Exploring the Book of Acts Chapter 17
The gospel goes into Macedonia and Greece
On to Thessalonica (17:1)
After Paul, Silas and Timothy leave Philippi, they travel west through the next two towns — Amphipolis and Apollonia. If any missionary work occurs there, Luke has no interest in telling his readers about it. Luke simply says that Paul and his company go through these towns. Amphipolis is about 33 miles (53 kilometers) southwest of Philippi, along the Via Egnatia. Apollonia is 27 miles (43 kilometers) west-southwest of Amphipolis.
Luke is hurrying the missionary group to Thessalonica, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) west of Apollonia. Each town is about a horseback day’s journey from the next. Thessalonica (modern Salonika) is the capital of the province of Macedonia, and its largest and most prosperous city. Thessalonica is a large city of perhaps 200,000 people. It has a good location on the Thermaic Gulf. The Via Egnatia is the main street of Thessalonica, and it is still a major thoroughfare of Salonika.
In Luke’s day, Thessalonica is an important link between the rich Macedonian agricultural interior and land and sea trade routes. Paul seems to view Thessalonica as a strategic center from which to preach the gospel in the Balkan peninsula. Paul knows that he does not have to go to all these areas — once he begins a church in one city, the believers themselves will begin spreading the good news to nearby areas. Perhaps that is why Paul just passes through Amphipolis and Apollonia — he knows they will be evangelized from the churches in Philippi and Thessalonica. Paul can later write to the church, saying, “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia — your faith in God has become known everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 1:8).
Paul teaches in the largest cities of the Roman world — Antioch, Thessalonica, Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. These cities are seaports and on busy trade routes. Churches established in these cities provide a jumping-off place from which nearby towns and villages in the hinterland will be evangelized.
As his custom was (17:2)
When Paul comes to Thessalonica, he goes into the synagogue “as was his custom” and for “three Sabbath days he reasoned with them [the Jews] from the Scriptures” (17:2). Paul uses a simple strategy in spreading the gospel of God. When he arrives in a new city, he almost always visits a local synagogue. This becomes his regular practice (13:14, 44; 14:1; 16:13, 16; 18:4; 19:8).
A Sabbath in a synagogue is a wonderful teaching opportunity for Paul. Here Jews and devout Gentiles gather to read and interpret the Scriptures — the Old Testament in Greek translation. In such a setting, Paul finds people who already know the true God. They share Israel’s hope for a Messiah and the kingdom of God.
At Thessalonica, Paul is able to speak in the synagogue during three Sabbaths. This is probably only the beginning of a longer campaign in Thessalonica. We learn from Paul’s letter to the Philippian church that he receives financial aid from Philippi on several occasions (4:16). But he is also supporting himself even while he is preaching the gospel in the city (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8). This implies that Paul is in the city for some time.
It appears that most of the converts in Thessalonica were originally pagans, not God-fearers who attended the synagogue (1 Thessalonians 1:9). This implies that Paul is teaching pagan Gentiles directly, probably after his three sessions in the synagogue. Most likely, the three weeks in the synagogue are only the beginning of Paul’s work in Thessalonica. Perhaps the synagogue kicked him out after those first three weeks, and he then teaches the Gentiles directly, but Luke doesn’t describe this part of Paul’s mission in Thessalonica.
Reasoning from the Scriptures (17:2-4)
In the synagogue, Paul is “explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead” (17:3). Paul tries to be methodical in his teaching. He “reasons,” “explains,” “proves,” and “persuades” his hearers. What probably surprises, and angers the Jews is Paul’s claim that the Messiah “had to suffer” (17:3). Preaching a suffering Savior who died is not a popular message for most Jews, since they are looking for a heroic Messiah (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).
Paul argues that Jesus fulfills the conditions for a suffering Messiah — which the Scriptures speak of. Thus, he is that Messiah. But to the Jews, Jesus is a criminal and insurrectionist who was executed by the Romans. It’s not surprising that Paul probably lasts only three weeks in the synagogue before being ejected as a heretic, or fool.
The preaching of Paul in the Book of Acts generally and at Thessalonica particularly took the form of a “proclaimed witness” — i.e., a witness to the facts that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, that his suffering and resurrection were in accord with the Scriptures, and that through his earthly ministry and living presence men and women can experience the reign of God in their lives. (Longenecker, 469)
In its simplest form, this is the essence of the gospel Paul preaches from the Hebrew Scriptures. He writes later of this “good news”: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Some of the Jews believe this gospel and join Paul and Silas. As well, so do a number of God-fearing Gentiles who attend the synagogue and a few “prominent women” (17:4). These all become disciples. Once Paul is barred from the synagogue, he turns to teaching the pagan Gentiles. He apparently receives a much more favorable response from them, as Thessalonians implies. It is helpful to read Paul’s two letters to the Thessalonians in connection with this section of Acts. The epistles flesh out Luke’s account of Paul’s stay in the city and put a very human face on his relationship with the converts there.
Jews accuse Paul and Silas (17:5-9)
Paul’s success with the Gentiles both within and especially outside the synagogue ignite the Jews’ jealousy (17:5). Not only is Paul the renegade rabbi stealing converts from their private preserve, he is having unprecedented success in making proselytes from the Gentile community at large. The unbelieving Jews decide it is time to stop Paul’s evangelizing activities. So they “rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city” (17:5). The mob is composed of criminal types who hang around the public square with nothing to do but cause trouble. The Jews probably pay them to start a riot. Apparently, their goal is to implicate Paul and Silas in a civil disturbance.
The Jews assume the missionaries are in the home of a convert named Jason. They storm the house but find only Jason and some other believers. (Jason’s home probably serves as a house church, as did Lydia’s.) Some connect this Jason with the individual mentioned along with Luke (Lucius) and Sosipater (16:21) in the letter to the Romans. However, Jason is a common name and any connection can only be speculative.
The Jews apparently hope to bring Paul before the popular assembly of citizens, the Greek demos (17:5). The translation of the NIV, “crowd,” is unfortunate. (See its footnote or marginal reference, “assembly of the people.”) Failing to find Paul and Silas, the Jews drag Jason and some other believers before the city officials, or politarchs. These are the magistrates of Thessalonica, and the title is known from a number of inscriptions.
The Jews bring a charge of disturbing the Pax Romana against Paul and Silas. They claim, “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here” (17:6). (The traditional KJV translation, “turned the world upside down,” although memorable, gives an improper nuance to the Greek.) The Jews don’t have Paul and Silas in hand, so they accuse Jason of being part of the conspiracy by allowing the insurrectionists to use his home as a safe house. The Jews also accuse the missionaries of “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (17:7). Naturally, charges of insurrection, subverting the empire, and a plot against Caesar are extremely serious. If they hold up, the missionaries could be executed.
The magistrates of Thessalonica apparently know of the recent troubles in the Jewish community at Rome. These are described by the Roman biographer and historian Suetonius (born c. A.D. 70) as the “constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus” (Life of Claudius 25.4). The continuing tumult forces Emperor Claudius to issue his edict around A.D. 49-50, which tries to expel all the Jews from the city. The Jews of Thessalonica are probably playing on these fears, intimating that similar riots might erupt in their city.
This may have had something to do with the accusation that the missionaries are “defying Caesar’s decrees” (17:7). Perhaps the decrees had to do with prohibitions against public assemblies (including religious ones) or the fomenting of riots — meant to prevent the sorts of disturbances that occurred at Rome. The Jews also accuse the missionaries of saying there is another king, Jesus, instead of Caesar. Perhaps the decrees in question contain oaths of loyalty to Caesar. Preaching Jesus as a rival emperor would violate such regulations.
Of course, the Jews are twisting the meaning of the confession that declared Jesus to be the Messiah and Savior. The Jews are putting a politically inflammatory twist on what is a personal and spiritual confession. (Although Jesus is not a king of this world, the gospel does call people to give greater allegiance to Jesus than to Caesar.) The Thessalonian politarchs are “thrown into turmoil” when the Jews make these accusations (17:8). They don’t want riots in their city, certainly not like the ones at Rome. The politarchs will be held accountable if they allow the violation of any imperial decrees.
But it seems that the magistrates see through the Jews’ plot and recognize the accusations as erroneous. Perhaps the officials recognize the rioters as the ne’er-do-wells of the town square. What’s more, Paul and Silas, supposedly the leaders of the riot, are nowhere to be found.
The politarchs took what they thought to be a moderate and reasonable course of action. They made Jason and those with him post a bond, assuring them that there would be no repetition of the trouble. This probably meant that Paul and Silas had to leave Thessalonica and that their friends promised they would not come back, at least during the term of office of the present politarchs. (Longenecker, 470)
To Berea by night (17:10-15)
The Jews probably continue to look for Paul, so as soon as nightfall comes, the disciples spirit him out of the city and send him to Berea. Once again, Paul is forced to make a hasty and humiliating departure, as he did from Damascus (9:23-25), Jerusalem (9:30), Antioch of Pisidia (13:50-51) and Lystra (14:20).
Berea (modern Verria) is about 50 miles (81 kilometers) west-southwest of Thessalonica. It takes Paul about three days to reach the town. Berea is considered an out-of-the-way place, of little historical or political importance. Paul again goes into the synagogue to preach, but he is given an unusually warm reception by the Jews. Luke presents the Berean Jews as openminded individuals. “The Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica,” he writes, “for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (17:11).
The Berean Jews apparently meet with Paul every day (not just on the Sabbath) to examine the Scriptures. Luke implies that they are zealous to understand the truth. If the Jews in Thessalonica took the time to search for and evaluate the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures, they too would discover that Paul was speaking the truth.
Many Jews in Berea believe the gospel, as do some prominent Gentile men and women (18:12). Among the believers is Sopater son of Pyrrhus, who is identified by Luke as being from Berea (20:4). Sopater might be the same person as the Sosipater of Romans 16:21, but there is no way to be sure.
Luke emphasizes that the converted Gentiles are “prominent,” perhaps in social standing. (One can almost catch a purposeful contrast here. The gospel can attract good people, while the Jews must rely on the rabble and riff-raff to foment a fake riot.) However, the antagonistic Jews of Thessalonica learn that Paul is teaching in Berea. They send some agents to stir up the crowds there. The Berean disciples take immediate action and send Paul “to the coast,” down to the sea (17:14). It’s not clear whether his friends put him on a ship bound for Piraeus, the port of Athens, or escort him by land to Athens. A sea journey would make more sense; otherwise Paul would have to travel a long distance over rough roads to get to Athens.
Silas and Timothy remain in Berea, but Paul gives instructions with the returning Bereans that they should rejoin him as soon as possible (17:15). They apparently rejoin him at Athens later, although Luke doesn’t tell us when (1 Thessalonians 3:1). Paul sends Timothy back to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:2). Silas returns to Macedonia (perhaps Philippi), and then with Timothy rejoins Paul in Corinth (18:5).
Commentators speculate that Paul has not really planned to teach in Athens. Perhaps he would rather follow the Via Egnatia across the Balkan peninsula to Dyrrhachium on the Adriatic, and then cross the sea to Italy — and go to Rome. It may be that political considerations in Macedonia make it impossible for him to continue west. And because of Claudius’ edict expelling Jews from Rome, it is not a good time to visit the city. Whatever his intentions, it’s clear that Paul comes to Athens mainly to escape persecution.
Paul preaches in Athens and Corinth
Paul at Athens (17:16)
Athens has a 1,000 year history of glory when Paul enters its gates. The city is famous as the founder of democracy. It is a literary, artistic and philosophical center. Aeschylus, Epicurus, Euripides, Plato, Socrates, Sophocles, Thucydides and Zeno are part of its heritage.
The Romans conquered Athens in 146 B.C., but they are so impressed with Greek learning that they foster Athens’ continuing dominance in cultural and intellectual matters. Athens continues to function as a free city. She lost her great wealth and pre-eminent position long before Paul teaches there. Athens, while still a great university town, has to live off its history, its reputation, its ancient glory. Its population during Paul’s days is only 10,000.
Teaching in the agora (17:16-17)
Paul is in the midst of an intellectual city, proud of its pagan heritage. Luke tells us that while Paul is waiting for Silas and Timothy, “he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (17:16). Paul becomes emotionally troubled by the people’s ignorance of the true God. The Athens of Paul’s day is a city of many gods. Ancient historians such as Livy (History of Rome 45:27) and Pausanius (Description of Greece 1, 14, 1-1, 15, 7) attest to the fact that Athens is filled with religious statues.
“It was said that there were more statues of the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together and that in Athens it was easier to meet a god than a man” (William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976], page 130).
Paul continues his usual practice of teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, where he reasons with Jews and God-fearing Greeks (17:16). But he also pursues a parallel strategy of going to the Gentiles on weekdays. Paul reasons “in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there” (17:17). The marketplace is the agora, west of the Acropolis. It is the center of Athenian social life, and serves as its forum and a place where goods are bought and sold. Paul, like certain philosophers were known to do, challenges the crowds with the gospel message.
Stoics and Epicureans (17:18)
Paul soon finds himself confronted by Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who apparently teach in the agora as well. Athens is a home base for these rival schools of philosophy.
Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) said that pleasure is the chief goal of life. “Pleasure,” in his view, is the enjoyment of life that comes with freedom from pain, distressing emotions, superstitions, fears, and anxiety about death. To him the greatest pleasure is the absence of pain, suffering and fear. Today, epicureanism is sometimes confused with hedonism, indulging in physical pleasures without restraint. But that is not what the Epicureans teach in Paul’s day. While they consider pleasure the highest good, it is more of an intellectual detachment from the cares of this life than attachment to physical desire. They know that physical desires can lead to addiction and unhappiness; one of the “pleasures” they seek is simply friendship.
Epicurus and those who followed him do not deny the existence of the gods, but they say the notions held by the multitudes are wrong. The Epicureans argue that the gods are “far off,” with little or no interest in the ordinary lives of people. Epicureans have little motivation to seek after God or to fear his judgments.
The Stoic school of philosophy was founded by Zeno (340-265 B.C.), from Citium in Cyprus. Stoics emphasize human rational abilities, individual self-sufficiency, moral worth and duty. They stress reason and logic as principles that should govern the lives of people. The gods of popular mythology are said to be expressions of this universal Reason. The Stoics are pantheists in that they think of the divine as a kind of “world-soul.”
This babbler (17:18)
It’s clear why the Epicureans and Stoics disagree with the gospel of salvation Paul is teaching in the agora. Thoughtful people rely on these two philosophies to explain the nature of human existence to help them cope with a world of suffering. These two philosophies try to explain the plight of humanity apart from any revelation of God’s purpose. In that sense, the gospel message is a great challenge to them. It brings truth and light regarding humanity’s purpose, and calls into question the usefulness of these philosophies.
To believers in Epicureanism and Stoicism, Paul’s “philosophy” sounds alien and foolish — perhaps even dangerous. It’s not strange, then, that upon hearing Paul speak, some of these philosophers say, “What is this babbler trying to say?” (17:18). The Greek word for “babbler” is spermologos. The word originally described the action of birds picking up grain. It was then applied to scrap collectors searching for junk. Finally, it came to refer to people who sell the ideas of other people without understanding them. The word spermologos describes teachers who have only bits and pieces of learning, but who are trying to sound learned. Or it might refer to busybodies or gossips. Luke Timothy Johnson’s phrase — “the peddler of second-rate religious opinions” — seems to sum up the sense of “babbler” quite nicely here (Johnson, 313).
Paul is contemptuously dismissed by the Stoics and Epicureans as ignorant (1 Corinthians 2:23). Others are less derisive but more perplexed, saying, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods” (17:18). They say this because Paul is “preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (17:18). The philosophers seem to misunderstand what he is talking about — the “foreign gods” may refer to a new god (Jesus) and a goddess (Resurrection, or anastasis in Greek). Perhaps these philosophers think that Paul wants to have these “new” deities added to the Athenian pantheon.
To the Areopagus (17:19)
The suspicious philosophers take Paul to a session of the Areopagus. It is the city council of Athens, and in Roman times it is still the chief judicial body of the city. The court has perhaps 30 members, and is considered a select body. Interestingly, the word “Areopagus” survives today as the title of the Greek Supreme Court.
The council probably meets on the 377-foot hill called the Areopagus, or the Hill of Ares or Mars. (Ares, the Greek god of war, was equated with the Roman god Mars.) The hill is just northwest of the Acropolis. The council may meet at the Stoa Basileios, a columned building in the agora, the city center.
The Athenian Areopagus is the town council responsible for culture, education and religion. It also deals with cases of homicide and has oversight of public morals. The Areopagus evaluates the competence of visiting lecturers to speak in their city.
It’s not altogether clear whether the philosophers simply ask Paul to go before the Areopagus or whether they made a citizen’s arrest and force him to go. The way Luke presents the proceeding it appears to be more of a curious inquiry rather than a formal hearing, and much less a trial. Since Luke doesn’t imply the existence of a legal proceeding, it appears that Paul is asked to present his views before a normal session of the Areopagus. But it may be something of a command performance, not to be refused.
Perhaps we can envision the Areopagus meeting in open session like a city council. It hears reports from citizens regarding issues of vital interest to the community. After all, Luke does say that “the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (17:21). The Areopagus probably reflects this on-going talk show, and they would be curious to hear Paul’s “new ideas,” even if they seemed strange and far-fetched.
Johannes Munck is probably right when he says, “Curiosity about his teaching, not an accusation made against him, brought Paul and his audience to the Areopagus” (The Acts of the Apostles, The Anchor Bible [New York: Doubleday, 1967], 169). Nevertheless, while this is probably not a judicial hearing, there is an implied threat in being brought before the council.
Josephus gives several examples of Athenians being punished for offending the gods of Athens (Against Apion 2.262-269). Among those recently executed, says Josephus, is “a certain priestess, because she was accused by somebody that she initiated people into the worship of strange gods” (2.267). Even under the best of circumstances, an offer to present one’s views about “strange gods” before the council is not to be taken lightly.
The philosophers’ interest in Paul’s teaching was probably no more than academic, but there may have been just a hint of threat in it, because in Athens the introduction of strange gods, though common enough, was a capital offense if for this reason the local deities were rejected and the state religion was disturbed. (Williams, 303)
Perhaps we should see Paul’s “defense” before the Areopagus as being a kind of preliminary hearing to determine whether charges are to be filed. How he fares before this “grand jury” may determine his fate.
“You are very religious” (17:20-22)
Paul now stands before the Areopagus and the council asks him to speak. “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” the Areopagus asks, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean” (17:20).
What Paul does in his speech is to point out the weaknesses of popular idolatry. But he does this by relying on the insights of Greek philosophers to show that some pagans have an understanding of God that contradicts idolatry. However, Paul then points out that the philosophers don’t go far enough. Here Paul introduces a new understanding of God and his purpose, and calls on his listeners to abandon their ignorance, and to repent.
Paul immediately takes the side of his listeners by saying, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious” (17:22). Other people in antiquity are also impressed by the devoutness of the Athenians (Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.17.1; Strabo, Geography 9.1.16; Livy, History 45.27). Josephus says the Athenians are considered to be “the most religious” (Against Apion 2.130).
Paul doesn’t accuse the Athenians of idolatry or any sin, but acknowledges their interest in the divine. Paul builds on their piety, he doesn’t condemn it. Privately, of course, he is very distressed by the fact that their worship is directed toward idols (17:16). The word for “religious” used here is ambiguous. It can mean either “superstitious” or “devout.” “Perhaps Paul deliberately chose the word with kindly ambiguity so as not to offend his hearers while, at the same time, expressing to his own satisfaction what he thought of their religion” (Williams, 304).
“To an unknown god” (17:23)
Paul next refers to an ignorance of the divine that the Athenians themselves admit. He says, “As I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscriptions: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship — and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (17:23).
We should notice a few things about the way Paul is approaching his “defense” before the Areopagus. First, he is not yet directly challenging their idolatry. Since the Athenians admit that they don’t know who or what this God is (since he is “unknown”), they are in no position to deny his nature as Paul explains it. Also, Paul is not attacking their gods and leaving himself open to a charge of atheism. The God he is speaking of is a “new” one.
Second, Paul does not use anything from the Jewish Scriptures in his speech. Paul is not trying to prove that Jesus is the Messiah — that would be meaningless for a council whose members were probably followers of the major philosophies of the day.
Paul does not begin his address by referring to Jewish history or by quoting Jewish Scriptures…He knew it would be futile to refer to a history no one knew or argue from fulfillment of prophecy no one was interested in or quote from a book no one read or accepted as authoritative. (Longenecker, 475)
Third, this is an excellent example of Paul’s willingness to “become all things to all people” in order to preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:22). To those like the pagan Athenian council members — “those not having the law” — Paul “became like one not having the law” to win them over to Christ (verse 21). The speech is a wonderful specimen of Paul’s approach to preaching to pagan Gentiles. The other example, of which Luke gave us a much briefer summary, we have already seen (in 14:15-17).
As to the actual altar, “To an Unknown God,” we have no direct evidence. However, we know from ancient writers that the Athenians have a penchant for setting up altars to unknown deities. Pausanias, the Greek traveler and geographer who lives around A.D. 150, mentions that there are “altars of gods both named and unknown” near Athens (Description of Greece 1.1.4).
God made the world (17:24)
Paul’s next point is to establish that “the God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth” (17:24). Paul is telling the Athenians that God is Creator — the maker of all things, not one who can be created by human works. God is not detached from his creation, and the world did not come to exist by chance, but by design. Paul points out that God guides human history. Here he contradicts the beliefs of some philosophers. He appeals to the Athenians’ experience of the creation around them as something that reveals God.
It is said that there are two books about God — the Bible and nature itself. The latter is said to be the basis of a “natural theology,” and that is where Paul begins to explain who God is to these pagans.
In reasoning from the natural world toward faith in God, Luke’s Paul borders upon a “natural theology” — our observation of the natural world and its wonders as a forerunner of faith. How can people look up at the stars or ponder the mysteries of the world without imagining a real, though still unknown, divine force behind it all? (William H. Willimon, Acts [Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1988], 143)
Jews already believe in the one true God, and in Scripture, so when Paul speaks to Jews, he begins with “revealed theology” — that is, the statements of Moses, David and the prophets. He tries to convince them that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptural requirements of the Messiah (Luke 24:27).
Of course, what Paul says about God as Creator is a major focus of Scripture as well (Isaiah 40:28; 42:5; 45:12). The Hebrew Scriptures provided plenty of ammunition to proclaim God’s sovereignty through the creation. But to persuade this audience in Athens, he cites examples and writings that are accepted by Greek philosophers. When the gospel is presented to pagans it is necessary to first establish who the one true God is. Paul claims that this God’s existence can be glimpsed by rightly understanding the creation (Romans 1:19-22).
The Athenians would first have to turn to God from idols before they can appreciate his saving work in Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:9). That is what Paul is driving at here, and the better part of his speech continues to be concerned with knowing God.
Does not live in temples (17:24-25)
The true God, said Paul, “does not live in temples built by human hands” (17:24). Stephen made the same statement in a Jewish context (7:48-50). Subtly, both the Jewish temple and pagan temples are placed in the same category. Neither in Jerusalem’s holy place — nor in any other holy place — will people truly find and worship God. Bruce writes, “If even the shrine at Jerusalem, erected for the worship of the true God, could not contain him, how much less the splendid shrines on the Athenian Acropolis, dedicated as they were to divinities that had no real existence!” (336)
But even here, Paul is not in conflict with the philosophers of the Areopagus. Stoic philosophers accept the premise that God (or the gods) is bigger than the temple. Bruce quotes a fragment from Euripides, who says, “What house built by craftsmen could enclose the form divine within enfolding walls?” (ibid.).
Paul continues by saying that “God is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (17:25). God needs nothing from us. It is we who need everything from God — even life and breath. This is something that even many pagans understand, so Paul is still on common ground here. The principle that God is self-sufficient is also basic Hebrew biblical theology (Psalm 50:7-15; 1 Chronicles 29:14). So we can see that as Paul speaks, he is continuing to run on parallel tracks between the Scriptures and the thoughts of the philosophers.
From one man made nations (17:26)
Paul next appeals to the idea that our common humanity has a single source, by which he means the one true God. “From one man he [God] made all the nations,” said Paul, “…he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands” (17:26). Presumably, Paul is alluding to the Genesis story of Adam as the first human (1 Corinthians 15:45) and the scattering during the building of the tower of Babel. Paul is veering a bit from common pagan speculation and might not be on the same page as the Areopagus philosophers.
They might ask, Who was that man? Didn’t the Athenians spring from the sacred ground of Attica? Is Paul implying that God determined Athens’ prominence in the world, and now its relative insignificance as well?
Paul may be attacking the smugness of the Athenians, who still think of themselves as a great cultural force in the world. He is saying that people shouldn’t think of themselves as racially superior. Their worldly station depends on God’s will, as Nebuchadnezzar discovered (Daniel 4:32).
He is not far from us (17:27)
Paul insists that God has a purpose in allowing the rise and fall of nations, and their geographical placement. “God did this so that they would seek him,” says Paul, “and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (17:27). Here again, Paul can be interpreted in two ways. The philosophers, Stoics for example, might think Paul is referring to the philosophical search for the truth.
What Paul means is that people should respond to the longing in their inner being and search for the one true God (Psalm 14:2; Proverbs 8:17; Isaiah 55:6-7; Jeremiah 29:13). The Hebrew Scriptures promise that, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18). Paul is saying, with the prophets, that God is nearby, not far away (Jeremiah 23:23) — and he wants to be discovered.
In him we live and move (17:28)
Paul wants to bolster his point that there is a relationship between humanity and God — that God wants to be sought and found in a particular way. Paul does this by quoting some pagan poet-philosophers. Paul says: “‘For in him [God] we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (17:28). There is some difficulty in knowing whether Paul is quoting the phrase “in him we live and move and have our being.” However, its equivalent is found in an ancient poem, Cretica, attributed to the Cretan poet Epimenides, who lived around 600 B.C. In this poem, Minos says this about Zeus:
They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one —
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead; thou livest and abidest for ever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.
The phrase, “We are his offspring,” is found in more than one poet. (Paul’s use of the plural “poets” may refer to this fact.) It is in a work by the Cilician poet (Paul is from Tarsus in Cilicia) Aratus (c. 315-240 B.C.), the Phainomena. The poem praises Zeus, and opens with these words:
Let us begin with Zeus. Never, O men, let us leave him unmentioned. All the ways are full of Zeus, and all the market-places of human beings. The sea is full of him; so are the harbors. In every way we have all to do with Zeus, for we are truly his offspring.
The phrase is also part of a poem by Cleanthes (331-233 B.C.), Hymn to Zeus, in a slightly different form. The first few lines are:
O God most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature’s great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by thy just decree
Controllest all, hail, Zeus, for unto thee
Behooves thy creatures in all lands to call.
We are thy children, we alone of all…
Paul has no problem in quoting material or ideas that were produced by pagans in honor of gods such as Zeus. He takes the principle — in this case, thoughts about the nature of God and humanity’s relationship to him — and applies it to the one true God.
By such maxims, Paul is not suggesting that God is to be thought of in terms of the Zeus of Greek polytheism, or Stoic pantheism. He is rather arguing that the poets his hearers recognized as authorities have to some extent corroborated his message. In his search for a measure of common ground with his hearers, he is, so to speak, disinfecting and rebaptizing the poets’ words for his own purposes. (Longenecker, 476)
Paul’s speech, as we shall see at its end, is thoroughly gospel-oriented and biblical in content. He simply cites pagan authorities in the same way he cites the giants of Scripture, such as Moses or David, to prove his point about God’s purpose in Jesus.
Paul doesn’t condemn the poets for groping after some understanding of God in a darkened world. He recognizes the common longing of humanity to connect with God. What Paul does in this speech is begin with the knowledge the philosophers and poets have. He uses it to help his hearers leap over their ignorance, and into the truth of God’s purpose in Christ.
Paul’s allusions to pagan worship and the thoughts of the philosophers are simple points of contact with his hearers. What the poets say about Zeus may have been correct, but only when applied to the one true God. In his speech, Paul seeks to make the proper shift.
God is not like the idol (17:29-30)
Paul now makes his concluding remarks about idolatry: “Since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone” (17:29). Paul is hitting closer to home now. Even the highly educated officials of the Areopagus must have some attachment to the gods, though perhaps not in the same way as the masses.
Paul next labels idolatry for what it is: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (17:30). Peter applied this same theme of excused ignorance to the Jews who rejected Jesus (3:17). Johnson writes, “It is of fundamental significance that they [the Gentiles] are called from where they began, just as were the Jews. Their ‘times of ignorance’ are not treated any differently than the ‘ignorance’ that excused the first rejection of Jesus the Prophet by the Jewish people” (319).
Paul notes that God patiently tolerated human ignorance in ages past (Romans 3:25). In Lystra, Paul says that God “let all nations go their own way” (14:16). While God “overlooks” sin, there is also retribution for people who suppress the truth about his eternal power and divine nature — he lets sin have its natural results (Romans 1:18-32).
But times have changed; a new beginning in God’s dealing with the human race has begun. Forgiveness for sin and intimate contact with God through the Holy Spirit is possible. Repentance and acceptance of Jesus as Savior is commanded. The days of groping in the dark and spiritual ignorance are over. The day of repentance is here and the time of judgment is coming.
Paul now warns the Areopagus that his speech is not idle philosophical speculation. His call to repentance is serious because God “has set a day when he will judge the world with justice” (17:31). (The quote is from Psalm 96:13.) The New Testament makes clear in many places that a “day of judgment” is coming. The offer of salvation in Christ is counterpoised with the warning of judgment for those who reject him. (See the following scriptures where the judgment is discussed: Luke 10:12-15; 12:42-48; Romans 2:5-11, 16; 1 Corinthians 1:7-8; 1 Thessalonians 5:2-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10; 2 Peter 3:10-13.)
Proof of resurrection (17:31)
Paul is near the end of his speech. He focuses on Christ, him crucified and resurrected. Paul insists that God will judge the world by “the man he has appointed” (17:31) — referring to Jesus, but not mentioning his name. Jesus has been given all power in heaven and earth. This reality is proven, insists Paul, in the fact that God raised him from the dead (17:31). As Paul tells the Romans, Jesus “was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (1:4).
Paul has come a long way from his introduction, arriving at the essence of the gospel — the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the words of William Barclay, “It is no unknown God but a Risen Christ with whom we have to deal” (132).
Up to this point, Paul has been attempting to demonstrate God’s existence, sovereignty and purpose by the “around” — by things that can be seen. The philosophers might argue about the meaning of nature, but they certainly cannot argue against the fact of its existence. Now, Paul asserts that a human being — Jesus — has been raised from the dead. He is insisting on something contrary to the philosophers’ observation of the way the world works. It is also contrary to the views of the popular philosophies of the day.
“In mentioning the resurrection, Paul risks rejection by his audience. They may agree to a created world and to our common humanity, but there is no possible ‘natural theology’ evidence for an assertion of the resurrection” (Willimon, 144).
Some sneer (17:32-34)
Luke describes the generally negative reaction to Paul’s teaching: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject’” (17:32). Greeks believe in the immortality of the soul, but the idea of a person being bodily resurrected from death seems absurd. As it turns out, the resurrection as well as the cross seems like foolishness to the leaders of Athens.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in 1995 and updated in 2012. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
In the later part of his speech, Paul has moved from repentance to judgment to the resurrection of Jesus to the return of Christ. Most of his hearers got lost along the way.
The idea of resurrection of dead people was uncongenial to the minds of most of Paul’s Athenian hearers….they would have endorsed the sentiments of the god Apollo, expressed on the occasion when that very court of the Areopagus was founded by the city’s patron goddess Athene: “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.” (Bruce, 343)
Part of the Athenian leaders reject Paul’s teaching completely — and with open ridicule. Others, perhaps more curious, speak of hearing his theories at a later date. More than likely, however, they are merely politely dismissing Paul. (At least, no charges are brought against him.) Only a few believe Paul’s message and the gospel. Luke says “Some of the people became followers of Paul” (17:34). He mentions Dionysius by name, a member of the Areopagus, and a woman, Damaris.
Paul’s work in Athens ends on an anti-climactic note. The New Testament does not mention any church in the city. By contrast, the gospel will receive a strong acceptance in Corinth. This rather dismal experience in Athens may cause Paul to wonder whether any method of preaching the gospel could reach the educated of the pagan world. He later tells the Corinthians that “the world through its wisdom did not know” God (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Paul may even decide to stop using philosophical arguments to persuade pagans. He tells the Corinthians that he “did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom” when preaching the gospel to them (2:1). Paul simply tells them about “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2).