Paul in Athens

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

September 18, 2016

Acts 17:16-34


Last week, we ended up with Paul leaving Beroea, where a gang was out for his hide.  He’s heading to Athens where he plans to wait for Timothy and Silas to catch up with him.  This week, we learn of Paul’s experiences in this “university town” of the ancient world.  Paul gives us an “evangelism primer.”  He shows us how to address a culture at odd to the gospel.  Up to this point, Luke has shown us in Acts how the gospel has reach Gentiles and Jews, rich and poor, slave and free, those from Africa, Asia and Europe.  But can the gospel hold its own in the intellectual center of the ancient world?[1]

Athens is named for Athena, the goddess of wisdom.  This is the city of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  It’s a city known for the theater, arts and the Olympics.  Although the city’s golden years are the past, it’s still an important place for leaning in the first century.  As Paul waits in this city, he looks around.  Let’s see what he finds…



A new couple joined Community Presbyterian Church in Cedar City, Utah about the time we were deep into the planning process for a new church building.  I’ll call him Fred, which was not his name.  We’d already conducted our first building fund campaign and were moving forward on the project.  When someone joins a church, I try to get to know them.  I knew, from the new member classes, that they both were articulate in their theology.  Both were retired teachers. I didn’t know that Fred had once been an ordained minister in another denomination. That tidbit came out later along with a lot of speculation as to why he was no longer in the ministry.

Fred was very interested in the building project and volunteered to join the committee.  He was welcomed to the team.  From there, things went downhill.  We’d been working together for over a year at this point and Fred came in with all kinds of new ideas.  Many of them had merit.  But Fred presented his ideas in such an offensive way that soon a struggle between him and the building committee.  He called the plan upon which we were working, “stupid.” Every idea he didn’t generate, he lapelled “stupid.”  He continued down this path and became further and further isolated from the committee.  Soon, everyone was avoiding Fred and eventually he quit the committee.  There was a sigh of relief.

Then came the congregational meeting where the committee presented its plans to the church.  On that day, Fred came with what might have been called a minority report.  After the presentation was made by the committee, Fred asked for the floor.  He went on to inform the congregation why the building committee’s plan was stupid (he loved that word) and then presented his own plan.  I will have to give the guy credit.  Fred put a lot of work into this.  He even had a model for his idea of a building.  The congregation voted overwhelmingly to stick to the plan presented by the building committee.  His was not the way to make friends and influence people

Now let’s compare Fred’s tactics to Paul’s.  Paul is in Athens waiting for Silas and Timothy to show up.  As he makes his way around the city looking at all the statues and buildings dedicated to the Greek pantheon of gods, he’s greatly disturbed.  He brings his concerns to the Jews.  They, too, are probably disturbed, as the city was breaking the first two commandments left and right.  Paul also takes his concern into the streets and into the marketplace.   Some people think he’s out of his mind, a babbler.  Others think he’s teaching about foreign gods.  Paul is getting his message out and there is some interest in it, as this is a city of ideas.  Paul is invited to address a group of scholars.  Think of it as a convocation.

Look at what Paul does.  He doesn’t open up his Bible to Exodus 20 and read off the opening commandments and begin to proclaim judgment on Athens.  He could do that in the synagogue, but these pagan intellectuals have no concept as to what the word of God is about.  Instead of starting out his message with his concerns over their idolatry or calling them stupid for worshipping statues of stone and iron, Paul has a surprising trick up his sleeve.  He acknowledges their religious piety.  Paul is trying to find common ground before he moves on to talking about Jesus.  He recalls a statue in the city to “an unknown god, telling his crowd this is whom he’s proclaiming.  He speaks of God as the creator, who made everything and doesn’t live inside stone statues.  This God is so powerful, he doesn’t even need humans to do his work.  Yet, God has made us curious that we might seek him out.

Next, Paul quotes from ancient Greek poets, making the case that we’ve been created by God and thereby are God’s offspring.   Paul then, in his carefully constructed rhetorical argument, speaks of how God has ignored human ignorance in the past, but that’s about to change because of a man God has sent.  From what we’re told, Paul doesn’t even mention how Jesus died.  In fact, he doesn’t even use Jesus’ name.  He just insists that he was raised from the dead.[2]

Paul’s preaching gets their attention.  Some immediately dismiss his ideas.  Others want to know more.  A few become believers.  Luke provides the name for two believers, a man and a woman.  As Luke has been doing in every city, he acknowledges women believers, something which would have been novel in the ancient world.  Luke also mentions there are a few other believers, without giving names.  We don’t know how many in all, but if Paul was a fisherman, he probably didn’t catch his limit that day.  But there are those who lives are changed.

Let me clear up a thing or two here.  You’ve probably heard of Paul’s “Mar’s Hill” speech, right?  We’ll, this is it.  This speech is given on the Areopagus or the Hill of Ares, which was across from the Pantheon.  Ares is the Greek god of war, the same as Mars, the Roman god of war.  Since Mars Hill is easier to say than the Areopagus, I supposed the name stuck.  But most translations today use the Greek name.  After all, when in Greece, talk like the Greeks.   In Athens, this hill rose some 300 feet above the town and was a place of both judgment and learning.  When Paul challenges the idolatry of Athens, he wasn’t being judged as Socrates was five centuries earlier.  He’s there to enlighten.[3] Paul’s called because Athenians are curious people.  They give him an opportunity to express his views and Paul jumps at the chance.

Paul’s speech in Acts is his first recorded address to a polytheistic audience.  Actually, almost all of Paul’s encounters in Acts are with those who are either Jews or Gentiles who are studying Judaism.  But here, it appears, the audience is mostly pagan.  We’re told that there were two types of philosophers present and Paul’s teachings would have been a challenge to both.   The Epicureans felt that God created the world but wasn’t involved in the on-going affairs of the world.  They were the partiers; we’re supposed to enjoy this life.  They would have agreed with Paul’s first argument (about creation) but not his latter (fear of judgment).  On the other hand, the Stoics are, let’s say, stoic.  In other words, they tried to control their passions and, instead of being the life of the party, strove to cultivate human virtue (without much laughter).  Both groups have objections to Paul’s teaching.

What might we learn from Paul’s ministry in Athens?  First of all, Paul shows us that we shouldn’t back away from a culture that we might think is going the wrong direction.  Steeped in Jewish piety, he is offend at the idolatry of Athens.  But instead of just hiding as he waits his companions, Paul is willing to take a chance and engage the culture.  Today, as the church appears to be losing ground in our world, at least in the Western World.  We are tempted to pull away and hid inside the church building or our homes.  We don’t want to risk letting others know of our faith.  Yet, we must understand that discipleship is not a one or two hour a week part-time job.  It’s how we live our lives.  Jesus sent us out with the calling to be his witness to the ends of the world.[4] It’s impossible to fulfill that calling unless we engage the culture.  We must be willing to take a chance.  Paul shows us how.  We don’t browbeat people.  We don’t call them stupid.  We have to listen to them and find common ground.  We can’t be judgmental, yet they need to see and hear how Jesus makes a difference in our lives.  Of course, as Paul found out in Athens, not everyone will be a believer.  That’s up to the working of God’s Spirit.  But we’re to be faithful, letting our light shine, sowing the seeds of the gospel, and trusting God to give the harvest.  Amen.

[1] William H. Willimon, Acts (1988, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 143.

[2] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 253.

[3] Gaventa, 249.

[4] Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:16.

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