On to Athens
In Acts 17, some recurring themes are starting to emerge. It seems like wherever Paul goes, he finds beatings, conspiracies, public trials… and new converts to Jesus.
We see it in Thessalonica, where he preached for three weeks before people started to turn on him.
So the new converts shipped him out in the middle of the night to go to Berea, which was a bit off the beaten path.
There he encountered one of the most amazing groups of people he ever met:
In v. 11 it says they not only listened to him preach with eagerness, but they went home and “examined the scriptures to see if what he said was true.” Luke calls them “noble”, virtuous. This is the most any preacher can ever hope for: Not a congregation that takes his word for it—but a congregation that considers, reads the Bible, and trusts in Jesus because God says so.
Eventually the Thessalonican Jews figure where Paul went, and they go hunt him down.
This time the believers send him pretty far down the Greek coastline, to Athens.
This is where I want to spend our time together this morning, because it gives an amazing picture of what it looks like when Paul explains the Gospel to people who are totally unfamiliar with it, when he talks to the pagan philosophers at the Areopagus.
I want to talk about four things:
- How he wound up at the Areopagus
- What the Areopagus was
- How he presented the Gospel
- What we can learn from it
How he got there
So far Paul has proven his ability to reason with other Jews—and he’s so good at it that the ones who disagree frequently want to kill him.
He’s also proven his capacity to deal with average, run-of-the-mill pagans, by unleashing the power of Christ in healing and exorcism. This has also been so effective that people want to kill him for it.
But the pagans we’ve met in the past, like in chapter 16 in Philippi, were sort of “populist pagans.” They were not the intellectuals who knew all the ins and outs of Greek philosophy.
Their views and practices would probably have been mocked by the elite pagan thinkers, the purists. They were more interested in power: how to get it, and how to harness it to their own gain.
In Athens Paul meets a new breed of pagan: the intelligentsia.
There’s a good chance Paul was sent alone so that Silas and Timothy could help establish the new believers in Berea without drawing as much attention to themselves as Paul did everywhere he went. The man practically walked around with a target on his back, because he was one of those guys who just had to say something.
Silas and Timothy probably figured that Paul couldn’t cause too much trouble in Athens, especially if he was all by himself, but they were wrong.
Athens was not a good location for Paul to try to fly under the radar, because as soon as he got there, Luke tells us in v. 16 that he was “provoked in his Spirit,” because the city was “full of idols.” One scholar summarized the available evidence and called Athens a “veritable forest of idols.”
So in v. 17 Paul did something a little different than what he normally did. As usual he went to the synagogue, BUT this time he also placed himself in the marketplace every day to talk directly to the pagans.
So they brought him to the Areopagus.
What it was
In order to understand this scene at the Areopagus, we need to know about two things:
- What was the Areopagus?
- Who was Paul talking to?
The Areopagus was a meeting place, located on a prominent hill in the city by the famous Acropolis with its amazing temples. It’s still there.
For centuries before and after Paul, the Areopagus was also the shorthand name of highest court of the city Athenian, because it’s where the authorities met to make decisions on all the most important legal matters of the moment.
Although Athens was up to their eyeballs in idolatry, it was not an “free religious society.” In fact, it was tightly controlled, and when someone came and taught about a new cult, they were summoned to the Areopagus so the city council could decide if it was legal, or if it needed to shut down.
In other words, when they summon Paul to Areopagus, the leading philosophers of Athens are not inviting him to give a TED talk on his new religion. They are alarmed by Paul’s teaching, and they want to make a ruling.
You can see this in a few ways:
First, in v. 17 it says they “took him and brought him” there.
The word “took” is a forceful word, often translated by the word “seized”.
For example, in 16:19, where the Philippian slave masters “seized” Paul and Silas and drag them to the rulers at the marketplace for a beating.
Or in Acts 18:17, where they “seized” Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue and beat him in front of the tribunal.
The word translated “brought” is equally forceful—They made him go with them.
In other words, there is nothing cordial or nice about the way Paul was brought to the Areopagus.
Second, When Paul gets there, the way they speak to him means that he is in real danger.
Starting in v. 19, they say:
“May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”
This spells trouble for three reasons:
1. Then, as now, in the religious world, NEW IS BAD. A new religious idea is one that you invented, which means that it is probably not true.
Notice that in v. 21, Luke makes the biting comment that “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” Here, Luke is calling out their hypocrisy. In reality (says Luke) the Athenians are a bunch of lazy “new idea” gossips, but the Areopagus counsel certainly didn’t view themselves that way.
2. Their question suggests that they think Paul might not want to explain the new teaching to them.
You can tell because the last thing they say to him in v. 20 is, “We wish to know therefore what these things mean”—which is not so much a request as a command that: “We have a right to know what you’re bringing into our city.”
This means they probably thought he was preaching a new mystery cult, where you could only know the doctrines once you were initiated into the chosen few. This how lots of new religious societies operated then, as now. For example, today, you have to become a scientologist or a mormon in order to know their secret teachings.
[Actually, in our age of investigative journalism, you can actually go find someone who has written an expose and learn most of what there is to learn, but they certainly intend to be secretive!]
The Athenian authorities aren’t about to let these ideas stay cloaked in secrecy, though—not if Paul wants to keep his life.
3. But it is the first sentence of v. 20 that is most troubling, when they say: “You bring some strange [or foreign] things to our ears.”
In reporting the charge this way, Luke intends to remind his readers of another Athenian trial: the trial of Socrates, the greatest philosopher of all time, who was charged with “preaching foreign deities” and sentenced to death for it. Luke wants us to see Paul in the same shoes a Socrates, with the same deadly stakes attached.
But why would anyone ever think Paul that was preaching about foreign gods? (Remember, this is the same thing the philosophers accused him of doing in v. 18.)
It has to with the way they heard his message, and Luke specifically tell us how it got lost in translation. In v. 18, the philosophers said, “‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus AND the resurrection.”
When you read this sentence in Greek, it’s clear that they thought these two things “Jesus and the resurrection” are two different gods.
There was Jesus: “τὸν Ἰησοῦν”, and there was the resurrection, “τὴν ἀνάστασιν” in Greek.
Since Jesus is a male name, and Anastasis is a female word, they apparently took him to be saying that Jesus has a female consort or wife of some sort, name “Anastasis.”
That sounds crazy to us, and no Jews would ever have understood his message that way, but gives a small snapshot of how little Paul’s Athenian audience knew about what the Jews believed.
It also shows two other things:
- It shows that for Paul, the resurrection of the dead was a huge part of what he talked about the Gospel. Not just the resurrection of Jesus, but the resurrection of everyone, the judgment, and everlasting life for those who trusted in Christ. It was big enough for people who aren’t very familiar with the resurrection to think it might be another god! Fascinating! Especially because I am under the impression that today when we want to introduce people to the Gospel we do not talk a lot about the resurrection of the dead.
- It also shows us another point of danger for Paul. The Greeks probably had heard some version of the concept of resurrection, because it was mentioned in the founding documents of the Areopagus. The whole thing was dramatized by a play written 500 years earlier which was still popular in Paul’s day, where the god Apollo inaugurates the court of the Areopagus, and in his solemn opening speech he says this: ‘when a man dies, and his blood is spilled on the ground, there is no resurrection’. In other words, resurrection was flatly rejected as a possibility at the Areopagus. It was not on the table for discussion.
This is where Paul finds himself in v. 21. In other words, this is a high-tension, high-stakes for Paul, and it could easily result in his execution.
So, that’s the setting of the Areopagus speech.
Now who was Paul’s audience?
In v. 18, Luke tells us that he particularly disturbed some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. These are two of the major philosophical schools in Athens, heavily represented at the council, and here’s what they taught.
Epicureans taught that the gods were a long way off, and had very little communication with each other or with humans. They were sort of like deists today. The best way to live, they concluded, was to settle down in a relatively quiet existence and enjoy the best of life in moderation.
Stoics were essentially pantheists who believed that divinity was everywhere, within themselves and in the world. Though the gods were not personal, you could harness the divine power by getting in touch with the inner reality in all nature and life. They taught that the best way to live was to tame the passions of the heart and accept the world as it was with honor and composure. They were a bit like Buddhists or Taoists.
Both schools were skeptical of the pervasive idols in their world, but neither was truly against them, and they were known to make sacrifices to idols like anyone else.
This was obviously a little inconsistent, but no more than Christians who know that the world needs to hear the good news of Jesus, but who prefer to spend their time addicted to shopping and media saturation just like everyone else. In fact, our situation is far more tragic, since our God is real, and our actions really matter.
In any event, this is Paul’s audience, and these are the stakes. Some serious stuff here.
How he shared the gospel
So, how did he explain the message of Jesus to this audience?
The really cool thing is that Paul plays the whole thing like a chess master.
Sometimes chess masters will show off by playing a dozen games at the same time against a dozen different people. If you ever watch it, it’s really amazing. They go around to each board, think for about one second, and make their next move. Meanwhile each of the twelve opponents has only one game to think about, and in the end they usually all lose to the master.
He just knows the board too well, so he sees all possible outcomes in an instant, and as a result they can’t ever seem to catch him.
So it is with Paul as he moves seamlessly from arguing with Jews on Jewish terms, then populist pagans on their terms, and now with a mixed group of Epicureans and Stoics on their terms.
In v. 22, Paul begins with a compliment: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.”
They probably took it as a compliment, and Paul definitely meant it also as a critique.
Specifically, he knows that they are religious because, v. 23, “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.”
In other words, There is a well-established place for an “unkown god” in your own worldview, AND this is what I want to talk about. I’m not talking anything new, just something you don’t understand yet.
Next he brings in another familiar concept:
v. :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, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
You can imagine him waving at the temples in the Acropolis, which are easily visible from the Areopagus.
You can also imagine the Epicureans and the Stoics saying, “not a bad point.”
Both of their schools tended to view temple worship as an afterthought.
This would be like explaining the Gospel to a bunch of card-carrying Marxists and saying, “You know, the little people of the world really have been oppressed for just about all of human history.”
And they say, “mmhhmmm, mhhhmm.”
You know you’re not going to the same place they go, but you’re starting on the same road.
Next Paul injects this very Jewish concept:
v. 26 “God made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”
Look at these great verbs!
Paul’s God made all the nations, determined where and when they would live, for exactly one reason: That those people might seek him, feel their way to him, and find him.
God has this plan for the world, and for history: that all the people in it might find him and worship him in peace, justice, and love.
Paul knows that’s very un-pagan, because pagans thought the world was moving through endless cycles that went nowhere in particular. This would certainly have raised some eyebrows, but Paul takes it right back to common ground.
v. 27: “Yet God is actually not far from each one of us, [you can hear the Stoics cheering] for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we indeed his offspring.’”
He grounds everything so far in pagan thought!
They have these two ideas in the way they talk about God:
FIRST: ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ which is not much different from Paul says in Col 1:15–20, and it’s a lot like the basic Stoic thinking about God, except that Paul switches the direction on them: God’s not in everything; everything is in God.
SECOND: ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Here, Paul quotes a well-known poem. The poet, Arastus, certainly meant something different than what Paul means, but that doesn’t seem to bother Paul. What Paul means is that we are God’s offspring in the sense that when he made the very first humans in Genesis 1, he made them in his own image, to be his very own sons and daughters to rule over the rest of his creation.
Up till now, Paul has been very conciliatory, but he is about to go for the jugular. Here’s how he does it:
First up, he levels an all-out assault on idolatry.
v. 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.”
The critique sounds a little strange, because we tend to assume that when people worshiped idols, they did not imagine that the statue itself was a god. This is a mistake on our part.
Ancient writings are littered with accounts of things that the statues actually did:
They could work miracles, cure diseases, change expressions, and cry. And when people started to think a particular idol had turned against them, it could be buried, beaten, chained up, banished, thrown into the sea, and so on.
In other words, the statue was no different from the god it represented.
Paul says that’s all wrong, and it doesn’t even make sense in the best of pagan thinking.
Plus, he turns the charge of “new ideas” around, and says it is the idols that are the new ideas of the people who make them.
This is a heavy critique, but again it’s well within the boundaries of Epicurean and Stoic thought.
What Paul says next is not. He does it in four steps:
- Paul does not attack the Areopagus for everything they’ve done. He simply says, “That was for when you were ignorant.”
- He does not allow them stay in that ignorance. He says, “Now that you know your mistake, you have to repent.”
- The reason you have to repent is because, just like God planned the story of all the nations in the beginning, he also has a fixed day when it is going to end, and start a whole new book. “He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.”
- God made this fact crystal clear because of something he did: he raised that man from the dead.
What we can learn
I see three things we can from Paul here:
Paul’s motivation for sticking out his neck here in Athens is very clear
In v. 16 we read that he was absolutely distraught by what he saw in the city. They worshiped everything except the one God who is worthy of all worship, and who alone has the power to truly save them.
I fear this is very different from our own motivations in apologetics sometimes. Too often it seems to me that we are interested in carving out a space for Christianity to be respected and understood, so that we might be able to keep living our normal lives without getting ridiculed our pushed out of our society. We want to make it clear that our religion is intellectually sound and that we not crazy.
And if that is true for us, then it is the opposite of what motivates Paul.
Paul is interested in salvation, not in self-preservation.
The reason to speak about the Gospel, to make it clear to everyone what are the teachings that he brings to Athens, is that he might save some of them. Nothing else.
Second, Paul’s means are starkly different than some of our own in two ways.
1. He does not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Paul is not afraid to trumpet the things that pagans said that were right! He celebrates the fact that even in their darkness, they have managed at different times and places to tap into some deep truths about the universe. They have seen that there is a god who is very big, and they have seen that he is very near to us. They have even seen that we are somehow his children. All of this stuff is true, and Paul has no problem acknowledging it!
We have to realize that Paul did not have nearly as many points of agreement as we do. Here are some popular ideas in our society right now:
Dialogue, tolerance, respect, loving everyone, women’s rights, children’s rights, social justice.
No religion in history has been so great an advocate of these things as ours (because God loves these things).
The only reason these things are some of the crown jewels of Western culture is because Christians brought them out of our treasure-chest that we have in Christ! Of course, many have been badly distorted.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t belong to us, first and last.
They are drawn from the fountain of Jesus, which has been running through Western thought for two thousand years!
When they get muddy, the last thing we should do is try to throw them out! That would be like throwing out part of our inheritance!
When love no longer means love, when respect becomes a codeword for allowing everyone to do everything they want, when women’s rights means allowing mothers to kill unborn children—
We can’t give up on advocating for real LOVE, RESPECT, and the rights of WOMEN! The same way Paul didn’t give up on pagan thoughts just because they went badly astray.
We need to hold these things closely, and expose them to the light, and let the Gospel cleanse them with the body and blood of our Lord who brought these them out of his heart in the first place.
Plus, Westerners believe that the world as we know it moving in a particular direction, and that it will someday end. Paul’s hearers did not believe this, and the only reason it’s so taken for granted today is that it comes from this Christian mindset that pervades our very life and thought.
No doubt, we will get laughed off stage just like Paul did at the end of his speech. We will be beaten, scorned, shamed, and hated by many, many people.
2. He does not fail to bring it back to the resurrection and final judgment.
This is important, and I think it’s one of the things we shy away from more than anything else, and it’s one reason why a huge percentage of children raised in evangelical homes do not believe in Hell: because they didn’t get the crucified and raise Christ who will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. They got the Buddy Jesus, who embraces everyone with open arms and has a wonderful plan for your life, which you don’t necessarily have to follow as long as you believe that he died for your sins.
And this is so against the teaching of the Bible, because whether you ask Paul or Jesus or Peter or Jeremiah, or Isaiah, or Amos or anyone else who wrote a book in the Bible, the fact that God will judge the world in righteousness is a huge deal.
BUT, it’s not a terror for believers. It’s a joy!
Because it means that we will life a true life of pure joy, and we won’t have all these different impulses in ourselves;
It’s a joy because all the crooked paths will be made straight. It means that the Hitler’s, the Hugo Chavez’s, the Kim Jong Un’s, the Harvey Weinstein’s—and even all the little tyrants who never made the news—are going to receive justice for all the things they did on earth. Not a single wrong will remain.
Revelation 21:8 puts it this way when it talks about the New Heavens and Earth:
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.
The reason this is joy for the people of God, is because we don’t want any evil to be there in the kingdom, because evil against who God is and what he has in store for us and the world.
In the kingdom of God, there is all joy, all love, all kindness and compassion. When someone falls down, a thousand hands reach out to help that person up again.
3. Finally, we can learn from Paul’s courage.
It’s interesting; Paul says this thing later in his letter to the Corinthians.
In 1 Cor 9:20 he wrote: “to the Jews I became a Jew; to the Greeks I became a Greek; I became all things to all people in order that by any means I might save some.”
But from what we know his missionary journeys, Paul could easily have written it this way too:
To the Jews, I became a Jew and was beaten time and again. To the Greeks I became a Greek and nearly got killed. I became all things to all people, and was beaten by all people every time I became one of them! I became a human punching bag to everyone, everywhere I went!
We should not think that the combination of hard edged truth with a generous mindset will win the maximum number of converts and let us off the hook. The Gospel is deeply offensive, and even with this marvelous speech that Paul gave in Athens, it sounds like very few people wound up following Jesus.
But the shock is that he did win some. Wherever he went, that was all he could ask for: That he might save some.
This was Paul’s entire reason for living, and if we get through Acts and watch him get beaten up, chased out, and called to court from one city to another, we had better get the picture that this is a picture of what it looks like to be a Christ follower who speaks, acts, and lives like a Christ followers.
The sooner we see that—the sooner we realize that we really do have to pick up our cross and follow Jesus—the sooner we can say, “Let’s forget all of our posturing, and our trying to make a name for ourselves, and our trying to be cool and play it safe. I want to live for Jesus and no one else, so help me God.”
 R.E. Wycherly, “St. Paul in Athens,” JTS 19 (1968): 619, cited in Kavin Rowe’s Word Upside Down (London: Oxford), p. 28.
 Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 13-28 (London: SPCK, 2008), 93.
 See Kavin Rowe’s World Upside Down, pp. 28ff.