An Interpretive Journey Thru Acts 17:16–34

(Our textbook, Grasping God’s Word, set up a 5 step process to interpret Biblical text. This was my attempt to apply that process to the Apostle Paul’s Visit to Athens, Acts 17:16–34)

Step 1:

Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the Biblical audience?

Beginning of the Book of Acts in Coptic; circa 4th or 5th Century

About the Book of Acts in general:

  • The author of the Book of Acts is Luke.
  • Luke is a travel companion of the Apostle Paul. He was Greek (the only Gentile author in the New Testament) and a physician.
  • The Book of Acts is thought to have been written between 60–62 AD. It is suspected that the episode in Athens takes place in 51 AD.
  • Luke wrote the Book of Luke, and the Book of Acts (actually a letter to Theophilus) is considered a follow on to the Book of Luke. Luke explains “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” (Acts 1:1–3) Luke’s style of writing is as historian or biographer. In Acts, Luke is telling two stories. On the surface, he is chronicling the story of the Apostles, their evangelism, and the early Church. Yet running through the narrative, and just below the surface, is the story of Jesus as the driving force.
  • The recipient of this letter is Theophilus. The identity of Theophilus is not known and because Theophilus translates to “loved by God” some think Luke was writing to all Christians. The context of the text, however, seems to point to a specific individual. In Luke 1:3, Luke refers to him as “most excellent Theophilus”. “Most excellent” is the Greek word “kratistos” which also translates to “your Excellency”. Luke uses this honorific when referring to the Roman governor Festus in Acts 26:25, the Roman governor Felix in Acts 23:26 and Acts 24:3. As such, it is thought that Theophilus was a Roman political figure. Additionally, in the next verse, Luke 1:4, it is clear that Theophilus had been “taught” or the Greek “katecheo” which means that Theophilus had been given basic Christian instruction. So this letter isn't meant to convert but to share greater knowledge about Christian ministry. Patrick Reardon states “it was Luke’s intention to provide Theophilus with a deeper, more detailed, and “perfect understanding” of the doctrines of the faith”. So Theophilus is thought to be a Gentile believer.
  • Based on the information in the above bullet point, the Book of Acts is written, in general, to the Gentile believers. Patrick Reardon notes again that the Book of Acts “serves the public proclamation of God’s Word within the church’s worship”.
St Paul Preaching in Athens, Raphael (1515)

About the passage at Acts 17:16–34, “In Athens”:

  • This passage in the NIV is titled “In Athens”. The passage takes place in Athens, Greece where the Apostle Paul is evangelizing while waiting for fellow evangelists Paul and Timothy to join him. According to the IVP New Testament Commentary Series, Athens “though its population was no more than ten thousand and it had been reduced to poverty and submission by its war with Rome (146 B.C.), it was granted the status of a free city in view of its illustrious past.”
  • Athens is a city “full of idols” (Acts 17:16). According to J. C. Ryle, the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool in the 19th Century, “Idols met his eyes in every street. The temples of idol gods and goddesses occupied every prominent position. The magnificent statue of Minerva, at least forty feet high, according to Pliny, towered above the Acropolis, and caught the eye from every point. A vast system of idol-worship overspread the whole place, and thrust itself everywhere on his notice. The ancient writer Pausanias expressly says, that ‘the Athenians surpassed all states in the attention which they paid to the worship of the gods.’ In short, the city, as the marginal reading says, was full of idols.”
  • Paul not only preaches in the Athens synagogue but in the marketplace (Acts 17:17). The marketplace in Athens is called the Agora. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series describes it as: “The Athenian Agora [marketplace] was the center of the public and business life of the city, and people met there every day to learn the latest news and to discuss all manner of subjects. . . . Temples and government buildings, shops and offices, and altars and statuary filled the Agora, and stoas and colonnades gave protection against the summer sun and the winter rain and cold (Finegan 1981:128)”. Additionally in the IVP New Testament Commentary Series, John Stott observes that the equivalent today is “a park, city square or street corner, a shopping mall or marketplace, a `pub,’ neighborhood bar, cafe, discotheque or student cafeteria, wherever people meet when they are at leisure (1990:281)”.
  • Paul’s preaching comes to the attention of two groups of philosophers in Athens, the Epicureans and the Stoics (Acts 17:18). According to the Oxford Dictionary, Stoicism is a “Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge, and that the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.” The Oxford Dictionary defines Epicureanism as a “school of philosophy founded in Athens by Epicurus. The school rejected determinism and advocated hedonism (pleasure as the highest good), but of a restrained kind: mental pleasure was regarded more highly than physical, and the ultimate pleasure was held to be freedom from anxiety and mental pain, especially that arising from needless fear of death and of the gods.”
  • Those philosophers “took him [Paul] and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus” (Acts 17:19). The Areopagus is a court that met on Areopagus (Roman, Mars Hill) in Athens. According to the ATS Bible Dictionary, “It was composed entirely of ex-archons, of grave and blameless character, and their wise and just decisions made it famous far beyond the bounds of Greece. Their numbers and authority varied greatly from age to age. They held their sessions by night. They took cognizance of murders, impieties, and immoralities; punished vices of all kinds, idleness included; rewarded or assisted the virtuous; and were peculiarly attentive to blasphemies against the gods, and to the performance of the sacred mysteries. The case of Paul, therefore, would naturally come before them, for he sought to subvert their whole system of idolatry, and establish Christianity in its place. The Bible narrative, however, rather describes an informal popular movement. Having heard Paul discoursing from day to day in the marketplace, the philosophic and inquisitive Athenians took him one day up into the adjacent hill, for a more full and quiet exposition of his doctrine.”
  • Paul starts his sermon based on an altar he found in Athens, “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” (Acts 17:23). According to John Birch, a Welsh Pastor, “Around 600 years before Paul walked down that road there had been a terrible plague in Athens which threatened the whole city. A Cretan poet, Epimenides came forward with a plan. A flock of black and white sheep were let loose in the city and wherever a sheep lay down it was sacrificed to the nearest god. If it lay down near a shrine of no known god it was sacrificed to ‘The Unknown God’”

Luke would have been speaking to Gentile believers, who were relatively new to the Christian faith, to describe how Paul had come to Athens, “the eye of the heathen world”, as J.C. Ryles described the city. Athens was renowned for its philosophy, politics, and the arts, as well as its obsession with idolatry to a multitude of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. His audience would have known that Paul had traveled into epicenter of all that is antithetical to Christian thought. Paul then is brought forward to account for his Christian evangelism to the Areopagus. Luke’s audience would have seen that Paul was taken further into “the epicenter of the epicenter”. The young religion of Christianity was being granted an audition, center stage, in front of the finest thinkers of the age.

This is the setting for Paul’s sermon.

Paul’s opening remarks to the audience of the Areopagus, as seen in Acts 17:22–23, are an exercise in reason. He is playing to the court of reason, and therefore his opening gambit will be a basic logical argument structured as proof for his sermon. Paul’s premise: “People 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.” Aside from the ironic claim of religiosity, Paul is stating an accepted fact that Athens is a city devoted to the worship of many Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. As the IVP New Testament Series notes, “a simple but limited truth and creating a basis for further comment”.

Next, Paul is telling the audience that he is not going to speak about a foreign god, but a god that the Athenians have identified and built an altar to. Paul builds on this Athenian admitted need to form his conclusion: “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship — and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” The Athenians’ self-identification of the god as “unknown” is grounds for Paul to answer this ignorance and make “known” this god.

Epimenides, Published by Guillaume Rouille in 1553

In the next paragraph, starting in Acts 17:24, Paul launches into a description of the One True God. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright notes, Paul is playing a chess game and is the grand master “taking on all the players of Athens at once”. The Epicureans would find some kinship in Paul’s statement that God and the world are not the same, “The God who made the world”, and his criticism of pagan worship, “[God] does not live in temples built by human hands” (Acts 17:24). N.T. Wright states that “the Epicurean would be fascinated, startled, irritated perhaps, but teased enough to want to hear more”. The Stoic, on the other hand, would find commonality in the harmony of God with man, “he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:25). Paul modifies a quote from the Greek poet Epimenides, “for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Then he adds “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” (Acts 17:28) which is another Greek poet, the Stoic Aratus. As with the Epicureans, N.T. Wright concludes that the Stoics would be “perhaps drawn to consider the matter more closely”.

Clearly in this paragraph, Paul is walking a fine line of relating with and chiding his audience with his exposition of the One True God. Paul is taking liberty with the meaning of the quotes from both poets as both refer to the Greek god Zeus, but it is as if Paul is asking: do you not recognize the One True God in your poets’ words?

Equally remarkable is that Paul hasn't mentioned Jewish theology, Jesus Christ, or any reference to Christology in specific. Paul simply speaks to the known the qualities of God. Christianity need not be referenced for these Greek thinkers to recognize God.

In the next paragraph, starting at Acts 17:29, Paul brings the discussion of God into the moment. He is not only critical of the Athenians practice of idolatry, but makes a rational argument against the practice: “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” (Acts 17:29). Paul then plays on his use of the word “ignorant” from his opening statement: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). What Paul leaves unsaid, but implied, is that you are no longer ignorant of the One True God; He is no longer “unknown” to you. And now that you have knowledge of God, you are commanded to repent.

The next verse, Acts 17:31, is the remarkable conclusion to Paul’s sermon: “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.” This verse, like much of Paul’s work, is densely layered in richness.

Paul at the Areopagus. Castel Durante ceramic circa 1540–50 on display at the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Medievale e Moderna in Italy. Photo by Sailko

On the surface, Paul is making the stunning claim that God has appointed a man to judge the world and the proof that this will happen is that this man was brought back from the dead. Not only would the Epicureans and the Stoics find a claim of resurrection to be absurd, but the founding charter of Areopagus strictly prohibited it. As N.T. Wright explains, in a play by the Athenian dramatist Aeschylus, the Greek god Apollo inaugurates the Areopagus and one of the things that Apollo says is “when a man dies, and his blood spills on the ground, there is no resurrection”. Paul, certainly aware of this, has changed the fundamental basis of understanding, yet he still holds true to the rules of reason. He states that the resurrection is “proof of this”. Paul’s generic description of Christology, as noted above and in his exceptionally austere description of Jesus “as the man he has appointed”, supports this adherence to reason.

It is as if Paul is saying to these “men of reason”, I make no emotional appeal to your heart. I need not tell you of Jesus’ ministry. All you will accept is the cold logic of reason, so all I bring you is the factual premise that God has raised a man from the dead and the conclusion that God has done so to judge the world.

Luke concludes his history of Paul’s experience in Athens with the statement that after hearing about the resurrection that “some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject” (Acts 17:32). He additionally adds “Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed” and goes on to list “Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.” (Acts 17:34). Luke’s matter of fact recall that some believed and some sneered speaks to the power of the message.

The message of the One True God is not conditional on who comes to believe. It stands on its own as the Truth.

Step 2:

Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the Biblical audience and us?

Idol on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo by Zde

The main difference between the Biblical audience and the modern audience is the idols that both audiences worship.

  • In the 1st Century, idolatry was towards gods and goddesses who would have an impact on one’s health, wealth, love life, etc.
  • In modern times, we have become more subtle with the idols that we worship. We no longer believe that there a multitude of gods and goddesses that affect our fate and fortune. We instead idolize our possessions, our careers, and our bank accounts. As our knowledge of science and technology has grown, we have come to worship ourselves as gods.

Step 3:

Cross the principlizing bridge. What are the theological principles in the text?

  • Christian faith will be tested by the secular world.
  • God is universal to all men regardless of their ignorance of Him.
  • In his ignorance, man resorts to idolatry in his search for divinity.
  • The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the start of a new creation.
  • As the day of judgment is upon us, the time of ignorance has passed and now is the time for repentance.
  • God is the Truth, irrespective of belief.

Step 4:

Consult the Biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?

These theological principles are right in line with the rest of the Bible.

Step 5:

Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today apply the theological principles in their lives?

  • Christians will be tested by the secular world. As Paul was tested and tried by the leading intellectuals of his time, so are Christians in the 21st Century tested. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series states “the prevailing philosophies of the West’s post-Christian era — secular humanism’s scientific empiricism and the New Age pantheistic type of postmodernism — are remarkably similar to the Epicureanism and Stoicism Paul encountered at Athens.” Christianity is being adjudicated in the modern court of reason: in the media, on college campuses, and in the public square. Apologists such as Ravi Zacharias, John Lennox, and William Lane Craig uses the tools of reason, much like Paul did, to witness Christianity to a hostile world. But ordinary Christians face tests of their own. They may not face off against philosophers, but they must rely on their faith to push back the idolatry of the modern world.
  • God is universal to all men regardless of their ignorance of Him. God created man and imprinted on every man’s heart is that echo of a once perfect relationship between Creator and creation. “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them” (Romans 2:14–15). As Paul states, “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” (Acts 17:23).
  • In his ignorance, man resorts to idolatry in his search for divinity. Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.” Be it the 1st or 21st Century, all men seek to fill that emptiness left behind from man’s original fall from God. In the ancient world, the Stoics sought comfort in reason and Epicureans in hedonism. Today’s man isn't different; we idolize science, sports, and entertainment. We worship at the alter of “self” trying to satiate our void with shots of adrenaline and endorphins. But as C.S. Lewis remarked, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” As Lewis alludes, only God can fill our need.
  • The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the start of a new creation. Paul signals that a change has occurred, “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 everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31). The resurrection is more than just the impetus for Christianity; it is the fulcrum on which the world pivots to new creation. As N.T. Wright writes, “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.”
  • As the day of judgment is upon us, the time of ignorance has passed and now is the time for repentance. Paul tells us in Acts 17:30 that the time for ignorance has passed; the day of judgment is at hand and God commands us to repent. The Greek word for repent is “metanoeo” which means to change any or all of the elements composing one’s life. Haven’t we heard the good news? There is a new creation at hand and Jesus Christ offers us redemption to become new men and women. As N.T. Wright writes, “we are to be on the leading edge to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to a world that has discovered its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion…I believe if we face the question, ‘if not now, then when?’ if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, ‘if not us, then who?”
  • God is the Truth, irrespective of belief. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:1–3). God is the uncaused Being who caused all, the uncreated Creator who created everything. God does not require our belief for Him to exist. As Luke states, “some of them sneered….some of the people became believers” (Acts 17: 32, 34). There is no legacy of a church that Paul created in Athens such as those he planted in Ephesus, Thessalonica, or Corinth. At face value, it may seem that Paul failed, that Christianity failed in Athens. But nothing could be farther from the truth. God remains omnipotent, and those who passed on Paul’s invitation to salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ have failed to find everlasting life in God’s Kingdom. As Christians, we need to buttressed by the fact that God will always God even in the face of persecution and unbelief.

Author’s Note

(Originally submitted on 9/14/14 for the BIB203A Interpreting the Bible class taught by Robert Marquardt at Colorado Christian University, CAGS)


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