Sermon on Acts 17:34 – “Dionysisus the Areopagite”

Sermon on Acts 17:34 – “Dionysisus the Areopagite”

Sermon for Sunday Evening, June 11th, 2023 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Sermon Text

[Act 17:17-34 ESV] 17 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. 18 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. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 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. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 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, 27 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, 28 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.’ 29 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. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 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.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

Introduction

The text for our sermon this evening is a single verse. And it was read last week as part of a longer section.

[Act 17:34 ESV] 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

Last week we saw Paul’s speech to the Athenians on the Areopagus. And at the end of the speech we saw two converts mentioned by named, Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. This evening we’ll be looking at Dionysius in particular in an important study of church history and in belief in the true gospel.

That was indeed what Dionysius believed, the true Gospel. He heard it from Paul and “joined and believed.”

Paul, as you recall, had proclaimed to the “Men of Athens” the true God, who had created all things, and he preached repentance and the resurrection, saying,

“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.”

One thing that is fascinating here is that Paul says God commands repentance. That is important – it is a command. Christ is “offered” in the sense that he is “presented as savior,” but God’s “will” is expressed by command. “Repent and believe the Gospel and you shall be saved.”

And, what is also important is to see the interplay between repentance and believe. God command repentance, and Dionysius believed. There is a close relationship between the two; they can be used interchangeably. Repentance is a turning away from idols and belief is a turning towards God, and like the old song said of “love and marriage,” “you can’t have one with the out the other.”

So who is this Dionysius fella?

He is called an Aeropagite.

And this seems to be not because he lived on that hill, but because he was a member of the judicial court on the Aeropagus. The Areopagites were members for like of the supreme court of Athens. They were involved in trials of murder and treason and of sentencing the criminal. Serious business. Dionysius would have known all too well the shortness of life, and he would have seen in Christ’s death on the cross the innocence of Jesus.

And hearing Paul’s appeal to the men of Athens, Dionysius believed.

We see, for one, in this episode, the approval of open-air preaching. And we know this to be approved, for God does not live a temples made by man. And, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel,

[Jhn 4:21-24 ESV] 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

So Dionysius believed. And he is added to the number that have believed so far in the book of Acts. Many of these are unnamed, but in each place Paul has won converts through his preaching of the Gospel and through the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the only way to win converts. Well, we might add prayer. But essentially man preaches, and the Holy Spirit works in the heart.

Well, so far we have the following converts in the book of Acts:

-The Ethiopian Eunuch

-Saul of Tarsus himself

-Cornelius and his household

-Lydia and her household

-The Philippian Jailer and his household

-Crispus and his household

-and now Dionysius and Damaris

These are some of the individual accounts. But there are many group accounts.

-Three thousand at Pentecost

-Two thousand and Solomon’s porch

-And many people in each of the cities where Paul preaches.

So we come to Dionysius. And there is just this one verse on him in the entire Bible. But that certainly doesn’t make him unimportant. Not only was he a member of that supreme court, but Church history says that he became Bishop of Athens.

And it is important to understand what a Bishop is. As church history developed, Bishops took more power than warranted in the Scripture. There were Bishops, Archbishops, and Popes over larger and larger areas. This does not reflect what a bishop should be. A bishop is merely an “episkopos”, an overseer, and he is one and the same with the presbuteros, the elders of the church. Did you know that I am a bishop? And so are our elders here? But there is little use in the title, since it has been corrupted by the hierarchical establishment of the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Anglican churches.

So when we say Dionysius was the Bishop of Athens, he was pastor there. And it was an honorable post. He preached in Athens. He ruled the church there, not meddling in the affairs of churches in other places, but willingly helping if asked. He lived and died in relative obscurity.

That is some ways should be our goal. We should work for the Lord, glorify his name, not our own. Our goal is not to have the largest tombstone for ourself, or the largest building named after us. Our goal is for the Lord to say “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Well, Dionysius must have been rolling over in his grave when some centuries later another man used his name for a series of books. A man wrote treatises on philosphical matters, pretending himself to be the 1st century Dionsysius the Aeropagite. And for many years in church history people believed these to be genuine. They said excitedly “we have the writings of Dionysisus from the Bible.” Well, they didn’t. And the effect of these writings has been drastic.

Let me tell you what the encyclopedia says. Brittanica.

“In about 500, probably in Syria, some writings were forged in his name by a Christian Neoplatonist. These writings, whose author is often referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius, became of decisive importance for the theology and spirituality of Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism.”

And more about this man in his own entry:

“Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, (flourished c. 500), probably a Syrian monk who, known only by his pseudonym, wrote a series of Greek treatises and letters for the purpose of uniting Neoplatonic philosophy with Christian theology and mystical experience. These writings established a definite Neoplatonic trend in a large segment of medieval Christian doctrine and spirituality—especially in the Western Latin Church—that has determined facets of its religious and devotional character to the present time. Historical research has been unable to identify the author, who, having assumed the name of the New Testament convert of St. Paul (Acts 17:34), could have been one of several Christian writers familiar with the Neoplatonic system of the 5th-century Athenian Proclus.”

So, whereas Paul preached Christ to the philosophers, the Stoic and Epicureans, Pseudo-Dionysius preached a mixture of philosopher and Christianity, perhaps even letting the philosophy lead the way.

The character and true belief of the real Dionysius is marred by Pseudo-Dionysius.

It is a good thing though that it is recognized now that these writings of Pseudo-Dionysius were not authentic.

And it is a good thing because the teachings of Pseudo-dionysius were false. Martin Luther said “Pseudo-Dionysius is most pernicious; he platonizes more than he Christianizes.”

-He taught that we did not need Christ as a mediator, but could reach God on our own.

-He taught that we can’t speak truths about God, but can only known what God is not.

-His views contributed to various errors in the church, including the veneration of Mary, and the hierarchy of the Roman and Greek church.

Only in modern times has there been agreement that his writings were forgeries. There were multiple references in the writings that could not have been made until the 5th or 6th century. So these were not written by the 1st century Pauline convert and Athenian bishop.

Even though it wasn’t established in Luther’s time that Pseudo-Dionysius was “Pseudo”, Luther knew something was “up.” That is the advantage of reading the Bible! While other theologians were fooled, Luther stayed with the text.

This was, in fact, a mantra of the Reformation – to the sources. Or rather, that was a movement in the renaissance that preceded. They said “to the sources” to get back to the Romand and Greek authors. And the Reformation did the same, but with the Bible. To the source – to the revelation from God. And doing so, they could through out false ideas that had crept in from the philosophers.

There is indeed a stark difference between the inspired word of God and all else.

So we reject the philosophers, whether the Neo-platonism of Dionysius or the Aristotelianism of Aquinas. And we stick to the Bible.

Even the writings of the “Early Church Fathers” do not match up to the Bible. I recall reading them some years ago. The Ante-Nicene Fathers collection. That is, all of the writings of the Church Fathers BEFORE the Nicene Council, in 325 AD. And the modern compiler of the volume – the man who had spent so much time on publishing it – yet said in the introduction something to the effect “These are great writings, but in reading them you will quickly see that they don’t match up to the Bible.”

So what are we to learn?

We have here the great Solas.

Sola Scriptura. The Scriptures ALONE are our authority.

And

Sola Fide. Faith ALONE has saved Dionysius and Damaris and the rest.

It is a simple faith. You don’t need to study Pseudo-Dyonsius or any of the Philosophers. Study the word of God and you shall do well.