Athens: Facing Questions
Explore the Bible Series
August 3, 2008
Background Passage: Acts
Lesson Passage: Acts
folks have found fault with Paul’s message on Mars Hill, in Athens. In particular, some have criticized
Paul’s efforts to contextualize the gospel.
It is true that his message to the Athenians differed somewhat from
other sermons recorded in the book of Acts; however, the essential message
remained the same. In fact, I find great
genius in Paul’s approach to evangelizing the philosophers.
The apostle engaged these men within their own cultural
context, precisely as he did when he evangelized Jewish people. Most of the time Paul initiated his efforts
to evangelize a city by going to the local synagogue (in fact, that’s what he
did in Athens). While in the synagogue, he reasoned with the
people from the Old Testament, a document that, in addition to its divine
origin, served as the cultural foundation for Jewish people. However, the Athenian philosophers did not
share this social context with their Jewish neighbors, and Paul understood that
engaging the Greeks would involve a different approach.
Canned approaches to evangelism seem to fly in the face of
Paul’s example. There is, in my
judgment, no single way to share one’s faith.
Jesus often used agricultural, familial stories (parables) to illustrate
his sermons, but Paul, who primarily ministered in urban areas, did not use the
same strategy. The strategies may have
differed somewhat, but the message remained the same.
Acts 17:18 clearly states that Paul’s message was
Christ-centered; indeed, his emphasis on the resurrection piqued the interest
of the philosophers. They invited him to
Mars Hill because of their curiosity about the gospel (Jesus’ resurrection in
particular). Acts 17:31 affirms Paul’s
resurrection message, and this message evoked three responses: hostility (“some
began to ridicule him”), curiosity (“we will hear you again about this”), and
faith (“some men joined and believed him”).
How are those responses any different than the experiences of Jesus,
Peter, or Paul’s work in other cities?
As I see it, Paul used a wise approach to his work in Athens, and we, as
faithful servants of Christ, must understand the cultural context in which we
evangelize. Paul was all things to all
men; that is, he sympathized with the unique social environments he found in
various regions, and he properly (one can improperly accommodate to
culture) accommodated the sensitivities of the people he hoped to
convince. In doing so, he did not
compromise the gospel; rather, he demonstrated his compassion, adaptability,
Conflict Between Paul and Barnabas (15:36-41)
proposal to Barnabas (v. 36): Some time after the Jerusalem Council, Paul
suggested that he and Barnabas return to the churches founded during the First
disagreement over John Mark (vv. 37-38): Barnabas, Mark’s kinsman, determined
that the young man should attend the apostles on this mission of encouragement;
however, Paul, remembering Mark’s previous failure, refused to take Mark
and Barnabas separate (vv. 39-41): Sadly, the disagreement over Mark intensified,
and Paul and Barnabas parted company. Barnabas
took Mark, and they sailed to Cyprus,
perhaps to retrace the route of the First Missionary Journey. Paul, on the other hand, selected Silas to
help evangelize Syria and Cilicia. The Book of Acts does not, of course, record the
activities of Barnabas, and, from this point, focuses on the missionary labors
The Second Missionary Journey (16:1-18:22): Curtis
Vaughan suggests that this journey took place from 49-52 A.D.
at Derby and
Lystra (16:1-5): Paul and Silas preached in these cities on the First
Missionary Journey (See Acts 14:6f). In
Lystra, Paul met a young convert named Timothy, the son of a Gentile father and
a Jewish (Christian) mother. Believers
commended Timothy, and Paul determined to take the young man on the remainder
of this missionary enterprise. Since Timothy
was half Jewish, Paul circumcised him to prevent an unnecessary offense as the
missionaries preached in synagogues.
vision of the Macedonian man (16:6-10): Paul, Silas, and Timothy traveled
though Phrygia and Galatia,
and they planned to evangelize in Asia Minor. However, the Holy Spirit did not allow them
to execute their plan, and, at Troas, Paul received a night vision, a man from Macedonia
pleading with the apostle to come preach in that region. Note the change in pronouns at his point in
the text (from third person to first). It appears that Luke joined the
missionary band in Troas and continued with
them for some time.
in Philippi (16:11-40)
conversion of Lydia (vv.
11-15): Vaughan suggests that Lydia may have
been a widow, and the text tells us that she made a living selling purple
(perhaps cloth or dye). She came from
the Asian city of Thyatira
and apparently led a women’s prayer meeting on Sabbath days. As Paul spoke to the ladies, the Lord opened Lydia’s heart
to the gospel, and she became a believer.
healing of a demon possessed girl (vv. 16-21): The text identifies this slave
girl as a “python”, a person devoted to the pagan god Apollo (worship-center at Pytho, in Greece). The people of Philippi
believed the girl had the power to predict the future, and her owners profited handsomely
from her fortune-telling. Apparently, this girl followed the missionaries for
some time, and Paul, irritated by her activities, cleansed her from the
demon. Her owners grew angry at their
loss of profit, and they accused Paul and Silas before the city leaders.
of Paul and Silas (vv. 22-34): The girl’s owners stirred the crowd, and the
magistrates, in response to the lynch-mob mentality, severely scourged Paul and
Silas. Afterward, the leaders placed the missionaries in the Philippian jail.
About midnight, as the two men worshipped God, an earthquake occurred, and the
doors of the prison opened. The jailer
immediately drew his sword to take his own life, but Paul stopped him and spoke
to him of the Lord Jesus. The jailer
took the missionaries to his home, tended their wounds, and fed them. Not only did the guard believe, but his
household trusted in the Lord as well.
apology of the Philippian magistrates (vv. 35-40): We do not know why the city
officials changed their minds about Paul and Silas. Perhaps the men realized
they have wrongly mistreated the missionaries; or, perhaps they received word
about the earthquake at the prison. Whatever the case, the leaders decided to
let the men go; however, Paul did not let their actions go unchallenged. He and Silas were Roman citizens, and the
magistrates had broken the law by scourging the missionaries; therefore, Paul
required that the officials give a personal apology for their miscarriage of
in Thessalonica (17:1-9): Thessalonica was the capitol and leading city of Macedonia, and it was located about a hundred
miles from Philippi. For three Sabbaths Paul and Silas reasoned
with the Jews about the Lord Jesus. Several of their hearers embraced the
gospel, but others determined to drive the missionaries from the city. Jason, one of the believers in Thessalonica,
was arrested by the city officials and forced to pay a bond for his release,
perhaps as a guarantee that Paul and Silas would leave the area.
(17:10-15): The Berean people received the missionaries more warmly, and many
believed in the Lord. In time, people
from Thessalonica traveled to Berea
and stirred up opposition to the gospel.
Paul, aware of the agitation, departed from the city, but Silas and
Timothy remained behind.
in Athens (17:16-34): Athens
served as the intellectual epicenter of the Roman Empire,
and Paul, awaiting the arrival of Silas and Timothy, grew concerned about the
spiritual darkness of the city. He spoke
in the synagogue and preached Christ in the city market place. Greek philosophers, Epicureans and Stoics,
debated Paul about the gospel.
Apparently these philosophers had some curiosity about Paul’s message,
and they invited him to speak at the Areopagus, on Mars Hill. Paul accepted their invitation and spoke to
the intellectuals about the “unknown God”. The message of the resurrection,
however, offended most of Paul’s hearers, and they mocked the gospel. Gladly, some believed Paul’s message, among
them a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris.
at Corinth (18:1-17): After leaving Athens, Paul went to Corinth
where Silas and Timothy rejoined him. For
eighteen months they preached in Corinth, and the Lord encouraged the faithful
missionaries continue their gospel labors, for he (the Lord) had many people in
this place. Also, Paul made some dear
friends in Corinth, Aquila and Priscilla,
believers who had come to the city from Rome. In
concert, the missionaries won many to the faith, including Crispus and
Sosthenes. The Jewish leaders, angered
by Paul’s message, accused the apostle before Proconsul Gallio, but the Roman
official refused to get involved in the conflict. The Jews seized Sosthenes,
the ruler of the synagogue, and they severely beat him for embracing the
Conclusion: After remaining in Corinth
for many months, Paul, accompanied by Aquila and Priscilla, set his face toward
Antioch. On the way back, the apostle greeted many
friends and strengthened the churches.