Acts 17:17 says, “So [Paul] reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” Now, Paul wasn’t just harassing people as they were shopping. Marketplaces were the common place to discuss news and philosophy.
Luke goes on verse 18 to tell us that “some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.” Overly-simplified, the Epicureans were much like our modern day atheists, and Stoics were much like our modern day pantheists. Epicureans believed in a naturalistic origin of the universe and denied that any gods were governing the world. Stoics tended to believe that a god was the soul of the world, or even the world itself. They believed not in the sovereignty of a god, but that everything was bound by fate.
Verse 18: “And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?”. The word translated “babbler” has to do with someone lazy, making their living spreading new thoughts.
Verse 18 continues, “Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” They were not yet introduced to this Jesus of Nazareth, though they were probably aware of God, but only as a Jewish deity. They also thought that the resurrection was another God, anastasi in the Greek.
Verse 19 goes on, “And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” This wasn’t a violent thing. They gently took him to this place which was kind of a courtroom for philosophy. He wasn’t on trial. They were just inquiring about this new teaching. New teachings were so valued at the time that whatever was the current teaching got old very quickly.
Verses 20-21: “’For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” This was the Athenians’ pastime. They were genuinely interested in what Paul had to say, not necessarily to repent and follow Jesus, but to understand some new thought.
Verse 22: “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.’” The King James renders this phrase, “too superstitious”. But the Greek just means “reverent of gods”. Paul isn’t outwardly dissing them here. Neither is he praising them for being religious. But it’s a very conciliatory way to start his discourse. It seems like he’s praising them, which would maybe serve to get their defenses down.
He goes on, “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god’” (v23). There’s a lot of non-biblical writings that confirm that Athens had at least several of these altars. Some think that they were set up as a “just-in-case”, to protect themselves from the wrath of a god they didn’t know about and ignored. Others think that they were raised after they were delivered from some sort of trial that they knew that the current gods couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver them from. In any case, Paul is only acknowledging one of them, so as to not encourage polytheism. And he’s doing so to say, “There is in fact a God that you have not known”.
Paul continues, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (v23-25). Paul strikes right at the heart of Epicureanism, proclaiming that the world and everything in it wasn’t made by natural causes, but by God Himself. He strikes at the heart of Stoicism showing that God isn’t the world itself, but the Lord of heaven and earth. He strikes at the idea that gods are somehow restricted to the altars raised for them. He strikes at the idea that God can somehow be appeased by having stuff given to Him. He owns all the stuff and gives all the stuff. He gives life and breath and everything.
Oh, how do your idols stack up against this great God? What are some of the things that we tend to trust in and lean on instead of Him? Our own abilities. Other people. The status quo. Luck. Fate. These things, too, can be idols to us. What we need to remember at all times is that God is Lord of heaven and earth, and He gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.