Paul Brings Good News to Athens
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©2014
Part 1 — First Impressions in Athens — Acts 17:16-18
When the Apostle Paul came to Athens, he came alone. Timothy and Silas had remained behind in Berea. After Paul sent word for them to join him as soon as they were able, he explored that ancient and historic city. God had guided his Apostle to the Gentiles into the heart of pagan culture.
Acts 17:16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.
Athens was one of the greatest cultural centers in all human history. Its glory had reached a peak several hundred years earlier when the Jews were still in captivity in Babylon. The memories of her accomplishments to pagan philosophy never faded away. Even today, the Western world is very much still influenced by this city’s contributions. This was the city of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Euripides, Pericles, Demosthenes and Zeno.
In the market place where Paul spent a good bit of his time was the Agora, the gathering place where the citizens enjoyed displays of art, watched athletic events, and listened to the wisdom of philosophers. Socrates had walked there teaching his students as they wandered the streets. Aristotle’s Lyceum and the Porch of Zeno still existed, along with the garden of Epicurus. Plato’s academy was there. It was a city filled with paintings, sculptures, literature, distinct architecture, theaters and schools. But it was all dedicated to the pagan idolatries of ancient Greece.
When Paul arrived, in about 52 AD, Athens was no longer the capitol city of Achaia. That honor had shifted to Corinth. It was far different from any other city Paul had visited so far.
Waiting alone there at Athens, Paul had time to spend taking in the sights of this Pagan stronghold. The city was full of idols. This wasn’t just Luke’s opinion. Ancient writers confirmed this fact. Petronius once said that in Athens its easier to find a god than a man. Pausanias said that Athens had more images than all of Greece put together. Xenophon called Athens, one great altar, one great offering to the gods.
Every god of Olympus had an altar or temple there. Many had entire buildings dedicated to their honor. Every public structure surrounding the Agora was in the name of one or more of the deities. They had even deified concepts and ideas making them into gods represented by idols. There were the gods of fame, modesty, energy, persuasion, to name a few.
The idols provoked Paul’s spirit. He wasn’t impressed with the display of paganism. He was appalled.
On the one hand, he had been raised as a strict Jew. His whole upbringing considered paganism to be deeply offensive. The idea of more than one true God was never condoned. The practice of making images to be worshiped was absolutely forbidden.
On the other hand, his new life in Christ made his redeemed spirit even more offended. He had come to love biblical truth and the moral principles God made known in his word. To see all that rejected was not only seen as a cultural difference, it was clearly an offense to the God he had come to love supremely.
What Paul saw deeply disturbed him. He was not about to take a vacation from his Christianity to simply take in the sights of the Agora. Instead, he turned that disturbing setting into an opportunity. He responded to what he saw by delivering the gospel message.
His first outreach was to the Athenian Jews.
Acts 17:17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
Paul reasoned with the covenant people in the Jewish Synagogue that was in Athens. There were both Jews and Gentiles there who had been drawn into the teachings of God’s word.
This was Paul’s regular practice in a new city. He sought out those who at least outwardly had pledged to be God’s covenant people. It was to them first that he brought the message that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Their waiting and praying for the Deliverer was over. The good news is that he had come and completed the work of redemption.
He reasoned with them. The continuing tense of the verb shows that his reasoning was an ongoing thing. He likely had many occasions for talking with them. We know from the accounts of other places he visited that he did this by explaining what the Scriptures already said. They had been taught confused versions of God’s promises by many of the Rabbis. So Paul explained how Jesus clarified the truth that had become so distorted, and how he as the Messiah had completed the hopes of the Prophets.
We’re told here that both Jews and Gentile believers were exposed to his teachings. We can assume that the same results took place as in other cities, some believed. We know that there was an active church established there, so this was likely the foundation of it.
Paul also reasoned with the Athenian Gentiles in the market place.
Every day he ventured into the Agora. This was not just an open air market. It was the center of the city’s culture. There he openly met with the variety of philosophies that melded together and often clashed with one another.
He spoke with whoever happened to be there. These weren’t planned or announced meetings. They were casual daily encounters. Of course we know that what we call “happenings” are really the providential unfoldings of God’s plan. It would be similar to the coffee houses and beach gatherings of generations past, or the internet chat rooms and social media of the present time.
Paul exposed the Athenians to the radical truth of Christianity.
Acts 17:18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”–because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
The popular philosophies of the day were all represented in that gathering place in Athens. We know of at least two groups there that are directly mentioned. This doesn’t mean that no others were there also. But these were those conversing with Paul directly. While they had different views of the world and of religion, a somewhat unified response emerged.
There were the Epicurians who had been founded by Epicurus long before the time of Paul (341-270 BC). They were materialists, denying any spiritual reality. They took the atomic view of reality from Democritus, they believed the world came into being by chance alignment of atoms. They would probably be like modern day secular evolutionists.
They were atheists. The gods were to them just man’s imagination. If any existed, they could be nothing more than distant phantoms who had no real influence on the world. They mocked the popular mythological gods of Greece. One of them once said, “Religion and concepts of god arise through ignorance and fear, if there be god(s) they are far off and indifferent.”
Death was seen as a return of our atoms to the universe. They didn’t believe in a conscious after-life, or a final judgment.
They were therefore Hedonists. Life’s only purpose was for personal gratification and tranquility, free from pain. They believed there were no absolute moral values that applied universally. If you were satisfied with a refined and aesthetic way of living, then it was right for you. But if you were satisfied with violence and criminal behavior, it was right for you too.
The outcome of this philosophy was a life of selfish sensuality. They would say, “Eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”
The Stoics were founded by Zeno (340-265 BC), also centuries before Paul’s visit. They got their name for the painted stoa (porch) where Zeno regularly taught in Athens. They were rationalists and fatalists. They believed that everything and everyone shares in a common “world-soul”, an impersonal Fate that controlled everything moving it toward a predetermined end. It was something like the “over-soul” of Emerson, or the Force of “Star Wars”.
They were Pantheistic. God to them was the “world-soul”, in everything and the substance of everything, not the mythical deities of Greece. They saw truth as something found by human effort, not by revelation. They were convinced that united human reason and experience could solve all moral problems. To them, our human duty was to make the best of our circumstances. Pleasure and pain were equally unreal, reason was their only guide in ethics.
They denied life beyond the grave, and the personality of god. Death was seen as our becoming one with the world-soul. Suicide was seen as a reasonable choice if one found nothing reasonable to live for.
The aim of the Stoic was to live consistently with nature as a self-sufficient rational being. They envisioned a cosmopolis, a world-state where all truly free souls were equal as citizens without national or class distinctions.
Proponents of Stoicism were Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius, and Horace. A later Stoic thinker was W. E. Henley who famously wrote, “I am master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
The two groups had fundamental similarities. Luke groups them together with one article as he mentions them here. They both opposed Paul on the same basic grounds. There is a unity that merges all non-biblical philosophies together. They rejected the possibility of a sovereign, personal Creator who is different from and above all of his creation. They do not believe we can know anything that is absolutely true. They also deny that there are any absolute moral principles, and therefore no real guilt or need for salvation. This left them with no confidence about conscious life beyond the grave.
Luke says they were conversing with Paul. These were professional philosophers who usually had some of their followers gathered around them. They engaged in public debates all the time. It was their livelihood. Those listening supported these men financially. It was their way of passing time and seeking insight.
Evidently they saw Paul’s message as an interesting curiosity offering a new outlook, something worthy of debate. It appears that he was attracting a respected amount of attention. As they listened to him, some who were listening started making fun of what the Apostle was saying. They called him a “babbler”, literally one who peddled “word seeds” [spermologos (σπερμολόγος)]. It was Athenian slang for the people who gathered scraps in the market place to keep some and try to sell the rest like a junk dealer. It seemed to them that he was picking up a little bit from here and there to put together a second hand philosophy which he then tried to pass off in the Agora.
However, some wanted to hear more of what he was saying. These called him a proclaimer, announcer (as in the sports games) of foreign deities. These were clearly not things they had heard before in Athens. Clearly his messages was new to them, completely alien as seen from their Greek way of thinking.
Compared with the antagonistic Scribes and Pharisees Paul often had to deal with, this was a rather refreshing but frustrating difference. It was refreshing because these Greek Gentiles were willing to listen to Paul’s world view. It was frustrating because they were only interested intellectually as if it was just another philosophy to debate.
The ideas we face today are not much different from those of ancient Athens. Our message is the same as that which Paul took to the Synagogue and to the Agora of Athens. We have the same God and promises. The Gospel of Christ offers the same hope as we tell God’s truth.
Some will openly ridicule the message of the Bible, while others will treat it as just another curios philosophy to study along with all the other ideas tossed around in the universities, churches, and in daily conversations.
We too, should take the message of Christ to those who in God’s providence happen along. It’s our duty to present God’s truth as faithfully, as simply, and as patiently as Paul did.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.