Paul left Berea in turmoil repeating a pattern he had picked up since his flight from Damascus in a basket all those years ago. Angry Jews from Thessaloniki swarmed Berea, enraged that the traveling preached was spreading the news of Jesus without pause. Why couldn’t he die and then stay dead? They wondered. But killing him wasn’t an easy feat to accomplish, not when God seemed determined to keep him alive.
Perhaps Paul’s leavetaking was bittersweet; on one hand, the Bereans had been willing to listen to what Pual had to say without allowing prejudice to cloud their minds. On the other hand, the arrival of the Thessalonian Jews upended his plans, cutting short his stay. Life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to and by now Paul was probably learning to count the victories and leave behind the defeats.
The Berean disciples hustled Paul down to the coast and put him on a ship bound for Athens. Paul sailed across the Aegean, ageless and alive with the secrets of the past, beneath the shadow of Olympus, the symbol of the pagan philosophy he was working so hard to counteract, and deep into the Saronic Bay towards the Port of Piraeus. At Piraeus, Paul caught his first glimpse of Athens.
Disembarking from the ship, he made his way up the busy road towards the great city; the heartbeat of Greek philosophy and learning, the epicenter of Grecian political science, and the seat of democracy. Athens was the intellectual capital of the ancient world. Progressive, urbane, cultured with little time or patience for a man who spoke of resurrection from the dead, a God who became man, and a monotheistic religion that was suspiciously similar to Judaism.
Paul didn’t go to Athens hoping to evangelize the city. Athens was a stop-gap while he waited on Timothy and Silas to come to him. But Paul was not a man who could sit still for long and his restless energy coupled with his zeal for the gospel could not be contained or muted.
As Paul walked the length and breadth of the city taking in the Propylea and the temple of Athena with its great marbled stones and graceful columns, the idolatry in the city stirred his soul, spurring him to action. He was like a man witnessing a public injustice unable to keep silent while someone was victimized. In this case, Paul felt as though all of Athens was being victimized by the lying wonders of Satan manifested through Greek paganism and humanistic philosophy
As beautiful and resplendent as Athens was Paul saw the emptiness of soul that lurked beneath the veneer. The ancient rituals shrouded in mysticism and paganism enacted before him moved him to cry out against the deception that seemed to envelop society. There was only one remedy to what ailed all of humanity and it could not be found in the Temple of Athena, it could only be found in Christ.
Paul ended up in the busy agora or marketplace where he heard the heated debates of Athenian philosophers who loved nothing more than to exchange their ideas out in the open. Their arguments were as empty as the rituals of their religion. When Paul looked at Athens he didn’t see a successful urban metropolis, what he saw instead were thousands of people without hope.
Acts 17:16-17 says “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”
Paul was consumed by the gospel and driven by a need to share it. The longer he spent in Athens the greater his compulsion to share the gospel with anyone willing to listen. What Paul presented to the Athenians was an alien doctrine. A divine being who would become human for the sole purpose of saving human beings was contrary to everything Greek paganism taught. Athenians, like other Greeks, believed that they were nothing more than pawns in the hands of a pantheon of cruel and unrelenting gods.
But Paul’s preaching drew the attention of some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Curious about this strange out-of-towner and his even stranger message they hauled him off to the Aeropagus, where all discourse and debate took place in Athens, and put him on stage. Why? Because as Acts 17:21 describes it “now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new”
When Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus he understood the magnitude of the opportunity he had been given and he was determined not to waste it. He preached with power and conviction, drawing on his vast knowledge of Greco-Roman philosophy. His goal was to introduce his hearers to Jesus and convince them that he was worthy of their worship. In fact, he went so far as to try to persuade them that they were already worshipping him without knowing it.
Referring to a shrine that had caught his attention he pointed out that the inscription read “To the unknown God.” “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Paul’s sermon touched on points that were new to the Athenians; the idea that this God was the creator of heaven and earth, that he was sovereign, that he deliberately created opportunities for humanity to reach out to him. This God, Paul proposed, was all-powerful, all-knowing, and yet deeply interested in humanity. A God who was both infinite and interested in the finite. A God of compassion. A God who thought of them all as his children.
At this point, he had their attention. He was painting a picture of a god they were unfamiliar with, a god who was at odds with everything knew gods to be. And then he presented his crowning argument; “because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this, he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)
This is where he lost them; when he got to the part about God raising the dead.
“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst” (Acts 17:32-33) The group dispersed but it wasn’t a complete waste of time. There were some who accepted Paul’s preaching and believed “among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them”
It was not the triumphant spiritual and intellectual coup that Paul hoped for but it was a start. The beginnings of a fledgling church in a hostile environment. Athens didn’t yield the kind of fruit that Paul may have hoped for but once again he was compelled to hold to the victories and leave behind the defeats. He was compelled to keep moving forward, conquering new territory. Regardless of how the Athenians responded to him he couldn’t hang around waiting for them to embrace the gospel. He used every means at his disposal to save some, left the rest in God’s hands, and then moved on to the next mission field in search of more casualties in the great war between good and evil. More people to reach out and save.