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All Alone in Athens – Acts 17:14-21


All Alone in Athens

Text:   Acts 17:14-21

Paul is now at Athens, alone.  What will he find there?   Athens was...

1 A Haughty City.

Let’s think about Athens itself.  We’ll set the scene, and it will help us to understand a little bit about what Paul will have found when he got there.  

  • Its contribution to ancient history.   When Paul arrived in Athens the city was in the twilight of its greatness, but 500 years earlier Athens was, (IMHO) the greatest city in the world. Its decline was ushered in by the long Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which dragged on for around 25 years.  When it came to an end in 404BC, the city was a shadow of its former self.   And even though it found its place in the ancient world again, the glorious days were gone.  But think of:-
  • Its contribution to democracy.  Athens was ‘the cradle of democracy.’  Under Roman rule, Athens was permitted to retain its ancient system of government, including its senior council, the Areopagus. It might be said that the great council of the Areopagus, in Paul’s day, had become little more than a debating society.
  • Its contribution to ancient thought.  Athens was the home of philosophy, boasting the greatest names, people like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.  In this text, we meet two schools of thought, the Epicureans and the Stoics. 
  • Its contribution to ancient culture.  Athens was a place of culture.  It was the home of great literature and drama, the home of oratory. 
The Parthenon – Image by Christo Anestev from Pixabay

Paul entered the city by sea, and as you approached the city from the port you would be confronted with the statue of Neptune. It was the first of many idols in the city of Athens.  Is it any wonder that Paul’s spirit was troubled within him.  Aren’t there modern day idols? Paul’s response was to preach the gospel, both in the public square and in the synagogue.  Acts 17:16-17 

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2 Hopeless Confusion.

Most of the people who inhabited the public squares in Athens had little else to do but talk, so for a man who wanted to do some public speaking there would be no problem at all.  V21  Paul took the opportunity given by their willingness to listen, to preach the gospel. Two groups accosted Paul.  Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”  So let’s find out a little bit about them.  

  • The Epicureans.  A school of thought devised by the philosopher Epirus, around 300 years before Paul’s visit.  
    • Epicurean Philosophy. The Epicureans believed that there was pleasure and pain in every life, and the best life was one where pain was minimised and pleasure abounds.   Many of them just wanted a life of tranquility, free from pain and distress. 
    • Modern Epicureans.  We have people like that all around us. They say and do what feels good to me, pleasure first, don’t take any responsibility that might inconvenience me. Epicureanism is a like an early Greek version of ‘Your Best Life Now.’ 
  • The Stoics.  Stoicism began with work of a Cypriot philosopher called Zeno, roughly around the same time as Epicureanism.
    • Stoic Philosophy.  They believed that god was in everything and everything was god. Whatever one’s fate should be, it was the will of the gods, and the Stoics accepted it passively and without any resentment.  The stoics were full of spiritual pride.  
    • Modern Stoics.  People with no sense of God guiding their lives, who just do the best they can in whatever circumstances they found themselves.  When trouble comes along they will adopt a ‘stiff upper lip’ and keep calm and carry on.  

These two groups of ‘free thinkers’ held very different world views and opinions about life and death, but they were united in their derision of Paul.  Look at how they thought of Paul and what he was saying.  

  • They despised his speech.  When he addressed then they referred to him as a ‘babbler.’  Very often we think that this refers to his pattern of speech.  Paul was not an accomplished orator, like the great Athenian speakers.  1 Corinthians 1:17  2 Corinthians 10:10   2 Corinthians 11:5-5    Perhaps there’s a more profound reason though. ‘Babbler’ is σπερμολόγος (spermologos)  and it literally, means a seed-picker; one who picks up and retails scraps of information; a gossip, someone not worth listening to.  It shows the utter contempt that these self-obsessed vain scholars had for the gospel and the gospel messenger.  
  • They missed the point. In their haughty wisdom, they didn’t even grasp the main point, that God had raised up his own Son from the dead.  Look carefully at the wording of V18  Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.  So used to multiple deities, to pantheons of gods, they mistook the message of Paul.  ‘Resurrection’ is ἀνάστασις (anastasis) It’s a feminine noun.  The Athenians may have thought Paul was talking about some new god and his goddess, Jesus and Anastasia!  In their great wisdom and intellectual ability, while mocking and scorning Paul, they were so spiritually blind they couldn’t even grasp the simplest of gospel messages. 

No matter how well educated a person may be,  all our learning is corrupted and twisted by sin, and we are sin blinded by it that we are unable to grasp the truth without the work of the Holy Spirit, awakening us to our true state.  2 Corinthians 4:3-4   1 Corinthians 1:26-29  

3 A Higher Court.

Paul has preached at the synagogue, at the market, (agora) but now he receives a summons to appear before the highest court in Athens the ancient City Council known as the Areopagus, the former seat of power, and now the talking shop of the intellectuals and nobility.  V19-20   It’s at the Areopagus that Paul preaches a sermon to Gentiles, giving us an insight into the difference between his evangelism of the Gentiles and his bible teaching methods in the synagogues of the Jews.

So Paul has arrived in Athens, witnessed extreme paganism and been confronted by some very clever people who laugh at him so much that they fail to grasp the importance of his message.  What will his appearance before the Areopagus teach us?

© BobMcEvoy February 2021

From → Acts

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