A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 17:16-34. Paul in Athens.
There is something enthralling about Paul in Athens, the great Christian apostle amid the glories of ancient Greece. Of course he had known about Athens since his boyhood. Everybody knew about Athens. Athens had been the foremost Greek city-state since the fifth century BC. Even after its incorporation into the Roman Empire, it retained a proud intellectual independence and also became a free city. It boasted of its rich philosophical tradition inherited from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, of its literature and art, and of its notable achievements in the cause of human liberty. Even if in Paul’s day it ‘lived on its great past’, and was a comparatively small town by modern criteria, it still had an unrivalled reputation as the empire’s intellectual metropolis.
Now for the first time Paul visited the Athens of which he had heard so much, arriving by sea from the north. His friends, who had given him a safe escort from Berea, had gone. He had asked them to send Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible (17:15). He was hoping to be able to return to Macedonia, for it was to Macedonia that he had been called (16:10). Meanwhile, as he waited for their arrival, he found himself alone in the cultural capital of the world. What was his reaction? What should be the reaction of a Christian who visits or lives in a city which is dominated by a non-Christian ideology or religion, a city which may be aesthetically magnificent and culturally sophisticated, but morally decadent and spiritually deceived or dead? There were four parts to Paul’s reaction. Luke tells us what he saw, felt, did and said.
1). What Paul saw.
*While Paul was waiting for them in Athens*, that is, for Silas and Timothy, *he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols* (16) or ‘given over to idolatry’ (JB). Of course he could have walked round Athens as a tourist, as we would probably have done, in order to see the sights of the town. He could have been determined, now that at last he had the opportunity, to ‘do’ Athens thoroughly and tick its spectacles one by one. For the buildings and monuments of Athens were unrivalled. The acropolis, the town’s ancient citadel, which was elevated enough to be seen from miles around, has been described as ‘one vast composition of architecture and sculpture dedicated to the national glory and to the worship of the gods’. Even today, although now a partial ruin, the Parthenon has a unique grandeur. Or Paul could have lingered in the *agora*, with its many porticoes painted by famous artists, in order to listen to the debates of its contemporary statesmen and philosophers, for Athens was well know for its democracy. And Paul was no uncultured philistine. In our terms he was a graduate of the universities of Tarsus and Jerusalem, and God had endowed him with a massive intellect. So he might have been spellbound by the sheer splendour of the city’s architecture, history and wisdom.
Yet it was none of these things that struck him. First, and foremost what he saw was neither the beauty nor the brilliance of the city, but its idolatry. The adjective Luke uses (*kateidolos*) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, and has not been found in any other Greek literature. Although most English versions render it ‘full of idols’, the idea conveyed seems to be that the city was ‘under’ them. We might say that it was ‘smothered with idols’ or ‘swamped’ by them. Alternatively, since *kata* words often express luxurious growth, what Paul saw was a ‘veritable forest of idols’. As he was later to say, the Athenians were ‘very religious’ (22). Xenophon referred to Athens as ‘one great altar, one great sacrifice’. In consequence, ‘there were more gods in Athens than in all the rest of the country, and the Roman satirist hardly exaggerates when he says that it was easier to find a god there than a man’. There were innumerable temples, shrines, statues and alters. In the Parthenon stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena, ‘whose gleaming spear-point was visible forty miles away’. Elsewhere there were images of Apollo, the city’s patron, of Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana and Aesculapius. The whole Greek pantheon was there, all the gods of Olympus. And they were beautiful. They were made not only of stone and brass, but of gold, silver, ivory and marble, and they had been elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors. There is no need to suppose that Paul was blind to their beauty. But beauty did not impress him if it did not honour God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, he was oppressed by the idolatrous use to which the God-given artistic creativity of the Athenians was being put. This is what Paul saw: a city submerged in its idols.
Tomorrow: Acts 17:16-34. 2). What Paul felt.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.