Thursday, November 10, 2022

Acts 17:16-34

Acts 17:16–34 (ESV)✞: Paul in Athens, Paul Addresses the Areopagus


Paul was reaching out to his fellow Jews in the last passage(s) but this passage mostly focuses on outreach to some Gentiles. I’m thinking Luke purposely puts this passage back-to-back with the previous one(s), giving the reader a compare and contrast in how Paul outreaches to different groups. (And/or the Holy Spirit orchestrated events for that reason, at least in part.)

The passage starts with Paul in the city of Athens, a city which is full of idols. So, as usual, he finds himself in the synagogue on the Sabbath reasoning with the Jewish people, but also finds himself in the marketplace on other days, reasoning with everyone else.

I believe I’ve heard that the term “marketplace” doesn’t exactly mean what we think of as a “marketplace,” it’s not like Paul was weaving between shop stalls trying to talk to people. It was common for teachers and/or philosophers to be in the “marketplace” sharing new ideas. In fact, verse 21 (ESV)✞ tells us, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

Enough people hear Paul that they want to hear more from him, so they bring him to the Areopagus. A word from the ESV Study Bible on the Areopagus:

Acts 17:19 The Areopagus is the “hill of Ares” (Ares being the Greek god of war). The Court of the Areopagus was a long-established body with extensive authority over the civil and religious life of Athens. In Paul’s day, it exercised jurisdiction especially in matters of religion and morality. In speaking before the group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (v. 18), Paul would have addressed them either on the “hill of Ares” (i.e., Mars Hill), located below the acropolis, or northwest of the acropolis in the northwest corner of the Agora, where at the time of Paul the group held its ordinary meetings in the Royal Colonnade.

ESV Study Bible

The rest of this passage recounts Paul’s address to the Athenians, which I’ll go through bit by bit. I’ve been told that it’s likely Paul said more than what is recorded in the book of Acts, this is likely a summary of a much longer speech he gave, but we have what we have which, by definition (since it’s in the Scriptures), is enough.

Paul’s Speech

22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

verses 22-23 (ESV)✞

I don’t think Paul is just trying to be clever here; I think he’s being forthright. We have to remember that “religion” and “a relationship with God” are very different things; the Athenians might have had hold of the wrong god(s), but that doesn’t mean they weren’t religious – they seem to have been very religious! Paul’s point, however, is going to be that a religion based around a non-existent god (or pantheon of gods) is worse than useless, and therefore they need to learn about the one, true God.

24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.

verses 24-27 (ESV)✞

I think this was a more earth-shattering part of Paul’s speech than modern-day readers might realize. In these few verses Paul says and/or implies a number of things that his readers would have disagreed with:

  • There is only one God, not a bunch of them. This is more implied than stated but it’s there, and would have been foolishness to his listeners’ ears. (On this point a Jewish audience would have been right there with him.)
  • This one God made the world. Made everything. This is contentious for a couple of reasons:
    • It means that physical matter was created by this God. The Athenians would have found that idea ridiculous; they would have had a view whereby anything spiritual is, by definition, better than anything physical, with the idea being that “good” people (however they defined “good”) would eventually transcend their physical bodies to become spirit, like the “gods.” No god would ever stoop to creating something physical! The idea is to get away from that!
      • Many Christians have a similar view, unfortunately, where they believe we will eventually transcend our physical bodies to be “spirits” in “heaven” with God, though this is not the teaching of the Bible. There will be a new, physical earth created, and we’ll be given new bodies. Again, this idea would have been laughable to the Athenians; they’d view it as a step backwards to go from death/spiritual to something physical again.
    • Even if we put aside the physical vs. spiritual side of things, the idea that God created everything would also be contentious because it would mean an obvious superiority over every other “god.” How can you claim that this or that “god” is in control of something when the God is the One who created that thing? Is there a god of the sun? But God created the sun. A god of good crops? But God created the crops. A god of fertility? But God created us, and is therefore in control of our fertility. (And, again, He created the crops, so is in control of the crops’ fertility.)

Some of these ideas are as contentious today as they were in Paul’s day. Paul is saying that there is only one God, that that God created (and therefore “owns”) everything, and that we owe Him everything. Although the Athenians were very “religious,” Paul is implying that this religion is worthless, based as it is on non-existent gods; he’d say the same today: any form of “religion” not focused on worship of the God, and Christ His Son, is worthless.

At the end of those verses he mentions seeking out God, and he now says that if we were to seek Him, He can be found:

Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for


“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;


as even some of your own poets have said,


“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

verses 27-28 (ESV)✞

I’m sure lots of people have pointed out that Paul is using the Athenians’ own writings as part of his presentation of the theology of the Christian God to them. He doesn’t simply quote the Hebrew Scriptures at non-Hebrews, he speaks to them with language they can understand.

The idea that we are “children of God” can, if used incorrectly, be pushed too far and become blasphemous—we’re not children in the same sense that Jesus is, for example; he’s the Son of God, whereas we are adopted children—but when viewed appropriately, yes, we’re children of God. We are, indeed, His offspring.

So what does it imply, then, if we’re His offspring?

29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

verses 29-31 (ESV)✞

Before, Paul was making the contentious claim that it’s not a simple matter of “physical matter is bad and spiritual essence is good,” but now he’s making the opposite case: given that we are flesh and blood, but we are God’s offspring, we also shouldn’t think that God is something as simple as gold or silver or stone – what the typical idol would be made from.

Now, there’s a sense in which the Athenians fully know that their idols aren’t real; that gold or silver or stone object isn’t the god, it’s a representation of that god. Even so, that representation is just… a hunk of gold. Or silver. Or stone. But when it comes to God—the real, actual God—one of the reasons He doesn’t permit idols to be created is that we are His image in this world. Humans aren’t always a good representation of God, but we’re a much more impressive representation than a piece of stone, or of gold.

And finally, as seen above, Paul ends his speech by mentioning the raising of Christ from the dead, which the Athenians would scoff at for the same reason as mentioned above: if you believe that spiritual is, by definition, better than physical, then why would God raise a person from the dead? It wouldn’t make sense! The person should remain spirit!

And this is exactly the response that Paul gets from some of the Athenians, who mock him when they hear about this resurrection of the dead. Others, however, want to hear him again, and he does build what seems to be a small pool of believers in Athens.

Are we “serving” God?

I didn’t get into it above but there’s a side point Paul makes in verse 25 that’s directly related to us:

… nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

verse 25 (ESV)✞, emphasis added

There’s a sense in which, yes, we “serve” God. The Bible itself uses that language; see, for example, Matthew 4:10 (ESV)✞, Luke 16:3 (ESV)✞, and John 12:26 (ESV)✞. But there’s another sense of the word “serve,” a sense in which we’re providing God with something He otherwise wouldn’t have had, which is frankly ridiculous. It’s a small thing, maybe, but I think it’s an unexamined point for most of us.

Let’s say I’m as good and righteous as humanly possible – more so! Let’s say I live my entire life without sinning, constantly devoting myself to helping the poor, loving my neighbour as I love myself, all of it. Even if all that were true—and in my case it’s not—how would that have “served a need” of God? Isn’t every one of those things something He could do better and more easily without me? Would He, who is perfect in every way, be impressed that I show a level of righteousness that, while maybe better than a lot of my contemporaries, is still a far, far lower form of righteousness than He displays at all times?

We sometimes view ourselves as if we’re on a road trip with God: for the most part He’s in charge of the driving, but every once in a while we take over so that He can… I don’t know, rest or something. (It’s a good thing God had me here to give a dollar to that homeless person! What would He have done without me?) But it’s more like a child in a car with her parents, and sometimes they let her sit on their lap and hold the wheel. Even when she thinks she’s in control, the parent upon whose lap she’s sitting is the one who’s really in control. (I don’t know how far I want to push this metaphor, but frankly, the real driver in this instance would have to be hyper-vigilant as long as the child has her hands on the wheel because she might do unexpected things that would have to be instantly corrected.)

It would have been more efficient (and less stressful) for the parents to do the driving and leave the child in the back seat, but letting her partake in adult activities is a way of training her to become an adult herself. And, because her parents love her, they delight in seeing her grow in these ways.

It’s a highly imperfect metaphor. That child will eventually grow up and become a driver herself—maybe even a better driver than her parents!—whereas we’ll never “grow up” to be as righteous, holy, or almighty as God is. But it does help to view ourselves as children1 when compared to Him; see, for example, Mark 10:13–16 (ESV)✞, and then, in the passage after that in Mark 10:17–31 (ESV)✞ where Jesus refers to his disciples as “children.”

Finding God

Interestingly, Paul also says in verse 27 (ESV)✞ that God’s intent is for people to “feel their way toward him and find him,” which sounds counter to my understanding of Christianity whereby God Himself reaches down to us – at least in part because we’re not trying to reach up to Him. So this isn’t the full story, but it is true that we (humans) should be able to look at nature and the world He has created and intuit Him, though we don’t. (See, for example, Romans 1:18–23 (ESV)✞.)


  • Is it insulting to be called “children” by God? It could be worse; the Bible refers to us even more often as “sheep,” and we love creating misty-eyed drawings of fluffy animals on green hillsides, but sheep are incredibly dumb animals. Shepherds would have found the idea of being compared to sheep quite insulting. “You see how hard you have to work to prevent that stupid animal from dying – which it definitely would if you weren’t there to take care of it, almost against its will? That animal that would be constantly walking off the edges of cliffs or wandering towards wild beasts if you weren’t actively preventing it every minute of every day? Yeah, that’s what you’re like!”

No comments: