Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens. Luke tells us that he was distressed by the idol worship going on all around him, and Luke gives us the reason for this eclectic idolatry in verse 21- all the Athenians and foreigners spent their time doing nothing but listening to the latest ideas. Typically in this time, a region or city might have its own deity, its own god to worship. These were collected all together in the Greek and Roman Pantheons, recognized as official gods of the empire. And even though each region recognized the gods of the other regions, they didn't necessarily worship them.
Here in Athens, people came from all over to study philosophy. Athenians were so interested in new things and knowing all the various philosophies and gods that they built monuments and worshiped gods from all over. Paul had been traveling around Asia-minor, and South-eastern Europe encountering various idol-worship, but here in Athens he is surrounded by it on every side. He sticks to his usual method of evangelism and goes to the synagogue to reason with them there, but he also goes into the marketplace to preach the good news to anyone who will listen.
Paul gets quite a lot of attention by preaching in the marketplace, because all of the philosophers gathered there to discuss and debate their particular philosophies. To them, Paul is just another philosopher with his own thoughts and ideas to share. But what he is teaching is beyond their typical range of discussion. He is talking about one supreme God and the idea that this Jesus person was his son, and about the concept of resurrection and life after death. They didn't get this conglomeration of ideas and philosophies. It is not that they hadn't thought of each idea separately, but all together, they didn't know what to do with them. So after much debate, they bring Paul before the Areopagus.
Now, not being ancient Greek scholars, most of us don't know who the Areopagus was. I am not even sure that most bibles have foot-notes telling us what the Areopagus was. Anybody have footnotes about the Areopagus? This was a hill that was used by the Council of Areopagus for their meetings, and it had a series of step-seats that the council sat on to hear cases brought before them. The Greek is kind of ambiguous, so we don't know if they took him to this place to talk so that they could all hear him and ask questions of him at once, or if they brought him to an actual meeting of the Areopagus council. The council was the original system of government in Athens, the Elders of the city used to meet to bring justice. They were the governing body until the Romans took over, but in Paul's time they still heard some cases. Depending on the translator's view of the Greek, you will have either that the philosophers brought him to the hill or to a meeting of the council in your version of the bible. I don't think it matters too much either way, because the council really only heard cases of murder or corruption, and Paul was not being charged with either. It would simply be a matter of how many men heard his message on that day.
Paul stands before the people who have gathered to hear his message, and he tells them that they are horrible sinners going to hell...No, he does not. He stands before them and commends them for being so religious! What? It seems counterintuitive for most of us who have been steeped in the idea that in order to evangelize one must first point out how bad the other person is and how they are headed for the hot place if they don't get it right. But here, we have Paul setting a different kind of example. He comes to this city of Athens and is in distress over their idolatry, so we know that he is not accepting their sinfulness, but that is not where he starts. Remember last week we talked about Paul debating the life of the Messiah in the synagogue? Well here he is giving a philosopher's presentation in a way that will be heard and understood by his audience. And he starts not with their evilness, but with their virtue. He tells them, I was walking around and among your objects of worship and devotion, and I couldn't help but notice how uncommonly religious you are. He starts with their strengths. And in that strength, he finds an open door to present the gospel. He says that they are so religious and don't want to leave out any god, that they even have a monument to the unknown god.
It is through the avenue of their interest in finding all the gods and honoring them that Paul finds an opening to present them with the good news that the Creator of the universe has set everything up—all our lives, where we live, where we are born, what we see—just so we might reach out to grope for him in the darkness and find him. In him we live and move and have our being—which would have upset the stoics who believed the opposite that “god” had his being in all things. Paul tells them, from the sayings of their own pagan philosophers that if we are God's offspring, he obviously is not made of wood, stone, or metal. He sets out the basics of who God is, and who he is not.
Then Paul tells them that in the past, God had tolerated this ignorance of who he is and his basic nature, but now God wants people everywhere to repent. The Greek word here is metanoia, literally “to think afterward.” It means to realize that what was before was in error, and in the case of the teachings of Jesus to allow that realization to change the rest of one's life. In this context it would have held a kind of double meaning, Paul was talking about their ignorance, and now he tells them God wants them to return to wisdom, to knowledge and realize their former ignorance. God, Paul tells them, has given the authority of judgment on those who do not come to this repentance to his representative—Jesus, proven by his death and resurrection. That last statement both turned some off and others onto this message that Paul was teaching.
While some disregarded him, there were others who wanted to hear more, and there were some who took what he said to heart and became believers. One of those who believed was a member of this Areopagus council, a man of status and prestige. Another convert given by name is Damaris, a woman who may have been an educated lady allowed to help the Areopagus council and listen to their debates. Both of these converts would have been important because they were not uneducated or ignorant people, but those who held positions of authority in this community. Conversions like theirs set the stage for Christianity becoming an acceptable faith in Greece and Rome.
So what do we take from this passage of scripture? I think there are several applications we can take and make a part of our everyday lives. One that stands out to me is that evangelism does not always have to be aggressive and condemning. I find that many people struggle with feeling like they can evangelize because they don't have aggressive personalities. In this chapter, though, we find Paul starting not with a confrontation, but a commendation. He starts by saying to the Athenians, just like a map in a park or a mall “You are here X.” Maybe the people in your life need someone just like you, with a mild personality who can love them and gently say I notice this is where you seem to be in the area of religion and spirituality—and take it from there. We have to first understand where people are in order to give them directions to where they need to go. Too often, people are given a map and told, you need to find Jesus. Without that little help of a “You are here X,” they may not know where to start.
I believe another application from this passage is that we need to not be discouraged by those who reject the message of the gospel. I am so glad that Jesus did not tell his followers to go and make X-number of converts. NO, he told them, go and make disciples. No numerical requirement. Paul preached before these people, and many scoffed at what he had to say. Not just didn't believe, but openly mocked him. That wasn't important, though. Luke doesn't tell us the names of those who scoffed and scorned, instead he tells us of two who particularly strongly embraced the gospel. We may share the gospel, our faith, our testimony with many who will reject it and us. What we need to realize, though, is that there will be some who will take it to heart. And even some of those who initially reject Christianity may still come to Christ at a later time. Paul tells us in Galatians 6:9 not to get discouraged in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.
I encourage you not to give up. Let God use you to reach out to those around you. Don't get bogged down with thoughts of how evangelism has to look. Jesus told us that the Holy Spirit would give us words to say as we testify about him even before kings. If that is true, how much more will he give us words to say as we testify to those we love and hold dear in our everyday lives. And if you experience rejection of the gospel message, don't take it to heart, Jesus said there are some who will reject us just like they rejected him. Take it as proof of your discipleship to him, and draw strength from him to continue so that you will reap a harvest at just the right time—Don't give up.