Acts 17:16–34 . . .
“Who Is the Only True God?”
Today's passage prepares the way for the time when Paul’s ministry will be primarily focused upon and delivered to the Gentiles rather than Jews. This evangelistic campaign in Athens is a kind of “first-fruits” of what will come in God’s good time. Paul didn't plan to evangelize these Gentiles, but he couldn't help but do so when his soul became deeply stirred regarding their rampant idolatry.
Paul’s visit to Athens is a part of “Paul's second missionary journey.” (Its kickoff is illustrated on our Week 29 summary page.) This journey began after the Jerusalem Council was held, at which time its elders and the apostles concluded that the Gentile converts didn't have to first become Jews to become a Christian. Having traveled to a number of cities in which they planted churches, Paul and his team came to Berea, a much smaller, quieter place; you can find details of Paul's journey there in Week 31's summary. The Berean Jews were indeed “noble-minded.” They eagerly listened to Paul’s teaching of the Scriptures, then proceeded to check it out for themselves, so that many of these Jews (in contrast to the few in Thessalonica) came to faith, along with a number of Gentile proselytes, including a number of prominent Greek men and women.
There was no uprising against Paul from the Bereans. It was the Thessalonian Jews who got wind of Paul’s ministry in Berea and quickly stirred up another disturbance, just like the one they'd instigated at Thessalonica. Once again, Paul had to leave town, but this time he left behind Silas and Timothy. He'd wait for them to return to him as quickly as possible, in Athens, where today's passage picks up.
Light Shines in Athens’ Darkness (17:16–29)
Paul arrived at Athens, not by his plans, but because he had to flee persecution in Berea. He was waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. As he strolled around the city, his Spirit was provoked by the abundance of idols he'd seen. One early observer said that in Athens one was more likely to meet a god than a man, which was statistically true. It's estimated that there were about 30,000 idols in the city, but only 10,000 people when Paul visited there. The glory days of Athens had been four centuries earlier. But it was still an intellectual and cultural center with two predominant rival schools of philosophy, the Epicureans and the Stoics.
Epicurus (342–270 BC), a materialist, taught that "pleasure is the chief goal in life," especially that intellectual serenity is achieved by overcoming disturbing passions and superstitious fears such as death. He believed that at death, a person ceases to be, there's no afterlife, and he believes in gods. The Stoics (332–260 BC) followed the teachings of Zeno who thought that "good lies in the soul itself," which, through wisdom and restraint, delivers a person from the passions and desires that trouble ordinary life. These two schools of philosophy were Paul’s main audience for his sermon at Athens.
Athens was the epitome of what man could achieve by his own brilliance while still being ignorant of God. Philosophy and religion hadn't enabled the Greeks to know God. First of all, notice what Paul saw (v. 16): No doubt Paul walked through the city; visited the Acropolis; saw the Parthenon, the Aeropagus, and the Agora; beheld the great artistic paintings and breathtaking statues — but those aren't the things that grabbed his attention and wowed him. What grabbed at Paul was the idolatry! The phrase “full of idols” is the Greek kateidolos, which literally means “under idols,” as though the city was smothered or swamped with idols. Instead of being impressed by the gold, ivory, and marble images and statues, he was oppressed to the sight of them.
Secondly, notice what Paul felt (v. 16): His spirit was provoked within him. The Jerusalem Bible puts it this way: “His whole soul was revolted at the sight of a city given over to idolatry.” The word provoked is regularly used in the Greek version of the Old Testament when it addresses God’s reaction to idolatry. Seeing the idols, Paul was provoked to anger, grief, and indignation, realizing that man was so corrupt that he'd give to idols the glory that should have gone to the One and Only True God.
Thirdly, notice what Paul did (vv. 17–21): Paul reasoned with three groups of people. (1) Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue on the Sabbath; (2) every days' passers-by who were in the marketplace; and (3) Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. It appears that Paul started out reasoning with the Jews but he was restless the rest of the week. He couldn’t just sit by and do nothing when his God was being so profaned by Athenians submerged in idols, so he ventured into the marketplace, daily, talking to anyone who'd engage in conversation with him. All in all, we see him engaged in three types of witnessing: to the religious, to every-day men on the street, and to intellectuals. It's quite impressive to see how Paul was able to speak to all three kinds of people while easily reasoning with them the truth about Jesus Christ.
Fourthly, notice what Paul said (vv. 22–31): Only two of Paul's messages that are recorded in Acts were addressed to Gentiles: The first is in Acts 14 (shown on our Week 26 summary page), which he addressed to uneducated heathens; the second, here, was addressed to intellectual heathens. In both places, Paul departed from his practice of quoting OT Scriptures when speaking to the Jews. In today's passage, he actually quotes a couple of their own poets in illustrating divine truth. In this instance, he focuses on an altar he'd recently seen that had an interesting inscription: “To the unknown god.” Evidently, if there were other gods whom the Athenians weren’t aware of, they didn’t want to ignore and offend them, so they made an altar to that unknown god as well. In effect, Paul was saying, You’ve got hundreds and hundreds of gods. But this God, with a capital "G," which you don’t know — that’s the One I want to tell you about.
Paul intended to introduce Athenian intellectuals to the Only True God whom he described by telling them seven things about Father God. Notice that Paul’s main burden in his message was the foolishness and wickedness of their idolatry. He mentions it in vv. 23 and 29, using idolatry as two opposing theology bookends that he created to contrast the Only True God with man's idols.
1. God Is Creator (v. 24) This One True God made everything, including the heavens and earth. The Epicureans were wrong in believing the world was a chance combination of matter and time; the Stoics were wrong in believing that God was everything and everything is God. God is distinct from his creation; he's above his creation.
2. He Is Lord (v. 24) To be Lord means that God is the undisputed supreme ruler of this world. He not only made the world but rules over it, deciding what will take place in it and determining what's right and wrong in it.
3. He Is Transcendent (v. 24) The Only True God cannot be limited or localized to a man-made shrine or temple built by man! “Transcendent” suggests “outside the universe.” Since God created the universe, he can’t be contained by it. He's bigger than it, outside of it, and he transcends it.
4. He Is All-Sufficient (v. 25) Our Only True God doesn’t need anything, including us. Instead, he's the Supreme Giver. He is like an ever-flowing fountain, quenching the thirst of multitudes of people. Our salvation is a gift of God's overflowing goodness and sovereign grace.
5. He Is Sovereign (v. 26) God chose to create humans from one man. He determined which nations would come into existence, and where and when their people would live, as well as the rise and fall of earthly empires. God's declaration of sovereignty would strike at the heart of Athenian pride because they viewed themselves as being self-made men.
6. He Is Immanent (v. 27–28) The truth of God's immanence is the corollary to transcendence: Transcendence speaks of being outside the universe; immanence deals with the indwelling of the universe and of God being near and close to us, albeit very knowable.
7. He Is Living (v. 29) Paul’s point here is that God isn't at all like their idols, made by man out of inanimate gold, silver, or stone, all of which are inert and dead. God, on the other hand, is very much alive. Amen!
Paul’s Next Argument . . . (vv. 30–31)
In Part 2 of Paul's sermon to the court in Athens, he began with a powerful "theistic" argument that his conception of God, not theirs, must be correct. A theistic argument draws from the facts of creation one or more conclusions about God. Paul concluded that God must be greater than any deity that the Greeks worshiped.
To demonstrate how great the Only True God must be, Paul first said to his Greek audience that their own philosophers taught that "man is of God’s offspring." Then he argued that if God was capable of creating man, their idolatry was inappropriate. Paul evidently expected them to see why the images they crafted to represent God insulted His true greatness. By molding God's likeness using gold and other material substances, they treated him as a being made of matter. As a result, they set God below themselves, for the Greeks recognized that man has an immaterial soul as well as a material body.
This line of reasoning drew from a fact of creation, i.e., man’s possession of a soul, while concluding that man’s Creator cannot be "like gold or silver or stone — a man-made-and-designed image." Paul wanted them to understand that the world of matter wasn't where God's essence resided. Although Luke has probably given us only a summary of what Paul said, we can reconstruct Paul’s fuller presentation, whether stated or implied. No doubt Paul wanted the philosophers to understand further that if man was the offspring of God, God cannot be man’s equal; He must be superior to man. The Greeks imagined that everything came from nothing. Yet a work of art implies that the artist is greater than his creation. Likewise, the intricate being known as man requires a designer and maker greater than the Creator's product. Indeed, Paul implied strongly that the Only True God must be superior to any god of Greek mythology. The True Creator, whose greatness must surpass the deities named by mythology, is the unknown God that Paul wanted them to meet personally.
. . . Brings Mixed Results (vv. 32–34)
Many of Paul's hearers seemingly had their hearts hardened after hearing his sermon. When he affirmed Jesus' resurrection from the dead, they'd heard enough and stopped him from speaking further. Some sneered and reacted to his sermon with outright mockery. Like many intellectuals today, the Athenian listeners wore skepticism as a badge of their intelligence; they felt that by disbelieving in God things, they showed themselves smarter than others.
Others who'd heard Paul treated him more politely, saying that they'd listen to him again in the future. As he walked away, a small band of Christ-identifying Greeks followed him. Among them was Dionysius the Areopagite who was a member of the court that had just heard Paul's defense of his teaching. Since membership in this court was considered a high honor, he was indeed a distinguished convert to Christianity. The leading woman who believed in Christ was Damaris. Besides these two Athenians there were other believers as well; so Paul didn't need to view his time in Athens as a failure. No doubt those believers whom he left behind continued in the faith and started a church.
The highest ambition of those philosophers who'd heard Paul was to make a name for themselves that future generations would remember. Only two people in the audience attained that goal: the man and woman who, instead of living for self, made a hearty, life-changing decision to live for Christ.
- Q. 1 How does Paul use the cultures and ideas of the Epicureans and Stoics to help them see their weaknesses in relating to God?
- Q. 2 How does this response to Paul in Athens compare with the responses in Berea (17:12) and Thessalonica (17:4)?
New International Version (NIV) [View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 17.]
† Watch this "Visual Bible" video clip: Acts 16:34–18:11, starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus, James Brolin as Simon Peter, Harry O. Arnold as Saul/Paul, and Dean Jones as Luke.
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So 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. 18A 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. 19Then 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? 20You 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.)
22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For 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. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26From 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. 27God 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.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
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. 30In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For 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.”
32When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33At that, Paul left the Council. 34Some 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.