May 15 Sermon Resource

Paul’s Sermon at Athens

Main Text: Acts 17:16-31

Additional Text: John 1:16-18


“Paul’s visit to Athens and especially to Corinth forms the climax of this ‘second missionary journey’. Paul was disturbed at the city’s being ‘full of idols’ (Acts 17:16), and addressed Epicurean and Stoic philosophers on Mars Hill, near the Areopagus — a plaque marks the spot today. He congratulated them on their devotion, and spoke of the one God, who created the world. Many Stoics would share this belief, but when Paul proclaimed the resurrection, this was a different story”. [1]

“The Areopagus was a court.  Paul was on trial.  It was a dangerous moment.  It could have gone badly wrong.  He was all alone, or so it seems, still waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him.  It appears that Timothy had come to him in Athens, but that Paul, anxious about the little church in Thessalonica, had sent Timothy back at once to see how they were getting on.  He has important things on his mind; as he says on another occasion, there are battles outside and fears inside.  He has no leisure, physical or mental, to play the detached philosopher.  It is, however, utterly characteristic of the man that he would seize the opportunity not merely to defend himself—though that is what he is doing throughout the speech—but to do so in such a way as to challenge, with considerable rhetorical skill, the basic assumptions of the Greek worldview”. [2]

“People have sometimes sneered at Paul for a failed bit of philosophical theology.  Hardly anyone was converted—though one member of the court, Dionysius, came to faith along with a woman names Damaris and others.  But that wasn’t the point.  What mattered is that Paul went out from their presence.  He got off.  If this was a trial, he was acquitted”. [3]

Thoughts re application today

“The whole address deeply ironic as Paul pitted the Stoics and Epicureans against each other.  The Epicurean God needed nothing; the Stoic divinity was the source of life.  Paul’s God was personal, not the alternatively transcendent and pantheistic force of Stoicism.  The Stoics’ God is not like men, yet they uphold man-made images.  The philosophers pride themselves on their superior wisdom, yet they worship an “unknown” God.  The “babbler” Paul must enlighten them.  The Epicureans, whose God is supremely disinterested, are lumped with those who are wary of the anger of a neglected deity.  In the heart of Athenian racial supremacy and religious renown, Paul declares that all men are from the one stock and that God needs no temple.

Paul’s allusion to Epimenides—“in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)—linked his message to Athenian tradition.  Epimenides was a significant figure in Athenian religion.

Beginning with their own poets, Paul steered his message to the central place of Christ in human history, and Christ as the revelation of the character and purposes of God.  Having begun with theology, he ended by disallowing it.” [4]

“As the good news of what God was doing through the risen and glorified Jesus spread to different parts of the world and as men, women and children were incorporated into this unstoppable movement, the question naturally arose as to the relationship of the gospel to the various cultures to which these people belonged….

The cause celebre in this connection is, of course, Paul’s speech on the Areopagus at Athens where he attempts to relate the gospel not only to what the Greek poets had said, but also to the cults he saw around him (Acts17:22-31)…It is often said that Paul’s speech at Athens was not immediately successful in winning a large number of converts but, as we shall see, its implications for a Christian approach to culture down the centuries can hardly be exaggerated.” [5]

“The dedication of altars to unknown gods seems to have been a kind of insurance policy in case devotion to a god had been inadvertently left out. Paul seizes on this to proclaim, once again, that God who is unknown, but should have been known through his goodness in creation, is the one who has been made known in the Jesus of the gospel he is preaching. A very clever balance is struck in appealing to something even in the polytheistic culture of Athens while, at the same time, challenging the cults of the idols in a way that would have made sense to both the Epicureans and the Stoics.” [6]

Some other Scripture Resources

  • 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
  • Acts 14:15-17

GCI resources

Footnotes and references

  1. Anthony C Thiselton, The Living Paul: an Introduction to the Apostle and his Thought, published by SPCK, UK, in 2009:26.
  2. Tom Wright, Paul: A Biography, published by SPCK in the UK in 2018, 2020:194-195
  3. Ibid. 206.
  4. Mark Strom, Reframing Paul: Conversations in Grace and Community, published by IVP in USA in 2000:121-122.
  5. Michael Nazir-Ali, The Unique and Universal Christ: Jesus in a Plural World, published by Paternoster, UK in 2008:60, 61-62.
  6. Ibid. 93.




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