Paul was familiar with the ubiquitous shrines and idols of paganism, but Athens seemed to take it to a new level: “His spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry” (Acts 17:16). He was a man of deep emotions, for at Corinth too, he was “pressed in the spirit” (18:5). Stony indifference can glance at human need and pass by on the other side. In vivid contrast is the gaze that produces compassion (Luke 10:31-33). The darkness of ignorance and superstition enshrouding Athens appalled Paul, and his response was to dialogue in the synagogue and marketplace, gathering centers of Jews and pagans respectively. Does the awareness of need motivate us? “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov 29:18). One day, Robert Murray McCheyne of Dundee was found weeping in an alley. What moved him was “the tramp of Christless feet on the way to hell.”
Nothing is said of the Jewish reaction, good or bad. Perhaps they were an insignificant minority in that metropolis, but Paul’s incursions into the marketplace attracted the interest of philosophers (v18). Intellectually, he could have run rings around them, and yet, with superior cynicism, they dubbed him “this babbler.” The word conveys the idea of a bird pecking at seed, and it came into common usage to describe feckless individuals who spent their time in idle chatter about issues that had no relevance, people who were infatuated with trivia. It is sad to think that a man who was an ambassador for Christ and a herald of heaven was regarded as an idler who was purveying irrelevancies. Attitudes have never changed. Be prepared to be branded a fool for Christ’s sake.
Others expressed the opinion that he was introducing “strange gods” or demons (v18). The word “strange” should be understood in the sense of foreign. It is used again in verse 20, (“strange things”). They were accustomed to listening to foreign notions because there were “strangers,” foreigners, interacting with them (v21). But this message was completely novel: “Jesus, and the resurrection;” “Jesus,” the Name that speaks of His saving ability; “the resurrection,” which presupposes His sufferings and death. The great cardinal facts of the gospel were as relevant for the intelligentsia of Athens as for the debauched underclasses of Corinth. The fact of the resurrection stumbled them. When Paul brought it up again, immediately “some mocked” (v32). They believed in immortality, but the concept of resurrection was beyond them, and so Paul described the heathen world as, “others which have no hope” (1Thes 4:13). A living Savior was their only hope, and yet they were treating Him as a topic for a debating society.
It appears that Paul was almost dragged to the Areopagus, Mars Hill, and he took full advantage of this opportunity to present his “new doctrine” in these auspicious surroundings. We need to be as quick to grasp openings to present the gospel away from the tranquil atmosphere of our halls. In some quarters, schools are accessible. At times, radio stations provide an unexpected slot for an interview. Local newspapers can allow a column for a Bible message. The keynote is, “Be ready always” (1Peter 3:15). Paul was quick to convey to the hopeless intellectuals of Athens, “a reason of the hope” that was within him.
Paul’s approach in his address to the Athenians and the content of his preaching holds lessons for us. For example, he was faithful without being tactless. He exposed their superstition and their “ignorance” (vv22-23; 30), but he did it respectfully. He did not linger long on the negative side of their deficient, distorted concept of deity, but was quick to pass on to the positive presentation of truth. Perhaps we spend too long trying to annihilate misconceptions and leave little time for the exposition of Bible facts.
His preaching was geared toward his audience. It stands in contrast to his presentation of truth, as in the synagogue at Antioch, where there was a constant appeal to Old Testament Scriptures (Acts 13:16-41). The people to whom he preached at Mars Hill had no Bible knowledge, so he started at another level. I find myself taking a different approach in different circumstances. Preaching to 100 Hindus in Sri Lanka is different from preaching in a gospel hall, where the only unsaved are the Christians’ children. We need to be flexible and sensitive.
To balance that, the core message must always be the same, and while Paul did not quote Bible verses at Athens, he did communicate Bible truth. Initially, he referred to the first page of the Bible and spoke of the God of creation. He moved to the book of Exodus and the commandments to show that the solitary God has a distaste for rivals and idols. He alluded to the power of God in creation and resurrection (v24, 31). He spoke of the omnipresence of God and His availability to those who will seek Him (v27). He emphasized the authority of God in demanding universal repentance (v30). Truth about God and Christ was central to his preaching.
Reinforcing a point, he was willing to quote one of their “own poets” (v28). It was something to which they could relate, so there is perhaps an argument for pulling in secular allusions by way of illustration, things with which our audiences can identify. Again, to be balanced, he did that only once. It has often been said that illustrations are like the windows of a building – they let the light in, but buildings are not exclusively windows. In other words, limit the illustrations and stories.
Gales of laughter greeted the mention of a resurrected Man destined to “judge the world in righteousness” (“some mocked,” vv31-32). Often, when entrenched attitudes are confronted, part of the defense mechanism is to ridicule. The Lord Jesus challenged the opinion of the professional mourners, and “they laughed him to scorn” (Mark 5:40). When He exposed the covetousness of the Pharisees, “they derided him” (Luke 16:14). Not one of us appreciates being ridiculed. In such circumstances, what recourse do we have? If we follow Nehemiah’s example, we will “take it to the Lord in prayer.” When Sanballat “mocked the Jews” and made withering remarks about their weakness and the fragility of their building, Nehemiah’s words were these, “Hear, O our God; for we are despised,” and then he proceeded with the task (Neh 4:1-6).
Paul also encountered procrastinators at Athens: “We will hear thee again of this matter” (v32), but they never did, because, “After these things Paul departed from Athens” (Acts 18:1). Happily, some believed, although it appears that in comparison to other places, the response was limited.