Acts Lesson Thirty-six: Acts 17:16-34 – Paul in Athens

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Then also, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers argued with him. Some said, “What is this pseudo-intellectual trying to say?” 

Others replied, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities”—because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the Resurrection. 

19 They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, and said, “May we learn about this new teaching you’re speaking of? 20 For what you say sounds strange to us, and we want to know what these ideas mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners residing there spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new. 

22 Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect. 23 For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.  

Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it —He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. 25 Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. 26 From one man  He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. 27 He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. 28 For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Being God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination. 

30 “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.” 

32 When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to ridicule him. But others said, “We’d like to hear from you again about this.” 33 Then Paul left their presence. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, including Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (HCSB)

Paul was not idle in Athens while waiting for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him. It’s a trait we see throughout Paul’s Christian life. He was always busy in some manner, either increasing his knowledge after his conversion or sharing the Gospel with those he interacted with during his time in Antioch or during his missionary journeys. I’ll split this lesson into two parts.

  • Preaching at the synagogue and marketplace – verses 16-18.
  • The Areopagus address – verses 19-34.

However, before we get into this passage, let’s look at some facts regarding Athens in Paul’s day.

  • It was recognized as a center of culture and education.
    • There was a famous university there.
    • There were many magnificent cultural buildings.
  • However, it was in a period of decline.
    • It didn’t possess the influence it once had.
    • The glory of its politics and commerce had faded.
  • There were about 5,000 voting citizens but many more nonnative inhabitants.
  • It practiced cultured paganism was fed by idolatry.
    • Greek religion was the deification of human attributes and the powers of nature.
    • It was a religion that ministered to art and amusement and was devoid of moral power.
    • The Greek gods and goddesses had ambitions and were rivals of each, acting much like humans.
  • The city was devoted to philosophy.
    • Socrates.
    • Aristotle.
    • There were two primary schools of philosophical thought.
      • Epicureans – materialistic, atheist, with a life goal of seeking pleasure. Enjoy life.
      • Stoics – rejected idolatry and pagan worship. They believed in a one “World God.” They were pantheists. Pleasure was not good, and pain was not evil. The most important thing was to follow one’s reason and be self-sufficient, often leading to pride. Endure life.
  • It was the overbearing emphasis on idol worship that greatly disturbed Paul.

Preaching at the Synagogue and the Marketplace

Once again, Paul begins with his usual practice; he went first to the synagogue to preach on the Sabbath. However, during the week, he would go to the marketplace and share his message with the Gentiles. Luke doesn’t tell us whether Paul experienced any success or not. However, the point of this section isn’t on Paul’s witness in the synagogue or the marketplace. The point is that he encountered Stoic and Epicurean philosophers there, which led to his being brought to the Areopagus. Let’s look at some points in this section.

  • It’s clear that the philosophers were not impressed by Paul.
    • The term “pseudo-intellectual” was not a compliment.
    • The original Greek used here implies that Paul had heard bits and pieces of information and was repeating it without having an understanding of what he was talking about.
    • They were accusing Paul of being a false intellectual, an imposter.
  • At least some did realize that Paul was talking about a “deity,” although they didn’t understand the message.
  • True to their philosophical foundation, they desired to learn more about a subject that they currently didn’t know or understand.
  • Luke points out that the population of Athens spent a considerable amount of time talking or listening to each other in an attempt to increase their knowledge.
  • The idea of a bodily resurrection would have been a significant stumbling block as both schools of philosophy didn’t believe in it.
    • The Greek word for resurrection is “anastasis.” 
    • They thought Paul was talking about a new goddess named Anastasia and a new god named Jesus.
    • In their minds, Paul was a polytheist just like them.

The Areopagus Address

The philosopher’s “invitation” to address the crowd at the Areopagus is a matter of debate.

  • Was Paul tried before a formal Athenian court called Areopagus?
  • Did Paul deliver a public address from a hill known as Areopagus?
  • The original Greek leaves it ambiguous. 
    • The Areopagus was both a court and a hill.
    • The Council of Areopagus was responsible for both religion and education in Athens.
    • Since Paul was teaching a new doctrine on religion, it was natural for them to question him.
    • The court traditionally met on that hill.
    • The name means “hill of Ares,” the hill of the god of war.
    • The Roman equivalent to Ares was Mars; hence some translations call it Mars Hill.
    • Throughout Acts, Luke presented numerous occasions where Paul appeared before the official legal bodies in numerous cities. Is this another “formal” appearance?
    • Even if it was a formal address, it makes more sense that this wasn’t a trial as Paul was not charged with any crime.
  • Regardless of the formality, Paul was presented with an opportunity to address the crowd.

As Paul begins his address, knowing full well the importance of addressing this audience, he uses an engaging and respectful tone and carefully crafted message.

  • Paul acknowledges that they are “extremely religious.” Even though their religiosity is about idols, Paul doesn’t use inflammatory words.
  • It was standard practice in Greek rhetoric to win the audience’s favor and secure their attention.
  • Although Paul uses Greek philosophical rhetoric, his message is firmly rooted in Old Testament thinking. 
  • Paul focuses on the “unknown god” as a window of opportunity to show them that the triune God is the unknown god. Additionally, the fact the Greeks worshipped an unknown god was admitting ignorance of the god’s nature. This statement highlights two points.
    • Paul referred to “what” they worshiped and not “who” they worshiped. Their worship was focused on a “thing” and not a personal god.
    • There is an emphasis on ignorance. For Greek philosophers, this would be a stinging accusation. The greatest virtue was to discover the truth, and to live in ignorance was the greatest folly in their society.

Paul presents four fundamental truths about God; He is creator, He is provider, He is ruler, and He is Savior.

  • God is creator – verse 24.
    • It is normal for each of us to ponder three questions. Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Science attempts to answer the first, philosophy wrestles with the second, but only Christianity answers all three.
    • Epicureans, being atheists, believed that this life was all there was.
    • Stoics said that everything was God. He didn’t create anything; He only organized it.
    • Paul affirms that God always was and that He created everything.
    • He is not a distant God.
    • He isn’t locked in His creation.
    • He is too great to be contained in shrines made by humans.
      • This would have been recognized as a jab against the temples in Athens.
      • Not only were there numerous shrines in the city of Athens, but there were also several shrines to Athena on the Acropolis.
    • The main difference between the Greek philosophers’ viewpoint on “god” and Paul was the argument between pantheism and monotheism.
  • God is provider – verse 25.
    • The Greeks and Romans, much like some of us today, pride ourselves on service to God. 
    • However, God is self-sufficient and doesn’t need our help.
    • The pagan temples not only didn’t contain God, but their service in temples also didn’t add anything to God.
    • God gives us life, breath, and all things that we need. 
    • God is the source of everything good.
    • Instead of worshipping the creator and giving Him glory, men worship the creation and give glory to themselves.
    • In one simple statement, Paul effectively undermined the entire Greek religious system.
  • God is ruler – verses 26-29.
    • The Greek gods were aloof and possessed no concern for the problems and needs of humans.
    • Our God is the God of creation and history and geography.
      • He created mankind from one man.
      • All nations came from this one man and the same bloodline.
        • The Greeks felt they were a superior race, different from all other nations.
        • Paul tells them they are no different from any other nation.
      • Their land was a gift from God.
    • God determines the rise and fall of nations.
    • Because God is ruler over all, we should seek Him and come to know Him.
    • Paul then uses quotes from two Greek poets.
      • Paul did this for two reasons.
        • Scripture would not have resonated with the Greek audience he was addressing.
        • Quotes from fellow pagan philosophers would be more effective in reaching them.
      • “For in Him we live and move and exist” is from Epimenides.
      • “For we are also His offspring” is from Aratus.
      • By using these quotes from Greek poets, Paul was pointing out the “Fatherhood of God” in a natural sense; man was created in the image of God.
    • This led to Paul’s logical conclusion.
      • God made us in His image.
      • It would then be foolish for us to make gods in our image.
      • Greek religion was nothing more than the making and worship of gods who were patterned after men and acted like men.
      • Paul pointed out the folly of temples, temple rituals, and idolatry in general.
      • This critique of idolatry would have appealed to the Stoics, who saw idolatry as the folly of religion.
        • However, Paul’s teaching of one creator God would tell the Stoics that they too were idolators.
        • In the Stoic’s attempt to reach the divine through their own effort, they had corrupted the relationship between creator and created.
        • If they realized this corruption, they would also realize their need for repentance.
  • God is Savior – verses 30-34.
    • Paul closes his message by pointing out God’s grace.
    • For centuries, God was patient with disobedience and sinful behavior, even though some were ignorant of these facts.
    • At the same time, ignorance does not remove guilt. Just because were are ignorant of a law, i.e., speeding, doesn’t mean we won’t face punishment for breaking the law.
    • Yet, God, in spite of our disobedience, held back on His judgment.
    • After Paul’s address, the “unknown god” was no longer unknown. If they continued in their worship of idols, they would no longer be guilty of the sin of ignorance but of deliberate sin.
    • The only course of action is repentance. 
    • God is giving all of us time to repent of our sins and turn to Him.
    • God sent a Savior, Jesus, as a means to remove our sins by placing faith in Him.
      • The Savior was killed and raised from the dead.
      • One day Jesus will return and judge the world.
      • The proof is that Jesus was raised from the dead.
    • At the conclusion of Paul’s message, there were three different responses.
      • Some ridiculed Paul.
        • Greeks believed that the body was a prison, and the sooner a person left their body, the happier they would be.
        • Why would a body be raised from the dead to live again? That would continue the prison theme.
        • Why would God bother with judging each person?
        • These viewpoints were not compatible with Greek philosophy.
        • It is likely that the scoffers were the majority as Paul left the Areopagus after his address.
      • Some were interested and wanted to hear more from Paul.
      • A small group believed Paul’s message and placed their faith in Jesus. These included Dionysius and Damaris.

Applications

  • We need to tailor and contextualize the Gospel message according to the audience we are trying to reach. In the example of this passage, Paul was addressing a group of “intellectuals” and not people with any background in Christian or Old Testament understanding. Paul made use of phrases and themes that would reach them while not compromising the truths of the Gospel.
  • We need to have our ears and eyes open for opportunities around us to reach others. How often do we miss the “unknown god” moments in our lives? It’s possible those opportunities will never be available again. We need to be sensitive when they present themselves, even if the majority ridicule our message.
  • We should never expect everyone to accept the truth of the Gospel as we engage in evangelism. It’s even possible that the overwhelming majority reject the message. However, that should never prevent us from speaking the message. Listen to Jesus’ words in Luke 15:10 “I tell you, in the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.

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