Paul in Athens
16While Paul was waiting in Athens, he was upset to see all the idols in the city. 17He went to the synagogue to speak to the Jews and to anyone who worshiped with them. Day after day he also spoke to everyone he met in the market. 18Some of them were Epicureans and some were Stoics, and they started arguing with him.
People were asking, “What is this know-it-all trying to say?”
Some even said, “Paul must be preaching about foreign gods! That's what he means when he talks about Jesus and about people rising from death.”
19They brought Paul before a council called the Areopagus, and said, “Tell us what your new teaching is all about. 20We have heard you say some strange things, and we want to know what you mean.”
21More than anything else the people of Athens and the foreigners living there loved to hear and to talk about anything new. 22So Paul stood up in front of the council and said:
People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. 23 As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, “To an Unknown God.” You worship this God, but you don't really know him. So I want to tell you about him. 24 This God made the world and everything in it. He is Lord of heaven and earth, and he doesn't live in temples built by human hands. 25 He doesn't need help from anyone. He gives life, breath, and everything else to all people. 26 From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and he decided when and where every nation would be.
27 God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. He isn't far from any of us, 28and he gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said.
29Since we are God's children, we must not think that he is like an idol made out of gold or silver or stone. He isn't like anything that humans have thought up and made. 30In the past, God forgave all this because people did not know what they were doing. But now he says that everyone everywhere must turn to him. 31He has set a day when he will judge the world's people with fairness. And he has chosen the man Jesus to do the judging for him. God has given proof of this to all of us by raising Jesus from death.
32As soon as the people heard Paul say a man had been raised from death, some of them started laughing. Others said, “We will hear you talk about this some other time.” 33When Paul left the council meeting, 34some of the men put their faith in the Lord and went with Paul. One of them was a council member named Dionysius. A woman named Damaris and several others also put their faith in the Lord.
The early morning sun was rising over the Acropolis behind us as we sat on the cool grey rock of Mars Hill (the Areopagus) reading Paul’s speech to the “people of Athens” (v 22). It was perfect! I could taste, feel, see and absorb the setting of the text. Our reflections yielded these insights:
- The speech (as reported in Acts) is very short – just a few minutes – respectful of the Council of the Areopagus who didn’t allow speakers to waste time on irrelevant information.
- The speech is carefully crafted in the classical Greek rhetorical form.
- Most of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers listened out of an idle, cynical, sceptical and speculative curiosity (vv 19-21); as distinct from listening to know truth (v 32).
- The hook in the speech is the reference to the altar of “an unknown god” (v 23). The story goes that this altar went back to the 6th century before Christ when Athens was decimated by a plague with no cure in sight. The city fathers, unable to appease their gods, turned to Epimenides from Crete, who declared that an unknown god had been offended. Altars were immediately erected to the unknown god and the plague subsided.
- Paul used what the philosophers had confessed not to know as a link to what they needed to know.
- The meat of the speech is how the “unknown god” is in fact the transcendent, independent, self-existent, personal, Creator God (vv 25-28), who is alive (concluded from v 29), commands repentance (v 30), and will one day judge the world by a chosen man (Christ) who was raised from the dead (v 31).
- The speech countered the Epicurean view that the gods were not concerned with human life. It made a distinction between the Creator and creation (which the Stoic philosophers did not do), yet tapped into the Stoic understanding that the divine principle and cause of the world was the Logos who is actively involved in history.
Lord, like Paul with the Athenians, help me share your story with sensitivity and respect. Provide opportunities for me to meet people on their turf. And even when I’m distressed by their beliefs, give me insight and understanding into their world, so that I can clearly declare the gospel. Amen.