The Story So Far: Acts 1–16
Luke, a companion of Paul’s on many of his travels, tells the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 and we learn that Jesus specifically appointed Paul to be his “chosen instrument to carry the name of Jesus before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel." Why does Luke focus the second half of his book on Paul? Because he was the perfect person for the job God gave him and his life embodied the story that Luke is trying to tell. Nowhere is Paul’s aptitude more on display than during his time in Athens in Acts 17. We’re going to look closely at Paul’s sermon to the Athenians in Acts 17, but first, we need some context.
The question of whether or not Gentiles could come into the family of God was raised at the famous Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. Just a few decades after the death of Jesus, the leaders of the Christian movement convened to rule on a question of cultural and theological practices for Gentile (non-Jewish) believers. Did the new converts need to be circumcised (the traditional sign of membership in the Jewish community and the people of God since the time of Abraham) or not? More was at stake than just circumcision. It was a question of whether new believers had to become Jews before they could become Christians.
Spurred on by Peter’s experience of the conversion of a Roman centurion named Cornelius in Acts 10 (a kind of “second Pentecost” among the Gentiles), the Council of Jerusalem opened the door for Christianity to be uniquely expressed in each culture where the gospel took root. So instead of only Jewish Christians, it was possible to become Egyptian Christians, Roman Christians, Arabian Christians, and, as we will see in Acts 17, Greek Christians.
This decision was not an invention of the church leaders at the council. Rather, they were following the course set out for them by Christ himself. In Acts 1, Jesus explained the trajectory of the early Christian movement when he told them that they would be his witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." It’s as if the church was to be a force that would be ever accelerating in its expansion of the Kingdom and bringing people into the family of God.
Throughout the book of Acts, Luke is giving his readers literary signposts at every significant step on the gospel’s outward journey. The first center of the church was Jerusalem, but when persecution broke out in Jerusalem, the church spread into Palestine and Samaria in Acts 6–9. Acts 9–12 records the progress of the gospel as far as Antioch, in modern-day Turkey. In the remainder of the book, Luke records the gospel’s spread through Asia Minor, Europe, and finally, Rome, the heart of the empire.
Context Before Context: Genesis to Acts
The story of Acts 17 actually has its roots in Genesis.
In the beginning of the Bible, Adam and Eve were given the task of stewarding and cultivating the whole earth toward flourishing; the garden was supposed to grow. In Genesis 12, when God chose Abraham to be the beginning of a new family of God’s people, it was so that “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Then, the law of Moses provided for God-fearing Gentiles who wanted to join the covenant people of God (Exodus 12). Like good priests, Israel was to mediate between God and humanity and usher people into his presence. In Psalm 22, David wrote that “the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord.” Throughout the writings of Israel’s prophets are hints and foretellings of a time when all the nations of the earth, even Israel’s enemies, will follow God.
Moving forward in time, the Gospels record how Jesus constantly broke through people’s cultural categories and ethnic barriers. Jesus healed Jews and non-Jews alike, and even healed the servant of a centurion, a member of the despised occupying forces of Rome (Matthew 8). Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee into Gentile territory to heal a demon-possessed man (Mark 5). He lingered at a Samaritan well to have a conversation with a foreign woman (John 4). He tells her that, in contrast to her geographic and ethnic faith categories, “the hour is coming when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,” wherever they are and whoever they are.
So when Paul stands up to preach to the Athenians in Acts 17, he isn’t doing anything new. He is riding the wave of the biblical storyline. The gospel was always on its way to Athens.