Acts 17:16-34 Engaging the World on Its Own Terms

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teachingis that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Engaging the World on Its Own Terms

Some say that Paul’s visit to Athens is an example of what not to do.  They say that because he was not bold enough about the gospel, God did not work as powerfully through him.  He does not mention Jesus by name and, so they say, the Spirit does not work through him as powerfully as in other locations.

However, I think that it is a great example of how to engage with the world.  In many cases we do not see masses of people converted all in one go.  Paul starts by making points of connection with the world.  The truth that Paul knows is about the God who created the world that the Athenians lived in.  They should know basic truth from their experience of day-to-day living in God’s world.  The result is that Paul uses points of connection to start to tell a story.  It is the story of the way the world is and why it is that way.  His points of connection are the Athenian’s religious nature and the writing of their own poets and philosophers.

Many Christians I know today would say that Paul is too worldly.  He knew both the religious practices of the Greeks and he knew what was written in their books.  He had studied pagan culture and God used it to show the Greeks the truth embedded in their own insights and practices.  However, their understanding was incomplete and did not connect with the one, true God.  Paul is not saying that he knows everything about everything, but he is saying that their own learning and experience of life points to different conclusions than the ones they have drawn.

Some well know preachers say that we should not engage with the world’s truth.  I would say that the world has no truth of its own.  It has plenty of lies and it has truth that belongs to God.  It is essential that we see all truth as God’s truth and then we reconcile it with its author.  This is Paul’s basic strategy with the Athenians.

Prayer

May we be in the world but not of the world.  May we see your truth in beautiful movies and well-crafted books.  When music from godless artists raises our spirits, may they be raised to you.  May we communicate clearly that you are the author of all beauty, hope and wonder.  May the connection lead wayward people back to you.

Questions

  1. Describe Athens as Paul observed it in the first century.
  2. What is Paul’s strategy in Athens?
  3. Would you declare Paul’s visit to Athens a success or a failure?
  4. How do you engage people with different worldviews than your own?
  5. How well do you know other religions and philosophies?  What truths do they contain? What lies?
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About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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