The cities of Athens and Corinth are located on opposite ends of a small isthmus in Southern Greece. Together, they made up two of Greece’s most important commercial centers. Thus, Paul’s missionary activities in these two cities were an important stepping stone in spreading Christianity to Greece and beyond.
When Paul arrived at Athens, he found the city wholly consumed with idolatry (Acts 17:16). This must have been disconcerting, for he had just come from Berea where those noble people had readily received the Word and searched the Scriptures daily to see if they were being taught the truth (v. 11). Athens, on the other hand, would be much more difficult to influence.
Of import in verse 17 is that Paul “disputed” in the synagogue with the Jews and other devout idolaters, and daily in the marketplace. There are those among us today who claim that we must avoid confrontation at all costs, even at the expense of truth. This cannot be true because we read repeatedly in the Bible about the importance of contending for the Truth (Jude 3; Acts 9:29; Neh. 13:11, 17, 25). There is a difference between the sinful, prideful contentions (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:11) and proper contention for the sake of truth.
Thus, Paul made it a point to confront Athens’ idolatry. Paul also had to deal with the vain philosophies of men. Those of the hedonistic Epicurean and philomathic Stoic faiths confronted Paul with implied intent to humiliate him (v. 18). To their credit, though, these groups were genuinely curious about hearing “some new thing,” Christianity (vs. 19-21). Thus, Paul seized the opportunity to preach Christ.
From the middle of Mars Hill, a craggy prominence also known as the Areopagus, Paul addressed the crowd: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious (or “superstitious,” KJV); for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you” (vs. 22-23).
Of course, their understanding of the unknown God and Paul’s understanding quite differed. These men were, to their credit, highly aware of the need to worship someone, but instead of worshipping the one true God and Him alone, they worshipped anything and everything – so much so that they wanted to make sure that they didn’t accidentally leave someone out! Paul took this opportunity to point out to them that they had, in fact, left Someone out.
Paul made an interesting comment in verse 23 about this Someone “whom you ignorantly worship” (KJV). The reader does not need to confuse this “worship” of sorts with worship done in spirit and truth, the acceptable worship that we read about in John 4:24. Rather, Paul is saying that, by their altar to an unknown God, they had inadvertently acknowledged the existence of the one true God even though they didn’t know Him personally.
Then in verses 24-25, Paul gave a resounding condemnation of idolatry when he said, “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things…” In other words, the one true God is not a physical being made with men’s hands, like the idols to which the Athenians were accustomed. No, the God by whom we all are made (v. 28) is not “gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising” (v. 29).
In verse 30, the extent to which God overlooked some things is admittedly not understood by this author. Yet one does not have to understand this perfectly to know that now God “commands all men everywhere to repent.” Why? “Because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (v. 31).
As Paul’s sermon concluded, some of these philosophers utterly dismissed Paul, mocking him because of his teaching about the resurrection (v. 32). Thankfully, however, there were others who said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” Verse 34 tells us that “some men joined him and believed.” Although baptism and the other steps in conversion are not mentioned, when taken in conjunction with the rest of the book of Acts (and the rest of the New Testament for that matter), it is implied here that “believed” is a metonymy for the entire conversion process. There is simply too much New Testament evidence for the necessity of repentance, confession, and baptism to conclude otherwise.
Moving on from Athens, Paul next visited Corinth (Acts 18:1). It is here that Paul was introduced to the Jewish converts Aquila and Priscilla, who like Paul were tent makers by trade (vs. 2-3). We learn in 1 Corinthians 16:19 that there was a congregation that met in their house. Paul referred to them as his “fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 16:3). Evidently, Aquila and Priscilla were very knowledgeable in the Word, for they helped to explain to Apollos “the way of God more accurately” (v. 26).
In Acts 18:4, we learn that Paul reasoned with and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. This is the job of every gospel preacher. Paul would later write: “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11). In preaching, the stakes are high, and thus we must not take it lightly.
In verses 5-6, we find that sometimes a preacher must no longer waste his time preaching to an audience who has made up their mind to reject the truth. Paul shook his raiment, reminiscent of what Christ had told the apostles to do in Matthew 10:14. Paul would not be responsible for the fate of this rebellious group. They had judged themselves “unworthy of everlasting life” (cf. Acts 13:46). Thus, Paul would turn his attention to the Gentiles.
From there, Paul lodged in the home of a man named Justus, who lived adjacent to the synagogue (v. 7). Justus was a worshipper of God, possibly already a Christian (it is difficult to tell with the information provided). In Justus’ house, Paul met a man named Crispus, who was chief ruler of the synagogue (v. 8). This man, along with his whole household, believed on the Lord. Again, the word “believed” here is indicative of the entire process of conversion, but this time we have a more in-depth description of what that entailed: “Many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed, and were baptized.”
These good and honest hearts heard Paul’s preaching, responded to it by believing what he had to say, and were baptized for the remission of their sins. This is, perhaps, the best passage in the Bible for showing the progression that takes place in one’s obedience to the gospel. Sometimes, as it seems to be the case here, people hear a sermon or two and then respond in obedient faith. Other times, however, a person may hear sermons for years before finally obeying the gospel. This is where we must remember to “exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2), praying that the Lord will give such individuals enough time to obey. We must remember that we cannot force obedience on anyone, as much as we wish we could.
In verses 9 and following we find that Paul would experience some difficulties at Corinth, but the Lord was with him. The Lord reminded Paul that He had many people in this city. Paul spent a year and a half there in Corinth (v. 11), building up the congregation with the Word of God. Even when a violent Jewish insurrection occurred, Paul was kept safe (v. 12). Although the Jews tried to get Paul in trouble with Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, Gallio would have none of it. It ended up being the Jewish leader, Sosthenes, who was punished (vs. 12-17). This goes to show that the Lord indeed was with Paul, just as He had promised the other apostles in Matthew 28:20. Paul then dwelt in Corinth for a little longer, before departing into Syria (v. 18).
When examining the conversions at both Athens and Corinth, it becomes apparent that there are many different reactions to preaching. Some respond favorably in obedience to the gospel, while others are indifferent, or mock the preacher, or even threaten him. Gospel preachers must remember that this will always be the case. The gospel is polarizing. The Word is sharp, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12). Thus, we must expect these various reactions, remembering that the Lord will be with us, just as He was with Paul in Athens, Corinth, and beyond.
Chase is a 2017 graduate of the Memphis School of Preaching and preaches in West Monroe, LA, alongside his wife and children.