Athens was in a period of decline during Paul’s day, but it was still recognized in the ancient world as a center for culture and education.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him.Acts 17:17-18 (NIV)
It’s intriguing that Paul had attracted the attention of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, the two leading schools of philosophy in that day. Both philosophies were basically atheist.
The Epicurean motto, “Enjoy Life.”
The Stoic motto, “Endure Life.”
Nevertheless, it seems Paul was able to identify common ground to make the message of Christ relevant to their way of thinking and way of life.
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god.
So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.Acts 17:22-23
If you have a Bible open, you can follow along Paul’s argument with me:
God has given all people life and breath and everything else: The first thing Paul pointed out was that God had created the world. In his letter to the Colossians Paul was more specific: all things were created by Jesus, and for Jesus. Therefore—and Paul must have swept his hands up to take in all the temples and idols—God cannot be contained by all this.
As Father, God is the creator and sustainer of all things; He is the source, giver of life, and has put the stamp of His image on every person.
God brought forth all the nations Paul quoted their own Greek poets in explaining that God upholds the universe by the word of His power, Jesus. Jesus actively holds all things together, and all people belong to God. God has a right, therefore, to command all people everywhere to repent.
The Father has a purpose for every person and appoints all history, overseeing exactly where everyone will live and for how long. God the Father perfectly provides for us, His children, in every situation.
We are God’s offspring. Paul wanted the Athenians to understand that God was about to judge the entire world. Not just one people or one nation or one political system, but all people equally without partiality were under God’s rule.
God is our Father. And as Father, it is God’s right to rule His universe with His law, to judge wrong and to bring justice.
Yet it is also the Father’s joy to forgive and restore. God’s intention, Paul explained, was for people to seek Him, to reach out to Him and find Him, because He is not far from any person. Nevertheless, there was still an urgency to repent, right now. The Father had raised His Son from the dead as proof of His ability to rescue them from the coming judgment.
The one they were to put their faith in to rescue them was the very one Who would one day come to judge, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Because of Jesus’ humility in obedience God has exalted Him, giving Him authority over every authority. Jesus now remains the unique God‑man forever—fully God and fully man. Jesus is actively ruling with God, as Lord over all.
In all that Paul said, you could interchange the word ‘God’ with the word ‘Jesus.’ The Father and the Son are equal in being, yet in the plan of redemption the Son subordinated Himself to the Father, a willing subordination that in no way implies inferiority. At a specific moment in earth’s history, God the Son took on human form, becoming the man we know as Jesus Christ.
As God, Jesus is eternal, He always existed. Before there was anything, Jesus was with God, a distinct person in the Godhead, and also God. In the introduction to the book of Hebrews, Jesus is portrayed as “the radiance of the glory of God.” Not just an image or a reflection of God, He is “the exact imprint of God’s nature,” “He is the image of the invisible God,” Jesus is the absolutely authentic representation of God’s being. God says that all of His fullness – the totality of God’s powers and attributes – rests in Jesus.
Jesus has a true human nature that is perfectly united with His divine nature. Jesus’ human nature had the limitations of normal humanity, except He was completely without sin. As a human being He humbled Himself by becoming perfectly obedient to the Father, even to the point of death on the cross for the sake of our salvation, then rising from the dead.
The resurrection is the crowning moment of Jesus’ glory and the foundational fact upon which Christianity rests.
For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”Acts 17:31-32 (NIV)
The resurrection was the one thing many of these philosophers refused to accept. They believed in immortality but would not entertain the possibility of physical resurrection. For Paul, who had been so persecuted in Thessalonica and Berea, yet also so encouraged, this came as an important life lesson.
Initial success may give way to strong opposition, even in the form of disinterest.
Paul had stood firm in the face of fierce opposition, but it was this apathy that seemed to really get to him.
At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.Acts 17:33-34 (NIV)
Paul didn’t try anymore, he didn’t argue, he didn’t attempt to reason with them, he didn’t quote anymore of their philosophers, or try to move them with brilliant rhetoric. He simply left. Yet, even in the face of apathy and intellectual arrogance, God will always accomplish what He has set out to do through us.
As Luke noted, God added believers even here in Athens that day, including the notable Dionysius. The Areopagus –“Ares’ Hill” in Greek – was located on a slope near Athens’ Acropolis and is the earliest known ruling council in that ancient city, its origins dating to around 650 BC. In Paul’s time, the Areopagus retained considerable power in administrative oversight, religious functions, and educational responsibilities. Only members of the aristocracy who had served as magistrates of their city-state could join the Areopagus, making Dionysius an important patron, supporter, and ally of Paul and his team.
[Paul preaching to the philosophers gathered on the Areopagus | Raphael / Public domain]
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