During the days of the apostle Paul there were a number of prominent cities, as far as Bible history is concerned. There was Rome, the city of power. Jerusalem, the city of religion; the great Jewish temple, the seat of Jewish worship and their great feasts. Athens, "the eye of Greece," the mother of arts and eloquence. This noted city was founded by Cecrops when Moses was about 25 years old. The city was named for Athens, Greek goddess of wisdom. A city filled with memories of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, and others. Here was the Acropolis, the highest specimen of Grecian art. Located here was the Academy of Plato, the Lyceum of Aristotle, the Porch of Zeno, the Garden of Epicurus and the Areopagus, where the Athenian supreme court met. In addition there was the Parthenon, the most beautiful of all the temples among the heathens.
In that ancient world there were two distinct varieties of civilization, which had reached their culmination in the days of the apostles. One was the result of human philosophy Athens. The other was the result of divine revelation Jerusalem. If we compare them with respect either to the moral character of the peoples under their influence respectively, or with reference to their preparation for receiving the teaching of and about Jesus Christ, the advantage was much in favor of Jerusalem.
Athens was entirely different from any city that Paul had ever visited or would visit. It was the center of art for the world, but it was art that was chiefly devoted to the idolatries of Greek mythology. The people, as well as the arts, were deeply steeped in Greek paganism. Into this great city came the Apostle Paul on his third preaching journey (Acts 17: 13-15).
First, Acts 17:16 tells us that Paul's "spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols." He beheld paganism at its height. Petronius, a Roman, said: "It is easier to find a god than a man in Athens." Another writer said that Athens had more images than all the rest of Greece put together. In the Agora every god of the Olympus found a place. Every public building was at the same time a sanctuary that was dedicated to one or more gods. Besides the ordinary gods, there were the gods of Fame, Modesty, Energy, Persuasion, Love, and hundreds of others.
Second, Paul saw a city that was lost. Paul was not there to visit Athens and see the sights. Paul's interest was wholly in lost souls. Never had he visited a city that needed the one true God more than Athens. No doubt he could visualize the power of the gospel in their hearts (Rom. 1:16-17). On the other hand he could see their rejection of the gospel and contemplate with horror their doom (2 Thess. 1:7-9).
Somewhere I read the story of three men who stood admiring a great western mountain. One, an artist, exclaimed: "What a picture that would make." One, a prospector, "Wonder if there is gold there." The third, a preacher, was reminded of other mountains, where the Law of Moses was given; another where Abraham offered Isaac; another was Elijah on Mt. Carmel; and Moses on Mt. Nebo. "As a man thinks in his heart so is he".
Third, Paul, as a Christian, looked upon a city needing Jesus Christ. Paul was in no way impressed by the philosophic show in this central seat of philosophic cults. The hollowness of it all impressed him as nothing of this sort had ever done before. Since it was all new to him, Paul inspected this famous city on his First few days there. Since he was alone in a Gentile city, it appears that he intended to wait for Silas and Timothy before undertaking any special preaching effort.
First, he saw men bowing and praying to gods that could not hear, see, or act! They were as useless and unreal as the god of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18}. His spirit was provoked within him; stirred with sharp indignation. No doubt he felt sorry for them in their ignorance as he did for his own Jewish brethren, as expressed in Rom. 10:1-3: "Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God's righteousness [the way that God makes men righteous], and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God." These Greeks had no knowledge of the one, true and living God. Probably Paul felt for them as Jesus felt for the inhabitants of Jerusalem: "0 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wing, and you were unwilling" (Matt. 23:37). Luke tells us that when Jesus approached Jerusalem "He saw the city and wept over it..." (Luke 19:41).
Second, Paul did not become accustomed to or accept this tragic evil as most people do in our day. He knew that such ignorance is not overlooked by God and condemnation would come to them unless they learn of the one true God, believe in Him, and accept His Son as the Savior. Paul will state clearly in his speech to them: "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent" [change their ways] (Acts 17:30). He was very concerned about their eternal destiny. Even though he was a stranger, he was not awed into silence by the magnificence which had fortified itself in the city.
What about you and me? Confronted with the same sort of situation today, what do we do? Look at the multitude of denominations, all from the will and wisdom of men, with all the false and contradictory doctrines and false worship. Do we oppose these human organizations that have set themselves up as "the way to God"? Churches, denominations, of whatever brand are from men, as were the idols in Athens. They are not from God! In the USA, idolatry is increasing. The works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-20) abound today. The increasing acceptance of such sinful practices as homosexuality, lesbianism, sorcery, immorality, and such like are all on the increase. Athens was a city wholly without knowledge of the one and only true God; a city of people who were lost in sin and would be lost eternally in hell.
We are confronted with the same kind of situation today. Does it "stir" us to reach out and seek to preach the message of salvation through Jesus Christ?
First, he could have reasoned: 1) "One religion is as good as another" so let them alone. 2) "Every man has the right to his own belief," so why bother them? 3) "We are all headed for the same place, we are just going different ways, so they will be all right! 4) "This is a hopeless place, they won't listen, so why try?" 5) "Better wait for Timothy and Silas so I will have some support." 6) "This place is right for a campaign; I'll go back to Jerusalem, get a sponsoring church and come back with a lot of personal workers to help me." You know that no such things ever crossed his mind or that of any other apostle or God-sent preacher.
Second, what he did was he went to work seeking an opportunity to preach to them. Acts 17:17 says: "So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be present". Being a Jew, he tried preaching in the synagogue first. He shared a common background with them. He "'reasoned" with the Jews and those worshiping. Evidently he accomplished nothing with them; he met with failure judging by the lack of evidence otherwise. It appears that even these Jews and proselytes were completely under the spell of the gilded iniquity around them.
Third, in the marketplace he found some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who were willing to converse with him. This was the Athenian Agora, a public meeting place for philosophers and their following, for idlers, and persons of leisure, a place of conversation, discussion, as well as business.
The Epicureans were followers of Epicurus. They were pagan and atheistic. They even mocked at the popular mythology of the day, but offered nothing better. Their view of the soul (person) was materialistic; that is, at death it dissolved and dissipated into elements thus ending forever the existence of man. They held that life was not regulated by higher moral or spiritual interests; but that its highest aim was gratification of every passion and lust that best satisfied. This was ancient Hedonism, such as is spreading in the world today.
The Stoics were pantheists. In their view "god" was merely the spirit of reason in the universe. The "soul" was totally material; and at death it was absorbed into a god. Their moral code was higher than that of the Epicureans, their idea being that they should ignore both pleasure and sorrow, to be indifferent to both. Pleasure was no good, pain no evil. Reason was the supreme guide. It was a philosophy of human pride.
Both groups joined in questioning Paul. He stood alone in the midst of this unbelieving, hostile environment.
Fourth, there were various views concerning Paul and his teaching. Verse 18 tells us that "...some of the Epicureans and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, 'What would this idle babbler wish to say?'" Some spoke of Paul as a "babbler" or "seedpicker", meaning that what he was saying amounted to nothing.
Others said of Paul that "He seems to be a proclaimer of strange ['foreign"] deities [demons, or some inferior pagan deity], because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection." They called it "foreign" because they were not known in Athens. Luke explains what this opinion was based upon: "... because he preached Jesus and the resurrection." They thought of "the resurrection" as a divinity or deity. The Athenians personified and worshiped as deities all sorts of abstract virtues and truths, such as love, joy, peace, etc.
Luke describes the result of Paul's discussions to show what a task the apostle was facing, and how hard it was even to make these lovers of philosophy and learning really understand what Paul meant. It is still so even till this day. Science, falsely so-called, often beclouds the intellect to such an extent that spiritual verities are not even intellectually understood, to say nothing of being accepted.
These Epicureans and Stoics took Paul and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean."
They took Paul to the Areopagus (Hill of Mars). This was the place where the supreme council of Athens met. Politely they ask whether they may know this "new" teaching. They went to this place so all could hear and perhaps for the purpose of letting members of the Areopagus hear also. The informal character of the proceedings shows that it was not the Court that had summoned Paul, but merely that the philosophers who wished to have a quiet hearing chose this place for the purpose.
Luke then describes an outstanding characteristic of the Athenians so that we may value this invitation properly. If the Athenians had time for nothing else they always had plenty of it for anything "new," anything just out and thus newer than what they had heard thus far. They were interested in the "latest" news or happening. This tended to make them exceedingly superficial. They might welcome the gospel but only as something new and only for an hour. When something newer came along, they could cast it aside as being old or obsolete. Our world today has multitudes of "religious Athenians"! (Part Two in next issue.) - CAH