As was the usual custom, Paul first taught in the Jewish synagogues upon his arrival in Athens. From there, he also taught in the marketplace where he came across some interesting people. Luke tells us that Paul had become “distressed” about the number and magnitude of “idols” in the city, for in the first century, Athens had become a center of art and philosophy; it was no longer a political center as it had been in centuries past, thus aspiring artists and philosophers traveled there to seek their destinies from all over the region.
While in the marketplace, he came to discuss his new ideas with Epicureans and Stoics who disputed both Paul and each other, as was their custom, but we should note that their disputations were collegial rather than hostile, which quite frankly is the key to understanding this text, particularly because in our time, collegial debate is becoming more and more rare as the concept that disagreement must be hostile making healthy debate more and more personal and confrontational. At some point in this process, Paul’s new debating buddies invite him to speak before the Areopagus so that all of the philosophers might better understand this new teaching of his.
For the modern day reader, Luke’s use of the term “Areopagus” is slightly ambiguous, since it can either refer to a place or a council. As a place, it refers to a location known in English as “Mars Hill” which was the place where criminal and civil cases were heard and adjudged. As a council, it refers to a group of scholars who ruled on philosophical and religious questions, the same council before which Socrates had appeared 500 years earlier. Over the centuries following Paul’s appearance, scholars have debated which of these Luke was referring to, in fact, in literature, Paul’s speech in this passage is known as “The Mars Hill Discourse”, demonstrating the geographical interpretation. Of course in verse 33, Luke actually tells us that Paul was before a council… For whatever it’s worth, I believe that Paul addressed the council, and the council met on Mars Hill.
Paul’s actual speech is recorded in 17:22-31; you really should read it, if you haven’t already for it is truly marvelous and well worth the effort. In fact, the King James version of this address is considered to be one of the true literary classics of all time and is required reading for students of both literature and philosophy in universities worldwide.
For our purposes, there are a few things I hope you will take note of:
First, I hope that you will notice that in spite of Paul’s distress with all of the idols he came across in Athens, he did not bother telling the group that they were wicked evil sinners who were destined for hell, even though he may have thought that to be true. He also didn’t tell them that all of their philosophizing was a shocking waste of time, and recommend to them that they seek actual gainful employment, which is a thought that comes to my mind. Instead, his approach was more along the lines of ”here’s a new idea you might want to consider; I have news about your ‘unknown god’, he is revealing himself to you after centuries of mystery”.
By taking such an approach, Paul actually had their attention and gained a hearing, rather than just being laughed off the stage.
The second thing I hope we will all notice is that when Paul spoke to the Areopagus, God met the people where they lived through Paul. The moral of the story dear reader, is that if we will resist the temptation to behave as arrogant jerks, God can do a mighty work through us; notice that even though many of those who heard Paul did not receive his message, others did receive it, including at least two notables, to the glory of God.
“Hellfire and brimstone” usually doesn’t work.