27. The Apostle in Athens, Preaching to Philosophers (Acts 17:15-34)

Introduction

Don Richardson tells a fascinating story of the “altar to the unknown god,” referred to by Paul in Acts chapter 17. This story is based upon a number of historical documents and sources, which Richardson cites in his book. I highly recommend that you read his fuller account found on pages 9-25.391

In short, the story begins sometime in the sixth century before Christ, with the city of Athens was being devastated and decimated by a mysterious plague. When no explanation for the plague could be found, and no cure was in sight, the approach was to assume that one of the city’s many gods had been offended. The leaders of the city sought to determine which of the gods it was and then determine a way of appeasing that god. This was no easy task, since the city of Athens had literally hundreds of gods, which Richardson refers to as the “god capital of the world,” a place so full of gods that the Athenians “must have needed something equivalent to the Yellow Pages just to keep tabs on the many deities already represented in their city.”392

When all efforts failed to discern which god had been offended, and which had brought the plague upon the city, an outside “consultant” was brought in from the Island of Cyprus, whose name was Epimenides. Epimenides concluded that it was none of the known gods of Athens which had been offended, but some, as yet, unknown god. He proposed a course of action which, if it worked, would at least provide a possible remedy for the plague. He had a flock of choice sheep, of various colors, kept from food until they were hungry. On the given day, he had these sheep turned loose on Mars Hill, on what was a very succulent pasture. For any sheep not to have eaten his fill would have been unexplainable. He had the sheep turned loose and watched carefully, to see if any sheep would lie down and not eat, even though hungry and in prime grazing. Several sheep, to the amazement of those watching, did lie down. Altars were erected at each spot where a sheep lay down, dedicated to an “unknown god.” On those altars, the sheep which lay in that spot was sacrificed. Almost immediately, we are told, the plague began to subside.

Over a period of time, the altars were forgotten, and began to deteriorate. One altar, it seems, was restored and preserved, in commemoration of the removal of the plague by calling upon the “unknown god.” Who would have thought that centuries later, a foreigner named Paul would refer to this altar as the starting point for his sermon on Mars Hill? And who would have known that it may have been this very poet, Epimenides, whom Paul would later quote in his sermon?

The Unique Contribution of our Text

The text which we are about to study is unique in that it is the only complete synopsis of one of Paul’s sermons to a pagan, Gentile audience. In Acts 13:16-41, we have Paul’s sermon delivered to the Jews in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch. That is the only complete sermon of Paul, which is delivered to a Jewish audience. In Acts 17, we have the only full sermon of Paul to the Gentiles. It is true that Paul spoke a much more abbreviated form of this message to the heathen Gentiles who were trying to worship him and Barnabas at Lystra (Acts 14:14-18), but the purpose of this message was not to evangelize these folks, as it was to convince them to stop trying to worship them as gods. Later on in Acts, some rather lengthy portions of Paul’s words will be recorded, but these are words which Paul spoke in his defense, not a message designed to evangelize his audience.

Our text also begins to prepare the way for the time when Paul’s ministry will be primarily focused upon the Gentiles, rather than upon the Jews. This is still to come, but this evangelistic campaign in Athens is a kind of “first-fruits” of what will come in God’s good time. Paul did not purpose to evangelize these Gentiles, but he could not help but do so when he was deeply stirred in his soul over their rampant idolatry.

The Context of our Text

Paul’s visit to Athens is a part of what is generally referred to as the “second missionary journey” of Paul. This journey began after the Jerusalem Council was held, at which time the Jerusalem elders and the apostles concluded that the Gentile converts did not have to become Jewish to become a Christian. Christianity was, as it were, distinguished from Judaism, even though salvation came through Judaism. This paved the way for even more extensive evangelism among the Gentiles.

When Paul proposed a return visit to those churches they had founded on their first mission, Barnabas was all in favor, except that he insisted they should take John Mark along, while Paul refused to do so. This team was thus divided into two teams, with Barnabas taking John Mark with him back to Cyprus, while Paul chose Silas to go with him, and shortly after, he invited Timothy to accompany them as well.

After visiting the churches which they had founded in Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium, this missionary party was strangely forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia, and also was not permitted by the Spirit of Jesus to enter into Bithynia. When they came to Troas, God revealed the next step in a vision to Paul, the vision we know as the “Macedonian Vision.”

As a result of this vision, Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke (if not others) made their way to Philippi, where Lydia and her household came to faith, along with the Philippian jailer and his household, and a number of others. When they were released from prison and had gathered with the church to encourage the saints at the house of Lydia, Paul and his colleagues went to Thessalonica, where Paul, as usual, went to the synagogue, only to find a somewhat “less than noble-minded” group of Jews. Only a few of these Jews came to faith in Jesus as Messiah, but a number of Gentile “God-fearers” or proselytes of some type professed faith, including a number of the leading women. This provoked the Jews to a jealous rage, resulting in a considerable disturbance (instigated by the Jews, by stirring up an angry crowd), which, in turn led to the arrest of Jason, and the posting of some type of bond. This necessitated the immediate departure of Paul and his party.

And so it was that they came to Berea, a much smaller, quieter, place, where it would seem that no such disturbance would occur. These Jews were indeed “noble-minded.” They eagerly listened to Paul’s teaching of the Scriptures, and then proceeded to check it out for themselves, so that many of these Jews (in contrast to the few in Thessalonica) came to faith, along with a number of Gentile proselytes, including, once again, some prominent Greek men and women.

There was no uprising against Paul from the Bereans. This came from the Thessalonian Jews, who got wind of Paul’s ministry in Berea, and quickly proceeded to stir up another disturbance, just like the one they had instigated at Thessalonica. Once again, Paul had to leave town, but this time he left Silas and Timothy behind. He would wait for them to return to him, as quickly as possible, in Athens.393

No Idle Apostle
(17:15-17)

15 Now those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens;394 and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed. 16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked395 within him as he was beholding the city full of idols.396 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing {Gentiles,} and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present.

All appearances are that Paul had no plan to evangelize Athens, at least not until he was joined by his companions and colleagues. He had been “escorted” to Athens by some of the saints from Berea, for his own protection. Paul gave instructions to Silas and Timothy through those from Berea who had escorted him to Athens that they were to rejoin him as soon as possible. And so it seems that Paul had some “time to kill” in Athens. He probably felt that his time in that city would have been too short to begin supporting himself by tent-making. As much as anything, Paul was a tourist, going about this city, soaking up its history and culture, and visiting its many magnificent sights and attractions.

Of all the things Paul saw, one seemed to make the greatest impression on him. It was not that this city was beautiful, or one of the great cultural and intellectual centers of the world. It was not that great men, like Plato and Aristotle once walked these streets and taught there. It was that this great city was filled with heathen idols.397 Like Lot in ancient times, Paul’s “righteous soul was vexed” (compare 2 Peter 2:7) by what he saw about him in this heathen city.

As a Jew, Paul would naturally be offended and incensed by idols, which were an abomination to God and to every devout Jew. But it was the gospel which was at the root of Paul’s stirring of soul. The gospel, as Paul would later write (see Romans, especially chapters 1-3), declared both Gentiles and Jews to be under divine condemnation, hopeless and helpless, and in need of salvation. And, to both Jews and Gentiles, God sent His Son, Jesus, to die in the sinner’s place, and to bear the wrath of God for them, as well as to offer them His righteousness, by faith in Him alone. Paul saw the idolatry of the Athenians as damnable. He was deeply struck by the lostness of this city, and of the judgment of God which each person would someday face. He knew these people needed a Savior, and He knew that the Savior had come for sinners such as these, and thus Paul could do nothing but preach Christ to them.

Paul’s normal routine—of going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and preaching the Word—continued at Athens, although absolutely nothing is said of the results of this ministry. Luke has left the synagogue behind for the moment, for he is more interested in telling us about Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles (not the Gentile proselytes, who would gather at the synagogue, but the philosophers and others, who were at the market place. To such people as would listen, Paul spoke during the week.

Preaching to the Philosophers
(17:18-31)

18 And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers398. were conversing with him. And some were saying, “What would this idle babbler399 wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—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 which you are proclaiming?400 20 “For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)

22 And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus401 and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined {their} appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him 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 also are His offspring.’ 29 “Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.

30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. “

Paul seldom passed up an invitation to speak, when it gave him the opportunity to preach the gospel to lost men and women. The opportunity to speak in the synagogue was apparently a matter of custom, but the invitation to preach to pagan philosophers was more rare. He is given that opportunity in Athens. As Paul spoke with those who would listen in the market place, he got the attention of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, although not for reasons which would swell one’s head with pride.

They knew that Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection (verse 18), and this had no automatic interest, as it did with the Jews, who were at least looking for Messiah. What appealed to these philosophers about Paul’s preaching was not that Paul was so brilliant, or educated (according to their way of reckoning such matters), but that his teaching was something new, and these people of Athens were always looking for something new (verse 21). The “newness” was, I think, two-fold. First, the preaching of Paul about Jesus and His resurrection was a message never heard by them before. It was a new message. Second, it was a new message in kind. All other religions, being “man made” have a kind of sameness, a commonality, because of their human origins. But the message of Christ and His cross is a message that men would never have conceived of, and even if they had they would never have sought to accept it or to propagate. To put the matter in biblical terms, human religions can all be placed under the heading, “human wisdom,” while the gospel would be categorized by men as “foolish.” Further, the “divine wisdom” of the gospel is not even able to be grasped by the unbelieving human mind.

The motive of these Athenians for giving Paul a hearing, an opportunity to expound his views, were not very noble. But Paul was invited to speak, and that was sufficient for him. It was an opportunity he gladly accepted and utilized for the sake of the gospel.

If the motivation of this group was less than ideal, so was the mood with which they gathered and listened. It was not the eagerness to hear a word from God that characterized the “noble-minded” Bereans. It was a somewhat cynical, skeptical mood, one which had already concluded that the subject matter was not only new, but foreign, not only in origin, but to their taste in religion. Paul was not looked upon with respect. They cared not that he was an apostle of Jesus Christ, and that he could expound the Old Testament with accuracy and authority. To these arrogant philosophers Paul was a “hick,” a nobody, a collector of religious scraps, from the gutters of the world. It was more out of a lack of something better to do, more out of an idle speculative curiosity that they gathered to hear him. If nothing else, they could heckle him and have a good laugh out of the episode. In short, Paul was a foolish man, advocating a foolish and worthless religion. Nonetheless, they would listen to him, for the sake of curiosity and speculation, not for the sake of truth.

At this point we come to one of the strong contrasts between the Jewish audiences which Paul customarily addressed in their synagogues, and this group of Gentile philosophers, whom Paul had been addressing the streets and the market-place. The Jews already had their minds made up. They knew, they thought, what the truth was. They listened to Paul to see if he taught according to the truth they had already agreed upon. And when he differed, they became indignant, no so much because it was “error” from their point of view as it threatened their position, power, and lifestyle.

With the Gentiles it was a very different matter. They were men who were always on the “trail of truth,” ever in pursuit of it, but not really eager to arrive at the truth. It was the search for truth which was more enjoyable than the acceptance of it. The philosophers of Paul’s day were to the truth what many single couples are to marriage—they want to enjoy its pleasures, but they wish to avoid its commitments and obligations. And so these folks could give Paul a hearing with little uneasiness, because they were always “window shopping” in the marketplace of truth, but never buying.

Paul is not taken back by the realities of why he is speaking. Like a horse, bolting from the gate at the starter’s gun, he is off and running. Paul immediately turned to a point of reference which was well-known to his audience, and gave him a foothold with his message. Somewhere in the city was an alter, dedicated to “an unknown god.” To this altar Paul made reference. The altar was just that—an altar, not an idol. An idol of a “god” required an identification of that god. The name of the god must be known, and the characteristics and attributes must be known as well, if one was going to have an image of it. That’s what an idol is—the representation of a “god” in the form of that god, as an object of worship and devotion. This altar had no idol because neither the name nor the attributes of the god was known. It was like the tomb of the unknown soldier, in this regard—you could not put a name on the headstone, not knowing who it was who was buried there.

Paul was starting with his audience from their own point of reference—that altar dedicated to the “unknown god.” Paul tells this group that the God of whom he is speaking is the “god” who was unknown to them, but to whose existence the altar gave testimony. With all of the “gods” they worshipped, they acknowledged, by the presence of that altar, that their “gods” were insufficient. Like wealth, prestige, and power, the Athenians just couldn’t seem to get enough gods. Thus, they left room for one more, because they saw the need for another.

Here is a vital difference between Christianity and idolatry. Polytheism (the having of many gods) and idolatry (the worship of the images of these gods) never has enough gods. Furthermore, this form of religion is more than willing to add the one true God to its list of “gods.” It is very tolerant of additional “gods.” Christianity, however is that faith in which “on God does all.” With one, true, all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God, no other God is needed, or tolerated. Christianity has a capable God and men who trust in Him find Him fully sufficient.

Paul’s first point, in referring to the “unknown god” of the Athenians is that the religion of these people is obviously not adequate, for they are looking for yet another “god.” One who has a sufficient faith and a sufficient God need not leave room for another. The existence of this altar, dedicated to the “unknown god,” is a telling witness to the inadequacy of their religion. Paul promises to tell them what they do no know—who that God is.

Paul’s second point, seen throughout the entire sermon, is that their system of searching for the one true God is defective and futile. The God who was, to them “unknown” is a God who has made Himself known. God is not trying to hide from men; men are hiding from God, and often by means of their religion. The “unknown god,” whom they have acknowledged exists is the God who caused all things to come into existence—the Creator of all things, including men. And His very creation is that which bears testimony of His existence, as well as His attributes (or characteristics). Thus, if God is unknown to these Athenians, it is not because God has not revealed Himself to men, but because men have closed their eyes to His existence and character.

These Athenians, who pride themselves on their culture, their history, their intelligence and education, are really ignorant. Their worship is that which has resulted from their ignorance, not out of God’s hiding, as a kind of heavenly Howard Hughes. God has not be hiding out, men have turned from Him. How foolish of these men to worship that which they have made with their own hands, gods which they have conjured up in their own minds, rather than the God who created them. They are worshipping their creations, rather than the Creator. If God is unknown to them, it is not because He could not have been known (at least insofar as nature reveals Him—compare Psalm 19:1-6), but because they were ignorant and didn’t want to know Him.

This God is not pleased by the rejection of men. Neither is He a God who gives men the luxury of having Him as a “god” who does man’s bidding, who is there when men need Him, and who can serve other “gods” as well. He is a God who is above men, not under them, who controls men and is not controlled by them.

He is a God who is willing to overlook past sins, but who requires that all men repent of their sin, of their rejection of His self-revelation and of His standards of holiness. And He is a God who does not allow men to be speculative about Him or of religion. He is, in fact, about the judge the world in righteousness, through One whom He has appointed, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Messiah. And as proof of His identity as the Judge of the earth, God raised Him from the dead. The “unknown god” should not have been unknown, and His identity is now made known—Jesus, the Son of God, raised from the dead.

What a blow to the pride of these philosophers, who thought themselves so wise, and who were exposed as fools. What a blow to the religious multi-god system of Athens, to be told that there is but one true God, and in all of their “gods” they had missed Him. What a blow Paul struck at the philosophical, academic approach of these men to their religious pursuits. Did they think they could look for truth from a distance, and from a non-committal point of view? They were wrong. Time was limited, and judgment is imminent. They must decide upon the truth and commit themselves to the truth. It cannot be a mere mental exercise; rather it is a life and death matter, which settles one’s relationship with God and one’s eternal destiny.

The Response of
Philosophers to the Preaching of Paul
(17:32-34)

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some {began} to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” 33 So Paul went out of 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.

These Athenian would-be philosophers got more than what they wanted, and less. They got more in the sense that they were informed of their ignorance and sin. They were told of a Savior whose name they had never heard. They were told of a coming day of judgment, and of a Judge who had been raised from the dead. They were called to make the kind of commitment to truth which they had avoided for years.

And, they also heard less than they wanted or expected. They had hoped for a very complex system, a very intricate philosophical approach to life and “god,” that would leave the common (dull) mind gasping for air, and which would make them look to be the scholar. They hoped for a system so complex that it would never be fully grasped, and which could give them years to ponder and probe, without taking any action. Paul gave them a very simple gospel, the same gospel which he preached everywhere, the message of a Savior, of a cross, of a resurrection, of a coming day of judgment, and of a choice which must be made. They wanted Paul to stay on, so they could continue their conversations and begin their cross-examination. Instead, Paul moved on. He moved on because there were other places to go, where they gospel had not been proclaimed. He moved on because the gospel was simple and short, and there really was nothing else they needed to know. He moved on because no amount of debate and argumentation could persuade them, only the Holy Spirit could “open their hearts and minds” to the truths which he had spoken.

There were those who neither wanted nor needed to hear more. The mere mention of such a thing as the “resurrection of the dead” was the kiss of death to any hopes of their acceptance of Paul’s message. This was something which they held to be both foolish and impossible. This one claim was unacceptable to them, and thus they threw out the entire message. And they were right to do so. If they could not accept the resurrection, then the gospel could not stand without it. They were wrong to reject the resurrection, for it was fact and it is a future reality for all men. But they were right in that the gospel could not be accepted without belief in the resurrection (compare Romans 10:9).

There were a few others who did not need to hear any more either, but not because they rejected Paul’s words. These were the few (it would seem) who believed in the gospel and were saved. Only two believers are named, Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, an Athenian man and woman. There were others, too, but these are not named. The preaching of the gospel in Athens was not without fruit.

Conclusion

As we come to the conclusion of this message, I want to deal with it from several different perspectives:

The Athenian Encounter in the Developing Argument of Acts

There is a definite progression evident in the book of Acts, which can be seen in Acts 17, concerning the transition from Jerusalem to Rome, and from Jews to Gentiles. There is a clear shift in Paul’s emphasis, from a primarily Jewish focus to a largely Gentile focus. This can be seen in Acts 17, where Paul’s ministry at Thessalonica and Berea centered in the synagogues of these cities and focused on the Jews and Gentile God-fearers present there as well. But in Athens, where there was also a synagogue, and to which Paul went each Sabbath (17:17), Luke chooses to say nothing of the results of that ministry, and to focus instead on the ministry of Paul to the pure heathen in the market-place. While the transition from a Jewish to a Gentile focus in Paul’s ministry will not come fully until later on in Acts, there is the clear indication from Luke that it is coming.

The Gentile thrust was more providential than purposeful, on Paul’s part. I think that he was led to Athens by some of the Jewish believers of Berea, planning only to be there long enough to await the arrival of Silas and Timothy. He went, as usual, to the synagogue, but when he was “killing time” in the market-place and elsewhere, he was so burdened by the desperate plight of these intellectual pagans, he could do nothing other than to speak with them of the Savior.

Let us not think that the reason why God turned away from the nation Israel (for a time) and to the Gentiles (the “times of the Gentiles,” Romans 11) was that the Jews were unwilling the believe the gospel while the Gentiles were eager and ready to receive it. Acts 17 points otherwise. The “noble-minded” Bereans were Jews, and yet, unlike their Thessalonican counterparts, were eager to hear and to receive the word of Jesus as their Messiah. And so many of the Berean Jews believed, while few Thessalonian Jews did. But Luke’s account of Paul’s evangelistic efforts at Athens is given, in part, to inform us that these heathen Gentiles were no more willing to receive the gospel than were the Jews of Thessalonica. All men are lost, Jew and Gentile, and none seek God. God is seeking men, even when they are not seeking Him. Gentile evangelism is to be traced to the heart of God, not the hearts of men. The only way any unbeliever is convinced and converted is by the divine opening of the heart, which is the work of God through His Holy Spirit.

The Athenian Encounter, Paul, and the Gospel

It was the gospel which compelled Paul to preach to these intellectual snobs and skeptics. Paul preached to them because the gospel declared the Athenians to be lost, destined to eternal torment, without Christ. As the gospel was Paul’s motivation, so it was his message. The message which Paul preached here was a very simple one: Jesus and the resurrection. It is the same message Paul preached to the Jews, except that he had to begin at a more elementary point—that of God’s existence, and of His power and sovereign control over His creation. It was also the gospel which determined his method of proclamation. Paul had done his homework. He knew what these people believed, and thus he began with the altar dedicated to the unknown god. But he refused to flatter his audience. He did not appeal to their pride, nor to their fleshly desires. He told these educated knowledge brokers that they were really ignorant, and that their religion was vain, futile, and fell under the wrath of God. He indicted them, not on the basis of what they did not know, but on the basis of what they were able to know, but refused and rejected—the knowledge which God revealed of Himself in Creation. He told them that their form of religion would have to be rejected, that they must repent, and believe in a foreign Savior and in a doctrine (resurrection) which they rejected. In effect, they had to trade in their wisdom for the foolishness of God. There was nothing easy about the gospel Paul preached, but it was simple.

The Athenian Encounter in the Light of Paul’s Epistles

Luke’s account of Paul’s preaching in Athens is descriptive of what Paul did. Paul’s writings in his epistles supply us with an explanation of what, why, and how he did what he did at Athens. The first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, the first chapter of Romans (not to mention later chapters), and the first two chapters of Colossians bear directly on Paul’s ministry at Athens. The third chapter of Philippians is also informative. The following passages are only suggestive, but they are a starting point for further study.

Romans 1:18-23

1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to every one who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it {the} righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous {man} shall live by faith.” 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

Colossians 1:13-22; 2:1-9

1:13 For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15 And He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, {both} in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the {Father’s} good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, {I say}, whether things on earth or things in heaven. 21 And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, {engaged} in evil deeds, 22 yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach … 2:1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf, and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and {attaining} to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, {resulting} in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, {that is,} Christ {Himself}, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with persuasive argument. 5 For even though I am absent in body, nevertheless I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good discipline and the stability of your faith in Christ. 6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, {so} walk in Him, 7 having been firmly rooted {and now} being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, {and} overflowing with gratitude. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

1:18 For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not {come to} know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, 29 that no man should boast before God. 30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 2:1-5

2:1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

1 Corinthians 3:18-23

3:18 Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become foolish that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “{He is} the one who catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.” 21 So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.

Allow me to attempt to briefly sum up some of the essential truths of these texts, which underlie Paul’s actions at Athens as reported by Luke.

From Romans chapter 1 we learn four critical truths. (1) The gospel is the power of God, and the means by which men are saved. Thus, Paul stuck to a very simple proclamation of the gospel at Athens, even though it was not what these folks really wanted to hear, or were predisposed to accept. (2) The wrath of God is directed toward men who reject God’s self-revelation, and who chose to pervert this or to exchange it for “truth” of their own making. In particular, God’s judgment falls upon those who reject that which can be known about God through His creation, namely His divine power and divine nature. Such was precisely the charge Paul leveled against his Athenian audience. (3) The heathen are not restricted to those who are half-clad natives, running about the jungles of Africa; they are those who are educated, cultured, and intelligent, but who have rejected the revelation of God in nature. Such were the people of Athens. They were heathen, though they saw themselves as enlightened. (4) One sure test of the truth of one’s religion is to be found in his worship. It was the false worship of the Athenians which stirred the soul of Paul, and no wonder in the light of Romans 1. When men turn from the truth of God, as revealed to them, they refuse to worship God for who He is and they begin to worship the “gods” of their own making—created “gods,” idols. Idols are man-like “gods,” “gods” which promise men the things they want, and which conform to men’s preferences. They allow men to control them, rather than to control men. The serve men, rather than to require that men serve them. It is the worship of men, in whatever form that may take, which reveals the real “gods” or God that they serve.

From Colossians 1 and 2 we see the power, preeminence, and the full revelation of God in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, as well as the church. Because of His preeminence, all things are summed up in Him. Our salvation is summed up in Him, and so, too, is all true knowledge. Thus, those who have come to know Christ do not need to venture off track into never-never land of speculation and philosophical seeking for truth, as though it were hidden and had to be found out by human reasoning. Truth is centered and concentrated in Christ, and when men are found by Him, they have the truth and need not seek for it as from some other source. The more they know of Christ, they more they possess of the truth. And so it is that the futility and foolishness of the philosophical approach to truth is evident to the Christian. Paul refused to cater to the philosophers, and he proclaimed only the gospel, for that was the way to finding the truth and thereby being free.

From 1 Corinthians 1-3 we find that there two opposing views of foolishness and wisdom: the view of the world, and the view of the Christian. The unbeliever likes to think of himself as wise, and he finds the gospel foolishness. Those who would be saved must reject their wisdom and trust in the “foolishness” of salvation through a Savior who died and was raised from the dead. Paul’s method was to proclaim the “foolishness of the gospel” in straightforward, simple terms, and not to employ the persuasive techniques of the philosophers and the “wise” of this world. In so doing, the gospel would be central, and not man, and thus men’s faith and trust would be in God and not in man.

What consistency there is between Paul’s belief and his behavior. And no wonder we see Paul preaching as he did at Antioch. It was the gospel message, proclaimed in a way that was consistent with the gospel.

The Athenian Encounter and Contemporary Christianity

The longer I look at the Athenian philosophers, these ancient heathen, the more they look like Americans of today. These Gentile heathen of centuries ago enjoyed the blessings of political freedom in what was one of the earliest democracies. They were cultured, highly intelligent, and educated, and very religious, but they had rejected God and exchanged the worship of the one true God for “gods” of their own. How much like them our non-Christian culture is like. We have more confidence in human reasoning and our search for truth than we do in the one who is the Truth, the Lord Jesus Christ. We, as a culture, are always in pursuit of something new and novel.

And worse yet, it would seem to me that much of that which characterizes our heathen culture characterizes the Christian and our Christian culture. How often enlightened Christians look down on those who have a simple answer to life’s problems (Christ, and His shed blood), and who tell us that life’s problems are really much more complex than all this, and that the wisdom which we need is not really that found in the Bible, but is the product of the human pursuit of knowledge. We sanctify such knowledge often by adding the adjective “Christian” in front of it, but all too often it is only some “god” of our own making, an idol of sorts before which we bow the knee, in addition to Christ, and often in place of Him. God does not tolerate competition, we know, but in practice there is much of it anyway. Many of the methods, skills, and techniques which are taught Christians are really the products of human minds and human inquiry, and not of biblical revelation. They are not simple, gospel answers to life’s problems, but complex and drawn out processes. They do not have the stamp, “made in heaven,” but “made by man.” Let us ever be alert to those subtle human elements which creep into our theology and practice, in the name of religion, but not in accordance with the gospel. How much of our religion and of our worship is but our own adaptation of God’s revelation, or our own re-shaping of God, to make Him more to our liking? How much of our worship is God-centered, rather than man-centered, and which focuses on pleasing and serving God, rather than on getting God to serve us, to meet our needs? And how much of our proclamation of the gospel is consistent with Paul’s preaching, the proclamation of a simple, straightforward message of man’s sin and of coming judgment, of Christ’s sacrifice and of salvation for all who would repent and believe? May the gospel shape our worship and our every action, as it did Paul.

Questions for Further Consideration

(1) What is there about this record of Paul’s preaching which is unique or new? So far in Acts? In Acts and the New Testament, period?

(2) Where is the emphasis in this passage? What is obviously passed over? What is stressed?

(3) What are some of the major themes Luke has been stressing in Acts, and how are these further developed in our text? (a) The Gospel; (b) Sovereignty of God in history, in development of church; (c) Inter-twining of divine and human; (d) Jewish to Gentile; (e) Other?

(4) What were the results of Paul’s preaching in Athens, and what does this teach or imply, especially in the light of 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16; 3:18-23?

(5) Compare the response of the Jews in Thessalonica and that of the Gentiles in Athens to the Gospel as preached by Paul? Compare the noble-mindedness of the Jews at Berea with the Jews at Thessalonica and the Gentiles at Athens.

(6) Why did Paul leave Athens when there were those who still wanted to talk about these things, and when he was not persecuted?

(7) What impact did this episode in Athens have on Paul and his ministry and teaching?

(8) Although there is no emphasis or clear instruction on the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our text, what is implied here, which is clearly taught elsewhere (as in 1 Corinthians 2)?

(9) Trace the flow or the argument of chapter 17, and of the entire 2nd missionary journey, thus far.

(10) What do we learn from Paul about the gospel message itself here?

(11) What do we learn from Paul about the gospel method here?

(12) What are the governing principles or truths which determine what and how we preach to men?

(13) What “idols” have crept into our Christianity, which detract from our dependence upon God and our devotion to Him?


391 Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (Ventura, California: Venture Books, Revised edition, 1984), pp. 9-25.

392 Richardson, p. 20.

393 We know from 1 Thessalonians 3:1 that when Timothy came to Paul, Paul sent him to Thessalonica, to learn how these saints were getting along, in the midst of their persecution. In Acts 18:5 we are told that Silas and Timothy returned to Paul while he was in Corinth. It would seem, then, that when Silas and Timothy were left behind in Berea, Timothy was sent on ahead by Silas, who remained on at Berea for a time. When Timothy reached Paul in Athens, Paul must have sent him back to Thessalonica, to learn of their faith and endurance. Then, Timothy and Silas seem to have returned, together, to Paul in Corinth.

394 “Arriving at Athens, Paul found himself in one of the most famous centers of philosophy, religion, art, and architecture the ancient world had ever known. . . While not the political capital of Achaia or Greece, a position held by Corinth, it was the cultural capital of the whole ancient world. It was located five miles northeast of the Saronic Gulf between two streams, Caphessus and Ilissus. Long walls connected the city with its two seaports, and the Peraeus and Phaleric Gulfs.” Charles W. Carter and Ralph Earle, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 252.

“Athens was the famed city and center of philosophy. The four famous historic schools had been founded and had flourished here. They were the Academy of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Porch of Zeno, and the Garden of Epicurus. However, only the Stoics and the Epicureans remained in Athens until Paul’s day.” Carter and Earle, p. 254.

395 The term is found only elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 13:5, ‘not provoked’.

396 New Jerusalem Bible: “his whole soul was revolted at the sight of a city given over to idolatry.”

397 “Paul must have felt as Quartilla is made to say of Athens in Petronius’ Satyr (Cap. XVIII): ‘Our region is full of deities that you may more frequently meet with a god than a man.’” Carter and Earle, p. 253.

398 “The Epicurean school was founded by Epicurus (341-270 B.C.). The Stoic philosophers claimed Zeno (340-265 B.C.) as their founder. Their name was derived from the Stoa Poikile (Painted Porch), where he taught.” Carter and Earle, p. 254.

Of the Stoics, Bruce writes, “Their system aimed a living consistently with nature, and in practice they laid great emphasis on the primacy of the rational faculty in humanity, and on individual self-sufficiency. In theology they were essentially pantheistic, God being regarded as the world-soul. Their belief in a cosmopolis or world-state, in which all truly free souls had equal citizen rights, helped to break down national and class distinctions. Stoicism at its best was marked by great moral earnestness and a high sense of duty. It commended suicide as an honorable means of escape from a life that could no longer be sustained with dignity.”

F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p. 330.

Of the Epicureans he says, “The Epicurean school . . . based its ethical theory on the atomic physics of Democritus and presented pleasure as being the chief end in life, the pleasure most worth enjoying being a life of tranquillity (ataraxia), free from pain, disturbing passions, and superstitious fears (including in particular the fear of death). It did not deny the existence of gods, but maintained that they took no interest in the life of men and women.” Bruce, p. 330-331.

399 “Babbler is spermologos, ‘seed-picker.’ It was used first of birds, then ‘in Attic slang, of an idler who lives on scraps picked up in the agora.’ It therefore suggests ‘a parasite,’ ‘a hanger-on.’ Eustathius in his comments on Homer’s Odyssey uses it in the sense of ‘ignorant plagiarist,’ and that is the way Ramsay renders it.” Carter and Earle, p. 254.

400 Some are inclined to think that the “taking hold” of Paul and bringing him to the Areopagus, was a kind of arrest and trial, based on the assumption that preaching an unauthorized god (a god without Athens’ Good Housekeeping seal of approval) was illegal. In such a case, we are told, Paul’s defense was stunning, for it proved that he was proclaiming an authorized god--the unknown god of their own altar. For a more complete discussion on this view, see Carter and Earle, p. 256.

I have difficulty with such a view, for at least two reasons. First, this kind of accusation is made against Paul in Corinth, and it is clearly such (see Acts 18:12-17). The taking hold of Paul in chapter 17 doesn’t seem to be the same. And secondly, the parenthetical explanation of verse 21 seems to give us Luke’s explanation of what they were doing, and why. They were not putting Paul on trial, they were seeking to hear something new, and they recognized Paul’s teaching as this, if nothing else. It was “different.” On this all those gathered at the Areopagus seemed to agree.

401 “Whether Paul appeared before the Court of the Areopagus in the Agora or was led to the top of Mars’ Hill is a topic of perennial dispute.” Carter and Earle, p. 257.

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