Paul departed from Berea at the request of the brethren due to the problems stirred up by the Jews of Thessalonica. Sending some of their own to show the way, they brought him to Athens. Then, Paul sends them back with direction to Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible, Acts 17. 13-15.
The Acropolis was a structure that had long been a citadel upon one of the hills of Athens. For the last six centuries, however, it had been of more cultural and religious significance. The top architects and sculptors of the day had transformed it into ‘a unique complex which heralded the emergence of classical Greek thought and art’.1 A network of temples and religious monuments had grown up over the area. According to UNESCO, ‘On this hill were born Democracy, Philosophy, Theatre, Freedom of Expression and Speech, which provide to this day the intellectual and spiritual foundation for the contemporary world and its values’.2 It was a place to stir the human heart and it did Paul’s. Not, however, because he marvelled at this centre of man’s achievement, but because in it all ‘he saw the city wholly given to idolatry’, v. 16. Do we view the world around us through the eyes of God or with enthusiasm for man?
Paul later condemned the men of Athens as being ‘too superstitious’, even having an altar ‘TO THE UNKNOWN GOD’, vv. 22, 23. Such a scene could not but cause his spirit to be ‘stirred in him’, v. 16, and he began to dispute (reason) with all who would listen, whether in the synagogue or the marketplace, v. 17. When was the last time we were so moved by the plight of those we live among, that we reached out to reason of ‘Jesus, and the resurrection’, v. 18?
Such activity aroused interest in a city - where much of the population ‘spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing’, v. 21. Some poured scorn, calling him a ‘babbler’, meaning one who had picked up scraps of knowledge and pretended thus to be a teacher. Others recognized the religious nature of what he said.
Slightly west of the Acropolis was the Areopagus, ‘the highest and most ancient and venerable court of justice in Athens for moral and political matters’.3 According to Barnes, this court, among other things, was ‘especially attentive to blasphemies against the gods’.4 ‘No place in Athens was so suitable for a discourse on the mysteries of religion’5 and it was to this group of esteemed men that the philosophers of Athens brought Paul.
His audience was made up of two main schools of thought, ‘the Epicureans, and … the Stoicks’, v. 18. The Epicureans were materialists who believed that pleasure was the end and aim of life. Although Epicurus would teach that ‘we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal … we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul’,6 it is easy to see how, when combined with no belief in God and an afterlife, men could use this teaching to justify all kinds of licence. The Stoicks were fatalists, believing that the highest virtue was to remain unmoved by all external changes and circumstances and they ‘speculated about ultimate problems only for the practical purpose of discovering a rule of life and conduct’.7 ‘They were stern in their views of virtue, and, like the Pharisees, prided themselves on their own righteousness’.8 Howson sums up the audience thus, ‘The two enemies it [the gospel] has ever had to contend with are the two ruling principles of the Epicureans and Stoics - Pleasure and Pride’.9
Paul is an example of the exhortation of Peter to ‘be ready always to give an answer’, 1 Pet. 3. 15, and of the Lord’s encouragement that, ‘when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak’, Matt. 10. 19. The years of preparation and study could be taken up by the Spirit of God in a message that answered the core doctrines of his audience. Are our hearts and minds laying up a store that God can use?
The unfolding of truth Paul gives is unusual among the ‘sermons’ recorded in Acts, for it doesn’t quote scripture. However, as Riddle comments, ‘While Paul does not quote the scriptures, he is absolutely scriptural: he begins with God the Creator of all, and ends with God the Judge of all’.10 The only quotation is from their own poets, v. 28, as Paul finds something with which to connect with his audience. While the message of the gospel does not change, we do need to consider whether the way it is communicated will aid the understanding of our audience.
Fundamental to their acceptance of the gospel is their understanding of God. Do we ever consider what those we speak to understand when they hear the word ‘God’? Using the altar ‘TO THE UNKNOWN GOD’ as a springboard, Paul presents God as:
The mention of the resurrection of the dead, v. 31, was a step too far. The implication that there is more than the material and a deity before whom they would be held accountable was too much for Epicurean and Stoick alike. It is in the truths of the resurrection and accountability, that men’s prejudices are challenged, for, if true, then all thought that man and his works are the chief end are destroyed. Pleasure must be within the bounds of God’s standards and ultimately found in Him; pride has no place before the self-existent, self-sufficient God. The majority responded with derision or delay; only a few believed. The apostle was to write later that ‘not many wise men after the flesh … are called’, 1 Cor. 1. 26, and it is of note that we never read of a church being established in this seat of human achievement and wisdom.
Corinth had been destroyed around 148 BC, but by this time it was a thriving Roman colony, having been rebuilt by Julius Caesar around 48 BC. Commerce thrived due to its location between the Ionian and Aegean seas, and it was cosmopolitan in population but corrupt in morals. High on the Acrocorinthus stood the temple to Venus, the centre of immorality. Such was its reputation that ‘“To Corinthianize” was proverbial for playing the wanton’.11And yet, in contrast to Athens, there would come a time when Paul could write ‘unto the church of God which is at Corinth’, v. 2; ‘there was something pure in an impure place’.12The preaching of the cross was seen through the salvation of many to be ‘the power of God’, v. 18. Do we stand before our generation in the same attitude as the apostle, 2. 1?
Having been alone in Athens, it must have been a delight to have fellowship with Aquila and Priscilla, Acts 18. 2. In Athens, he spent the days disputing in the marketplace, but here, apart from the sabbath, he toiled at tentmaking. It is good to remember that work is God-given and that, while there may be times of being fully given to the preaching and teaching of the word of God, God may bring us back again to ‘normal’ employment. Paul could later see the wisdom of God in this, 2 Cor. 11. 9. We must ever be open to the Lord’s guidance in our employment and service.
In Athens, Paul had been stirred -provoked - in spirit. Now he was pressed - constrained - in spirit as he sought to persuade the Jews that ‘Jesus was Christ’, Acts 18. 5. Once again, the majority of the Jews ‘opposed themselves, and blasphemed’, so that Paul declared that he would ‘from henceforth … go unto the Gentiles’, v. 6. In His sovereignty, however, God saves ‘Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue’, v. 8, an event which impacts the city for, ‘many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized’. Paul, having come from the barrenness of the intellectual and religious city of Athens, then receives God’s promise that He is with him and has ‘much people in this city’, v. 10.
Paul remains in Corinth for eighteen months during which time the Jews tried to silence him, vv. 12-17. However, the Jews were no favourite of the Greeks, so they were silenced by the deputy. It is good to remember that ‘The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will’, Prov. 21. 1. God had many people in the city and He used the local leader to silence the opposition.
Paul eventually left Corinth in company with Priscilla and Aquila and sought to return to Antioch via Jerusalem in order to complete the rites associated with the vow he had taken, Acts 18. 18-21. He stopped briefly in Ephesus, where he met with an unusually positive response in the synagogue, in that they desired him to stay longer. As the servant of God should do, he committed his future return to the will of God and left the couple who had faithfully served alongside him to continue the witness in Ephesus and, when he arrived at Caesarea, he went up to salute the church at Jerusalem before returning to Antioch.
What a report he had to tell of the Lord’s direction, faithfulness, and power. As we have traced something of the trials and triumphs of these three years, may we be challenged by Paul’s devotion and endurance, and encouraged by the Lord’s ability to save souls and build His church in the most unlikely of places.
Acropolis, Athens - UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
Acropolis, Athens - UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
George, A. Morrish, A Concise Bible Dictionary, Kingston Bible Trust, pg. 68.
Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword resource.
R. Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and D. Brown, Whole Bible Commentary, e-Sword resource.
Geoffrey Bromiley, International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, e-Sword resource.
Albert Barnes, op.cit..
Quoted in R. Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and D. Brown, op. cit.
J. M. Riddle, The Acts of the Apostles, John Ritchie Ltd, pg. 282.
A. R. Fausset, Fausset’s Bible Dictionary, e-Sword resource.
J. M. Riddle, op. cit., pg. 287.