Paul at Athens: Opportunities, Obstacles, and Outcomes

by Jonathan S Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

Denomination: Southern Baptist
Text: Acts 17:16-34

Our text is from Acts, chapter 17, and here is the background. Paul has left Philippi, as written in Acts 16, and now he’s heading to Athens after he had been in Thessalonica and Berea. He’s now there in Athens, which was the capital of thought in those days. Athens was one of the largest and most important cities in the whole Roman Empire, and probably not on the “let’s build a church here” list for church planters! Regardless, Paul knew he was following God’s Will. Now let’s read the text, beginning with verse 16:

Acts 17:16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. 18 And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, "What would this idle babbler wish to say?" Others, "He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,"-because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? 20 "For you are bringing some strange things to our ears ; so we want to know what these things mean ." 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)

Paul Found Many Opportunities

The first thing we can notice is the Opportunities Paul encountered. One of those was in the synagogue itself. Paul’s strategy was to visit the synagogue first and then share the Gospel with Gentiles. Luke records that Paul was reasoning, or dialoguing, with the Jews in the synagogue of Athens. I missed this the first few times I’ve studied this passage, namely, how Jews made it to Athens in the first place. It’s anybody’s guess, humanly speaking and I’m not even going to speculate how they got there. But they were there, and had a functioning synagogue even in a city full of idols.

Now, not only did Paul speak in the synagogue, he also went out to the market place. We aren’t very familiar with this concept of going to a market-place, or an “agora”, the original Greek word. Strong’s concordance says that the “agora” had many functions, among these buying and selling. Paul had to purchase his clothes and his meals, and the “agora” or market place was exactly where he would go to do this! Can you imagine the opportunities to speak with people, many of whom had to go through the same ordeal every day? I’m sure there were times Paul wished he could have had manna, or even prayed for “his daily bread”, too!

Another thing that we don’t, perhaps, understand in this day and age—ordinarily, this was not the kind of work a free male citizen would do! A “Scholastic” book about ancient Greece described how the free men of most cities would go about their daily things, but the women or slaves would actually do the work of maintaining the household. If a male went to the market, he was generally a slave; or, if a woman went there, she was considered either a slave or a woman of low reputation. Good and proper Greek women seldom left their homes in that time.

We can be sure that a Jewish male, probably alone, going to the market place regularly would be noticed and sure enough, there were two groups of philosophers (!) who did take notice. Strong’s concordance also gave a purpose for “agoras” or market places, and that was a place of assembly or public debate. So they’ve heard Paul talking to people, of every social standing, and these folks, probably among the most well-educated men of their day, wanted to know about Paul’s conversation.

We need to stop here for a moment and think about these two groups. Jamieson, Faucett, and Brown’s commentary gives some very helpful information (link is below):

They state that the Epicureans were “atheistic materialists” and that pleasure was the chief end of life itself. Someone described them as the original frat-house boys because they loved to live for pleasure! Granted, life wasn’t meant to necessarily be dull and boring, but let’s face it, even the best experiences tend to fade after a while. Dare we forget the law of diminishing returns? Apparently they hadn’t heard of it, or else didn’t want to give up their “party-hearty” lifestyle!

Luke also mentions the Stoics. These men were “severe and lofty pantheists (Robertson)”, and apparently thought that life was meant to be endured, not enjoyed. That sure doesn’t sound like much of a life to me, if I literally had to wake up and had nothing to look forward to! Again, for these folks, they seemed to believe that you can hurt me, you can kill me, you do anything to me you want to, but you won’t touch me. This is sad, to think that the gift of emotion, a gift from God, was to be disabled, I suppose, because of a philosophy of life. No, thank you, to that one, either.

We do know that besides these philosophers, others were listening too. Luke says that some—we aren’t told who—were asking, “What does this idle babbler wish to say?” The idea is that if he had an original idea in his head, it would die of loneliness. Dr. Robertson adds a further comment, “What would this picker up of seeds wish to say, if he should get off an idea? (”
Others observed, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities (verse 18)”. This means something new to the Athenians. This is ironic, because the city was full of idols, and Paul seems to be bringing in something totally new!

Paul Faced Several Obstacles

All this and others could be considered obstacles. A few other things we know about Paul could be considered obstacles, too:

-He was Jewish, probably looked upon with the same feelings as those of the synagogue;

- He apparently spoke with a different accent or even dialect, than the Athenians. Some years later Paul told the Corinthians that his “. . .bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account (2 Corinthians 10:10, NASB”.)

- He didn’t receive a very cordial reception, either. Luke records how Paul had many opportunities to share the Gospel, but there isn’t a record that he ever won a single soul to faith in Jesus, in Athens, up to this point. Sure, some engaged in dialogue, and the philosophers engaged in debate with him, but nowhere do we read any of them became believers.

- He also faced a charge or challenge in that the people wanted to hear something new, but didn’t seem to want to act on the knowledge they had received!

- Worst of all, he was called before the Areopagus, a group of Athens’ leaders; perhaps some of the most well-educated men of their time. No doubt he wondered what was going to happen, standing alone (except for the Lord standing with him) in the midst of people whose intentions were, at best, unknown!

Paul Encountered Various Outcomes

We’ll not go into Paul’s address or sermon to the people in the Areopagus, or Mars’ Hill, but it’s a masterpiece in how he used the language of scholars to explain the Gospel. Notice that he didn’t mention anything about sacrifices, offerings, crucifixion, or anything like that, but he did mention God, Jesus, judgment to come, and so forth. After he finished, there were a number of various outcomes:

Some mocked, meaning just that. I can just see some of these folks listening, more or less politely, until they get to something they don’t understand. THEN, they begin to mock, or sneer, or even bust out laughing (who knows?).

My guess is that this reaction could range from a “ahh, thanks but no thanks (laugh)—I’ve got a hot date at the temple tonight”, to “Are you kidding me?” to “That is a bunch of rot—I’ve heard better stuff at the theater”. Any number of responses, but one thing in common: they didn’t give the Gospel much attention.

Others were more polite, it seems (according to Dr. Robertson’s notes), in that they said, “We’ll hear you again about this (at some time in the future)” but they didn’t give a definite time. Well, okay, since Paul did give them a lot to think about!

We can almost see a parallel in the way they responded here as they did before: some mocked before, and did the same here; others politely wanted to know more, and then politely put off, for the time being, a chance to know more; but praise the Lord, it doesn’t stop there!


God promised that His Word would never return void (see Isaiah 55:11, King James Version) and it certainly brought fruit here, even in Athens! Dionysus was an Areopagite, or a member of the very “court” or council who asked (!) Paul to defend his views. There was a woman named Damaris, whose role in society seems to be shady or murky at best. Several publications state that good or moral Greek women seldom left their homes, so what was she doing at the Areopagus?

We don’t know what she did before she heard the gospel, but we know that she, too, believed in Jesus! And we read of other men who believed also, people whom we’ll see in Heaven some day when we go to be with Jesus. It doesn’t matter if we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, or if we hear the trumpet sound, but my eternal home is Heaven, and I hope yours is too. If not, you can make that decision today and please, please, do it today. You never know when you might face your last opportunity!

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.

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