The Work in Athens: Part 2 of 6
by John Lowe
For all it had going for it, Greek civilization was spiritually bankrupt. They populated Mount Olympus with gods made in the image and likeness of men. They projected the family lines of human personality into infinity, and, because the lines they projected were those of fallen men, they created a pantheon of fallen gods. The savagery and immortality of their gods were fabled, and their theology was a mass of contradictory fables. They had no knowledge of salvation, no divine inspiration. If a Greek wanted to get drunk he turned to Dionysius; if he wanted to indulge his lust he had Aphrodite; Hermes helped him if he decided to steal. Zeus, who headed the Greek pantheon, was savage and lustful. The Greeks had no church, no creed, and no systematic theology. Since their gods had no morals, how then could their worshippers? Neither purity, humanity, nor mercies found a patron among the gods. Greek philosophy found out many truths but never found THE truth.
Eight hundred years of Greek mythology and five hundred years of Greek philosophy came and went. God gave human wisdom ample time to demonstrate what it could do. After the Greek world demonstrated its moral and spiritual bankruptcy and showed that human knowledge and intellectualism was not only incapable of finding God but was actually wandering further and further from God, Christ came.
Paul knew that idolatry was demonic (1 Corinthians 10:14-23) and that the many gods of the Greeks were only characters in stories who were unable to change men’s lives (1 Corinthians 8:1-6). With all of their culture and wisdom, the Greeks did not know the true God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). To see that great city so completely given over to idolatry filled Paul with righteous wrath. Paul viewed Athens as a city of lost humanity, all doomed to a Christless eternity because of rampant pagan idolatry. To see such a victory for the powers of darkness! To see Satan binding men and holding them in such degrading superstition and despair!
17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.
Evidently, Paul stuck to his usual method of missionary evangelism. The synagogue was the logical place to begin. Here, at least, he could expect to find Jews and God-fearing (devout) Gentiles who held his own views about idolatry. But there was not much hope of stirring-up the Jews to crusade against idolatry; they had long since come to terms with it. Their response was to withdraw from it in disdainful scorn. On the Sabbath he debated with the Jews, apparently following the same method that he used at Thessalonica to prove that Christ was Messiah. The Jews were probably not numerous in Athens, but as usual, their community provided him with a base from which to work. But during the week, on a daily basis, he shared his testimony in the Agora, the famous marketplace, and hub of Athenian life. The apostle reasoned with men about the true God and His only begotten and well-beloved Son There he got his most noticeable response, especially from some of the philosophers. The Epicureans and Stoics were among the leading educators and philosophers of the day, and they served as a representative of the confusion caused by Paul’s preaching.
Evidently, he made quite a stir. People began to talk about this strange Jew who spoke of a true and living God, of God being manifest in flash and a God-Man crucified by the Romans and raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit. Soon he became the talk of the town, and gossip about him reached the ears of the authorities.
18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
Athens was a cosmopolitan city, and Paul would have found himself with a motley crowd in the Agora. But it was not only with hoi polloi that he came into contact, but with some of the philosophers who also frequented that place, Epicureans, and Stoics. The philosophers’ interest in Paul’s teaching was probably no more than academic, but there may have been just a hint of threat in them, because in Athens the introduction of “strange gods,” though common enough, was a capital offence if for this reason the local deities were rejected and the state religion was disturbed.
Epicureans were materialistic and atheists through and through, believing that everything came from atoms or particles of matter. There was no life beyond this one; all that was human returned to matter at death. Though the Epicureans did not deny the existence of god’s, they saw them as totally indifferent to humanity. They did not believe in providence of any sort. The main purpose of life, the Epicureans held, was pleasure, which was to be sought in a happy and tranquil life, free from pain or trouble or fear, especially the fear of death.
The Stoics had a more dynamic view of the gods than the Epicureans, believing very much in the divine providence. They were pantheists4, believing that the ultimate divine principle was to be found in all of nature, including human beings. This part of divinity, which they refer to as the logos, was the cohesive rational principle that bound the entire cosmic order together. Humans thus realized their fullest potential when they lived by reason. By reason, i.e., the divine principle within them which linked them with the gods and nature—they could discover ultimate truth for themselves. The Stoics generally were men with high moral principles and excessive pride; men who put great stock in self-sufficiency (They taught men that they did not need the help of God.), personal discipline, and self-control. Since they viewed all humans as bound together by common possession of the divine logos, they also had a strong sense of universal brotherhood.
It was not particularly complementary when the philosophers dubbed Paul a “babbler.” They used a colorful word, “seed-speaker,” which evoked images of a bird pecking indiscriminately at seeds in a barnyard. It referred to a dilettante, someone who picked up scraps of ideas here and there and passed them off as profound thought, even though they had no depth of understanding whatsoever. They could not understand Paul’s concept of resurrection at all. Epicureans did not believe in any existence after death, and Stoics believed that only the soul, the divine spark, survived death. So, Paul, what was this idea of a bodily resurrection? “He must be speaking of a new god named resurrection along with this new God Jesus he keeps talking about.” The resurrection of the body was to them as absurd as it was undesirable. It is still as much a stumbling-block to many as it was to the Athenians, but it is integral to the Christian faith.
It did not take long for the philosophers to hear about this “new thing” that was going on in the Agora, and they came and listened to Paul and probably debated with him.
Some years later Paul would write to the Romans: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth” (Romans 1:16). He was not ashamed of that Gospel when preaching to the ruling Romans, to the religious Jews, or to the rationalistic Athenians. He knew that in the Gospel, however much it might be scorned by men, he had the real answer to man’s spiritual needs.
19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
Verse 19 has created one of the liveliest discussions surrounding Paul’s Areopagus discourse. Was Paul tried before a formal Athenian court named Areopagus, or did he deliver a public address from a hill known as the Areopagus? The NIV has already solved the problem by translating “a meeting of the Areopagus,” which clearly indicates the first possibility. The Greek is not so unambiguous, merely stating that the Athenians took hold of Paul and lead him “to the Areopagus.” The Areopagus was both a court and a hill, due to the fact that the court traditionally met on that hill. The term Areopagus means hill of Ares. Ares was the Greek god of war. The Roman equivalent god was Mars, hence the KJV “Mars hill” (17:22). All that remains today is a flight of stairs cut into the southeastern side of the hill and rock-hewn benches where the assembly used to meet.