One characteristic of the Book of Acts is the inclusion of lengthy messages given by the
apostles, as they proclaim the coming of Jesus.
This page will look at four of the main messages:
I. Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost
II. Stephen’s apology before his martyrdom
II. Paul preaching in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch
IV. Paul preaching to pagans in Lystra and Athens
I. Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost (2:14-39)
The witnesses to the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost were Jews from every
nation, who had travelled to Jerusalem to attend the Jewish festival of Pentecost. These were
the Jews of the Dispersion, who lived in communities outside Israel. They would have been
ordinary Jews, not necessarily religious leaders. Many devout Jews stayed in Jerusalem for
the six weeks between Passover and Pentecost, as there would not be enough time to travel
back to their home and then back to Jerusalem in that time.
Representatives from fifteen nations are listed (v9-14). Many of these are within the Roman
Empire, but others are included, particularly the first four from the east: Parthians, Medes,
Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia. The Jews from Mesopotamia would be descendants
of the Jews originally exiled by Assyria or Babylon. Astonished at hearing the believers
speaking in their own languages, some accused the apostles of being drunk with wine (v13).
It was at this point that Peter responded with his message.
Scholars have noted the following main sections in the preaching of the apostles. This
structure is clearly seen in Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost, and in Paul’s message in
1. An announcement that the long-awaited Messianic age of fulfilment has arrived (Acts
2. The new age has come through the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and triumph of Jesus
3. Each of these was foretold by the prophets, showing that each was a result of the will and
foreknowledge of God (v24-36).
4. Based on these facts, there is a call for repentance, the offer of forgiveness, the gift of the
Holy Spirit and the promise of eternal life (Acts 2:38-39).
1. The age of fulfilment has arrived (v14-21)
Peter begins his message by claiming that the coming of the Holy Spirit is a fulfilment of the
prophecy of Joel 2:28-32. Like the other quotations from the Jewish Scriptures in the Book of
Acts, this quotation is from the Greek Septuagint (LXX), which explains slight differences in
wording from the English Old Testament, which has been translated from the Hebrew.
Peter quotes from Joel because he now understands that the coming of the Spirit is a sign of
the arrival of the age to come, or the ‘last days’, the long-expected and anticipated days of
fulfilment of God’s purposes.
In Jewish thinking the whole of history was divided into two parts: the present evil age, and
the age to come. During this present evil age Israel had for long periods of time been
dominated by foreign powers, so Jews were eagerly waiting for and expecting the coming of
the Messiah to bring deliverance to Israel. The age to come would be initiated by the coming
of the Messiah, who would bring his kingdom and restore Israel to greatness. This would also
be the time of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.
From a Christian perspective, the age to come, or the last days, began with the ministry, death
and resurrection of Jesus, and this was demonstrated by the outpouring of the Spirit on the
Day of Pentecost. Through Jesus, the blessings of the age to come are available to believers,
even though we are still living in this present age. Through his miracles during his ministry,
Jesus demonstrated the coming of his Kingdom and the overthrow of the powers of darkness.
Theologians often talk about the Kingdom being ‘now but not yet’. The Kingdom is here, but
it is still to come in its fulness at the Second Coming of Jesus.
The big change that has now come is that in fulfilment of Joel’s prediction, God has now
poured out his Spirit on all flesh (v17). This is the significant difference between the Old and
New Covenants. In the Old Testament period, only certain individuals were empowered by
God’s Spirit. These tended to be the significant leaders of the nation, such as Moses, David
and the prophets. Now, as Joel predicted, the Spirit is now available to all: young and old,
free and slave, men and women. As the account in the Book of Acts later records, beginning
with Cornelius (Acts 10), this will also include Gentiles.
Even Moses expressed the desire for all to be empowered by God’s Spirit. Joshua complained
to Moses about Eldad and Medad prophesying (Num 11:26). Moses was not threatened by
this, and said, “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would
put his spirit on them!”.
2. The coming of Jesus (v22-24)
Peter gives a brief summary of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, which had only
happened a few weeks before in the time of his listeners. The events would be very fresh in
the memories of any people who had been in Jerusalem.
Even though the death of Jesus was part of the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (v23),
he places the blame for the death of Jesus firmly on the Jews, “you crucified and killed by the
hands of those outside the law” (v23). The Romans actually performed the crucifixion, but
the responsibility for it lay on the Jews. God reversed the sentence of death, by raising him up
(v24). His body was not allowed to rot away in the tomb as normal.
3. Fulfilment of Scripture (v24-36)
Peter gives several quotations from the Scriptures, showing their fulfilment in Jesus,
particularly focussing on the resurrection.
The first quotation is from Psalm 16. The original words were David speaking about himself
(Ps 16:8-11). However David died and his tomb was still standing at that time as a prominent
landmark in Jerusalem (v29). David was looking ahead to his descendant, the Son of David,
whose body would not rot in a tomb (v30). “The LORD swore to David a sure oath from
which he will not turn back: ‘One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne’” (Ps
132:11). This speaks about his son Solomon, but also the Son of David who will come. Peter repeats part of the quotation (v31, Ps 16:10), which is also quoted by Paul in Pisidian
Antioch (Acts 13:35).
The second passage quoted is from Psalm 110, a passage frequently quoted in the NT. This
clarifies that it was not David himself who was raised up. Psalm 110 would have been a
mystery to the Jewish rabbis, which explains why Jesus asked them about it, “How can the
scribes say that the Messiah is the Son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’.
David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” (Mk 12:36-37). Only with New
Testament understanding is it clear that Jesus as the Son of David was also David’s Lord. The
conclusion is that the resurrection is proof that Jesus is Lord and Messiah (v36).
4. Call to repent (v37-39)
After Peter blamed them for crucifying their Messiah, the audience were cut to the heart
(v37). They were convicted of their sin, and felt great guilt for rejecting the means of
salvation, so they asked, “Brothers, what should we do?”. Peter’s response was to give a call
to repentance and baptism, so they may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (v38). This is the
same message that both Jesus (Mk 1:15) and John the Baptist (Mt 3:2) preached. This
promise was for the listeners, but also for everyone in the future, both near and far away.
The result of Peter’s message as that about 3000 persons were saved (v41).
II. Stephen’s Apology (7:2-53)
The second message is the speech Stephen gave in his defence before the Jewish council
(Sanhedrin) (6:15). It is often described as an apology, not meaning to say sorry, but as a
reasoned legal defence.
The Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews who were living in Israel, who formed a separate
community with their own synagogues. They arose during the inter-testamental period
following the conquest of Israel by Alexander the Great, when the Greek culture and language
was embraced by many Jews. The Hebrew or Aramaic speaking Jews looked down upon the
Hellenistic Jews, seeing them as inferior and compromised.
These divisions within Judaism were being brought into the new movement of the followers
of Jesus. The Hellenists were complaining that their widows were being neglected in the daily
distribution of food (6:1). In response, the apostles called the people to “select from among
themselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (v3). From the list
given their names indicate that they were all Hellenistic Jews. In the list of seven, Stephen is
listed first and highlighted with a description as bring “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (v5). He is also described as being “full of grace and power” (v8).
The Freedmen (v9) were descendants of Jewish slaves who had been captured and taken to
Rome by the Roman General Pompey when Judah was annexed to the Roman Empire in
63BC. They were later released and formed their own community in Rome. Some returned to
Jerusalem where they had their own synagogue. It was these people who instigated the
argument against Stephen.
There is an interesting progression of events which is often seen today in political or even
academic arguments. The first is a reasoned debate in which each side is able to make their
point and defend their opinion in turn. When this fails, the second phase starts when
opponents begin to bring false accusations, often accusing people of being stupid or ignorant.
In reality this is actually a sign that they have lost the argument. The third is an often unjust
appeal to the legal system to silence the person.
The same progression can be seen in the case of Stephen. The reasoned debate is with the
Jews from the synagogue of the freedmen (v9). When they were unable to answer Stephen’s
wisdom and Spirit, they moved to the second stage, accusing Stephen of speaking
blasphemous words against Moses and against God (v11). Finally, they dragged Stephen
before the Jewish Sanhedrin, bringing false witnesses to accuse Stephen of speaking against
the temple and the law (v13-14).
Their false accusation was based on a probably deliberate misunderstanding of the words of
Jesus. They accused Stephen of saying that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the temple and will
change the customs of Moses (v14). After expelling the money-changers from the temple,
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). At the time the Jews understood this to be referring to the physical temple, but John notes that he was
speaking of the temple of his body (Jn 2:21). For the Jews, to speak against the temple and
the law was as bad as speaking blasphemies against God.
The members of the council looked intently at Stephen and saw that his face was like the face
of an angel (6:15). Stephen was in the presence of God in the same way that Moses was when
he came down from the mountain with his face shining (Ex 34:29, 2 Cor 3:7-18). In a
document called the Acts of Paul and Thecla, there is a contemporary description of Paul,
“And he saw Paul coming, a man small in size, bald-headed, bandy-legged, well-built, with
eyebrows meeting, rather long-nosed, full of grace. For sometimes he seemed like a man, and
sometimes he had the countenance of an angel.”
Luke records a long speech by Stephen as he makes his defence in court. He takes them
through Israel’s history focussing on Abraham, Joseph, Moses and David. Many aspects of
their lives would be very familiar to his audience. His speech helps a modern reader
understand the OT from a NT perspective, in which many of the people and events of the OT
foreshadow Jesus in some way, and find their fulfilment in him.
There are two main themes. The first is that God appeared in many different geographical
locations through Israel’s history, including Mesopotamia, Egypt and Sinai. It was his glory
and presence that made that location holy. The conclusion is that God’s presence has never
been limited to the temple, which was a mere building. Through his speech, Stephen
mentions a number of different locations, including Mesopotamia, Haran, Egypt, Shechem,
Mount Sinai and the Red Sea, where God spoke to his people and his presence was with
The second is that through the history of Israel the Jews persistently disobeyed and opposed
what God was doing, and ignored and rejected God’s prophets. The Jews in the first century
are merely following their example by rejecting Jesus as God’s Messiah. The events of the
coming of Jesus were consistent with what the Jews did in the OT times, and with the way
God acted in the OT. Also Stephen continually shows that God was faithful to fulfil his
promises, including those about the Exodus from Egypt (v17).
God appeared in his glory to Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia (v2). In contrast to the
Jews through history, Abraham was obedient to God when told to leave his country and move
to Haran (v3-4).
Stephen records the jealousy of the Joseph’s brothers, the patriachs of Israel, who rejected
him and sold him into Egypt (v9). However God was with him in Egypt, giving him wisdom
and raising him up as ruler of Egypt.
This is the longest section of the speech. Stephen had been accused of blasphemy against
Moses (v11). In response, Stephen gives Moses great respect and honour, including “So
Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his words and
deeds” (v22). Three periods of the life of Moses are recorded, his birth (v20-22), killing the
Egyptian and fleeing to Midian (v23-29), and God appearing to him at the burning bush (v30-
After he killed the Egyptian, the Israelites rejected Moses (v27), so he fled to Midian. When
God appeared in the wilderness of Sinai, he told Moses to remove his sandals because he was
standing on holy ground (v33). The ground was made holy because God’s presence was there.
Moses then showed obedience to God by returning to Egypt.
Stephen continues to give Moses great respect, referring to him as ‘this Moses’ or ‘this man’
four times (v33-38). It was Moses who led the people out of Egypt, across the Red and into
the wilderness for forty years (v36). It was Moses who predicted the coming of a prophet
(v37, Deut 18:15), and gave the law, which Stephen describes as ‘living oracles’ (v38). He is
also giving the law great respect, and certainly not being blasphemous against Moses or the
law. He also includes the Rabbinic tradition that the law was given by an angel to Moses
Even during the actual giving of the law, the Israelites rebelled against Moses and against
God by making the golden calf (v39-43), what they had accused Stephen of. The Israelites,
not Stephen, were the ones who rejected the law and the true worship of God. This idolatry
continued through their history. Stephen gives a quotation from the prophet Amos about the
idolatry of Israel and their worship of other gods, which led to their exile (v42-43, Amos
Moses also constructed the tabernacle where God met with his people in the wilderness (v44),
made according to the pattern God showed him. This again shows the obedience of Moses.
David and Solomon (v46-47)
David expressed a desire to build a dwelling place for God (v46), which was finally built by
his son Solomon.
The climax comes when Stephen quotes Isaiah, showing that the creator of all things cannot
possibly be contained in part of his creation (v49, Is 66:1-2). It is impossible to build a temple
that could contain Almighty God. Even Solomon understood this as he prayed, “But will God
indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less
this house that I have built!” (1 Kg 8:27).
To conclude, Stephen goes on the attack, accusing the Jewish council of continuing their past
behaviour in their rejection of Jesus. They are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and
ears. They were forever opposing the Holy Spirit, as they consistently had throughout their
history, rebelling against God and rejecting his prophets.
They had the law, but had not kept it. The problem was not the law itself, but their continued
disobedience. Stephen gives no criticism of the law and is certainly not being blasphemous,
but instead again describes it as being ordained by angels (v53). Paul also describes the law in
this way (Gal 3:19).
The Consequences (v54 - 8:1)
The great anger of the Jews led to his martyrdom. Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit, and
saw a heavenly vision, with Jesus standing, rather than sitting, at the right hand of God. This
proclamation of great blasphemy angered the Jews even more.
The stoning of Stephen was not a legal execution, but an unofficial lynching at the heat of the
moment. The Roman rulers had taken over the right of execution from the Jewish Sanhedrin.
If they wanted to pass the death penalty, the Jewish leadership had to bring the case before the
Roman governor, as they had when they brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Luke gives
several parallels with the death of Jesus, including his final words (v59, Luke 23:46).
The impact on Saul
The people stoning Stephen laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul (v58). Paul
later referred to the death of Stephen in the account of his conversion on the steps of the
temple. He was concerned that the believers would not accept him because he had been their
persecutor. “Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those
who believed in you. And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was
standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.” (22:19-20). Being a
witness to the stoning of Stephen clearly made a great impact on Saul, who becomes the main
character in the Book of Acts, as God’s apostle to the Gentiles.
The account of the martyrdom of Stephen shows two opposing views of God. The Jews had a
very limited understanding of God and his power, when compared with that of Stephen.
Stephen understood that the glory of God’s presence cannot be limited to a physical building
or a single geographical location.
Ironically, there was no record of the glory of God ever filling Herod’s Temple. When the
tabernacle was constructed, the Book of Exodus concludes with the glory of God filling the
tabernacle (Ex 40:34). Solomon’s temple was also filled with the glory of God (1 Kg 8:10-
11). However, Ezekiel had a vision of the glory of God departing from the temple (Ezek 10),
leaving it open for destruction by the Babylonians. The glory never returned to either
Zerubabbel’s temple, or Herod’s temple, and when Pompey, the Roman general, entered the
Holy of Holies in 64 BC, he was amazed to find it was empty.
The Jews believed in a God who was too small, who made a physical building in Jerusalem
holy. Stephen had a view of God who was the almighty creator of the universe who could not
be contained within his own creation. “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did
not my hand make all these things?” (v49-50, quoting Is 66:1-2).
The Jewish leadership were threatened by Stephen, being desperate to hold on to what little of
God they had. This is why they attacked and killed Stephen. Stephen’s vision of the all-
powerful creator God enabled him to stand the ultimate test of faith of his death without fear
but full of a vision and revelation of God.
III. Paul preaching in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (13:16-41)
On his first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas first visited Cyprus, the home island of
Barnabas, before crossing over to the mainland of modern-day Turkey. They travelled inland
to Antioch of Pisidia, where Luke gives an example of the type of message that Paul preached
to Jews in the synagogue. His message included many events of Jewish history and the
naming of the most significant figures such as Moses and David. He also included many
quotations from the Scriptures. It should be remembered that his audience were Jews, who
would be entirely familiar with this history and would actually agree with at least the first part
of what Paul said.
Paul was recognised as a Jewish Rabbi, so it was natural that on visiting a synagogue, he
would be invited to bring a word of exhortation (v15).
He addresses Israelites and others who fear God (v16). The god-fearers were Gentiles who
attended the synagogue, but had not converted to Judaism as proselytes. These people were
attracted to the belief in one God and the higher standard of morality found in Judaism. In the
Book of Acts these people frequently responded quickly to the message of the Gospel, which
angered the Jews, who had often made great efforts in attracting god-fearing Gentiles to their
His message has a similar structure to Peter’s Pentecost message, with four main points:
1. The age of fulfilment has arrived.
2. A brief account of the ministry, death, resurrection and triumph of Jesus Christ.
3. Quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures (our OT), showing their fulfilment in Jesus
4. A call to repentance.
1. The age of fulfilment has arrived (v17-22)
Paul begins with a summary of the God’s working through the history of Israel, starting with
the patriarchs, then through Egypt, Moses, Joshua, the Judges, Samuel, Saul, leading to
David. He uses familiar Old Testament language, like God’s ‘uplifted arm’ (v17). Up to this
point in the message the Jews would agree with Paul. It is easy to imagine the nods of
agreement as they listened to him.
He gives a quotation from the Book of Samuel, “I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man
after my heart, who will carry our all my wishes” (1 Sam 13:14). In contrast to King Saul,
David’s fundamental desire was to obey and please God. Saul was removed and replaced by
2. Proclamation of Jesus (v23-31)
From David, Paul leads them to Jesus as the promised Saviour, the son and descendant of David (v23-24). After the exile in Babylon, there were no more kings, but an increasing desire and expectation for the Messianic deliverer, who will rescue Israel from domination by foreign powers. Immediately preceding Jesus was John the Baptist, who declared he was not the promised Saviour. Instead he testified to the greatness of Jesus, who will be coming after him (v25, quoting Lk 3:16).
Paul then tells his audience about the way Jesus was rejected by the Jewish leadership, with
an emphasis on predictive prophecy from the Scriptures. They did not recognise him as the
Messiah, and did not understand the words of the prophets they read each week (v27). They
were blinded, so instead of recognising Jesus as the fulfilment of the predictions, they actually
fulfilled those predictions by condemning him to death (v28). One of the characteristics of
predictive prophecy is that the words are not normally clearly understood until after their
fulfilment. By saying they took him down from the tree (v29), Paul is using language from
Deuteronomy, “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut 21:23).
He then proclaims the resurrection, that even though the Jews had him killed, God raised him
from the dead (v30), so he appeared to the disciples, who are now his witnesses (v31).
3. OT quotations (v32-36)
Paul quotes from three passages in the Scriptures to show that God’s promises have now been
fulfilled (v32-33). The first is from Psalm 2, which is a royal Psalm about the king of Israel,
“He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Ps 2:7). God had raised up
David to be the king, so now he is raising up the Son of David as the king.
The second is from Isaiah 55. “I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast,
sure love for David” (Is 55:3). Paul quotes from the Greek Septuagint where the wording is
slightly different, “I will give you the holy promises made to David”. By raising Jesus from
the dead, God fulfils the promise made to David (2 Sam 7:12-13), that he will never die
again, and that he will be the eternal king of Israel.
The third quotation is from Psalm 16, “You will not let your Holy One experience
corruption” (Ps 16:10). David died and his body decayed, is contrasted with the fact that Jesus
died and was raised, never to die again, so his body will never decay. This passage is also
quoted by Peter in his message on the Day of Pentecost, where he also reminds his audience
in Jerusalem that the tomb of David was still standing nearby (2:31).
4. Call to repent (v38-41)
To conclude, Paul gives a call to repentance, as well as a stern warning. Through Jesus
forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed (v38). These are sins that a person cannot be freed
from through the law of Moses (v39). Paul was speaking in Pisidian Antioch, which is in the
Roman province of Galatia. Later he wrote to these same people in his letter to the Galatians
about being free from the law, and the danger of returning under the law.
He ends with a stern warning not to miss out on what God is doing, through a quotation from
the prophet Habakkuk, “Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a
work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told” (Hab 1:5). For
Habakkuk, the surprising thing was God raising up the Chaldeans (Babylonians) as his agent
of judgement. Now God was also doing something surprising, which his scoffing audience
was at risk of missing.
The response to Paul’s message was mixed. Some were favourable, with some Jews and
converts who followed Paul and Barnabas (v43). Interestingly in the context of the Book of Galatians,
they urged the converts to continue in the grace of God. Perhaps they could see the danger of
the legalism that Paul would have to address in his letter.
The following Sabbath, there was great opposition from the Jews when they saw the crowds
gathering to hear Paul. Paul’s response was to turn away from the Jews to preach to the
Gentiles (v46), many of whom responded to the Word and became believers. This angered
the Jews even more, to so they stirred up persecution and drove Paul and Barnabas out of the
IV. Paul preaching to pagans in Lystra and Athens
Luke also gives two examples of the messages that Paul preached to a non-Jewish pagan
audience. These people would not have attended a synagogue, and would have little or no
knowledge of the history of Israel or of the Jewish Scriptures. If Paul preached the type of
message he preached in Pisidian Antioch it would have made no connection with his
audience. In both these messages Paul preaches about God, the maker of heaven and earth,
the creator and sustainer of the world.
His first message to Gentiles recorded in the Book of Acts was to an uneducated rural
audience in Lystra on his First Missionary Journey (Acts 14:15-17). This followed the healing
of the lame man, and the local population responding by wanting to offer sacrifices and
worship Barnabas and Paul as the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14:12). By thinking
that Barnabas was Zeus, the chief Greek god, the people assumed Barnabas was the more
prominent person. They thought Paul was Hermes, the messenger god, because he was the
chief speaker (v12).
Paul’s message is quite brief: “We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news,
that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and
the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to
follow their own ways, yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good - giving you
rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.”
The worthless things in this context would be Zeus and Hermes. These beings were merely
the product of human legend and imagination, so had no existence, no power, so were unable
to do anything. Paul contrasts these worthless things with the all-powerful living God, maker
of everything in the physical environment.
Many people through history have claimed that God was like a watchmaker who created the
world and then left it to run itself, no longer being involved. However, in this message, Paul
also proclaims that God is also the one who sustains the physical world, bringing the rains
and seasons and providing their food and well-being. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul
declares that Jesus was both the Creator and Sustainer of the world, “.. all things have been
created through him (Jesus) and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things
hold together.” (Col 1:16-17).
His second message was to the more educated and cultured urban audience in Athens on his
Second Missionary Journey (Acts 17:22-31). In this message, Paul preaches God as both
Creator and Judge. Paul begins by referring to an altar he had seen in the city dedicated to an
unknown god. Altars to unknown gods have been discovered, and the Greek writer Pausanias,
writing in AD 150, said that near Athens "there were altars to unnamed or unknown gods”.
This forms the basis of Paul’s message, that he can now reveal the truth about the god they do
not know. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who
made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in
shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed
anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things ...” (v23-24).
Paul declares that the god they do not know is the One True God, the Creator of heaven and
earth and of all humanity. There is a strong connection between creation and ownership. God,
the creator of everything is therefore Lord of heaven and earth, which gives him the authority
to be the judge of all. All his creation stands accountable to him.
Because God is the creator of all, he does not need shrines made by human hands, or to be
served by human hands (v24). God is the author of life, giving all men life and breath, as
well a providing everything we need to live on earth. A shrine (naos) is the Greek word for the dwelling place of a god. This is a similar point to that made by Stephen, that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (7:48).
Because God is the source of all life, he lacks nothing, and does not need anything from us
(v25). The same truth is stated in Psalm 50: “I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats
from your folds. For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I
know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine. If I were hungry, I would
not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine” (Ps 50:9-12).
God created all nations from one ancestor (v26), who the Bible names as Adam (Gen 2). The
Table of the Nations (Gen 10) shows that all the nations are descended from the
sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth. This statement has important implications today. If
all of humanity has a single ancestor, then there is absolutely no justification for any claims of
racial superiority of one racial group over another. There is only one race, the human race.
God is in charge of history, allotting to the different nations the time of their existence and the
boundaries of their land (v26). His purpose is that they would search for God and perhaps
find him, because he is not far from each one of us (v27). This does not imply that the
pantheistic idea that God is in each object, but rather that God is omnipresent, present
everywhere in his creation. Paul makes a similar point in his letter to the Romans, “For what
can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the
creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been
understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:19-20).
Paul supports his argument by giving two quotations from pagan Greek poets (v28). Both
were originally addressed to Zeus, the chief Greek god, the father of the other gods and of
mankind, who was the supreme being of Stoic philosophy. Paul is certainly not identifying
Zeus as the One True God, but uses these quotations to show the relationship between mortal
human beings and the immortal and supreme God.
The first is from the Cretan poet Epimenides, who lived in Knossos on the island of Crete,
around the sixth century BC. It comes from this short poem: “They fashioned a tomb for thee,
O holy and high one - The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies. But thou are not
dead; thou livest and abidest for ever. For in thee we live and move and have our being”.
Epimenedes is rebuking the Cretans for claiming that the tomb of the immortal god Zeus can
be found on the island of Crete. Paul quotes the statement, “The Cretans, always liars, evil
beasts, idle bellies” in the Book of Titus (1:12), and agrees with Epimenides. This is known
as the Epimenides paradox: if the Cretan Epimenides says that Cretans are always liars, how
do we know he is telling the truth? To the Athenians, he quotes the last line of the poem,
“For in thee we live and move and have our being”, applying words originally addressed to
Zeus to Almighty God. It is God who is the supreme being, and the source of all life.
The second is from Aratus of Cilicia in his Natural Phenomena, who says this about Zeus:
“Let us begin with Zeus; never let us leave him unmentioned, O mortals. All the roads are
full of Zeus and all men’s meeting places; the seas and harbours are full of him. In all our
ways we all have to do with Zeus; for we are also his offspring”. Paul quotes the final line,
“for we are also his offspring”. Greeks believed that humans were the offspring of Zeus. Paul
uses this quotation to show that all humans are offspring of the One True God, the Creator of
the World, and created in his image. If humans are God’s offspring then it is ridiculous to think of God in terms of an image made by human hands (v29).
In conclusion, Paul says that until now God has overlooked human ignorance, but now
commands all people everywhere to repent (v30). Paul is giving his audience the opportunity
to come to know this God who until now has been unknown to them. Without naming Jesus,
Paul declares that God has now fixed a day when he will cause the whole world stand before
him for judgement. God has appointed a man who will be his judge, and proved this by
raising him from the dead (v31).
Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul, rejecting any idea of a physical resurrection
after dead. Many believed that the physical body was like a prison house for the soul, from
which the soul was liberated after death. Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, wrote this,
“Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection” (Eumenides
647-648). This would explain why reaction to Paul’s speech was scoffing (v32).
The Athenians were very keen on academic philosophy, and did not respond well to Paul’s
declaration of moral responsibility before Almighty God.
It is sometimes argued that these messages from creation were ineffective. After his limited
success in preaching in Athens, the next city he arrived in was Corinth, where he declared, “I
decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Even though no mention of Jesus is made in these two messages to pagans, it appears that in other situations he preached a similar message, but which also included the proclamation of Jesus. To the Thessalonians he describes their testimony: “... how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” (1 Thess 1:9-10). He gives a similar description when writing to the Galatians: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (Gal 4:8).
Evangelism should be understood as a process, in which people are at very different stages. Only
those towards the end of the process are people ready to make an immediate response of faith.
Others need to have their current world-view challenged, so they can see the weaknesses in
their religious beliefs or world-view, and begin to question it. As they respond to these questions, they can begin to move along the process towards Jesus. The proclamation of God as the almighty creator can be a very important first step, particularly to pagan idol worshippers, and today to people who
have very little or no knowledge of the Christian Gospel or of Scripture.
These two messages are helpful in responding to the difficult question about those who have
Never Heard the Gospel.