The Work in Athens: Part 1 of 6

by John Lowe
(Laurens, SC)

March 21, 2015

Acts of the Apostles

Lesson: IV.C.7: The Work in Athens (17:15-34)

Acts 17:15-34 (KJV)

15 And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed.
16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
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.
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.
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.
21 (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.)
22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.
23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
25 Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.
30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.
33 So Paul departed from among them.
34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


This section could well be called “Witnessing to the Athenian Intellectuals.” Paul’s brief visit to Athens is a centerpiece for the entire book of Acts. The scene revolves around Paul’s famous address before the Areopagus (17:22-31). This is preceded by an introductory narrative that portrays the “Athenian scene” in vivid local color (17:16-21). This narrative is very much keyed to the content of the speech and provides the framework for its major themes. The same is true for the conclusion of the Athenian narrative (17:32-34), which is primarily a conclusion to the speech. As a whole, one can scarcely speak of an Athenian “mission.” Although there were several converts and a fellowship may well have grown out of Paul’s ministry there, Luke did not dwell on this or mention the establishment of a church in Athens. It would be a mistake, however, to see Paul’s Athenian experience as a “maverick” episode. The opposite is true. The central item, the speech on the Areopagus, is the prime example in Acts of Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles. The only other example is the brief sermon at Lystra (14:15-17), which is

itself almost a recap of this one. In the following narrative Paul works among Gentiles for eighteen months in Corinth and for nearly three years in Ephesus, but no example of his preaching is given. The reason quite simply is that it has already been given—in Athens, in the very center of Gentile culture and intellect.


15 And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed.

Whether Paul went to Athens by boat or by land is not known. In either case some brothers accompanied Paul to guarantee his safety arrival.

There is an important question which needs to be settled before we begin our study. The question is, “when did Timothy and Silas join Paul in Athens?” First Thessalonians 3:1-21, indicates that Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica from Athens. This leads many scholars to argue that Luke must have been in error in seeing Paul as traveling to Athens alone; Timothy was with him and was then sent from Athens back to Thessalonica. However, it is possible that both Luke and Paul are right, if each gave only part of the picture. Paul may have traveled to Athens alone, but, once there, he summoned Timothy and Silas to join him there as soon as possible. They did so, and then Paul dispatched both from Athens, Timothy to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:1-21) and Silas to parts unknown. One can never be dogmatic (pig-headed) about any detail which the text itself doesn’t specifically warrant, but the possibility of some such simple solution guards against forming hasty conclusions about the unreliability of a text. In any event, Timothy and Silas did finally join Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:5).

Athens was the university city of the ancient world, filled with all the cynicism and snobbery of such a city. The Acropolis, with its magnificent square and deified heroes, looked down upon the intellectual capital of mankind. Everywhere there were objects that expressed the Athenian love of beauty and the hopeless quest of Greece to find God. West of the Acropolis and rising above the busy marketplace of the Agora was Mars Hill, where the judicial body of the Areopagus held court.

Art, literature, oratory, and religion were the stuff of which Athens was made. This was the native home of Socrates and Plato, the adopted home of Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno. Here was the cradle of democracy. Out of respect for her illustrious past, the Romans left Athens alone, a free city, at liberty as an ally of Rome to pursue her own goals. As a Hellenist and Jew, Paul would already know much about the place.


In Paul’s day Athens was only a shadow of the former glory that it had in its “golden age”; the fourth and fifth centuries b.c. Corinth was now the leading city of Greece commercially and politically. Even Athens’s native population had dwindled to an estimated 5,000 voting citizens. But this was considerably augmented by the nonnative population, particularly the artists, the students, and the tourists. And there were the buildings and the works of art, mute testimony to its former grandeur. It was still considered the cultural an intellectual center of the Roman Empire, and it is in this perspective that Luke portrayed it.

16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.

Athens was known the world over for its magnificent art and architecture. The art, however, characteristically portrayed the exploits of the various gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon2, and most of the impressive buildings were temples to the pagan gods—almost every deity known to man could be worshipped there. Athens illustrates to what great heights of achievement man can ascend and still be ignorant of God. For Paul, Jew that he was with his strong monotheism and distaste for graven images, the scene was most disturbing. The NIV is too gentle in saying that he was “greatly distressed.” The Greek word Luke used is much stronger (paroxyno). We get our word “paroxysm3” from it. Paul was “infuriated” at the sight. Ancient descriptions testify that the marketplace was virtually lined with idols, particularly the “herms,” the monuments to Hermes with the head of the god on top. For Paul a thing of beauty was definitely not a joy forever, particularly when it embodied so distorted a view of divinity.

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