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The Spreading Flame - Series 5: Episode 4

Paul preaches in Athens

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 17:16-34

Paul is alone in Athens. He engages with the Jews in the synagogue and the Epicureans and Stoics in the marketplace. He introduces them to new ideas about God, the afterlife and Jesus.

Paul is alone in Athens. He engages with the Jews in the synagogue and the Epicureans and Stoics in the marketplace. He introduces them to new ideas about God, the afterlife and Jesus.


Hello, and welcome to Series 5 Episode 4. Thanks for coming back. If you have been listening to Series 5 or the whole of this teaching on the book of Acts, you will know that Luke’s story from the beginning is taking the Gospel from one place to another, further and further away from the starting point - Jerusalem. We have got that single thread that goes through the whole story.

Background and Introduction

As we come to this series, we come to a point where the Gospel has moved into the European continent. It has moved from what we would call Turkey, to Greece. In the early episodes, we’ve seen some dramatic encounters that Paul has with people in cities in the northern part of this country known as Macedonia. We’ve seen him in Philippi, Thessalonica and in Berea. Some very dramatic things have happened - amazing conversions and some serious opposition. Paul has had to leave various cities in a hurry.

If you listened to the last episode, you will remember that some Jewish people came into the city of Berea to stir up trouble and get Paul removed from the city. He decided that he needed to leave in a hurry and we left the story at a very interesting point in the last episode. Acts 17:15,

15 Those who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

Acts 17:15, NIV

His central team was Silas, Timothy and himself. In the city of Berea in Macedonia, the team divided, two of them stayed to help the new church that was just starting there but they didn’t feel it was safe for Paul to stay in the city. So, they escorted him out of the city and it says in this verse, that they took him all the way to Athens. By road, that is approximately 450 kilometres south. Paul is being separated from his team by a huge distance. He has travelled a long way to a major capital city and now when he is in Athens he is further away from home than he has ever been in his mission. It would have taken him several weeks by road to get back to his base in Antioch in northern Syria, and it would have taken him quite a number of days travelling by sea. He was miles and miles away from home. It was a risky moment for Paul.

Paul in Athens

For some reason, that is not explained in the text, he decided he wanted to go to the city of Athens. It appears that he is on his own at this particular point, which is very unusual for Paul and he wanted to be re-joined to his team as soon as possible. That is why he left instructions that they should come as soon as they had finished the work of settling the church in Berea. They needed to come down to Athens as well, to join him. In the meantime, on his own, here he is in this major capital city. What does Paul do, totally on his own, in a major capital city? Acts 17:16 - 21,

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Acts 17:16-21, NIV

Let’s think for a moment about where Paul is. He is in this amazing city, Athens, which was the capital city of the Greek Empire before the Roman Empire spread across parts of the eastern Mediterranean. It is a very powerful city at the centre of an empire and also the centre of culture and ideas, the arts and architecture, and religion for Greek society. It is still a very important city. It had been ruled by the Romans for many years by now but Greek culture was very strong. This was the centre of Greek culture, the place where the philosophers Plato, Aristotle and Socrates taught and worked. In the middle of the city of Athens was a famous hill - the Acropolis. Everybody in the city looked up to this hill on which was a huge temple known as the Parthenon, and the ruins of that temple are there to this day, as a tourist site. Here the Athenians worshipped their local god - the goddess Athena - the goddess of wisdom and warfare. It was a very religious city, Paul saw temples and shrines, statues, and many idols in the city. This was a place where people loved to come who were interested in culture and ideas. Philosophers, study groups and an ancient university were there. This was a cultural centre - a very different city to some of the cities that Paul had been in, for example, in Macedonia.

Athenian Religion

He noticed it was full of idols. These would have been in three different locations. You have the temples in any ancient Greek or Roman city, such as the Parthenon and other temples to particular local gods but you also find shrines on the streets of these cities, along the side of the road as you would find today, for example, in India with Hindu deities marked in different locations in villages and on the roads. The ancient Greeks and Romans had shrines in their cities to local gods, or one of the great gods. There were the shrines and temples and also in many houses, there were household gods. There was maybe a shelf or a place in the wall, where there would be a little shrine in the house, and each family would have a place of devotion to particular gods. Athens is described as full of these shrines, statues and places of devotion to a whole multitude of different gods because there were many gods in their religion.

Paul was concerned and he wanted to start preaching. Paul has an amazing personality. Whatever circumstances he is in, he never gives up. He seems never to be overcome by difficult circumstances. We found him not so long ago in a jail in Philippi, having been beaten and at midnight he and Silas were singing praises to God and all the prisoners were awake listening to them.

Paul’s Points of Contact

Now, he is totally on his own in a city he has probably never been to before, with a huge, spiritual culture which is totally contrary to the Christian faith. Rather than say, “I’ll wait quietly for a few weeks and hope that my friends turn up from Berea,” he gets moving, speaking, and he chooses, as always, to go to the synagogue first. We have seen this again and again. He chooses his obvious point of contact. There was a Jewish community in Athens. He went to the synagogue and he reasoned with them, he debated with them, in the same way that he had done in all the other cities that I’ve described on several occasions.

But then he wanted to go beyond the synagogue. The place to meet people in an ancient city, like many cities today, and perhaps where you live this is true, is the marketplace. That’s the central point of activity - the place of trade, discussion and gossip, meeting and family reunions, and doing deals. That is where Paul went and spoke to anybody he could find. But being Athens, the sort of people you find in the marketplace are not just traders. He actually discovered groups of thinkers or philosophers there because these people were everywhere in Athens, it was a cultural centre and many people gathered and there were discussion groups. There were probably discussion groups going on in little cafés on the side of the street in the marketplace. Paul just found his way into these discussion groups and he got in with groups of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

The Epicureans believed that we need to seek self-fulfilment, we need to pursue pleasure. They doubted whether the Greek gods actually existed at all. Maybe you’re familiar with some of those ideas in your culture. The Stoics spoke much more about virtue and moral good. They said, “You’re never really going to be happy unless you’ve got a moral goal that you follow and then as you follow it you find fulfilment.” They weren’t sure about the Greek gods either. They believed that god was in everything, in the whole creation; they were pantheists. Paul talked with these people. Isn’t it amazing? He has found his way in: he has got into the synagogue; he is talking to the traders in the marketplace, to the Epicurean philosophers, to the Stoic philosophers; and he’s causing a bit of a sensation. He is talking about Jesus. He is bringing something new that they hadn’t heard of before. There was no known church here, no known believers in Athens at this time. Paul didn’t find any believers. He didn’t find a church there. These people, once they got talking to him for a bit, had an idea. In Athens, there was a unique facility and resource up near the Acropolis on the hill, just a little bit lower down in the same area of the city, a place called the Areopagus. The Areopagus was also the name of a legal court that met in that location. But the court was also a place for discussion of ideas. They would have formal sessions where they dealt with legal issues and also more informal sessions, a bit like debating chambers or discussion societies. They would talk about ideas because, as Luke says, the Athenians loved to talk about ideas. They said to Paul, “Come to the Areopagus. Let’s have a bigger discussion. Why don’t you talk to a wider audience? This sounds all very interesting. We’ve never heard of a religion quite like what you’re talking about. We’ve never heard of this Jesus Christ; we’ve never heard of this crucifixion. This idea of resurrection, that’s a new idea to us.”

Paul Speaks at the Areopagus

So, Paul spoke to the Areopagus. You can imagine more people have been drawn in. Paul is getting a following of people now. He is getting an opportunity to speak into the culture of Athens and yet, he is all alone. There is still nobody there with him. It is a risky strategy because he loves to work in teams but he made a speech to the Areopagus, and Luke captures the highlights of this very remarkable speech. Acts 17:22 - 31,

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you’re ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth, and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 29 Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he’ll judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17:22-31, NIV

This is a very different message to what Paul is recorded as speaking in other contexts. His messages are always related to the audience and the context. He starts with the situation of the Athenians - their religious culture and their felt need, their difficulty in feeling that their worship was wholly profitable and successful. He describes this by mentioning a shrine, that they would all know, on one of the streets nearby, which says ‘To an Unknown God’. This shrine indicated that the Athenians were still looking for the divine reality, willing to worship a god they had not yet found. Paul used this idea to start a discussion. He points out that there is one single God who made the world and everything in it, verse 24. This idea is a fundamental challenge to many people in the world today, as it was to the ancient Greeks and Romans who believed in many gods. The idea of the single God is one of the pathways into Christian belief. There were many Greek gods in the Greek religion, which the Romans took over and incorporated and amalgamated with their own religion and it became one network of ideas. There were many gods but the Greeks didn’t believe that any of their gods had existed forever - none of them.

Their mythology described the world starting through a force, which they described as Chaos. This force created the earth, which they called Gaia and the earth then formed the sky - Uranus. The sky made the earth pregnant, in their mythology, and from the pregnant earth came the Greek gods, starting with Zeus, the great god. At the very beginning, there is a force called Chaos, not even a personal being, something very vague. The gods they had in their temples, they knew were not eternal and were not all powerful. They also had the view that these gods had limited and often regional power, or power related to a particular area of human life, like their local goddess, Athena. Athena had the power to give wisdom and to give success in warfare but didn’t have powers in other areas. Paul challenges this belief in many gods by saying, there is only one, eternal God, who actually made the world and everything in it. When he says that, it is a complete contradiction of their own mythology, which says that some force called Chaos made the earth, and it’s the earth that made the gods. Paul said, “No, it’s the one true God who made the earth.”

He is introducing a whole new way of thinking. Then he introduces the idea that we, as humans, are connected to that one true God. We have an inner sense of connection and we want to find a way of relating to that one true God. The way he illustrates this, in verse 28, is to quote two statements from Greek writers and poets, ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ and ‘we are his offspring’. These statements are statements from their own cultural tradition. They are an expression of ideas that some of the Greeks were beginning to think about, to try and work out how they related to the divine. Paul basically says that they’ve got an initial insight but they haven’t yet understood that there really is only one true God, and they haven’t understood that God actually sent his Son to the world to make that connection. This is where he brings Jesus into the story and explains about Jesus’ life and his resurrection. This is a remarkable message. If we go back to verse 18, we’ll see a summary of what Paul said to everybody. Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.

Although Luke’s summary here doesn’t tell us all that much about what Paul said about Jesus, we can assume that he said more than is recorded in this very short statement. He would have explained about the life of Jesus, and particularly about the concept of resurrection. Here is another totally new concept for his listeners. They haven’t got the concept of a single creator God who is eternal and powerful, and way beyond the world. That is a new concept to them. They haven’t understood about Jesus because they haven’t heard of him but also thirdly, they haven’t understood about the concept of resurrection. Paul preached that Jesus, in his human form, went into the grave, and three days later rose again from the grave physically. This idea was unknown to the ancient Greeks. Their concept of the afterlife did not include the idea that the human body can be raised from the dead and that there is a physical resurrection of your actual, physical body, that looks like you and functions like you in this life, and yet is greater in eternal life. No, their ideas were very different. One of their philosophers, Plato, taught that the inner essence of a person is in the soul and at death, the soul is separated from the body, which holds it back, and the soul was better off without the body, there’s a greater spiritual existence beyond death without physical reality. Plato was one of the great philosophers who taught right there in that very location. He had a whole school of philosophy and his ideas were well known. More traditional Greek religion taught that the afterlife was in a place called Hades under the earth, and Hades was a dark and gloomy place - a place of regret and loss, where you would go after this life and you would live a sort of half-life with a limited, sad and depressed existence because the real life had finished and this was a continuation with a loss of capability and loss of power, and a loss of your physical body in all its fullness that you experience in this life. These were the ideas that the Greeks had in their culture. Paul came and said, “It’s not like that at all: if you believe, when you are resurrected from the dead, you are going to have a physical body that is greater and more wonderful than the physical body you have known. Your life in the afterlife is going to be greater than the life you live now and it’s going to be a physical life.” So, when he spoke about the resurrection from the dead, that was a moment of difficulty for his audience because they had never heard this idea before. I’d love to have heard this speech.

The Response

What was the response? It was such a shock to the listeners to hear this message. They had never heard anything like it in their life before. Acts 17:32 - 34 tells us their response:

32 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.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, and also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Acts 17:32-34, NIV

Three responses: some people rejected and ridiculed Paul, some people were really interested but they needed more time to discuss the ideas: and, amazingly, some people believed at the first hearing, including a member of the Areopagus Council called Dionysius. That’s a remarkable transformation after just one message.


As we come to the end of this episode, having seen Paul enter into a completely different environment, let me reflect on a few things I think we can learn. We have another lesson here in Paul finding the natural point of contact. If you want to evangelise and share the Gospel, you have to find a point of contact with people. He had the Jewish synagogue, his first point of contact, a marketplace situation, where people would be freely talking about ideas, so he entered into the public discussion there, and then he got connected to the philosophers who wanted to talk about his new ideas. So, he found three different points of contact in that society. We should always be looking for, and praying for, the right point of contact.

My second reflection is that evangelism requires many different strategies and quite a few of them are illustrated here. We see Paul reasoning from the Old Testament amongst the Jews in the synagogue but when he’s talking to people who don’t know the biblical background, he appeals to creation. He speaks about the creation around us and how that illustrates there must be a Creator. This is a key way into the hearts of people. He also uses elements from their own culture which point towards God, such as the statements of their poets. Then he tells the story of Jesus, he talks about the resurrection and warns of the final judgement. There are quite a few elements of evangelism that Paul skilfully brings together in this remarkable episode. The three responses are basically the same that we find in any culture. You’ll find the same in your situation as I do in mine. Some people are not interested, they reject the message very quickly. Others are interested and open but need time. A few people will believe instantaneously because of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.

So, we come to the end of a fascinating episode, as Paul preaches in Athens. What’s he going to do next? He has another adventure in mind - another ambitious adventure which we’re going to find out about in the next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What do you believe about the after-life?
  • Discipleship
    1. In what ways does God challenge the thinking of those in your society?
    2. What are the felt needs of those in your society? Are you working to help them?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Research ideas about the after-life that exist in your society. How can you speak into them?
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