Chapter 51.2 Westward to Europe
Acts of Christ through his apostles, A.D. 46 to 100
Saint Paul Preaching at Athens, original watercolor on paper by Raphael (Raffaello Santi or Sanzio), 1483-1520, painted in 1515-16
Saint Paul Preaching at Athens, original watercolor on paper by Raphael (Raffaello Santi or Sanzio), 1483-1520, painted in 1515-16
(CLICK on the image above for a LARGER version)

Unknown God Revealed

Three centuries earlier, Athens had been the center of the civilized world. Though it had lost its political and economic leadership to Rome, it was still a splendid city with its intellectual glories undimmed. Everywhere one looked there were brightly painted marble temples dedicated to the gods.

In Athens, Paul preached not only in the synagogues but also in the public marketplace to all who would listen. Among the curious bystanders who engaged him in debate were philosophers of the Stoic and Epicurean schools. All the Athenians and resident foreigners had nothing to do except talking or hearing about the latest novelty, but not necessarily act on it.

They asked Paul to appear before the Areopagus, the city’s highest council. Eagerly the crowd followed him from the marketplace up the steps to the brow of Mars Hill. Below him was the city of Athens. Just east was the Acropolis with the Parthenon radiating the glory of ancient Greece. When everyone had gathered, the council asked, “May we know what this new doctrine is that you proclaim? You are introducing ideas that sound strange to us, and we should like to know what they mean.”

Surrounded by pagan statues, altars and temples, Paul began to speak in the classic style, “Men of Athens, I see that in everything that concerns religion you are uncommonly scrupulous. As I was going around looking at the objects of your worship, I noticed among other things an altar bearing the inscription ‘To an unknown God.” This God, who is the unknown object of your worship, is the very one I now proclaim to you.

“The God who created the world and everything in it, and who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands. It is not because he lacks anything that he accepts service at our hands, for he is himself the universal giver of life and breath—indeed of everything. From one man he created every nation to inhabit the whole earth’s surface. He determined their eras in history and the limits of their territory. They were to seek God in the hope that groping after him they might find him; though he is not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move, and in him we exist. Some of your own poets have affirmed this truth, ‘We are indeed his offspring.’

“Being God’s offspring, then, we ought not to suppose that the deity is like an image in gold or silver or stone, shaped by human craftsmanship and design. God has overlooked the age of ignorance; but now he commands men and women everywhere to repent because he has fixed the day on which he will have the world judged, and justly judged by a man whom he has designated; of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Immediately after Paul said those words, he was unable to finish his message. Jesus’ resurrection marked the dividing point of the skeptical listeners and they mocked his talk of the resurrection of the dead. However, a few wanted to hear more and invited him to speak further. He agreed to meet with them, winning a handful of converts that included Dionysius, a member of the Council of the Areopagus; and also a woman named Damaris, and others.

Paul’s preaching in the capital of the world’s wisdom brought only a few believers; but success in God’s eyes was measured by the apostle’s faithfulness, not by the numbers who responded to the invitation. Paul spoke in the best location and did a masterful job in revealing the “unknown God.” Failure was on the part of the listeners who preferred the world’s wisdom over God’s. No preacher could open minds and hearts that were closed to the truth. A few days later, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth where he had arranged to rejoin Silas and Timothy. His greatest success lay just ahead.

Aquila and Priscilla

Corinth, a great commercial center and capital of the Roman province of Achaia, was located west of Athens on the narrow isthmus joining the Peloponnesus (Southern Greece) to the mainland. In earlier centuries Corinth had been renowned for its temple to Aphrodite, goddess of love. Even though the temple had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C., the city’s reputation for immorality lingered. Yet, in this predominantly pagan city, Paul founded his most successful church.

In 49, Emperor Claudius had issued an edict expelling all Jews from Rome due to rioting over Chrestos that was said to be provoked by a disagreement between Jews and Christians. Aquila and Priscilla, two Jewish believers who were tentmakers, had fled to Corinth and they considerably aided Paul, becoming his close friends. When the apostle was not preaching, he stayed and worked with Aquila and Priscilla, weaving tent cloth and preparing animal hides for tents in their small open air shop, just outside the monumental gateway to the marketplace.

On the arrival of Timothy and Silas with financial relief from Macedonia, Paul was able to devote himself full time to preaching and explaining to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. However, when the Jews turned against him, he did a startling thing. The apostle left the synagogue and moved his ministry next door to a private house owned by the Gentile Titius Justus. Crispus, leader of the synagogue, became a believer and many Corinthians also believed and were baptized. It was especially unsettling to the Jews to have synagogue members and Gentiles flocking to Paul in the neighboring building.

In a night vision the Lord spoke to Paul, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking. Do not be silent, for I am with you. No one will attack and harm you because I have many people in this city.” As a result, the apostle was at Corinth for eighteen months and a large church was formed, mostly from the poor and slave classes.

In the year 51, Paul decided it was time to return to Syrian Antioch. He sailed with Aquila and Priscilla to the large eastern Aegean port of Ephesus, where he left them, promising to return on his next journey. Continuing on to Caesarea, he visited Jerusalem briefly before finally returning to Antioch.

His second journey had covered 2800 miles, twice the distance of the first journey, and had lasted nearly three years, A.D. 49-52. During this time he wrote letters to Thessalonica and Galatia. Most important, Paul had brought the message of Jesus to the continent of Europe and the centers of western civilization. The dedicated disciples at Corinth would help spread the gospel throughout the Gentile world.

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