Jerusalem the Capital of Athens (Acts 17:16-34)

Jerusalem the Capital of Athens (Acts 17:16-34)


  • Tertullian, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”1
  • What is the proper relationship between the Church and the culture?
    1. Jerusalem versus Athens: “I have nothing to learn from culture, but listen to me.”
    2. Athens versus Jerusalem: “I will adjust my faith according to cultural recommendations.”
    3. Jerusalem segregated from Athens: “My faith is a private matter, separate from my view of everything else.”
    4. Jerusalem integrated with Athens: “I pick and choose aspects from my faith and the culture to determine my actions.”
    5. Jerusalem the capital of Athens: “All truth is built upon the foundation of Biblical truth.”
  • How do we share the gospel with those who do not believe in God nor accept the authority of Scripture? Paul’s approach in Athens is enlightening.
  • We will not speak like Paul until we start to feel like Paul.

Read Acts 17:16-34

First, we will look at What Paul Felt (16-21). Second, we’ll see What Paul Said (22-34).

What Paul Felt (16-21)

  • Paul: From Tarsus, a city of learning, like Zeno the founder of Stoicism. Educated under Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). Would have studied Greek culture and philosophy.
  • Athens: political, cultural, intellectual, financial, literature (classic Greek plays), philosophy (Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato), art (sculptures).
  • Greek gods were flawed projections of humans.
    • Altars: Eumenides (avenger of murder), Hermes (protected the gates), the Twelve Gods, “the unknown god”.
    • Temples: Ares (war), Apollo (music, art).
    • Sanctuary: Bacchus (wine).
    • Statues: Neptune (sea), Athena (wisdom, etc.).
  • Provoked to indignation and compassion by their idolatry.
    • Without indignation there is no courage.
    • Without compassion there is no interest.
    • You will not approach the culture in an appropriate manner until you feel both indignation and compassion for it.
  • Prevailing Worldviews:
    • Epicureanism: Gods remote and unconcerned with human affairs. Death > Disintegrate, no fear. Maximize pleasure. Flee suffering.
    • Stoicism: Many gods, but supreme “world-soul”. Death > Absorbed into “world-soul”. Stay strong. Reason over emotion. Grin and bear suffering.
  • A secular worldview can account for morality, but it cannot obligate morality. You ought to do/not do X.
    • Logically Inconsistent: “Man descended from apes therefore love one another.” Compassion and tolerance does not follow from the principles of evolution.
    • Morally Inconsistent: At best it can recommend a preference based upon an internal feeling. I prefer you not do “X”. It is unacceptable to say “X” is wrong based upon a moral standard. Yet, everyone wants to use absolute language when it comes to certain things (rape, abuse, oppression, murder).
  • “Babbler” = seed picker, scavenger.
  • We will not speak like Paul until we start to feel like Paul.
  • The culture tells us to keep our faith private. It is a personal matter that should remain nothing more than personal.
  • Paul’s faith was deeply personal, but not private. He went into the synagogue and the marketplace. His faith went wherever he went.
  • Paul didn’t run from his culture, nor did he capitulate to it.

Paul’s message was the result of what he felt.

What Paul Said (22-34)

  • Areopagus had 30 members. Elite of elites. Compared to lecturing the faculty of an Ivy League University.
  • They did not arrest Paul, but wanted to hear his teaching.
  • 450 years earlier, Socrates was executed for similar charges Paul faced (rejecting the city’s deities).
  • The altar to “the unknown god” admits:
    • We worship.
    • We are ignorant.
  • Paul has been reasoning with these philosophers daily, but before the Areopagus, his arguments turn into assertions.
  • Rather than proving the existence of God, he proves the existence of their guilt before God.
  • Paul assumes God’s existence and testifies to His greatness:
    1. Creator – Not one of many gods, but the One and Only Creator of all things. “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.” A spokesman of the Enlightenment said, “We will pull down your steeples so that you will not be reminded of your superstitions,” Christians replied, “Yes, but you will not be able to rip the stars out of space.”
    2. Sustainer – You don’t sustain him, He sustains you.
    3. Ordainer – The world operates according to His plan.
    4. Judge – You will face the judgement of the man He raised from the dead.
  • God is transcendent yet immanent.
    • Stoics: God is not absorbed into creation, but eternal and distinct from creation (transcendent).
    • Epicureans: God is not distant and unconcerned with creation, but intimately involved with His creation (immanent).
  • Paul makes some 22 allusions to Scripture with an audience that has no background/appreciation of Scripture!
  • At best, they might grope about seeking God like a blinded one-eyed cyclops (v.27).
  • This is consistent with Romans 1. We know enough about God through creation and conscience to leave us condemned.
  • We will not speak like Paul until we start to feel like Paul.
  • Daniel Denk, staff member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, imagines what Paul would say to the university today:

“Men and women of the university, I see that in every way you are very religious. As I walked around the university, I observed carefully your objects of worship. I saw your altar called the stadium where many of you worship the sports deity. I saw the science building where many place their faith for the salvation of mankind. I found an altar to the fine arts where artistic expression and performance seem to reign supreme without subservience to any greater power. I walked through your residence halls and observed your sex goddess posters and beer can pyramids. Yet as I walked with some of you and saw the emptiness in your eyes and sensed the aching in your hearts, I perceived that in your heart is yet another altar, an altar to the unknown God who you suspect may be there. You have a sense that there is something more than these humanistic and self-indulgent gods. What you long for as something unknown, I want to declare to you now.”

Are you capable of speaking like that?


  • Christian: If you want the courage to speak like Paul you must sense the indignation and compassion that he felt when he looked at the idolatry of the people.
    • He was following in the steps of Jesus who looked upon unrepentant Jerusalem and wept.
    • The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.
  • Unbeliever: The message Paul spoke in Athens calls for a response today. Three responses:
    1. Mocked – Christianity supplanted every other philosophy 200-300 years after Paul.
    2. Interested in hearing more – Polite dismissal = rejection.
    3. Believed – Secular worldviews cannot satisfy our deepest longings, but Christianity forms the foundation for how we see everything (Jerusalem the capital of Athens).
  1. Prescription Against Heretics (VII) ↩︎