My Faith—A Philosopher’s Look At Christianity, 3

The story of what happened to Paul is found in Acts 9:

“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:1-4.)

The voice speaking was Jesus’s who told Saul, whom he renamed Paul—the Greek version of Saul—to go into the city of Damascus where for three days he remained blind and didn’t eat or drink. Of interest for some here is the number “3”—3 days. Numbers have significance in the Bible. The number 3, used 467 times in the Bible, pictures completeness (more so the number 7). “Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest. He was placed on the cross at the 3rd hour of the day (9 a.m.) and died at the 9th hour (3 p.m.). There were 3 hours of darkness that covered the land while Jesus was suffering on the cross from the 6th hour to the 9th hour. Three is the number of resurrection. Christ was dead for three full days and three full nights.

Like for Peter, there was a man (Ananias) who had a dream from God to go to where Saul was staying who also had a dream about Ananias coming to him. We read:

“Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” (Acts 9:17-19.)

Saul would have known the teachings of Jesus, now they were real to him and after this encounter with Ananias, Saul didn’t just go on his merry way but began preaching to the Jews in Damascus angering some who now wanted to kill him. 

Saul then went back to Jerusalem to join up with the disciples of Jesus who at first were naturally afraid of him but came to accept Saul’s conversion as real. They began to further teach Saul about Jesus and all went about Jerusalem preaching the gospel of Jesus. That is until the Jews wanted to kill Saul and the disciples sent Saul back to his hometown of Tarsus.

Two men, Peter and Paul, had epiphany moments that forever changed their lives who both now understood the fundamental truths of God, not religion, and would help spread that message throughout the world. Saul doesn’t begin referring to himself as Paul until he goes to the island of Cyprus where he, as he has along the way, preached first to the Jews about Jesus, then to the Gentiles.

In Cyprus Paul brings a very powerful message to the Jews and those Gentile proselytes to Judaism found in Acts 13. In a style I so often use he traces Jewish history leading to Jesus showing that he (Jesus) is not some sect leader but the fulfillment of prophecy, the fulfillment of why people were set aside to bring redemption to the world. In Acts 13: 46-48 we read:

“Both Paul and Barnabas replied courageously, ‘It was necessary to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we are turning to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have appointed you to be a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’. When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed.”

Religion is nothing more than the trappings we create to outwardly define our faith in a higher being, the creator of, the meaning for all existence, especially us. What Paul, indeed the rest of the disciples learned, was they weren’t bringing religion—rites and practices of Judaism—but truths that stood above and outside rites and practices. Our continuous error is we mistake religion for faith.

Paul in Greece

Two cities are the heart and foundation of Western Civilization, Rome and Athens. One cannot possibly understand Western history without also understanding these two cities and the cultures they created. Paul, unlike the disciples, was steeped in the influence from both cities. Tarsus was a Roman province and their language, as was the language of most cities outside Rome, Greek. Like English is the language of business throughout the modern world, Greek was the common language in most of the Roman Empire. The common language in the Levant, pretty much the area we refer to as the Middle East, was Aramaic. In Israel Hebrew was more commonly spoken amongst the clerics and religious scholars, the others spoke Aramaic and Greek. Jesus mostly spoke Aramaic. In Rome the language was Latin and that would be the working language of the Roman Catholic Church. The disciples would end up speaking and writing in Greek.

Now Paul comes into Greece, a land with which he is already culturally and linguistically familiar with. In AD 49 Paul, after receiving a vision from God—“And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’ ”—goes to Macedonia, the northern part of Greece. Much happened and you can read about it in Acts 16.

He begins in the city of Samothrace, then Neapoli, and then Philippi. In Philippi, Paul and Silas are accused of “provoking abnormalities in the city and for having habits unusual for the Romans.” Both Paul, and Silas who is with Paul, are caned and imprisoned but a massive earthquake spreads panic in the city. The prison’s doors open, the guard tries to commit suicide, but Paul and Silas prevent him from doing so. The guard now believes in God, he and his family are baptized and the two Apostles stay in the guard’s home. Then Paul and Silas are off to Thessaloniki where they establish a church, then on to Veria where Jews from Thessaloniki come to scream and holler at the two.

Paul in Athens

Now let’s go to Athens, the place where two men changed how the world thought about Reality. They are Plato, born in 428 and died in 348 BC; and Aristotle, born in 384 BC dying in 322 BC. By the time of Jesus (AD 49) Athens was dominated by two philosophical movements, each built on ideas learned from Plato and Aristotle. The one came from Epicurus (341–270 BCE) who taught that pleasure or happiness is the chief good. In popular jargon, Epicureanism means devotion to pleasure, comfort, and high living, with a certain refinement of style. The other philosophical movement comes from Zeno of Citium (334 – 262 BC), known as stoicism.The Stoics took their clues from Aristotle who believed that “virtue is the only good” and that external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good or bad in themselves but have value as “material for virtue to act upon”. The Stoics also held that certain destructive emotions resulted from errors of judgment, and they believed people should aim to maintain a will that is “in accord with nature”. To live a good life, one had to understand the rules of the natural order since they believed everything was rooted in nature. (Wikipedia on Stoicism.)

Finally in the year 51, or some say it’s still 49, Paul enters Athens. After many discussions with the Epicureans and Stoics, Paul is invited by the Areopagus (the Athenian council) who take him to Mars Hill where the philosophers of the city like to meet and talk. I’m going to quote from Acts 17:16-31 (English Standard Version) because we don’t find in his message religion but foundational faith:

“Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ 

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

What these Athenians have is religion, each of their gods come with trappings defining their habits of worship. Paul is not adding one more. This, he tells them, is different in practice and worship. The world as we know it is filled with civilizations over 3,000 years old and has in our thinking haphazardly formed itself. God, the God he is speaking of, does not act haphazardly. Not only that, even these great men have their very life and breath from God (I Am). Paul makes two rather interesting points:

  1. having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,

  2. that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him

How are they to understand this? The answer: “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”This is why theologian Paul Tillich calls God our “ground of being.”