Paul and the Pagan Poets


There are interesting passages in the New Testament that demonstrate the Apostle Paul’s willingness to employ verses from pagan poetry to speak Biblical truth. There may be others; some trace 1 Timothy 5.4 to a line from Terence (195/185–159 BC), Andria IV. Be that as it may, it is clear that Paul was learned in pagan poetry, and found good uses for it, even apart from the idolatrous intentions of the poets themselves. Without adopting the whole false system of belief represented by the sources he quoted, Paul with discernment and for godly purposes, was able, because of his familiarity with pagan poems, to find the good within and bring it to light to God’s glory.

Acts 17.28: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

This verse spoken during his famous speech at Mars Hill in Athens shows the apologetic use that such acquaintance with pagan poetry can provide. The first quote seems derived from a work on Crete by Epimenides in which he rebukes the Cretians for building a tomb to Zeus, whom he believed to be immortal.

Epimenides (6th century BC), Cretica:

They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one—
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

Paul also may have in mind Cleanthes, who said something similar.

Cleanthes (c. 330 BC – c. 230 BC), Hymn to Zeus:

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.

The latter quote seems to come from a work by Aratus again in praise of Zeus.

Aratus (c. 315 BC/310 BC – 240 BC), Phaenomena 1-5:

From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed;
full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men;
full is the sea and the havens thereof;
always we all have need of Zeus.
For we are also his offspring;

It is interesting to see how Paul borrowed expressions intended to glorify a false God, which his hearers would have recognized, and applied them to the true God. Eusebius records (Preparation for the Gospel 13.12) how Aristobulus of Paneas, a Jewish philosopher (c. 160 BC) had similarly quoted from the same beginning lines of Aratus, Phaenomena, but to demonstrate that the praise of Zeus was rightly given to God instead. Aristobulus thus: ‘It is clearly shown, I think, that all things are pervaded by the power of God: and this I have properly represented by taking away the name of Zeus which runs through the poems; for it is to God that their thought is sent up, and for that reason I have so expressed it.’ The apologetic purpose of Paul — and Aristobulus — thus finds truth in a pagan poem and employs it for godly ends.

1 Cor. 15.32-33: If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die. Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.

The phrase “let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die” may be an allusion to both Isa. 22.13 and Eccl. 8.15. However, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Paul may have had in mind the philosophy of Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC), who put forth a similar view of life.

The phrase “evil communications corrupt good manners” is apparently a direct quote from either Menander or Euripides (John Milton attributes it to Euripides in the preface to his Samson Agonistes). Paul thus bears witness to the maxim of a heathen poet.

Menander (ca. 342–291 BC), Thais: Bad company corrupts good character.

Euripides (c. 480 BC – 406 BC) (fr. 609): Evil communications corrupt good manners.

Titus 1.12-13a: One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are alway liars, evil beasts, slow bellies. This witness is true.

The quotation here seems to be from Epimenides, cited already above, or perhaps from Callimachus. Again, Paul shows his extensive knowledge of pagan poetry, and selectively quotes as appropriate to demonstrate a true statement found within an idolatrous poem.

Callimachus (310/305–240 BC), Hymn I. To Zeus: “Cretans are ever liars.”

The Apostle Paul by these examples shows that indeed, as I have noted before, “all truth is God’s truth,” wherever we may find it. The words of Charles Spurgeon on this point are worth heeding.

Charles Spurgeon, Exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:

“Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die.” Oh! wicked Paul! to quote from a heathen poet! How disgraceful. If I were to repeat a verse, and it looked as if Shakespere or any profane author ever wrote such a thing, how criminal! say you. But I like good things wherever I find them. I have often quoted from the devil, and I dare say I shall often quote from his people. Paul quoted this from Meander, and another heathen poet, who wrote far worse things than have been written by modern poets, and if any of us who may have stored our minds with the contents of books we wish we had never read, and if there be some choice gems in them which may be used for the service of God, by his help we will so use them.

The Shepherd’s love and care for the sheep

From John’s Gospel, we can make the following scriptural statements:

All that the Father has chosen to be His from eternity, He has given to the Son (John 6:37); and all whom He has given to the Son, the Son knows (John 10:3); and calls (John 10:3-5); and all whom He calls, know Him (John 10:14) and recognize His voice (John 10:4-5) and they come to Him (John 6:37) and follow Him (John 10:4, 27); and the Son lays down His life for His sheep (John 10:11); and He gives them eternal life (John 10:28) and keeps them in the Father’s word (John 17:6), so that not even one of them is lost (John 6:39), to glorify the Son forever (John 17:10). This is the indestructible foundation for an infallible salvation that rebounds in the end to the glory of both the Father and the Son.

None of Christ’s sheep finally reject His word. Though He allows some of His sheep to resist the word for a long time, never do they reject it finally. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me.” (John 6:37). What a promise! And what a privilege we have in sharing the Gospel with people, as we witness the Good Shepherd rounding up His sheep.

Please continue to pray

Jim, with his 15 year old daughter Alisa

Jim Maestri is a very dear friend of mine. It is actually amazing that he is alive. He is only 43 but has already had six heart attacks, his issues being genetic – Jim’s father died before he (Jim) was even born, from the very same thing.

I was out in Brazil on the recent trip (returning just yesterday) and was informed while I was out there that Jim was going into hospital for the sixth time this year. My heart sank. Yet a few days later, I was told that his heart actually stopped beating for 15 minutes. Though he revived, doctors were very concerned that a vast amount of brain damage had occured. Jim’s survival prospects were around 20%.

Then more issues emerged – his liver was not functioning – his readings were “completely off the charts” in terms of the seriousness of the issue and that for him to survive, doctors said he would need a liver transplant. Yet because Jim was far too unstable, heart wise, even this was not considered a wise course of action.

Of course – I prayed.. and many others did. Much of my time in Brazil was spent trying to get updates on Jim’s condition over the internet. He was constantly on my heart and mind.

Then I was told the doctors were stunned by the liver function returning – that they had NEVER seen such a dramtic turn around.

This was so encouraging, of course.

Late last night I received an update from Jim’s sister, Cathy. Apparantly, she is an agnostic, but wrote the following:

I know this sounds crazy, but this afternoon they took jim off sedatives and off the vent to see if he could breathe on his own for an hour or so. not only did he wake up, within half an hour he was speaking (very weakly), insulting me, correcting me, demanding stuff (mainly pepsi) and trying to make the nurses laugh.

This evening he’s complaining of chest pain and trouble breathing (now that all the drugs are wearing off, he’s probably feeling what must be cracked ribs from CPR and the coughing fits that would appear to have blown out his hernia.) What’s more, he’s afraid to go to sleep for fear he won’t wake up. The nurse just gave him some morphine and a third popsicle, and I promised to stay the night.

He’s still pretty darn ill — i have to assume they’d still categorize him as critical — but today has been absolutely mind-blowing.

Thanks for all your thoughts and concern and prayers and e-mail. We both REALLY appreciate it!


Please keep my friend Jim in your prayers. There is nothing too hard for the Lord.

Preaching Christ from the Old Testament

(Especially for Pastors and Teachers) – Watch a discussion on preaching Jesus and the gospel from the Old Testament at The Gospel Coalition’s 2011 national conference at McCormick Place. The panel includes Tim Keller, Crawford Loritts, Don Carson, John Piper, and Bryan Chapell. (approx. 51 minutes)

Panel on Preaching Christ in the OT – Keller, Piper, Loritts, Carson, Chapell – TGC 2011 from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Real Preaching!

Those who criticise the role of preaching in our day, questioning its relevance; and those would advocate any kind of man made substitute to replace it – one thing is certain – they have NEVER truly heard REAL preaching. Here is 11 minutes of the real thing, from Paul Washer:

“God never violates the free will of man” – Really?

My friend John Hendryx (the man behind the amazing theological website) has deep insight into the Scriptures and is particularly skilled when it comes to answering questions. John is gifted with a tender heart towards the Lord and His people, as well as a very sharp mind. I have had the privilege of serving with him for almost six years as a writer on the blog and am often amazed with the precision and care he shows in handling objections. Here’s two such recent cases:

(1) Someone recently declared to me (John Hendryx) that “God’s fulfills his plan without ever coercing our volition” – But is it an axiom that in order for there to be true love, God must never violate our so-called “free will?”

My response: First and foremost, it must be said that such an idea is nowhere to be found in the Bible. But in order to demonstrate that this idea does not even fly in everyday life, I have a simple story for you: Two parents see their disobedient toddlers run out into oncoming traffic. The first parent runs up to the curb to tell their toddler to use their will to get out of the way of traffic, but does NOTHING more because he does not want to interfere with the toddler’s will. The SECOND parent sees the cars coming and runs out into the street at the risk of their life to SCOOP up the child to MAKE CERTAIN their child is safe. WHICH parent loved their child ? We would all view this second parent as having GREAT love for their child and GET THIS, he was not concerned AT ALL about the child’s will because the parent knew better than the child what was good for him . AND How much more does God love his own? God’s love for us is not conditional as you believe. He does not first see how we use OUR WILL to determine whether he loves us, as you seem to believe. He loves us too much to leave us in our own hands. No, God saves us in spite of our rebellious will. The synergist’s idea of love then is flawed since they believe God’s love for us is CONDITIONAL. Rather, “we love God BECAUSE he first loved us.” Jesus does for us what we are unable and unwilling to do for ourselves.

Again, when you used the phrase “fulfilling God’s plan without coercing their volition” — this seems to be a “basic assumption” which is the driving force behind your theology. You guys have talked about this idea for so long that it has become axiomatic for you, even though it is nowhere found in the Bible. Your most precious doctrine, it seems, that drives everything else is, therefore, this false idea which is READ INTO the Scriptures. It is a logical deduction but, I would argue, is wrong. Continue reading

As the King’s Herald

“I stand before you today as the King’s herald with a message of supreme importance. This King I serve is the Creator of all things. He has made you for Himself, violating His laws with reckless abandon. These amount to acts of high treason that defy His right of ownership and His holy character. Being a just and holy King, He must dispense justice to the perpetrators. These acts being as traitorous as they are deserve His wrath in full measure. He has every right to sentence all rebels to eternal punishment while also wiping them off the face of the earth.

Yet, this Great King, moved by love and as a display of vast mercy, has sent His dearly loved Son into the world, to live a righteous life, and at the cross, bear the punishment and guilt of all those who would believe in Him. So to all who would renounce all attempts of self justification and who will take refuge in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, this King announces that He will forgive all your treasonous acts on the basis that His own Son was punished in your place, and instead, He will transfer the righteousness of His Son to your account so that you stand before Him guiltless and righteous in His sight. For He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us, so that in Him we might be made the righteousness of God.

So to all who take refuge in the Son, you need not face the King’s fierce and holy wrath; only trust in, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the resurrected Savior, now enthroned in the courts of heaven. This is the good news I have been sent to proclaim as His herald.

John Chapter 3, verse 36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

All rebels of the King hear the word of the Lord. Repent of both your treason and all your vain attempts to please Him. Trust in the Son. Trust in His finished work upon the cross. Come to Him now. Make Him your refuge, and the King extends to you full pardon for all your acts of high treason, and a place with Him at His banqueting table where you will enjoy the King’s favor and bounty always. In His presence there is fullness of joy and at His right hand there are pleasures forevermore.

Yet this free offer of good news will not last forever. Come to Him for now indeed is the day of salvation. Call upon the Name of the Lord and be saved!”

An Open Letter To Mr. Grace-Loving Antinomian

I read this today and began cheering. Brilliant, simply brilliant!

Tullian Tchividjian is the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (the Church formerly led by Dr. D. James Kennedy), a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. He writes:

There seems to be a fear out there that the preaching of radical grace produces serial killers. Or, to put it in more theological terms, too much emphasis on the indicatives of the gospel leads to antinomianism (a lawless version of Christianity that believes the directives and commands of God don’t matter). My problem with this fear is that I’ve never actually met anyone who has been truly gripped by God’s amazing grace in the gospel who then doesn’t care about obeying him. As I have said before: antinomianism happens not when we think too much of grace. Just the opposite, actually. Antinomianism happens when we think too little of grace.

Wondering whether this common fear is valid, my dear friend Elyse Fitzpatrick (in C.S. Lewis fashion) writes an open letter to Mr. Grace-Loving Antinomian–a person she’s heard about for years but never met–asking him to please step forward and identify himself.


Dear Mr. Antinomian,

Forgive me for writing to you in such an open forum but I’ve been trying to meet you for years and we just never seem to connect. While it’s true that I live in a little corner of the States and while it’s true that I am, well, a woman, I did assume that I would meet you at some point in my decades old counseling practice. But alas, neither you nor any of your (must be) thousands of brothers and sisters have ever shown up for my help…So again, please do pardon my writing in such a public manner but, you see, I’ve got a few things to say to you and I think it’s time I got them off my chest.

I wonder if you know how hard you’re making it for those of us who love to brag about the gospel. You say that you love the gospel and grace too, but I wonder how that can be possible since it’s been continuously reported to me that you live like such a slug. I’ve even heard that you are lazy and don’t work at obeying God at all…Rather you sit around munching on cigars and Twinkies, brewing beer and watching porn on your computer. Mr. A, really! Can this be true?

So many of my friends and acquaintances are simply up in arms about the way you act and they tell me it’s because you talk too much about grace. They suggest (and I’m almost tempted to agree) that what you need is more and more rules to live by. In fact, I’m very tempted to tell you that you need to get up off your lazy chair, pour your beer down the drain, turn off your computer and get about the business of the Kingdom.

I admit that I’m absolutely flummoxed, though, which is why I’m writing as I am. You puzzle me. How can you think about all that Christ has done for you, about your Father’s steadfast, immeasurable, extravagantly generous love and still live the way you do? Have you never considered the incarnation, about the Son leaving ineffable light to be consigned first to the darkness of Mary’s womb and then the darkness of this world? Have you never considered how He labored day-after-day in His home, obeying His parents, loving His brothers and sisters so that you could be counted righteous in the sight of His Father? Have you forgotten the bloody disgrace of the cross you deserve? Don’t you know that in the resurrection He demolished sin’s power over you? Aren’t you moved to loving action knowing that He’s now your ascended Lord Who prays for you and daily bears you on His heart? Has your heart of stone never been warmed and transformed by the Spirit? Does this grace really not impel zealous obedience? Hello…Are you there?

Honestly, even though my friends talk about you as though you were just everywhere in every church, always talking about justification but living like the devil, frankly I wonder if you even exist. I suppose you must because everyone is so afraid that talking about grace will produce more of you. So that’s why I’m writing: Will you please come forward? Will you please stand up in front of all of us and tell us that your heart has been captivated so deeply by grace that it makes you want to watch the Playboy channel?

Again, please do forgive me for calling you out like this. I really would like to meet you. I am,

Trusting in Grace Alone,