Founding a New Church
After departing from Philippi, Paul had to choose whether to go backward or forward, whether to return to Asia and solidify the gains already made there or to press on into Europe. Determined to evangelize new regions, he went forward. He followed the road that led to Greece, first going through the towns of Amphipolus and Apollonia and then coming to the town of Thessalonica. There, in line with his usual practice, he went into the Jewish synagogue to preach Jesus.
His strategy for reaching Jews was to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. So, for three Sabbaths, he expounded the Scriptures foretelling that Christ would suffer for our sins and rise again. Then he argued that prophecy was referring to events that had already taken place—that a man had recently appeared who died and rose again exactly as prophecy required. That man was Jesus.
The effect on his hearers was to force a decision to believe or not believe. Among the Jews, some believed, but among the God-fearing gentiles, the number who believed was a multitude, including some of the upper class women.
Paul's success provoked an angry reaction among the Jews who did not believe. The root motive of their opposition was envy, as it had been years before when unbelieving Jews denounced Paul in Antioch of Pisidia. Paul's opponents in Thessalonica foresaw that the followers of his religion would band together and choose their own leaders—that perhaps they would even turn away from the synagogue and its leaders. So, the Jews who refused to believe were afraid of losing power and influence.
Their opposition was carried to an extreme showing that these Jews who prided themselves in keeping the law had no concept of true godliness. The law required justice and mercy (Matt. 23:23), but the unbelieving Jews waged a campaign against Christ's apostles that can only be described as unscrupulous and vicious. They found allies among "lewd fellows of the baser sort"—in other words, thugs. Then, by gathering a crowd of citizens and haranguing them with false accusations against the men of God, they managed to whip up the whole city into a state of rage. With a vanguard of hooligans who loved violence for its own sake, they attacked the house where they expected to find Paul and his missionary team. It was the house of a believer named Jason. But the team was gone. Rather than go away empty-handed, the mob seized Jason together with some fellow believers and dragged them before the rulers of the city.
Now they had to state charges serious enough to legitimize what the mob had done. The ringleaders cried out that the apostles were troublemakers, causing civil unrest wherever they went. Then they pressed their case further by alleging that the apostles were trying to set up another king besides Caesar; that is, they were traitors to Rome. Whether the accusers were distorting Christian doctrine deliberately, we do not know. But they succeeded in upsetting the rulers. After all, the rulers could not stand idly by if a dangerous conspiracy to overthrow Roman authority had gained a foothold in their city.
Yet the rulers evidently decided that the charges were wildly exaggerated, for instead of taking Jason and his friends into custody, they released them after they posted bond. Perhaps they knew that the accused men were otherwise men of good report, with no record of any dishonest or disloyal conduct.
Seeing that Paul and his party were in danger, the believers in Thessalonica sent them on to the next city, Berea, which was one step closer to Athens. Paul's first move to evangelize Berea followed his usual pattern. He went to the synagogue and began to preach Jesus. Here, he found the Jews unusually receptive. Whereas at Thessalonica the number of Jews who believed was only "some," the number at Berea was "many." Also persuaded by the gospel were many upper-class Greek women and more than a few Greek men.
In accounting for Paul's success in reaching the Jews in Berea, Luke describes them as "more noble than those in Thessalonica." They were more noble not because they held a higher position in society, but because they were more willing to dig for truth. They sat down daily with their copies of the Scriptures and examined them to see whether Jesus truly fulfilled the Messianic prophecies. They understood that the only reliable test of truth is whether it agrees with the Word of God. Because they exalted God, they did not fail to find that Jesus is God's Son.
The devil was not willing to allow Paul's victory in Berea to go uncontested. He brought news of what Paul was doing back to his enemies in Thessalonica. Some of these rushed to Berea to stop him. They went among the people and trumpeted the same false charges that they had used before to turn public sentiment against the new religion. No doubt they alleged that Christians intended to challenge the Roman government. As before, these charges made people suspicious and prejudiced them against the apostles. Also as before, these charges created the danger that Paul would be arrested and severely punished and perhaps killed. So, the new believers in Berea insisted that he leave town.
Yet they all realized that wherever Paul went, his enemies would follow him and disrupt his work again. They therefore decided to keep his enemies from discovering his next destination. He left Berea on the road leading to the closest sea port. His enemies would have assumed that he was leaving Greece and returning to Asia Minor. But then he changed course and headed toward Athens. In his company were some Berean brothers, who came along to assure his safety. He left Silas and Timothy behind in Berea so that they might further strengthen the new church. They could safely remain because the enemies of the new religion regarded Paul as their chief target.
After the traveling party reached Athens, Paul's companions returned to Berea. Paul sent a message for Silas and Timothy, imploring them to come to Athens as quickly as possible.
Light in a Stronghold of Darkness
Paul had now reached the capital of Greek civilization. Politically, the city was no longer of great importance, but it was still the seat of a famous university and a center of learning. It was still a magnet for young men who felt themselves gifted with a great mind. No place offered better lectures and debates on questions of philosophy. An atmosphere of intellectual elitism permeated the city.
Paul knew perfectly well that he did not fit in. Despite his good education, he was far from being the kind of person who impressed the Athenians. His talk marked him not as an intellectual snob who dabbled in philosophy, but as an intensely earnest rabbi. When some of the leading thinkers of the city heard him, they referred to him contemptuously as a babbler. Yet Paul was not intimidated by them. On the contrary, he was grieved in his heart at the spiritual darkness he found in Athens. The whole populace, the intelligentsia as well as the common people, was steeped in idolatry. Idolatry had captured their hearts. The phrase "given to idolatry" means "full of idols." Everywhere he looked he saw sculptured representations of the gods and goddesses. No doubt his disappointment was especially keen because he hoped to find a true searching for God in the city that gave birth to philosophy. He knew that such philosophers as Socrates and Plato, in their quest for truth, had attained much higher conceptions of God and righteousness than were current in pagan religion. Yet whatever glimmerings of light they had brought to the city had been lost long ago, and now darkness reigned.
Undaunted, Paul began a one-man assault on this stronghold of unbelief. As he usually did, he went first to the synagogue and sought to win both Jews and God-fearing gentiles. Yet Luke records that he only disputed with them. He does not say that Paul succeeded in winning converts or in founding a new church. It appears from Luke's wording that the local darkness had blinded even those who might be expected to hear the gospel with an open mind. Besides his efforts to evangelize the synagogue, Paul also preached Christ daily in the marketplace, known as the Agora, to a group that gathered about him.
One day, a group encountered him who were teachers and students of philosophy. Whether they met him by chance as they went through the marketplace, or heard a rumor that a teacher of some new doctrine had entered the city, we do not know. The group included followers of the two schools of philosophy dominant in Paul's day, Stoicism and Epicureanism.
When the philosophers found Paul, they reacted with predictable contempt. The translation "babbler" does not carry all the contempt in the original word. Literally, they called him a "seed picker," as if he were a worthless bird scavenging for food. The suggestion was that he was a basically unlearned man who had picked up bits of knowledge here and there.
Yet they wanted to hear what he had to say. Like all who live in leisure, free from any obligation to engage in useful work, they were exceedingly bored, so they were always curious to hear something new. What Paul was preaching sounded new indeed, for they had never heard of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead.
The philosophers conducted Paul to the Areopagus, which means "Mar's Hill." This was just north of the Acropolis, the elevated site of the original fortified city. At the Areopagus, they demanded that Paul present his teachings. They chose this place because it was the seat of an actual court with traditional authority over religious matters. In Paul's day this court controlled who was allowed to give public lectures in the city. Whether Paul appeared before a formal session of the court or merely explained his teaching informally to some members of the court, the text does not reveal. Yet it is clear why the philosophers took him to the Areopagus—so that the leading minds in the city could hear what he had to say.
Who God Is
Paul accepted the challenge. The message he presented to the philosophers in Athens rose to a very high mark. It was a beautifully constructed argument full of subtleties. It showed that he was no babbler, but their equal in every respect: indeed, their superior, for he was not only a master of their ideas, but a thinker so penetrating that he could demolish their ideas and offer them new ones more exalted than they had ever considered. He started off by bluntly accusing them of being superstitious. Throughout his message he did not spare them from criticism. Rather than fawning on them for their favor, he prodded them to accept that they were dead wrong.
He recalled that he had seen an altar in their city dedicated to "The Unknown God." Ancient writers testify that altars of this kind were common in Athens. They reflected a prevailing attitude toward religion. Many Athenians despaired of knowing God, or, as they imagined, the many gods hidden from their view. Even when they felt that the gods impacted human affairs, they did not know which gods were responsible or how to approach them. Paul boldly declared that there was only one God they needed to know and that he, Paul, had come to declare Him.
Paul devoted the first part of his sermon to describing this God, who was new to the Greeks. He was the creator of all things—not only the world but everything in it, not only material things but also life and breath. In the pantheon of popular Greek religion, the highest god was Zeus, but the Greeks did not conceive of him as the creator, whereas the God Paul was preaching was the Creator indeed. He was so great and self-sufficient that it was foolish to build temples for Him, as if He needed a place to dwell, and it was foolish to bring him offerings with human hands, as if he depended in some way upon man. Man himself is one of God's creations.
So far, Paul was making the point that God transcended his hearers' small-minded conceptions of deity. Notice that he was basically accusing them of being stupidly limited and narrow in their thinking. He was trying to encourage humility before God. Then Paul stated that God created all races from the same blood and determined beforehand both the place of their habitation and the course of their history. Again, his point was that his God was much greater than any deity the Greeks imagined.
Paul was stressing the basic kinship of all men perhaps to overcome Greek prejudice against a Jewish preacher of a Jewish Messiah. Holding themselves to be superior, the Greeks would have been tempted to reject Paul's teaching simply because he was not Greek and Jesus was not Greek. Paul reminded them that all men have the same blood; in other words, that Jews were no less men than they were.
Paul continued by explaining why God created man. The Greeks did not imagine that the gods had a strong benevolent interest in the human race. In Greek religion, the single God or the many gods were either remote, as the Epicureans believed, or impersonal, as the Stoics believed, or preoccupied with their own intrigues, as the common man believed. But Paul introduced the revolutionary, mind-boggling, and exciting idea that God actually cares for man—that God wants to have a relationship with man—that God created man precisely so that man might find Him and enjoy His fellowship. Then Paul added the comforting thought that God is not hard to find. He is not far from us, for, as Paul said, "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."
Paul was presenting ideas that broke the categories of Greek thought wide open. So to help his audience accept what he was saying, he reminded them that some of their own thinkers had come to the same conclusions. He quoted two writers. The statement that we live, move, and have our being in God comes from the renowned Cretan poet Epimenides, whom Paul quotes again in Titus 1:12. The next statement that we are God's offspring is found in two Stoic philosophers: Aratus and Cleanthes.
In the second part of Paul's sermon, he began with a powerful argument that his conception of God, not theirs, was correct. The argument he used belonged to a type known in Christian apologetics as theistic. A theistic argument draws from the facts of creation some conclusion about God. The conclusion Paul drew was that God must be greater than any deity the Greeks worshiped.
In pleading with the philosophers at Mar's Hill to recognize how great the true God must be, Paul said first that their own philosophers taught that man is God's offspring. Then he said that if God was capable of creating man, their idolatry was inappropriate. It failed to recognize God's true greatness. In their images of the gods, they were trying to create God, whereas He created them. By molding His likeness in gold and other material substances, they were treating Him as a Being made of matter. But in so treating Him, they were putting Him in a place below themselves, for the Greeks recognized that man has an immaterial soul as well as a material body. Paul argued that if they were God's offspring, He must be superior to man, not inferior. Indeed, the true God was superior to any god of the Greeks. The true God of surpassing greatness is the unknown God that Paul wanted them to know.
Having laid the groundwork for his final appeal, Paul told briefly what the God who is man's Creator expects from man. In the past, God allowed the Greeks and other nations to continue in ignorance. The translation "winked at" is unfortunate. It suggests that God looked upon paganism with a kindly tolerance. The right translation is "overlooked." The meaning is that God chose not to bring immediate judgment on the nations, although they deserved it because they neglected Him. Rather, He postponed judgment until He could provide a way for the nations to come into a right relationship with Himself. Paul declared that the time for removing their ignorance had arrived. God was now, through the gospel, revealing Himself to men everywhere and commanding that they repent of their sins. In His mercy God would still postpone judgment. Yet a day of judgment would come. Although God had temporarily overlooked sin in the sense that He withheld His wrath for a time, He would not overlook it forever. He had already set a Day of Judgment and appointed a Judge. The Judge would be a man, but not an ordinary man. God certified this man as extraordinary by raising Him from the dead.
Many of Paul's hearers suffered so keenly from chronic boredom that they even found Paul's sermon boring. When Paul affirmed Jesus' resurrection from the dead, they had heard enough. They stopped him from speaking further. Some reacted to his sermon with outright mockery. Like many intellectuals today, they wore skepticism as a badge of their intelligence. They felt that by disbelieving in the things of God, they showed themselves smarter than other people. Others who heard Paul treated him more politely, saying that they would listen to him again at a future time. But Paul evidently viewed their words as merely an excuse to escape from listening to him further at the present time, for he walked away and made no effort to witness to them again.
Yet as he walked away, a small band of Greeks followed him and identified themselves with Christ. Among them was Dionysius the Areopagite. His name means that he was a member of the court that had just heard Paul's defense of his teaching. Since membership in this court was considered a high honor, he was a distinguished convert indeed. The leading woman who believed in Christ was Damaris. Besides these two, there were others as well, so that Paul did not need to view his time in Athens as a complete failure. No doubt the believers he left behind continued in the faith and started a church.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.