In Athens Paul visits the synagogue as he always did. But the important thing in this passage is Paul’s effort and method in the marketplace of people and ideas of Athens. “Athens could still boast of her right to be called a great center of philosophy, architecture, and art- and, we may add religion” (IVP Commentary). Paul arrives in Athens and is greatly distressed, that is, upset, grieved, maybe even angry that the city is full of idols.
Clearly the Athenians are interested in innovation; the latest and greatest of ideas. And because of that their city was “a forest of idols” (IVP Commentary). How to preach Christ in Athens? It was much different than preaching Christ Jesus in the synagogue in which Paul would quote the Old Testament and interpret Israel’s history as a starting point to announcing Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah.
Here in Athens, Paul understands his audience and begins with ideas and concepts they understood and accepted: an “inscription to AN UNKNOWN GOD” and quotes in verse 28 that Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers and intellectuals in Athens knew quite well. What’s significant is that Paul begins where the people are at and then moves to share the Gospel, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Before Paul speaks in the meeting of the Areopagus, that’s Athens chief legislative and judicial council, he has spent time (day by day) in the marketplace. This time of conversation, discussion, and reasoning prepared Paul to speak with relevance, precision, and inspiration to the Areopagus.
The Athenian Agora, Marketplace was the center of public and business life of the city. It was here that people met every day to exchange ideas, learn the latest news, and do business. It’s our equivalent to a shopping mall, city square, outdoor park, etc. Like Paul, we too must show up and go to where the people are; go where there is an exchange and discussion of ideas. We must understand the thinking of the day, the compelling ideas that shape people’s lives and are on their minds. Then we can share and speak the Good News of Jesus in a way that people can understand.
And similar to Paul, some will believe, some will want to talk more about this on another day, some will sneer and deride us. Some may even plan to punish us for sharing such things.
This is a passage for the post-Christian Era in the West where our communities, cities, and neighborhoods are once again a mission field. The Epicureans are scientific materialists interested in the endless chance combining with atoms to shape life. The Stoics believe in the divine principle of reason pervading all things in the universe. Neither group could conceive of the Resurrection from the dead. Others in Athens were open to gods of any kind, a religious pluralism in which just about any god would do.
One veteran New Testament Scholar, W.D. Davies reflecting on this passage, wonders “Is ours [our time and culture] one of those situations in which ‘Things fall apart; the center cannot hold’ because there is no one center and often no centers?…The new pluralism can often become banal, trivial and pretentious, like a fish in that ocean [of the transcendent] always keeping its mouth wide open, afraid to shut it, and therefore never taking a bite” (IVP Commentary).
There is much to ponder and study in this passage but I better not go on and on. We need to introduce the story of Jesus Christ to the marketplace of ideas where we live, work, and visit. We need to do this in fresh ways that are relevant to the people we seek to reach.