Paul’s Sermon to the Athenians

Temple of the Greek god Hephaestus near where Paul preached his sermon to the Athenians

Paul’s Sermon to the Athenians

The apostle Paul’s sermon to the Athenians stands out as one of the great sermons in Scripture. Once a Pharisee, Paul now found himself preaching about the Savior to arrogant philosophers, idolaters, and the sexually immoral. These were people, who in his earlier life, he would have despised. But now he boldly reached out to them with the love and mercy of God.


Paul’s conversion

It’s amazing that in his earlier years, Paul, then Saul of Tarsus, was a legalistic, self-righteous religious man who hated Gentiles (non-Jews). But Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus, changing the whole course of his life (Acts 9:1-19). After his dramatic conversion to Christ, he was commissioned by Jesus himself to take the good news of Christ to the Gentiles. Transformed by God’s power and love, he no longer hated Gentiles.  He instead dedicated his life to sowing the gospel in their communities and establishing churches among them. He spent his remaining life travelling to Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome to fulfill his commission.


Paul reaches Athens

On his second missionary trip, Paul spent many days walking to the towns of Asia Minor and Macedonia to share the gospel. He had just spent time in Berea, where he preached to a group of honest and seeking people who were open to the good news of Christ (Acts 17:10-12). But after Paul’s persecutors found out where he was, they tried to turn the people against him. So, for his safety the believers escorted him out of town. He at last arrived in Athens, the center of Greek culture and society. And he did what was natural to him: he went to where ideas were debated and engaged people in spiritual discussions.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So 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. (Acts 17:16-17)

Paul had known the Greeks worshipped false man-made gods. He was well aware of the mythology and the elaborate stories associated with them. But now he actually saw the carefully shaped statues depicting the many deities of Greek mythology, displayed prominently throughout the great city of Athens. And there were many of them—a god for everything. And it grieved his heart—a whole society centered around worship of false gods.


Paul engages the Athenian philosophers

In Athens he found the spiritual climate to be much different than in Berea:

A 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. Then 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? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) (Acts 17:18-21)

The Greeks, unschooled in Hebrew Scripture, hadn’t received the law in written form like the Jews had received the Mosaic Law. They had only had general revelation up to this point. But they knew the basic rules of logic and were curious to understand what Paul was saying. So, they invited him to the meeting of the Areopagus, assembled in the Agora (a public meeting place), below the Acropolis. The temple of Hephaestus, the Greek god of metalworking and craftsmen, was located within the Athenian Agora, and is mostly still standing today (feature photo). Paul may have had this temple in his view while he was talking that day.


Paul’s sermon

Up to this point Paul had listened to the philosophers’ arguments and exchanged views with them, showing remarkable patience. And now it was his turn to talk—uninterrupted. His approach now was to appeal to their logic.

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “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. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”   (Acts 17:22-23)

As a Pharisee, Paul believed God condemned all Gentiles. The assumption was that they were all idolaters and had no desire to know the true God. But now he knew this was false. On his missionary trips, he had seen many Gentiles come to faith in Christ. He now knew that God judged all people by their response to the revelation given to each by God. And some of these Athenians may have had a sincere desire to seek and learn about the Creator.

Paul didn’t begin his sermon by denouncing the Greek gods. He began it by meeting the people half-way and appealing to their interest in spiritual things. He first called attention to their altars to the “unknown god.” There are different theories as to what this refers to. One common explanation is that since the Greeks had so many gods, they wanted to make sure they didn’t offend any god they weren’t aware of. So, they constructed altars to the “unknown god.” In this view, the unknown god was not a specific god, but a name for any god that existed but whose name and nature hadn’t yet been revealed to the Greeks.

Whatever the case, Paul sensed the Athenians were acknowledging that they didn’t know all there was to know, and there may have been a god they never knew or understood. He saw this as an opening.


Paul preaches the one true Creator God

Paul’s sermon to the Athenians now begins in earnest:

“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.  And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”  (Acts 17:24-25)

He proclaims the One Creator God who made all things. He points them to the true God who is the uncreated Creator. Having created all physical things, this God is not a part of the physical realm but exists apart from it. He is transcendent, and as such, lives in a totally different realm.

The Greek gods each had their own temple which were very impressive by human standards. These gods were “served by human hands.” Offerings were given day after day to placate them. But the Creator God doesn’t depend on anything humans can offer—nothing we can give him benefits him at all. In fact, he isn’t dependent on anything. He doesn’t need a building to live in and doesn’t need anything from us. Instead, we are dependent on him for everything.


God can be found

Paul then reveals God’s intent for all of humanity:

“From 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. God 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. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ ”  (Acts 17:26-28)

God has sovereignly determined the boundaries that limit human life and existence. These include the times in which we live, the boundaries of the land we live on, and the limits of our abilities. Although we humans have fallen into sin and rebellion against our Creator, God has still given us the ability to seek him and respond to his revelation. We are not so depraved and corrupted to where we can’t respond to God’s remedy for our sin. We can respond, because God has sovereignly given us that ability. God appeals to all to be reconciled to him, and he makes the path clear and well-defined for us to do so.

The quote ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’ is attributed to Cretan poet Epimenidese (c. 600 B.C.). We all “live in God” in the sense that our existence is fully dependent on him.  He is aware of all our actions and thoughts, as he is omniscient. He is also omnipresent and surrounds us at every moment.

Seeking and finding God

Paul was saying that God created us all for a purpose. Our purpose in life can be realized by seeking him, and after finding him, entering into a faith relationship with him. My article Seeking and finding the God who is near discusses this in detail. Paul also revealed what God is like: he’s kind and compassionate. He’s not far from us because he wants us to find him. He makes it easy for us to do so. He’s not hiding from us, but he’s very near to each one of us. As Paul wrote to the Roman church:

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him…  (Romans 10:12)

We are his offspring

Paul then quotes another Greek poet:

“As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’  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 17:28-29)

‘We are his offspring’ is from the Cilician poet Aratus (c. 315-240). Paul isn’t asserting that all humans are God’s spiritual children. Offspring here means those brought into existence by God’s will and born by his sovereign command. All humans are created in God’s image, and share salient attributes of God such as intelligence, creativity, communication, emotion, moral awareness. Paul uses this logic to show that the true God can’t be like the Greek gods that adorned the city. He must be much higher and greater than these false gods depicted by gold, silver, or stone statues. So, humans are God’s children in the sense that they were created like him so they could have a personal relationship with him.


God overlooked our ignorance

“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)

Paul then says that God overlooked the ignorance of past idolatry. He was not saying that God approved of the idolatry, but that he overlooked it. In other words, he was patient and didn’t immediately judge and punish those who practiced it. His purpose was to wait until there was a fuller understanding before judging and punishing.

The Greeks had general revelation, and this alone condemned idolatry (Romans 1:18-23). But now that the gospel of Jesus Christ had come, there was a more complete revelation. Now, God expected all who heard the message of Christ to repent of the former practices and embrace the new, more complete revelation of God.

Paul declared that God’s final judgment and punishment of unrepentant people would still be in the future. And who will be the judge of all people at that event? Jesus Christ the Messiah and Savior. If Christ had died and stayed dead, he could never have been the Messiah. But he rose from the dead, proving that he is. And being forever alive, he is able to judge the world at the end of human history.


A disappointing response from the Athenians


When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some 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.  (Acts 17:32-34)

Paul’s sermon to the Athenians was so beautiful and profound, and yet most of the learned and sophisticated Greek philosophers couldn’t understand it. Some didn’t want to hear any more.  This must have disappointed Paul, though it probably didn’t surprise him.

Yet some did believe. Tradition states that Dionysius later became bishop of Athens. Damaris was likely a well-known and God-fearing gentile woman. One tradition says she was martyred for her faith.


Not many of high status

Who were those who believed Paul’s message? Apparently, very few of the high-minded and sophisticated philosophers, and not many of high status or fame. About 5 years later, when he was in Ephesus, Paul penned this to the Corinthian church he had founded:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  (1 Corinthians 1:26-27)

What can Christians learn from Paul’s sermon to the Athenians?

Paul’s sermon to the Athenians serves as a guide to communicate the gospel to the non-Christian world. It gives us a good understanding of God’s patience for the irreligious and unchurched. God wants all people to have an opportunity to hear the gospel and believe, so he wants it shared in ways that people can understand.

Christian ministers and teachers should learn from Paul’s sermon and take their cues from him. To communicate effectively, they must first understand the culture, beliefs, and worldview of the people they’re trying to reach. We can’t assume that everyone today knows the terms and understands the concepts of the Christian faith. More and more people today have no knowledge of God and what he is like. There are more unchurched people today than ever before.

With people who have no understanding of God, we need to start at ground level, explaining God’s existence, character, and eternal attributes. We need to patiently explain who God is and what he is like. Only then can we share God’s expectations of those he created in his image—his commands to repent and turn to him in faith. As we share God’s words with patience, wisdom, and understanding, people will have a clearer view of the God we know and love. And they will then hopefully come to a true faith in our Lord and Savior and join us in worshipping God.





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