Athens was an idolatrous city that perplexed the apostle Paul on his second missionary journey (v 16). It was also a cosmopolitan city, so Paul applied the principle he later taught in Romans 1.16, that the Gospel was to be preached first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. So, firstly, he preached to the Jews in their synagogue, then to others in the marketplace (v 17) and, ultimately, on Mars’ Hill (vv 18-34).
When Paul had preached previously to the Jews at Thessalonica he did so from the Old Testament (17.1-4), but he preached to the pagans in Athens on Creation (vv 18-34). “Initially, it is the work of God in creation that tells him (man) of his accountability to God. But it is the Word of God in Holy Scripture which tells him of Jesus Christ and the way back to God.”1 We, too, ought to use discretion in our evangelism (Prov 11.30; cf Mt 10.16). Let us now focus on the philosophers who were challenged by Paul on Mars’ Hill.
The Origin and Objectives of the Philosophers (v 18a)
Happiness and pleasure are the supreme good, and the basis of morality, according to Epicurus and his followers. The former was a moderate person who lived from 341-270 BC, but the latter, by Paul’s time, were given to gross sensualism. However, true happiness is only possible when one is forgiven by God (Ps 32.1). The Stoics’ philosophy originated with Zeno of Citium in 3 BC, and the name derives from the painted porch (stoa poikile) in the Agora at Athens. The Stoics believed that the highest good was to cultivate indifference to both pleasure and pain. Patient endurance is a virtue Christians should cultivate (Jas 1.3), but that is very different from Stoicism.
The Opinion of the Philosophers (v 18b)
“What will this babbler say?”, they asked. Young’s Literal Translation reads “What would this seed-picker wish to say?” M R Vincent2 elaborates on this picture. The philosophers compared Paul to a bird which picks up seeds in the street and markets, and they thought Paul mixed different ideas in order to form a new doctrine. Rather, he had come to proclaim the Gospel as presented in the Holy Scriptures, with its basis as “Jesus and the resurrection.” Perhaps they thought “the resurrection” was a goddess!
The Occupation of the Philosophers (vv 19-21)
The philosophers brought Paul to Mars’ Hill, so called because of the mythical trial of the god Mars, supposedly held there, for the murder of the son of Neptune. Its other name was Areopagus; the highest court in the land. They loved novelty, so they asked Paul of the “new doctrine” he was proclaiming. It was new both in quality and in character. The Gospel message, since its introduction over 2,000 years ago, is “old yet ever new”.3
The Observation Paul Had of the Athenians (vv 22-23)
Paul was very polite, as usual, when dealing with his hearers. He told them that they were “very religious” (v 22, NIV4), yet ignorant of the true God, and pointed out their altar with the inscription “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” The Athenians wanted to ensure that they had not overlooked any god in their worship, to safeguard against any judgment that might come upon them. Their religion must, therefore, have been one of fear. The inscription served as a springboard for Paul’s discourse, by which he dispelled their ignorance. Some Christians are able to adapt a phrase in order to present the Gospel. For example, in an open air service, one preacher made a pun from the words on an advertisement by a utility company - “Be converted”.
The Outlook of Paul and the Philosophers (vv 24-31)
Paul very skilfully and diplomatically handled the outlook of the philosophers in his public discourse. He dealt with issues he was passionate about, and showed how the philosophers’ views were false and futile. The first pillar of Paul’s preaching was Creation (v 24). Both parties denied a Creator; the Epicureans believing in the ‘Big Bang’ theory, like many today, and the Stoics embracing the kind of pantheism that is now perpetuated by the New Age Movement. Paul’s preaching was clear - the universe came into existence through the spoken word of God; He who governs the world (Gen 1; Ps 22.28).
Providence was the second pillar (Acts 17.25). The New English Dictionary states that “Providence is the beneficent control or care of God over His creatures.” He does not rely on human agency, but rather gives and sustains all life. He gives breath to humans (Gen 2.7; Dan 5.23) and to animals (Ps 104.29). The Epicureans were atheists, and said that, even if God existed, He would not be interested in His creatures. Paul preached to them, and to the Stoics, that God’s providence proves that He is the Originator of, and is distinct from, His creation.
Government was the third pillar of Paul’s message (Acts 17.26-30). God “made of one every nation of men” (v 26, RV5). Adam was the first of the human race (Deut 32.8) which has three branches; Shem, Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah (Gen 6.10; 9.25-27). The descendants of these men were scattered because they built the tower of Babel (11.8-9), and were known thereafter as nations. God allocated territories to different nations (Deut 1-4) and, in particular, He allocated the land of Canaan to the nation of Israel. Furthermore, God divided the history of this world into ages or epochs of time: “by faith we understand the ages to have been prepared by a saying of God” (Heb 11.3, YLT6). Paul’s words must have appealed to the Stoics, for they were very interested in the international scene. They learnt that they were not living in Greece by chance, and neither do we in our respective countries. Continuing, Paul preached that God desires men to seek Him (Isa 55.6; Hos 10.12), and rewards those who do (Heb 11.6). They should, therefore, feel or grope after Him, and find Him. The Epicureans thought God was, at best, a remote Being, but, in reality, the Word of God was near them (Rom 10.8). Our existence and activity of life are ultimately controlled by God’s preserving power over us in every circumstance, for He is omnipresent. Jonah learnt this by bitter experience, but not so David (Ps 139.7-10). Paul was alluding to the pantheistic teaching of the Stoics when he quoted from Aratus of Cilicea who described humanity as God’s “offspring”. Men are the offspring of God creationally (Gen 1.26-27), made in the image and likeness of God. “Image” implies that they represent and manifest God, whereas “likeness” indicates “the original after which a thing is patterned.”7
Acts 17.30-31a illustrates the epochs of time mentioned in verse 26. These epochs are also called “times” and “seasons” (Acts 1.7; 1 Thess 5.1). “Times” refers to specific periods, whereas “seasons” refers to the character of those distinct periods. Paul first referred to the past, which was characterised by man’s ignorance of God, and God’s forbearance. In the present, however, we live in a period when God commands all men to repent but, in the future, a day of judgment will come when Christ will judge this world (Jn 5.22, 27).
Resurrection was the fourth mighty pillar on which rested Paul’s famous address on Mars’ Hill (Acts 17.31b-32). The resurrection of Christ gave assurance of future judgment, as well as present salvation. The bodily resurrection of Christ is a fundamental doctrine of Christianity that permeates the Book of Acts. The Epicureans would mock it because, essentially, they were atheists. Others procrastinated.
The Outcome of the Discourse (vv 32-34)
Paul’s first three missions in Europe, at Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea, led to many converts, but were accompanied by much physical abuse. At Athens there were fewer converts, and the abuse Paul received was verbal. Some Athenians, such as Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, changed allegiance and believed Paul’s message, demonstrating that the Gospel is impartial to status and gender (v 34). They were a microcosm of the people God was calling from the nations to form His Church (15.14).
1 R Joslin, Urban Harvest, p 186.
2 M R Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (volume 1), p 264.
3 From William A Williams’ hymn, “There is a story sweet to hear …”
4 New International Version.
5 Revised Version.
6 Young’s Literal Translation.
7 W E Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, p 136.