In Acts 17:1-15, we read that Paul had to be escorted out of Berea and he and his companions went to Athens. Paul sent a letter back to Silas and Timothy to join him when they could. We learned a fact about Berea that is important in our study of Athens. Berea was a free city, which means that though it was under Roman rule, Rome gave them free run of the city’s governance because Berea helped Rome defeat Cassius and Brutus. This week we find out that Athens was also a free city because of their help to the Romans in winning a battle.
Read Acts 17:16-34. What do you see first? Paul’s spirit was being provoked as he saw in the city idols to many gods. Paul, having trained to be a Jewish priest and then following His conversion being trained by God in the wilderness of Arabia knows there is only one true God. The Holy Spirit within him provoked him to take notice of all these gods and to realize God wanted him (Paul) to speak to the people of Athens. Normally when Paul entered a city or town he went to the synagogue to speak as that is where the learned people congregated to talk about God and other intellectual ideas. Paul does go to the synagogue, though there is not thought to be many Jews in Athens. He likewise goes to the market place, the Agora. While he spoke to people in the Agora, some Epicureans and Stoics also spoke with him (vs. 17-18). These philosophers wanted to know more about what Paul was speaking so invited him to the Areopagus.
We must understand that Athens was known for its philosophers and education. The people there were very inquiring and always wanted to know more and liked to debate. The Athenians were also known for their religious piety. This could be seen by all the idols that existed in and around the city. Diogenes Laertes says, in Lives of the Philosophers 1.10, these numerous idols were erected after city officials asked a prophet, Epimenides, how to be rid of the plague in their city in 6BC. Epimenides told them to let a herd of black and white sheep loose at the Areopagus and, wherever they lay down, to sacrifice them to the god of that place. Hence, some thought the Athenians had many gods because they had so many idols. As to the Areopagus, it was erected as a place to rule the law and to enact justice. Over time, it became a place to discuss religion and education matters so they could sensor what was spoken and taught within the city. Remember, the Athenians were proud of their education and could not allow everybody who wanted to enter the city spout her or her beliefs. Paul spoke with the religious and education leaders of the city in the Areopagus.
Now, we must understand about the Epicureans and Stoics to understand how they thought and why Paul taught the way, he did in the Areopagus. The Epicureans were one of the three major philosophies taught in Athens. The Epicureans believed the ultimate goal of life was happiness and the way to have that is to be free of pain and to have pleasure. They also believed that atoms combining or dispersing formed nature and every created thing randomly. They also believed in a form of evolution. To the Epicureans, there was no possibility of soul survival after death and, hence, they could disprove judgment after death. Their basic thought could be summarized as “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you will die.” The Stoics on the other hand were opposite of the Epicureans. The Stoics believed that emotions like fear, envy, or passionate love of anything arose from the false judgments and the person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection would not undergo these emotions. These persons are immune to misfortune and virtue is sufficient for their happiness. The Stoics emphasized the divine as the reason pervading everything. Reason was their god. Because of this, there was a bit of god in everything. They were pantheists. They held to Plato’s thought on the soul’s immortality, the soul is only immortal as it will be reincarnated into someone else with no remembrance of the previous life. Thus, the Stoics could not conceive of bodily resurrection.
Paul had his work cut out for him, but, through his own Judaical studies, I am sure he learned how to debate and reason and these people were reasoning people. He would need his wits and the leading of the Holy Spirit for these people who considered themselves learned and lacking in nothing. Look how they scoffed at Paul when they said, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?...He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities” (vs. 18). They took Paul to the Areopagus and said, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? 20 "For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean” (vs.19-20). Paul begins his talk by recognizing and affirming the listeners; he says he sees they are very religious. He is a good student of human behavior; he started with a positive of his listeners. He affirmed them (vs. 22). They are willing to listen now. Paul noted they had idols to so many gods, but he wanted to point out something he could teach them. Remember these Athenians were always looking to learn more. They prided themselves on being learned. Paul continued and said, let me tell you about your unknown god. Paul spends the next eight verses telling them about the one True God.
1. He tells them this God made the world and all things in it because He is the Lord of heaven and earth so He does not dwell in places made with hands, or in idols. When Paul speaks of God being bigger than heaven and earth and the Creator of them he is using rhetoric of the time. When the people spoke the words, “of heaven and earth” it referred to all man knew about the universe. Therefore, this God is the God of everything and nothing is big enough to contain Him nor is more powerful than He is. (verse 24)
2. Human hands do not serve this God because He does not need anything. There is nothing they can materially give Him that He needs because, since He made all things, He can get anything He would required, if He even required anything, which He does not because He created all things of Himself. In addition, how can the created, who requires Him for their breath, think there is anything remotely that they would find necessary for Him. (verse 25).
3. To add to this, God not only created each of them, but He did it from just the one man, Adam. He created a multiplicity and every nation of humankind came from this man, Adam, and determined, not only their beginning, but their end. (verse 26)
4. This one true God desires that we seek Him and find Him. He is never far from each of us. (verse 27)
5. It is not that we must serve this God our material goods, but it is from Him that we even move and exist. We are His children, not He ours that we have to provide for Him. (verse 28)
6. Paul has spent five verses telling us of our smallness and God’s greatness and undefinability and unfathomability.
7. Since we understand we are the children of God, His creation, and He created all things, including the ores in the ground, we cannot think that the Divine nature is like gold, silver, or stone which we can shape and mold at our will. They are created, too, and when we humans mold them, they are moldings of our limited creative ability. Nothing is great enough to serve/offer to this God. (verse 29)
8. God, in His graciousness and mercy, overlooked each of our times of ignorance of Him, but God is now declaring to humans everywhere they should repent of worshipping the wrong God, the only God. God has provided a witness to Himself and a way back to Himself and now we cannot declare ignorance to this knowledge of Him and His ways. He has determined a day when He will judge the world, all humankind, in His righteousness and will require righteousness from humans before they can be given access to His kingdom and eternal life. The proof He gives of His power to do this is the resurrection of the Son of Man from the dead. (verses 30-31)
As you have read and now know about the Epicureans and Stoics, this idea of resurrection from the dead met much resistance. The people in the Areopagus began to sneer at Paul. A few were interested and wanted to hear more another time. The Epicureans and Stoics, who wanted to hear the education Paul would bring to their city denied him and sneered at him. Paul’s knowledge would not be accepted in Athens. We do not hear in the Bible that a Christian church was started in Athens. Dionysius, an Areopagite (one of the leaders of the Areopagus) and a woman named Damaris along with a few others believed about God. The Epicureans and Stoics remind us of people now. These people are educated and feel they need nothing; they are self-secure and self-satisfied. They are tolerant of others and their beliefs but want to have nothing of it for themselves. Often these self-sufficient ones are the ones who have the most difficult time accepting the fact of God and the Son, Jesus. Many times, the people who are in a place of need or who recognize they are in need recognize the reality of God and believe in Him. They recognize Him as all-powerful, all-wise, and loving, greater than anything they could fathom and the author of creation and they recognize that they need bodily and spiritually what God gives freely, provision for their temporal life and their eternal life. They believe God is the one true God.
In our day now, we are told to be tolerant of others and their beliefs and lifestyles. We do not have to like them, but we must tolerate other people’s choices. We cannot determine what is truly right others tell us. Therefore, we must let people live for themselves. By allowing them to do this, we respect them, we are told. But, from whom do we receive our reward and to whom are we called to be obedient? Is it not God, the Creator of heaven and earth? Since this is the case, we must obey and tell everyone about Him. The people who preach tolerance and let people be are being led astray by the lies of Satan. He tells them that everyone has a right to what they want to do with their lives. Is this not what Satan told Adam and Even before they ate the fruit off the tree, that they had a right to do what they wanted and to be what they wanted? It is the same lie in new clothes he is saying now.
We must take the Word of Truth to the nations who are descended from the one man, Adam. We are all related and we must care for them just as we care for what God would have us to do, out of love. Two questions arise: What is stopping you from telling others about the one true God? Or, what is stopping you from believing the truth of God, that He is the one true God and has a plan for your life, here and for eternity?