Acts 17: 16 – 21

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Understanding And Applying the Text

Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive in Athens. As he waited he wondered the city. What he saw moved him as never before. He saw more idolatry there than any other place. To be sure idolatry was throughout the world. But it was the greatest in Athens. Pausanias wrote there were more idols in Athens than in all Greece. They had altars dedicated to Shame, and Fame, and Lust. They made these goddesses. It is no wonder this moved Paul.

The ESV says Paul was provoked. The NET translates it “greatly upset” The note on the NET says it may also be translated “infuriated.” Do not read, “Paul was a little bothered.” Paul understood what it meant. They blasphemed God. Men were going to hell. Yet we do not see Paul break into a rage. Paul addressed them with compassion.

From the world’s viewpoint, Athens was a place of great learning. Athens was the center of great philosophical thought. Intellectual titans came from Athens. Paul did not attack Athens. Paul did not attack their intelligence. He did not insult them. These were witty and learned men. Rather Paul pitied them. For all their learning they did not know the truth. They were superstitious.

They were masters at juggling ideas and language. All their learning did not prevent them from deceiving themselves.

Paul began at his usual starting point, the synagogue. He spoke with the Jews and God-fearers. But Paul also went to the market. That is, he went to where the people were. He did not invite them to church. He preached the gospel where they were.

Luke mentions two groups, Epicureans and Stoics. The Epicureans saw the aim of life as pleasure. But they were not hedonists. They defined pleasure as the absence of pain. They wanted to avoid trouble. They wanted freedom from annoyances. They saw organized religion as evil. This included the idea that the gods punished evildoers in an afterlife.

The Stoics rejected the Epicurean ideal of pleasure. They stressed virtue. The Stoics emphasized responsibility for actions. They believed risks were worth taking. But they thought the actual attainment of virtue was impossible. They also believed in providence. But even God himself was subject to fate. While all things were subject to God’s providence. God was subject to fate. Que sera sera, whatever will be will be. They granted God reigned. But he did not rule. Fate and destiny govern when God is about to do something.

These were philosophers. They wanted to learn. They wanted to understand. But their curiosity had no purpose. Learning was an end in itself. They thought of the Word of God as nothing more than a novelty. So they listened. But listening is the first step to faith. Faith comes from hearing the word of God. (Romans 10:13-17).

Do not judge why people listen to the gospel. They may listen to ridicule. They may listen to mock or refute. Why they listen is unimportant. The fact that they hear the Word of God is all-important. As happened with Paul, some will believe. Some will not believe.

Paul spoke of Christ and the resurrection. These seemed strange and novel. They asked, “Who is this foolish babbler.” Babbler was a derogatory term. The word “babbler” could also mean “ignorant show-off.” They asked, “Who is the arrogant fool?”

Some said he was speaking about foreign divinities. The meaning of this phrase is not clear. Literally, it reads “strange deities” The fact that is unusual is important. In the ancient world, anything new was suspicious. It shows the audience grappled with Paul’s message.

They brought Paul to the Areopagus so they could have a serious discussion. The name means “Mars’ Hill.” This is a hill near the Acropolis. In ancient times a council met there. The council became the city council of Athens. In Roman times it was the court supervising morals, education, and religion. In Paul’s time, the court met in the Royal Portico, in the marketplace below the Acropolis.

Do not forget this was the Roman empire. It was illegal to gather a crowd in the market place. The Romans would not stand for anything that smelled of revolt. The Aeropagus was the one place a crowd could gather. The Romans knew what went on there. They would talk and argue about trifles. Idle men assembled there. Revolt required too much work. Rome knew it was harmless.

The message of the resurrection intrigues many today. Dead men stay dead. People knew this in ancient times also. But the hope of Christianity is the resurrection. Christ rose from the dead. This was as absurd then as it is today. But it happened. The hope of the Christian hangs on that historical fact.

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