The Work in Athens: Part 3 of 6

by John Lowe
(Laurens, SC)

This hill was located beneath the Acropolis and above the Agora. From ancient times a court met there that decided on civil and criminal cases and it seems to have had some jurisdiction in matters of religion. Since it traditionally met on the Areopagus, it came eventually to be known by the name of the hill. So the name will not help in deciding whether Paul gave a public lecture on the hill or made a formal appearance before the court. Although many scholars are in favor of the public lecture view, several factors tip the scale toward the possibility that Paul appeared before the Athenian Court. Paul was described as “introducing” (17:20) “strange ideas,” which in verse 18 are described as “foreign gods (lit., “demons”).” Second, that one of Paul’s converts was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus (17:34), is all the more likely if Paul appeared before that body. Finally, one should note that throughout Acts Paul appeared before the leading magisterial bodies—the magistrates of Philippi, the proconsul at Corinth, the Roman governors at Caesarea, the Jewish Sanhedrim, the Jewish King Agrippa, and finally, at least in anticipation, the Roman emperor. It would fit the pattern well if he appeared here before the venerable Athenian court.

It is probably erroneous to see it as a trial in any formal sense. Paul was not formally charged. Once they were finished questioning him, he made an easy exit—there were no deliberations. Perhaps it was nothing but a more-or-less public hearing of the new teacher to satisfy the curiosity of the philosophers who led him there; a kind of preliminary hearing to ascertain whether charges should be brought against the apostle. It probably was not even on the hill of Ares where Paul spoke. The evidence is that in his day the Areopagus met in the Royal Portico in the northwest corner of the Agora. This would be all the more likely, since the portico frequented by the philosophers, whom Paul had just encountered, was adjacent to the Royal Portico.

In any event, Paul was questioned before the Areopagus, and during that time he faced a situation that could have quickly developed into one of personal peril, but he stood up boldly for Christ without any concern for himself. He spoke to a group of men who are completely in the dark. They are worse off than the Galatians or the people in Philippi and Thessalonica. Why? Because they think they know something. The very hardest people in the world to reach with the Word of God and the Gospel are church members because they think they don’t need it. They think the Gospel is for the man on skid row and for some of their friends. Some church members can be mean and sinful and not recognize they really need a Savior, not only to save them from sin, but also to make their lives count for God.

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.)

Luke ended his narrative introduction to Paul’s speech by mentioning the insatiable curiosity of the Athenians. He also said that there were many in Athens who spend their leisure hours just hanging around Sound familiar? It’s clear that Luke was not impressed with the Athenians., hoping for some new piece of news, looking for some new philosophy that could be picked up and bandied about until interest in it faded. Their love for novel ideas was well-known. Their curiosity had a beneficial side to it, however, it sets the stage for Paul’s witness.


No text in Acts has received more scholarly attention than the ten verses of Paul’s speech before the Areopagus. The gist of the speech is, however, thoroughly rooted in Old Testament thought. The main theme is God as Creator and the proper worship of this Creator God. The language often has the ring of Greek philosophy, for Paul was attempting to build what bridges he could to reach the Athenian intellectuals. The underlying thought remains thoroughly biblical.

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.

The apostle’s opening remark—“. . . as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about”(17:23-24; NLT)—would indicate that he had observed

the Athenians in every respect to be “very religious (too superstitious).” They had a god for practically everything. When he said, “I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious a better translation is “religious”;” they would have understood him to say, “I perceive you are more religiously disposed than others.” Many commentators have described this remark as an effort to win the favor of his audience and thus get their attention. Such introductions were a standard ploy used in Greek speechmaking, and Paul probably did have that intention. He surely did not wish to alienate his audience at the very outset. The Greek term he used for “religious,” however, had a definite ambiguity in the language of that time. It could be used in a positive sense for one who was very devoted to religious matters. It was also used with a negative connotation for those who were overly conscientious, even superstitious, in their religious observance. The context in which the word is used determines which connotation it has. Perhaps Paul deliberately chose the ambiguous word. For the Athenians, his remark would be taken as commending their piety. For Paul, who was already fuming over their idolatry (17:16), the negative connotation would be uppermost in his mind. By the end of the speech, the Athenians themselves would have little doubt about Paul’s real opinion of their religiosity.

23a For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions5, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God.

As it so often happens in the speeches of Acts, Paul began his sermon with a point of contact with his audience. When evangelizing pagans, Paul started from creation, the general revelation of God (14:15-17) when evangelizing Jews, he started from the Old Testament (17: 10-13). In this case, it was the alters which Paul had already observed in the city (17:16). One, in particular, caught his attention. It was dedicated “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” This gave him the perfect launching pad for his presentation of monotheism to the polytheistic and pantheistic Athenians. Piety had no doubt led the Athenians to erect such an altar for fear they might offend some deity of whom they were unaware and had failed to give the proper worship. Paul would now proclaim a God who was unknown to them. In fact, this God, totally unknown to them, was the only true divinity that exists.

There is ample literary evidence to show that Paul did not fabricate his assertion that he had seen an altar with the inscription “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” There were, in fact, such altars in Athens. Whether they were invariably inscribed in the plural (GODS) or whether there was one dedicated to a single “UNKNOWN GOD” remains an open question. This “UNKNOWN GOD” was the Athenians god called Agnostos, the unknown. Athens knew about everything that was knowable, but she did not know God. Public or private disasters indicated to the Athenians the existence of some god they did not know and could not invent, who needed to be appeased. This god was Agnostos. Jesus had come to reveal to men the true God, and Paul had come to Athens to proclaim Him.

23b Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

Verse 23b sets the tone for the remainder of the speech. There is a play on the concept of ignorance. To worship an unknown god is to admit one’s ignorance. If he is unknown to you, you are then in total ignorance of his true nature. Thus Paul said, in essence, “What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” Two things should be noted. First, Paul referred to “what” they worshipped, not “who” they worshipped. Their worship was totally foolish and misguided. They did not know God; they didn’t worship Him at all. Their worship object was a thing, a “what,” and not a personal God at all. Second, there is a strong emphasis on ignorance, on not knowing. But for Greeks, as for Stoics, ignorance was a cardinal sin. The greatest virtue was to discover truth through pursuing the divine reason within oneself. Not to live in accordance with reason, to live in ignorance, was the greatest foolishness imaginable. Paul accused them of precisely this ignorance, this sin. He would return to this theme in verse 30 with his call for repentance. The time had arrived when such ignorance of God was wholly without excuse. Men have no excuse for not knowing about God because He has revealed Himself in man’s conscience and in the physical world (Romans 1:19, 206; 2:15).

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