When we look at the book of Acts, we see a lot of activity from the apostle Paul, the former persecutor of Jesus’ church who was changed by Jesus to go share the message of Jesus’ lordship and salvation to all who believe, Jew and Gentile alike. When going into Jewish settings, Paul had some common ground, such as a belief in the truth of Scripture. He didn’t have to convince them that God was the Creator, for example.
It’s a different story with certain Gentile audiences, particularly that of Athens. Acts 17:16-34 describes Paul’s time in this famous, cultured city of Greece. I see four things here that can help us approach much of our culture today, which is either ignorant of Scripture’s claims or hostile to them (or, often, both ignorant and hostile).
1. Start with where people are.
When Paul “saw that the city was given over to idols,” he was deeply troubled (17:16). He first observed something, and then “his spirit was provoked within him.” He had a concern based on that observation.
He did something about that concern, reasoning with Jews in the synagogue and Gentiles “in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there” (17:17). His discussions, which included proclaiming Jesus and the resurrection, resulted in an invitation to speak on the prestigious Mars Hill (Areopagus) where the philosophers gathered to listen to new ideas.
At the Areopagus, Paul introduces his message by starting with where the people were. He points out how religious they are, with many objects of worship. He chooses to speak to them about the God they do not know by pointing out their altar “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” He explains, even using a quotation from one of their own poets:
God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. (17:24-29)
Paul doesn’t just slam them with the gospel message. He respectfully and carefully starts with where they are and then takes them to truth about this “UNKNOWN GOD” who is completely different from the false gods they worship. Likewise, we need to observe where people are and move from the things that they worship and love to the true God.
2. Expect to be misunderstood and ridiculed.
Both before and after his invitation to the Areopagus, Paul was the object of ridicule. He was called a “babbler” by Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Some suggested that he was a “proclaimer of foreign gods” because of speaking about “Jesus and the resurrection” (17:18). This was “new doctrine” to his hearers (17:19).
After his message on the Areopagus, his mention of the resurrection of the dead prompted mocking in some (17:32).
We ought to expect ridicule, scorn, and mockery for sharing the gospel today. Be prepared to be called stupid, dumb, ignorant, and even worse adjectives, simply for believing God’s Word. Be prepared to be misunderstood and misrepresented. Be prepared to face people who don’t want to wrestle with what you are saying, but who want to dismiss it by making fun of it, as they have already tried to convince themselves it is untrue.
3. Make sure you get to Jesus.
Both in the marketplace and on the Areopagus, Paul got to Jesus in his proclamation. In the marketplace, “he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection” (17:18). To the philosopher crowd, he warned them that God was commanding “all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (17:30-31).
I find it telling that Paul speaks of Jesus in the marketplace, yet he’s still invited to the prestigious opportunity to address the philosophers. I also find it telling that once he’s there, he doesn’t back away with confronting them with the claims of Christ. This is Paul’s message and his very point; to have failed to bring the truth of man’s sin and accountability to his Creator and the coming judgment by the risen Jesus would have been to squander a unique opportunity.
It’s tempting to want to skirt around the periphery when we need to get to Jesus in our conversations with a modern day Athenian. We don’t have to go straight to Him, as we need to see where people are, but we need to intentionally work to get there, and sooner rather than later. We have no message without Jesus.
4. Trust God for the results.
Some say Paul was a failure here and that he abandoned this strategy for future opportunities. I don’t think you can find a shred of evidence for that view in the text. There’s no indicator that a different approach would have yielded different results. Paul took a rare opportunity for a Christian to address a cultured audience from their own stage. While there was much mocking, it was not universal, and it was not the only reaction. We are also told that “some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (17:34).
In a world hostile to the claims of the gospel, we will not meet with universal acceptance. We will have those who mock. But there will also be those who believe, and whose lives and eternal destiny are assuredly different. We are not unsuccessful if we faithfully seek to communicate God’s message in a way appropriate to the hearers amid a culture that would like to remain ignorant of the true God.
Scripture quotations in this post are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.