Wednesday: Paul in Athens

Athens, the intellectual center of ancient Greece, was literally given to idols. Marble statues of persons and gods were found everywhere, especially at the entrance of the agora (public square), which was the hub of urban life. Paul was so distressed about such dominant idolatry that he changed his usual practice of going first to the synagogue, and pursued a dual course of action: he disputed weekly in the synagogue with Jews and devout Gentiles, and daily in the public square with the Greeks. (See Acts 17:15-22.)

Paul in Athens

Image © Lifeway Coll.

As the Athenians were always ready to hear something new, some philosophers took interest in Paul’s teaching and invited him to address the Areopagus, the high council of the city. In his speech, Paul did not quote from the Scriptures or recap the history of God’s dealings with Israel, as he did when speaking to a Jewish audience (compare with Acts 13:16-41); this approach would not make much sense with this audience. Instead, he presented some important biblical truths in a way that cultured pagans could understand.

Read Acts 17:22-31. In his Areopagus speech, what great truths about God and salvation and history and humanity did he preach to these people?

Most of Paul’s words sounded ridiculous to that sophisticated pagan audience, whose concepts about God and religion were greatly distorted. We do not know how Paul intended to end his message, for he seems to have been interrupted the very moment he referred to God’s judgment of the world (Acts 17:31). This belief collided head on with two Greek concepts: (1) that God is utterly transcendent, having no dealings whatsoever with the world or concern in human affairs, and (2) that when a person dies there can be no resurrection at all. This helps to explain why the gospel was foolishness to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23) and the number of converts in Athens was small.

Yet, among those who came to believe were some of the most influential people of Athenian society, such as Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, and Damaris, whose mention by name implies she was of some status, if not also a member of the council herself (Acts 17:34).

Paul’s different approach before the Areopagus shows his awareness of social and cultural differences. He even quoted a pagan poet (Acts 17:28) in order to make his point. What should this teach us about how we can use different methods to reach different people?

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Source: Daily Sabbath School Lessons