As a result of their debate with Paul in the agora or marketplace, the Stoics and the Epicureans brought him to the Areopagus to understand more about his argument. The problem is the Greek word for brought in the KJV can mean to bring in a friendly sense (cp. Luke 10:34; 18:40) or to arrest (Matthew 10:18; Acts 9:2; 18:12). It all depends upon the context. The Areopagus was a council in Athens that used to meet to handle judiciary affairs on Mars Hill (Areios Pagos), but later met near the agora or marketplace, but retained the name. In what sense, therefore, was Paul to appear at the Areopagus?
One may assume, due to the context of Paul’s being hauled before magistrates in Philippi and politarchs in Thessalonica, that the same would be true here in Athens. However, the phrases, may we know in verse-19 and we desire to know what these things mean in verse-20, seem to indicate a more pleasant tone. Therefore, it doesn’t seem to indicate that Paul was arrested and taken by force to appear before the council but, instead, brought there to give an account of or explain his teaching in terms they could understand and evaluate. The fact remains that Judaism was a legal religion in the empire and Messianic Judaism was considered another segment of the Jewish faith, so the council couldn’t very well outlaw Paul’s teaching.
Paul began his speech by addressing the men of Athens, which seems to infer that more than the Stoics and Epicureans were present, so Paul probably appeared before a larger audience than those who brought him before the council for an informal testimony. Since Paul was irritated with the inordinate display of idols in the city (Acts 17:16), we should not take his saying the Athenians were religious (Acts 17:22) as a compliment. Paul was probably being ‘ironical’ and meaning to say that the Athenians made a great display of their piety. Yet, in all their wisdom, concerning which they were noted throughout the world, they admitted that there is an unknown God, one concerning whom, though they understood he exists, they did not have any real knowledge (Acts 17:23; cp. 1Corinthians 1:20 and Romans 1:20-22, 28).
This point is at the heart of Paul’s address—the Athenians themselves freely admitted, through their excessive display of piety, that, although they could justify the existence of God, they didn’t know him. Because the Stoics and the Epicureans did not deny the existence of the gods, they had placed themselves in the same category of ignorance as all the other schools of thought in Athens—God exists, but they didn’t know him. If they had no knowledge of him, their philosophies, that generalized God as a being having needs like themselves but having no interest in humanity, had no real significance. How could they, since they admitted their own ignorance of him?
Paul, therefore, announced his intention to inform his audience of that which they had publically proclaimed ignorance. Paul, far from being complimentary, was really making the most of his present situation, especially in view of the fact that these Athenian schools of thought usually expressed their philosophies with arrogance toward the stranger (cp. Acts 17:18). It was probably quite odd for them to be told or reminded of their own ignorance, and in doing so, Paul prepared them for what he was about to offer. They were not being treated as equals in the religious arena—no political correctness here. But, rather, Paul presented himself as the teacher, and they were the students. This may not have been his usual modus operandi, but the natural implication of the Athenians bringing Paul to the Areopagus was that they presumed themselves and their philosophies to be on equal terms of what Paul was about to present. He informed them, by their own public admission, it was not.