Paul and Silas at Thessalonica

17:1 After they traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue.
17:2 Paul went to the Jews in the synagogue, as he customarily did, and on three Sabbath days he addressed them from the scriptures, 17:3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead, saying, “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.”

He reasoned with them – ‘Although various people in the New Testament engage in dialogue…they never do so except from a position of unequivocal confidence in the truthfulness and exclusive saving power of the gospel message to which they bear witness…The forms of dialogue found in the New Testament are communication devices, not instruments whereby people with opposing views come together to discover the truth. In other words, Christians are never less than heraldic; they are proclaimers; they discharge an ambassadorial function; they are preachers.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 508f)

True evangelism does not bypass the mind

‘I have always been impressed by Luke’s description in Acts of how the apostles “reasoned” with people out of the Scriptures and of how many people in consequence were “persuaded.” Of course, God made us emotional as well as intellectual creatures. Nevertheless, our mind is the controlling citadel of our personality, and true evangelism never bypasses the mind. What the Holy Spirit does in conversion is to bring people to Christ, not in spite of the evidence, but because of the evidence when he opens their minds to attend to it. In the New Testament, conversion is not infrequently portrayed as a response not only to Christ but to “the Truth,” even to a “form of teaching,” Rom 6:17.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 191f)

17:4 Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large group of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
17:5 But the Jews became jealous, and gathering together some worthless men from the rabble in the marketplace, they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. They attacked Jason’s house, trying to find Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly. 17:6 When they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city officials, screaming, “These people who have stirred up trouble throughout the world have come here too, 17:7 and Jason has welcomed them as guests! They are all acting against Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king named Jesus!” 17:8 They caused confusion among the crowd and the city officials who heard these things. 17:9 After the city officials had received bail from Jason and the others, they released them.

The city officials – Luke calls these ‘politarchs’. For many years, this term was unknown outside of Acts (i.e. nowhere else in the Bible, and nowhere in classical literature). Critics assumed that the author of Acts had blundered, meaning to put ‘poliarchs’, a well-known term meaning ‘commandant’. However, some 19 inscriptions have now been found that make use of the title, five of which refer to Thessalonica. Evidently, this was a local name for city officials in Thessalonica and a number of nearby cities, and the Bible is the only ancient book in existence that has recorded this fact.

“They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” –

How would we reply?

N.T. Wright asks what modern preachers would need to do if people today were prepared to say the same thing of them. They would need, for one thing, to announce to the powers of the world that their time was up, that they owed allegiance to Jesus, that there was a new way of living – a way based on love, justice, honesty and the breaking down of traditional barriers. ‘This is not a matter of “bringing politics into religion.” It is bringing the whole world under the lordship of Christ.’ (What St Paul Really Said, 154f)

Paul and Silas at Berea

17:10 The brothers sent Paul and Silas off to Berea at once, during the night. When they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 17:11 These Jews were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so. 17:12 Therefore many of them believed, along with quite a few prominent Greek women and men.

‘The “word” was the message of salvation for lost mankind through Jesus Christ alone. (Ac 4:12 16:31) The “eagerness” sprang, no doubt, from a sense that each man’s first need is to get clear on the issues of eternal destiny which the gospel focuses and resolves…The many Bereans who believed (Ac 17:12) doubtless testified afterwards to the joy of that spell of Bible study; what they undertook it for, however, was not joy as such, but certainty about God’s way of salvation, and their joy came from finding what they sought – even though it must have cut across their previous ideas, and brought them a sense of sin and shame and helplessness that they had not known before. So for us: what brings joy is finding God’s way, God’s grace and God’s fellowship through the Bible, even though again and again what the Bible says – that is, what God in the Bible tells us – knocks us flat.’ (J.I. Packer, God Has Spoken, 9)

Receive only what is agreeable to Scripture

‘We are to receive nothing for truth but what is agreeable to the Word. As God has given to his ministers gifts for interpreting obscure places, so he has given to his people so much of the spirit of discerning, that they can tell (at least in things necessary to salvation) what is consonant to Scripture, and what is not…God has endued his people with such a measure of wisdom and discretion, that they can discern between truth and error, and judge what is sound and what is spurious. Acts 17:2:’The Bereans searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so.’ They weighed the doctrine they heard, whether it was agreeable to Scripture, though Paul and Silas were their teachers. 2 Tim 3:16.’ (Thomas Watson)

17:13 But when the Jews from Thessalonica heard that Paul had also proclaimed the word of God in Berea, they came there too, inciting and disturbing the crowds. 17:14 Then the brothers sent Paul away to the coast at once, but Silas and Timothy remained in Berea. 17:15 Those who accompanied Paul escorted him as far as Athens, and after receiving an order for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they left.

Paul at Athens

17:16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was greatly upset because he saw the city was full of idols.

The early part of the chapter tells how Paul had been turned out of Thessalonica and Berea. Some of the Berean Christians had smuggled him out of the city by sea, and took him as far as Athens. Silas and Timothy had been left in Berea, and Paul sent word for them to join him at Athens.

At first sight, this sermon is a prime example of the need for ‘cultural relevance’ in preaching. Paul was preaching to the city’s cultural elite. He spoke in their own language, quoted from their poets and philosophers, and used their method of discourse – public debate – as his vehicle of communication.

Athens – In former days, Athens had been considered the greatest city in the world. It had reached the pinnacle of art, literature, architecture, and philosophy. It was sometimes referred to as the university of the world. All the great minds gathered there. It offered a home to the pantheon of gods in Greek mythology. The major buildings were all shrines to the deities. According to a popular saying, ‘It is easier to find a god in Athens than a man.’ One man who lived in Paul’s time visited Athens and wrote six volumes describing the glories of the city. We might have expected a scholar like Paul to have been fascinated by the ancient temples, glorious art treasures, magnificent buildings, wonderful sculptures, captivating orators, and clever philosophers. But he was ‘greatly distressed’ – saddened, grieved, indignant, outraged – to see all the idolatry, v16.

‘The speech in Athens (ch. 17) is commonly used in an attempt to demonstrate how different Luke’s picture is from ‘reality’. Paul, who in 1 Corinthians writes about his lack of eloquence, is, it is claimed, portrayed as a splendid orator and philosopher in Athens, the city of culture and learning. Furthermore, it is claimed, the speech excuses and almost endorses pagan idol worship, something which the real Paul would never have done. Neither of these points stands up under closer scrutiny. Far from being an ideal and convincing speaker, Paul was ridiculed by the Athenians who heard his message, and Luke records that only a handful of people were convinced – hardly the way to compose a story intended to impress the readers of Acts. In another passage, Paul is pictured as having spoken at such length that even a listener who was in agreement with him fell asleep (20:7-12)! As for the ‘sympathetic’ attitude towards idol worship in Athens, this aspect of the speech is actually a veiled attack on all idol worship, rather than true agreement. It is consistent with Paul’s attitude on arriving in the city as well as his attitude as expressed in the letters.’ (NBC) See 1 Cor 1:17n

He was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols – See Mk 8:2n.  Stott remarks that we would very probably have viewed Athens through the eyes of tourists, taking in the city’s architecture and history.  Paul himself was no Philistine, but what he saw first and foremost was not the beauty of the place, but its idolatry.  The word used, kateidōlos, suggests that Athens was not merely ‘full’ of idols, but ‘under’ them (i.e. swamped or smothered by them).

The word underlying ‘greatly distressed’ is paroxynō.  It is often used in the LXX of God himself, when he is ‘provoked to anger’ by idolatry. ‘So Paul was “provoked” (RSV) by idolatry, and provoked to anger, grief and indignation, just as God is himself, and for the same reason, namely for the honour and glory of his name.’ (Stott)

This emotion is sometimes referred to as ‘jealousy’.  ‘Now jealousy is the resentment of rivals, and whether it is good or evil depends on whether the rival has any business to be there. To be jealous of someone who threatens to outshine us in beauty, brains or sport is sinful, because we cannot claim a monopoly of talent in those areas. If, on the other hand, a third party enters a marriage, the jealousy of the injured person, who is being displaced, is righteous, because the intruder has no right to be there. It is the same with God, who says, “I am the Lord, the is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols”. Our Creator and Redeemer has a right to our exclusive allegiance, and is “jealous” if we transfer it to anyone or anything else.’ (Stott)

Stott concludes: ‘So the pain or ‘paroxysm’ which Paul felt in Athens was due neither to bad temper, not to pity for the Athenians’ ignorance, nor even to fear for their eternal salvation. It was due rather to his abhorrence of idolatry, which aroused within him deep stirrings of jealousy for the Name of God, as he saw human beings so depraved as to be giving to idols the honour and glory which were due to the one, living and true God alone.’

‘Paul is more than greatly distressed, for he experiences a paroxysm in his spirit, a provocation of anger or grief or both, because the glory due to God alone is being given to idols. The Lord reacted the same way to idolatry in Israel (Deut 9:7,18,22; Ps 106:28-29; Isa 65:2-3; compare Isa 42:8), and so should we. Any paraphernalia of false worship should provoke in us such grieving anger that we, jealous for the glory of God and his Christ, reach out and share the good news, which includes a call to repentance.’ (IVP Commentary)

‘While some might have been mightily impressed by Athenian architecture, sculpture, and learning, Paul “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” In other words, his reactions were based not on aesthetics, but on a Christian analysis of the culture.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 498)

17:17 So he was addressing the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue, and in the marketplace every day those who happened to be there. 17:18 Also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him, and some were asking, “What does this foolish babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was proclaiming the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 17:19 So they took Paul and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are proclaiming? 17:20 For you are bringing some surprising things to our ears, so we want to know what they mean.” 17:21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there used to spend their time in nothing else than telling or listening to something new.)

Paul’s action was to go to the synagogue and the market-place and preach Christ. He did not call a committee, or conduct a survey; his approach was direct, confrontative evangelism. He did not focus on a particularly receptive ‘target group’, he just preached to whoever would listen.

‘One cannot help admiring Paul’s ability to speak with equal facility to religious people in the synagogue, to casual passers-by in the city square, and to highly sophisticated philosophers both in the agora and when they met in Council.’ (Stott)

The market-place was a large courtyard surrounded by the civic buildings. In addition to the farmer and tradesmen peddling their wares, peripatetic teachers in the tradition of Aristotle, specialists in the healing arts, magicians, and street performers would clamour for the attention of the crowds. In such a setting one man stood alone against the traditional paganism of centuries and preached Christ. Nor were the Athenian intellectuals swept away by Paul’s erudition: to them he was a ‘babbler’, and advocate of ‘foreign gods’.

As Stott says, the nearest equivalent to the synagogue is the church.  We may offer the gospel there, to fringe believers and occasional attenders.  The equivalent of the agora might be the park, street corner, town square, cafe, pub, student cafeteria and so on; there is a great need to befriend people and share the good news there.  Perhaps the nearest equivalent to the areopagus is the university, where many intellectuals are to be found.  They will benefit most not from church evangelism or street evangelism, but from home evangelism, where issues can be discussed and debated, and from lectures and books with a strong apologetic thrust.

Stott adds: ‘There is an urgent need for more Christian thinkers who will dedicate their minds to Christ, not only as lectures, but also as authors, journalists, dramatists and broadcasters, as television script-writers, producers and personalities, and as artists and actors who use a variety of art forms in which to communicate the gospel. All these can do battle with contemporary non-Christian philosophies and ideologies in a way which resonates with thoughtful, modern men and women, and so at least gain a hearing for the gospel by the reasonableness of its presentation. Christ calls human beings to humble, but not to stifle, their intellect.’

A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers – The Epicureans dated back four centuries to their founder, Epicurus. They had no sovereign god in their system, had no believe in the afterlife, and believed that everything happened by chance. They taught that pleasure is the ultimate goal of life (although the held that pleasure could only be found in right living, and so they were highly moral). A modern, corrupted, form of Epicurianism says, ‘Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.’ ‘The ideal of Epicurean philosophy was an undisturbed life, a life of tranquility, untroubled by undue involvement in human affairs. The gods themselves are composed of atoms so fine they live in calmness in the spaces between the worlds. As the gods are nicely removed from the hurley-burley of life, so human beings should seek the same ideal. Against such a view, Paul presents a God who is intimately involved in this world as Creator, Ruler, Judge, and Saviour.

The Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheistic fatalists. Their philosophy was altruistic, charitable and magnanimous. In contrast to their pantheism, Paul present a God who is personal, distinct from creation, a final Judge.

Some of these philosophers openly mocked Paul. Others were intrigued that Paul seemed to be preaching foreign gods. They may have thought the resurrection (Gk ‘anastasis’) referred to a goddess, Anastasia. After all, they had gods of piety, mercy, and modesty, so why not a goddess of resurrection? To them, Paul was a philosophical oddity.

‘Paul had to confront two opposing philosophies as he witnessed in Athens, those of the Epicureans and the Stoics. We today associate the word Epicurean with the pursuit of pleasure and the love of “fine living,” especially fine food. But the Epicurean philosophy involved much more than that. In one sense, the founder Epicurus was an “existentialist” in that he sought truth by means of personal experience and not through reasoning. The Epicureans were materialists and atheists, and their goal in life was pleasure. To some, “pleasure” meant that which was grossly physical; but to others, it meant a life of refined serenity, free from pain and anxiety. The true Epicurean avoided extremes and sought to enjoy life by keeping things in balance, but pleasure was still his number one goal.

The Stoics rejected the idolatry of pagan worship and taught that there was one “World God.” They were pantheists, and their emphasis was on personal discipline and self-control. Pleasure was not good and pain was not evil. The most important thing in life was to follow one’s reason and be self-sufficient, unmoved by inner feelings or outward circumstances. Of course, such a philosophy only fanned the flames of pride and taught men that they did not need the help of God. It is interesting that the first two leaders of the Stoic school committed suicide.

The Epicureans said “Enjoy life!” and the Stoics said “Endure life!” but it remained for Paul to explain how they could enter into life through faith in God’s risen Son.’ (Wiersbe)

The Areopagus – The word is used here to refer to the council that met on a rocky hill of the same name, which was about 370 feet high, and not far from the Acropolis and the Agora (marketplace) in Athens, Greece. The name probably was derived from Ares, the Greek name for the god of war known to the Romans as Mars. The council included at least thirty men who were supreme judges in Athens. They not only ruled in criminal and civil cases, but also were the guardians of Athenian philosophy. Evidently the philosophers wanted to hear what Paul had to say and decide whether the deities he proclaimed might be added to the ones already in the pantheon.

What an opportunity! Paul was hauled in front of the most powerful men in the city and asked to explain what he was preaching about!

telling or listening to something new

‘Many come to the Word only to feast their ears; they like the melody of the voice, the mellifluous sweetness of the expression, the newness of the notion. (Ac 17:21) This is to love the garnishing of the dish more than the food; this is to desire to be pleased rather than edified. Like a woman that paints her face, but neglects her health.’ (Thomas Watson)

17:22 So Paul stood before the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in all respects.

Here (vv22-31) is a sermon on ignorance (agnosticism) with:-

Introduction: you seem very religious

  1. God doesn’t live in temples, but fills the world
  2. God’s needs are not supplied by us, but our needs by him
  3. God is not far from us, so we should seek him

Application: God calls everyone to repentance.

Some attempt to show that Paul was mistaken in this Athenian address by appealing to philosophy, in (apparent) contradiction with his later claim, referring to his next stop after Athens, to know nothing nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified, 1 Cor 2:2.  This approach misunderstands both passages and, moreover, attempts to connect the two without any evidence of a causal connection between them.  See Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 134.

‘The Areopagus address reveals the comprehensiveness of Paul’s message. He proclaimed God in his fullness as Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Father and Judge. He took in the whole of nature and of history. He passed the whole of time in review, from the creation to the consummation. He emphasised the greatness of God, not only as the beginning and the end of all things but as the one to whom we owe our being and to whom we must give account. He argued that human beings already know these things by natural or general revelation, and that their ignorance and idolatry are therefore inexcusable. So he called on them with great solemnity, before it was too late, to repent.’ (John Stott, Authentic Christianity, 19)

Paul was courteous but direct, v22. Not ‘too superstitious’ (AV), but ‘very religious’: the word deisidaimonesteros can be used in either sense, (cf. Acts 25:19) but here, in his exordium, Paul is seeking to secure his hearers’ good will.

‘”The Greek religion was a mere deification of human attributes and the powers of nature,” wrote Conybeare and Howson in their classic Life and Epistles of St. Paul. “It was a religion which ministered to art and amusement, and was entirely destitute of moral power” (pp. 280-281). The Greek myths spoke of gods and goddesses that, in their own rivalries and ambitions, acted more like humans than gods; and there were plenty of deities to choose from! One wit jested that in Athens it was easier to find a god than a man. Paul saw that the city was “wholly given to idolatry,” and it broke his heart.’ (Wiersbe)

‘Earlier in the last century Martin Dibelius concluded that the speech was intended by Luke to be a sample of the kind of preaching to pagans which he considered appropriate, that it was composed by Luke not Paul, and that it is a ‘Hellenistic’ speech about the knowledge of God, which is not Christian until its conclusion. Some years later Hans Conzelmann wrote: ‘In my own opinion the speech is the free creation of the author (sc. Luke), for it does not show the specific thoughts and ideas of Paul’. In 1955, however, the Swedish scholar Bertil Gartner decisively answered Dibelius in an essay entitled ‘The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation’. His thesis was (i) that the background to the speech is to be found rather in Hebrew than in Greek thought, and especially in the Old Testament; (ii) that it has parallels in the apologetic preaching of Hellenistic Judaism; and (iii) that it is genuinely Pauline in the sense that its main features reflect Paul’s thought in his letters, (e.g. Rom 1:18ff) although of course Luke has abbreviated it and put it into its present literary form. So it is not difficult to affirm with a good conscience that the voice we hear in the Areopagus address is the voice of the authentic Paul. Nor is it difficult to find Old Testament passages which anticipate the main themes of the sermon God as Creator of heaven and earth, in whose hand is the breath of all living things, who does not live in man-made temples, who overrules the history of nations, who is not to be likened to graven or carved images, which are dead and dumb, and who warns of judgement and summons to repentance.’ (Stott)

17:23 For as I went around and observed closely your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown god.’ Therefore what you worship without knowing it, this I proclaim to you.

“Your objects of worship” – Paul was addressing a highly pluralistic culture. Although some Greek thinkers taught that there was ‘one god’, they usually thought of this god in pantheistic terms, and could therefore alternative readily between references to ‘god’ and ‘the gods’. Indeed, the whole of the NT is written against a heavily pluralistic background: Colossians, for example insists on the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ against the claims of other intermediaries; Ephesians teaches belief in one Lord, one faith, one baptism (4:4-6) over against the pluralities of these things in the prevailing culture; Revelation 2-3 indicates the titanic struggle between the early church and a pluralistic culture. (See Carson, The Gagging of God, 496f)

“To an unknown God” – ‘Important cult centers such as Athens, Olympia and Pergamon had dozens of altars to traditional Greek gods (Zeus, Athena, Hermes, etc.), to less traditional deities (e.g., Helios, “sun,” and Selene, “moon”), to abstractions (e.g., Pistis, “fidelity,” and Arete, “virtue”) and (in an attempt to be complete, i.e., to have a “precinct for altars of all gods without exception”) to “unknown gods” and (safer still) to “all the gods.” Though no inscription has been found which exactly reproduces the phraseology of Acts 17:23, it is quite possible that such inscriptions actually existed.’ (DPL)

What was the altar to the unknown god? 600 years before, Athens had been stricken with a terrible plague. A famous Cretan poet names Epimenides proposed to pacify whatever gods were causing the plague by releasing a flock of sheep in the city. The angry gods would draw the sheep to themselves, so when any the sheep lay down, they were sacrificed to the god of the nearest temple. However, many sheep did not settle near temples at all. These were sacrificed anyway, just to make sure no unfamiliar deities were overlooked. Since these were nameless gods, altars and shrines were erected ‘to an unknown god’. It was doubtless one of these altars that Paul had spotted.

‘Probably such altars reflected the fears of animistic strata in pagan culture. There are powers beyond what one can know, and just to be on the safe side, it is important to offer sacrifices to all of them – even to unknown ones. By contrast, Paul insists he is introducing the God who is known, the God who has revealed himself.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 499)

Not ‘ignorantly worship’ (AV), but ‘worship as something unknown’. He treated his auditors with respect. Yet he got straight to the point: ‘What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.’

Stott cites Raymond Pannikar, who urges that ‘in the footsteps of St Paul, we believe that we may speak not only of the unknown God of the Greeks but also of the hidden Christ of Hinduism…the good and bona fide Hindu is saved by Christ and not by Hinduism, but it is through the sacraments of Hinduism, through the message of morality and the good life, through the mysterion that comes down to him through Hinduism, that Christ saves the Hindu normally.’  But it is not the case that the Athenians were worshiping the true God unknowingly.  What Paul responds to is not their worship, but their self-acknowledged ignorance.

“I am going to proclaim to you” – ‘That there is a God, appears by the consent of nations, by the universal vote and suffrage of all men…‘No nation so barbarous,’ says Tully, ‘as not to believe there is a God.’ Though the heathen did not worship the true God, yet they worshipped a god. They set up an altar, ‘To the unknown God.’ Acts 17:23. They knew a God should be worshipped, though they knew not the God whom they ought to worship. Some worshipped Jupiter, some Neptune, some Mars. Rather than not worship something, they would worship anything.’ (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity)

Steps in Paul’s message

(i) God is not the made but the maker; and he who made all things cannot be worshipped by anything made by the hands of man. It is all too true that men often worship what their hands have made. If a man’s God be that to which he gives all his time, thought and energy, many are clearly engaged in worshipping man-made things.

(ii) God has guided history. He was behind the rise and fall of nations in the days gone by; his hand is on the helm of things now.

(iii) God has made man in such a way that instinctively he longs for God and gropes after him in the darkness.

(iv) The days of groping and ignorance are past. So long as men had to search in the shadows they could not know God and he excused their follies and their mistakes; but now in Christ the full blaze of the knowledge of God has come and the day of excuses is past.

(v) The day of judgment is coming. Life is neither a progress to extinction, as it was to the Epicureans, nor a pathway to absorption to God, as it was to the Stoics; it is a journey to the judgment seat of God where Jesus Christ is Judge.

(vi) The proof of the preeminence of Christ is the resurrection. It is no unknown God but a Risen Christ with whom we have to deal.


17:24 The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, 17:25 nor is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone.

vv24-27 Cf. Acts7:48-50. Paul proclaimed God as Creator, Sustainer, Sovereign, and omnipresent. To seek this God is a moral obligation. There was no question that Paul was trying to get them to add to their pantheon of gods: he was urging them to abandon their religion and worship the eternal Creator of all things. This God makes all others obsolete.

“God who made the world and everything in it” – ‘The world could not make itself. Who could hang the earth on nothing but the great God? Who could provide such rich furniture for the heavens, the glorious constellations, the firmament bespangled with such glittering lights? We see God’s glory blazing in the sun, twinkling in the stars. Who could give the earth its clothing, cover it with grass and corn, adorn it with flowers, enrich it with gold? God only. Job 38:4. Who but God could make the sweet music in the heavens, cause the angels to join in concert, and sound forth the praises of their Maker? Job 38:7. ‘The morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.’ If a man should go into a far country, and see stately edifices there, he would never imagine that these built themselves, but that some greater power had built them. To imagine that the work of the creation was not framed by God, is as if we should conceive a curious landscape to be drawn by a pencil without the hand of an artist. Acts 17:24. ‘God that made the world, and all things therein.” (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity)

“God…does not live in temples built by hands” – Cf. Isa 66:1.

‘Sacrifices offered to idols, in today’s tribal religions as in ancient Athens, are thought of as somehow keeping the god going, but the Creator needs no such support system. The word aseity, meaning that he has life in himself and draws his unending energy from himself (a se in Latin means “from himself”), was coined by theologians to express this truth, which the Bible makes clear.’ (Ps 90:1-4; 102:25-27; Isa 40:28-31; Jn 5:26; Rev 4:10) (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology)

vv24-27 Paul proclaimed God as Creator, Sustainer, Sovereign, and omnipresent. To seek this God is a moral obligation. The was no question that Paul was trying to get them to add to their pantheon of gods: he was urging them to abandon their religion and worship the eternal Creator of all things. This God makes all others obsolete.

‘The church is not a building. Paul’s address is a good example of how to communicate the gospel. Paul did not begin by reciting Jewish history, as he usually did, for this would have been meaningless to his Greek audience. He began by building a case for the one true God, using examples they understood (Acts 17:22-23). Then he established common ground by emphasizing what they agreed on about God (Acts 17:24-29). Finally he moved his message to the person of Christ, centering on the resurrection (Acts 17:30-31). When you witness to others, you can use Paul’s approach: use examples, establish common ground, and then move people toward a decision about Jesus Christ.’ (HBA)

‘You may depend on it that the belief that this building or any other building is a house of God, a place peculiarly suitable for worship, is idolatry. You are giving to bricks and mortar some little of the honour which is due only to Christ as an altar. If you suppose that there is nay more acceptableness to God in a church or a cathedral than in any public hall or in the open air, you have made a material building into an altar.’ The Best of Spurgeon, 106
“He is not served by human hands” – ‘Here may be discerned approximations to the Epicurean doctrine that God needs nothing from human beings and to the Stoic belief that he is the source of all life.’ (F.F. Bruce)
Nevertheless, although Paul aligns himself with some Greek ideas, he also distances himself from others, ‘and eventually introduces themes that are essential to the gospel even though Paul knows they will alienate many of his hearers. In short, Paul displays courtesy and sensitivity, but there is restraint in his tactical alignments, lest he jeopardize the gospel.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 499)
Responding to biblical illiteracy

‘Rising biblical illiteracy means that fewer and fewer people have many mental “pegs” on which to hang what you say. This means that responsible biblical preaching must spend more time recounting the basic story-line and its principal theological lesson – not unlike Paul in Athens in Acts 17. In evangelistic work today I assume that people do not know that the Bible has two Testaments, that for them “sin” is a naughty snicker-word without a trace of real odium, that “God” is a plastic word with who knows what content, and so forth.’ Carson, in When God’s Voice is Heard (eds Green & Jackman), 156.

Three things about God

  1. God the Creator is the Lord of heaven and earth; he is not confined within the time and space of his creation, rather, he exists in every reality both inside and outside created reality…All reality, visible and invisible, material and spiritual exists by divine faith [sic. ‘fiat’ is surely meant]: “He spoke, and then it was, he commanded, and then it stood!” (Ps. 33:8-9). God alone is the source of all that exists, and all that is exists to serve him as Lord.
  2. God is independent of his creation, God is not “served by human hands” because he doesn’t need anything, that is to say he is entirely self-sufficient and does not depend on anything outside of himself for his existence or blessedness.
  3. God is the superabundant source of the creature’s total existence (“he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything”); he is, in himself the fullness of life, being and everything…

Liam Goligher

God’s aseity

This verse teaches God’s ‘aseity’. ‘This fine word has largely dropped out of theological discussion, though the truth that God is the God of aseity was once a commonplace. It means that God is so independent that he does not need us. We cannot give him anything that he lacks, or wheedle something out of him by cajoling him.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 500) See Ps 50:12.

‘Sacrifices offered to idols, in today’s tribal religions as in ancient Athens, are thought of as somehow keeping the god going, but the Creator needs no such support system. The word aseity, meaning that he has life in himself and draws his unending energy from himself (a se in Latin means “from himself”), was coined by theologians to express this truth, which the Bible makes clear. (Ps 90:1-4; 102:25-27; Isa 40:28-31; Jn 5:26; Rev 4:10)’ (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology)

In theology, endless mistakes result from supposing that the conditions, bounds, and limits of our own finite existence apply to God. The doctrine of his aseity stands as a bulwark against such mistakes. In our life of faith, we easily impoverish ourselves by embracing an idea of God that is too limited and small, and again the doctrine of God’s aseity stands as a bulwark to stop this happening. It is vital for spiritual health to believe that God is great, (cf. Ps 95:1-7) and grasping the truth of his aseity is the first step on the road to doing this.’ (J.I. Packer, Concise Theology).

17:26 From one man he made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live, 17:27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

From one man he made every nation of men – or, ‘the whole race of men’.  If the first option is taken, then the emphasis is on God’s purpose for nations.  If the second option is preferred, the focus is on individual human beings.

‘All of the human race has descended from one man, himself created by God. This means that the one God rules over all, governing all people, their nations and their history (“he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live,”). Thus not only is there no room for racism or elitist tribalism, but one of the entailments of monotheism is that if there is one God he must in some sense be God of all, whether acknowledged or not.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 500)

According to Paul, ‘neither the Stoic explanation of the universe (featuring deterministic processes) nor the Epicurean explanation (featuring chance processes) was adequate to grasp the subtlety of things as they are.’  (Lennox, Against the Flow: The inspiration of Daniel in an age of relativism)

So that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him – Polhill (NAC) explains that this is in the optative mood, expressive of strong doubt.  ‘God created humans, Paul said, so they might seek him and just possibly grope after him and find him. He had his doubts. People likely would not discover God in this fashion, even “though he is not far” from them.’

Kistemaker: ‘He hopes that people, even though blinded by sin, may grope for God their Maker—much as a sightless person reaches out to and touches a fellow human being without seeing him.’

Fernando refers to God’s ‘creation in human beings of an innate thirst to find him, an incurable religiosity.’

Stott understands this saying as representing man’s innate reaching out hopefully to God.  But ‘this hope is unfulfilled because of human sin, as the rest of Scripture makes clear. Sin alienates people from God even as, sensing the unnaturalness of their alienation, they grope for him.’

“He is not far from each one of us” – ‘The main point is that seeking should not be difficult since God is not far from each one of us.’ (Marshall)

God’s purpose in history

‘God’s purpose in his ordering of history is to incite human beings to pursue him. The assumption, in other words, is that they otherwise would not. This hint at human rebellion is then further teased out and expanded: idolatry is a practice both culpably ignorant and evil, and all must one day answer to this Creator-God who is also Judge, v29f. None of this means that God is playing hard to get, or that he has hidden himself somewhere and must be discovered by noble feats of exploration. Paul even allows that such insight is recognised by some pagan poets, v28.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 500)

God is not far from each one of us

This seems to be stated by the apostle to show that it was possible to find him; and that even those who were without a revelation need not despair of becoming acquainted with his existence and perfections. He is near to us,

  1. because the proofs of his existence and power are round about us everywhere, Ps 19:1-6.
  2. because he fills all things in heaven and earth by his essential presence, Ps 139:7-10; Jer 23:23,24; Am 9:2-4; 1 Kings 8:27.

We should learn then,

  1. to be afraid to sin. God is present with us, and sees all.
  2. He can protect the righteous. He is ever with them.
  3. He can detect and punish the wicked. He sees all their plans and thoughts, and records all their doings.
  4. We should seek him continually. It is the design for which he has made us; and he has given us abundant opportunities to learn his existence and perfections.’ (Barnes)
17:28 For in him we live and move about and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 17:29 So since we are God’s offspring, we should not think the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human skill and imagination.

Paul supports his argument with quotations from Greek poets, including Epimenides – the same poet who erected the altars to the unknown god. When Epimenides wrote, ‘For in him we love and move and have our being’, he was thinking of Zeus. Paul is saying that the description has been attached to the wrong god. Cf. Rom 1:19-20.

Ponsonby notes that ‘Paul is not using their poets as infallible authorities, but as illustrations, a point of contact…between his message and the worldview of his listeners.’ (God Inside Out, p48)

vv29-31 Paul then takes an almighty swipe at idolatry. If God made everything, he argues, then we should not bow down and worship the creation, but the Creator. He didn’t try to accommodate the Epicureans by promising a pleasure-filled life, or the Stoics by making the gospel sound like their philosophy. He called both groups to repentance. In his forbearance, God in the past ‘overlooked such ignorance’: not that he excused it, but that he did not visit it with the judgement it deserved, cf. 14:16; Rom 3:25; but such a day has been appointed, cf. Jn 5:22.

‘The argument of the apostle is this: “Since we are formed by God; since we are like him, living and intelligent beings; since we are more excellent in our nature than the most precious and ingenious works of art, it is absurd to suppose that the original Source of our existence can be like gold, and silver, and stone. Man himself is far more excellent than an image of wood or stone; how much more excellent still must be the great Fountain and Source of all our wisdom and intelligence!” See this thought pursued at length in Isa 40:18-23.’ (Barnes)

What we should, and should not, think about God

Scripture teaches that God is transcendent, and yet immanent. He is far above above creation, yet intimately involved in it, Acts 17:25,28; Eph 4:6; Col 1:17; Heb 1:3. False views include:

  1. materialism, which denies the existence of God altogether;
  2. pantheism, which teaches that the whole universe is God, or an emanation from God;
  3. dualism, which holds that God and the material universe have existed eternally side by side, locked in eternal conflict, with no guarantee that good will triumph;
  4. deism, according to which God created the universe and then left it to run on its own.
17:30 Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent, 17:31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

In the past God overlooked such ignorance – ‘He “overlooked” it not by excusing it or failing to notice it, but rather by not punishing it as it deserved.’ (Rom 3:25; Acts 14:16) (IVP NT Cmt’y)

‘What Paul means is that God graciously overlooked their ignorance in the past, however culpable their ignorance was, for he did not punish them instantly, but in his forbearance “left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” (Rom 3:25) Now, however, as salvation has been brought near, so also has judgement drawn close. That is a characteristic of realised eschatology in the New Testament: the blessings of the age to come have dawned, but concomitantly the dangers have increased proportionately.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 310)

‘We are not to suppose that God regarded idolatry as innocent, or the crimes and vices to which idolatry led as of no importance; but their ignorance was a mitigating circumstance, and he suffered the nations to live without coming forth in direct judgment against them.’ (Barnes)

All people – ‘Not Jews only, who had been favoured with peculiar privileges, but all nations. The barrier was broken down, and the call to repentance was sent abroad into all the earth.’ (Barnes)

He commands all people everywhere to repent – ‘Why? Because of the certainty of the coming judgement. Paul tells his listeners three immutable facts about it. First, it will be universal: God ‘will judge the world’. The living and the dead, the high and the low, will be included; nobody will be able to escape. Secondly, it will be righteous: ‘he will judge…with justice’, All secrets will be revealed. There will be no possibility of any miscarriage of justice. Thirdly it will be definite, for already the day has been set and the judge has been appointed. And although the day has not been disclosed, the identity of the judge has been (10:42). God has committed the judgement to his Son, (cf. Jn 5:27) and ‘he has given proof of this’ publicly to everybody ‘by raising him from the dead’. By the resurrection Jesus was vindicated, and declared to be both Lord and Judge. Moreover this divine judge is also ‘the man’. All nations have been created from the first Adam; through the last Adam all nations will be judged.’ (Stott)

A royal command

  1. Who? – ‘God’
  2. When? – ‘now’
  3. Whom? – ‘all people’
  4. What? – ‘to repent’
  5. Why? – because a day has been set, and a Judge appointed

(Pickering 1,000 Subjects, slightly adapted)

He will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointedCf. Acts 10:42.

‘Behind the statement lies the thought of the new status given to Jesus by the resurrection (cf. Rom. 1:4), which was interpreted by the early church as exaltation to lordship and consequently to judicial authority.’ (Marshall)

‘Although Paul indirectly refers to Jesus Christ as “a man whom [God] has appointed,” he intimates that this man is the second Adam. From one man (the first Adam) God made the entire human race (v. 26), and in the presence of another man (the second Adam) all of humanity will be judged (v. 31). Jesus himself teaches that God has given him, the Son of man, the authority to judge the world (John 5:22, 27).’ (Kistemaker)

It is often claimed that the content of this sermon is alien to Paul’s thought, and that he therefore could not have preached it.  But there are, in fact, distinct similarities with 1 Thess 1:9f, where Paul summarises his teaching to the Gentiles at Thessalonica.  ‘There the elements are strikingly the same as in the Areopagus speech: turning from idols to a living God, the return of the Son from heaven, the resurrection, the wrath to come. This is almost a summary of the appeal in Acts 17:29–31.’ (Polhill, NAC)

A crash course in theology

Milne notes that in this speech Paul asserts no fewer than 17 truths about God:

1. God is the creator of all things: God … made the world and everything in it (24); we are his offspring (citing the pagan author Aratus) (28).
2. God is the sustainer of all things: God … gives all men life and breath and everything else (25).
3. God is ruler over all things: God … is the Lord of heaven and earth (24).
4. God is a transcendent spirit: God … does not live in temples built by hands (24); we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone (29).
5. God is perfectly complete in himself: God … is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything (25).
6. God is a purposive and active God: from one man he made every nation … that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live (26).
7. God is a personal, relational being who seeks relationship with His creatures: God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him (27).
8. God is immanent within the world: God … is not far from each one of us; in him we live and move and have our being (citing the pagan poet Epimenides) (27).
9. God is our Father, in the sense that our life comes to us ultimately from Him: We are his off spring (29).
10. God is a merciful being: In the past God overlooked such [idolatrous] ignorance (30).
11. God is a morally righteous being who calls all people to repent of wrong: God … commands all people everywhere to repent (30).
12. God is a God of justice: God … will judge the world with justice (31).
13. God’s purpose in human history has reached its goal in the mission of Jesus Christ: God … now … commands all people everywhere to repent … For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed (30–31).
14. God raised Jesus to life after his death: God … [raised] him from the dead (31).
15. God has already set a time when all people will be passed under judgment: God … has set a day when he will judge the world (31).
16. God will judge all people by Jesus Christ: God … will judge the world by the man he has appointed (31).
17. God has provided a universal sign of his future, universal judgment by raising Jesus from the dead: God … has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead (31).

Milne adds that this is a ‘remarkably inclusive and expansive. It is, moreover, both effectively related to the philosophical positions of his hearers, and yet utterly faithful to the revelation of God in the Old Testament Scriptures. Virtually every primary attribute of God disclosed there is either asserted or implied. In a day when theology is routinely dismissed as an irrelevant preoccupation for Christian eggheads, it is time to learn again from Paul. Paul’s gospel is rooted in Paul’s God.’

History is heading somewhere

‘History is not going around and around in endless cycles, as many Greeks thought. History is teleological; it is pressing on in one direction, to the day of final judgement…Not only so, but there are developments within history; in modern theological parlance, there are salvation-historical or redemptive-historical developments. History is constrained not only by creation at one end and judgement at the other, but by singularities. In particular, God has largely overlooked the pagan nations of the world until this point, but “now he commands all people everywhere to repent.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 500f)

Thinking biblically about racial diversity

John Stott argues from Paul’s celebrated Areopagus speech in Acts 17.

First, Paul affirmed the unity of the human race, or the God of creation. For God had “made from one every nation of men” (v. 26), and all human beings are therefore his “offspring” (28, 29). We evangelicals rightly reject the concept of “the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of men” if it is used to deny the special fatherhood and fellowship God gives to his redeemed people. But we should acknowledge the truth about creation it expresses. All men and women, having been created in God’s image, are equal before him in worth, and therefore have an equal right to respect…

Second, Paul affirmed the diversity of ethnic cultures, or the God of history. For the “periods and the boundaries” of the nations are in God’s hand (26). The apostle was probably alluding to the primeval command to multiply and fill the earth. It was certainly this human dispersal that inevitably resulted in the development of distinctive cultures. Now culture is the complement of nature. What is “natural” is God-given and inherited; what is “cultural” is manmade and learned. Culture is an amalgam of the beliefs, values, customs, and institutions every society develops and transmits to the following generation. Scripture celebrates the colorful mosaic of human cultures, and even declares that their “glory” will be brought into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24). This being so, we should seek to ensure that human society remains multicultural, and does not become monocultural. For cultural diversity is a source of human enrichment.

Third, Paul affirmed the finality of Jesus Christ, or the God of revelation. For “now he commands all men everywhere to repent,” having raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him the universal Judge (30, 31). The apostle refuses to acquiesce in the multireligious condition of Athens. He does not hail the city as a living museum of religions. No, its idolatry was abhorrent to him. We learn, therefore, that to welcome the diversity of cultures does not imply an acquiescence in the diversity of religions. On the contrary, Christians who appreciate cultural achievement must at the same time resist the idolatry which lies at the heart of many cultures. We cannot tolerate any rivals to Jesus Christ. They “provoke” us, as they did Paul (16). We must therefore proclaim to all mankind that the God they may “worship as unknown” (23) has actually made himself known, uniquely and decisively, in Jesus Christ.

Fourth, Paul affirmed the glory of the Christian community, or the God of redemption. For God acted through Jesus Christ to abolish the barriers which divide human beings from one another and to create a single new humanity. His fullest exposition of this theme is in Ephesians. Luke only hints at it in Acts 17 by mentioning two converts by name, “Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris” (34). Here was the nucleus of the new society of Jesus, in which men and women of all social, racial, and cultural origins are reconciled to each other through him.

Whatever policies a country may develop for racial integration, they must reflect and not compromise these four theological truths.

  • Because of the unity of the human race we must demand equal rights for racial minorities.
  • Because of the diversity of ethnic cultures, we must renounce cultural imperialism and seek to preserve the riches of every culture.
  • Because of the finality of Jesus Christ, we must insist that religious freedom includes the right of Christians to propagate their faith, and we must not deny this right to others.
  • Because of the glory of the new community in Christ, we must rid it of all lingering racism and strive to make it a model of multiracial harmony.

Jesus calls all his followers to be peacemakers. We must pray, witness, and work, to the end that the multiracial dream may come true.

Christ the Cornerstone: Collected Essays of John Stott, ch 43.  Emphasis and formatting added

17:32 Now when they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 17:33 So Paul left the Areopagus. 17:34 But some people joined him and believed. Among them were Dionysius, who was a member of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Evidently, Paul was interrupted. Before he could even name Christ, his hearers seized upon his mention of the resurrection. There was a threefold reaction: contempt, curiosity, and conversion.

When they heard about the resurrection from the dead – In speaking about bodily resurrection as something accomplished by God himself, Paul was in direct contradiction of much Greek thought, in the form of neo-Platonic dualism. According to that view, the spiritual is good, the physical bad; it would be inconceivable that God would raise someone to physical life. ‘Paul will never compromise the gospel so as to make it pleasantly compatible with the culture he is evangelising.’ (Carson, The Gagging of God, 501)

Some began to scoff – ‘The resurrection of the dead was no more believable in that context than it is for many in our so-called scientific age. The very idea made some of his audience sneer (v. 32)! Yet, if the resurrection of Jesus took place, it challenges human scepticism about the possibility of encountering God and being judged by him. It is the best proof we have of a general resurrection and makes Jesus the key figure in God’s plans for humanity.’ (Peterson)

Some people – NIV, ‘A few men’.  There is nothing in the pronoun or in the context to determine whether the number was few or many. Perhaps the NIV translation is influenced by the widespread, but debatable, opinion that Paul’s ministry at Athens was a failure.