Summary: Paul looked for ways to share the Gospel in a most unlikely place. He gave them something to think about!
Our text is from Acts, chapter 17, and here is the background. Paul has left Philippi, as written in Acts 16, and now he’s heading to Athens after he had been in Thessalonica and Berea. He’s now there in Athens, which was the capital of thought in those days. Athens was one of the largest and most important cities in the whole Roman Empire, and probably not on the “let’s build a church here” list for church planters! Regardless, Paul knew he was following God’s Will. Now let’s read the text, beginning with verse 16:
Acts 17:16, NASB: Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. 17 So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. 18 And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, "What would this idle babbler wish to say?" Others, "He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,"-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 which you are proclaiming? 20 "For you are bringing some strange things to our ears ; so we want to know what these things mean ." 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)
Paul Found Many Opportunities
The first thing we can notice is the Opportunities Paul encountered. One of those was in the synagogue itself. Paul’s strategy was to visit the synagogue first and then share the Gospel with Gentiles. Luke records that Paul was reasoning, or dialoguing, with the Jews in the synagogue of Athens. I missed this the first few times I’ve studied this passage, namely, how Jews made it to Athens in the first place. It’s anybody’s guess, humanly speaking and I’m not even going to speculate how they got there. But they were there, and had a functioning synagogue even in a city full of idols.
Now, not only did Paul speak in the synagogue, he also went out to the market place. We aren’t very familiar with this concept of going to a market-place, or an “agora”, the original Greek word. Strong’s concordance says that the “agora” had many functions, among these buying and selling. Paul had to purchase his clothes and his meals, and the “agora” or market place was exactly where he would go to do this! Can you imagine the opportunities to speak with people, many of whom had to go through the same ordeal every day? I’m sure there were times Paul wished he could have had manna, or even prayed for “his daily bread”, too!
Another thing that we don’t, perhaps, understand in this day and age—ordinarily, this was not the kind of work a free male citizen would do! A children's book by “Scholastic”, about ancient Greece, described how the free men of most cities would go about their daily things, but the women or slaves would actually do the work of maintaining the household. If a male went to the market, he was generally a slave; and, or, if a woman went there, she was considered either a slave or a woman of low reputation. Good and proper Greek women seldom left their homes in that time, according to that book.
We can be sure that a Jewish male, probably alone, going to the market place regularly, would be noticed and sure enough, there were two groups of philosophers (!) who did take notice. Strong’s concordance also desvribed a purpose for “agoras” or market places, and that was a place of assembly or public debate. So they’ve heard Paul talking to people, of every social standing, and these folks, probably among the most well-educated men of their day, wanted to know about Paul’s conversation.
We need to stop here for a moment and think about these two groups. Jamieson, Faucett, and Brown’s commentary gives some very helpful information:
They state that the Epicureans were “atheistic materialists” and that pleasure was the chief end of life itself. Someone described them as the original frat-house boys because they loved to live for pleasure! Granted, life wasn’t meant to necessarily be dull and boring, but let’s face it, even the best experiences tend to fade after a while. Dare we forget the law of diminishing returns? Apparently they hadn’t heard of it, or else didn’t want to give up their “party-hearty” lifestyle!
Luke also mentions the Stoics in the text. These men were “severe and lofty pantheists (Robertson)”, and apparently thought that life was meant to be endured, not enjoyed. That sure doesn’t sound like much of a life to me, if I literally had to wake up and had nothing to look forward to! Again, for these folks, they seemed to believe that you can hurt me, you can kill me, you do anything to me you want to, but you won’t touch me. This is sad, to think that the gift of emotion, a gift from God, was to be disabled, I suppose, because of a philosophy of life. No, thank you, to that one, either.