Acts 17

16 Greek was the common language of the time and Greece was a center for learning. People came from all over the world to exchange ideas, customs, and religious practices at Athens. Since Athenian sculptors were very talented, it is no wonder that their town was filled with statuary depicting gods and goddesses from all over the world.

Paul often studied the people in the towns he would preach in so that he would know how best to communicate with them. Paul had already been in towns that suffered from idolatry. Typically, towns had a "local" god and perhaps a small number of other gods. Athens, however, hand many gods. Some estimate that there were 35,000 gods represented in Athens. They had an insatiable appetite to worship (and perhaps thereby control or explain) every imaginable aspect of life. Greek mythology was often sensual and lavish, and the people often imitated the behavior of the gods they worshiped.

This atmosphere disturbed Paul in a way that had not happened in other towns. Perhaps the sheer magnitude of idol worship disturbed him the most. He also may have felt pity for this great people who had once ruled the world only to become enslaved by religious and materialistic philosophies. It is ironic that the city most famed for its intellectual prowess would obsessively worship images that they knew were created in their own imagination.

17 Paul's custom was to speak to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles. The obvious need of the Gentiles in this town made Paul feel that he needed to carry on both ministries at the same time, although he was by himself.

The open markets were a place for the whole community to come together, and provided an excellent opportunity to reach many people. It was normal in those days for politicians or philosophers to speak to the people in these open forums. This type if ministry is still carried on by sidewalk preachers today.

18 Epicureans sought happiness through knowledge while the Stoics combined pantheism and self-discipline. The Epicureans did not believe in an afterlife, so Paul's teachings about heaven, hell, and the resurrection sounded very strange to them. They believed in many gods, but they did not believe the gods would take a personal interest in people. Thus, they could not understand what Paul was trying to say. The Stoics held reason as the highest element in the universe. Their philosophy was very concrete and did not give any merit to emotions or faith. If they could not see, touch, or measure it, they would not believe it (much like modern materialistic science). They believed there was a god who indwelt everything, and so they maintained high moral standards out of respect for the presence of "god" in each other.

Christianity had not been taught in Athens yet, so it is not surprising that the Greeks perceived Jesus as a new "god" rather than the Messiah (and God) taught about in Judaism. The word for resurrection, Anastasis, may have sounded like the name of another god to Greek ears.

19 "Mars hill" was historically an exclusive and prestigious forum. It was considered the highest court in Athens. Their primary purpose was to supervise the religious and educational matters within Athens, and they questioned Paul to determine if he would be allowed to continue teaching there.
20 Paul's teaching was so new and unique to them that they wanted a special council of philosophers to hear about it.
21 The exchanging of new ideas apparently was a very popular form of entertainment.
23 The Athenians wanted to make sure they did not miss appeasing any god. The set up an altar for any god they had not thought up or heard of yet. Paul uses this altar as a springboard to tell them about the true God of the world that the Greeks did not worship. Obviously, there were Jews in Athens, but Jews tended to keep God to themselves. Therefore, while the Greeks may have heard of God, they were not allowed to worship Him because the strict Jewish customs were too difficult for them. With the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul now has the distinct privilege of lighting the way for the Greeks to know God.
24 God is not like the gods of the pagans. The pagans normally had several gods, each responsible for some aspect of the world. The true God shares His power with no one. He made the entire universe, and it is answerable to Him. God is not confined to temples, statues, holy spots, or relics. Pagans rely on these things and others to locate and communicate with their gods. The true God can be called on any time from anywhere without the aid of natural or man made objects.
25 The pagans used sacrifices as a way to feed and appease their gods. The true God does not need food, shelter, or anything else from us (Lev 21:6,8 and similar verses are figurative). He provides all these things for us, so it is reasonable to imagine that if He needed any of them, He could take or make them for Himself (Psa 50:12).
26 Paul alludes to Adam and Eve as the ancestor of all humans. Paul is making it clear that there is one God who is accessible by all people. Although God does not need us, He wants us to have a good and personal relationship with Him.

Sometimes we wonder why we were born and live where we do. Paul tells us that God already knows how and where we are most likely to accept Him. Even if a life is too poor or too rich, too hard or too easy, too bad or too good, religious or not, God can be known in it. We may not be able to choose our circumstances, but we can choose the eternal consequences. Either we believe and obey Him and live forever with Him, or we perish, forever separated from goodness and love.

27 God may seem difficult for us to find in this sin-tainted world, but He is only a prayer away.
28 Paul quotes from the Cretan poem, "Cretica," by Epimenides, and the Greek poem, "Phaenamena" by Aratus (or possible the "Hymn to Zeus," by Cleanthes). I am not familiar with the context of these quotes, but Paul's motive appears to be to demonstrate that some Greek poets had a glimpse of the spiritual aspect of God. The Greeks were undoubtedly more familiar with their own literature than the Jewish Scriptures, so Paul is using Greek words as a cultural connection. Paul does not give credence to Greek polytheism (in verse 30 he calls it "ignorance"). Paul immediately jumps from the Greek poetry and the "unknown god" to an explanation of the one true God.

God fills the universe and knows each of us. He is everywhere and we can not hide from Him. Sin breaks our relationship with Him and this makes Him seem far away.

God made each of us and is, therefore, at least as personal as we are. This makes us His offspring, and Him our Father.

29 There is far more to us than material substance and chemical reactions. We do not think of ourselves like gold, silver, stone, or wood. We consider ourselves more valuable than these inanimate objects (or other living things, for that matter). We also know that gold and silver can do nothing themselves. In effect, when men worship idols, they place themselves in the service of things with less value or ability than they themselves have.

Once we realize we are God's offspring, we see that He must be much greater than we are. Once we recognize the spiritual and moral aspect of ourselves and ponder the meaning and purpose of life, we will recognize that God must be the supreme Spirit: perfect, rational, just, and loving. He is not someone trapped in a statue, bribed by sacrifices, or subservient to selfish human desires.

30 People's ignorance of God came about for several reasons. First, the stories and verbal traditions of the times before Babel had been lost or distorted for most people. Secondly, the revealed word to the Jews was difficult to understand, and was kept within their own nation. Thirdly, most people were left to discover God within His creation. Unfortunately, His work was usually misinterpreted. This does not mean that all people who never knew of Jesus are automatically forgiven. It means they are judged based on their understanding (Rom 2:12-15, Rom 1:20-23).

Now, however, God has fully revealed His plan of salvation for the world in a way that is understandable to all. Those who hear the Good News of Jesus' death for our sins and subsequent resurrection are no longer ignorant. Their choice either to believe or to reject the Gospel determines how they will be judged by God.

Remember that Athens was a center of learning, yet Paul implies that it is a place of ignorance. It is not how much one knows that matters; it is one's relationship with God.

Some Greek philosophers held to the idea that history is an endless loop of repeated events (e.g., the rising and falling of kingdoms). Paul emphasizes that there will be an end to history, and thus an urgent need to make a decision to believe in Jesus' life, teachings, death, resurrection, and coming judgement.

31 Jesus is qualified to judge the world because He is the only one who lived a human life without sin. The proof of His righteousness is that God raised Him from the dead. There are two records of men being translated directly into heaven, and several records of those who were temporarily brought back from death, but Jesus was the first to receive an immortal body at His resurrection.

Paul emphasizes that Jesus lived as a man and that He had been brought back to life.

Paul was standing before a "supreme court," but he emphasizes that Jesus' rulings will be the final say in all matters.

32 To those who did not believe in an afterlife, this teaching of the resurrection sounded preposterous to them. Some were interested in this topic, but were not willing to believe yet. Remember that the exchange of ideas was a form of entertainment to the Athenians. Paul's words would make interesting conversation although they might choose not to believe them.

As far as we know, a second invitation to speak was never offered to Paul.

34 Although there were a few believers in Athens, this small church did not flourish. Perhaps the culture of idolatry and materialism were so strong there that people were not willing to give these up for the Gospel of Jesus.

Those who did believed included a prominent man and an apparently ordinary woman. The message being conveyed is that salvation through Jesus is available to everyone no matter what their ethnicity, gender, or position in life.