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chronology, historical context

From Athens to Corinth: How Paul’s experience at Mars Hill led to his determination to know nothing but Christ crucified

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul said that when he arrived in their city he came determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:1,2). Why was that?

The historical context of this passage is found in Acts 17:16-34. It’s a long block of scripture, so I won’t quote it all here, but it is the story of when Paul left Berea and came to Athens. He was alone, waiting for Silas and Timothy to return from Thessalonica, and when he saw how religious the citizens of the city were his spirit was stirred in him to proclaim to them the one true God. So he reasoned with the Jews in the synagogue and in the marketplace with whomever he found that would listen. Eventually he was invited by certain of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers to present his case at the Areopagus on Mars Hill (this is where they brought anyone who had a new message or teaching for the people to consider).

Paul must have felt an opportunity on this occasion to release the full power of his intellect and learning. Usually he found himself dealing with illiterate slaves and common folk, but here he was surrounded by the brightest and the best. So he told them of the Lord who did not dwell in man-made temples and he quoted from their own poets who talked about all people being the offspring of God. The Athenians gave him an audience right up to the point where he proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They simply could not fathom the idea that a man could be raised from the dead. A few in the crowd believed, but overall the impression given by Luke is one of disappointing results. Most of the listeners simply brushed off the message Paul was bringing to them.

Soon after this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth (Acts 18:1), and from his own admission we know that he came determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. The connection here is just too clear to overlook. Paul’s experience with the philosophers in Athens led him to the conclusion he writes about in the second chapter of 1 Corinthians. He had tried to meet these Stoics and Epicureans on their own ground, appealing with full force to their natural wisdom and reasoning. The resulting fruit, however, was minimal. The gospel was a thing to be mocked in their eyes. Apparently Paul learned a valuable lesson from this encounter. So when he came to Corinth he made sure that his proclamation of the testimony of God was not with “lofty speech” or “plausible words of wisdom,” but was “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 3:1,4). Why? So that the Corinthians’ faith “might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

Then he goes on to speak of the wisdom of the natural man and how that wisdom is foolisness to God. The deep things of God-the things no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and that which man cannot even imagine-are known only by the Spirit. The natural person-like those Athenians-cannot accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2:14).

There’s just so much to learn from this occasion in Paul’s life. At any rate, it’s interesting to see the connection here between his letter to the Corinthians and his experience in Athens. A little bit of historical background goes a long way in shedding new light on the text, as hopefully you can see.

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About Joshua

Writer, husband, father, friend.

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