Paul and the Church at Athens

17 Feb

Many scholars and preachers of the word of God consider Paul’s time in Athens not much more than a failure. I thought so, as well, and even taught his speech at the Areopagus was a failure using 1Corinthians 2:1-2 as my authority, but is this an accurate interpretation, and was Paul’s speech in the Areopagus a real failure? Luke doesn’t seem to think so, because it is one of the three major speeches of Paul that he includes in his work of Acts. Why would he use so much valuable space for a failed effort? Perhaps we need to take a second look. I know I do.

First of all, I think we need to ask ourselves, if Paul’s address before the Areopagus was a failed effort, how did it fail, and what would a failed effort in Acts look like? Perhaps, the more appropriate question would be: what would a successful effort look like, since Paul was driven out of each city in Europe before coming to Athens? Moreover, he was expelled from Pisidian Antioch on his first recorded missionary journey, driven out of Iconium and stoned in Lystra. So, I must ask: “What would a Pauline success look like in Athens, especially since it is the first city in Europe from which he is not expelled or driven out?”

It has been pointed out that “…we hear of no church mentioned (at Athens) in the Apostolic Age, and when Paul speaks of the ‘firstfruits of Achaia’ it is to a family in Corinth that he refers (1Corinthians 16:15).”[1] Yet, aside from Paul’s epistles, none of the churches of Europe are referred to as such, so are we to conclude because Luke doesn’t refer to Athens as a church that there was no church founded there? If so, what do we make of those who embraced the Gospel (Acts 17:34) at Athens? With respect to the churches Paul refers to in the houses of certain believers (cp. 1Corinthians 16:19 and Philemon 1:2). I think we need to be careful about drawing a conclusion on such a matter on the basis of silence.

What can we say then about the household of Stephanas, the firstfruits of Achaia? Stephanas is mentioned in four places, all in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, and the fourth is an editorial remark concerning from where the epistle written and by whom (1Corinthians 16:24), so in reality there are only three Scriptural mentions of his name. Yet, nowhere is it said that he resided in Corinth. Check it out: 1Corinthians 1:16 and 16:15, 17.

It is apparent that the church at Corinth knew Stephanus very well, because Paul mentions that they should submit themselves onto such as he (1Corinthians 16:16), for he labored with Paul, implying at least to me, that he was one of Paul’s co-workers, which he would, no doubt, send to the churches to comfort and instruct them in Christ. Timothy also labored with Paul in such a capacity, yet he would not have been considered a Corinthian. Moreover, in 1Corinthians 1:14-15 Paul says he baptized only Crispus and Gaius (cp. Acts 18:8 and Romans 16:23) who lived in Corinth, and, as an afterthought, he mentions Stephanas in verse-16, but does this mention make him a Corinthian. or does Paul mention him, because, as one of his co-laborers (1Corinthians 16:15-17), he would have been well known by the church there? Nevertheless, what can we say about 1Corinthians 16:17 where Paul claims he was comforted by Stephanas and two others in the name of the Corinthian church? Does this mean he represented them in the name of the church of Corinth or in the name of the church in Achaia? As much as I am able to tell, it could be taken either way, especially since the two mentioned with him, Fortunatus and Achaicus, are named only there in the New Testament, so neither are they necessarily Corinthians, though one or both may indeed be from the city.

If Paul’s speech at the Areopagus reaped any believers at all, and Acts 17:34 seems to argue that he had, then the firstfruits of Achaia would be among them and not from Corinth. Therefore, if this is logically so, then we should understand the household of Stephanus as being an Athenian rather than Corinthian. As such, it would be difficult to argue that Paul’s address before the Areopagus was a failure, since not only did it reap at least a small household church, but a very profitable fellow-labor for Paul in the Gospel.

[1] See F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, page 247.

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Posted by on February 17, 2013 in Gospel, Paul's 2nd Missionary Journey


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