While Paul was waiting in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. (Acts 17:16-18)
Paul caught the attention of the philosophers and became an instant curiosity in the city. They asked Paul to come before the council of the Areopagus to explain his new way of thinking. They said, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (Acts 17:20)
The Areopagus of Athens, also known as Mars Hill, is located just northwest of the Acropolis. Basically, it’s a small mountain of marble where people met. During the Classical period, it was used as an assembly place for judicial tribunals for major crimes. When Paul was in Athens, the Areopagus had also become a popular gathering place to discuss and debate ideas. The council of the Areopagus was composed of 100 members, including philosophers, scholars, and former officials of Athens.
According to Acts, Chapter 17, it was here at the Areopagus that Paul engaged the “professional thinkers” of Athens. Paul very wisely acknowledged the broad spiritual curiosity of the Athenians, which provided a natural opening for a conversation about God.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:22-25)
In his speech to the Areopagus council, Paul used an altar to the “unknown god” to illustrate that the God unknown to the Athenians was the one true God of the Bible. Famous Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle used the generic “theos” (god) in their ancient writings to refer to an ambiguous supreme god, so Paul’s explanation would have been particularly interesting to the educated philosophers of Athens.
Paul went on to make the Gospel understandable within the Athenian system of belief. He referred to Greek gods, Greek philosophers, and Greek poets in his talk — delivering a masterful example of how the Good News of Jesus Christ applies to everyone.
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:29-31)
Many rejected the message that Paul delivered, but Luke records that some of the people became believers, including Dionysus, a member of the Areopagus council, and a woman named Damaris. Although we don’t know much about these first Christians in Athens, history tells us that Christianity grew here in the late first century.