Faithful preaching never flies under the radar. Regardless of audience demographics or cultural sensitivities, the unchanging truth of the gospel always provokes a response.
When the apostle Paul started preaching in pagan Athens, he didn’t go unnoticed for long. “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him.” Far from being impressed with his speaking savvy and relevance, some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” (Acts 17:18). The word translated “idle babbler” is the Greek word spermologos, literally meaning “seed-picker.” It referred to the birds that picked seeds out of the gutter. It was a mockery of Paul and his message. Clearly, the Athenian intellectuals were not swept away by Paul’s erudition or cleverness!
Nonetheless, Paul had attracted the attention and piqued the interest of these two groups of philosophers. The Epicureans dated back four centuries to their founder, Epicurus. They believed that everything happens by chance; they had no sovereign god in their belief system. Therefore they believed the outcome of everything is questionable. They also believed death is the end of human existence. And so they taught that pleasure is the natural aim and highest good in life (though they emphasized that true pleasure is found only in right living, so they were highly moral). A corrupted form of Epicureanism is echoed in the beer ads once popular on television: “You only go around once, so grab all the gusto you can get.” Modern existentialism is often nothing more than a dissipated variety of Epicureanism.
The other group that took notice of Paul were the Stoics. Their philosophy was in many ways antithetical to the Epicureans’. They were pantheistic fatalists—they believed everything is god, and everything happens because god wills it. In contrast to the Epicureans, they were strongly humanitarian. Because of their extreme pantheism, they treated everyone as a god. Their philosophy was therefore very altruistic, charitable, and magnanimous. We use the word stoic, of course, to refer to someone who is able to bear suffering unemotionally. That’s because the Stoics’ fatalism caused them to be resigned to the notion that whatever happened was the will of god.
These pagan philosophers—the Epicureans and the Stoics—were overtly mocking Paul, calling him a seed-picker. But others were intrigued by his message: “‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). It is certainly curious that they used the plural “deities,” but it seems they may have misunderstood the word for “resurrection,” anastasis. They were so used to personifying everything as a deity, perhaps they thought he was speaking of a goddess named Anastasia. They had gods of piety, mercy, and modesty, for example—why not a goddess of resurrection? Perhaps they mistakenly thought that was what Paul was saying.
Whatever their assumption, Paul’s confrontational preaching had pricked their ears and they were compelled to hear more.
The idolatrous people of Athens had been struck by Paul’s preaching of “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18).
And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.” (Acts 17:19–20).
It was not at all that they were under conviction. To them, Paul was a philosophical oddity, someone with something novel to say. This was but a pastime with them: “All the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). Something about Paul caught their fancy, so they took him off to the Areopagus.
The Areopagus was the Athenian court of philosophers. That name in Greek means “hill of Ares.” The Roman name for Ares was Mars, so the Latinized name of the place where this court met is Mars’ Hill. Thus when Scripture says Paul “stood in the midst of the Areopagus” (Acts 17:22), it has reference primarily to the court of philosophers, not the hill. But this meeting probably took place either on the hill or in the very near vicinity. The Areopagus court included at least thirty men who were the supreme judges of Athens. They ruled on criminal and civil cases, just like a court of appeals. But more than that, they were the guardians of Athenian philosophy. They listened to new teachings to determine if they should be outlawed as blasphemy. Evidently the philosophers wanted the judges to hear Paul’s teaching and try to decide whether the “strange deities” he was proclaiming could be added to all the ones already in the pantheon.
What an opportunity! These men actually hauled Paul before the highest court in the city and asked him to explain what he was preaching about! This was the kind of situation Paul lived for, and he made the most of it. His message before the Areopagus is a fascinating insight into Paul’s preaching philosophy. Several remarkable features make it a unique model of gospel preaching. And we’ll consider some of those key characteristics of Pauline preaching in the days ahead.