Paul in Athens
Series Pauline Letters
Acts 17:16-34 ESV
1 Thessalonians 2:17-18 ESV
1 Thessalonians 3:1-3 ESV
Paul stopped in Athens on his way to Corinth.
At the time Paul visited Athens it was no longer the political seat, but it was the university center in that part of the world. In today’s world stepping into that center of educators would be akin to stepping into an arena filled with professors in Massachusetts or London.
Even though Paul was highly educated and he could have been a match for anyone, he wasn’t thinking about speaking to a room filled with highly educated men…in Acts 17:16 we are told, “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”
See, Athens at the time had thousands of gods they worshiped. Some included Zeus, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Poseidon, Demeter, Dionysus, and others more celebrated in Athenian literature included Hera, Aphrodite, Ares, Hephaestus, Pan, Herakles, and the Dioscuri.
There were idols everywhere and that is what got Paul’s attention!
However, even that was not Paul’s main focus. Paul looked and observed aspects of the city and its members when he entered a new town. He needed to know their history. Once he had some idea about who they were he would know how to communicate with them. Then as was his custom when he entered a city he went straight to the Jewish Synagogue.
So in Athens Paul went to the Jewish Synagogue.
In Acts 17:17 we know, “he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.”
Paul did take time in Athens to spend time in the marketplace with other educators in the city, in Acts 17:18-21 we are told, “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean. Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”
The Areopagus “literally means the big rock - "pagus" - of "Ares," a figure from Greek mythology. Areopagus was and is a rocky hill below Parthenon, the large pagan temple whose ruins have become the symbol of Athens today (https://www.bibleversestudy.com/acts/acts17-areopagus.htm#:~:text=Acts%2017%3A19%2D23%20Areopagus&text=Areopagus%20literally%20means%20the%20big,the%20symbol%20of%20Athens%20today.)
This was a place where intellectuals gathered in the city. The intellectuals were genuinely interested in understanding what Paul had to say.
Clearly no one had been there to tell them about Jesus. They wanted to understand! Plus, these educators were open to all things new. They really wanted to learn about what Paul had to say.
So, in Acts 17:22-34 we are told that “Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 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. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temple made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 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, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 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.’ 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. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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. Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
Paul’s main focus wherever he went was to tell others about Jesus and the resurrection. He genuinely loved others and wanted to share the good news about God’s love and power.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18 Paul mentions how torn he was that he could not go to visit his brothers there. He wrote, “But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.”
So, something stopped Paul from visiting them. Then in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-3 we are told, “Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.” We do not know how Paul was hindered by Satan but because he wrote that statement we know that even Paul, an apostle struggled with Satan as he sought to share the Gospel message.
Reading and studying how Paul struggled on his faith journey gives us hope. Paul was chosen as an apostle because of his skills and his love for God. From the moment he met Jesus on the road to Damascus his entire focus was on furthering the Gospel message. His earnest desire was to help others meet Jesus who changes lives. Even when it meant he would suffer personal hardships, he stood fast. When Satan prevented him from going to Thessalonica he stayed behind in Athens alone and sent Timothy on without him. That was not what Paul personally wanted. But Paul the Apostle knew he HAD to continue to share or send others to share the story of HOW Jesus changes lives.
Spiritual Practice: Jesus
Has Jesus changed your life? How?
In God, Deborah