The Search for God’s People—Part 4

Paul at Athens

WHEN Paul suddenly had to leave his newly found brethren of Thessalonica and Berea to escape mob violence and threats to his life brought on by his enemies, he was escorted safely by his friends to a port city where he boarded a ship bound for Athens. As he departed, he left word for both Timothy and Silas, who had stayed behind, that when their work was finished in Thessalonica and Berea, they were to join him in Athens. There he would wait for them until they came. (Acts 17:14,15) Although Paul’s abrupt departure was from Berea, we know that Timothy went to Thessalonica, as stated in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, while Silas stayed in Berea.

While waiting in Athens for his two colleagues, Paul was not idle. At first he toured the city, where he saw the many idols. Athens was the most celebrated city in ancient Greece for learning, the arts, science, music, culture, and philosophy. A few centuries before, when Alexander the Great conquered the world, and during the height of the Grecian Universal Empire, it had been the capital of the world. Now it had yielded that distinction to Rome. But it still retained its reputation as the cultural center of the world. Many great men came from Athens, including Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Sophocles, and Demosthenes.

However, Athens did not appear to be part of Paul’s planned journey to search out a people for God’s name. He found himself there mainly because persecution had driven him in that direction, and he did not expect to stay any longer than necessary. As soon as Silas and Timothy joined him, they would leave.

As Paul went throughout the city, he looked at the temples, altars, and statues, appalled at the idolatry he found. (Acts 17:16) Here among the most learned men of the world, there were three thousand idols. It is said that no matter where anyone would stand in Athens, his eyes would range over innumerable temples, altars, and statues of gods. Athens was a paradox. Of all the cities in the world it boasted of having the most learned and cultural activities; and yet it was the most idolatrous. Religion was exploited in stone, silver, and gold.

Paul went to the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. Not much is written about his visit there. Neither is it indicated that he found either acceptance or violent opposition. We are inclined to conclude that the Jews there had come considerably under the influence of worldly wisdom, and that he found little by way of response to true religion. With these Jews, it was less a matter of “opening the Scriptures,” and more a matter of a debate about the philosophies of that time. Not only did Paul reason with the Jews, but he also sought out people who were religious, successfully finding them in the marketplace. As Paul could speak Greek fluently, he was able to reason effectively with these people, informing them of Jesus and the resurrection.

Luke records these meetings: “Therefore, disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? Other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.”—Acts 17:17,18

Paul’s efforts were not localized. Soon men in all parts of Athens had heard of his discussions. Paul was aided in his efforts to spread these glad tidings by the customs of Athenians, who spent their leisure time in deliberating over the newest thoughts on philosophy. Luke informs us that this was their major form of entertainment: “All the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.”—Acts 17:21

Unknown to Paul, a law had been passed in Athens prohibiting the introduction of any more new gods. After all, three thousand were more than enough! We wonder about the great number of deities that the ancient Greeks, Romans, and even the Norsemen had, which constituted the mythology of that era. The pattern among each was similar. Every god or goddess had a different function, but mainly it consisted of control over the natural elements of the earth.

The Greek deities were thought to live on the top of Mount Olympus, or sometimes in the air above it, but they were free to wander about the world at will. Although Zeus was the chief and ruler, there were many other gods and goddesses, the more well-known being Hera, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Hermes, Aphrodite, Athena, Poseidon, Demeter, Persephone, etc.

Much of this mythology no doubt had its origin in the exploits of the mighty beings that came to earth in the days before the Flood. Some of the angelic creation took on human form and intermarried with the daughters of men, producing a hybrid race which contributed to much evil in the earth. Greek mythology refers to this, speaking of gods coming and going to and from the earth, marrying fair maidens, and of their offspring performing mighty deeds. The number of deities increased with mythology, as these events of Noah’s day began to be told and were handed down from one generation to another. It is noteworthy that these heathen gods, as they are called in the King James translation, are in the Greek language called deisedaimon. This Greek word forms the root for our English word ‘demon’. This might be another indication that their mythological worship had its beginning with the fallen angels, or demons, of Noah’s day.

Apparently the reason for adopting the new Athenian law aimed at stopping the introduction of any more gods, was due to the fact that the number they already had was so great! When Paul’s preaching relating to the resurrection of Jesus reached the ears of the Epicureans and Stoics, two major groups of philosophers, they decided to charge him with violation of this law and brought him before the Aeropagus—the supreme court of Athens. They said of Paul, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange demons.” And they inquired of him, “Can we know what this new doctrine is, which is spoken by thee? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears; we desire, therefore, to know what these things mean.”—Acts 17:17-19, Diaglott

It might appear that Paul was merely being asked to explain his teachings. But if this were true, they could just as easily have heard him in the marketplace where they encountered him. Furthermore, their statements about Paul were not complimentary—calling him a babbler and a proclaimer of demons. They obviously wanted to stop his public speaking, and found an opportunity in what they thought was a violation of the law.

The Epicureans believed that the world was made by chance, that there is no providence, no resurrection, no immortality, and that pleasure is the chief good. The Stoics, on the other hand, had a philosophy of materialism, contending that everything that has reality is natural, and is overruled by divine will to be calmly accepted without passion, grief or joy. In this viewpoint they defined ‘force’ as the shaping principle that is joined with matter and is the universal working force which pervades all and becomes the reason and soul of the animate creation.

The proponents of both these philosophies suspected that Paul’s teachings were contrary to theirs when he introduced the idea of the resurrection, and realized that the law forbidding new gods could be used to prevent him from continuing. We do not know what the penalty would have been if the Aeropagus decided that Paul was guilty. Whatever the prospect, he was not in a friendly environment.

During his early days in Athens, Paul had examined many of the inscriptions on the various altars, temples, and statues. He noticed one on which the words, “To the Unknown God,” had been inscribed. In their concern not to overlook any deity, the Athenians had erected this special altar. And it was around the existence of this altar to the unknown god that Paul developed his defense.

Standing before the supreme court and a large assembly of Athenians who had gathered on Mars’ Hill, Paul began to speak. Luke describes the scene as follows: “Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ Hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”—Acts 17:22,23

In the Diaglott translation, Paul’s opening words are translated: “You are extremely devoted to the worship of demons.” Other translations soften the opening statement by translating the passage, “You are very religious,” or “You are very superstitious.” The Greek word here, however, is deisidaimonestepous, again having the root meaning of ‘demon’.

We might think it strange that Paul should be so blunt. If he had been speaking to Jews, they would have been insulted; but when Paul described their religion as being the worship of demons, the Greeks understood this to be correct, and therefore they were not insulted. The word ‘demon’ as derived from the Greek words daimon and daimonion, had a good connotation to the Grecians; it meant ‘God’. Plato derived the word from daeemoon, which means ‘knowing’. It was not until later times that Gentiles used this word in an evil sense, associating it with fallen angels.

However, when Paul told them that their unknown God was in reality the one and only true God, the word used is theos. While informing the Athenians about the great Supreme Creator of the universe, he clearly emphasized they could never make a likeness of him of gold, or silver, or stone, to place in a temple. They could not create this God with their hands. The reverse was true: God had made them with his hands. “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshiped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.”—Acts 17:24,25

This mighty Creator was responsible for all life upon earth in every form, and all life was dependent upon him. They did not have God in their hands—he had them in his hands! Paul quoted their poets, reminding them how they had brought forth this same profound truth: And he “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation: that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.” (vss. 26-28) We marvel at the great tact and logic of Paul in presenting his case, and how well he used a teaching that was accepted as truth by them, building upon it the structure of God’s plan! Thus Paul laid a foundation for his argument by quoting from their own Greek poets! Being God’s offspring, Paul reasoned, none of this offspring could make gold, silver, or stone sculptures to look like God, or to worship as God.

As Paul stood there being judged by the supreme court of Athens, he reminded his listeners that they will come under judgment too. The great Supreme Creator of the universe, of whom he spoke, has appointed a day in which he will judge all the inhabitants of the world, and has appointed his own judge for this task. He stated that the proof of this lay in the fact that this judge had been raised from the dead.

Immediately at Paul’s mention of the resurrection of the dead, many of his listeners began deriding him in such a loud manner that he could no longer be heard. However, it was not necessary for the court to hear more of his defense. He had made it clear to them that he was not introducing a new god, but rather was speaking about a God they already worshiped as the Unknown God. So he was free to go. When the crowd took over with its shouts and disorder, he left.

Although Athens was not a place Paul had planned to visit, the Lord overruled circumstances to take him there, and his trial helped to put him in contact with several whom the Lord was calling. Only two of these are named, and their names appear only once in the Scriptures. One was Dionysius, a judge of the Aeropagus. The other was a lady called Damaris. These brethren adhered to Paul and he became their teacher, establishing them as a congregation of the Lord’s people.

While the Scriptures do not give much information concerning them, it is reasonable to suppose Paul spent several weeks in Athens, awaiting the arrival of Silas and Timothy who were very busy with the brethren in Berea and in Thessalonica, and did not come as quickly as Paul had anticipated.

We have to go to sources outside the Scriptures to obtain information about our Christian brethren in Athens. It is said that Dionysius, the most prominent of these, was immersed and became an elder in the congregation. According to these traditional writings, he is known as the first bishop of Athens, and was active about forty years, being burned as a martyr in A.D. 95.

Tradition has it that some twenty years before becoming a Christian, the young man, Dionysius, was living in Egypt. The darkness on all the land that occurred at the time of the crucifixion of our Lord (Matt. 27:45) was supposed to have been observed by him. He stated, “Either the god of nature suffers, or sympathizes with one who suffers.” If this be so, and we cannot, of course, be certain it is, it would indicate that at this earlier period in his life he observed that nature was controlled by a being so powerful he could bring about this unnatural darkness.

Yet he did not hear the Word of the Lord until later on when he was living in Athens and Paul “by chance” went there also! How often the Lord has shaped circumstances in the lives of those he desires to be his people, so they can hear his Word and be brought into the body of Christ. The Lord knew in advance about Paul’s detour to Athens where a few were waiting to learn about God’s plan.

We can manifestly see in these events how the body of Christ was being shaped, and was growing through the faithfulness of Paul and the many laborers associated with him in this search for God’s people.

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