While Paul is waiting for his travelling companions to join him in the cultural center of the Roman world, he notes that the city of Athens was “full of idols.” This was no expression of exaggeration whatsoever. The city had hundreds upon hundreds of idols, and some ancient writers said there were more idols than people!
There was also a significant Jewish population, so Paul used the opportunity to speak in the synagogue while also connecting with people in the Agora – the marketplace. The Agora in Athens was a particularly colorful place – sort of like the social center of the ultimate university town. Here, every idea under the sun was exchanged and debated, and Luke gives a parenthetical comment that the folks milling about this area loved to spend their time doing nothing but talking and listening to the latest ideas.
When they called Paul a “babbler,” it was not a compliment! The Greek word literally translates to “seed-picker” and pictures a bird in the marketplace, flitting from seed to seed and making a meal of a wide variety of scraps. Paul seemed to be talking about gods they had never heard of … called Jesus and Anastasis (resurrection) – ideas of a strange sort all thrown together.
So they asked him to speak at the Areopagus, which was both the name of a location as well as a council who met at that place in order to evaluate the validity of the ideas circulating around the city.
So Paul launches into a lecture/sermon. His introduction made reference to well-known facts about the idols in Athens. He first noted there certainly were a lot of them, and this therefore indicated a religiously-interested people. And secondly, he referenced one in particular (most likely there were many more) with the inscription as to an unknown god. Being very thorough and not wanting to offend any god about whom they did not know and erect a statue, the Athenians made some “generic” statues to unknown gods in hopes that these deities would be placated. So Paul therefore said that he wanted to make known to them what they had essentially admitted they did not know!
The God that Paul proclaimed was one who did not need to be served and brought objects of worship for sustenance; after all, Paul’s God was the creator who made everything. Clearly, the Creator is not dependent upon anything or anyone! Mankind is a part of God’s creation, as Paul even validated this idea by quoting from two of their own famous philosophers – Epimenides and Aratus. Paul further declared that mankind is dependent upon the creator God and should seek to know him. And now, this God has set a day of judgment, having evidenced proof of his greatness by sending his Son Jesus to die and raise from the dead.
As it does to this day among the intellectual elites of our culture, the idea of the resurrection set off a reaction, mostly negative … though not entirely. The response is threefold: many, probably a majority, sneered at the idea as ridiculous, some said they would like to hear more on another occasion, and a few became followers – including even one of the members of the Areopagus named Dionysius.
The takeaway from this passage is to understand that the preaching of the gospel will always have these three responses. Due to the lost condition of mankind who are blinded by sin and far from even a sense of needing to know God, a majority are going to reject the message of salvation. Along the way, there will also always be those who are struggling with the issues of the gospel message, still pondering and attempting to understand and evaluate it. We today often refer to these folks as “seekers.” And as well, by God’s grace and sovereign work, there will be some who step out in faith and receive the message of truth. The final group is likely the smallest, and they are not seen on every occasion; but God uses the foolishness of preaching to bring them to salvation in him.
So we should not be discouraged by the difficulties of gospel proclamation, or that the majority of people resists and rejects, as this is normal. And it is truly a cause for great rejoicing when some indeed have that light of truth go on in their minds and hearts, and they become followers of Christ and sojourners with us in his body, the Church.
In Athens – Acts 17:16-34
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. 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. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 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. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “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 human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]
29 “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 human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 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 everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 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.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people 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.