10 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. 13 But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds. 14 Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. 15 Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. – Acts 17:10-21 ESV
Paul, Silas and Timothy did as the local city officials had requested and left Thessalonica. It would appear that their departure was not based on any kind of fear for their lives, but in order to prevent any further mistreatment of those who had come to faith in Christ. Jason, who had been their host while they were there, had been arrested and been forced to post bond. While the city authorities ended up regretting their mistreatment of Paul and Silas, because both of the men were Roman citizens, they would not be able to control the mob mentality that the local Jews had created. Had Paul and Silas stayed, it is likely that the persecution of the local Christians would have increased. So they left.
Their next stop was the city of Berea, about 50 miles southwest of Thessanolica. Once there, they made a beeline to the local synagogue and, this time, they were received with open arms. In fact, Luke records that the Jews in Berea “were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11 NLT). Notice what they did. As Paul and Silas shared with them everything regarding Jesus – His incarnation, ministry, teachings, death, burial and resurrection, the Bereans eagerly listened, but then they turned to their Hebrew Scriptures to validate what they had heard. No doubt, Paul and Silas had used Old Testament prophecies to verify their claim that Jesus was the Messiah. But rather than take these strangers’ words at face value, the Bereans did their homework. They investigated and validated what they had heard by comparing it with the Scriptures. All in order “to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11 ESV). What they were hearing was new to them. They were far enough away from Jerusalem to have been ignorant of much of what Paul and Silas shared with them. Their knowledge of Jesus and all that had happened to Him would have been limited. It is likely that they may have heard bits of news concerning the events surrounding Jesus’ arrest, trials and death. They may have even heard rumors about His supposed resurrection. But it is doubtful that anyone had shared with them the things that Paul and Silas had, regarding this obscure Jewish rabbi being the Messiah. And Luke tells us that many of them believed, including some influential Greek women. This is exactly what had happened in Thessalonica. But this time, there were no irate Jews to stir up trouble and turn the crowds against Paul and Silas. At least, not ones from Berea. The disgruntled, unhappy Jews did show up, but they came all the way from Thessalonica. When they had heard that Paul and Silas were propagating their message about Jesus in Berea, they couldn’t resist the urge to do something about it. Once again, they agitated and stirred up the crowds, most likely using the same tactic they had used in Thessalonica: Hiring the services of the local rabble. The end result was that Paul, the recognized leader and spokesperson of the team, was encouraged to leave for Athens, while Silas and Timothy remained behind.
Once again, it would be easy to view this as a setback or some form of defeat. But the gospel had been shared, there were those who believed and now, Paul was able to turn his attention elsewhere. God seems to have been keeping Paul constantly on the move. Based on his temperament, Paul would have likely preferred to have stayed and continued to teach and encourage the new believers in Berea. He was a natural disciple maker. But God had other plans for him. His job was to spread the good news to the Gentiles and all the way to the ends of the earth. He could not afford to stay in one spot very long. He was to be an evangelist, not the pastor of a local congregation. So, God was constantly keeping Paul on the move, allowing outside pressure to propel him forward and further into the far-flung reaches of the Gentile world. His next stop was Athens.
Paul arrived in Athens alone. This appears to be the first time he found himself operating solo, with no base of support or source of camaraderie. And he was in the middle of one of the most highly pagan cultures of his day. Athens was the cultural and intellectual center of the Greek world. While its zenith as a city had come some 500 years earlier, Athens was still a formidable and influential metropolitan area. It was filled with people from all over the world and from all walks of life. And the number of its temples and idols was truly staggering. And Luke makes note of the fact that, as Paul awaited the arrival of his two companions, he made his way around the city and “his spirit was greatly upset because he saw the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16 NLT). There were statues to false gods everywhere. No doubt, Paul sensed the spiritual darkness that pervaded the city. In his mind, this was a battlefield where the forces of evil were going to be pitted against the forces of righteousness. He, a single man, was going to attempt to shine the light of the gospel into the darkness that shrouded the people of Athens.
Paul began his ministry where he always did, in the local synagogue. He found solace and comfort in meeting with his fellow Jews who would have shared his repulsion for all the idolatry that filled the city. The synagogue would have been an oasis in the spiritual wasteland that was Athens. But Paul didn’t spend all his time in the synagogue. He ventured out into the local marketplace, where he soon found himself debating with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The belief system of the Epicureans was best summed up by one of their own, a man named Diogenes, who wrote, “Nothing to fear in God; Nothing to feel in death; Good [pleasure] can be attained; Evil [pain] can be endured.” For an Epicurean, the gods were distant and disconnected from human affairs. They played no part in the daily lives of men. They did not believe in an afterlife and so, they did not think the gods would punish men for the deeds they had done in this life. They saw death as nothing more than the end of life. The Stoics were essentially pantheists, believing that God is in everything, and everything is God. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Stoics held “that emotions like fear or envy (or impassioned sexual attachments, or passionate love of anything whatsoever) either were, or arose from, false judgements and that the sage—a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection—would not undergo them.” For the Stoic, the goal was achieving the status of “sage” or one who had achieved the necessary knowledge to see and experience life properly. They believed that “the sage is utterly immune to misfortune and that virtue is sufficient for happiness.”
These various groups were known for their openness to debate. It was not uncommon for them to sit and discuss their various views and counter one another’s perceptions with their own. So, when Paul showed up, they were more than willing to listen to him, stating, “What does this babbler wish to say?” (Acts 17:18 ESV). The term, “babbler” literally referred to a bird picking up seeds, but was used to describe someone who made a habit of picking up the words of another. In their minds, Paul was simply propagating a philosophy he had concocted by listening to and borrowing from a variety of other men. In their minds, he was nothing more than “a preacher of foreign divinities” (Acts 17:18 ESV). They had their gods. He had his. But they were willing to listen to what he had to say. In fact, they were curious enough that they brought him to the Areopagus, where they asked Paul to explain this “new teaching” he was presenting. The Areopagus was both a place, Mars Hill, and the name of the group, the council of Ares, who met there.
Paul found himself standing before an esteemed group of philosophers and thinkers who described his teaching as strange and expressed their desire to know more. Luke describes the nature of what went on in these gatherings, saying, “the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there used to spend their time in nothing else than telling or listening to something new” (Acts 17:21 NLT). It seems that they had an insatiable desire for novelty and the unknown. As we will see tomorrow, they even had an idol to “the unknown god.” Paul will refer to them as religious, but in truth, they were blind. They loved strange and new things. They were drawn to that which they didn’t know and had an inordinate attraction to that which they couldn’t explain. What an opportunity for Paul. What a perfect setting for this man’s talents and gift sets to shine forth. Paul was a brilliant theologian with a vast knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and equipped with a zeal for the gospel that was going to make him a formidable adversary in any debate setting. These men wanted to him to explain what it was he was teaching. They were eager to hear something new. And Paul would be more than happy to oblige them. God had sent Paul to Athens for this very reason. He had chosen Paul for just such a situation. There was no one else better equipped and more qualified for this opportunity. And, as we will see, Paul took full advantage of the moment provided to him by God. And Paul would follow the wisdom of Peter, expressed in the words he included in one of his later letters.
…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. – 1 Peter 3:15 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT)
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