What do you do when you are alone in a strange town? Some people stay in their hotel room, even if they are going to be in town several nights. Others find the nearest bar, although the inside of a bar is pretty much the same in Singapore or San Diego. Finding a restaurant is always good, but you can’t stay there forever. I like to find a zoo or a museum, if there is one in town. Old Portuguese forts are fun to explore. But what I really like to do is walk. Early morning in San Francisco on the edge of Chinatown feels like early morning in Hong Kong. It has the smell of money being made. A single American wandering the streets of Yokosuka, Japan gets some strange looks. Walking in Singapore is like changing cultures or countries every four or five blocks. You get the feel of a city better on foot than in a car or even on a bicycle.
One time the apostle Paul found himself alone in Athens for the first time. He could have stayed in his lodgings until his friends came to town. Instead, apparently, he walked. And that walk ended up taking him to court.First Paul wandered the streets of Athens. The next thing Paul did was go to church.
Paul had come to Macedonia as a result of a vision. (Acts 16:9-10) His first stop had been Philippi. While there he had preached the gospel to some women, who obeyed. But he also got in trouble by casting a spirit of divination out of a girl. This meant her masters would lose income, so they brought Paul and Silas to court and had them imprisoned. Events that night led to the chief jailer coming to belief in Jesus, along with his household. But it also made Paul persona non grata in Philippi.
Moving on, Paul and Silas came to Thessalonica, where things went well until some Jews got jealous of the popularity of his teaching. They started a riot. Paul didn’t end up in court, but a believer named Jason did. The leaders of the city didn’t seem too interested, and only fined Jason and another man and let them go. The believers in Thessalonica figured it was time for Paul to leave town, so they sent him to Berea.
Things went well in Berea at first. Then the Jews of Thessalonica found out where Paul was and came to stir up that city as well. The Berean brethren hatched a plot to save Paul. They left his companions there and left as if to escort him to the nearest seaport. As soon as they were out of sight of the city, they diverted their path and took Paul to Athens. Paul sent word back to his companions to join him there, but for a while he was alone in a strange city.
Alone in town
What did Paul do when he was alone in a strange town? First of all, being alone might have been strange enough to him. He had almost always had an entourage of one to several people with him, so even this was a new experience. Apparently one of the first things he did was wander the streets of Athens. In doing so he “saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” (Acts 17:16)
The Greeks, and later the Romans, had multiple gods. There was a god for almost every activity or thing. There was even a hierarchy of the Gods, with Zeus at the top and various levels under him. There was a complex, and sometimes contradictory, mythos about the gods. Since the gods were even known to mate with humans, there even was a class of demigods, of which Herakles (Hercules) was probably the most famous. These gods had complicated dealings with people. Sometimes they might appear as people or animals. They exhibited many of the character traits of people, most especially jealousy. While most of the gods were immortal, some could even be killed. And because of the complicated nature of their dealings with man, Paul found temples and idols to a variety of gods on his wanderings about the city.
The next thing Paul did was go to church. Because of the idolatry that surrounded him, he quickly found the nearest synagogue of the Jews. Whenever there was a synagogue, he went there to teach about Jesus, but this was different. He went to synagogue because of the idolatry he saw. Then he disputed with the devout Jews. Alone in a strange town, surrounded by something he had been taught against all his life, Paul needed to be grounded. This is a lesson for all of us. When faced with challenges to our faith, we can turn to those who believe as we do. The church can serve as a haven. When I was alone in Hong Kong, I found the local congregation. The services were in Cantonese and Tagalog, but I sang the songs in English, and we shared a common faith. That is what Paul sought. Only then did he start teaching his faith to his Jewish brethren.
After knowing he had a safe haven, then he started conversing with those in the marketplace. The King James Version uses the word disputed, but the meaning is closer to a conversation or discussion. Why the marketplace? Because the agora was where the people would be. When you live from day to day without refrigeration, a certain amount of time is spent each day in the market. It became the place where people shared the latest gossip and news. If you want to tell people about Jesus, you need to go where the people are. We cannot expect them to come to us in our assemblies. They won’t, unless invited. And even then, most of the teaching is geared to believers. We must go into the marketplaces, whether actual or cyber.
Paul’s discussions in the marketplaces brought him to the attention of the believers of certain philosophies. The Stoics and the Epicureans were about as opposite as you could get. Stoicism held that everything that happened was going to happen, and the best one could do would be to endure it. If there was good there would also be bad. Life goes on. The only sin was to take one’s own life. The epicureans, on the other hand, believed that the highest good was enjoyment, and the highest enjoyment was doing everything in moderation. Happiness was the goal of life. There was no sin except excess. So when Paul came teaching about sin and forgiveness and a son of God, these people wanted to hear more. Some called him a babbler, but others agreed to give him a hearing. That is how he ended up in court.
Areopagus had two meanings in Athens. It was the court, although not necessarily related to resolving crime. It was also the location of the court.
The legend was that the god Ares (Mars) had killed a son of Neptune for the attempted rape of his sister. Accordingly, by the order of Solon, the wise leader of Athens, he was brought to trial before twelve gods as judges. Ares was acquitted of murder. The trial was held on the hill next to the acropolis, which henceforth bore the name Areopagus (the place of Ares), or Mars Hill.
The Greeks wanted to know about Paul’s new doctrine. It seems they sought to know about anything new.
Paul began simply, by acknowledging their own faith. He did not accuse or rail against idols, as some might have expected. Perhaps they were used to hearing such from the Jews. Instead, Paul said he noticed their devotion, based on the number of idols in the city. And he wanted to talk about one of those idols; one dedicated “to the unknown god.” Perhaps this was a catch-all idol in case they had missed a god and didn’t want to offend. Perhaps it was to a specific god that refused to identify himself. In any case, Paul preached about the one God based on this idol.
This God made all things. He wasn’t confined to the sun or moon or anything else. In fact, he was so vast that he could not be worshiped in confining temples of men. He was the creator of all, and so did not need anything from man. Nevertheless, he made in mankind a will to seek God.
At this point Paul quotes the poet Aratus: “For we also are his offspring.” This was part of a hymn to Zeus in the introduction to a work about astronomy. Aratus was a poet of Paul’s home city of Tarsus and lived about 300 years before Paul. It may be that Paul knew of his work specifically because he was a hometown boy made good. By quoting Aratus, Paul accomplished several things. Since Aratus was not of Athens, but did write in Greek, Paul establishes his creds as a scholar; he was not just some backwoods Jew, as they might have thought. He is again taking them from where they were to a new place. He was causing them to rethink their own beliefs in a new way. And he was making the God of which he spoke equal to or greater than Zeus.
None of the preceding was really new to the Greeks. Creator gods were common. But now PaulSo when Paul came teaching about sin and forgiveness and a son of God, these people wanted to hear more. introduced three new concepts, which were what they came to hear: repentance, reconciliation, and resurrection.
Idolatry was not something the Greeks thought of as needing repentance. In fact, pretty much nothing required repentance. Sacrifices were made to appease the anger of the gods or to gain their favor. Repentance had nothing to do with it. But Paul said God demanded all men to repent. Further, he said God would judge the world through one man. This Jesus that he had been preaching was to be judge and sacrifice for sin. Repentance was not enough; the price for sin must be paid. And that man through whom the world was to be judge had been certified through the resurrection of the dead.
Some people in recent years have tried to say that Christianity is just a synthesis of ancient myths. The problem with this is that every time Paul preached, people balked at this one idea: anastasia, resurrection. Some of his hearers mocked him. Others said they would hear more, which is often a polite way of saying they didn’t believe him. A few, including one of the council of judges on the Areopagus, believed and followed Paul.
One wonders whether Paul’s companions, after they arrived, asked him what he had done while waiting. Would they have wondered when he answered, “Oh, I just walked around, preached in synagogue and in the agora, and went to court?” Or would they have just considered that a normal week’s work for Paul?