuous disdain on the unknown teacher of new things. And the occasion was important indeed. It was the religion of Jesus invading the strong holds of heathen idolatry. It was that wisdom which cometh from above, opposed to the vain conceits of human learning. It was the light of Revelation beaming from the heavenly source of universal truth, and chasing, with its earliest ray, the clouds and mists of pretended philosophy. It was the call to the most intellectual part of the Gentile world, to forsake the degrading errors of superstitious worship, to learn their real duties, to understand the true nature and end of their being, to embrace those ways and that knowledge which lead to salvation.
A portion of Scripture, which abounds with such interesting matter, well deserves to be weighed by us with particular and close attention. We shall find in it much that will convey instruction, much that will excite admiration, and much that will gratify curiosity : and its claims on our consideration will open upon us more
fully, as we weigh with greater accuracy its several parts.
The attention of the Athenian people had, it appears, been excited in no common degree by the Christian Apostle. We are told that, while he was remaining at Athens, waiting for his companions, Silas and Timotheus,“ his spirit was stirred within him ;" that is, he was moved with grief and with zeal for the cause of true religion, “ when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry;" when he beheld this city filled on every side with various objects of idolatrous worship, and the inhabitants devoted to this worship, to an extent probably, which, as other testimonies lead us to believe *, he had witnessed in none of the other heathen cities through which he had passed. “ Therefore,” the historian proceeds, that is, on account of the peculiar and marked appearances of devotion to idolatrous worship, which he observed in this city, he was the more active in preaching the doctrines of true religion, not only in the synagogue of the Jews, as was his constant practice in the cities which he visited, but amongst all “ the devout persons" and others whom he met in the chief places of public resort.
The people, amongst whom the Apostle now
* See Note C c.
conversed, combined, as is well known, in their character many various and opposite extremes *. They were volatile, thoughtless, and licentious; yet, on the other hand, quickly alive to religious impressions, and deeply susceptible of them, diligent cultivators and ardent admirers of literary excellence, and addicted to abstruse speculations. They were proverbially curious and inquisitive; displaying this appetency of novelty not in light and trivial matters merely, but also in the graver concerns of religion, and on points of deep and abstract enquiry. Different, however, were the feelings and dispositions with which different persons came to hear the Apostle's preaching “ What will this babbler say ?" was the contemptuous expression of the self-taught philosopher, who, proud of his own acquirements, looked down with disdain on an unknown foreign teacher of new doctrines. The indolent remark of others was, “ He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods.” Of those who encountered the Christian Apostle, certain of the Epicureans and Stoics are particularly mentioned. The former maintained that the universe, having originated in the fortuitous concourse of atoms, had subsisted from all eternity; and, if they believed the existence of a God, dis
ST. PAUL AT ATHENS.
allowed His providential government of the world. The latter believed the universe itself to be God, and maintained that all things are governed by fixed fate. These two sects thereforé were especially opposed to those doctrines of true religion, which the Apostle came to teach. However, the more general effect produced by his preaching was that which was naturally to be expected from the character of the Athenian people; viz. a desire of hearing more accurately the particulars of his doctrine; a desire prompted perhaps more by the wish to gratify their eager curiosity, than by any sincere disposition to judge, with unprejudiced minds, whether the doctrine were true or false. It is stated that they, meaning probably not only the philosophers of the Epicureans and Stoics, but also the great body of the people, took him and brought him “ unto Areopagus,” as a place most convenient for hearing him distinctly; not, as some have supposed, for any judicial purpose * ; Saying, we would know what this new doctrine is, of which thou speakest; for thou bringest strange things to our ears: we desire, therefore, to know what these things mean.”
The Apostle, in framing his answer to these enquiries, most judiciously adapts the information which he imparts, to the condition and the wants
* See Note Ee.