Athens: Paul’s Sermon on Mars Hill

Acts 17:16-34

16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. 17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. 18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”

Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.

19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” 21 For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.

 

22 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD

Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:

24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”

32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

 

The Bible Knowledge Commentary – Acts 17:16-34

17:16. The glory of Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. was fading in Paul’s day and even Athens, the proud center of Hellenism, was past its bloom. Even so, it was still a vital cultural center with a world-famous university. Many of its famous buildings were built during the days of its leader Pericles (461–429 b.c.). Beautiful as were the architecture and art forms, Paul could not enjoy them because he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. The art of Athens was a reflection of its worship. The intellectual capital of the world was producing idolatry.

17:17. In this city Paul waged spiritual warfare on two fronts, the synagogue and the marketplace. In the synagogue he no doubt used his normal approach, proving from the Old Testament Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah (cf. vv. 2–3). In that synagogue were Jews and God-fearing Gentiles (cf. v. 4). In the marketplace (agora, the center of civic life) where philosophers debated and presented their views, Paul reasoned … with those who happened to be there.

17:18. The primary antagonists of Paul in the agora were the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The Epicureans, who followed Epicurus (341–270 b.c.), said the chief end of man was pleasure and happiness. This pleasure, they believed, is attained by avoiding excesses and the fear of death, by seeking tranquility and freedom from pain, and by loving mankind. They believed that if gods exist they do not become involved in human events.

The Stoics, on the other hand, were followers of Zeno (ca. 320=ca. 250 b.c.) and got their name from the painted portico or stoa, where he traditionally taught in Athens. Pantheistic in their view, they felt a great “Purpose” was directing history. Man’s responsibility was to fit himself and align himself with this Purpose through tragedy and triumph. Quite obviously this outlook, while it produced certain noble qualities, also resulted in inordinate pride and self-sufficiency.

When these philosophers encountered Paul, they began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, What, is this babbler trying to say? “Dispute” is syneballon (lit., “to throw with,” i.e., to toss ideas back and forth). This differs slightly from what Paul did in the synagogues. There he reasoned (dielegeto, “discussed, conversed,” v. 17; cf. the same word in v. 2; 18:4, 19; 19:8). The word translated “babbler” is spermologos (lit., “seed-picker”). It described someone who, like a bird picking up seeds, took some learning here and some there and then passed it off as his own. Others remarked, He seems to be advocating foreign gods. This response was due to their inability to grasp Paul’s doctrine of Christ and the Resurrection; it was totally foreign to their thinking (cf. 17:31–32).

17:19–21. Areopagus, literally, “Hill of Ares,” was the meeting place of the Council of the Areopagus, the supreme body for judicial and legislative matters in Athens. In the Apostolic Age its power had been reduced to oversight over religion and education.

There is some question as to where this council met in Paul’s time. Some think it met on the traditional Mars Hill behind the agora and immediately west of the Acropolis. Others say it met in the Stoa Basileios, a building in the agora. The council wanted to know about Paul’s new teaching, which was strange to their ears. In Athens, the ancient world’s intellectual center, the Athenians and foreign residents loved to debate the latest ideas. This openness gave Paul an opportunity to preach his message.

17:22. Beginning with this verse (and continuing through v. 31) is another of Paul’s “sample sermons” (cf. 13:16–41; 14:15–18; 20:18–35). This one shows how Paul addressed intellectual pagans. The thrust of his message is clear: the Creator God, who has revealed Himself in Creation, has now commanded all to repent, for everyone must give an account to Jesus Christ whom God raised from the dead.

Paul’s discourse includes three parts: (a) the introduction (17:22–23), (b) the unknown God (vv. 24–29), and (c) the message from God (vv. 30–31).

Paul began wisely by acknowledging they were very religious. These two words translate the Greek deisidaimonesterous from deidō (“to fear or revere”), daimōn (“deities, evil spirits”), and stereos (“firm, hard”). The idea is that the Athenians were firm and rigid in their reverencing of their deities. This was a carefully chosen word. Hearing it, the men of Athens would have thought of their deities or gods. But Paul subtly implied that their deities were evil spirits or demons, not gods. Behind idols are demons (cf. comments on 16:16).

17:23. The Athenians, who feared they might overlook venerating some deity they did not know about, dedicated an altar to an unknown god. When Paul referred to this, he did not emphasize the altar but their ignorance of the true God.

17:24. Because God made everything, He is supreme over all—the Lord of heaven and earth (cf. 14:15; cf. Ps. 24:1). Such a great God does not live in humanly constructed temples, as the Athenians assumed their Greek gods did (cf. Stephen’s words in Acts 7:48–50).

17:25. God is above human temples, but He is also self-sufficient and is not sustained by human provisions. This truth would appeal to the Epicureans who believed that what god or gods existed were above human events.

The last part of the verse, dealing with God’s providing people with life (cf. v. 28) and material needs (cf. 14:17), suited the Stoic philosophy of aligning their lives with the “Purpose” of the Cosmos. Paul was thus beginning where his listeners were and was leading them from their inadequate concepts of the truth.

17:26. From one man refers back to Adam. This would be a blow to Athenian pride; they were sourced in the same original Creation as everyone else! One purpose of this Creation was to populate the planet (Gen. 1:28).

This sovereign God has omnipotently decreed the history (the times) and boundaries (the exact places) for the nations (cf. Deut. 32:8). Greece was not the only nation on earth!

17:27. One of God’s purposes in revealing Himself in Creation and history is that people would seek Him (cf. Rom. 1:19–20). Though sovereign (Acts 17:24), He is also immanent and not so far removed that He cannot be found.

17:28. To buttress his point Paul apparently quoted from Epimenides, the Cretan poet (whom Paul also quoted later in Titus 1:12): For in Him we live (cf. Acts 17:25), and move, and have our being. Also, Paul quoted the poet Aratus, from Paul’s homeland Cilicia: We are His offspring. This second quotation was from Aratus’ work Phainomena. All people—Athenians along with all others—are God’s offspring, not in the sense that they are all His redeemed children or in the sense that they all possess an element of deity, but in the sense that they are created by God and receive their very life and breath from Him (v. 25). The Athenians’ very creation and continued existence depended on this one God whom they did not know! No such claim could ever be made of any of the scores of false gods worshiped by the Greeks.

17:29. The conclusion is inevitable: since humans have been created by God, the divine Being, He cannot possibly be in the form of an idol, an image conceived and constructed by man (cf. Rom. 1:22–23). (“Divine being” translates theion, lit., “divine nature,” used frequently in classical Gr., but in the NT only here and in 2 Peter 1:3–4). This would be a revolutionary concept to the Athenians, whose city was “full of idols” (Acts 17:16) and “objects of worship” (v. 23).

17:30. God overlooked human ignorance revealed in idol-making, that is, He was patient. Though people are under His wrath (Rom. 1:18) and are without excuse because of natural revelation (Rom. 1:19–20), God “in His forbearance (anochē, ‘holding back, delay’) left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). This, parallels Acts 14:16, “In the past, He let all nations go their way” (cf. comments there). All through time the Gentiles were responsible for the general revelation given to them; now with the worldwide proclamation of the gospel, the Gentiles are also responsible to special revelation. That response is to obey God’s command to repent of their sins.

17:31. At this point Paul introduced a distinctively Christian viewpoint. His reference to the Man clearly looks to Daniel 7:13–14 which speaks of the Son of Man. This One, appointed by God the Father, will judge the world with justice (cf. John 5:22). The authentication of Christ’s person and work was His resurrection. Here again the resurrection of Jesus was preached. The idea of resurrection (cf. Acts 17:18, 32) was incompatible with Greek philosophy. The Greeks wanted to get rid of their bodies, not take them on again! A personal judgment was also unpalatable to Greeks. The gospel message struck at the center of the Athenians’ needs.

Interestingly Paul (vv. 30–31) discussed the topics of sin (“to repent”), righteousness (“justice”), and judgment (“He will judge”), the same areas in which Jesus said the Holy Spirit would convict people (John 16:5–11).

17:32–34. To a Greek it was nonsense to believe a dead man could be raised from the grave to live forever, so some of them sneered. Others with more discretion said they wanted to hear Paul again on this subject. As a result a few men became followers of Paul and believed, including even Dionysius, an Areopagus member (i.e., a council member; cf. comments on v. 19), and a woman named Damaris. Other women converts in Acts include Lydia (16:14–15), a few prominent women in Thessalonica (17:4), and a number of prominent Greek women in Berea (v. 12).

Was Paul’s ministry at Athens a failure? This is difficult to assess. There is no record of a church being founded in Athens. Paul later referred to the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 16:15) in Corinth as “the first converts” (lit., “firstfruits”) of Achaia. (Athens was in Achaia.) How could this be if some were converted in Athens, as Acts 17:34 asserts? Probably the solution is found in thinking of Stephanas as the firstfruits “of a church” in Achaia. Also, possibly the term “firstfruits” can be used of more than one person.

If no church was begun in Athens, the failure was not in Paul’s message or method but in the hardness of the Athenians’ hearts.

 

Love God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your soul. Also, love your neighbor as you love yourself.

God is testing us every day and has given us the right to make our own choices. Do you know which ones are the right choices in God’s mind?

Fear God, love God, honor God, and trust God with all your heart, mind and soul and you will receive and experience the joy of the promises of God’s blessings in His time. And always remember to ask the Father for His help and guidance in all things.

 

Prayer:   Father, blessed is your Holy name. We praise you for your Son and the Holy Spirit. We praise You for the opportunity to be able to choose Jesus as our Lord and Savior and to be elect children of Yours. We praise you for the laws You have set down to teach us, keep our lives in harmony, learn how to treat others and how to live within your boundaries. Please bless those who have read this article for they too are seeking Your righteous truth, love, wisdom and understanding. I pray these brothers and sisters have or will come to realize that Your existence is a treasure of grace and love that You have for all Your elect children.

May God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Christianity be our guiding lights for eternity. Let it be Your will Lord not mine. Please come Lord Jesus.

I pray in Jesus sweet name and to His glory through the power of The Holy Spirit,

Amen.