Acts: For the Cause of Christ #25
Title: Paul in Athens
Last time we looked at Paul’s time in Philippi. How Paul was used to start another church. How he and Silas kept their faith in the midst of injustice and physical abuse. How the gospel is presented freely to all people. We continue to follow Paul’s journey after leaving Philippi. Paul makes it to two big cities as he continues to spread the gospel in Greece.
Thessalonica – vv 1-9
Mixed Results 1-4
Paul, Silas, and Timothy arrive in Thessalonica after apparently stopping for the evening at Amphipolis and Apollonia. These were on the Egnatian Way from Philippi. Once in Thessalonica, Paul and the team stated as always within the Jewish community at the local synagogue. Paul discussed the gospel with them from three consecutive Sabbaths, so they were in Thessalonica for at least three weeks. Paul was using the OT prophets alongside the events of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. Paul’s pattern continues to repeat. We are told that some Jews believed the gospel message as well as God-fearing Greeks. Among these believers were leading women, Macedonian women had a reputation for independence in society and business.
Jealous Jews 5-9
Keeping with the pattern from Paul’s time in southern Galatia, the unbelieving Jews became of jealous. Whether this was because they lost a number of proselytes or because they lost financial support with some leading women converting to Christianity, we don’t know for sure. These Jews, went to the marketplace and found wicked men for hire to create a mob to riot. The went to the house of Jason, who was housing Paul and the others, and may have been one the Jews that converted from Paul’s teaching in the synagogue.
The mob could not find the missionaries, so they dragged Jason and few other Christians before the town officials. Since Thessalonica isn’t a Roman Colony, we see a different group of leadership. These magistrates are generally called politarchs, this term is used for the local magistrates in Macedonia. The mob charged the missionaries with treason, basically, and since Jason was housing them, he was a complicit as well. Theses charges were similar to those that were brought up in Philippi. The magistrates didn’t seem overly concerned, probably because there was no real evidence to these claims, however Jason paid a bond. This would have guaranteed that his guests wouldn’t cause trouble and probably required them to leave town.
Because of the persecution he faced, Paul was unable to really establish the new Thessalonian church in doctrine. In a few months time from this point in our journey, Paul will be in Corinth where he spends about 18 months. During this time in Corinth (~51-52 AD) Paul writes both 1 and 2 Thessalonians to encourage the church, explain doctrines more thoroughly, and correct a few errors the church had.
Berea – vv 10-15
Searched the Scriptures
Paul, Silas and Timothy were taken out of the city under the cover of night and headed to Berea. Again, Paul stays true to form and heads to the local synagogue. However, here in Berea we get a breath of fresh air for minute, as these Jews break the pattern and hear Paul out while checking the Scriptures to see if they can verify what Paul has told them. This is something we all need to do, double check things against Scripture. I don’t wonder if these Bereans would be surprised if they knew how many Christian churches and groups have named themselves after them because of their careful study of Scripture? We can only assume Paul was reasoning with them the same way as he was in Thessalonica by showing that the Messiah had to suffer, die and be raised back to life through the OT Prophets. And again, many believed, both men and women, Jew and Greek.
We don’t know how long it was before the Jews of Thessalonica heard that Paul and the others were in Berea, but in another reminder of southern Galatia, a group of Jews from Thessalonica came to Berea to stir up trouble. Paul seems to be the main target, but Paul quickly escorted out of town be some the new believers. There are some variations in the manuscripts as whether they took Paul by sea or by land, either way they escorted Paul to Athens. Paul had them take a message back to Silas and Timothy to join him in Greece as quickly as they could.
Athens – vv 16-34
Paul has entered Athens. The cradle of Greek mythology, philosophy, and culture. This city’s cultural influence would be equivalent to London, Pairs, or New York today. Athens was steeped in idolatry. Everywhere he would have turned there would be another temple or carving or statue dedicated to the false gods of Greek and Roman Mythology. In its past glory days, this city was called home by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno. This city was used to different ways of thinking and worshipping. Though Paul would have been somewhat accustomed to idolatry, there was something of how saturated Athens was that caused him to be distressed.
Synagogue and Marketplace
In the middle of this idolatrous city, Paul was able to find a Jewish synagogue. Not only were there Jews worshipping but there were Greek proselytes worshipping the true God. Paul spent his days reasoning in the synagogue as well as trying to interact with other people in the marketplace. Luke doesn’t tells us how the Jews or proselytes responded to Paul’s teaching, or if there were any converts from his “street evangelism”.
What we do see, is that on one specific day Paul is addressing a group of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.
Stoics – The Stoics claimed Zeno from Cyprus as their founder and took their name from specific colonnade in the marketplace where Zeno had taught. “Their system aimed at 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…they were essentially pantheistic, god being regarded as the world-soul….Stoicism at it sbest was marked by great moral earnestness and a high sense of duty. It commended suicide as a honorable means of escape from a life that could no longer be sustained with dignity” (Bruce, F. F. NICNT: The Book of the Acts, © 1988 p330).
Epicureans – This school founded by Epicurus and “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, free from from pain, disturbing passions, and superstitious fears (including in particular the fear of death). It did not deny the existence of gods, but maintained they they took no interest in the life of men and women” (Bruce, p330-331).
On this particular day, some that were listening to Paul were unimpressed by him calling him, “an ignorant show-off”, a more literal translation would read “seed-picker”. The word does refer to birds eating seeds and scraps, but the idea here is someone who doesn’t align with a specific school of thought. Others though he was teaching about some strange or foreign gods. It is thought that they may have misunderstood and personified the resurrection along with Jesus.
They brought Paul to the Areopagus. Some translations have “Mars’ Hill”, that is a translation of the Latin name for the “Hill of Ares”. Either way it is a hill dedicated to the god of war in Greek/Roman Mythology. The Areopagus lent its name to a court, sometimes the court met on the hill itself and sometimes it met in the Royal Colonnade in the marketplace, where it met to hear Paul, we don’t know for sure. The court was mainly used at this time to preside over religious and moral matters. Paul was not taken as a criminal, or to see if they should give him license to be a public lecturer/teacher. He was merely asked there to further expound his teaching so they could better understand it. Verse 21 reads, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners residing there spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new.” So if Athens is culturally like New York is thought of today, then Paul being able to present on the Areopagus is like playing on Broadway.
So what does Paul do with this opportunity? What any good preacher does, he preaches the gospel (v22).
Paul begins by telling them that as he walked through town he noticed that they were very religious. He had even seen an altar inscribed “to an unknown god”. He uses this as a place to start. Now I doubt that when that altar was placed, there was any idea of a particular god they were trying to appease, but Paul used this to begin to discuss the one, true God.
He continues by telling them “that God is the creator, the sovereign of heaven and earth, the sustainer and director of all things ans is the Omnipresent One” (Kent, Homer A. Jr.; Jerusalem to Rome, © 1972 p140). He tells them that all of humanity came from one man, Adam, and then explained “that God has determined the seasons which make life possible, and has appointed the habitable zones of the earth in which [people] may live” (Kent, p140). Verse 28, actually contains two different quotes from Greek poets, the first part of the verse is attributed to Epimenides from Crete and the last section, generally put in quotes is from Aratus from Cilicia. Now both of these poems names Zeus as the supreme being in Greek philosophy and religion, Paul is not equating the trude God and Zeus, he is merely using these poems to make a point and to make a connection with his audience as these poems have contexts that can point to some recognition of the true nature of God. (doctrines of God and man)
Paul continues by telling them that God has set a time for divine judgement and that there is a need of repentance before that judgement comes. [read 30-31] God has determined Who will be the judge and has set the time. This discussion of end-times judgement was new to the Greek thinker, at least the biblical revelation of the end-times. Paul assures his listeners that God’s man has been revealed as there is solid proof about this man. We know this is Jesus, and that proof is the that God has raised Jesus from the dead. (doctrines of end-times and christology).
Mixed Results 32-34
There is a difference of opinions over whether Paul concluded his message or if he was cut off as they ridiculed him for the idea of the resurrection. Some think he concluded the message, because this was an introduction to Christianity, and the first thing to learn was to turn from idols. Others think he was unable to finished the message where he would have expanded the information to contain the elements of the gospel. We don’t know for sure.
Some did ridicule him for the notion of the resurrection, while others wanted to hear more. We are told that some followed Paul and believed. Luke tells us the name of two people, Dionysius a member of the Areopagus court and a woman named Damaris.
No mention of a church being planted, no mention of baptisms. Some think that the poor reception to the gospel is why Paul left for Corinth and that he changed is approach in Corinth “to ‘know nothing’ there ‘except Jesus Christ and him crucified’” (Bruce, p344).
In Thessalonica we saw how Paul started in the synagogues and reasoned, discussed, or lecturered from the Scripture and showed the Jews that Jesus Christ was meant to come and suffer and die. Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection fulfilled OT prophecy.
In Berea we have an excellent model to follow. Examine Scripture for yourself when you are listening to teachers. Don’t just accept anybody’s explanation. That includes me or any man that is standing behind this pulpit proclaiming the Word. That includes your favorite radio/TV preacher, that includes your favorite writing preacher, or printed bible studies.
In Athens, we saw that Paul spoke in ways his audience could understand and relate to him, but he didn’t use “church language” or “christianese”. He used language and words his audience could understand. He related commonly known poems in way to point to the true God. We should be careful doing this so we don’t marginalize the true christianity or place the gospel on the same ground as a false religion. We also see that we need to be aware of the openings to share the gospel that the Lord provides.
Most importantly, we saw that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to the gospel. Whether for those who have a knowledge of Scripture and need instruction or those who have never read the Bible or heard of the God of heaven, Christ’s resurrection is the centerpiece for the gospel.