A Message From Mars

Acts 17:16-25a

Paul received in a vision the Macedonian call. As a result, the apostle and his group traveled to Philippi. The town’s people had Paul arrested as a troublemaker. After being released from jail, Paul and Silas travel to Thessalonica. Luke stayed behind in Philippi. This time envious Jews stirred up a mob at Thessalonica (Ac. 17:1-9). Paul moved on to Berea. These people were more open-minded and receptive of Paul’s message. But the Jews came after him again (Ac. 17:10-1 3). “But Silas and Timothy abode there still” (Acts 17:14). Paul then moved on to Athens.

Although Athens was centuries past its golden age, it was still a center of Greek philosophy, literature, science, and art. It was at Athens the idea of Democracy was born. It had been home to some of the greatest schools of philosophy: The Academy of Plato, The Lyceum of Aristotle, The Porch of Zeno and The Garden of Epicures.

Action in Athens

Paul was not there as a tourist, but he did take in some of the sites. Mostly, the myriad of idols throughout the city of Athens. According to Pliny, “In the time of Nero, Athens had well over 25 to 30 thousand public statutes.” About fifty years later Pausanius observed, “Athens had more images than all the rest of Greece put together.” It was Peterronius who claimed it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man. Verse sixteen tells us of Paul’s reaction to all this: “His spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols.”

Paul was not an apathetic sightseer but a soul winner. He had to say something. He had to share the good news in spite of the insurmountable obstacles of ubiquitous idols. Paul is filled with a sense of righteous indignation. These are the motives that would fuel his sermon.


Paul’s audience at Athens included the Jews of the local synagogue. The synagogue would normally be his first stop where an open invitation on the Sabbath would await someone of Paul’s credentials. Also, there was the agora or marketplace where he could speak out daily to any of the Athenians or visitors to the city. It was here that Paul attracted the attention of two sects of pagan Greek schools of philosophy: the Epicureans and the Stoics.

Around 260 BC, the Epicureans received their name from their founder Epicurus. They did not believe in the existence of God or even gods for that matter. If there were gods, they were unknown and far removed from the affairs of men. They were materialist in that they believed everything was just matter and made from matter They accepted a sort of Big Bang Theory. Since they believed this life is all man has, men were encouraged to seek pleasure and shun suffering and pain. Today, they would be known as existentialists in that they believed the individual and not a god control their destiny on earth. They were hedonist, because they believed man’s chief goal was to “eat, drink and be merry.” They would be humanist in that they believed man was supreme and did not need the help or guidance of God.

Because Zeno taught his disciples from a painted porch (Stoa Poikile), his followers became known as the Stoics. To them everything was god. As pantheists they believed gods were in the trees, rivers, boulders, etc. Although they were not creationists, they taught the gods did organize matter and give laws for its order. This universal law was supreme. This led to a belief in fatalism. Man was not in control of his destiny. He had to just resign himself to the will of the impersonal gods. They had to be stoic about life and just “grin and bear it.” If the Epicureans were like the Sadducees who did not believe man had a spirit or soul, the Stoics were more like the Pharisees. The Stoics focused more on the universal law and only hoped that their spirit would be absorbed in God after life on earth.

Answer of Audience

The audience has a varied response to Paul’s initial teachings. The Epicureans and Stoics called him a babbler of plagiarized ideas. They called him a spermologos or seed picker. Someone who goes around and picks up little seeds of thought and regurgitates them as his own philosophy. “Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection’” (17:18b). Notice the plural “gods”. They may have mistaken the resurrection as a god. The Greek term for resurrection is anastasis and a name of a Greek goddess. This is why they invited him to the Areopagus, or the Hill of Ares. Ares was the Greek God of war. The Roman name for Ares is “Mars.” This rocky hill was 370 feet high and very prominent in Athens. It was easy to find and a short distance from the Agora and the Acropolis which was crowned by the great Pantheon. They believed Paul was speaking of a strange new teaching and they loved to hear new doctrines.

Acquainting Athens With God

Paul uses this invitation to preach a sermon. This is not a sermon which he would have preached in the synagogues to the Jews or to God-fearing Gentiles who worshiped with the Jews. This sermon is most likely a redacted version of the longer message preached. However, we can learn a great deal from this sermon on how to tailor the Gospel message to the audience.

  • God the Unknown

Paul began his lesson by saying, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious” (17:22). The term for “religious” sometimes translated superstitious. It literally means “god-fearers”. But instead of using he normal term for God which is theos, Paul uses daimon (demon). He is saying they are worshipers of lesser-gods or demi-gods. Athens was filled with idols and had the Pantheon along with many schools of philosophy. Their time, money and devotion to such is common ground for the devout apostle Paul. Paul was dedicated and so were they. This compliment would only go so far, because the sermon would capitalize on their differences and not their commonality.

Paul began with God as creator and not Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Why does he quote from the pagan philosophers and not from the Old Testament? These pagan religionists did not believe in God’s Word and first all failed to believe in God. Paul began at the level of understanding of his audience.

Ironically, although Athens was known as a seat of knowledge in the ancient world, Paul begins by pointing out their ignorance. Paul said, “as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you” (17:23). Why did Athens have such an altar? Several hundred years earlier, Epimenides, a Crete poet came up with an idea to rid Athens of a great pestilence. A mass of sheep were let lose in the city. Where they laid down, they were sacrificed to the nearest idol or altar to a god. If no altar was close by, they would erect an altar to an unknown god and sacrifice the sheep. The term for “unknown” is agnosto from which we derive “agnostic”. An agnostic is someone who does not known whether God exists, or he does not know God.

  • God the Creator

First, Paul tells them that God is the Creator. The gods of the Greeks were not believed to be responsible for the creation of the universe. The gods were created not creators. The true God is the Maker not the made. Man did not create Him. He created everything including man. One God made it all. Something of the nature of God is revealed through his Creation (Ps. 19:1), such as, “his eternal power and Godhead” (Rom. 1 20).

  • God the Sovereign

It naturally follows that God is the “Lord the heaven and earth.” He created all and is Lord of all. Unlike Poseidon who is lord of the sea or Hades who is lord only of the underworld of the dead, God is lord of all. He is sovereign, that is, there is nothing or no one that is higher or has more power. He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3).

  • God the Sustainer

“Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands” is Paul’s next description of God. Perhaps, he was pointing to the Pantheon or one of the many lesser pagan temples in view of his audience. God does not need a temple. Athens was named after the goddess Athena. They needed to build a temple in her honor for her to abide is Athens. God needs nothing of the like. He cannot be housed or sustained by a temple.

Paul goes on to show that God is self-sustaining: “as though He needed anything.” In fact, He is the sustainer of everything He has created. If God died or went out of existence, all creation would collapse and cease to exist. He supplies our daily needs and is Master over the universe. He is not worshiped as though He needs it.

– Daniel R. Vess

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Categories: The Forum