Paul in Athens.

Acts 17:15-34.

From Philippi the apostle, with his companions, went, by way of Amphipolis and Apollonia, to Thessalonica. Combining the record of his visit to this city with the two epistles to the saints there, it is abundantly evident that he found an open door for the preaching of the gospel, and that, to quote his own words, "our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance." The consequence was, that there were many converts; and the rescue of so many of his captives aroused all the enmity of Satan, so that he stirred up a persecution against the Lord's servants through the unbelieving Jews. The brethren therefore deemed it expedient to send away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea, where, undaunted by the opposition they had encountered at Thessalonica, they immediately commenced to proclaim their message. Here also the Spirit of God wrought with and through them; for "these" (the Jews in Berea) "were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed."

Nothing is more wonderful than the way in which God is pleased oftentimes to accomplish His purposes. Although success of no ordinary kind was vouchsafed to the ministry of the gospel at Berea, the apostle's stay in the city was almost immediately interrupted by the hostility of his enemies, who followed him from Thessalonica, "and stirred up the people." To human eyes, it might seem as if the enemies of the gospel had succeeded in hindering the work by causing the cessation of Paul's labours; but once again they were but instrumental in the spread of the glad tidings in other regions. Happy the servant who is so will-less as to see the Lord's hand in all his varying circumstances, and who is able to discern His mind in everything that springs up in his path. Driven away from Berea, "they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens; and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed."

It is a remarkable thing that the apostle's mind does not appear to have been intent upon service in Athens. Even in his coming to the place, those who accompanied him seem to have governed his destination; and now that he has arrived, instead of at once commencing to preach the word, as at Thessalonica and Berea, he waited for Silas and Timotheus. Had he left Berea with reluctance? We cannot tell; but one thing is certain, and that is, that the servant is often in danger of being governed by his affections rather than by the Lord's will. None but the servant knows the strength of the bond which unites him to his converts, and consideration for them and for their welfare, will often detain him in a place long after he should have departed. Whether Paul longed to return to Berea cannot now be ascertained, but it is evident that his advent in Athens differs much from his arrival at other places. However this might have been, the Lord was really controlling His devoted servant, and He wrought upon his spirit, and prepared him for his new work, in His own way.

The apostle's heart became burdened, while he waited for Silas and Timotheus; "his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry." There was not indeed a city in the world so crowded with idols of every kind as Athens; and the skill of the most renowned sculptors and architects had contributed to invest the objects of their worship with every form of beauty which the mind of man could devise. What remains of their work excites even now the wonder and admiration of the world. As has been written by one well acquainted with the subject, "Every public place and building was likewise a sanctuary. The Record-House was a temple of the mother of the gods. The Council-House held statues of Apollo and Jupiter, with an altar of Vesta. … And as if the imagination of the Attic mind knew no bounds in this direction, abstractions were deified and publicly honoured. Altars were erected to Fame, to Modesty, to Energy, to Persuasion, and to Pity." This extract will enable us the better to understand why it was that Paul's spirit "was painfully excited" within him as he beheld the innumerable objects of worship with which the Athenians had filled and adorned their city.

Thus wrought upon, undoubtedly by a sense of the dishonour done to God by those who had "changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts," as well as by yearning pity over the poor slaves of Satan who had been so terribly deluded, the word of God became as a fire in his bones, and he could no longer withhold his testimony. The Spirit of God calls attention to this effect by the word "therefore" - "therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him." He began with the Jews and proselytes, who rejected idol worship equally with Paul, but who, while witnesses for the unity of the Godhead, refused, alas! God's testimony to Christ as the Messiah; and working outwards from this centre he "reasoned" with every one that daily crossed his path in the great place of public concourse.

Whether there were fruit to this ministry is not revealed, for the Spirit of God passes on to call attention to the main purpose and characteristic of the apostle's visit to Athens. The fame of the Greek schools of philosophy had spread throughout the then known world, so that Athens was regarded as the seat of learning and wisdom. What Cambridge and Oxford are to England today, Athens was then to the whole of Europe; and hence it is plainly written in this record, what Paul afterwards proclaimed, that the world by wisdom knew not God. The Epicureans and Stoics were pre-eminent among the Athenian schools; and the ambassador of Christ came into contact and conflict with certain of their philosophers. Their very names have found an abiding place in our language, and they represent, as has been strikingly said, Pleasure and Pride - the two most powerful factors of human life. Encountering Paul, some of them said, "What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection."

Possessing, as we do, the fall light of revelation we can the more easily estimate the darkness of the natural mind. The most eminent teachers of that day were so benighted that they thought the resurrection, which Paul preached in connection with Jesus of Nazareth, was also a strange god! But, like all the Athenians, filled with curiosity, for they "spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing," they took Paul, and brought him unto Areopagus, and requested that they might hear more of his new doctrine. "The place to which they took him was the summit of the hill of Areopagus, where the most awful court of judicature had sat from time immemorial, to pass sentence on the greatest criminals, and to decide the most solemn questions connected with religion. … On this spot a long series of awful causes, connected with crime and religion, had been determined, beginning with the legendary trial of Mars, which gave to the place its name of Mars' Hill.* On such a spot, surrounded by "temples, statues, and altars," stood the apostle on this memorable day to address the most illustrious sages of the world.

*The Life and Epistles of Paul, by CONYBEARE and HOWSON.

The address remains as a permanent monument of the wisdom of God. It must be remembered, however, in reading it, that what we have recorded is not, as another has said, Paul's preaching, but his defence. He had preached "Jesus, and the resurrection" to the Athenians (5:18); now he descends to their own level, becoming all things to all men, in order to lead them up to the truth of God's creatorship of the world, and their consequent responsibility to Him - a responsibility which God would finally deal with in a future day of judgment. First of all, with divine skill, as taught of the Spirit, Paul acknowledged the great "religiousness" of his hearers; and then he proceeded to take the text of his discourse from an inscription on one of their own altars, which thus read, "To the unknown God." Having recited it, he cried, "Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you." Surely the audience must have been spell-bound under this "babbler's" divinely-chosen words. Accustomed to hear the most renowned orators, they were now listening to one who spake in words taught of the Holy Ghost, and, natural men as they were, they must have felt the difference.

Having affirmed the creatorship of God, and His sovereignty over heaven and earth, he proceeded to declare His spiritual nature, and that, being what He was, He did not dwell in temples made with hands (thus condemning in one sentence all the magnificent buildings which were the boast and pride of Athens), and that, as the Fount and Source of life, breath, and all things, God was a Giver rather than a Receiver. He moreover proclaimed the unpalatable truth - unpalatable to many even in this "enlightened age" - that God hath made of one blood all nations of men, and that He had determined the time of their existence, as well as the bounds of their habitation. Next he supported his statement that all men owe their existence and sustainment in life to God, by a quotation from one of their own poets; and he founded upon it an unanswerable exposure of the folly of idolatry. Lastly, he told them, in burning words, that God, having long borne with men's ignorance, commanded now all men everywhere to repent, in view of the already appointed day of judgment, when that Jesus, whom he had preached, would judge the world in righteousness; and that "the proof of it" had been given in the fact of His having been raised from the dead.

Such is the outline, and perhaps in the chapter itself, it is no more than an outline, of this wonderful address. The effect as usual was diverse in different souls. Some mocked; others postponed their consideration of the truth brought before them; but certain men believed, one of whom is named Dionysius the Areopagite, and there was also a woman named Damaris, besides others. But there is no mention of the formation of any assembly, nor any record of any subsequent visit of the apostle to this city. Human culture and intelligence are not favourable to the doctrines of grace. To the poor the gospel is preached; and in every age it has been true that "not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called."