A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 17:16-34. Paul in Athens – What Paul did.
*So (men oun; ‘therefore’, AV) he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the market place day by day with those who happened to be there (17). A group of Epicureans and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him* (18a). Paul’s reaction to the city’s idolatry was not negative only (horror and dismay) but also positive and constructive (witness). He did not merely throw up his hands in despair, or weep helplessly, or curse and swear at the Athenians. No, he shared with them the good news of Jesus. He sought by the proclamation of the gospel to prevail on them to turn from their idols to the living God and so to give to him and to his Son the glory due to their name. The stirrings of his spirit with righteous indignation opened his mouth in testimony. We observe the three groups with whom Luke tells us he spoke. First, following his usual practice, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath and ‘reasoned’ there with both Jews and God-fearers. As in Thessalonica, so in Athens, he will have delineated the Christ of Scripture, proclaimed the Jesus of history, and identified the two as the heaven-sent Saviour of sinners. Secondly, he went into the *agora*, which has now been completely excavated and restored, and which did duty as both market-place and centre of public life, and argued there with ‘casual passers-by’ (NEB), not now on the sabbath but *day by day*. He seems deliberately to have adopted the famous Socratic method of dialogue, involving questions and answers; he was, in fact, a kind of Christian Socrates, although with a better gospel than Socrates ever knew.
Thirdly, Epicureans and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him, and he with them. These were contemporary but rival systems. The Epicureans, or ‘philosophers of the garden’, founded by Epicurus (died 270 BC), considered the gods to be so remote as to take no interest in, and have no influence on, human affairs. The world was due to chance, a random concourse of atoms, and there would be no survival of death, and no judgment. So human beings should pursue pleasure, especially the serene enjoyment of a life detached from pain, passion and fear. The Stoics, however, or ‘philosophers of the porch’ (the *stoa* or painted colonnade next to the *agora* where they taught), founded by Zeno (died 265 BC), acknowledged the supreme god but in a pantheistic way, confusing him with the ‘world soul’. The world was determined by fate, and human beings must pursue their duty, resigning themselves to live in harmony with nature and reason, however painful this might be and develop their own self-sufficiency. To oversimplify, it was characteristic of Epicurians to emphasize chance, escape and the enjoyment of pleasure, and of the Stoics to emphasize fatalism, submission and endurance of pain. In Paul’s later speech to the Areopagus we hear echoes of the encounter between the gospel and these philosophies, as he refers to the caring activity of a personal Creator, the dignity of human beings as his ‘offspring’, the certainty of judgment and the call to repentance.
One cannot help admiring Paul’s ability to speak with equal facility to religious people in the synagogue, to casual passers-by in the city square, and to highly sophisticated philosophers both in the *agora* and when they met in Council. Today the nearest equivalent to the synagogue is the church, the place where religious people gather. There is still an important place for sharing the gospel with the church-goers, God fearing people on the fringe of the church, who may attend services only occasionally. The equivalent of the *agora* will vary in the different parts of the word. It may be a park, city square, or street corner, a shopping mall or market-place, a ‘pub’, neighbourhood bar, cafe, discotheque or student cafeteria, wherever people meet when they are at leisure. There is a need for gifted evangelists who can make friends and gossip the gospel in such informal settings as these. As for the Areopagus, it has no precise equivalent in the contemporary world. Perhaps the nearest is the university, where many of the country’s intelligentsia are to be found. Neither church evangelism nor street evangelism would be appropriate for them. Instead, we should develop home evangelism in which there is free discussion, ‘Agnostics Anonymous’ groups in which no holds are barred, and lecture evangelism, which contains a strong apologetic content. There is an urgent need for more Christian thinkers who will dedicate their minds to Christ, not only as lecturers, but also as authors, journalists, dramatists and broadcasters, as television script-writers, producers and personalities, and as artists and actors who use a variety of art forms in which to communicate the gospel. All these can do battle with contemporary non-Christian philosophers and ideologies in a way which resonates with thoughtful, modern men and women, and so at least gain a hearing for the gospel by the reasonableness of its presentation. Christ calls human beings to humble, but not to stifle, their intellect.
Tomorrow: What Paul said.
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.