Paul on Mars Hill

Acts 17:22-34    |   Sunday, March 11, 2007   |   Code: 2007-11-03b-PJ

by Phil Johnson 

     The passage we'll be looking at is found in Acts 17, where Paul preaches among the intellectual elite of Athens. This is one of the classic examples of New Testament gospel-preaching. Here we see the apostolic evangelistic strategy in action. It's an especially helpful example of how to confront false religion, philosophy, and elitism in an evangelistic setting. And it takes place in a highbrow academic environment. It's one of the best-known portions of the book of Acts, but it's also one of the most-abused sections in all of Scripture. It's a favorite passage for people today who are trying to fashion a postmodern version of Christianity.

     While you are turning to Acts 17, let me point out that virtually every plenary speaker so far this week has used the word contextualization, and no less than a dozen times in the past couple of days, people have asked me to define what that term actually means. It has become part of the common jargon of late-20th century evangelicalism. It's one of those fad-words like missional that we hear over and over again, but like most catch-phrases and fad-words, those terms sometimes seem like they don't mean quite the same thing to any two people.

     Also like a lot of evangelical jargon, these words are used to cover a multitude of sins. All of a sudden you can say or do the most crass, worldly, and even profane things—even from the pulpit—and justify it by saying you're being "missional." You can wear all the badges and speak all the vulgar language of secular culture's dark side, and then you can vindicate your profanity by insisting all you are doing is "contextualizing" the gospel for subcultures who act and speak like that as a way of life. The goal, they say, is to make Christianity seem more familiar and more comfortable and less counter-cultural to the people whom we are trying to reach.

     Contextualization is a word and a concept that first gained traction among evangelicals in the realm of Bible translation. Obviously, if you take the word of God to a culture like eskimos where they have no clue what sheep are, you need to find a way to explain all the pastORal references in terms that eskimos can understand. Something like Psalm 100:3 ("We are His people and the sheep of His pasture") is harder for an eskimo to relate to than it is for a New Zealander. So in one instance, a group of Bible translators making a Bible for a unique eskimo language translated the word "sheep" as "sea lions" everywhere you find it in the Bible. (I can't imagine what that does to the 23rd psalm or why it wouldn't be a whole lot easier just to teach eskimos what sheep are, but there you have it.) That's contextualization, in the sense Bible translators normally use the term. I suppose you could see it as a kind of dynamic equivalence run amok.

     So if you want a formal definition, contextualization is the practice of altering either the terminology or the content of our message in order to employ the language, cultural tokens, styles, values and preoccupations of the culture or subculture we are trying to reach.

     Obviously, there's a legitimate sense in which it's absolutely essential to translate the gospel into the language of the country or people-group we want to reach. The apostle Paul himself said, "to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews . . . to those who are without law, as without law ( [but, he added, ]not being without law toward God . . . ) . . . to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). Paul was talking about not merely speaking the language but also observing the formal customs of differing cultures in order to keep from making himself a bigger stumbling-block than the gospel already is. You won't find it very easy to evangelize Hasidic Jews if your strategy is inviting them to your home and serving ham casseroles. There's an obvious sense in which it is right and good and necessary to avoid the cultural taboos of whatever people-group you are trying to minister to.

     But when you hear people who are enthralled with the idea of contextualization these days, they usually turn that principle on its head. Rather than avoiding cultural taboos in order not to obscure the gospel unnecessarily, they are trying purposely to flout as many taboos as possible. Unlike Paul, who wanted to avoid anything considered impolite or uncouth so that the gospel could be heard without unnecessary distractions, they want to maximize the shock-and-awe effect, thinking that is going to gain them a better hearing with the South-Park generation.

     They also usually go far beyond adopting the language and the social conventions of polite culture (you know: things like bowing and showing deference in the proper places) and they try to adapt the content of the gospel message as much as possible to the worldview of whatever subculture they see as their target audience. Not only do sea lions become an acceptable substitute for sheep; postmodern tolerance becomes an acceptable replacement for Christian charity.

     One advocate of contextualization defines the term this way: he says it means temporarily adopting whatever worldview is held by the people we are trying to reach, so that we can speak to them as one of them, and not as outsiders and aliens.

     In practice, the idea has dramatically changed the evangelistic strategy so that the number one goal in contemporary evangelical outreach is for the church to assimilate into the world as much as possible—and above all, be cool—so that the world will like us. That is actually the driving idea behind both seeker-sensitivity and the Emerging church approach.

     The idea of "contextualization" by adjusting Christianity as much as possible to existing beliefs and traditions was probably the twentieth century's most significant contribution to ministry strategy—and it is not a good one. It has made the church indistinguishable from the world, indistinct in its message, and (frankly) ineffectual as an evangelistic force in an unbelieving culture.

     In the last decade or so, this passion for contextualizing everything has shown no restraint whatsoever. That's why you read so many newspaper articles nowadays about churches that meet in bars, and men's ministries that feature poker games, and churches where the main place for the corporate gathering is outfitted with comfy sofas where people can sit and talk to one another—instead of pews where they can sit and listen to a preacher.

     One website promoting contextualization quotes Ernest Hemingway, "Bait the hook according to what the fish likes, not what the fisherman likes." That web page goes on to say this is the key to all effective missional ministry: "You have to be what they are looking for."

     This plays out in various ways. You have some people who think in order to reach a generation weaned on Ultimate Fighting and MTV, you have to live and breathe and speak that language, with all its profanity and vulgarity and sexual innuendo. Be loud and proud with it. And if you don't frame the gospel in that kind of context, you simply cannot reach postmoderns.

     Another approach to contextualization has taken it a totally different direction, saying that if you really want to reach postmodernized cultures and subcultures, you cannot preach anything with strong convictions. Certainty is offensive to postmodern sensitivities; firm doctrinal positions are perceived as arrogant; and traditional approaches to Christianity are hopelessly uncool. So in the words of Brian Mclaren, "Everything must change." We'll get further with people today if we listen to them rather than preach to them. And that all is supposed to sound very friendly and affable and humble and gracious.

     But it's not. It's really uncharitable and arrogant—and it's a rebellion against the truth. Here's a good rule of thumb: any time you encounter someone whose ministry philosophy is more concerned with style and methodology than with truth and clarity, steer clear.

     It's troubling today that the gospel has been relegated to the back of the shelf or done away with altogether in the name of being "missional." The gospel ought to be front and center in everything. But instead, postmodern strategists have all but set aside the content of the Christian message, and they are obsessed instead with things like culture, contextualization, conversation, and charitableness. Those are the chief tools for reaching unbelievers, no the gospel itself.


     Often you will hear people trying to justify their style-driven strategies by singling out this famous account of how Paul ministered among the elite philosophers of Athens. "He blended into the culture," they say. "He contextualized his message by speaking in the language and style of his hearers. He observed their religion and listened to their beliefs and learned from them before he tried to teach them. And he didn't step on their toes by refuting what they believed. Instead, he took their idea of the unknown god, embraced that, and used it as the starting point for his message about Christ. And right there you have all the major elements of postmodern missional ministry: culture, contextualization, conversation, and charitableness.

     Now I think you're going to see as we look at this passage a little more carefully that Paul used none of those strategies—at least not in the way they have been defined and packaged by most of today's postmodern, Emergent, and missional church leaders.

     In reality, Paul was bold and plain-spoken. He was counter-cultural, confrontive, confident, and (by Athenian standards, much less today's standards) closed-minded. He offended a significant number of Athens's intellectual elite, and he walked away from that encounter without winning the admiration of society at large, but with just a small group of converts who followed him.

     That is the biblical approach to ministry. You don't measure its success or failure by how pleased the crowd is at the end of the meeting. Our first concern is the clarity and power with which the message was delivered. The right question to ask is not how many people received the message warmly. (It's nice if they do, but that's not usually the majority response.) The right question to ask is whether the signs of conviction are seen in those who have heard. And sometimes a forceful negative reaction is the result of the gospel's convicting aspects. In fact, when unbelievers walk away without repenting of sin and embracing Christ, an overtly hostile reaction is a much better indication that the message was delivered clearly and accurately than a round of applause and an outpouring of good feeling from a crowd of appreciative worldlings.

     We need to remember that. We're tempted to think that when people reject the gospel it's because we have done a poor job of presenting it. Sometimes that may be true, but it's not necessarily true. But the proper focus for us is to be as clear and accurate as possible, and not to be a stumbling-block that keeps people from hearing the gospel. But the gospel itself is a stumbling-block for unbelievers, so people will stumble and even get angry when they are presented with it. And we have no right to try to reshape the gospel so that it's no longer a stumbling-block. You can't proclaim the gospel faithfully if your goal is for no one ever to be offended or upset by it.

     We could learn a lot from what Jesus did in John 6. That chapter begins with this (verse 2): "Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased." They liked it when He did miracles, but they didn't want His message. He preached to them anyway, and at the end of the chapter, John writes (verse 66): "From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more." And then while the crowd was diminishing to almost nothing (verse 67), John says Jesus turned to the twelve and said, "Do you also want to go away?" and verse 70: "Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?" In the face of a mass exodus of His disciples, Jesus was not concerned about doing what He could to seem more "likeable." He pressed the message with more clarity and more candor than ever.

     That's exactly what Paul does here in Acts 17. His strategy was about as far as possible from the postmodernized approach that drives so much of the contemporary evangelical church's outreach efforts.

     So let's start with a simple list of postmodern terms. These are the tools that supposedly are essential for missional outreach today: culture, contextualization, conversation, and charitableness. Let's use those four words as our outline to work through a survey of Paul's sermon, and if you didn't get all four, don't worry; I'll repeat them as we move from point to point.

     First is—



     Now this will take a minute to cover, because we need to go back at least to verse 13 to understand the context of this incident. Paul was ministering in Berea, where he had gone under cover of night (verse 10) after his ministry in Thessalonica had stirred up so much civil unrest that he could not minister publicly there without the threat of a riot.

     Berea was about forty miles inland from Thessalonica and not on a major trade route, so the plan might have been to go where they could preach the gospel without quite so much deliberate opposition from the Jewish leaders.

     But when Paul went to Berea, he didn't lay low and hide out, or try to minister quietly through private discipleship sessions. He started proclaiming the gospel in the synagogue and the public square there, too.

     However, Luke says (verse 13), "when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds. Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both Silas and Timothy remained there." So Paul's missionary team spirited away into hiding yet again. He was clearly not winning general admiration and grass-roots popularity in the cultures where he was taking the gospel. People kept trying to kill him.

     Paul couldn't go back to Thessalonica or Berea now, because his enemies in those cities were determined to disrupt any ministry he did. So (verse 15), "those who conducted Paul brought him to Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they departed." I presume he went by ship, because that seems the easiest, safest, and most reasonable way to travel from the coast near Berea to Athens.

     Now, here's the scenario: Paul is cut off from his missionary team and sent to Athens for his own safety. From Berea and Thessalonica to Athens is about four days' travel by land and two or three days by sea (depending on the wind and the tides). So when Paul sends word back to Timothy and Silas to join him in Athens, he probably has about a two-week wait before they can join him there, and he spends that time alone in Athens, investigating the city and its culture. But he simultaneously launches his public ministry in Athens both at the synagogue there, and in the public square.  

     Verses 16-18: "Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, "What does this babbler want to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods," because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection."

     What's crucial to notice here, first of all, is Paul's relationship to the culture. He doesn't try to assimilate. He doesn't embrace the culture and look for ways to shape the gospel to suit it. He is repulsed by it. Look at verse 16 again: "his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols." The English really doesn't do full justice to the meaning of the expression. The Greek word for "provoked" is paroxuno, which is a very intense word meaning "exasperated" or "agitated." It conveys the idea of outrage and indignation.

     Paul, of course, was well educated, and he was fully aware of the history and the details of Greek mythology and the religion of Athens. (He even had memorized passages from Greek poets and writers, as we are going to see.) But this was his first time to be in Athens and see all the temples and the omnipresent idolatry with his own eyes. Wherever he looked, he saw the signs of it—sophisticated, intellectual, completely unspiritual religion that was utterly without any reference to the true God. That was the defining mark of that culture, and it grieved Paul deeply.

     So he immediately began confronting the idolatry by proclaiming Christ. Notice: when Luke says in verse 17 that "he reasoned" with people in these public places, he's not suggesting that Paul had cream tea and quiet conversation with them. It means he stood somewhere where people couldn't miss him and began to preach and proclaim like a herald, and then he interacted with hecklers and critics and honest inquirers alike. Luke uses the Greek word dialegomai [dee uh LEG oh my], from which the English word dialogue is derived, but the Greek expression is a very strong one, and it conveys the idea of a debate, a verbal disputation. It can also speak of a sermon or a philosophical and polemical argument. Paul did all of that. He took on all comers.

     In fact, in the King James Version, it says he "disputed . . . in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with [whoever] met with him." That's not to say that he was belligerent or pugnacious, but he proclaimed the truth about Christ and then responded to whatever questions or arguments or objections people raised.

     In other words, he confronted their false beliefs; he did not try to accommodate them. Paul was deliberately and intentionally counter-cultural. He didn't say, Oh, these people think the idea of bodily resurrection is foolish; I'd better low-key that part of the message. He did exactly the opposite. He studied the culture with an eye to confronting people with the very truths they were most prone to reject.

     And he wasn't winning any admiration from the intellectual elite for his cultural sensitivity, either. Notice, verse 18, "certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him." And as we're going to see, they were not impressed. They called him a seed-picker and more or less made sport of him.

     The Epicureans and the Stoics were two very influential and competing brands of Greek philosophy.

     The Stoics were secular determinists who believed the height of human enlightenment was achieved by complete indifference to pleasure or pain. When I say they were determinists, I mean they believed everything is predestined unchangeably by random chance, and therefore nothing really matters in the ultimate sense. They were fatalistic. Think of them as secular hyper-Calvinists with a dose of Greek Mythology defining the theistic elements of their religion. Their goal was self-mastery through the overcoming of the emotions—and they lived austere, simple lives enjoying as few pleasures as possible. The stoic sect was founded by Zeno around 300 BC, so the system was three and a half centuries old and a mainstay of Greek philosophy when Paul encountered these guys.

     The Epicureans were at the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum. They believed the chief end of man was to enjoy pleasure and avoid pain. They indulged in all the finest things and richest pleasures this life had to offer. Epicureanism was likewise 350 years old, and one of its central ideas was that God is not to be feared. They did not believe in life after death, so their one goal was earthly happiness—practically the opposite of Stoicism.

     The Stoics and the Epicureans were poles apart on the philosophical spectrum and obviously adversarial in many of their beliefs. And there's no doubt that some of the most interesting debates between competing Greek philosophies pitted Stoics against Epicureans and vice versa.

     But they also shared some of their most fundamental beliefs in common, and those common beliefs were the defining elements of Greek thought and culture. Both philosophies were materialistic and man-centered and therefore they were united in their resistance to all biblical truth.

     There was a third major strain of Greek philosophy not named here by Luke—the Cynics. And even though Cynicism isn't specifically named by Luke, it's almost certain that Cynics in this audience. You can tell that from the response Paul received. The Cynics believed virtue is defined by nature—and true happiness is achieved by freeing oneself from unnatural vales like wealth, fame, and power and living in harmony with nature. They were the original hippies, known for their neglect of things like personal hygiene, accountability, family responsibilities, and whatever. Cynicism was the oldest of all these strains of philosophy, dating back to about 400 years before Christ, so Cynicism was also an ancient system—450 years old by the time Paul stood in the Areopagus. It was still a robust system in Athens, and Cynics had a peculiar knack for irritating the other philosophers. The famous Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who was a contemporary of the Apostle Paul, said this about the Cynics of that time: "[They] are dogs that wait at tables, and in no respect [do they] imitate the Cynics of old except perchance in breaking wind."

     Remember, Paul was grieved by Athenian culture. It would be foolish to suggest that he embraced any of the defining spiritual elements of such a culture. His message was counter-culture and disturbing to the ears of Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics alike.

     But some of these high-powered philosophers heard him disputing in the marketplace and thought, Hey, this guy would be interesting in a discussion with the elite minds of Athens. They could surely tell Paul was an educated man, not just a random crackpot. And yet his ideas seemed so bizarre to their way of thinking that they could not find a way to categorize him neatly in their systems. He was clearly neither Stoic nor Epicurean nor Cynic. He stood in opposition to all of them, and that was obvious, because of what he preached: "Jesus and the resurrection."

     And their attitude toward him is obvious in what they said: "some said, 'What does this babbler want to say?'" They used a word that meant "seed-picker"—comparing him to a chicken picking up a seed here and there—as if to say, "He has a cogent thought now and then, but it's so mixed with these strange notions about resurrection that we wonder where he picked up the knowledge he does have." Like a seed-picking bird, pecking and swallowing here and there, but not really very sophisticated. He was clearly out of step with every major system of human wisdom known at the time. Counter-cultural.

     That's what they meant by "a proclaimer of foreign gods"—a prophet of some new and unconventional counter-cultural religion.

     But Paul was articulate enough to catch these philosophers' attention, and at least he was a novelty. That, according to verse 21, was something they loved: "For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing." Very much like our own culture. Athens was the place to surf the ancient Web and see what's new. And Paul was like the latest viral YouTube video.

     So (verse 19) "they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, 'May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.'"

     Now that finally gets us into the actual passage we want to survey: Paul's sermon. He is brought to the Areopagus ("Mars Hill" in the King James Version)—named for the place where these philosophers had started meeting centuries before. Here was Paul, surrounded by the most high-powered minds of the most intellectual city in the world, and he has an opportunity to speak to them. And this is what he said (verse 22):

22  Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious;

23  "for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:

Now, here is where many people today would say Paul adapted to and embraced their culture rather than being confrontive or antagonistic to the culture, because he begins with a reference to their beliefs (and especially the religious culture) of the city, and he makes that the point of contact.

     But now remember, we have to read this in light of its context, and verse 16 says this was the very aspect of Athenian culture that most grieved Paul. In other words, he homed in on the one point of culture that most disturbed him, and he began there, because that is what he most wanted to challenge. That was the main lie he wanted to answer with the truth, and he made a beeline for it: "You are very religious," he says. "I can see it everywhere."

     But the truth is, they weren't religious at all. They had all the trappings of religion, with temples and idols everywhere, but their ancient religions were nothing but superstition run amok, but all of that had long ago morphed into a simple love of human wisdom. That's what they worshiped (1 Corinthians 1:22): "The Greeks seek after wisdom." Philosophy was the only god they really served.

     The Epicureans didn't even believe in an afterlife, and the Stoics were materialists whose God was an amorphous and utterly impersonal notion of nature. The Cynics had deified nature. In other words, all the major strains of Greek philosophy were fundamentally materialistic. They had fashioned a kind of quasi-spirituality that in fact was not spiritual at all. None of them believed in a personal God. None of them had any higher value than human wisdom. Their ethics were naturalistic and materialistic. They were practical Atheists—in many ways a mirror of our own society today. (It's really striking how the worldly wisdom of that day was not vastly different from what supposedly enlightened people today believe.)

     They weren't religious at all. Paul was clearly using sanctified sarcasm when he started out by observing how religious they were.

     Now, their culture, like ours, had all the trappings of religion, and they were omnipresent: temples on every corner, idols, priests and priestesses, and lots of superstitions and deeply-ingrained traditions. But these were almost entirely devoid of any kind of true faith. That stuff just saturated all society. It had the very same significance as all the cathedrals in Europe today, or all the church buildings you'll see if you drive through New England.

     But in the tradition of their polytheistic mythology, they deified everything. There was a god of war (Ares); the sun god (Apollo); Hades, the Lord of the underworld; Hermes, the messenger-god; Poseidon, God of the sea; and Zeus, king of the gods. And those were just the Olympian gods. There were also primordial gods, including Aether, the god of the atmosphere; Chronos, the god of time; Eros, the god of love; Erebus, the god of shadow, and many more. Then there were the Titans, and the nymphs, and the giants, the river god, and hundreds of lesser gods. And of course no educated person in Athens really believed any of those gods were real, but they were part of the culture's mythology.

     And when they ran out of things to deify, someone decided to erect a monument to whatever god there might be who was overlooked by the Greek system, just so that no deity was inadvertently slighted. They had this altar "To the Unknown God." Sort of like our tomb of the unknown soldier. Just in case they overlooked giving honor to a hidden deity somewhere, they had an altar that covered the bases.

     Paul had seen that altar, and he seized on that for the opening of his message. You have to understand; this was by no means an affirmation of their culture. Just the opposite. It was Paul's way of homing in on what was spiritually most odious about the culture. In this quasi-religious, deeply superstitious, man-centered intellectual culture—here was an altar to something unknown. The irony was rich, because what they really worshiped was human wisdom and knowledge, but here was an altar to something they were admittedly ignorant about. And Paul more or less rubs salt in that wound. He places the accent on their utter ignorance of the one thing that matters most: This God whom you are utterly ignorant about; that's the God whose name I want to declare to you.

     Don't miss what Paul was doing here. He wasn't shoe-horning God into an open niche in Greek mythology. He wasn't affirming their beliefs or embracing this aspect of their culture at all. He was seizing on this one supremely important point where they admitted their own ignorance, and he was using that as a foot in the door so that he could proclaim to them the gospel. As far as the religious aspect of their culture was concerned, he stood against it, and this opening statement made that fact absolutely clear to them. He could not possibly have been more counter-cultural.

     It was as if someone got in the midst of a bunch of academic postmodernists today and declared that the Bible is true. Just imagine an auditorium full of postmodernist college professors wringing their hands about epistemological humility and the dangers of overconfidence and the uncertainty of human knowledge and the subjectivity of all our opinions—and the whole dose of postmodern angst about being sure about anything. And suppose you stood up in front of that group with a Bible and declared, "Here's something you can be rock-solid certain about, because God Himself revealed it as absolute truth." That's what this was like. Counter-culture.

     So Paul does not use "culture" as a kind of pragmatic or ecumenical evangelistic tool in order to get himself into their inner circle and become a part of their group in order to win them. He stands in their midst as an alien to their culture and (in his own words) proclaimed the truth about God to them.

     That's the first tool of postmodern ministry: culture. Here's another one:



     Notice, again, Paul is simply declaring the truth here; not sponsoring a colloquium about it. He had already provoked discussions and debates about the gospel in the synagogue and in the marketplace, but now that he had his foot in the door and an audience with the Areopagus, he doesn't say, "Let's talk about this. I'm interested in learning more about your approach to the spiritual disciplines and your ideas about ethics. And tell me what you guys think about the God of Abraham, and maybe we can learn from one another."

     No. Again, he homes in on the very heart of what he wants them to know. He is preaching here, not inviting a conversation. Verse 24:

24  "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.

25  "Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.

26  "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,

27  "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;

What I want you to notice here is that this is a simple declaration of truth, not an offer to exchange ideas. He starts with the basic principles of theology proper. He declares that God is creator ("God . . . made the world and everything in it"). That's the essential starting place of all biblical truth. He affirms the authority of God ("He is Lord of heaven and earth.") He affirms the spirituality of God to these materialistic philosophers ("[He] does not dwell in temples made with hands"). And he affirms the sufficiency of God, His sovereignty, His transcendence, His imminence, and His power as the giver and sustainer of all life. It's a remarkable course in theology proper in a very brief economy of words. And all of it was flatly contradictory to what these philosophers believed.

     But there's no give-and-take exchange of opinions. Paul does not act deferential in the presence of these great minds. He does not assume a false humility and pretend he's just a truth seeker on his own spiritual journey looking for companions along the way. He declares the truth of God to them with authority and conviction. He does not use the conversational style and subdued demeanor most people today think we need to use so that we're not thought arrogant.

     Paul wasn't arrogant, because he was declaring infallible truth God had revealed. He was not merely floating an opinion of his own for the philosophers to kick around. And he used an appropriate method: a sermon, not a conversation.

     Culture; conversation. Here's that favorite tool of postmodern evangelism—contextualization. Paul did not use that tactic, either:



     Now, again, there is an obvious and legitimate need to speak a language people understand if you want to reach them. Paul didn't go into Athens and speak Hebrew to the Areopagites. He spoke Greek. There's the least bit remarkable about that. What Paul did not do was adapt his message in any way to the basic values and belief systems of that culture. That's what I mean when I say he shunned the tactic of contextualization.

     Let's look at look at what he did do. Every died-in-the-wool contextualizer will point out that he quoted the philosophers' favorite poets right back at them. Verse 28: "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.'" He's quoting two well-known poets there. Epimenides, a poet from the island of Crete in the sixth century BC, wrote the line, "In Him we live and move and have our being." And Aratus, a Macedonian poet from the third century BC, wrote "we are also His offspring." Two lines from poets who were already ancient in Paul's lifetime.

     Notice: Paul was not embracing aspects of the first-century Greek worldview or culture; he was not affirming what was fashionable in the Greek academy of his own day. Quite the opposite. He was quoting from their ancient literature to express his own worldview and show that in a common-grace sense, these were truths that had been revealed to them also, and they were there in black and white in their ancient writings. And he was using those quotations from the literature of their forefathers to confront the more contemporary and popular worldview of that generation.

     As a matter of fact, Paul was doing his utmost to demolish their worldview, so he goes systemically through a list of ideas they held in error, and he confronts them with true ideas instead.

     There he stood in Athens, amid countless temples and idols. Talking to the culture's most enlightened minds, all of whom held worldviews that were for all practical purposes atheistic, materialistic, and superstitious all at once. Half of them believed in an afterlife, but it was a disembodied, spiritual notion of the afterlife. The other half were such hardened materialists that they believed when the body died and the molecules went back to dust, that was it. There was no such thing as a human soul and thus no conscious existence after death.

     It was very much like our secularized, atheistic culture today. So Paul is surrounded by these massive stone temples that were relics of a mostly-discarded belief system when he says what he is about to say. Verse 29:

29  "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.

30  "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent,

31  "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."

Wow. He could hardly have said anything more counter-cultural, more in conflict with the prevailing worldview, and less contextualized for Athenian philosophers.

     Without trying to exegete Paul's whole speech, let me point out a handful of his major points in this short message—at least six points in the span of six verses—that would have been deeply offensive to the Athenian philosophers. And Paul knew enough about their beliefs to know that he was challenging their most precious presuppositions—the building blocks of their whole worldview.

     For one thing, in verse 24-25, when he says, "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything"—Paul was summarily dismissing all the fundamentals of Greek-style religion. Paul certainly knew what Greek mythology taught. And the Athenian Philosophers weren't naive about world religions either. It wasn't as if they were clueless about Judaism or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Paul wasn't introducing them to a God they had never heard of. He was telling them as plainly as possible that their beliefs were wrong. He was declaring the truth about God—not in the philosophical style they were accustomed to, as if to make himself seem enlightened and wise, but he was preaching authoritative truth from God Himself. Furthermore, He stressed that the God of Scripture is not just another character who belonged in the Greek Pantheon. Notice: Paul insists that God is "Lord of heaven and earth"; He "does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands," but is fully self-sufficient and sovereign over all. It was tantamount to a bold and wholesale dismissal of every aspect of Greek religion. And you can bet those Athenians got the point.

     Furthermore, when he said in verse 26 that God "has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth" he was attacking one of the common assumptions of the Athenian elite, because they were convinced the Greek race was superior to every other strain of humanity. When he said God "has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings," he was emphatically affirming the sovereignty of the one true God to this bunch of materialistic determinists who believed in the sovereignty of blind, mechanistic chance.

     In verse 27, where Paul says, "God is not far from each one of us" (and then emphasizes that truth again in verse 28) he was declaring the immanence of God, an idea that was considered utterly ludicrous by Athenian intellectuals. And when (in verse 29) he ridiculed the idea "that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising"—and then in verse 30 described that idea as the defining mark of "these times of ignorance"—we have to remember that he was talking to the one crowd in the entire world who were least likely to admit that anything they believed could properly be labeled "ignorant."

     It begins to look like Paul was deliberately trying to provoke them. And in a true sense he was. He caps the sermon in verse 30 with a demand for repentance. And believe me: that was no less offensive on the Areopagus in the first century than it would be in the UN general council today. Paul could have hardly packed more hard truth and counter-cultural commentary into those few words. Every sentence Paul said had something in it that would be offensive to those philosophers.

     Now, it should be obvious that in the sense postmodern evangelicals often use these terms, Paul did not employ either culture, conversation, or contextualization as the primary tools of his strategy for reaching Athens. What about the final item in the postmodernist's toolbox?



     Now let me be clear: when I speak of charitableness here, I'm not talking about the true biblical virtue of charity as it is defined in 1 Corinthians 13. Instead, what I have in mind is the postmodern notion of "charitableness"—a broad-minded, altruistic, overly tolerant attitude toward opposing beliefs and non-Christian religions, where you refuse to take dogmatic positions on anything. You always leave open the possibility that someone else's truth is better than yours. You never write off someone else's beliefs completely; and you always seek to be conciliatory, full of goodwill for the other person's worldview. Bottom line: you take the position that nothing we believe is really anything more than a personal opinion.

     That kind of charitableness also uses appeasement rather than confrontation to try to win the other person's admiration.

     Did Paul do that here? It sounds pretty silly even to raise that question, doesn't it? You know he didn't do that. He simply proclaimed the message Christ had given him to preach, "not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Corinthians 2:4).

     And notice: once again, he headed straight for the one truth he knew very well would sound like utter foolishness to them: the resurrection of the dead.

     Remember, these guys were all materialists. Even the ones who believed in a kind of afterlife thought the idea of heaven and hell as actual places where people had glorified physical bodies sounded so utterly foolish and unthinkable that when Paul got to that point in his message, it brought the house down. End of sermon. Verse 32:

32  And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, "We will hear you again on this matter."

33  So Paul departed from among them.

34  However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Three reactions, and I think it's safe to assume Luke lists them in declining order from the majority response to the minority.

     "Some mocked." That's what you would expect someone steeped in Greek philosophy to do. "Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified . . . to the Greeks foolishness" (1 Corinthians 1:22-23). Paul's worldview was so utterly and completely in contrast with the Athenian culture and belief system that most of these guys simply turned away. That doesn't mean Paul failed. Listen: even f every last person in the philosophers' circle had turned away angry, that would not mean Paul's ministry strategy was wrong. His only task as an ambassador for Christ is to deliver the message clearly and accurately, and he did that. If they had all picked up stones to kill him, the way the crowd did at Lystra in Acts 14, God would still have judged Paul faithful.

     But if he compromised the message in order to win people's appreciation rather than their repentance, that would not have been faithful.

     In this case, however, there were three responses. Some turned away and mocked. Others said, "We will hear you again on this matter." Paul's straightforwardness evidently gained their interest in what he had to say. He had an open door to preach the gospel again to them.

     But for a handful of people, including "Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them," this was the moment of conversion. They believed, and became disciples.

     That's what faithful ministry looks like. It doesn't cower before opposition. It isn't intimidated by human wisdom. It isn't shaken by rejection. It doesn't waver from the truth. It doesn't shift and change content to suit the preferences or felt needs of an audience. It has one theme, and that is Christ in His death and resurrection. And it has one strategy—and that is to unpack the meaning of Christ's death and resurrection and proclaim it with clarity, because that is the very substance—the only substance—of the gospel message we have been commissioned to proclaim. And it confronts every worldview, every false religion, every superstitious belief, every human philosophy, and every skeptical opinion. It rises above all those things and speaks with authority, because it is the truth of God.