In my last article in this series of articles on the life of Paul, I observed that those with whom Paul talked in the marketplace in Athens, which included some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, brought him to the Areopagus or hill of Ares, where the Athenian council met, and asked him to explain “this new teaching.” I described Paul’s response to them as “the prime example in Acts of preaching to the Gentiles.” In this article I’ll comment briefly on what he said to them.
Paul opened his address by saying, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV). The Greek word for “religious” can be taken either positively (“pious”) or negatively (“superstitious”). Thus some commentators think that Paul was complimenting the Athenians and others think that he was criticizing them. More likely he was just making an observation to pave the way for his referring to the altar to the unknown god which he’d seen in the city, in preparation for his presenting the gospel to them.
23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.” 29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
Paul’s beginning his address by referring to the altar to the unknown god rather than to Jewish history, as he had in his sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41), illustrates his starting where people were in presenting the gospel to them. Similarly he quoted from Greek writers in the address instead of quoting from Jewish scriptures as he had in his sermon in Antioch. His listeners didn’t likely know anything about Jewish history and scriptures but undoubtedly were familiar with their own religion and writings.
After referring to the altar to the unknown god, Paul told his listeners that he was going to tell them about that god, the one true God who made the world and everything in it and thus is Lord of heaven and earth. Perhaps gesturing toward the nearby temple to the Greek goddess Athena (known as the Parthenon, the temple was on the Acropolis, the highest hill in Athens), Paul declared that God doesn’t live in temples and doesn’t need to be served by priests and sacrifices because He is the source of life and breath and everything that we have.
Paul went on to claim that not only does God give human beings everything that they have but also He created all of them from one man (Adam) and determined when and where they would live. According to Calvin, God’s determining “allotted periods” and “boundaries of their dwelling place” means that “before men were brought into existence, He determined what their future circumstances would be [and] disposed the whole course of their life” (The Acts of the Apostles 14-28, translated by John W. Fraser, Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1966, page 117). However in giving us free will God gave us a share in determining what will happen. Thus I understand Paul’s just to be asserting God’s sovereignty over His creation, not His eternal predestination of everything that would happen in it.
Paul then explained that God did this so that people would seek him. “That they might feel their way toward him and find him” suggests a groping about to try to find God without a certainty of finding Him. And yet, as Paul observed, God is actually not far from us. Paul supported his claims about God’s relationship with us with two quotations from Greek writings. “In him we live and move and have our being” comes from a poem to Zeus attributed to the Cretan poet Epimenides (sixth century B.C.), and “For we are indeed his offspring” comes from a poem to Zeus by the Cilician poet Aratus (third century B.C.). Zeus was the supreme god in Greek religion; the Romans equated him with their supreme god, Jupiter.
From our being God’s offspring, Paul concluded that idols of gold, silver, and stone made by us are unsuitable representations of Him. This concept wouldn’t be a new one to the philosophers who were questioning him, but it hit at Greek popular religion.
Having made his case against their idolatry, Paul presented the gospel to his listeners. After observing that in the past God had overlooked mankind’s ignorance of Him, he asserted that God was now commanding all people everywhere to repent, proclaiming that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” This repentance would involve their turning from practicing idolatry to trusting in Jesus Christ and a corresponding change in their way of life.
On hearing this, some mocked and others expressed an interest in hearing more about this at another time. Paul then left them. Some men joined him and believed. Apparently there was no persecution nor was a strong church established.
Paul’s ministry in Athens is often described as a failure, with the suggestion being made that it would have been more effective if he’d been less intellectual. However, as I observed in my last article, I think that its relative lack of success just illustrates the difficulty of witnessing to intellectuals and I still admire Paul’s policy of becoming like those to whom he witnessed in order to win more of them (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).