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From Philippi to Patmos










In the market[1] place of every city there stood a milestone giving the distance from Rome.  In the market of “Rome the eternal” there stood a golden milestone, erected by Augustus, which described the capital city as the heart of this giant, pulsating organism of peoples.

  • Between Alexandria and Asia Minor there was a daily shipping connection (Ramsay, Letters to the Seven Churches, 18, 435).
  • According to Pliny one traveled from Spain to Ostia, the port of Rome, in four days, and in two days from Africa.
  • The tomb inscription is known of a Phrygian merchant who not less than 72 times made the journey from Hierapolis, near Colosse in Asia Minor, to Rome, over 1,250 miles.


Without this notable world traffic the swift advance of early Christianity would have been inconceivable.  Sea traffic was specially important to them, for early Christian gospel work was specially important to them, for early Christian gospel work was in great measure a labor in harbor cities, and especially so with Paul.  “In the main the world of the apostle is to be sought where the sea wind blows.”  One need only think of Paul’s sojourns in the ports of Caesarea, Troas, Ephesus, Athens, Corinth, and Rome.


Yet the land connections also were of the utmost importance.  Even the most remote and isolated lands were opened up through roads and bridges.  Already at that time a nearly complete network of well-built highways, protected by walls and fortresses, spread itself over the whole empire.  “All roads lead to Rome.”  On these imperial and main roads the messengers of the gospel later traveled, bringing to the world the joyful news of the Redeemer who had appeared.  Some estimate Paul alone journeyed by land and water a total of more than 15,000 miles.


SLIDE # 4-6:     MAPS

SLIDE # 7:                HOW GOD LEADS

SLIDE # 8-10:   MAPS


SLIDE # 16 –     ATHENS



SLIDE # 20:    Paul wants to teach nurturing by example and to help the saints  to be firmly grounded or anchored.  The Apostle gives us a slice out of his very personal life and shows us his activities while on standby – what he did while he was WAITING. Have you ever thought of how valuable those unplanned times of unexpected waiting can become?

-Its when someone doesn’t show up for the appointment times.

-When your car isn’t repaired by when you were told.

– It’s those layovers at airport times.

– Sometimes its a Hospital and doctor’s waiting rooms times.

– It’s waiting to get picked up at work or school times.

– Just plain old waiting time that Paul models the best use of.


Now let’s set the scene. In I Th. 2:17  it says Paul was bereft awhile, then in 3:1, he was left at Athens alone. So as we start this section remember, Paul left Thessalonica, and was at Athens alone.


SLIDE # 21:    Turn to Acts 17 and lets see the big picture of I Thessalonians and Acts.

  • 1 Came to Thessalonica.
  • 10 Sent away amid problems
  • 16 Paul waiting
  • 17-34 Paul ministering
  • 18:1 goes to Corinth


SLIDE # 22:    Now back to I Thessalonians.


The setting is, Paul is WAITING at Athens – He MINISTERS – Done – goes to Corinth.


This passage 2:17-3:10 is his testimony to them of what a spiritual giant does and what we should emulate… seven pursuits of godly men and women in their spare time.


Paul directs his heart and mind toward his ministry to these saints… Things he did while waiting and out of their presence.


What a blessed endeavor to model in our lives… use those spare time thoughts for God!




Here we go…v. 17 has the first of 7:



  • The saints were his closest family
  • Orphaned is a strong word, “bereft” Out of sight did not mean out of mind.
  • Paul said v.7. He was like a mom and v. 11 a Dad – so they were family and he had a great desire to see them. Christian togetherness the most often prayer request in the N. T.
  • So, #1 Paul says – In my in-between times I think of you, my beloved family. Most get depressed. Paul got uplifted.  Alone when God takes all away so he closes.



  • Paul describes Satan’s tactic as thwarting believers. EGKOPTEIN is a military word for a roadblock placed to stop an  army in march;  also, it is an athletic word “to cut someone off in a race  setting”.


LESSON ONE.  Paul was aware of Satan’s activity:

  1. 1 Thessalonians 3:5 For this reason, when I could no longer endure it, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor might be in vain. (NKJV)
  2. 2 Thessalonians 3:3 But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard [you] from the evil one. (NKJV)
  3. 2 Corinthians 4:4 whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. (NKJV)
  4. Ephesians 2:2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, (NKJV) So, Paul was aware of Satan’s devices, but –


LESSON TWO.  Paul didn’t blame everything on the Devil!  Paul saw divine hindrances as well as diabolical. Acts 16:6-7     Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia. 7 After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them. (NKJV)

  • Paul was prevented from ministry in Asia and Bythinia.
  • Hindrances to your well-intentioned plans are sometimes divine and other times Satan’s!
  • Paul now focuses on his third pursuit in his spare time in v. 19-20.
  • Paul says [1] I think of you as my beloved family. [2] I think of you as involved in spiritual warfare and [3]




  • Did you hear that? Paul didn’t look at them as they were — but like they will be. Paul said you are:
    1. My hope – that’s your anticipation
    2. My joy – that’s fulfillment
    3. My Crown – that’s final victory
  • Paul looked at life and death and saw ultimate joyous victory in the well done of God on a life poured into others. He measured life and estimated its worth by the only things you can take with you – others!  Think about that.  Dan 12:1-2, “turneth many”. Quickly now. Paul’s 4th pursuit



  • Needed encouragement [1-2]
    1. Paul “stretched” to the limit in heart
    2. He must encourage his chosen
  • Needed enlightenment [3-4]
    1. They must realize affliction comes with the gospel
    2. They also must see Paul inherited a legacy of suffering kingdom. KEIMAI = immovable, unchangeable divine appointment.
    3. “Affliction” no accident, but a very necessary part of man’s life. I Pet. 5:6-9
  • Needed endurance [5-8]
    1. To resist the tempter v. 5.
    2. In their living testimonies v. 6.
    3. In their growing faith v. 7.
    4. In their firm stand. v. 8.
    5. So Paul focused on definite needs and did something about it!



He saw God’s hand in saving them

  • He saw God’s image implanted
  • He saw their worth because of that
  • He saw his account with God blessed by them
  • What are the last two?



What kind?  Most earnestly [NAS] exceedingly [AV]

  • It’s huperekperrisson I Th. 5:13  Very highly – strong adverb.
  • Paul meant business – he knew God asked us to pray to accomplish His will and glory and he did it earnestly!


HABIT # 6:      PAUL REMEMBERS THAT HE IS TO ALWAYS BE HOPEFUL 3:10b One last desire that fills my heart for you… I WANT TO SEE YOU COMPLETE

  • I expect God to finish the job of equipping/mending you!
  • Render complete KARTARTIOZO equipping, mend nets 4:21;  Gal. 5:1 Restore;  Hebrews 10:5 prepared; Hebrews. 11:3 Framed – supply   what’s missing.
  • Lacking HUSTEREMA come/left behind – despite all great achievements still needed to press on to mark, vital to start with praise, continue with need…
  • None of us have arrived, we all are following after Christ to be what He wants… Don’t fall behind, be all He wants you to be by His power.
  • Well Paul – what do you do in your spare time? I practice this love for you that makes me have:
    1. FAMILY THOUGHTS 2:17 Warm thoughts of you as my family
    2. BATTLE FIELD THOUGHTS 2:18 Memories that we are in spiritual battle
    3. HEAVEN THOUGHTS 2:19-20 Great anticipation for your homecoming
    4. THOUGHTS OF YOUR NEEDS 3:1-8 Concern to meet your needs
    5. THOUGHTS OF THANKSGIVING 3:9 Thanks to God for you
    6. THOUGHTS OF SUPPORT 3:10a Earnest times of prayer for you
    7. THOUGHTS OF MATURITY 3:10b Expectations for your growing in maturity!

That’s Paul’s example to them! Let’s heed this word and pursue these things today!





The word translated “beholding” (nasb; niv, “see”) is the same word from which we derive theater. The apostle stared long and hard at what he saw, for the city was truly “full of idols.” Pausanius, who visited Athens fifty years later, said it was easier to meet a god or goddess on the main street of Athens than to meet a man. This was statistically true because the population was about 10,000, but there were 30,000 statues of gods. The streets lined with idols of false deities, framed by the architectural magnificence of the Parthenon and the Acropolis, were dazzling to the eye.

No doubt Paul appreciated much of the city’s beauty, being a man of culture. Nevertheless, “he was greatly distressed.” The Greek literally means this was a paroxysm (see the notes on 15:39). He was angry about a lie. As a Jewish monotheist, he would have been disturbed, and as a Christian apostle he was even more enraged! Every idol demonstrated the Athenians’ hunger for God, but it also testified to their spiritual emptiness. Ignorant of the true God, the Athenians were lost!

Paul felt desperate concern for the spiritual need before his eyes. As had happened with Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:9), an urge to speak came like a burning fire, and the apostle could not hold it in. As believers, our hearts should ache and our eyes blur at what we see around us—ignorant souls denying the one God and giving allegiance to false deities. If we experience no inner paroxysms, we either have not truly been redeemed by Jesus Christ or we have become apathetic to the things of God[2].




Harbor of Piraeus: Most scholars believe that Paul traveled to Athens by boat from Berea and thus it is likely that he entered the city through its large port of Piraeus.

The port was originally built in the 5th c. B.C. and still thrives today.  In ancient times Piraeus was connected to Athens (6 mi. distant) by the Long Walls, two parallel walls 600 feet apart

Mars’ Hill

On his visit to Athens, Paul gave a speech to the learned men of the city at the Areopagus (Mars’ Hill).

Mars’ Hill is a prominent site located 140 ft below the Acropolis and in Paul’s day was the meeting place of the main governing body of the city.  While some think that Paul’s appearance here indicates some sort of judicial proceeding, most see the reference as only the location of his preaching (Acts 17).

Temple of Zeus: Begun in the 6th c. B.C., this temple was finally completed until Hadrian’s reign in the 2nd c. A.D.  Antiochus Epiphanes of Seleucid rule did much construction on the site between 174-165 B.C.  Today 15 of the original columns are still standing


Stoa of Attalus: This two-tiered covered colonnade was a gift to the city by the king of Pergamum, Attalus II (159-138 B.C.)

The stoa was restored in 1953-56 so that it might house the artifacts from the Athens’ excavations being carried out by the American School of Classical Studies.  It served as an example for the Holyland Hotel’s model of the Royal Stoa in Jerusalem.


Hadrian’s Arch

Built by the Athenians in honor of the emperor Hadrian in 135 A.D., this marble gate was on a street leading from the ancient city to the new Roman one.

An inscription on one side reads, “This is Athens, the ancient city of Theseus.”  An inscription on the other side reads, “This is the city of Hadrian and not of Theseus.”



17:24 God, who made the world. This teaching flatly contradicted both the Epicureans, who believed matter was eternal and therefore had no creator, and the Stoics, who as pantheists believed God was part of everything and could not have created Himself. Paul’s teaching finds its support throughout Scripture (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 146:5,  6; Is. 40:28; 45:18; Jer. 10:12;  32:17; Jon. 1:9; Zech. 12:1; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:16; Rev. 4:11; 10:6).[3]


17:23, 24 TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. The Athenians were supernaturalists—they believed in supernatural powers that intervened in the course of natural laws. They at least acknowledged the existence of someone beyond their ability to understand who had made all things. Paul thus had the opportunity to introduce them to the Creator-God who could be known (Deut. 4:35; 1 Kin. 8:43; 1 Chr. 28:9; Ps. 9:10; Jer. 9:24;  24:7; 31:34; John 17:3). When evangelizing pagans, Paul started from creation, the general revelation of God (cf. 14:15–17). When evangelizing Jews, he started from the OT (vv. 10–13).[4]


17:26 one blood. All men are equal in God’s sight since all came from one man, Adam. This teaching was a blow to the national pride of the Greeks, who believed all non-Greeks were barbarians (see note on Rom. 1:14). determined their preappointed times. God sovereignly controls the rise and fall of nations and empires (cf. Dan. 2:36–45; Luke 21:24). the boundaries of their dwellings. God is responsible for establishing nations as to their racial identity and their specific geographical locations (Deut. 32:8) and determining the extent of their conquests (cf. Is. 10:12–15).[5]


The world into which the church now advanced was very different from the provincial land of Palestine. Centuries earlier the conqueror, Alexander the Great, had begun a process which spread Greek culture and language across the Middle East. Asia Minor, Egypt, the Greek Isles, and the ancient Empire of Persia all fell to the conqueror and, after his early death, to the four generals who divided Alexander’s spoils.

The spread of the Greek language and culture unified and linked the world of the New Testament. The vision of “one world” and of a “united nations” is no modern invention. It was Alexander’s dream, hundreds of years before Christ. By the days of the early church, this dream had been realized to the extent that missionaries like Barnabas and Paul did not have the language barrier that missionaries face today. They could communicate everywhere they went in Greek, the second language of elite and commoner alike.

Greece conquered the world culturally. But it had taken the expansionist and brutal power of Rome to weld the world together politically. Under the first emperor, Augustus, the Pax Romana (Roman peace) had been imposed by force of arms. The empire which Rome held included not only Egypt and the Middle East, but extended even to the British Isles, encompassing France, Spain, and what is now West Germany (see Map of Roman Empire). Roman government and Roman law brought an unprecedented stability to the world through which the missionaries traveled. There was no trouble with passports, no detours to avoid wars between bickering states. During the first years of Christianity’s expansion, the new religion was considered a sect of Judaism by the government. As such the Christian faith was a “licit religion,” with its freedom of practice guaranteed by the Romans!

The Roman world was far less unified religiously. The official religion of the empire was the cult of emperor worship. The classic religion of the period of the Roman republic (with its worship of a pantheon of interchangeable Greek and Roman gods and goddesses headed by Zeus [Jupiter]) now received only perfunctory attention. But existing alongside the official and the classic religions were a number of secret cults, generally referred to as “mystery religions.” These originated in the East and became more and more popular, as the aberrations of succeeding emperors eroded confidence in the official faith. The austere and distant gods of Greece and Rome offered no personal relationship, and provided no personal religious experience. To fill this need, cults like the Eleusinian, the Dionyisian, the cult of the Great Mother (Cybele), and that of the Egyptian Isis and Osiris, spread through the empire.

These mystery religions featured initiation rituals, rites, and myths. The cults had little or no ethical content. Most stressed fertility in a female deity and had both sexual and social appeal. In the sense of belonging that came through initiation into the cult, and in the promise of a special relationship with a mythical deity, many looked for a meaning that life in the Roman Empire, for all its stability, did not provide.

The world, empty of promise or hope, was ready for the coming of the Saviour. And this world over which Rome ruled was uniquely shaped to permit the explosive spread of the one faith which actually does meet the deepest needs of man. A faith which rests not on myth, but on the historical fact of God’s entrance into the world in the person of His own Son, Jesus Christ.

The Core

It is clear from our reading of Acts 16–19 that the Apostle Paul was sensitive to first-century culture. But it should also be clear that Paul was careful never to compromise the core issues of the Christian faith.

The distinction is often lost. It’s so easy to take a practice sanctified by tradition and mistake it for a core issue.

For instance, for many years in the United States, Sunday evening was dedicated to evangelistic church services. Non-Christians could be brought to church, and an evangelistic message, with an invitation, became the expected thing. As American society changed and new recreational and entertainment patterns developed, Sunday evening no longer was a time when the unchurched slipped into the pew. Even the annual “revival meetings” were now attended primarily by believers. Yet, the approach to evangelism continued to be the Sunday evening or special revival service. A “Gospel message” was expected, even though the Gospel might be familiar to everyone present.

How different this picture is from Acts. There, Paul took the Gospel to people where they were, and he adapted the form of presentation to his listeners. We see Paul searching out a riverside place of worship, and sitting down to talk the Gospel over with Lydia and her friends. We see Paul moving into the synagogue and there debating in the classic way from the Old Testament Scriptures. When Paul stood before the philosophers in Athens, his presentation took the form of philosophic argument, using even pagan religious poetry and an Athenian altar to “An Unknown God” as points of contact. His presentation there never once referred to Scripture! And, in Ephesus we see Paul in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, holding “discussions daily” (Acts 19:9) like other itinerant teachers of his day.

As Paul moved to different settings and different cultures, he adapted. He easily shifted the location, and even the form of the Gospel presentation, to fit patterns his listeners were most likely to recognize and to understand.

Perhaps we too need to develop the cultural sensitivity of the early missionaries. Perhaps if we were more sensitive to our culture, and less rigid in our terminology, we too might be more effective in our modern evangelism.

Form and Content

It’s important to realize that, while Paul clearly adapted the form of his Gospel presentation to fit the listener and the culture, Paul did not compromise the core itself. D.R. Jackson, in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia (5:725), noted that Paul spoke “in the way most appropriate to his hearers’ circumstances and cultural background,” but that certain basic themes are consistently present. The themes that Jackson suggests are: “(1) Christ’s death, (2) Christ’s resurrection, (3) witness testimony, (4) Scripture testimony, (5) power, and (6) forgiveness.”

Wherever the Gospel message was preached, to Jews or others who had the background of the Old Testament, these elements were emphasized. But in the Acts 17 report of Paul’s speech to the philosophers of Athens, the proclamation went further.

Paul began in Athens by affirming the existence of a “God who made the world and everything in it” (v. 24). This God is Himself the sole source of the material universe and animate life. The God who made the world has design and purpose woven into His Creation. History’s ages are moving toward a divinely determined end; an end in which God “will judge the world with justice” (v. 31). The proof of God’s reality and His concern for mankind lies in the fact that God Himself entered space and time in form, undergoing death and then experiencing a bodily Resurrection from the dead (see v. 31).

Here we have a true confrontation with the first-century world. Paul might have adapted the cultural forms for those to whom he spoke, but there was no compromise of the Gospel message. And that message went against the grain of the most basic beliefs and values of Paul’s listeners, just as biblical Christianity contradicts the beliefs and values of modern man today!

A weary world view. Acts 17 mentions the two prevalent schools of philosophy in the time of the early church: Epicureanism and Stoicism. While differing from each other, both philosophies had the same practical purpose: each sought peace of mind.

  • Stoics saw man as a rational being, felt that the world had a moral order, and emphasized a kind of universal law that pantheistically pervaded the universe.
  • Epicureans saw man as a feeling being, emphasized the supremacy of the individual, and affirmed that the universe was but a random combination of atoms, mechanistically determined. They maintained that seeking pleasurable experience was the best way of life.


Neither philosophy had any place for a divine Creation. One viewed matter as eternal, while the other regarded matter as pervaded by, and essentially equivalent to, the Divine. Without a personal, supreme God who created for His own purposes, the universe had no known origin, and history had no direction or goal. An individual’s relationship to either the universe or God (such a god as there was) had no meaning beyond its own existence; no purpose for life could be found outside the brief span of years allotted to an individual.

To someone seeking the meaning of human existence these ancient philosophies could only say, “Exist!” (Eat, drink, and be merry) or “Endure.”

It is true that very few first-century men and women were philosophers, just as relatively few people of our own day consciously struggle with basic questions. But the emptiness of the then-current philosophies was reflected in the attitudes and ideas of the general population.

Even the old faith had no adequate explanations. The pantheons of ancient gods and goddesses were simply immortal men and women, freed to indulge in the sins and pettiness their worshipers yearned for themselves. These gods and goddesses had no real concern for humans. Oh, they might choose to favor a special hero, such as Achilles or Hercules, for a time. But they would capriciously turn away from him on a whim at any moment, or they might make him a pawn in a battle with some rival. What’s more, the gods themselves were not all-powerful! Like men they were helpless before an impersonal fate. The average individual in the first century saw himself as caught under the crushing weight of chance, helpless to affect the course of his own life, and without any hope of establishing a relationship with a trustworthy supernatural power. Such people had only superstitious ritual or magic practices with which to ward off evil.


Even those mystery religions, which attracted many in the first century, offered at best some revival of life in the underworld, or the prospect of an escape from punishment, or escape from continued imprisonment in a succession of bodies (reincarnation). The concept of a conscious, bodily resurrection was unthinkable.

The view of reality in the ancient world was characterized then by these elements:

  • an impersonal universe,
  • an impersonal fate,
  • an essential purposelessness,
  • no hope for relationship with a faithful deity.

Within the framework of this common belief, man lived out his life. The lifestyle of the age had gradually lost the optimism of early Greek culture (ca. 400 b.c.) and was now burdened down with:

  • pluralism (with many competing philosophies of life advanced),
  • relativism (with each individual choosing his or her own thing, accepting the notion that what might be “right for me” may not be “right for you”),
  • superstition (with a variety of straws grasped at in the hope of finding something to satisfy),
  • syncretism (with religious and philosophical notions from many sources combined and recombined in an effort to find meaning).


Captured in a world they did not understand, men and women lived lives of quiet desperation or hopelessness. In the words of Paul, they existed “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). In the fullest meaning of the word, the first-century world was lost, wandering in meaningless illusion, never penetrating to the reality underlying the universe, and never knowing that a God exists who offers humanity a relationship through which we can recover both meaning and hope.


No wonder it was a weary world that the early missionaries invaded! And no wonder that, when we look beyond the surface—past the material peace and prosperity and the often unbridled sensuality—we discover a world of men and women desperately ready for the Gospel’s Good News.


And today? How like the first century our day is! With all its material prosperity, our age is marked with a sense of weariness and hopelessness. Disillusioned by the unfulfilled vision of scientific conquests, as well as by the patriot’s dream, more and more people turn to ancient avenues in search of hope. For most today the universe is as impersonal as it seemed in the first century. With sophistication we explain origins by an evolution that supposedly took place by random chance, bringing life from lifeless matter. From this empty, impersonal origin we seem to move toward a meaningless end. If that end doesn’t come soon through a destructive atomic war, mindless depletion of earth’s natural resources, overpopulation, or pollution of the environment, then the end will still come in some distant age when the universe itself runs down, the stars wink out, and an endless dark descends.

No wonder that within such an impersonal universe men and women increasingly turn to drugs, to hedonistic sensualism, to astrology or the occult, or to modern mystery faiths from the East, in a desperate search for meaning and for hope.

For perhaps the first time in centuries, the world view of modern man closely resembles the world view of New Testament times! The revolutionary truths so familiar to the Christian are truly revolutionary again. Returning again to the Gospel core, you and I are invited by a living Word to experience again the exciting days of the first century, when the church was vital, and the faith was young.[6]

Entering Athens

Athens’ fame rested mainly on the glories of its past; even as a philosophical center, its primacy was challenged by other centers in the East like Alexandria and Tarsus. But Athens remained the symbol of the great philosophers in popular opinion, so much so that later rabbis liked to tell stories of earlier rabbis besting Athenian philosophers in debate. Romans did not always trust philosophers, but Acts records other speeches to appeal to those with less philosophical tastes. This speech is Paul’s defense of the gospel before Greek intellectuals.

17:16.  City streets were often lined with statues of men and gods, and Athens was especially decorated with the Hermae, pillars mounted with heads of Hermes; many visitors wrote of the evidences of Athenian piety. From an aesthetic standpoint, Athens was unrivaled for its exquisite architecture and statues. Paul’s concern is not aesthetics, however, but the impact of idols on human lives.

17:17.  Inscriptions attest the Jewish community in Athens, but it was not prominent.

17:18.  Epicureans were influential only in the educated upper classes, and their views about God were similar to deism (he was uninvolved in the universe and irrelevant); if there were gods, they were only those known through sense knowledge, like stars or planets. Life’s goal was pleasure—the lack of physical pain and emotional disturbance. Stoics were more popular, opposed pleasure, and criticized Epicureans (though not as much as they had in previous times). Here, as in 23:6, Paul practices the maxim “divide and conquer”: 17:22–29 is calculated to gain a Stoic hearing, but Paul and the Epicureans have little common ground.

Although Stoics still professed belief in the gods, philosophers were often considered impious, because they questioned the old traditions, although allowing them for the masses. The charge against Paul, “proclaimer of strange deities” (NASB), would remind Greek readers of the charge of impiety against Socrates (cf. 17:19–20). Many centuries before, a priestess had been stoned to death for this charge, and it still violated the Athenian psyche in Paul’s day.

“Babbler” (NIV, NASB) translates a Greek expression applied originally to birds pecking up grain but came to apply to worthless persons; an English equivalent to the reproach might be “birdbrain.” But in the same verse Luke lets these critics demonstrate their own stupidity: they think Paul is preaching gods (plural), because he preaches Jesus and resurrection—“Resurrection” (Anastasis) was also a woman’s name.

17:19–20.  Socrates had also been “led” or “brought” to the Areopagus many centuries before, as was well known. Socrates was the ideal philosopher, and Luke may portray Paul as a new Socrates for his Greek audience; given the outcome of Socrates’ speech (which, like Stephen’s, provoked his hearers to martyr him), this allusion builds suspense.

The Areopagus is here the council, not the site earlier used for this council (the literal hill of Ares). In this period the council may have met in the Stoa Basilicos, in the Agora where Paul had already been ministering (v. 17). Some scholars have suggested that the council was an accrediting board that tested lecturers; whether or not this is true, it is clear that they still serve some official function, and Paul’s speech there is of pivotal importance.[7]


There were many altars to unknown gods in Athens. Six hundreds years before this a terrible pestilence had fallen on the city which nothing could halt. A Cretan poet, Epimenides, had come forward with a plan. A flock of black and white sheep were let loose throughout the city from the Areopagus. Wherever each lay down it was sacrificed to the nearest god; and if a sheep lay down near the shrine of no known god it was sacrificed to “The Unknown God.” From this situation Paul takes his starting point. There are a series of steps in his sermon.

  1. 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.
  2. God has guided history. He was behind the rise and fall of nations in the days gone by; his hands is on the helm of things now.
  3. God has made man in such a way that instinctively he longs for God and gropes after him in the darkness.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. The proof of the pre-eminence of Christ is the resurrection. It is no unknown God but a Risen Christ with whom we have to deal.[8]


Paul left Berea and made the 200-mile trip down to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy behind. He was alone in the glorious Athens of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno. Though it had been some 400 years since the golden age of Pericles, Paul found the city’s glory and prestige intact. Athens was the intellectual center of the world (much like Oxford in the nineteenth century), and scholars from all over the inhabited earth made her their adopted home.[9]

The word translated “beholding” (nasb; niv, “see”) is the same word from which we derive theater. The apostle stared long and hard at what he saw, for the city was truly “full of idols.” Pausanius, who visited Athens fifty years later, said it was easier to meet a god or goddess on the main street of Athens than to meet a man. This was statistically true because the population was about 10,000, but there were 30,000 statues of gods. The streets lined with idols of false deities, framed by the architectural magnificence of the Parthenon and the Acropolis, were dazzling to the eye.

No doubt Paul appreciated much of the city’s beauty, being a man of culture. Nevertheless, “he was greatly distressed.” The Greek literally means this was a paroxysm (see the notes on 15:39). He was angry about a lie. As a Jewish monotheist, he would have been disturbed, and as a Christian apostle he was even more enraged! Every idol demonstrated the Athenians’ hunger for God, but it also testified to their spiritual emptiness. Ignorant of the true God, the Athenians were lost!

Paul felt desperate concern for the spiritual need before his eyes. As had happened with Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:9), an urge to speak came like a burning fire, and the apostle could not hold it in. As believers, our hearts should ache and our eyes blur at what we see around us—ignorant souls denying the one God and giving allegiance to false deities. If we experience no inner paroxysms, we either have not truly been redeemed by Jesus Christ or we have become apathetic to the things of God.

Paul could not be indifferent or detached. So he jumped right in, raging heart and all.

So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. (vv. 17–18)

Paul began dialoguing with anyone who would talk, and he found three groups of hearers—those who were religious (“the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks”), street-variety pagans, and intellectual philosopher-types called “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.” The latter two groups represented the competing philosophies of the day. The Epicureans believed that everything happens by chance, and death is the end—extinction with no afterlife. They believed there are gods, but those gods have nothing to do with the world. They were practical agnostics who believed pleasure is the chief end of man and that a simple lifestyle is the most pleasurable. The Stoics were pantheists, believing that everything is god and that whatever happened to them was their destiny. Consequently, they sought to live with apathy and detachment—fatalistic resignation. Together, these two philosophies represented the popular pagan alternatives for dealing with the plight of humanity apart from Christ. Epicureanism? Simple lifestyle. Stoicism? Apathy. Both were highly intellectual, and both lacked divine validation.

How would they respond to the gospel Paul preached?

Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. (v. 18)

They wrapped their response with clever ironic sarcasm. The word translated “babbler” is literally “seedpicker.” Originally used to describe birds picking up seeds and grain, over the years the word came to mean one who peddled others’ ideas as original without understanding them—a plagiarist, a chirping gutter sparrow who went around peeping borrowed ideas! This was undoubtedly a very “in” word with this crowd: “seedpicker… gutter sparrow… ignorant babbler.”

In verse 21 Luke gives his evaluation of the Athenians:

All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.

They were the babblers!

The Athenian University was the home of dilettantism and of the cool, cultivated, critical intellect, which had tried all things and found all wanting; and in it there were few hearers and no open door for new teaching.

The Athenian mind-set was always in pursuit of the nouveau, the dazzling, the sensational, the whims of the hour. So now the crowd brought Paul before the Areopagus—the Council of Ares (or as the Latin has it, Mars). If the speech was given at Mars Hill, as many believe, then before Paul lay the Theseum, the wonderful Doric temple. On his right was the upper city—the Acropolis and then the matchless Parthenon. Around him loomed thousands of statues and altars in gold, silver, and bronze. Paul stood amidst the symbols of departed greatness, with the gods of Greece staring down at him. Immediately before him sat the most exclusive philosophical review board in the world!

What a face-off! On one side stood Paul—divinely empowered, a man who had staked everything he had on his message. On the other side stood the Areopagus—sophisticated but indifferent. Paul stood before this intimidating group of powerful philosophers absolutely alone! What would the seedpicker say? Paul was about to give what F. F. Bruce has rightly called “a masterpiece of communication.”

The Proclamation of the Athenian Address (Vv. 22–20)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” (vv. 22–23)

Paul’s approach was brilliant. As courteous and conciliatory as possible, he complimented them on being “in every way… very religious.” Paul was undoubtedly eager to protest their idolatry and point them to the truth, but he restrained himself and gave a genuine compliment first. He met them where they were. “In my stroll around your famous city I found an altar to an unknown god. Let me tell you about the one who you are worshiping.” Paul established common ground.

His message also made brilliant application, for he pointed directly to the problem. The word translated “unknown” is the root from which we get agnosticism, which means “without knowledge.” The Athenians were supposed to know everything, and they did, almost. But on the most important truth they came up short—they did not know God. Paul did not say this—they did (“TO AN UNKNOWN GOD”). Many of them probably grasped the apostle’s irony.

Having established the bridge, Paul now began giving the Athenians doses of spiritual truth—first about God and then about themselves. Truth about God always helps us understand ourselves.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” (vv. 24–25)

The fundamental truth about God is that he is the Creator: “the God who made the world and everything in it.” That may not sound earth-shaking to us, but it challenged their whole theology. The Stoics were pantheists and the Epicureans practical atheists. Paul’s declaration denied the premises of both groups. The accompanying statement in verse 25 that God is the Lifegiver—“he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else”—drove the truth home even further, for it directly attacked the Epicureans’ belief that God was absent and the Stoics’ belief that he was in everything. As the giver of life, God is actively here, but he is not contained in creation.

The final great truth about God is that he is not only the Creator and the Lifegiver, but he seeks us out.

“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” (vv. 26–27)

Practically, Paul was saying that they were not living in Athens as a result of some cosmic accident. Rather, God had structured their lives in order to attract them to him. Great truths about God led to the truth about themselves: they were specially created by God, and he was seeking a personal relationship with them.

“ ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill.” (vv. 28–29)

The apostle explained that as God’s creatures, the Athenians had intrinsic dignity. Paul was a master communicator! He quoted a couple of their own poets in order to maintain rapport and keep their interest. The first part of verse 28, “For in him we live and move and have our being,” is from the work of Epimenides. The final line in verse 28, “We are his offspring,” is from the writings of Aratus:

All ways are full of Zeus and all meeting places of men; the sea and the harbours are full of him. In every direction we all have to do with Zeus; for we are also his offspring.

The apostle’s point was that as creatures of intrinsic dignity, having been created by God, men ought to refrain from false worship. Since we are made in the image of God, it is insulting to God and degrading to us to make an idol of him.

Paul may have stumbled in his presentation. It may have been delivered “in weakness and fear, and with much trembling” (see 1 Corinthians 2:3). But we can be sure it was passionate. It came from the depths of his soul. He spoke with directness—“we should not think…” He rightly made the message personal.

The Plea of the Athenian Address (Vv. 30–31)

“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he 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. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (v. 30)

Men are to “repent.” Of what? Idolatry. If men set anything above God as the object of their time, thought, energy, or life, they are worshiping the work of their hands and are thereby degrading God and themselves. They must repent because judgment is coming! Mankind is not moving toward extinction (as the Epicureans thought), nor toward absorption in the cosmos (as the Stoics supposed). But mankind is moving toward divine judgment. Moreover, our Judge is a resurrected man. The Areopagites did not like this at all. Five hundred years earlier Aeschylus had written, “When the dust has soaked up a man’s blood, once he is dead, there is no resurrection,” and this was a popular Greek sentiment in Paul’s day.

This confronting call for decision was not what these cultured dilettantes were looking for. The famous Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno comments:

This admirable account plainly shows how far Attic [Greek] tolerance goes and where the patience of the intellectual ends. They all listen to you, calmly and smilingly, and at times they encourage you, saying: “That is strange!” or, “He has brains!” or, “That is suggestive!” or, “How fine!” or, “Pity that a thing so beautiful should not be true!” or, “This makes one think!” But as soon as you speak to them of resurrection and life after death, they lose their patience and cut short their remarks and exclaim, “Enough of this! We will talk about this another day!”

Everything is fine as long as we remain theoretical, but when we call for action, men begin to shift their posture and look at their watches. Seeing their accountability to the true God makes many uncomfortable.

The Product of the Athenian Address (Vv. 32–34)

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. (vv. 32–34)

Paul’s sermon had three results—mockery, delay, and belief. The first two responses show that many did not care about truth. Some said, “Seedpicker… what a waste of time!” When the discussion went beyond fun and games, they cut it off. Others said, “We want to hear you again,” but they cared little whether they actually did or did not, and they never did hear him again. Verse 33 and the opening verse of chapter 18 tell the story: “Paul left the Council.… After this, Paul left Athens.” Praise God—some truly believed and came to faith. But most apparently rejected the apostle’s message and the Savior he proclaimed.

When men were angry with him, Paul argued with them. When he was persecuted, he returned again to the place of persecution. But for intellectual flippancy and moral dishonesty he had no stomach.

A Final Word

Despite the prevalence of mockery and rejection that day, a man and a woman gave their lives to Jesus Christ. The man’s name was Dionysius, and he was one of the elite—a member of the Areopagus. The woman was called Damaris. We know nothing else about them, but we do know they listened to Paul’s words with all their hearts.

If we are believers, if we truly know Christ, we must never hear or read God’s Word in a detached manner. We must pay attention to God with all our being. We must never give way to a cerebral detachment when it comes to divine things. We must always respond. Jesus stated the principle beautifully in Matthew 13:12:

“Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”

When truth comes, we must interact with it and appropriate it. One of the great sins of the church today is the dispassionate hearing of God’s Word. Because of this, there are many who are spiritually ill, unable to comprehend the truths they once held dear. Only God can deliver his children from such apathy![10]






[1]  Quoted from Erich Sauer

[2]  Hughes, R. Kent, Preaching the Word: Acts—The Church Afire, (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books) 1998, c1996.

[3]John F. MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur Study Bible, (Dallas: Word Publishing) 1997.

[4]John F. MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur Study Bible, (Dallas: Word Publishing) 1997.

[5]John F. MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur Study Bible, (Dallas: Word Publishing) 1997.

[6]Richards, Lawrence O., The Teacher’s Commentary, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books) 1987.

[7] Keener, Craig S., IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament , (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 1997.

[8] Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible Series: The Acts of the Apostles (Revised Edition), (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press) 2000, c1976.

[9] Hughes, R. Kent, Preaching the Word: Acts—The Church Afire, (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books) 1998, c1996.

[10] Hughes, R. Kent, Preaching the Word: Acts—The Church Afire, (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books) 1998, c1996.