Engaging the Mind: Paul in the Stoa of Athens

 

I remember my first visit to the legendary city of Athens like it was yesterday. I arrived at night, and my first view of the Acropolis and the beautiful temple of Athena — the Parthenon — was unforgettable. Floodlights illuminated that magnificent structure against the night sky. The beauty and power of the Parthenon standing high above the city was overwhelming. But the impact of that scene went far beyond the beauty and mystique of the Acropolis and its famous Parthenon.

For me, a seminary student at the time, Athens represented the Greek worldview of Hellenism and the self-serving political, cultural, philosophical, and religious beliefs I had been taught to recognize and resist. As the military genius Alexander the Great launched from the ports of Greece and conquered the known world, the human-centered philosophy and values born in Athens also conquered the ancient world through trade, music, language, theater, and lifestyle. Long after the military power of the Greek Empire had been dissolved by the Romans, the power of the Hellenistic worldview lived on, conquering the minds and hearts of people throughout the Roman Empire.

Being in the city that had molded the culture and people of the nations mentioned in the New Testament was a powerful experience. For the first time I realized how risky it was for the early followers of Jesus to recognize that the Greek way was not compatible with God’s way, and then to make the bold choice to live a life that honored God in the midst of a Hellenistic culture. Their God-given mission — an extension of the mission of Israel and Jesus that preceded them — was to live in such a way that their every word and action would make God known to those who did not know Him.

I stood at the foot of the Acropolis amazed by how the early followers of Jesus, especially those who came from the family-and-faith-focused villages of Galilee on the fringe of the Roman Empire, had any influence on the minds and hearts of people who were sold out to such a powerful and dominant culture. I was humbled by their passion, dedication, and conviction in proclaiming that God’s way — not the sophisticated, wealthy, self-serving, powerful culture of the Greco-Roman world — was the way to find true peace and fulfillment in this life (shalom, the Jews called it). I admired Paul’s chutzpah to stand in the heart of Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis, in the shadow of the Parthenon, and present the good news of his God — the gospel of Jesus, Messiah and King — to the intellectual and religious elite of the Greco-Roman world.

Paul’s message, the good news that Jesus is Lord, had already led to upheaval in Philippi and Thessalonica because people of influence recognized it as a challenge to the emperor’s claim to be Lord and God. They feared that the good news of God’s kingdom would threaten the economic security of their lifestyle and their cities. But how would Paul’s message be received in Athens where the intellectual elite influenced the culture of the known world? What would happen when the message of God’s kingdom challenged the foundations of the Hellenistic philosophical system?

Opening Thoughts (3 minutes)

The Very Words of God

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

Think About It

When you are in a place or situation you have never experienced before — perhaps as a tourist, a new student, a new resident, or a new employee — the people, environment, and lifestyle are likely to be quite different from what you are used to.

When you find yourself in a new and different situation or environment, how do you go about discovering the “story” of that culture and its people — what is important to their survival and well-being, how they think, what they value, and how they act and function together?

What do you do, observe, and seek out in order to discover how to relate to others and function well in that new environment?

Watch Session One:

Video Notes (31 minutes)

Temples in the ancient world—meeting point of human and divine

What Paul observes about Athens Paul presents a radical message in the Stoa

Paul receives an invitation

The Parthenon — The dominant influence over Athens

A truly magnificent structure

A shrine to the myths of Hellenism

Video Discussion (6 minutes)

1. Many of the world’s ancient temples are a marvel to us, even today. As you watched this video, what did you learn about the important role temples played in the lives of people in the ancient world of the Bible?

In what ways does that realization impact your understanding of what the Bible teaches about God wanting to live among His people? About His desire to build His people into a temple that displays who He is to the world?

In what ways did the video help you to better understand the impact that Athens, a city of temples and monuments to a multitude of gods, had on Paul?

2. In ancient Greek and Roman cities, the agora (forum to the Romans) was the place where goods and ideas were exchanged. The Athenians were known for their interest in and discussion of ideas old and new. What kind of an opportunity did this present for Paul?

In what ways do you think the exchange of ideas in the agora of Athens may have been like or unlike the ways in which we exchange ideas in our culture?

In terms of providing opportunities to share and exchange ideas, what might be our equivalent to the agora in Athens, and what leads you to that conclusion?

Having stood above the city of Athens for thousands of years, The Parthenon, illuminated against the night sky in this view, remains an awe-inspiring sight.

3. What impressed you most about the Parthenon, and in what ways did it inform your understanding of the thinking, values, and lifestyle of the Athenians?

4. The people of Athens devoted tremendous resources of intellect, labor, time, and money to building their temples and honoring their gods. In what ways do people today do the same? What do the “temples” our culture builds as monuments to our values look like? What message do those “temples” convey?

Small Group Bible Discovery and Discussion

(15 minutes)

Paul Continues the Mission in Athens

5. Known by some as the “Rabbi to the Gentiles,” Paul took seriously his God-given mission of living and bringing the good news of God’s kingdom to people who did not know God. He was totally committed to going wherever God led and sacrificing whatever was needed in order to fulfill his mission. There’s no question that the path Paul walked in Greece had not been easy. In Philippi, his first stop in Macedonia, he had been thrown into jail. In Thessalonica, he had to flee the city by night in order to save his life. In Berea, where his message was carefully considered, detractors from Thessalonica soon stirred up trouble against him. For his safety, believers in Berea sent Paul to Athens. (Acts 17:13–15)

Would Paul’s experience in sharing the gospel message of Jesus Christ be any different in the great city of Athens? Would the sophisticated, intellectual, idea-loving Athenians be open to hearing and accepting the good news of God’s kingdom?

Paul would find Athens to be unlike any city he had visited before. It was no longer the political center of a worldwide empire, but its reputation as the intellectual and philosophical heart of the Roman world had not diminished. Amidst hundreds of monuments to Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and other gods, intellectuals and scholars from around the world gathered in Athens to display their intellectual prowess and to persuade others of the superiority of their philosophical system. Let’s see what Paul discovered about Athens and its people as he prepared to share God’s message with them.

1. Paul visited Athens while on his second teaching journey (Acts 15:36–18:22). He began this journey in 50 AD after the church in Jerusalem met to resolve a troublesome dispute regarding which of the Jewish lifestyle requirements Gentiles who had turned from idolatry to worship the God of the Jews needed to follow. Accompanied by Barnabas, Silas, and other leaders, Paul delivered the official letter from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to the believers in the synagogue in Antioch. After teaching the believers in Antioch for some time, Paul and Silas revisited the places where Paul had taught on his first teaching journey (Acts 13–14). Then, when Paul was certain of the direction God was leading, they crossed the Aegean Sea and began sharing the good news of Jesus in Greece.

Retrace their journey on the map of Paul’s second teaching journey and refresh your memory of what Paul experienced in those cities.1

PAUL’S SECOND TEACHING JOURNEY

Throughout his ministry, Paul was no stranger to danger and risk. Read how he defends the authenticity of his calling and commitment in 2 Corinthians 11:22–29. Take note of the challenges he faced prior to coming to Athens. Which of these trials would he likely face or avoid in Athens, and which new risks might he encounter when he presented the gospel to the most educated Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world?

Paul visited Athens under unusual circumstances, without his usual planning or the company of Silas and Timothy (Acts 17:13–15). While he was waiting for his companions to catch up with him, Paul began exploring the city on his own. What did he discover about Athens, and what impact did that discovery have on him? (See Acts 17:16.)

In order to better understand what Paul learned and how he responded, we must consider what Luke, the writer of Acts, meant by his description of Athens as a “city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Paul was no stranger to pagan cities, but no other city came close to the idolatry in Athens. The Parthenon and the Erechtheion, which comprised the temples of Athena, Poseidon, and Erecthius, were the most striking temples on the Acropolis. Also standing more than fifty feet tall on the Acropolis was a gleaming statue of Athena that could be seen far out to sea. In addition, temples, idols, and altars to hundreds of gods were scattered throughout the city.

In the agora were temples to Hephaestus, Apollo, Zeus, Ares, and Nike, to name a few. Temples for the worship of the imperial family, statues declaring the deity of emperors, and no less than thirteen altars dedicated to “divine” Caesar Augustus occupied the city center. In addition, every culture the Greeks encountered wanted their gods to be represented in the city too. So wherever a person looked in Athens, statues, altars, and temples to all manner of gods were in view, leading one scholar to translate Luke’s description of the city as “a veritable forest of idols.”2
a. In what ways does this picture of the spiritual environment Paul discovered in Athens differ from how you previously may have understood it?

DID YOU KNOW?

From the perspective of first-century Jewish people, idolatry was more than a religious issue. Idolatry was considered the root of evil because wherever the Lord’s kingship is not recognized and another deity is honored, every kind of immorality and depravity reigns. When God’s kingship is denied, there are social, political, and economic implications because idolatry, oppression of the weak, and bloodshed (especially of the innocent) all go together.

b. We know that Paul was 100 percent “sold out” to honoring God with all his heart, mind, and strength. He lived out a sacrificial commitment to display God with every fiber of his being, his every thought and action, and all of his strength so that people would come to know God. Now that we have a clearer picture of the magnitude of idolatry in Athens, where people honored every god but the God of Israel, what do you think contributed to Paul’s great distress and anger (Acts 17:16)?

Considering Paul’s Jewish background, rabbinic training, and his God-given mission to bring the good news of Jesus to the Gentile world, which specific characteristics of Athens might have been particularly troubling to him?
What impact do you imagine the idolatry of Athens had on Paul’s view of his mission, and what impact would such an environment have had on you?

THINK ABOUT IT

The Extreme Idolatry of Athens Provoked Paul

English translations of Acts 17:16 use terminology such as “greatly distressed,” “provoked to anger,” “greatly angered,” “troubled,” or “provoked” to describe how deeply the idolatry of Athens affected Paul. We better understand the depth of Paul’s distress when we realize that the Greek word Luke used to describe Paul’s response, paroxuneto, is the same word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) to describe God’s anger with Israel when they worshiped idols:

Then once again I fell prostrate before the Lord for forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the Lord’s sight and so arousing his anger. I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you.3

That is a powerful anger! How might Paul’s natural response to the idolatry he observed affect how he carried out his mission in Athens?

5. Most of us are unaware of the nature of idolatry and its spiritual and social impact, but Paul was a brilliant Torah scholar and rabbi who understood that idolatry goes hand in hand with immorality of all sorts. His observations of the idolatry in Athens likely reminded him of portions of the Hebrew Bible that gave him insight into the underlying attitudes, priorities, and lifestyle of the people of Athens. Read, for example, what the Text says about idolatry in Psalms 106:14, Psalm 106:28–29, Psalms 106:34–39; Ezekiel 22:1–3; Ezekiel 33:25–29; and Hosea 4:1–2.

a. What kinds of evil and wickedness does the Text associate with idolatry?

b. If you, like Paul, were intent on making God known in a place where idolatry and the wickedness that accompanies it were as dominant in the culture as was true in Athens, what might make fulfilling your mission more challenging and what might make it easier?

Faith Lesson (4 minutes)

Although many years have passed since I first witnessed the magnificent beauty and power of ancient Athens, my first impressions of that city and my admiration for Paul’s efforts to share the good news of Jesus Christ with its people have not faded. In fact, the more I have studied to understand and experience the physical glory, intellectual sophistication, and Hellenistic lifestyle that was Athens, the more Paul’s commitment to share the Gospel and extend the reign of God’s kingdom in that stronghold of idolatry amazes me.

My study also has convinced me that the culture I live in is built on the same philosophy of Hellenism (we often call it humanism) on which life in Athens was built. That philosophy — first declared by the serpent in the garden of Eden4 who boldly challenged the sovereign authority of God’s Word and declared that the human mind could be like God’s — values the wisdom of the human mind above that of the Creator and the pursuit of human pleasure above all else. I have to admit that the Hellenistic world-view of Athens has influenced my lifestyle and values just as it shaped the lifestyle and values of the people Paul addressed in that great city.

Yet God calls all of His people — just as He called Israel and Paul — to be restored to His family and to take our place as partners in his great story of redemption. United into one family of God through Jesus our Savior and Redeemer, it is our privilege to live in a broken world as examples of what God’s kingdom looks like in everyday life. Our calling is to put God on display so that everyone who sees us will see what God is like and want to know Him.

FOR GREATER UNDERSTANDING

What Is a Kingdom of Priests?

The Bible uses the concept of a priesthood to describe the mission God has given to His people (Exodus 19:3–6). In ancient times, priests would mediate between the gods and the people. This means a priest represented and acted on behalf of the god so that, by observing the priest, a person could get to know what the god was like.

At Mount Sinai, God gave His people the mission of being His “priests” to the entire world. The nature of that mission is for God’s people to serve Him and humanity by demonstrating God’s will and character through their words and actions. God’s people are not only to bring the message but to be the message in everything they think, do, and say.
In what we know as the “Great Commission” (Matthew 28:18–20), Jesus extended the mission God gave to the Hebrews at Mount Sinai to all of His followers. Thus the apostle Peter reminds followers of Jesus to this day that they are “a royal priesthood,” called and commissioned to make God known to the whole earth and to live good lives that are worthy of their calling (1 Peter 2:9, 12).

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So I must ask, Do I share Paul’s conviction that Jesus alone can save us from the chaos of sin? Am I passionately committed to the message that Jesus is not only Savior but Messiah, Lord, and King? Am I willing to stand up and challenge the worldview of the broken culture I live in not just by what I say but by how I live every moment of life?

I invite you to hear, experience, and learn from Paul’s example as we continue this study. I invite you to commit to being a living example of God’s kingdom in your family, community, and world. Are you willing?

1.How deep is your commitment to stand out in your society as a temple of the living God, a person who by word and deed faithfully puts God on display so that others will want to know Him?

2.To what extent are you willing to reject the predominant worldview of Western culture with its emphasis on wealth and power, pleasure and leisure, accumulation and consumption? For example:

In what ways do you choose to give of yourself and demonstrate compassion for the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed rather than living for yourself at the expense of others?

Which personal sacrifices do you make to help protect innocent life and uphold the value of every human being as an image bearer of God regardless of their ethnic background, lifestyle choices, or status in life?

Closing (1 minute)

Read 1 Peter 2:12 aloud together:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.

Then pray, thanking God that He made Himself known to you. Ask Him for the conviction, courage, and commitment to live out the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ in your world. Pray for a heart that seeks out and loves God’s lost children the way He does. Seek His wisdom in sharing the good news in ways that people who do not yet know Him will understand. Pray always that you will work to reclaim God’s kingdom in His way by displaying how life works when God reigns. Give thanks and rejoice for every person, every inch of territory that God’s kingdom reclaims from the Evil One.

Memorize

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us. — 1 Peter 2:12

1.For additional information, see “The Apostle Paul: A Time Line for His Life and Ministry” on pages 20–21. Also see That the World May Know, Vol. 15, A Clash of Kingdoms, session 1, pages 47–49.
2.R. E. Wycherley, “St. Paul at Athens,” Journal of Theological Studies, 19:2 (1968): 619.
3.Deuteronomy 9:18–19.
4.Genesis 3:1–5.

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Your Turn

Come share your thoughts on this session on our blog! We want to hear from you!

Ray Vander Laan

Ray Vander Laan is the founder of That the World May Know Ministries and creator of the Faith Lessons video series with Focus on the Family. An ordained minister, he holds the chair of biblical cultural studies as a religion instructor at Holland Christian Schools in Holland, Michigan. He and his wife, Esther, have four children and fifteen grandchildren.

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