Acts 17:16 While Paul was . . . in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle made their home in Athens a few centuries earlier. The city was past its philosophical prime, but was still considered a place of enlightenment. Their idolatry showed they were in darkness, however, and needed to be enlightened themselves. The Athenians would be a difficult audience, but Paul was there to preach the gospel.
Acts 17:18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, What is this babbler trying to say?
Paul and the philosophers had something in common: both were concerned with ultimate truth. Philosophy is people seeking truth from below; Christianity is God revealing truth from above. Philosophy starts with questions; Christianity starts with answers. Philosophical arguments come and go, but the word of our God endures forever (Isaiah 40:8), wrote Isaiah.
Acts 17:22-23 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: People 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. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
Athens prided itself on knowledge, but admitted their knowledge had limits. Their altar to an unknown god was an admission of spiritual ignorance which Paul would use to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ. Paul was alert to the culture of Athens, and beginning where they were, he sought to bring them to Jesus Christ. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22), he wrote. In Athens, this meant engaging his listeners philosophically.
In order to reach a culture, a church will need to engage the culture, without compromising biblical truth. This is not easy, and those who try are often misunderstood. Even Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:19). For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), he said.
Acts 17:24 The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth.
To help the Athenians understand God, Paul echoed the first verse of the Bible. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). The Bible doesn’t try to prove the existence of God, but simply proclaims the obvious. He is the one who made all the stuff. This is why a people group has never been found that does not have a word for the Creator.
A missionary visited a tribe that had not heard the gospel, but had a clear idea of the God who made the world. The missionary asked how they knew about the Creator, and they looked at him with dismay. No rain, no mushrooms; no God, no world, they said. This is the logic of the Bible, and the best explanation for all that exists.
Acts 17:25 [H]e is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
The gods of polytheism want people to provide for them. But Paul explained that God is the one who provides for us—not only food, but life and breath and everything else.
When I was a boy, I fell out of a tree and lost my breath. I could not inhale no matter how hard I tried. Something I had done since I was born, I was no longer able to do. I lay on the ground not knowing if I would live or die when, suddenly, my breath returned. I had a fresh awareness that God is the giver of life and breath and everything else. Therefore, Let everything that has breath praise the Lord (Psalm 150:6), wrote the Psalmist.
Acts 17:27-28 [H]e is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.
Paul wanted the Athenians to know that God is not so far away that he cannot be found. Do not I fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord (Jeremiah 23:24). A person who does not believe in God is like a fish that does not believe in water. The problem is not the absence of water, but that water is all the fish has ever known. Once we understand how close God is, we can reach out for him and find him (Acts 17:27). For in him we live and move and have our being.
Acts 17:29-30 [W]e should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
Before the coming of Christ, God dealt primarily with the nation of Israel. But since the coming of Christ, he commands all people everywhere to repent. This is not a suggestion, but an order from God, because of his love for us.
When a parent sees their child running into traffic, they do not suggest the child stop, turn around, and come back. Because the parent loves the child, they command obedience to save the child’s life. The command to repent is one of most common in Scripture, and is God’s way of saying, Don’t harm yourself. As Jesus himself warned, unless you repent, you too will all perish (Luke 13:3).
Acts 17:31 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 everyone by raising him from the dead.
This is the central defense of Christianity according to the Bible. If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is who he claimed to be. The apostles would have known if Jesus rose from the dead or not, and they would not have suffered and died for something they knew wasn’t true. Many will suffer and die for something they believe is true, even if they are wrong. But few will suffer and die for a religion they know is false, since there is no advantage to that.
Furthermore, people might conspire to propagate a lie, but if one of them changes their mind, the truth will come out. This happens every day in police investigations. But none of the apostles ever changed their minds about Jesus Christ, even under pain of death. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is as verifiably certain as any historical event can be.
Acts 17:34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
Intellectual centers can be difficult to evangelize, but the gospel can prevail even there. Dionysius, Damaris and a number of others believed, and they became the first church of Athens. There is no place too educated for Christianity, since Christianity has the advantage of being true. Paul’s ministry in Athens was not spectacular, but he laid the foundation for a church that remains to this day.
Reflection and Review
What is the difference between Christianity and philosophy?
How can we be sure that God exists?
How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead?