The Gospel Among The Gods

Bible Book: Acts  17 : 16-34
Subject: Witnessing; Lostness; Pantheism; Evangelism

A journalist recently described America as “the belief basket of the world.”

He writes, “Never [before] has a society allowed its people to become consumers of belief, and allowed belief – all beliefs – to become merchandise.”1

In this “belief basket” society, people pick and choose what they believe like items on a buffet. Some believe this and some believe a little of that, but nobody dares to say that their beliefs are any better than anything else’s on the belief buffet. In that culture, true followers of Jesus stand as strange and curious conscientious objectors. We say to the people picking and choosing their beliefs, “There is really only one way. There is really only one truth. There is really only one life.” And then we point to Jesus.

That stance on the exclusivity of the gospel doesn’t always sit well with a society that likes to pick from the belief basket, but Christians still proclaim it nonetheless.

In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul found himself in the city of Athens. Though “the glory that was Greece” had faded by that time, in Paul’s day it was still a cultural, religious, and education capitol.

The best and brightest of the Greek and Roman world either lived in Athens, or wanted to go there. It had been the city of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and it was still the place where Greeks came to think about and talk about both their culture and their religion. Ancient Athens is a long way from modern America, but they aren’t really that far apart from one another.

As the Apostle Paul proclaimed the gospel there amid the many gods of Greece, we are reminded of the challenge we face in our own culture and context. What do we do with a culture like ours, where people believe all sorts of different and divergent things? What do we say to a world that is full of gods but far from the one, true God?

Let’s join Paul as he visits the ancient city of Athens, and let’s learn from him about declaring the gospel among the gods of this world.

In the passage, we see first of all:


The ancient city of Athens would have been quite a site to behold. It was a grand city of big buildings, beautiful architecture, and the best of Greek sculpture and art. Standing over the city was the Acropolis; a massive temple complex of marble, dedicated to the most beloved of the Greek gods. Most people coming into a place like that would have been overwhelmed by its beauty and sophistication. They would have been awed by Athens. But not the Apostle Paul. Verse 16 says that while he waited there for his mission team to arrive, “…his spirit was stirred in him…”

The word translated “stirred” there is a very strong word. Here in the South, we might say, “Paul was tore up by what he saw in Athens.” To him, there wasn’t anything majestic about Athens. He saw a mess.

The text tells us what disturbed Paul so much about Athens. It was firstly:

A. The idolatry of the city

Verse 16 says, “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.”

Literally, Athens was buried in idols. There were shrines, altars, and temples to every kind of god imaginable. One ancient writer said it was easier to find a god there than a man. R. Kent Hughes says that was an accurate statement. “The population [of Athens] was about ten thousand, but there were thirty thousand statues of gods.”2

As Paul passed by temple after temple, statue after statue, altar after altar, his heart broke for the blindness and lostness of that place. They were drowning in religion and dying in their sins. As G. Campbell Morgan put it, “Men were worshipping everything, and therefore were worshipping nothing.”3

In our own culture, the idols may look different, but idolatry certainly lives on. People worship and devote themselves to everything under the sun, from religion to recreation. For all our cultural and technological advancements, people are still buried under the idols to which they bow down every day in one way or another. When you see that, are you comfortable with it, or convicted by it? Does your heart feel at home in this society filled with foolishness, or are you, like Paul, “tore up” about it? The apostle refused to be just a tourist in a place like that. He started preaching Jesus in the synagogue and even out in the market place, where the people of Athens went about their business.

And that was the other thing that was such a mess in Athens. It was not only the idolatry of the city, but Paul also encountered:

B. The inhabitants of the city

As Paul was out in the city, declaring and discussing the message of Jesus, he was encountered by a couple of different groups in Athens.

Verse 18 says, “Then certain philosphers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoics, encountered him…”

The Epicureans and the Stoics were the two rival ideological groups in Athens. Their philosophies were very different, but each held sway over much of the thought of that day. At the risk of over simplifying it, the Epicurean philosophy basically said, “Enjoy your life.” Opposite of them, the Stoics basically said, “Endure your life.” Neither group saw any real meaning or purpose in life, much less a real God over our lives. The one said, “Do what feels good.” The other said, “Do what you think is good.”

When they heard Paul talking about someone named Jesus, and the notion of resurrection, some of them made fun of him, and some thought he was just introducing a new god and a new religion. They engaged with Paul, because as Luke says, the people in Athens were always open to hear something new; not because they actually wanted to believe it - just talk about it and debate it.

In our day, there are still people who think that whatever gods there are don’t matter that much, and that life is basically meaningless. So, you might as well just have a good time. There are also still people, like the Stoics, who basically ignore any gods but themselves, and try simply to be the best they can be – as if that will make their lives on earth better. But as it did in Athens long ago, the gospel of Jesus cuts against both of those philosophies. If you do what feels good, you’ll die in your sins. If you only do what you think is good, you’ll still die in your sins, and you’ll never know the God who can save you from both yourself and your sins.

Paul knew, as we must know, that the only the gospel uniquely speaks to the mess men make of their lives apart from God. Curious about this new preacher and his new doctrine, they set up an opportunity for Paul to speak for himself.

With that, we see in this visit to Athens, not only what a mess Paul discovered, but we also get to see and hear:


The local philosophers of Athens carried Paul to the Areopagus. This was both a place and a group of people. It was a hillside near the city, and it was a sort of religious court in Athens, charged with overseeing the religion and worship in the town. A few hundred years before, the Areopagus had tried and convicted Socrates for the very thing they accused Paul of: introducing strange and new gods.

As Paul stood before this distinguished group, he delivered one of the greatest messages they would ever hear, even if they didn’t want to hear it after he was done.

As we look over the message Paul delivered that day, we notice first of all:

A. How Paul humbled them

Paul was courteous and careful in his speech before this council, even quoting a couple of Greek poets they would have known well. But as you read over his message you realize that Paul was not trying to cozy up to them; he was trying to convert them. To convert them, he would first have to humble them. To do this, Paul started by telling them they were ignorant about God.

Listen to how he did this. He said, “I’ve noticed how religious you people are. I’ve been looking at all your temples and idols.” “Among them,” he said in verse 23, “I even saw an altar dedicated to ‘The Unknown God’. Well, I am going to tell you about this God you don’t know about.”

Paul was careful, but he was clear. In spite of all their religion, they didn’t really know or worship the real God of heaven and earth.

Paul also humbled them by telling them that they were incorrect about God. He said, “The real God, the one you don’t know, He is the maker of everything and everyone. And contrary to what you apparently think, He is not housed in the temples you build, or helped by anything you can do for him with your hands.”

“Contrary to your religion, where you serve the gods with temples and idols, the real God doesn’t need anything from you. In fact, He is the one who gives everything to all of us.”

“He put everyone on this planet, and He is the one who has determined where they live, when they live, and what they have while they live.”

Do you see what Paul did? He stood in the face of ancient Athens, with all its proud history of religion and philosophy, and said, “You’re all wrong. You don’t really know God at all.”

Are we willing to do this in our day? Do you have the courage as a Christian to confront the high-minded, atheistic, agnostic, pluralistic society around you?

In this remarkable message, we see not only how Paul humbled them, but if we listen, we also see:

B. How Paul helped them

As blunt as it was for Paul to tell these people they were ignorant and incorrect about God, it was also a blessing for them, because what he told them about God could actually be very good news.

John Piper points out that this news of the God who needs nothing from us, but gives everything to us, is both bad news and good news.4

It’s bad news for the self-sufficient; for people who think they are smart enough and good enough to figure God out on their own and do life without His help. But, it is good news for the weak – for those who can do nothing but seek this God and turn to Him for everything they need.

Paul pointed out that this God wants men to seek Him. And, He is actually not hard to find for He is closer to us than we think. As one Greek poet said, “…in him we live, and move, and have our being…”

The bad news for the people of Athens, and for the most of the people in our world today, is that God is much bigger than they think. He is the creator and sustainer of all things, including us, and therefore we are foolish to worship things we have created – the works of our own minds and hands – as if they were God. He is bigger than that! That is the bad news.

The good news for the people Paul addressed, and the people we must address as well, is that while God is bigger than you think, He is also better than you think. He has been merciful to you! He has not yet judged you for your foolish, empty idols. He has actually let you live when you should have died. There is something glorious and good about Paul’s message at Mars Hill. It both humbled and helped those who were willing to hear it.

And the best was yet to come! We see in this visit to Athens not only what a mess Paul discovered, and what a message Paul delivered, but we see also:


Paul had already been preaching about the crucified and resurrected Jesus in Athens. That was what landed him in front of the Areopagus. And that is where Paul was headed. Paul’s address to them about the God they did not know was leading them up to the God they could know, and must know – the person of Jesus Christ.

Paul himself was quite a man, but he was nothing compared the Man he had come to that hill to proclaim.

Notice how he preached Jesus to them. He preached:

A. Jesus as the righteous judge

In his speech that day, Paul said that the times of ignorance, like those the people of Athens had been living in for centuries, were over. Something had happened. God’s dealings with humanity were different now. Now, Paul said in verse 30, “God commandeth all men everywhere to repent.” At this point in history, God was commanding all people to turn from their idols, turn from their ignorance, and turn from their sins. And the reason they needed to turn was this: “Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained…” That man is Jesus, and Paul declared Him to be the righteous Judge of all the people in all the world.

If Paul had preached the first part of this message to a crowd of people in this day, they would have said, “Don’t judge me! Doesn’t your Bible say, ‘judge not’?” But Paul had not come there to judge Athens, nor do we as Christians today stand as judges of the world around us. Yet, we do say to our world, “There is a Judge.” There is someone who is in a position, because of His righteousness and holiness, to be the Judge of the living and the dead.

Jesus, the only innocent, totally righteous man to ever live is the only one in a position to judge humanity. And He will! Judgment day is already written on the calendar of God. God will judge the world one day through His Son, the Man, Christ Jesus.

Paul preached Jesus as the righteous judge, and he also declared him as:

B. Jesus as the risen judge

How do we know this one man is the man through whom God will judge all humanity? Paul said of Jesus in verse 31, “...[God] hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”

This Jesus, the righteous judge, died on this earth at the hands of sinners, and in God’s grace, for the sake of sinners. And the ultimate testimony – the ultimate proof of who He is - rests in the fact that God raised His crucified body from the dead. He alone lives forever. He alone has conquered death. And He alone can save men from their own deaths. All people must repent and turn to Him now, or reckon with Him when He comes back to judge them.


The gospel amid the gods of this world points to this man, the man Christ Jesus, and says, “There is no other mediator between God and man. There is no other way that men can be spared from judgment apart from this one man, Jesus.

When we do this - when we point to our cross-scarred but resurrected Lord - many in the world respond as they did at Athens that day.

Verse 32 says, “And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.”

Many in the world can’t stomach or stand a story of a dead man brought back to life. They won’t bow their knees to a crucified but glory-crowned Savior.

But, like Paul, we still stand amid the clutter and confusion of this culture and say, “Look unto Jesus! He alone can save you! He alone is alive from the dead! He alone is the Judge of the living and the dead!”

Paul soon left the Aeropagus and the Athenians, and went on to the next place where he would preach this same gospel and this same God. Some would say his ministry in Athens was a failure. He was laughed at by many and ignored by most. But the chapter ends by saying this: “Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

As we seek to declare Jesus and the gospel among the many gods of this world, at times it may seem like the world only scoffs at us and listens long enough to laugh at what we have to say. But among that crowd buried under ignorance and idols, there are a few who will hear the name of Jesus, turn from theirs sins, and believe. For that reason, we must stand with broken but bold hearts, and say to all who will listen in the buffet line of this world’s beliefs, “There is a Man unlike any other. His name is Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”\

1 Mohler, Jr., R. Albert, “You Are Bringing Strange Things To Our Ears…”, 7/12/06,, accessed 11/12/15,

2 Hughes, R. Kent, Acts: The Church Afire, (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 1996), Amazon Kindle edition

3 Morgan, G. Campbell, The Acts of the Apostles, (Fleming H. Revell, New York, 1924), p. 411

4 Piper, John, “Why God Cannot Be Served But Loves To Serve”, 11/23/97,, accessed 11/12/15,