In the ancient world, Athens was famous as the philosophical center of the empire. With a long lineage of thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the city of Athens was the place to go for intellectual stimulation. It was also a city of vast religious plurality.
What can we learn from Paul’s response to such an environment like Athens— full of ideas and spirituality opposed to the Christian faith? First, notice that Paul took time to observe his surroundings. He saw, with much distress, that the city was “full of idols” (v. 16). Yet, rather than rejecting the city, Paul took this as another occasion for preaching Christ, both in the synagogue and in the marketplace. Soon, he had attracted the attention of some philosophers and was asked to explain his teaching.
Next, he began by finding a point of contact with his pagan audience, calling them “very religious” (v. 22) and even noting one of their altars “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” (v. 23). Paul found something good in them (the impulse to worship), and attempted to correct their error (worshiping the wrong thing). That became the springboard for his sermon: “you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (v. 23).
Beginning with creation, Paul proclaimed God’s lordship over all things, His invisibility, and even His desire for relationship with His “offspring”—which is what we all are (v. 28). Notice that Paul quoted from the Athenians’ own poets and philosophers to find even further common ground. But Paul then turned that general message about God into a specific proclamation of the resurrected Christ who will one day judge the world. Paul’s attempts at finding common ground ultimately led him to the message of Christ.