Lessons from Paul’s Visit to Athens


Lessons from Paul’s Visit to Athens

Acts 17:16-34

Main Idea: By observing how Paul evangelized the influential city of Athens, we find some important lessons about engaging unbelievers today.

  1. What Paul Saw (17:16)
  2. What Paul Felt (17:16)
  3. Where Paul Went (17:17-18)
    1. The synagogue (17:17a)
    2. The marketplace: dialoguing with people in general (17:17b)
    3. The marketplace: dialoguing with intellectual skeptics in particular (17:18)
  4. What Paul Said at the Areopagus (17:19-31)
    1. God is the Creator (17:24).
    2. God is the Sustainer of life (17:25).
    3. God is the Ruler of the nations (17:26).
    4. God is knowable (17:27).
    5. God is the Father of humanity (17:28-29).
    6. God is both Judge and Rescuer (17:30-31).
  5. What Were the Results (17:32-34)?

In the second half of Acts 17 we join Paul in the city of Athens. Here, once again, we see his remarkable evangelistic versatility. He reminds me of the current MLB switch-pitcher, Pat Venditte, who throws with both hands and even switches hands between batters. Of Venditte’s abiltiy, one sports reporter declared, “He’s amphibious!” (I think he meant ambidextrous!)

Paul was an ambidextrous evangelist; he could adapt his methods to reach the Jews or pagans, throwing gospel strikes with both his right and left hand, we might say. He could switch approaches from the synagogue to the marketplace, always preaching the same gospel.

The account of Paul’s visit to Athens is one of the most popular passages in Acts. John Polhill comments, “Paul’s brief visit to Athens is a centerpiece for the entire book of Acts” (Acts, 365). Indeed, it gives us insight into the heart and ministry of Paul, thereby providing us with important lessons for engaging unbelievers today.

Luke provides a look at the city of Athens before focusing attention on Paul’s speech at the Areopagus. This speech serves as an example of how Paul evangelized Gentiles who had virtually no background in Scripture. Another example is the speech Paul gave in Lystra (14:15-17). In both cases Paul starts with creation and moves forward in the redemptive story. He also confronts idolatry.

Athens was in the “late afternoon of her glory” when Paul arrived (Boice, Acts, 293). Corinth had become the center of commerce and politics in Greece. After achieving impressive military victories, Athens flourished economically and culturally between 480 and 404 BC. Politically the citizens there had developed the first democracy, a city-state run by elected officials who were accountable to the people. Athens also boasted important figures in almost every category of Western civilization. Great playwrights, like Aeschylus (the father of tragedy), were there. Athens was home to the fathers of history, Herodotus and Thucydides. Hippocrates, another fifth-century Athenian, has been called “the father of Western medicine.” And I can’t talk about Athens without mentioning Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, who taught Plato, who later taught Aristotle. Each of these philosophical giants once graced the city discussed in Acts 17. Numerous artists also called Athens home. The most celebrated of this era was Phidias, whose statue of Zeus was considered one of the wonders of the world. Phidias also designed the enormous, majestic statue of Athena. Temples designed by other artists also lined the streets of the city, with the most impressive building there being the famous Parthenon (completed around 432 BC).

In every ancient Greek city, the highest point of elevation housed a temple to some god or goddess, usually the patron god of the city (Sproul, Acts, 306). These locations were known as “high cities,” or to the Greeks, the acropolis. The high elevations there gave visitors a feeling of supremacy and closeness to the gods. Athens was no different. Athena was the patron goddess of the city; her statue stood high inside the Parthenon.

About fifty yards from the Parthenon was a little hill about 50 feet high and about 150 yards long. On it a temple was built to the Greek god of war, Ares, who corresponded to the Roman god of war, Mars; hence the name Aeropagus, or Mars Hill. Paul’s speech in verses 22-31 may have taken place on that platform.

Even though its golden age had passed, Athens was still an impressive city when Paul visited it. John Polhill says, “It was still considered the cultural and intellectual center of the Roman Empire, and it is in this perspective that Luke portrayed it” (Acts, 365–66). Athens was also still strikingly beautiful. Paul had surely heard about the majestic city since he was a boy, and in verse 16 he is wandering its streets, waiting on his companions to join him. How would he respond to such grandeur and history and introduce Christ among such competing worldviews? Athens was the home of pagan Greek philosophy. Would it welcome divine revelation from Jerusalem?

How should we, as Christians, interact with a pluralistic society? How should we engage skeptical intellectuals in particular? To find answers from Paul’s visit, let’s look at what Paul saw, what Paul felt, where Paul went, and consider what Paul said at the Areopagus. We’ll find that each point is related. Stott, in fact, put it well: “We do not speak like Paul because we do not feel like Paul; this is because we do not see like Paul” (Message of Acts, 290; emphasis added).

What Paul Saw

Acts 17:16

It wasn’t the history, the architecture, or the beauty of Athens that first struck Paul. While the apostle surely admired some things about the city and respected its history, what struck him most was the idolatry rampant in Athens. Paul looked at the city from a Christian perspective.

In this we see an illustration of what it means to have a Christian worldview. Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew define a worldview this way:

[It’s] an articulation of the basic beliefs embedded in a shared grand story that are rooted in a faith commitment and that give shape and direction to the whole of our individual and corporate lives. (Living at the Crossroads, 23)

In other words, a worldview is a set of beliefs about the most fundamental issues in life: origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. One’s worldview allows one to look for answers to questions about these subjects within a grand narrative.

When a person truly becomes a Christian, the way that person sees everything changes. Why? Because embedded within the story line of the Bible is a set of theological beliefs about God, creation, humanity, sin, redemption, and the kingdom. These beliefs (and other important doctrines) along with Scripture’s story line shape the Christ follower’s view of the world.

We as Christians enjoy many of the same things those who don’t know Jesus enjoy, but we look at them through a different set of lenses. We see the arts differently; we listen to music differently; we think about sports differently; we view business differently; we view ethnicity differently; we view the poor, the orphan, and the widow differently; we view the ocean differently; we hear the birds differently; we view money differently; we view sex differently; we view marriage differently; we view food and drink differently; we view death differently. We see the world differently because we filter everything we encounter through the right perspective of God’s self-revelation in creation, in Scripture, and ultimately in his Son.

Everyone has a worldview. Luke mentions two competing worldviews in particular that were at work in Athens: that of the Epicureans and that of the Stoics. These groups saw the world differently, and their opposing perspectives remind us that even today people see things in many different lights. Even next-door neighbors may see an issue in radically divergent ways because they have radically different sets of beliefs—a fact James Sire highlights in his book, The Universe Next Door. The question each person must ask himself, then, is this: Is my worldview true and coherent, and do I consistently apply it to everything?

One of the things a Christian worldview consistently reveals is that the world is filled with idols. Underneath sin problems, relational problems, and intellectual problems is a profound worship problem. Martin Luther’s Large Catechism teaches that if a person gets the first commandment—“Do not have other gods besides me”—right, obeying the others will follow because everything follows this fundamental issue of worship.

Some say it was easier to find a god in Athens than a person. The marketplace there was lined with idols. The phrase “full of idols,” appearing in verse 16, carries the idea of the city streets being “smothered in idols” (Stott, Message of Acts, 277). The sight of so many people exchanging the glory of the Creator to bow to such created things radically impacts Paul, leading him to engage the Athenian citizens with the gospel. His response to what he witnessed should make us long to see our neighbors and the nations replace their idolatry with worship of the living God (1 Thess 1:9-10). We, too, live in a world smothered by idols.

An idol is anything to which we turn when we need something only Jesus can provide. Idols aren’t just statues worshiped at shrines; they are substitute gods and functional saviors that supplant the true and living God in the human heart. Idols can take the form of the need for peer approval, the relentless pursuit of success and money, the drive for sex, pleasure, or food, all-consuming allegiance to a sports team, to the pursuit of education, or maybe even show an obsession with an individual. Christians bear the responsibility of destroying such idols in our lives and then lovingly pointing them out to our culture so that others may also understand that the pursuit of idols won’t satisfy the human heart (Ps 16:4). Bowing to them only multiplies sorrows. People desperately need the God who made them and who can redeem them through Jesus Christ.

What Paul Felt

Acts 17:16

Becoming a Christian also entails a change in one’s feelings. When we belong to Christ, we become deeply affected by things. In Isaiah 53:3 Jesus is called a “man of suffering, who knew what sickness was.” He wept and got enraged (John 11:33-35). Paul, too, speaks of emotions in numerous places, writing things like “as grieving, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). So it shouldn’t surprise us—but should challenge us—to read Paul “was deeply distressed when he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16; emphasis added).

The Greek word translated “deeply distressed” or “provoked” (ESV) is difficult to translate into an English expression. It’s paroxyno¯, from which we get our word “paroxysm”—as in a seizure, spasm, or outburst. Some try to translate Paul’s reaction here as “anger.” They say that Paul was “infuriated” at the idolatry of Athens, but I think that’s only part of what is meant in this passage.

The best way to understand this verb is to look to the Old Testament. This term appears in the Greek version of it to describe how God feels about idolatry. When the Israelites worshiped idols, they “provoked” the Lord to righteous anger, but this anger is also mingled with love(cf. Deut 9:7; Isa 65:1-7). Why is it that God wanted his people to worship him alone? The answer is that he loved them. I submit that Paul experienced a mixture of righteous indignation for the name of God and brokenhearted compassion for the people who worshiped false gods. He was motivated by love for God and neighbor.

Like an Old Testament prophet (1 Kgs 17), Paul was zealous for God’s name. Often overlooked in this chapter is Paul’s tone and demeanor in Athens, which display compassion. Verse 17 says Paul “reasoned” with the people. Rather than allowing his feelings to lead him to angrily take a sledgehammer to the idols, he—in holy love—engaged the people, listened to and heard them, dialogued with and debated with them. That takes gentleness and compassion. And in the speech at the Areopagus, he also demonstrated respect for his audience (v. 22).

The lesson for Christians hereinvolves the state of our hearts. If your life doesn’t reflect both sweetness and thunder, you will either be a coward or obnoxious when it comes to sharing your faith. Some people, for example, are good at the ministry of truth, but they are terrible at the ministry of tears (Keller, “A World of Idols”). They are good at telling people that they need to change, but they aren’t willing to connect with them and love them to Christ. As believers, we need both gentleness and boldness. No one displayed this combination approach to evangelism better than Jesus. He rebuked people boldly, but he was also gentle. Isaiah said of the truth-telling, truth-embodying Savior, “He will not break a bruised reed” (Isa 42:3).

How can you engage people effectively in your “marketplace”? You need Paul’s commitment to truth and compassion for people. Then you will be effective in society as you live out a life filled with eternal meaning and profound joy. People will be drawn to that.

The psalmist captures the believer’s desire to see the nations worship the Lord:

May God be gracious to us and bless us;

may he make his face shine upon us Selah

so that your way may be known on earth,

your salvation among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, God;

let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations rejoice and shout for joy,

for you judge the peoples with fairness

and lead the nations on earth. Selah

Let the peoples praise you, God,

let all the peoples praise you. (Ps 67:1-5)

Do you long to see people sing for joy to the Creator and Redeemer? If not, then cultivate your feelings by meditating on the cross of Jesus. There we can see God’s absolute commitment to perfect holiness, and we can also see his unfathomable compassion for sinners. The more we think about the cross, in fact, the more we will grow in truthfulness and tears; in gentleness and boldness; in holiness and love. Paul saw the world differently and felt differently about the idols of the world because his worldview was radically cross centered (1 Cor 1:17-31). If the cross is not central to your worldview, then you will end up being too accepting or too demanding. Constant awareness of the cross prepares us to lovingly engage the Athenians in our lives.

Where Paul Went

Acts 17:17-18

Luke records Paul evangelizing in three different places: in the synagogue, in the marketplace, and finally at the Areopagus, where he delivers a formal address. He intentionally goes to the first two places; he’s taken to the third.

We should admire and seek to imitate Paul’s flexibility and range in evangelism. America is a nation filled with great spiritual diversity. Some parts of the country have no knowledge of the Bible or of basic Christian concepts. In other parts of America, there’s a general understanding of the Christian faith—or, at least, of some Christian vocabulary and ideals. In other areas both extremes are represented. In Raleigh, for instance, some citizens are generally aware of Christian ideas, while many of our university students have absolutely no idea what is meant by words like God, sin, heaven, and redemption. D. A. Carson said that when ministering to university students, he finds that an increasing number of them don’t even know that the Bible has two testaments (“The Cross and Christian Ministry”).

Carson illustrated the diversity of America using the experiences of two recent seminary graduates. One planted a church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it took him a whole year to meet someone who would confess to not being a Christian! Another student went to plant a church in Washington, DC, and found things to be totally different there. In a survey he used to spark conversation, the young DC planter asked people in the area to do a word association activity. The majority of responders associated the word Christian with the word bigot (Carson, “Lessons”). The young man in Tulsa, then, had sort of a “synagogue ministry”; he could expound the Bible to those who were familiar with it. The young man in DC had a “marketplace ministry.” Let’s look at how Paul engaged both types of audiences.

The Synagogue (17:17a)

As was his custom, Paul began in the synagogue, speaking to the Jews and to the devout. For those familiar with the Old Testament, Paul “reasoned” from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that Jesus was the Messiah (cf. vv. 12-13).

Those who minister in a churchy setting, then, should make the gospel the priority in their work as a youth minister, a children’s worker, a Sunday school teacher, a volunteer, a small group leader, a pastor, a worship leader, or in whatever other capacity in which they are placed. While those encountered in such settings may well know Christian lingo, many religious people aren’t Christians.

I remember preaching at a church in Mississippi several years ago when the need to keep the gospel central to my interactions with those attending church really struck me. A seventy-year-old man handed out bulletins there every week. He’d practically grown up in the church, yet one Sunday when I preached from John 3 on the necessity of being born again, the man realized he wasn’t really a Christ follower. And in that moment, the Lord opened his heart, and he trusted in him. “When I was a kid,” the man explained, “a man said to me, ‘Don’t you think it’s time for you to join the church?’ And so I did.” But he had never repented and trusted in Christ until that day when our paths collided. If you serve an audience of Christians, proclaim the gospel to them. Even the religious need to hear it.

The Marketplace: Dialoguing with People in General (17:17b)

In the marketplace, the hub of Athenian culture, a place of commerce and public dialogue, Paul engaged the Athenians. He didn’t wait for the Sabbath day to preach the gospel. Rather, day by day, he mixed things up in the agora. Right there in the market he dialoged with individuals. Stott says, “He seems deliberately to have adopted the famous Socratic method of dialogue, involving questions and answers; he was, in fact, a kind of Christian Socrates, although with a better gospel than Socrates ever knew” (Message of Acts, 280).

We Westerners don’t have a good equivalent of the agora. It contained everything: town officials deliberating, artists creating, business people dealing, the media reporting, the philosophers philosophizing. Everything happened in the marketplace. It was the public space for everything.

To this busy venue Paul takes his faith. Christianity is a public faith. The Scriptures never forbid us from allowing it to impact the marketplace. The writer of Proverbs says, “Wisdom calls out in the street; she makes her voice heard in the public squares” (Prov 1:20). Paul lives out his faith and communicates it every day in the public center of ideas.

We too should take our faith public by the way we live and talk. Paul engaged people in dialogue. He didn’t aim to start a riot; he meant to start a conversation.

You don’t have to be familiar with the Socratic method of teaching to understand the importance of using questions in engaging those in the marketplace. Just read through the Gospels and notice how often Jesus uses questions. The art of dialogue, in fact, helps us be effective evangelists. Sometimes timid believers will admit, “I don’t know what to say in evangelism.” That feeling is OK. And if it describes your own experiences, just have in your arsenal some good questions to ask. You might be surprised at what happens in a conversation as people begin to open up about what they already believe.

We can take our faith to the marketplace in the ordinary rhythm of life as we go to school, to the gas station, to the grocery store, or to sporting events. We can take it on walks around the neighborhood, to our work cubicles, and to picnics held for family and close friends. Daily and even impromptu meetings provide occasions for gospel conversations. We need to get where people are and engage them day by day.

The Marketplace: Dialoguing with Intellectual Skeptics in Particular (17:18)

Luke goes on to mention others with whom Paul conversed in the city: “philosophers.” Some of them called Paul a babbler, a word translated “ignorant show-off” in CSB; the term originally used here literally means a “seed picker.” It was used of various seed-eating or scavenging birds (Stott, Message of Acts, 282). This means the philosophers compared Paul to a bird picking up an idea here or there, without having anything really coherent to say.

These philosophers prized a coherent worldview. Their name-calling doesn’t indicate Paul was doing a poor job; rather, it suggests that the philosophers couldn’t understand Paul’s categories. They thus accused him of advocating “foreign deities.” Because they couldn’t grasp Paul’s understanding of God, the world, and salvation—only picking up bits and pieces of his message rather than comprehending the whole—they smugly considered him a seed picker. That they didn’t understand Paul’s worldview is demonstrated by the fact that they thought the resurrection (anastasis in Greek) referred to Jesus’s female consort. In Greek thought, many deities bore the names of abstract qualities (like Fate, Mercy, Effort, and Shame), so these philosophers apparently assumed resurrection to be a similar (and lesser) deity.

With what types of philosophers was Paul engaging? While many in the city loved talking about ideas (v. 21), two schools of thought are mentioned in this passage: Epicurean and Stoic philosophies.

Epicureans were materialists. They believed the body and even the soul were composed of fine matter, which dissolves after death. They believed the gods to be totally indifferent to human actions. Epicureans didn’t believe in divine providence. And they considered a person who neither feared divine judgment nor awaited eternal reward to be wise. The best way to imitate the gods, for the Epicureans, was to enjoy pleasure—not gross idolatry but pleasure itself. “You only live once” and “If it feels good, do it” capture a bit of their spirit. They pursued detached and tranquil life apart from pain and in pursuit of pleasure—an approach to existence that they felt reflected the lifestyle of the gods. Today we use the term epicurean to refer to things like fine food and wine or to describe a person who has luxurious tastes and habits.

Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists. They thought a divine principle was immersed in all of nature, including humans. This spark of divinity, the logos, was the cohesive rational principle that bound the entire cosmic order together. They confused God with the “world soul” and thought the world was determined by fate. For them, a wise person recognized his connection with everything else in the universe, cultivating an attitude of self-sufficient contentment, regardless of circumstances. A Stoic lived with a stiff upper lip, responding calmly to everything. To pursue his highest good, he lived by reason. Stoics saw history as an unending cycle of order, followed by chaos, followed by order. They would applaud Paul’s emphasis on God’s nearness but would reject the notion that history was moving to a culminating point (Johnson,Let’s Study Acts, 219–20). The phrase que sera sera (“what will be, will be”) captures the spirit of Stoicism.

Stott says, “To oversimplify, it was characteristic of Epicureans to emphasize chance, escape and the enjoyment of pleasure, and of the Stoics to emphasize fatalism, submission and the endurance of pain” (Message of Acts, 281). In other words, one group said, “If it feels good, do it; there are no consequences,” while the other group said, “Grin and bear it; there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.” Both worldviews were hopeless and meaningless.

Today’s world is plagued by a similar intellectual climate. One prevailing view, skepticism, rejects ultimate truth, the idea that life has meaning, and humanity’s need for salvation. Adherents live for the here and now. Importantly, culture often accepts the skeptical viewpoint as the intellectual one. Thus, anyone who believes in the God of the Bible and accepts his or her need for salvation must therefore be unlearned, naive, and primitive.

The growing number of “nones” in Western culture illustrates society’s general lack of desire for eternal, ultimate matters. The “nones” are those people who classify themselves as having no religious affiliation. About one-third of American adults under the age of thirty align themselves with this category, the highest percentage of people ever to do so, according to Pew Research. These men and women live without any real sense of God. Thankfully, Paul gives us a mighty example of how to engage such a culture.

Skeptical intellectuals need the church to speak up for truth, to share the gospel in spite of their stated aversion to it. Obviously, good Christian thinkers are needed who can argue with the intellectuals in colleges and universities. But skepticism infects every arena of culture, making the need to preach the Christian worldview in an appealing way necessary across every sphere. Whatever your point of influence—the world of filmmaking, music writing, journalism, science, education, law, politics, art, or parenting—do not retreat from culture. Like Paul, engage it humbly, boldly, and intelligently.

What Paul Said at the Areopagus

Acts 17:19-31

In light of Paul’s teaching, the philosophers lead him to the Areopagus in order for Paul to further explain himself and give a defense of his message. The Areopagus, or Mars Hill, can refer to either a court or a hill. Sometimes it may refer to both since the court traditionally met on that particular rise (Polhill, Acts, 367). Athenians would often assemble here to debate and decide affairs. The sermon or defense in verses 24-31 is a response to the question, What do these ideas mean?

Like many in our modern era, the Athenians loved new things (v. 21). But they didn’t need new ideas; they needed new life! People today love to watch the daily news, listen to new music, see new movies, buy the newest clothing styles, and make new discoveries. And enjoying new things isn’t necessarily wrong. The problem, however, is that some things are unchanging. The gospel is an unchanging, old message; it cannot be edited, expanded, or updated. A man at the University of Manchester got his PhD in New Testament with the thesis that Jesus was the founder of a phallic mushroom cult; apparently the doctoral candidate thought it a good idea to put a new twist on the gospel. But on this R. C. Sproul wisely commented, “That is new, but it is also ridiculous” (Acts, 310). The new ignored the true. Be careful, then, of overemphasizing new things. Remember that the gospel is the old, old story that has the power to give people new life. If we change it, we destroy it.

Paul has the opportunity to give the Athenians the unchanging message about Jesus. He first establishes a point of contact with them. He identifies with their religious interest. He understands that man is incurably religious. Wherever you go today, in fact, you will find some sort of religion.

Though the atheist may say, “God does not exist,” creation and conscience testify to God’s existence; the atheist’s words reflect his own dislike for God (Sproul, Acts, 310). That he feels the need to address the topic of God at all suggests something is wrong with his theory. As Romans 1:18-23 states, he suppresses the truth about God though God’s existence is evident to him. As someone quipped, “The common atheist is really saying, ‘There’s no god, and I hate him.’”

Paul moves on to establish a point of conflict. In the synagogue Paul’s text was the Old Testament; in Athens it was an inscription (v. 23). A number of ancient visitors to Athens reported seeing altars with the inscription he mentions (Boice, Acts, 297). Paul’s point of conflict was obvious: God has revealed himself! God is not unknowable. Paul’s speech then describes the revelation of God and how the problem is not that people can’t know God but that we don’t want to know him.

Then Paul preaches about “what these things mean.” D. A. Carson says that Areopagus speeches had a reputation for lasting a long time, as in two to three hours. With that in mind, it’s likely that every clause the Bible records here is just part of the outline. If we read the rest of Paul’s writings, however, we gain a pretty good clue as to how Paul would have filled in the rest (Carson, “The Cross”). Paul essentially explains a Christian worldview here. He puts the gospel into the bigger story of the Bible, showing the reasonableness of the faith, the exclusivity of the faith, and the necessity of repentance and placing faith in the Redeemer. He shares several core beliefs embedded in the Christian story.

God Is the Creator (17:24)

Paul begins his address with creation, asserting that God made the world and everything in it. Regarding the Stoics, Paul states that God is distinct from his creation; regarding the Epicureans, Paul states that God is not aloof but involved in creation.

We, too, are surrounded by the revelation of God, who spoke the world into existence (Gen 1; cf. Pss 33:6; 146:6). This fact makes it absurd to suggest that God can be contained in a shrine or temple. Even when Solomon’s temple was dedicated, the wealthy ruler realized God couldn’t be domesticated (1 Kgs 8:27; Isa 66:1-2). No one can lock up the Creator (cf. Ps 115:3).

The whole earth, in fact, is a theater of God’s revelation. As theologian Herman Bavinck stated, “In an absolute sense, therefore, nothing is atheistic” (Reformed Dogmatics, 56–57). Though some might suppress the truth of God’s existence, they can’t escape it (Ps 139:7-8). One persecuted Christian, facing the threat of having his congregation’s church building destroyed, said this: “You can pull down our steeples, but you can’t pull down the stars.” His comment draws attention to the fact that God’s glory surrounds us (Ps 19). Echoes of his reality permeate the world. He has made himself known in creation, and this is why no one can claim to be completely without revelation of God (Rom 1:18-32).

Have you ever noticed how many modern items are stamped with the words “Made in China”? It’s laughable. I can buy a T-shirt with an American flag on it, but the tag inside will most likely read “Made in China.” The reality is that everything in the world is similarly stamped with the undeniable truth that God the Creator formed it. That’s why the psalmist declares, “How countless are your works, Lord! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24). The Athenians, like many others, believed in many gods—a god over the sea, a god over the sun, a god over business. And Paul starts his speech to them by clarifying that there’s one God who created everything. All of the beauty of nature was made by the triune God for his glory (Rom 11:36; Col 1:16-17).

God Is the Sustainer of Life (17:25)

Paul says that the God who created the world sustains the world. If Jesus weren’t holding the world together, everything would fall apart (Col 1:17). This idea too stood in contrast to the beliefs of the Epicureans and Stoics. God is distinct from creation yet is intimately involved in it, sustaining it moment by moment (cf. Gen 2:7; Isa 42:5).

God doesn’t need people—we need him (cf. Ps 50:10-12). God is entirely independent, and we’re dependent. God needs no oxygen, no sleep, and no food. Such self-sufficiency should humble us, reminding us that we’re not God, but it should also give us hope. If we know God through Jesus Christ, then we have everything we need (2 Pet 1:3). A. W. Tozer said, “[God] needs no one, but when faith is present he works through anyone” (The Knowledge of the Holy, 36). When God called Moses, he told him that “I AM” was sending him (Exod 3:14). Moses rightly saw himself as insufficient for the task, and he learned to see “I AM” as totally sufficient for the task. Learn to cast your insufficiencies on God’s total sufficiency.

God Is the Ruler of the Nations (17:26)

Paul goes on to say that God’s independence doesn’t mean disengagement. God is intimately involved in the lives of humankind, the pinnacle of his creation. God, in fact, created diverse ethnic groups from one man (cf. Gen 5; 10). This means that the diversity in the human family is God’s design! He delighted in creating people of different ethnicities.

The reference to determining “times” and “boundaries” either refers to God’s sovereignty over seasons and the borders between habitable regions and wilderness (Ps 74:17) or to God’s sovereignty over the rise and fall of nations and the boundaries between them (Deut 32:8). In either case God is sovereign over history and geography.

God Is Knowable (17:27)

In contrast to the teachings of Epicureans, who viewed the gods as being detached and uninvolved in daily affairs, Paul teaches that God’s purpose in creating humans was that “they might seek God.” He lovingly desires that people discover their Creator.

Paul’s language, though, also suggests the doctrine of sin. The image he gives is that of blind people groping after God. James Boice says the word used here for “reach out” or “feel” (pselaphesian) is the word the Greek poet Homer used in the well-known story of the Cyclops. The one-eyed giant captured Odysseus and his men, but Odysseus got the Cyclops drunk and blinded him with a sharp stake. Though Odysseus wanted to get out of the cave and find his men, doing so was difficult because the Cyclops was “groping around” to find and kill the hero. In using this word, then, it’s as if Paul is saying, “In our sin, we are as unseeing as the blinded Cyclops.” We instinctively know God is there, but because of sin’s blinding effects, we need divine grace to give us the new spiritual eyes to find him (Boice, Acts, 299). God is not detached, disinterested, or unengaged. He is near to us, but we need the work of Jesus Christ to know him (Heb 10:22).

God Is the Father of Humanity (17:28-29)

In verse 28 Paul quotes two pagan poets who, by the common grace God offers, caught a glimpse of the intimate relationship between God and man. He first quotes Epimenides of Crete, who wrote of the nearness and sustaining power of God. Then Paul quotes from a Stoic author, Aratus, who wrote of man’s creation in the image of God.

Paul quotes these men to describe the truth about human nature to his audience. We humans are like our Creator in many ways. He not only sustains us, but his resemblance is reflected in us. If you have ever said or done something that left you commenting, “I sounded just like my father,” you know firsthand that people tend to resemble their parents. In a similar way we as creatures made in God’s likeness bear similarities to God. This doesn’t mean we are God; rather, we can think, act, feel, choose, love, and work like he does. And even more amazingly, we can know and worship him through Jesus, who enables us to call God “Father” (1 Pet 1:17), even “Abba[Daddy or Papa], Father” (Gal 4:6).

These writers caught a glimpse of the fact that humans are invaded by the revelation of God (Ferguson, “Acts 17:16-34”). As Abraham Kuyper stated, “If the cosmos is a theatre of God’s revelation, in this theatre, man is both actor and spectator” (Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology, 265). We are an expression of God’s creation. We are made in God’s likeness. We are made to know and worship him. That means God’s revelation isn’t just echoing outside of us; it’s echoing inside of us, too.

Paul adds in verse 29 that since we’re made in God’s image, it would be utter folly to worship something made by human hands (cf. Ps 115:4-8; Isa 44:9-20). While the Epicureans and Stoics realized this, they failed to see that their own mental conceptions of God were also the products of human invention (Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 221).

Before moving on, let me make a few applications. We have already noted Paul’s ability to adapt his methods to reach different audiences. Let’s not miss the fact that with this biblically illiterate audience he begins by making a comprehensive presentation of biblical truth. Paul starts in creation to tell the story line of the Bible. This is important because even in our day and culture, many people know virtually nothing of the Bible. (Just watch what happens when someone is asked a scriptural question on a game show, and you’ll see what I mean.) Paul recognizes the biblical illiteracy of the Athenians and doesn’t speak to them in the same manner he uses with those in the synagogue. To start his address by quoting John 3:16 would only confuse the Athenians, so Paul wisely begins by sharing foundational basics that come from the beginning of God’s written revelation.

We too must learn to present the gospel within the framework of the larger biblical story line. Simply telling someone, “Jesus loves you and died for you, so make him Lord of your life and be forgiven of your sins” is confusing and even alienating to those who can’t define sin and don’t understand who Jesus is or what his death has to do with anything. Even Easter Sunday morning gospel presentations, then, are helped when we first begin with a little “preevangelism.” We need to lay a basic framework in which Jesus makes sense to those who know little about him.

D. A. Carson tells this story about a friend who served in India as a missionary for twelve years. His main task was to teach in a seminary, but he was also an energetic evangelist. The missionary learned to speak Hindi fluently and spent hours preaching in villages, which were places of great religious diversity and syncretism. In every case the missionary took pains to emphasize the exclusiveness of Christ as he taught. But over the years, while he saw many profession of faith, he was unable to plant a single church. The problem was that while people said yes to Jesus based on the gospel presentations the man made, they basically just absorbed Christ into the greater pantheism that underlies Hinduism. In other words, they didn’t fully understand Christianity. They didn’t really understand Jesus. After twelve years the missionary returned home in discouragement. He decided he needed a new strategy.

When he retuned to India, he made some changes to his approach. This time all of his evangelistic activity was restricted to only two villages. And he began his outreach to the inhabitants in them by sharing Genesis 1:1. He thus began by teaching his hearers the doctrine of God, the truth about who humans are, and the reality of God’s relationship to creation. As the people began to grasp those basics, he moved on to share the Bible’s story line. And eventually he moved on to share about the cross and Christ’s resurrection. Then, when all of that was done, he focused on establishing congregations. And while at the end of four years, he saw few converts to Christianity, he had planted two churches (Carson, “Lessons”).

In the past Western Christians communicating the gospel to next-door neighbors assumed people basically shared our worldview. We assumed they had an understanding of God. We assumed they had heard of Jesus. We assumed they knew he died on the cross and rose from the dead for the benefit of humanity. We assumed they viewed sin as offensive to God and destructive to people. We assumed people believed history is moving somewhere. In days gone by, even atheists were “Christian atheists” in that the deity they claimed to deny was clearly the Christian God. But the time for making assumptions in evangelism has passed. In order to be effective, we have to begin sharing the truth of the gospel by anchoring our teaching in the creation account. We must describe the nature of God and move through the biblical story line.

Paul’s address also reminds us that the spiritually ignorant don’t have a mental “blank hard drive” (Carson, “Lessons”). People already have a worldview in place that will compete with the biblical truth we share. Wrong ideas must be lovingly countered and replaced with the new categories and meaning of a Christian worldview before they can be completely destroyed.

Next we should consider Paul’s cultural relevance. He worked to connect with his hearers in meaningful ways. He even quoted pagan philosophers. As we consider how to apply the principle of cultural relevance to our own outreach efforts, we should remember this point from John Stott:

[Paul’s] precedent gives us warrant to do the same, and indicates that glimmerings of truth, insights from general revelation, may be found in non-Christian authors. At the same time we need to exercise caution, for in stating that “we are his offspring”, Aratus was referring to Zeus, and Zeus is emphatically not identical with the living and true God. (Message of Acts, 286; other Greek writers also quote a similar phrase)

Today’s pop music lyricists are the poetic theologians and philosophers of culture. The writers of popular TV shows and movies are also responsible for teaching worldview to the masses. While we certainly don’t need to be experts on pop music and film, we do need to be aware of popular worldviews presented through these mediums.

I find myself regularly quoting songs and shows as I teach, and I find that doing so receives a mixed response. One audience enjoys and learns from contemporary connections; another expresses concern that it’s dangerous or silly for a minister to quote from pagans. (Once, a guest to our church never returned because I quoted the TV comedy The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Stott’s word, then, is instructive. Christians can use cultural sources as we strive to connect with those who don’t know Jesus and who aren’t familiar with God’s Word, but we must always do so with caution and discretion. We must also take care not to allow a love of entertainment to divert us from spending quality time in prayer and in Scripture. Paul was aware of popular writings, but nothing about his life suggests he would have been watching hours of Netflix if given the opportunity—much less allowing his mind to play in the gutter as he considered hours of explicit pop lyrics. We must guard our minds (Phil 4:8), but we should also seek to understand culture. Doing so can help us build bridges to the gospel.

God Is Both the Judge and the Rescuer (17:30-31)

Paul tells the Athenians that, despite the revelation of God in creation, they have become spiritually ignorant. But that ignorance doesn’t give them an excuse before God. Instead, Paul warns them of judgment. His use of “overlooked” in this case doesn’t imply that God ignored human rebellion. In God’s great mercy he didn’t immediately visit humanity with the judgment they deserved (Stott, Message of Acts, 287). With the coming of Jesus, however, a decisive turning point is taking place in redemptive history: now everyone must repent or face God’s just judgment.

The fact that God will judge has been clearly expressed through the resurrection of Jesus. Paul tells the Athenians that God has committed this judgment to his Son, Jesus, who will judge everyone on a fixed day, in perfect righteousness. If people will repent, however, this same Judge can save them. Salvation comes through this man, the Second Adam, who lived the life we fallen humans couldn’t live, died the death we deserved, and rose on our behalf. We come from one man: Adam (v. 26), but we must turn to this man: Jesus, the Lord. He is not only our Judge but our Savior.

The appeal to repent is clear and consistent in Scripture (cf. Isa 45:22; Matt 4:17). All are under the wrath of God because they have rebelled against him. But if they will turn from their sins and turn to Christ, “sins [will] be wiped out” (Acts 3:19); he will give them life. Paul moves from the realm of philosophical debate to personal responsibility (Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, 222). Everyone must repent or perish.

Several ideas were perceived as outrageous by many in Paul’s audience: (1) the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus (which flew in the face of pluralists); (2) the suggestion that Jesus rose bodily (which flew in the face of many Greek philosophies based on the idea that matter is principally bad); and (3) the notion that history is going somewhere (which flew in the face of the Stoics). These truths, in fact, still offend people today. And because Paul’s hearers found them so offensive, Paul’s speech was halted.

Some have stated that Paul failed to mention the cross to the Athenians, and thus they give this speech a failing grade. Some go further and say that Paul was so moved by the failure recorded here that he changed his tactics when he went to Corinth, resolving to know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). But we shouldn’t make that leap. We must remember a few things, chiefly that we have in Acts only the outline of Paul’s speech. (I doubt Paul ever talked about the resurrection apart from the cross!) Further, we know from verse 18 that Paul was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection.” Are we to imagine Paul talking about these subjects apart from the cross? The idea is absurd. Even more, when Paul said that God overlooked times of ignorance but has now commanded everyone to repent, he seems to be pinpointing the hinge point in redemptive history—namely, the events surrounding Good Friday and Easter. These are a few reasons to assert that Paul did indeed mention the cross.

What Were the Results?

Acts 17:32-34

Some also assert that Paul proved to be a failure at Athens because his words brought about so few conversions, but I think Paul had a good day! Ultimately, we shouldn’t evaluate Paul—or any other evangelist—based on results, but by his or her faithfulness to preach the gospel. Paul was a bold witness in Athens! Sure, some mocked his message. But others wanted to hear more. And most importantly, some believed. The latter group included Dionysius, a member of the council, and a woman named Damaris.

In his work Paul encountered religious pluralism, a great diversity of worldviews, and intelligent yet biblically illiterate people. And so will we. May God grant us grace as we make the truth of the gospel and the glory of the crucified and risen Christ known to the world. Our message may turn out to be a “stumbling block to Jews” and “foolishness to the Gentiles,” but to others it will turn out to be the power of God unto salvation (cf. Rom 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18,23).

Reflect and Discuss

  1. What does it mean to have evangelistic versatility? Why is it important?
  2. What does it mean to have a Christian worldview? What does Paul teach about this concept?
  3. What are some of the idols worshiped in your city, neighborhood, or nation?
  4. Describe what Paul felt when he saw the idolatry in Athens. Why is this important?
  5. What does Paul’s evangelism in the marketplace teach?
  6. What about Paul’s speech at the Areopagus most resonates with you?
  7. Explain why Paul started with creation before moving to the resurrection and judgment.
  8. In what context might we need to establish the basic framework of the Bible before talking about the need for repentance and faith in Jesus?
  9. Do you think Paul was successful in Athens? Why or why not?
  10. Take a few moments to pray for opportunities to imitate Paul’s evangelistic mission this week.