Preaching in Acts: Paul on Areopagus
At the time the event seemed hardly noticeable: just another babbler from a far-flung part of the Empire who had come to town to proclaim some strange new divinity. The Athenians had heard such people before, and would hear such people again. Yet it was not just another “babbler” proclaiming just another strange new divinity; it was Paul, and he had proclaimed Jesus of Nazareth as the Risen Lord. The events of Jerusalem had been proclaimed in the intellectual capital of the Roman Empire and what it deemed the “civilized” world.
Paul had come to Athens from Thessalonica and Berea, escaping Jewish persecution and hostility (ca. 51; Acts 17:1-15). While waiting in the city his spirit was provoked by seeing all the idols around (Acts 17:16). He went and reasoned with the Jewish people in the synagogues and daily in the agora, or marketplace, in which Athenians would frequently gather and discuss and debate ideas (Acts 17:17, 21). Among those who encountered Paul were Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, whose curiosity were piqued: to many he was just a babbler, others thought he was proclaiming strange gods (for they thought he spoke of Jesus and Anastasis, or resurrection), but they wanted to give him a hearing, and wanted to know what these things meant (Acts 17:17-20). In the first century Epicureanism and Stoicism were the most popular schools of philosophy, and stood in opposition against each other: Epicureans were firm materialists, believing the good life featured avoiding pain and seeking pleasure in moderation, while Stoics accepted the gods and fate, and encouraged all passions to be controlled through reason. Regardless, all were curious about what Paul had to say, according to the customs of the Athenians (Acts 17:21).
Paul then stood on Areopagus, or Mars’ Hill, a place used as a court by the Athenians for trials regarding murder and religious affairs (Acts 17:22). He began by recognizing how the Athenians were very deisidaimonesterous, which can mean “religious” with a positive connotation, or “superstitious” if given a negative connotation; this vagary is notable across translations, although it makes better sense to believe Paul was attempting to win over his audience, and thus used the term in a positive sense (Acts 17:22). He spoke of having come across an altar “to the unknown god” (Acts 17:23): the Athenians had a legacy of concern about dangers from gods of whom they were ignorant but who might get angry because no sacrifices were offered to them (cf. Euripides’ Bacchae). Paul used deft rhetoric, declaring that he was proclaiming to them the God whom they had been serving in ignorance (Acts 17:23). The God who had made the world and all within it, as Lord of heaven and earth, did not dwell in temples made by humans, nor was served by human hands, as if He were deficient; He gave to all life, breath, and everything (Acts 17:24-25). God had made from one man every nation of mankind dwelling throughout the earth, determining seasons for them and the limits of where they lived, and made them so that they would seek Him, if they might feel after Him (Acts 17:26-27). And yet God is not far from us, and Paul quoted Epimenides in his Cretica and Aratus from the Phainomena: in God we live and move and have our being, and we are God’s offspring (Acts 17:27-28). Paul drew his first conclusion: if humans represented the offspring of God, then humans cannot conceive of God as a statue of gold, silver, or stone, made by human skill (Acts 17:29). The Athenians had acted in ignorance; God would overlook that ignorance (Acts 17:30). God now commanded all humans everywhere to repent, for He had fixed a day on which He would judge the world in righteousness by the Man appointed to do so; He has given assurance of this judgment by raising this Man from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).
Upon hearing Paul proclaim the resurrection of the dead, some mocked (Acts 17:32); an understandable reaction, since most Greeks found little value in the flesh, and yearned to escape it. Some wished to hear Paul speak further regarding these matters (Acts 17:32); we cannot know whether they were sincere, looking for a more thorough explanation, or just enjoyed hearing ideas they deemed odd or strange. But a few heard, believed, and clung to Paul: Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and some others (Acts 17:34).
We cannot know how Paul felt after he went out from among the Athenians (Acts 17:33); maybe his experience in Athens was on his mind when he critiqued the Greek quest for wisdom in this world in 1 Corinthians 1:18-30. Nevertheless, his proclamation of God and Jesus on Areopagus was a master class in rhetoric and a demonstration of how the Gospel would be proclaimed among those without any heritage among the people of God in Israel.
Paul spoke to the Athenians where they were, literally and figuratively. The bulk of his proclamation represented a standard boilerplate Jewish apology for God and critique of pagan idolatry: at no point did he explicitly quote or appeal to the Old Testament Scriptures, and yet his language is suffused with themes which can be found in Genesis 1:1-2:25, 1 Kings 8:27/2 Chronicles 6:18, Psalm 50:7-14, Ecclesiastes 3:11, Isaiah 37:16, 40:12, 28, 44:9-21, 55:8-11, 66:1. When he did make an appeal to authorities, he quoted two Greek authors with whom he expected his audience to have some familiarity. It would have made no sense for Paul to appeal to the authority of Scripture to those entirely ignorant of Scripture. The Athenians were very religious and wished to serve the God who was unknown to them; Paul was more than happy to proclaim this God, His essential nature, His relationship with mankind, and His call for mankind to repent on account of a day of judgment to come.
We can easily make too much out of the differences between Paul’s preaching on Areopagus and other examples of Gospel preaching in the book of Acts. Peter had made much of the ignorance of the Jewish people in killing Jesus in Acts 3:17-19, and warned Cornelius of the coming day of judgment in Acts 10:42. While Paul has a different starting point on Areopagus, the conclusion remains the same: God has acted powerfully in Jesus and calls upon everyone to repent and serve Him as Lord.
God was serious when He commanded for the Gospel to go out into all the world and be proclaimed among all people (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15). Exactly how the Gospel gets proclaimed may look very different based upon different situations. We must begin the message at different points based upon wherever we can find a point of agreement. More principles of God’s truth might have to be made more explicit for those who have never heard. Yet the Gospel always ends up in the same place: Jesus of Nazareth lived as God in the flesh, the Son of God and Son of Man, fulfilled all God intended for the Messiah and of Israel, died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, was raised in power on the third day, was made Lord in His ascension, is Lord, and will return again. All mankind is to hear this message; all mankind is called upon to repent before the great and terrible day of judgment. May we all heed the Gospel, serve God in Christ, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry