This page is a verse by verse study of Acts 17:16-34. These verses describe Paul’s experiences in Athens, especially his speech to the philosophers in the Areopagus.
Paul’s experiences in Athens Greece.
1 Paul Preaches to the Gentiles
¶ "Paul waited at Athens for Silas and Timothy. Paul’s spirit was provoked within him as he saw the city full of idols. So he reasoned not only in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, but also in the marketplace every day with anyone who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were among those conversing with him. Some said, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others said, “He seems to be advocating foreign deities.” They said this because Paul preached Jesus and the resurrection."(Acts 17:16-18).
Athens, a city full of idols. Pagan temples and shrines to idols would be nothing new to Paul, since all cities except Jerusalem had them aplenty. Athens, however, apparently had more idols than most; and Paul, having some time to kill, might have observed and thought about them more thoroughly.
In the marketplace. Paul, as he always did in every city, went into the synagogue and reasoned with the devout worshippers of God (apparently in this case without much result). However with his heart stirred up by the sight of so many idols, he went amongst the pagan populace in the market area. Here not only did people do their shopping, but they'd gather for conversation and to listen to public speakers. The marketplace, or Agora was the Greek equivalent of the Roman forum. The Greek word agora produced the Greek verbs agorazo to shop, and agoreuo to speak in public. It was a good strategy to speak in the Agora because the folk all liked to hear something new; Paul was almost certain to get an audience.
Epicurean and Stoic. About 300 years before Christ the philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism were founded.
Stoics The term Stoic came from the Greek stoa meaning a porch or portico. Zeno, the founder of the Stoics, held his school in a porch in the city of Athens. Stoics practised indifference to both pain and pleasure, living minimalist and disciplined lives, and pursuing virtue and wisdom through reason controlling lust. They also believed in one god who is experienced in nature.
Epicureans The Epicureans were named after their founder, Epicurus. Epicureans accepted both pleasure and pain as part of life, but they sought to reduce pain and to enhance pleasure. However, original and genuine Epicureanism did not do so by excess or hedonistic addiction. Epicureans valued the more honourable pleasures such as harmonius friendships. They acknowledged all gods, but did not think they influenced human life in any important way, or that humans should become beholden to them.
This babbler. Paul found his discussion in the market place somewhat interrupted and fragmented by hecklers who seemed to think he was talking nonsense, or that “Jesus” and “Resurrection” referred to gods that were foreign to the Athenians. So when Paul was invited, by some of the more serious philosophers, to go with them to the quieter Areopagus he was willingly led, as Luke now records...
2 Paul Speaks at the Areopagus
¶ "The philosophers took hold of Paul, and brought him to the Areopagus. They said, “May we know what this new teaching is that you proclaim? You bring strange things to our ears. So we want to know what these things mean.” (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there spent their time in nothing else but to tell or hear some new thing.)"(Acts 17:19-21).
The Areopagus. Away from the city center, high on a hill of rock, stood the Areopagus where councils and courts would convene. In Paul s time, the Areopagus was apparently also used as a place for philosophical debates and speeches away from the noise and bustle of downtown Athens. Paul was somewhat honoured to be given an opportunity to speak at this venue.
¶ "Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in all things. For as I walked around the city and observed the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with this inscription: 'To an unknown god'. What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you."(Acts 17:22-23).
The unknown god. The time that Paul spent looking around Athens had turned up a curiosity to which he was able to pin his message. He does not speak specifically to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who thought little of idols. He addresses the wider and very idolatrous audience of Athenians whose curiosity had led them up the steps to this theatre, to hear Paul’s “new thing”. However Paul’s implied repudiation of countless idols, and his proclamation of one God who created all things, would ring true for the Stoics and give pause to the Epicureans (see notes above on these philosophies).
¶ "The God who made the world and all things in it, he is Lord of heaven and earth. So he doesn't dwell in temples made with hands, neither is he served by men’s hands as though he needed anything; since he himself gives to everyone life and breath and everything."(Acts 17:24-25).
God the Creator. In this statement Paul beautifully distinguishes the one true God from the idols that the Athenians knew. “God doesn't dwell in temples made with hands” is God’s own teaching about himself (Acts 7:48-50,Isaiah 66:1-2). It is a fact told to the Jews who thought God needed the temple in Jerusalem to dwell in. It is a fact told to the pagans who built temples and shrines for their idols. But the phrase “not made with hands” was likely to strike the idol worshippers a sharper blow, because not only were their temples made by human hands but so were the idols housed in them!
¶ "God made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth. He determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their dwelling places. He appointed that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him. He is not far from any one of us, for in him we live, and move, and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, 'For we are also his offspring.' "(Acts 17:26-28).
Seek the Lord. In this statement Paul proclaims a God who is the maker of all men —not made by men. This is a God who can be found —not one hidden within nature as the Stoics thought; or one far removed from human realms and affairs as the Epicureans thought; or one unknown and lost among a myriad of gods as the Athenians thought (who had erected a shrine to “the unknown god”). No, Paul proclaims a god who can be found, who is not far from any one of us, and who indeed for a little while actually lived among us!
¶ "Since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone formed into some image by human art and design. Therefore whilst God overlooked the times of ignorance, he now commands that all people everywhere should repent. The reason is that he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained. He has given assurance of this to everyone, by raising that man from the dead.” "(Acts 17:29-31).
The man whom God ordained. In this statement Paul contrasts the metal and stone representations of pagan gods, with a living human who was the image of the true God. This special human is the Judge of all mankind. Some famous people were judged in ancient times at the Areopagus, but everyone will be judged at the last day by the man God has ordained. How do we know him? He is the one whom God raised from the dead to die no more!
3 Mixed Reception to Paul’s Message in Athens
¶ "When the philosophers heard Paul speak of the resurrection from the dead, some mocked. Others said, “We want to hear you again concerning this.” So then Paul went out from among them. However certain men joined with him, and believed. These included Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, among others with them."(Acts 17:32-34).
Certain men believed. Some scoffed at Paul’s message when he mentioned the resurrection, because they did not believe in life beyond death. But some philosophers considered it possible, and were interested to hear more from Paul. Some heard enough to make them believe. (One of these “certain men” was a woman. You might need to think about that.) Paul therefore could consider his speech at the Aeopagus quite a success. A small church was started in a city where that was no easy task for one solitary man.