Chapter 19: Making known ‘The unknown God’
16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. 17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. 18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,’ because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.
19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.’ 21 For all the Athenians and the foreigners who 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 the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to the unknown god. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, “For we are also His offspring.” 29 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.’
32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘We will hear you again on this matter.’ 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Great distress: positive action
Paul is not idle as he waits for the arrival of Silas and Timothy at Athens. He looks around and is stirred within as he sees Greece’s idolatry. Multi-faith Athens is ‘given over to idols’. He is challenged to do something about it—that is what the word ‘provoked’ implies. He has a heart for the lost people of Athens to come to know the living God through repentance from sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. He sees the multiplicity of idols and so-called gods as barriers to their coming to believe in the Saviour. So he is ‘provoked’. So what does he do? As usual, he first goes to the synagogue to meet the Jews and some Gentiles who worship there. These Gentiles are either converts to Judaism or are attempting to seek God through the synagogue’s Old Testament teachings. Paul’s usual pattern of approach causes him to preach the same gospel there to lost people, Jews and Gentiles, with the same need of Jesus.
Athens also has a marketplace. Paul’s experience of the Thessalonian marketplace reminds him that ‘rent-a-mob’ ruffians can be found there. So he teaches them God’s word before any opposing Jews can come to whip them up into unreasonable and violent actions. In that marketplace he also meets some philosophers. Among them are Epicurean philosophers, whose motto is ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’.1 There are also Stoics, whose beliefs cause them to endure pain or hardship without displaying feelings or complaining. Some call Paul a ‘babbler’ and ask what he is saying. Others think he promotes ‘foreign god’s, because he tells them about the risen Jesus. You cannot tell people about Jesus and His resurrection without explaining that He died on the cross to suffer the penalty for their sins.
Speakers’ Corner in Athens
In Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London, people gather to hear speakers speak, debaters debate and hecklers heckle. On a hill in Athens is a court named the Areopagus. In the open air outside that court is a place where people meet to speak, listen, discuss and debate, rather like London’s Speakers’ Corner. The philosophers whom Paul met in the marketplace take him to this open-air forum. These Gentile people find Paul’s new teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ ‘strange’, as they listen. Most Athenians and foreigners at the Areopagus like to hear or expound new ideas. Some do thirst for knowledge. Some even seek truth. The mixed clientele is rather like Speakers’ Corner, today.
Paul’s different method but the same message
Now Paul adds the Areopagus to the synagogues and marketplace as launching pads to preach Christ in Athens. By witnessing in these different places he reaches wide sections of the population with the gospel of forgiveness through faith in Christ. Religious Jews, Gentiles seeking God, ordinary citizens living ordinary lives, and some philosophers in the marketplace have all heard Paul talk of their need to turn from sin and receive Christ. Now the heady philosophical and religious debaters of Athens’ Areopagus will also hear about Jesus. Paul now uses a different approach to proclaim that message to them. He still reasons from his knowledge of God’s truth, but without quoting Old Testament verses at them. Although his teaching is found in Scripture he now uses a public inscription as his ‘text’. He does not now speak primarily to Jews, or to those interested in Judaism or who know the Old Testament.
Paul stands up in the open air. He addresses his audience as ‘Men of Athens’, though some women are there too. Bearing in mind that the Athenians have many gods, he starts by telling them he has noticed they are ‘very religious’. He explains why he reaches that conclusion: they have ‘objects of … worship’ displayed around. They even have an altar with an inscription for all to see and think about or discuss. That inscription is, to the unknown god. Paul develops Biblical truth from that thought as a platform to present the gospel. Paul’s words recorded in Acts chapter 17 seem to be only a summary of his talk, with some extracts quoted. His actual presentation is surely more detailed.
Paul teaches that God is Creator of us all. He needs no buildings to dwell in. He is the giver of all life and needs nothing from mankind. He has made the nations and put his time limits and boundary lines around each one. The Lord has made us with the desire to seek Him, in the hope that we will try to find Him. He is not far from anyone since He is omnipresent. As Greek poets have said we are ‘His offspring’. We are creatures created by Him.2 God is neither a created idol of silver or gold, nor is He made according to man’s design. He is ‘Lord of all’.3 He ‘now commands all men everywhere to repent’. God has set a day to judge all people after death according to His standard of perfect righteousness.4 His ordained judge, the Lord Jesus Christ, died for our sins and rose again after three days. Christ’s resurrection guarantees His presiding as the eternal Judge over judgment after death. All sinners who have not repented from sins and trusted Jesus shall be judged eternally. Only those who turn from sin to Jesus will escape that judgment. We must take Him as our Saviour now while we live or answer to Him as our Judge then after we die.
The summary of Paul’s preaching in Acts 17 shows that he covers a number of important subjects, but concentrates on Christ and on His resurrection. It is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that now fascinates his hearers. In teaching why Christ rose again, Paul must also explain the reason for the death of Christ, punished for our sins on the cross.
Paul’s preaching is geared to his hearers, relevant to them, and based on God’s truth. But he starts with something interesting that they know—the inscription to the unknown god. Paul also uses logic and reason to make God’s word known anywhere and everywhere that he can get a hearing. He addresses everyone and anyone. Such wide ranging but targeted preaching always engenders different responses. The Areopagus is no exception. Some modern critics scold Paul for speaking there, claiming that open air preaching is inappropriate for the gospel. They insist that Paul failed to win people to Christ there. Are they right? Let’s now examine the responses to his message.
On hearing ‘of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked’. Jesus was mocked before and during His crucifixion by cruel soldiers and callous spectators.5 Preachers were mocked at Pentecost.6 Mockers of the things of God cause others to copy them. ‘Fools mock at sin’.7 Foolish mocking of the gospel will happen, but Christians must continue to preach the gospel and urge people to trust Jesus Christ for mercy and forgiveness. Sometimes even mockers get saved.
Other hearers say, ‘We will hear you again on this matter’. That is a great result. Some who hear the good news of Christ are serious enough to come back to hear more. It seems they may be seeking God. The seed has been sown in their lives. God the Holy Spirit can work on that and bring some to repentance and faith in the shed blood of Jesus, which will then cleanse them from ‘all sin’.8 Not many people trust Christ the first time they hear the gospel. Some do.
But sinners are saved at the Areopagus! Paul leaves knowing that ‘some men’ believe and join him. There is Dionysius, a court member at the Areopagus. He is an influential convert in a key place. Future blessings to other influential people may flow from his conversion. Then a woman named Damaris is also converted. There are ‘others’ who believe. At least six new converts, and probably many more, are won to Jesus Christ and attach themselves to Paul that day.9 An encouraging result! Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour? Or are you genuinely waiting to hear more? If so, keep seeking, praying and reading God’s word. But if you are delaying trusting Jesus with no good reason, please beware. You are on dangerous ground. Trust Him now. Tomorrow may be too late.
Questions on Chapter 19
Acts 17:16–34 Making known ‘The unknown God’
A. What causes Paul to have the opportunities he has to preach the Lord Jesus Christ in Athens? How ready are you to take opportunities given and to make opportunities to share Christ? What do you learn about how to use your free time?
Acts 17:16–21 B. How many subjects concerning God and the gospel does Paul cover at the Areopagus?
C. How effective is Paul’s preaching at the Areopagus? What responses does he receive?
- 1 Corinthians 15:32, which quotes the attitude of Israelites who had left their walk with God, as stated in Isaiah 22:13 ↩
- Paul does not at this point focus on the special relationship of becoming spiritual children of a Heavenly Father by receiving Christ and by being born again spiritually into His family. John 1:12, John 3:3, 1 Peter1:23. Animals, birds and fish are also His ‘offspring’ physically by creation. ↩
- Acts 10:36 ↩
- Hebrews 9:27 ↩
- Matthew 27:40, Luke 23:37, Luke 23:39 ↩
- Acts 2:13 ↩
- Proverbs 14:9 ↩
- 1 John 1:7 ↩
- Why at least six converts? Dionysius and Damaris are two named converts. ‘Some men’ must refer to at least two men. ‘Others’ must again refer to at least two people. Hence a minimum of six converts, probably far more. ↩