Read: Acts 17:16-34
Luke sets the stage for the second half of Acts 17 by enunciating Paul’s heart for the lost. He’s probably pretty depressed following the events in Thessalonica and Berea where he was essentially chased out of town. He now finds himself in the heart of the Greek world, surrounded by those who are no doubt greatly influenced by philosophies created by great thinkers of their time. The scene at the Areopagus is one I’ve heard used in sermons many times. It’s a powerful lesson in evangelism that we need to learn from as we each seek to understand our part in reaching out to those who are far from Christ, even the ones who are intellectually gifted about us or seem to have life all figured out. It begins with the heart.
What Breaks Your Heart?
One of my frequent prayers is for my heart to break for that which breaks God’s heart. You’ve probably heard this idea in sermons, teaching, or in songs. It’s a persistent theme in the Bible that is demonstrated by God’s relentless pursuit of His people. Some say it’s His reckless love.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. Acts 17:16
I wonder if we can see the idols that surround us? Pray for discernment as you stop to consider those things which we have made with our hands or with our minds that compete for the center of our attention. Anything less than Christ in the center of our thoughts is competing for our attention and potentially something we idolize. Screwtape would be pleased.
In the Synagogue and Marketplace
As usual, Paul begins in the synagogue where he “reasons” with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks as well as the marketplace with those who happened to be there. Paul’s intellectual approach was interesting to some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (see NIV Study Bible Note below), those who considered themselves above everyone else. They must have been impressed with Paul’s method of argument, so they took him to the center of popular debate for the greatest of minds — the Areopagus.
Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” Acts 17:19-20
Luke’s parenthetical remarks give us a clue about his opinion of these proceedings:
(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) Acts 17:21
Nothing But Talk
As I sit in the early morning to create these blog entries, I wonder how close I am to those who do nothing but thinking and talking rather than seeing and doing. I trust my brothers and sisters in Christ we keep me honest here. I don’t want to fall into the trap of these philosophers!
To An Unknown God
Paul continues to look for a way to reach out to these people, to take advantage of the position God has placed him. He looks around and sees an altar that gives him an idea:
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. Acts 17:23
While his approach might seem brash, I think the philosophic elite appreciated the banter. By referring to this self-proclaimed elitest group as ignorant, Paul got their attention then summarized the creation story as he explained that there is one God who created all things for a purpose.
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. Acts 17:27
Then there is a twist.
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. Acts 17:30
And the final plunge:
He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. Acts 17:31
Many were going along with Paul until he got to this notion of resurrection. For some this was interesting, for others a bridge too far.
Some will hear, some will not. The difference between these two groups is for the Holy Spirit to decide, but it is our responsibility to meet people where they are, to approach them from a point of mutual respect, then deliver the gospel message clearly and accurately. From this point, we continue the conversation with those who are moved while leaving the others in a place where someone else might be better suited to address concerns.
The key is not to burn bridges, as much as possible, while not diluting the gospel message. This is not easily done by man but is the work of the Spirit within us. As we learn to discern the voice of the Spirit within each of us, I believe we will continue to become more effective at reaching those in the Areopagus of today, wherever that is and whatever that looks like.
In the world of apologetics, we know that few hearts are moved by intellectual debate, yet some are. As William Lane Craig proposes in his book, Reasonable Faith, when we are able to help move someone renowned as highly intelligent, e.g., doctor, lawyer, or scientist, we are able to affect many others just because of their position in society.
As I wrap up this post let me draw your attention to the opening phrase: “he was greatly distressed to see…” The motivation to seek and save the lost comes from a place of seeing what others do not see. If anyone saw someone drowning, I have no doubt they would do everything in their power to save the victim. That might look like a call to 9-1-1 or that might be jumping in the water. It might be organizing a rescue party or speaking gently to the panicking person. It depends on the situation and the resources at hand.
Those who have received Christ have the Holy Spirit indwelling within. We have the answers. The challenge is to figure out how to hear His voice within as we do the ministry He has laid before us each and every day.
I pray for discernment, that you and I would see that which the world does not. I pray we will see those who are lost among us, regardless of their temporary social status. And more, I pray we will be burdened to do something about what we see. You’re not alone in this battle. There are many who pray this prayer.
NIV Study Bible Note on Acts 17:18: Epicurean . . . philosophers. Originally they taught that the supreme good is happiness—but not mere momentary pleasure or temporary gratification. By Paul’s time, however, this philosophy had degenerated into a more sensual system of thought. Stoic philosophers. They taught that people should live in accord with nature, recognize their own self-sufficiency and independence and suppress their desires. At its best, Stoicism had some admirable qualities, but, like Epicureanism, by Paul’s time, it had degenerated into a system of pride.