The Apostle Paul vs. Athens

Week 29 The Story

The Apostle Paul vs Athens

Acts 17:16-34

G. K. Chesterton, in his book The Ball and the Cross, tells the story of two Englishmen’s unsuccessful attempts to stage a duel. One is a volatile atheist named Turnbull who edits a paper appropriately named The Atheist. The other is Evan MacIan, a devout Roman Catholic. Their disagreement and attempts at dueling develop when Turnbull publishes an offensive article about the Virgin Mary and MacIan responds by tossing a brick through the newspaper’s window.

The remainder of the story is a humorous account of their fantastic dash back and forth across the British Isles in attempted combat. Somehow, no matter how hard they try, they are again and again thwarted. After all, civilized men do not fight over such insignificant matters. Soon they become the number-one fugitives of society, and upon their inevitable capture both are judged mad and are put into an asylum. What becomes apparent is that it is not they who are insane, but their captors and, indeed, society itself.

Chesterton’s point is not that men should resort to physical combat over the truth of Christianity. Rather, he is saying that a culture that prides itself on its detached approach to the central issues of life and regards those who approach them otherwise as uncivilized or insane is itself under delusion.

Today it is commonly held that it is fine to be a Christian as long as one does not take it too seriously. “Christianity has produced some of the world’s greatest minds. Some of her doctrines are fascinating for intellectual exercise. But to take them seriously – to base one’s life on them? Surely you cannot be serious!”

That not only describes the attitudes we commonly face, but what the church has historically encountered and what Paul faced in Athens. Paul, one of the most passionate and fiery Christians who ever lived, collided head-on with the dispassionate intellectualism of Athens. The story of “Paul versus Athens” can set our hearts on fire.

Paul left Berea and made the 200 mile trip down to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy behind. He was alone in the glorious Athens of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno. Though it had been some 400 years since the golden age of Pericles, Paul found the city’s glory and prestige intact. Athens was the intellectual center of the world (much like Oxford in the 19th century), and scholars from all over the inhabited earth made her their adopted home.

Even though the Romans conquered Athens in 146 B.C. Athens retained her supremacy, because the Romans loved everything Greek and so did not change her status as a free city. Despite all her glory, Athens was empty because she was living on the memories of the past. In philosophy she simply repeated the echoes of men long gone. Her art was no longer innate overflow but a lingering reflex. It was to such a city that the apostle came - proud, glorious to the eye, but dead. What a contrast between the apostle and the metropolis.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (v. 16).

The apostle stared long and hard at what he saw, for the city was truly “full of idols.” No doubt Paul appreciated much of the city’s beauty, being a man of culture. Nevertheless, “he was greatly distressed.” He was angry about a lie. As a Jewish monotheist, he would have been disturbed, and as a Christian apostle he was even more enraged! Every idol demonstrated the Athenian hunger for God, but it also testified to their spiritual emptiness. Ignorant of the true God, the Athenians were lost! Paul could not be indifferent or detached. So he jumped right in, raging heart and all.

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. 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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you’” (vv. 22-23).

Paul’s approach was brilliant. As courteous and conciliatory as possible, he complimented them on being “in every way . . . very religious.” Paul was undoubtedly eager to protest their idolatry and point them to the truth, but he restrained himself and gave a genuine compliment first. He met them where they were. “In my stroll around your famous city I found an altar to an unknown god. Let me tell you about the one you are worshiping.” Paul established common ground.

Having established the bridge, Paul now began giving the Athenians doses of spiritual truth – first about God and then about themselves. Truth about God always helps us understand ourselves.

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 hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (vv. 24-25).

The fundamental truth about God is that he is the Creator: “the God who made the world and everything in it.” That may not sound earth-shaking to us, but it challenged their whole theology. The Stoics were pantheists and the Epicureans practical atheists. Paul’s declaration denied the premises of both groups. The accompanying statement in verse 25 that God is the Life-giver – “he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” – drove the truth home even further, for it directly attacked the Epicureans’ belief that God was absent and the Stoics’ belief that he was in everything. As the giver of life, God is actively here, but he is not contained in creation.

The final great truth about God is that he is not only the Creator and the Life-giver, but he seeks us out.

From one man he made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (vv. 26-27).

Practically, Paul was saying that they were not living in Athens as a result of some cosmic accident. Rather, God had structured their lives in order to attract them to him. Great truths about God led to the truth about themselves: they were specially created by God, and he was seeking a personal relationship with them.

For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 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 man’s design and skill” (vv. 28-29).

The apostle explained that as God’s creatures, the Athenians had intrinsic dignity. Paul was a master communicator! He quoted a couple of their own poets in order to maintain rapport and keep their interest. The first part of verse 28, “For in him we live and move and have our being,” is from the work of Epimenides. The final line in verse 28, “We are his offspring,” is from the writings of Aratus.

The apostle’s point was that as creatures of intrinsic dignity, having been created by God, men ought to refrain from false worship. Since we are made in the image of God, it is insulting to God and degrading to us to make an idol of him. He now makes his plea:

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (v. 30).

Men are to “repent.” Of what? Idolatry. If men set anything above God as the object of their time, thought, energy, or life, they are worshiping the work of their hands and are thereby degrading God and themselves. They must repent because judgment is coming! Mankind is not moving toward extinction (as the Epicureans thought), nor toward absorption in the cosmos (as the Stoics supposed). But humankind is moving toward divine judgment. Moreover, our Judge is a resurrected man. The Areopagites did not like this at all. Five hundred years earlier Aeschylus had written, “When dust has soaked up a man’s blood, once he is dead, there is no resurrection,” and this was a popular Greek sentiment in Paul’s day.

Everything is fine as long as we remain theoretical, but when we call for action, men begin to shift their posture and look at their watches. Seeing their accountability to the true God makes many uncomfortable.

The sermon had three results – mockery, delay, and belief. The first two responses show that many did not care about truth. When the discussion went beyond fun and games, they cut it off. Others said, “We want to hear you again,” but they cared little whether they actually did or did not, and they never did hear him again. Verse 33 and the opening verse of chapter 18 tell the story: “Paul left the Council . . . After this, Paul left Athens.” Praise God – some truly believed and came to faith. But most apparently rejected the apostle’s message and the Savior he proclaimed.

Despite the prevalence of mockery and rejection that day, a man and a woman gave their lives to Jesus Christ. The man’s name was Dionysius, and he was one of the elite – a member of the Areopagus. The woman was called Damaris. We know nothing else about them, but we do know they listened to Paul’s words with all their hearts.

If we are believers, if we truly know Christ, we must never hear or read God’s Word in a detached manner. We must pay attention to God with all our being. We must never give way to a cerebral detachment when it comes to divine things. We must always respond. Jesus stated the principle beautifully in Matthew 13:12:

          “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance.

          Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

When truth comes, we must interact with it and appropriate it. One of the great sins of the church today is the dispassionate hearing of God’s Word. Because of this, there are many who are spiritually ill, unable to comprehend the truths they once held dear. Only God can deliver his children from such apathy!


          O God, help us not to consider your Word in a casual, unfeeling way.

          May our hearts burn with sacred truth – flames of the Holy Spirit that

          cannot remain within us but must overflow to others, drawing them

          into personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. May our grief

          over the idolatry all around us move us to speak out and live the gospel,

          so that others will come into your precious kingdom. In Jesus name,