Pastor David B. Curtis


Paul at Athens

Acts 17:15-23

Delivered 11/01/2009

We have been following the Apostle Paul on his second missionary journey as he has made his way from Philippi down to Thessalonica and then to Berea. We saw in our last study that the Christians in Berea sent Paul away to Athens, because they feared for his life and a total disruption of the work going on there. But both Silas and Timothy remained in Berea to take care of the new Christians.

Now those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed. (Acts 17:15 NASB)

Athens was some 250 miles south; if they walked it would have taken them several weeks. Whether the group walked or went by sea is uncertain. The believers from Berea escorted Paul to Athens and then returned to Berea with instructions that Silas and Timothy were to join him there as soon as possible. So Paul is now alone in Athens; he doesn't know a soul in the entire city. There isn't a Christian to be found anywhere. All the rest of the time on this journey that we've been following, ministry has taken place as a team of people traveled together. But now he is alone. This would be hard to be all alone in a pagan city. It is much more difficult to minister when you are all alone; this is why Jesus sent His disciples out in pairs:

And He summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs; and He was giving them authority over the unclean spirits; (Mark 6:7 NASB)

"He sent them out in pairs"--Mark is the only Gospel writer who mentions this fact, but I think it is important. Why did He send them out in pairs? For encouragement and mutual support: Even today we see the greater effectiveness of believers working together and ministering to each other in encouragement. Discouragement will come, and that is when there is strength in numbers:

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. 10 For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. 11 Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? 12 And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NASB)

This is why Paul usually had a companion with him wherever he went, first Barnabas and then Silas. But now he is alone in Athens:

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. (Acts 17:16 NASB)

The sense is that Paul would have preferred to wait until Timothy and Silas came from Berea before he began ministry in Athens, but when he saw that the city was given over to idols, he was compelled to preach the Gospel immediately.

The City of Athens:

Athens was named for Athena, the virgin goddess. The crown of the city was its Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena. Even today, people flock from all over the world to see the ruins of the Parthenon and gaze at its magnificent columns.

Athens, in its prime in the 4th and 5th century B.C., was the greatest city in the world and maybe never has been equaled since. The art, the literature. the architecture, and the philosophies that existed in Athens in those years have never had a match. Athens then was home to some of the greatest minds who ever lived; some of the most influential philosophers, poets, and statesmen in history. It was a university city, where in former years students would gather to sit at the feet of the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Athens was in Greece in the province of Achaia, and technically, Corinth was the capital of the province, but Athens was the major city.

Although Athens had lost its earlier political eminence by the time of Paul's visit, it remained the intellectual center of the ancient world. Four major philosophical schools had flourished there. They were the Academy of Plato (287 B.C.), the Lyceum of Aristotle (335 B.C.), the Garden of Epicurus (306 B.C.), and the Porch of Zeno (300 B.C.).

As Paul walked through Athens, one thing 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 idols.

Luke tells us that Paul was "beholding the city full of idols"--this is from the Greek word kateidolos. This word, which occurs only here in the New Testament and nowhere in classical Greek, literally means: "drowning in idols."

As Paul walked through Athens, he would have seen altars to and statues of various gods, including Ares, Bacchus, Eumenides, Neptune, and of course, the mother goddess of the city, Athena. On one street there stood in front of every house a pillar with a bust of Hermes. Pliny testified that there were over thirty thousand public statues in Athens and many more private ones in the homes. The city at the time of Paul's visit had only 10,000 people. So you have 10,000 residents and 30,000 idols. This is why

Petroneous, who was a contemporary of Paul, said, "It was easier to find a god than a man in the city of Athens."

Paul was not impressed with the people's culture and crafts; rather, he was "provoked" by their rampant idolatry as he was waiting for his companions to arrive. Paul's Jewish upbringing and Christian convictions made all this idolatry repulsive to him.

Luke tells us that Paul's "spirit was being provoked within him." The word translated "provoked" is the Greek word paroxuno from which we get our word paroxysm. It means: "a stirring up." The term is used to describe someone having a seizure; he was just shaking because he was so disturbed at what he was seeing.

Paul is more than greatly distressed, for he experiences a paroxysm in his spirit, a provocation of anger, or grief, or both, because the glory due to God alone is being given to idols. We see this anger against idolatry in many of the servants of God. Moses was angered by the children of Israel's idolatry:

And he took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it into a molten calf; and they said, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt." (Exodus 32:4 NASB)

When Moses saw this he got righteously indignant. He took the stone tablets that contained the Ten Commandments and smashed them on the ground at the foot of the mountain. What happened next?

And he took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water, and made the sons of Israel drink it. (Exodus 32:20 NASB)

Moses was provoked, he was jealous for the glory of God.

Jeremiah was another prophet who spoke out against idolatry. But every time he did, the people would beat and abuse him:

For each time I speak, I cry aloud; I proclaim violence and destruction, Because for me the word of the LORD has resulted In reproach and derision all day long. (Jeremiah 20:8 NASB)

So Jeremiah decided to keep his mouth shut, but he couldn't:

But if I say, "I will not remember Him Or speak anymore in His name," Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire Shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, And I cannot endure it. (Jeremiah 20:9 NASB)

He was so angry about Israel's idolatry that he just couldn't keep it in--he had to speak out against it.

The Lord reacted the same way to idolatry in Israel:

They joined themselves also to Baal-peor, And ate sacrifices offered to the dead. 29 Thus they provoked Him to anger with their deeds; And the plague broke out among them. (Psalms 106:28-29 NASB)

The Palmist is talking about what is recorded in Numbers 25:

So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the LORD was angry against Israel. (Numbers 25:3 NASB)

Do you know what happened next?

And the LORD said to Moses, "Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the LORD, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel." (Numbers 25:4 NASB)
And those who died by the plague were 24,000. (Numbers 25:9 NASB)

God hates idolatry and so should His people! I think there is a correlation between your relationship with God and your sensitivity to sin. Sin should provoke us as it did Paul and Moses and Jeremiah.

As we study this passage we should ask ourselves what are the idols we ourselves worship today. The Athenians worshiped Athena, the goddess of love, and gave themselves over to promiscuous sexual conduct. Modern society is just as promiscuous; nothing has changed. They worshiped Zeus, the god of power. We too worship power and influence and check on who's making it by reading Fortune Magazine. Athens had idols to shame and to rumor, but our world bows to the same idols by reading the National Enquirer and People magazine. We worship Demiter, the earth mother; we call it Ecology. We worship Bacchus and Remor the gods of lust, and we have shrines to those gods everyplace. We worship sports figures and movie stars.

Are you provoked by sin? Does it provoke you to speak out? As we live in an increasingly pagan society, a danger that we face is that we are no longer provoked by sin. It no longer repels us. It becomes a part of our social background, and, like a shot of spiritual novocaine, we become deadened to its effects.

I remember when Scott came back from traveling across the country before they left for New Guinea. They had stopped in Las Vegas to visit the Ganns, and Scott was "provoked" by what he experienced in that town. He was shaken by the sin he had seen there; he was disturbed by it. How do you react toward the sin and idolatry of our culture?

If Paul was going to wait for Silas and Timothy, the idolatry in the city had changed his mind; and he moved into action:

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. (Acts 17:17 NASB)

Paul's normal routine--of going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, and preaching the Gospel--continued at Athens, although absolutely nothing is said of the results of this ministry.

Paul was "reasoning" in the synagogue and the market place. The word reasoning can denote the meaning of argumentation. Thayer indicates that although the word in question can mean: to "ponder," "argue," "discourse," or "discuss," when it is used in Acts 17:17, it is used "with the idea of disputing prominent." (Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament; Hendrickson Publishers, 2002 [original: 1896]; p. 139.) It was used for someone who presented a very carefully thought out, very reasoned argument--kind of a persuasive speech--and at the end of that, there was an opening time for dialogue and interaction back and forth.

Paul was giving his most persuasive speech, and then they would dialogue about it. Now you'd have to believe in the synagogue he was doing the same thing we've seen him do over and over again in the book of Acts--and that is he was explaining the First Testament and demonstrating that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies of the coming Messiah.

Paul was also reasoning in the "market place"--this is the Greek word "agora." The Athenian Agora was the center of the public and business life of the city, and people met there every day to learn the latest news and to discuss all manner of subjects. It was the custom of Athenian society to gather in the agora to listen to speeches by any person who felt they had something to say and then to quiz them and often to debate them on the validity of their ideas. Our modern day equivalent would be "Facebook" or a web based community such as Sovereign Grace Preterism.

So Paul is in the market place preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ:

And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, "What would this idle babbler wish to say?" Others, "He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,"-- because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. (Acts 17:18 NASB)

As Paul spoke with those who would listen in the market place, he got the attention of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Let's talk about these philosophers.

Epicurean--Epicurus (340-270 B.C.) had adopted the atomic theory of the earlier Democritus (460- 360 B.C.). The theory asserts that reality consists of indivisible material entities called atoms, moving through infinite empty space. Although the atoms themselves have no inherent properties, they combine in various ways to form objects that have differing properties.

Although the Epicureans formally affirm the traditional Greek deities, they are seen as part of the materialistic and atomic universe, and irrelevant to human affairs. Because the gods were not interested in human affairs, belief in divine providence is

considered superstitious, and religious rituals are worthless. We would call them deists; the Stoics considered them atheists, and indeed they were such in the practical sense.

Epicureans pursued pleasure as the chief purpose in life and valued most of all the pleasure of a peaceful life; free from pain, disturbing passions; and superstitious fears (including the fear of death). They believed the purpose in life was to be happy; it was to be prosperous; it was to be free of stress and pain. They were kind of the prosperity teachers of the ancient world. Their philosophy was that of 1 Corinthians 15:32 --"Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die."

As we said, they had a deistic kind of conception of god, that he had brought things into being by his creation, but everything ran pretty much as it runs today, by the operation of natural law. Even in Christian circles, we have people like that.

Rudolph Bultman said, "This universe is a closed universe as we're not to expect the intervention of God in any of the affairs of men, today, and believe that there is really no such thing as divine providence." Well, that would have been good doctrine, so far as the Epicureans were concerned. The gods were careless of mankind; that's the same kind of doctrine expressed in the doctrine of freewill, in the redemptive sense. That is, that the ultimate decisions of life are human decisions, and not divine decisions. Really, only those in the wealthy classes bought into the philosophy of the Epicureans. The overwhelming majority sided with the Stoics.

Stoic--The philosophical tradition of Zeno (340-265 B.C.) was named Stoicism because he had taught in the Porch, or the Stoa. Reading a book about Socrates had ignited Zeno's passion for philosophy, and this led him to move to Athens. On his first arrival, he came under the tutelage of the cynic, Crates.

The universe, men, and even animals are all parts of God, and thus the Stoics were

pantheists. God is the universe, and the universe is God. When a man died, the soul returned to the great soul, thus there was no real life after death. And they, too, did not believe in divine providence. This is completely opposed to the Biblical position.

Stoicism gave rise to a serious attitude, resignation in suffering, stern individualism, and social self-sufficiency. They were to demonstrate self-control, self-sufficiency, and emotional indifference amidst life's situations. They prided themselves on their ability to take whatever came. Their motto, in modern terms, was "Grin and bear it." They urged moderation: "Don't get over-emotional, either about tragedy or happiness." Apathy was regarded as the highest virtue of life. But if life gets too rough, Stoicism permits suicide. They believed that suicide was better than a life lived with less dignity.

Their teaching is also common today. A somewhat modern poet (he died in 1903) who set forth this philosophy of life, W. E. Henley, wrote, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul," in his poem, "Invictus."

The atmosphere in the market place was not the eagerness to hear a word from God that characterized the 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.

The Epicureans mock, "What would this idle babbler wish to say?" The word "babbler" is from the Greek word spermologos. Since sperma means: "seed" and leg means: "to collect," the word literally means: "seed-picker" or "gutter-sparrow." It had been used to describe loafers who picked up scraps of food in the market; and then became an Athenian slang referring to an individual that had a scrap of knowledge of this, and a scrap of knowledge of that. It came to be used in mockery of a man who picked up a stray idea from one place, and another idea from another place, and went around promoting them as his own wisdom. It therefore suggests "a parasite." Eustathius, in his comments on Homer's Odyssey, uses it in the sense of "ignorant plagiarist." It is in this last sense that the philosophers use this word to speak about Paul. It was an insult.

So the Epicureans mock, "What is this babbler trying to say?" The Stoics are curious: "'He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,'--because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection."

It's interesting that the plural "deities" is used here. Since he only preached Jesus and the resurrection, how did they get a plural out of it? strange gods? One historical explanation is that the word for resurrection is anastasis from which we get Anastasia, which is a feminine name. They may have understood "Jesus" as the personified power of healing, since the name means something like this in the Greek, and "resurrection" (anastasis) as the goddess of restoration. The Greeks had raised altars to abstract principles such as modesty and piety, and so it is not surprising that they could have misunderstood the apostle in this manner. Since "Jesus" is in the masculine and "resurrection" is in the feminine, they could have also misconstrued Paul as introducing a new divine couple.

"Because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection"--this brings out what Paul's emphases were. His first emphasis was Jesus. He "preached Jesus." This would have included all the different emphases as described previously including his life and death. His second emphasis was on the resurrection. And he kept stressing both. Thus he proclaimed the full central message that he always preached. Indeed he could not have proclaimed the resurrection without the cross.In the Platonic concept of the soul's immortality, they could not conceive of resurrection.

Paul's message created such a stir among the Epicureans and Stoics that they bring him before the Areopagus, Athens's chief legislative and judicial council. This body licensed traveling lecturers, and Paul's hearers want to see whether he should be given freedom to continue to teach:

And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? (Acts 17:19 NASB)

"Areopagus" comes from two Greek words, "Ares" was the Greek god of war; "Pagus" is Greek for "hill." The word Areopagus means: "Hill of Ares," the Greek god of war. His Latin name is Mars. Hence the Areopagus is called Mars' Hill as well. The Areopagus received its name from the mythological account of the trial of Mars for the murder of Neptune's son. "The Areopagus" was also the name given to a court of judges consisting of probably around thirty aristocratic Athenians, and exercised jurisdiction over matters of religion and education. So the council exercised control over the circulation of ideas within the city, and had authority to grant or withhold teaching licenses. By the time of Paul, the Areopagus probably met on the hill itself only to hear cases of homicides. Ordinary meetings were held in the Royal Portico, located in the northwest corner of the Agora. Socrates (470-399 B.C.) was arraigned and condemned by this council several hundred years before.

The context seems to show that Paul was not under arrest in Athens, but he was asked to appear before the Areopagus for the purpose of determining whether he would be permitted to propagate his ideas in the city.

So it is before this pagan Greek court of the Areopagus that Paul appears to be questioned. As we picture Paul standing before this court, let's remember what we know about Paul. He was a Jew, and not just any Jew, he was a Pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a student of the great teacher Gamaliel. He was expert in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanakh. Beyond being a Jew, he was a Roman citizen. And with his Roman citizenship came that kind of special skill in secular affairs that belonged to the Romans, that special knowledge of the military and of politics. Let's also remember that he was born in Tarsus, one of the three great university cities of the Roman world, the other two being Athens and Alexandria in Egypt. Tarsus was tremendously influenced by Greek culture. Paul was a Hellenistic Jew, he was exposed to Greek art and Greek philosophy. He had read their poets and understood their philosophy. He was a man of incredible intellect. And beyond all this, Paul was a servant of the Most High God, he was filled with the Spirit, and he was fearless. He was God's man called to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles.

"For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean." (Acts 17:20 NASB)

It was the novelty of Paul's message that earned him the invitation to the Areopagus. Luke, the recorder of Acts has inserted a kind of ironical comment for us on the life of the Athenians:

(Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.) (Acts 17:21 NASB)

There is no article here, it is literally "Athenians, all of them." And the words, "something new"' are in the comparative degree in the original text, and so it's "some newer thing." So, they were interested in the latest fads, they all wanted to hear new things.

And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. (Acts 17:22 NASB)

Paul doesn't begin his speech by establishing what many consider to be "common

ground" with the unbelievers; rather, he begins with an insult. They called him a seed-picker, and he calls them ignorant demon worshipers.

The term translated "very religious" is the Greek word deisidaimonesterosa, which is a combination of the Greek words deido, which means: "to fear or revere" and daimon, which means: "evil spirits." Daimon is the word from which we derived the English demons, it is used of the evil spirits referred to often in the Gospels. Robertson says that deisidaimonesterosa itself can be "a neutral word," with daimon signifying the idea of "deity." But Paul could have used another word for "deity" if he had meant that. This is the same word he uses for demons in:

No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. (1 Corinthians 10:20 NASB)

The Athenians weren't worshiping God, they were worshiping demons--"the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God." In his letter to Timothy he also uses this same word:

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, (1 Timothy 4:1 NASB)

So when Paul calls the Athenians "very religious," it is not a complement, he is not trying to establish common ground, it is a subtle rebuke concerning the spiritual realities behind their worship. Now watch what Paul says:

"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. (Acts 17:23 NASB)

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.

Let's talk for a minute about this alter to the "unknown god". Don Richardson tells a fascinating story of the "altar to the unknown god," referred to by Paul. This story is based upon a number of historical documents and sources, which Richardson cites in his book. In short, the story begins sometime in the sixth century before Christ, when 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." Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (Ventura, California: Venture Books, Revised edition, 1984), pp. 9-25.

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 that 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?

This is a brilliant move by Paul. By talking about this alter to the unknown god he eluded the penalty of that law which made it a capital offense to introduce any new god into the state. He showed that he was bringing neither a new god nor new worship among them; but only explaining the worship of one already acknowledged by the state.

"What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you"--by starting with a clear insult or rebuke, the audience probably would have paid much closer attention to what he was saying. The emphasis in the sentence is not on the identity of the "unknown god" but on the ignorance of the worship. Paul contrasts their ignorance with his knowledge.

Paul's point is that they did not know the true God at all. They may realize that there may be a divine existence beyond what they were worshiping, and so constructed altars to these "unknown gods" just as a safety measure. But you can't conclude from this that they were already worshiping the God of Christianity. In fact, the point is that they were not worshiping the God of Christianity. Their altars to "unknown gods" merely constitute a confession of ignorance.

Paul's says, "What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you." He's got them on the ropes now, because they can't say, "No, that's not Him," because they've already said, "We don't know who he is." So there's no way to argue this from their standpoint. So he's got them.

Paul announces that whereas his hearers are ignorant, he will "proclaim to them" the truth. Non-Christian philosophy is ultimately founded on human speculation, but Christian philosophy is ultimately founded on divine revelation.

Sin has blinded the spiritual eyes of every human being, so that unless God reveals Himself through special revelation, man cannot rightly know Him. If man cannot know God by his own unaided wisdom, how did Paul obtain his knowledge about God? We find the answer to this question in:

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. (1 Corinthians 1:21 NASB)

God saves those whom He has chosen by generating faith in them by the content of the Christian faith. The Christian world view has as its foundation not human "wisdom" or speculation, but divine revelation delivered to us through the prophets, the Lord Himself, and the apostles (Hebrews 1:1-2, Galatians 1:11-12).

Paul does not "dialogue" with the Athenians to see what they can learn from each other. He has no respect for their religions and philosophies. Instead, he says, "What you do not know, I am going to tell you," and he proceeds to tell them in verse 24-31. And we'll look at this next time.

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