Paul At Athens
Acts 17:21-31
(For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)…


1. Jews. The place where he made his first public appearance as a teacher was the synagogue; and his first audience was composed of Jews and devout persons. This was in accordance with the usual apostolic custom of visiting the Jewish place of worship first, and making it the starting point for more extended labours. Nothing is said about the nature or result of his intercourse with his brethren, save that he disputed with them. He would remind them of their splendid opportunities of bearing witness for God in the pagan city.

2. Common people. Leaving the synagogue, and coming to the Agora or market place, the apostle had to mingle with a different class, and the subject of discussion would also be different. The Agora of Athens must not be associated with what is called the market place of a modern town. It was, indeed, the centre of public life, where business was transacted, where busy men moved to and fro, and idlers loitered about. But it was more than that, it was a space decorated with architectural beauties, an attractive place of resort for all classes of the community eager to listen to instruction or hear the news. It was a place where orators and statesmen, poets and artists used to meet for encouragement and stimulus in their several callings. The appearance of a foreigner among such a people, especially if he seemed sociable and talkative, would soon attract a crowd expecting to hear something new. The daily visits of the apostle to the Agora would afford him ample opportunities of proclaiming new truths in the idol city.

3. Philosophers. The philosophers who encountered him were the Epicureans and the Stoics, both of whom had their schools in the vicinity of the Agora.

(1) Epicureans. This sect took its name from Epicurus, who opened a school for the teaching of his philosophy in a garden in Athens; hence his followers were sometimes styled the "Philosophers of the Garden." Epicurus taught that the chief end of man was the attainment of pleasure or happiness; and the way to gain it was the removal of every cause of pain or anxiety. A sound body and a tranquil mind constituted the ideal of Epicurean bliss. The main business of life was to raise the mind above cares. Such was the original aim of this school of philosophy; but its later disciples allowed grossest ideas to enter, and pleasure degenerated into the gratification of the appetites. There was no Creator, and no moral government. There were indeed deities, but they lived in undisturbed tranquillity: serene above the turmoil of the world, careless of mankind. The attainment of bliss like theirs was the main business of man's life on earth.

(2) Stoics. The other sect that encountered Paul was the Stoics, so named because Zeno its founder held his meetings inn building called the Stoa or porch. This system of philosophy is regarded as a nearer approximation to Christianity than the Epicurean, inasmuch as it seems to possess a glimmering of the Divine Fatherhood, and forestalls the Christian truth that goodness is indispensable to happiness. But while it recognises God as the Author of all, it does so in a Pantheistic sense, as if God were everything and everything God. The God of the Stoic is not a distinct personality, but an all-pervading spirit, inseparable from the works of his hands. And not only so, but he, and all his works, are under a pre-ordained decree amounting almost, if not altogether, to fatalism. Everything, indeed, is the result of Fate, and freedom of will consists in bowing to Fate. The man who yields most completely to this iron law is the perfect man. The aim of this system was to produce a passionless conformity to Fate. The pursuit of this end engendered apathy or indifference to everything alike pleasurable and painful. Such was the array of diversified opinion that Paul had to combat, and he nobly vindicated his trust as a Christian teacher in the face of pagan enlightenment. His experience of men, and his knowledge of philosophy, gave him special fitness to discharge the mission that Providence had laid upon him.

4. Public meeting on Mars' hill. To speak on this venerated spot was a distinction reserved for the foremost orators, and Paul's promotion to that distinction showed the profound impression he had made. The summit of Mars' hill was associated in the Athenian mind with solemn and venerable scenes. There sat the most august of assemblies, to dispense justice and confer on religion. The Areopagite court was the supreme tribunal of Athens on social, political, and religious questions. The judges sat in the open air, and their seat on the summit of the rock was reached by a flight of steps. Somewhere on this reserved and hallowed eminence the apostle took his stand; and whether he was there on his defence, as some suppose, or simply for convenience in addressing a large assembly, no spot could have been more suitable for a discussion on the mysteries of religion.

II. THE DISCOURSE. It was no easy task adequately to address the assemblage that gathered to hear him. What theme could be chosen to suit all and benefit all? Their motives were manifold and their tastes diverse. There were the scoffing Jew and the wisdom-loving Greek, the refined Athenian and the rude provincial, the sceptical philosopher and the unsophisticated stranger, the contented Epicurean and the passionless Stoic. We will now listen to the apostle as he attempts to lift his heathen audience out of their ignorance into the knowledge of the true God, and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent.

1. Creator. He begins by setting forth "the unknown God" as the Creator of the world. "God made the world and all things therein." This was an idea entirely new to the speculative minds or the ancient world, and the prominence here given to it shows that, in Paul's estimation, it lay at the foundation of every true system of religion. It was idle to talk of worship if the Being worshipped was not raised above the worshippers by such qualities and attributes as inspired reverence and trust. So that Paul's statement of the fundamental principle of Theism dealt a fatal stab at the views of ancient philosophy on the origin of the world. There could be no compromise between positions so radically at variance; and while philosophies change with the changing generations, the Christian position remains the same as stated from apostolic lips eighteen centuries ago — "God made the world and all things therein."

2. Governor. Advancing a step, the apostle announces the unknown God as the Governor of the world: "He hath made all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times appointed and the bounds of their habitation." Here too there was a sharp contrast between revealed truth and the tenets of the schools. Chance, or Fate, said ancient philosophy, appoints to each nation and race its time and place in the world. No, said Paul, there is one presiding Deity, who not only set the world in motion, and gave everything in it life, but who keeps it going and sustains all life, assigning to each man and nation the sphere they are to fill and the length of their stay. The all-controlling providence of God, indeed, follows from the fact of creation. How grand the conception! God marshalling the nations of the earth one after another on the stage of time, appointing their seasons, their work, and the bounds of their habitation, and then withdrawing them when their work is done!

3. Judge. The apostle further declares the unknown God to be the Judge of all men. "He hath appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness." Here is another aspect of the Divine character and work, which carries our thoughts forward to the close of the present constitution of things, just as the reference to creation recalled their beginning.

4. Father. This is another aspect in which the unknown God is set forth. "In Him we live, and move, and have our being, as certain also of your own poets have said, For we also are His offspring." If the ideas of creation, superintendence, and responsibility were unknown to the ancients, much less was the Divine Fatherhood. The quotation referred to does not prove that they recognised God as Father save in the Stoical sense. Cleanthes, one of the poets, quoted from, was a Stoic, and Paul, in citing him, not only showed his acquaintance with Greek literature, but his willingness to take up common ground with his hearers whenever that was possible. In doing so, he doubtless gained for himself a more respectful hearing. He adopted the language of the Stoics, but put upon it a Christian meaning. Taking our position, then, in the world as God's children, we can view everything in a different light, no longer repelled by the unapproachable majesty of a Great Creator, but drawn by His parental love. The works of His hand also will have an additional interest for us.

5. Is God knowable? This is the question to which the whole argument was leading up, and the answer is in the affirmative. The main purpose of Paul's reasoning was to show the Athenians that He whom they styled the "unknown God" could be known if they sought Him aright. Though the Divine Being was for a long time pleased to draw a veil over His character and modes of working, it was not intended that He should for ever remain unknown. Indeed, all the arrangements of His providence were such as to lead men to the knowledge of Him.

III. THE APPLICATION. The apostle did not content himself with laying down great general principles. Like a practical man, he applied them. And in order to insure success it will be observed that throughout this masterly exposition there is an evident desire to carry his hearers along with him, so that they might be without excuse if they continued ignorant of God. Having thus laid down a few broad principles, he goes on to apply them to the religion and life of the people.

1. Idolatry. The first application is to idol worship, in which the Athenians prided themselves. It required no small courage and tact to assail with effect such a deep-rooted custom in its very hot bed. The inference was irresistible. The invisible Godhead cannot be represented in visible symbols; and even though it could, every such effort is here condemned because it is a dishonour to God. Besides, we do not need it any more than a child needs the help of an image to love its parents; and we ought not to attempt it, because we have a personal God and Father, who is near to every soul that seeks Him. Moreover all such externals are not only not helps to spiritual worship, but may become a positive hindrance.

2. Repentance. The next application which the apostle makes of his subject is to repentance, or the need of an inward change, which was never contemplated by the ancient religions. Their whole history was an acknowledgment of impotence to effect such a change, or satisfy the burdened heart.

3. Jesus and the resurrection. One practical question still remained. How were they to find favour with this just and holy God? The answer to this question brings us to the climax of this trenchant appeal. There was only one way of return to God, and that not through images of silver and gold, but through Him who is the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of His Person. If they must have an image of the invisible God, they had it in the person of His Incarnate Son, who was dead and is alive again, and clothed with judicial authority.

IV. THE RESULT. It has often been pointed out that the saving impression made by Paul on this occasion was disappointingly small. Nor need this excite surprise, when we reflect on the peculiar character of the discourse, and especially the sensuous habits of the Greek mind, its philosophic culture and pride of intellect. The haughty cultured Greek would not readily yield himself to the teaching of a rude barbarian. It is seldom that we are able to see the results of our work for Christ in this world, and no doubt the great apostle never saw on earth the fruits of that day's work.

1. Some mocked. The philosophic mind of Athens would not bend to the simplicity of the gospel.

2. Others procrastinated. They had a passing glimpse of the falseness and hollowness of the present, and they thought the matter worthy of more serious consideration.

3. A few believed. We know the names of only two — Dionysius, a judge of the Areopagite court, and a woman named Damaris, of whom we are told nothing.

(D. Merson, B. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)

WEB: Now all the Athenians and the strangers living there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.

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