Paul’s Sermon at Athens: The Historical Background :: By Dr. Donald Whitchard

Summary: This is the first of a series of messages centering on the sermon that the Apostle Paul gave before the groups of philosophers in Athens and how it is a perfect model for Biblical apologetics and evangelism.

People today tend to sidestep, ignore, deter, apologize and question the concept of reality in a world that gladly embraces the concept that reality, truth, and fact are not absolute but just a matter of opinion, experience, or personal interpretation. We have become terrified of the possibility that right and wrong, good and evil, black and white, and truth and reality are actual facts of nature, law, and existence. We cannot accept or deal with that because of fear of offending someone or hurting their self-identity or some other excuse that is convenient. No one wants to hear truth, facts, and standards if it interferes with their little world where their ideas and convictions are safe, sound, and out of the reach of anyone who would dare challenge them.

I do not have to go on because wherever and whoever you are reading this message, you are seeing the down-grade of common sense and fear of upsetting the status quo of your country, state, city, or territory whose ideas of what is real are like the house built on sand that Jesus described in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:26-27).

Even the church, founded on the Rock that is Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18-19), has, for the most part, decided that He is not good enough for the well-being of the church and so goes off chasing trends, fads, ideas, traditions, popular causes, and worldly methods of bringing in the people without preaching the Gospel and living as Jesus calls for us to do (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 14:25-33).

It seems that the reality of obedience, holiness, witness, devotion, heaven, and hell do not bother most “believers” today because they do not believe in the Bible they claim to read and follow. They are practical atheists not brave or honest enough to cast aside their “fake Christianity” and have reaped the whirlwind (Matt. 7:21-23).

I want to focus on the subject of reality as it applies to the Gospel and how the Apostle Paul presented the reality of God, Christ, salvation, judgment, and the standards of Scripture to an audience of skeptics who reveled in the past glories of their nation and methods of thought that had permeated the western world for hundreds of years.

In Acts 17, Paul finds himself in the intellectual capital of the Roman Empire – Athens, Greece. The Greeks had a colorful and dynamic history and culture that still invokes admiration today. Volumes have been written on the influence of Greek thought, government, education, art, mythology and language, architecture on civilization, and the giants of philosophy such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. Zeno, Epicurus, along with the military genius who spread all of this across the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Persia, Babylon, Asia, and Europe through both wars and colonization – the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, who established an empire by the time of his death in 323 B.C.

Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines ‘reality’ as “actual being or existence of any thing; a fact in distinction from mere appearance. It is something intrinsically important and not merely a matter of show. In law, it is the immobility of a fixed permanent nature of property. It is also a full and absolute being of itself, not considered as part of anything else. It is the study of things as they are rather than as they are imagined to be.”

It is worth noting that Mr. Webster based his definitions and work analyses on the Holy Scriptures, seen by him and countless others over time as the basis of authentic reality and not the product of fallible human thinking (Isaiah 1:18; 2 Peter 1:19-21). This is the concept upon which this message and the ones to follow are founded, along with the reasons. This will be examined later in the series, but for now, we need to return to our background study.

Greek philosophers had differing ideas on what was meant by reality. They saw reality either as uncertain, limited, or an abstraction that depended on the situation at the time.

Plato taught that reality first begins with ideas and self-concepts.

Others like Zeno, the father of the Stoics, saw reality as what we experience in this world and to accept whatever comes one’s way, either good or bad – a type of fatalism.

Epicurus saw reality as a time to get all the pleasures out of life as one can because, after death, there was nothing. He was the father of what we know as hedonism, the love of pleasure above all else.

The gods and goddesses of Greece were not much help in terms of advice, counsel, or comfort. Zeus, Hercules, Minerva, Hera, Narcissus, Bacchus, Aphrodite, Mercury, Atlas, and Hades were known as “heroes” but were also indifferent to the plight of humanity and just as devious and immoral as they were.

Long wars, political corruption, inept governments, and a cultural decline began hitting the Greek Empire over the years, and by 100 B.C., it was a shell of its former glory. Within a few decades, the Romans became the superior power over Europe, Asia, and Egypt, where the forces of Octavian, the nephew of Julius Caesar, had defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh at Actium in 31 B.C. They both committed suicide, Rome overtook Egypt and coastal North Africa, and Octavian was later crowned Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of Rome (27 B.C. -14 A.D.) and who was in power when Jesus was born.

Rome borrowed its mythologies, laws, and art from the Greeks and adapted them for their own purpose and pleasure. They also adopted Greek as one of the official languages of the Empire. The New Testament was written in “koine” (common) Greek and was able to be read by everyone from all parts of the Empire. The Old Testament had been translated from the Hebrew language to the Greek in 200 B.C. and was known as the Septuagint (LXX). It had been translated by seventy Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, and as a result, the Bible was able to be read and understood by all citizens.

When Paul arrived in Athens shortly after being chased out of Thessalonica for preaching the Gospel (Acts 17:13-15), he decided to play “tourist” and look around the city, which still showed most of its former beauty and glory. He would wait for Silas and Timothy to join him as he continued on his missionary journey. As he walked through the city, he came upon a pedestal with nothing on it save for an inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD (v.23). In a city filled with statues, busts, and temples of varied deities (demons), it seemed as if the city fathers wanted to cover their tracks and make sure they did not pass over any god by mistake or oversight.

If ever there was an open door to tell the Athenians about the true God, here it was.

We will examine Paul’s message and the reaction it got from those who listened with both curiosity and contempt. What I want to do is to show you that skepticism and hostility towards Jesus and His Word is nothing new or out of the ordinary. And even though it seems that more people are hostile towards the Gospel, more hearts are open than we are aware of.

Paul’s message is a great model for proclaiming the Gospel to your friends, family, and others.