If the life of the Apostle Paul indicates anything at all it indicates that the work of a faithful missionary of the Gospel of sovereign grace is incredibly difficult. Acts 17records the history of the Apostle’s work in Thessalonica and Berea while on his second missionary journey. In both places there was much positive fruit upon the preaching of Paul. Many believed and churches were established. In both places, however, the Apostle encountered fierce opposition and persecution. In Thessalonica certain Jews who were moved with envy provoked “lewd fellows of the baser sort” to set the whole city in an uproar while attempting to capture Paul and his companions (Acts 17:5ff.). These same unbelieving Jews followed the Apostle to Berea and stirred up the people there. Under these circumstances the Apostle fled to Athens alone (verses 13-15). While waiting for Silas and Timothy, Paul first disputed in the synagogue and market place and then preached his famous sermon on Mars Hill at the request of the pagan Stoic and Epicurean philosophers (verses 16-34). It is to this incident and especially to this sermon of the Apostle that we wish to direct our attention. It has much to teach us concerning the proper method of performing mission work among the heathen.
Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, is in Athens. He is very really in the world but not of the world. Paul is in the very heart of the world. Not only was Athens the seat of the culture of the Graeco-Roman world, but it was destined to be the seat of the culture of the whole of Western civilization. Politically Athens was of little or no importance. It was the university seat of the world with all its rich environment and traditions. Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, was in the city of Pericles and Demosthenes, Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Euripides. In its Agora (market place) Socrates had employed his “Socratic method” of teaching. Here was the Academy of Plato and the Lyceum of Aristotle, the porch of Zeno (father of Stoicism), and the Garden of Epicurus (founder of Epicureanism). Here men still talked about philosophy, poetry, religion, and anything else anyone wished to discuss. Athens was the art center of the world. The Parthenon, that most beautiful of temples, crowned the Acropolis.
It is likely, at least that is the impression one receives from the narrative, that the Apostle did not intend to go to Athens to preach. Once here, however, he will not be idle. God in His providence does not leave Himself without witness in this heart of antichristian, godless culture and learning. The Apostle will preach the Gospel of God’s sovereign grace in the crucified, risen Lord Jesus Christ. Also here the world’s most brilliant philosophers must respond to the question: “What think ye of Jesus Who is called Christ?”
While waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive from Berea, Paul’s spirit was stirred or provoked when he saw that the city was wholly given to idolatry (more correctly translated: “the city being full of idols”). This is no exaggeration. Ancient historians tell us that Athens was “all altar, all sacrifice, and offering to the gods.” The idolatry and sensualism of it all leered at Paul from every side. Ancient historians tell us Athens had more idols than all the rest of Greece put together. We are told that at the time of the Emperor Nero, Athens had over thirty thousand public statues besides countless private ones in the homes. One wag sneered that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Every gateway or porch had its protecting god. They lined the streets and caught the eye at every prominent place. There was no place on earth where it was more unlikely that the preaching of the gospel would bear positive fruit than in Athens. Is it any wonder that the spirit of this holy man of God was provoked within him? Paul was zealous for the Lord and His Christ. He simply could not stand all this blatant blasphemy of the holy name of His God. At the sight of all this corruption the Apostle was saying in his heart, “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.”
First Paul went to the synagogue and disputed with the Jews. He literally reasoned with them. The Apostle was explaining and defending the Gospel of Jesus Christ over against the idolatry of Athens to the Jews and God-fearers. No doubt he was showing the Jews in the synagogue how Jesus of Nazareth in His cross and resurrection is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. At other hours and along with this synagogue preaching the Apostle went to the market place where he reasoned with anyone who happened by (verses 17,18). It was in this market place that the “Painted Porch” stood where Zeno, the Stoic, held forth. Thus it is not at all strange that the Apostle encountered the Stoics and Epicureans (verse 18). These professional philosophers and professors were always ready for an argument, and so they frequented the market place. It is quite clear from the text that these two groups were united in their love of arguing and in their attitude of opposition to Paul. Some dismissed the Apostle as a mere babbler of foolish and vain things, but others wished to hear more of Paul. These took the Apostle to the Areopagus where Paul would preach. Before we examine the Apostle’s sermon we must know something of these Stoics and Epicureans.
While they were united in their opposition to the Apostle and the Gospel of the risen Christ, they were in fact two rival schools of philosophy. The rivalry was rather intense as well. From a certain point of view both were born out of earlier, classical Greek philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. At the same time they were reactions to the more abstruse philosophy of the earlier period. Socrates had turned men’s thought inward. His theme was, “Know Thyself.” This was fundamental and more basic than the study of physics. Plato followed with a profound development of the inner self (metaphysics). Aristotle sought to unify and relate both physics and metaphysics. Both Zeno and Epicurus took a more practical turn in all this intellectual turmoil and raised issues that had to do with everyday life.
Zeno (336-264 B.C.) was the father of Stoicism. This philosophy was called Stoicism after the porch in the market place where Zeno taught his students. The tenets of this philosophy are rather difficult to sum up. This is true for two reasons. The first of these is the influence of Platonism on Zeno’s thought and the second is the fact that his thought underwent several modifications. In his Word Pictures of the New Testament A.T. Robertson comments: “He (Zeno) taught self-mastery and hardness with an austerity that ministered to pride or suicide in case of failure, a distinctly selfish and unloving view of life…” (vol. III, p. 280). Already at this point it is obvious that Stoicism is the very antithesis of the Gospel of Christ which the Apostle was preaching. There is more. The Stoics were, in addition, pantheists. They identified God with the universe. Still more, they were determinists or fatalists in the strictest sense. They believed in repetitive, successive cycles of existence. Not even God could intervene and-save a man from his fate. Thus they faced life and “took it as it came,” almost without emotion. From this aspect of their philosophy is derived the meaning of our word, “stoic.” This philosophy was subjected to more modifications and to a certain degree popularized at the hands of three Stoics of the later Roman period: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Concerning Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.) Robertson has this to say: “Epicurus considered practical atheism the true view of the universe and denied a future life and claimed pleasure as the chief thing to be gotten out of life” (Word Pictures Of The New Testament, vol. III, p. 280). Epicurus was a disciple of Democritus. This philosophy taught that the world came into existence by the accidental coming together of constituent atoms. (This is a flat denial of the Creator God of Holy Scripture.) These thought that the ultimate aim in life was the pursuit of happiness (an ancient version of the “Bill of Rights”). Epicurus himself, however, constantly counseled against sensual indulgences of any kind. Further, they denied the existence of and intervention of God in the affairs of human life. Hence they denied life after death and any kind of punishment or reward after death. The followers of Epicureanism conveniently overlooked the insistence of Epicurus that sensuality was incompatible with pleasure. These were known in New Testament times for their immorality and coarse corruption. They pursued pleasure for its own sake. They held that there was no absolute moral law by which man must conduct his life. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” was their credo.
These made up the audience on Mars Hill. God’s servant was in the heart of the antichristian world. In an environment which could hardly have been more inimical to the Christian faith the Apostle would do just one thing. He does not attempt to meet and refute these ungodly philosophers on their own philosophic grounds. Much less does the Apostle accommodate the Gospel to these corrupt philosophies. Paul brooks no compromise. He does what every faithful missionary must do no matter where he finds himself. He preaches the Gospel of the sovereign God in Christ Who commands all men everywhere to repent because He has appointed a judgment day! (verses 30,31)