Have you ever felt like packing up all your stuff and getting away for a while? Well, the Bible records one such event in the life of Paul the Apostle- a road trip to the city of Athens that turned out a lot different than Paul may have expected.
“The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible” (Acts 17:14-15).
In a lot of ways, Athens was the place to be in the first century. There were at least 250,000 people living in Athens in those days and it was a well-known center of art, literature, politics and architecture. Athens was a sophisticated city and a great place for the intellectual elite to get together, hang out and discuss the latest “deep thoughts” of the day.
Now perhaps Paul thought that Athens would be a good place to “get away from it all” for a short time while waiting for his friends to join him. After all, Paul had previously been beaten up in Philippi (Acts 16:12-23), run out of town in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-10) and had just been forced to leave the town of Berea (Acts 17:10-14). Perhaps Paul was looking forward to a chance to kick back for a little while, relax, pray, see the sights and enjoy the city.
But something caught Paul’s attention shortly after he arrived…
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere throughout the city. He went to the synagogue for discussions with the Jews and the devout Gentiles, and spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there” (Acts 17:16-17).
Located throughout the city of Athens were temples dedicated to various pagan “gods.” There were so many of these idols in Athens that the original wording of this passage suggests that the whole city was totally given over to them. In fact, historians tell us that there were more idols in Athens than in all the other cities of Greece combined. It was half-jokingly said that there were so many idols in Athens that it was easier to find a “god” than a man there.
So Paul took the opportunity to talk to people in the synagogue and public square about what God was really like. This got the notice of some of the local scholar-types…
“He also had an encounter with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Their reaction, when he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, was, ‘He’s a dreamer,’ or, ‘He’s pushing some foreign religion.’ But they invited him to the forum at Mars Hill. ‘Come and tell us more about this new religion,’ they said, ‘for you are saying some rather startling things and we want to hear more.’ (I should explain that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest new ideas!)” (Acts 17:18-21)
Paul’s discussions about Jesus caught the attention of two very different groups of people. The first group was known as the Epicureans (pronounced epi-kyoor-ee-ans). Like many people today, these guys lived a kind of “if it feels good, do it” sort of lifestyle. The Epicureans believed that things like pleasure and happiness should be the number one goals in life. The Epicureans thought that if “gods” really did exist, they didn’t care very much about human beings.
The second group was called the Stoics (pronounced stow-icks). The Stoics believed that God was everything and everything was God- another belief held by many people today. The Stoics believed in living a very structured and orderly life that would be unaffected by anything that happened in the outside world.
So the Stoics and the Epicureans had very different beliefs but there was one thing that they had in common- they were both a long, long way from the truth. And while these men seemed to be interested in hearing what Paul had to say, it also seems that they didn’t have much respect for him. Acts 17:18 tells us that they responded to Paul by saying, “What is this babbler trying to say?” (NIV). This little insult would roughly translate into our modern-day language as, “what is this birdbrain talking about?”
Well as it turns out, the “birdbrain” had a lot to talk about…
“So Paul, standing before them at the Mars Hill forum, addressed them as follows: ‘Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious, for as I was out walking I saw your many altars, and one of them had this inscription on it– “‘To the Unknown God.'” You have been worshiping him without knowing who he is, and now I wish to tell you about him'” (Acts 17:22-23).
The Mars Hill forum (also known as the Areopagus) was a 50-ft (15.25 m) tall hill where the Athens Supreme Court met. Against this judicial setting, Paul started his talk by pointing out that the Athenians clearly believed in the existence of a higher Being- so much so that they even put up an altar dedicated to the “Unknown God.” Since this God was unknown to people of Athens, Paul was happy to tell them about Him…
“He made the world and everything in it, and since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples; and human hands can’t minister to his needs– for he has no needs! He himself gives life and breath to everything, and satisfies every need there is.” (Acts 17:24-25)
Remember that the Stoics believed that God was everything and everything was God. So Paul started out by correcting this basic misunderstanding, teaching them that God made the world and everything in it. You see, God is not a part of creation- God created creation and is distinct and separate from it. This teaching (as well as other truths about God) is important for us to remember today for one simple reason: if people start off with wrong ideas about God then everything that proceeds from those ideas are sure to be wrong too.
Paul continued his explanation a little further by quoting something that was written by a member of Athens’s very own artistic community…
“‘For in him we live and move and are! As one of your own poets says it, “‘We are the sons of God.'” If this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol made by men from gold or silver or chipped from stone. God tolerated man’s past ignorance about these things, but now he commands everyone to put away idols and worship only him. For he has set a day for justly judging the world by the man he has appointed, and has pointed him out by bringing him back to life again'” (Acts 17:28-31).
People have always had a lot of crazy ideas about God and it seems that things haven’t changed much in the 2000 years since Paul spoke on Mars Hill. If you think about it, Paul’s message to the Athenians is just as true for people in our world today.
You see, the people of Athens may have believed that they had the right image of God but in making all kinds of idols -images that were made by people and not by God- all they actually did was turn God into little copies of themselves!
In a similar way, if people today have an image of God based only on what they think or feel then God is no longer real- he has simply become a projection of their own thoughts and feelings just like the idols created by the people of Athens! The main point is this: if people want to know what God is really like, all they have to do is look at Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 4:4).
So Paul ended his message by making a point that applied to the people of Athens as well as people today: the time for making up images and stories and myths and ideas about God is over; the time has come to get right with God through the Man (Jesus) that He has appointed!
Unfortunately, this didn’t go over too well with certain members of Paul’s audience…
“When they heard Paul speak of the resurrection of a person who had been dead, some laughed, but others said, ‘We want to hear more about this later.’ That ended Paul’s discussion with them, but a few joined him and became believers. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the City Council, and a woman named Damaris, and others” (Acts 17:32-34).
So some thought Jesus’ resurrection was a big joke and others put off a decision by saying in effect, “Uh, yeah, we’ll talk about this again some other time.” But a few people did hear the message and believed it. These reactions tell us something very important about the way people often respond to the message of Jesus.
Paul’s experience with the Athenians tells us that people may often laugh off a good explanation of the gospel even if it’s given by a great authority like the Apostle Paul. In the same way, don’t be disappointed if people laugh you off or put you off when you talk to them about Jesus. Just keep communicating the message of Jesus by the things you say and do and remember that God always honors His Word (see Isaiah 55:11).
One more thing: don’t forget that the Athenians were the heavy-duty intellectuals of Paul’s day. These guys were among the most well-read and well-spoken people in the world at that time and they represented the best and the brightest that Greece had to offer. But despite their reputation as great intellectuals, many of these people were totally fooled into believing in phony “gods” that didn’t even really exist!
Once more, this illustrates a point that is just as true today as it was in first-century Athens. The point is this: really smart people can sometimes get fooled into believing some really dumb things. This is good to remember when talking about Jesus to other people, especially those people who can speak or debate really well. Remember, a smart person who lives his or her life as if God does not exist is really acting foolishly! (see Psalm 14:1).