What Paul Learned at Athens

In One Part

Many tend to look at the Apostle Paul as a Super Apostle. He seemed to have understanding of mysteries that left other apostles scratching their heads [2 Peter 3:16]. However, we do Paul a great injustice to view him in this light. He had not only trials and persecutions, but failures. Well, at least one.

Paul suffered something at Athens that has for the most part remained unseen, ignored, glossed over or lauded as one of his greatest moments. However, the truth is Athens held both a devastating failure and a deep, lasting lesson for Paul.

What was this failure of Paul? Paul failed in his mission of preaching the pure Gospel of Christ.

However, as the God of all grace is known to do, He turned this failure of Paul into one of his strengths, that has impacted the Church to this day and beyond.

Allow me to say up front, that this is not a critique of Paul's ministry. This episode in Paul's life had nagged me for a good season. When you come to the first two chapters of First Corinthians,

  • Why the emphasis upon the wisdom of God versus the wisdom of man?
  • Why the emphasis upon the content and style of his preaching to the Corinthians?
  • Why the acknowledging of the distress of his physical and mental state?

These were questions that escaped me until one day it became clear. Athens. I am by no means in a position to pass any kind of judgment upon Paul. Apart from Christ Himself, in many ways Paul is the greatest hero of the Faith. This is simply the investigation of an episode in his life that many seem to have missed, but that had an astounding impact upon his life.

Paul’s Lesson Explored

In First Corinthians, chapter two, verses 1-5, Paul says,

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

Paul makes it clear when he first came to Corinth, declaring the testimony of God (the Gospel), he did not come with excellency of speech or of wisdom, nor with arguments of persuasive words. He determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Determined(κρίνω krinō), here has the idea of coming to a definite decision. Why did Paul feel the need to come to such a decision? Had he not already come to this decision earlier in his missionary efforts?

He also states when he was with them, he was in weakness, and in fear and in much trembling. This sounds like Paul was in a very disturbed state when he arrived at Corinth. What could have caused him such weakness, fear and trembling? The weakness here refers to physical weakness, fear speaks to the fear of failing in an assigned task, and trembling is the Greek word, ‘tromos’, from which we get our word, trauma. What had traumatized Paul to such a degree that he was physically, emotionally and spiritually a wreck?

Paul came to Corinth from Athens. Did something happen in Athens that could have caused him such grief? It appears so. Acts 17 holds the answer to this.

In Acts 17, we have the account of Paul at Mars Hill, where he attempted to proclaim the Gospel to the Greek philosophers. We must understand that in that day, Mars Hill in Athens was the Super Bowl of Philosophers. If you could make an impression at the Areopagus, you were well on your way to becoming a philosophical superstar and by consequence, your teachings could be carried throughout the world.

Paul appears to have begun well in his efforts to preach the gospel in Athens. He did as he always did, preaching Christ in the synagogue. He also preached in the market daily with those who would gather together to hear. When certain philosophers of the Epicurean and Stoic schools heard him, some at first called him a babbler, meaning one who speaks gibberish. The Scripture is clear that he preached Jesus and the resurrection unto them. They considered Paul one who sets forth strange gods.

Because the Athenians were known to spend the spare time in nothing but to tell or to hear some new thing, this peaked their interest1. They invited Paul to come to the Areopagus, called Mars Hill by the Romans, to share this new teaching.

When we take an honest look at Paul’s speech at Athens [Acts 17:22-32], we are automatically struck with one obvious fact. The Paul we see here, is not the Paul we see in his letters or in his other messages recorded in Acts. It is apparent that Paul is attempting to frame the Gospel message in words of men’s wisdom. He is trying to make the Gospel relevant to the society of philosophers. Something that we have heard far too many times from others, i.e., making the Gospel relevant.

Here is the account of this episode and his speech in full.

16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.
17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.
18 Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.
19 And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?
20 For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.
21 (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.
23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
25 Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
29 Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.
30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:
31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.
33 So Paul departed from among them.
34 Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Notice there is nothing distinctively “Christian” about his speech. In his speech,

  • He does not quote Scripture, but quotes one of their philosophical poets.
  • He does not mention the name of Jesus, but refers to him as “that man.”
  • The cross is not mentioned or hinted at.

Paul is attempting to frame the Gospel in the words of Greek Philosophy. In doing so, he has robbed the Gospel of its power. Also, the Gospel is already relevant to every culture and strata of society.

There was no Church established at that time. He could only claim a few converts. I believe this completely devastated Paul. You can understand Paul wanting to make an impression in this circumstance. However, his attempt to preach the Gospel with excellency of speech or of wisdom, had gained nothing for the Kingdom of God.

I believe this Athens event traumatized Paul to the core of his being. But it also taught Paul an invaluable growth lesson. He had made a mistake that he was determined never to repeat again. So when he left Athens, you can imagine him stopping along the road, sitting down, praying and trying to figure out what went wrong. What had he done so differently upon the rock of the Areopagus, that he had done everywhere else? I cannot help but believe that the Spirit spoke to his heart the answer. He made a decision. From that point on, he would know nothing but Christ and him crucified.

Paul tells the Corinthians when he was with them,

4 And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power:
5 That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

We can see where Paul begins to establish this determination in the letter to the Corinthians. In chapter one, he says,

21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;

This “foolishness of preaching” is not the act of preaching itself, but refers to the thing preached, i.e., the message of the cross. Was Paul ashamed of the message of the cross, in the midst of all those great philosophers? Did he know that they would immediately reject his message upon hearing about a crucified man as Saviour?

Indeed the message of the cross is foolishness, or literally, moronic. Do you disagree? Isn’t it foolish to think that a Jewish carpenter who was crucified as a common criminal, has anything to do with or could have any effect on my relationship with the Divine? To the Greeks, in their philosophical minds, this was a ridiculous, laughable and moronic message. To the Jews, in their self-righteous, works-based attitude, this was a stumblingblock. They could never accepted a crucified messiah. Their Messiah would be one who conquers the nations and exalts Israel to the head of the nations. However, Paul came to understand that woven into the very fiber of the message of this crucified and risen Messiah, was The Power of God unto Salvation.

While in Corinth, and with the memory of Athens still fresh in his mind, Paul writes to the Romans,

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.
17 For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
[Rom. 1:16-17]

If the philosophers had laid hold of the message of Paul as given on Mars Hill, they would have turned the Gospel into a philosophical school, and produced philosophizing disciples, more than there already are today.

If the Jews who went about to establish their own righteousness had laid hold of this message, they would have turned the Gospel into a works-based methodology, more than we have today.

Paul, through this event, came to understand the importance of the pure message of The Cross. That in the message of the Cross, the Power of God to save from sin and death was embedded.

He was painfully made aware that it is only by preaching the foolish message of the Cross, that men can be truly saved and only to this message can men respond in the appropriate manner, by faith. It is only by Faith in Christ, through the Message of the Crucified and Risen Saviour that men, Jew or Gentile, can be saved from their sins. It is only through the Cross that we can find Life and have it more abundantly.

This is the lesson that Paul learned on Mars Hill in Athens and that he carried with him the rest of the days of his life.

This is the Lesson that EVERY GOSPEL TEACHER AND PREACHER SHOULD HEED. It is only by the Preaching of the Cross, that the Kingdom of God is advanced and that men's souls are saved from death.

God had turned his failure into one of the most profound revelations he had received and that has empowered the Church to this day. When we start tinkering with the Gospel message from its original form (trying to make it relevant), it begins to lose its power and results in powerless followers, which comprise a powerless Church.

1 We have many Athenian Christians today, who are very ready to rush off to hear the newest prophecies or the latest end times prognostications, yet will fail to spend any time in the Word of God for themselves. For most of us, if we never heard one other new truth, we know enough Truth we are not living out, to keep us busy for the rest of our days.