While on a journey through Greek portions of the Roman Empire the Apostle Paul was given an opportunity to present the gospel to an entirely Gentile audience. I would like to examine the context and content of his message to see if we can learn anything about how and whether to present the gospel in a “culturally relevant” way. We might also learn what to expect in terms of results from such a presentation.
The story begins with Paul forced to leave the Greek city of Berea due to persecution. He has left two disciples behind to establish the church and is in Athens, waiting for them.
Acts17:16 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 the Jews and the 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 dispute 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.
As usual, Paul begins at the synagogue. Like any good Jew, he is distressed at the idolatry that surrounds them in Athens, the centre of Greek culture and learning. It seems odd to me that he must raise that concern in the synagogue, since Jews and their proselytes shouldn’t be involved in idolatry to begin with. He also goes out into the marketplace and reasons with anyone who will listen. Is this the prototype of what we now call street evangelism?
The statement about “advocating foreign gods” is the reason Paul is brought to the Areopagus (or Mars Hill), the place that their city council met. This council was comprised of the wisest of the wise in the Roman Empire. Besides being in charge of city affairs, they also judged the most difficult cases in the Empire. Their wisdom and fairness in judgment was known throughout Roman lands.
It was their responsibility to examine new religions and officially either recognize them or ban them from the city, depending on the degree of potential damage they could cause to citizens or to the Empire. This was not just an informal chat with the local intelligentsia. It was an official investigation by the Empire’s top court. The outcome could be devastating to Christian outreach in the Roman world.
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 teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want 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: “Men 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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
Some older translations render “very religious” as “superstitious.” Given the situation, “very religious” is probably a better rendering. He is before a religious and state tribunal that could decide the fate of his entire Gentile mission, and therefore needs to be very diplomatic in his approach to their religions. This is the same council that in 339 B.C. decreed Socrates to be an atheist [“against the gods”] heretic and sentenced him to death. He must first establish that, unlike Socrates, he is not saying that there are no real gods.
Next, he must establish that this is not a “new” religion, but rather that it is an outflow of the ancient religion of Israel. He does this in two ways. First he refers to an already existing altar dedicated to “an unknown god.” This is the “hook” that gets their attention. He claims that he will explain this “unknown god” to them. He does this by referring to a single God who created everything. Educated Greeks may have eventually recognized this deity’s characteristics as essentially those of the Jewish God, especially after the next section of Paul’s address. Judaism was an accepted religion in the Roman Empire at the time, so there would have been no reason to reject this Christian brand of Jewish religion.
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 hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.
This is a strike against the idolatry of the Gentile world, introduced ironically by what was likely a pagan altar’s dedication. The description of this deity denies both pantheism (the world is God) and panentheism (God is present in the world and not separate from it) because this God existed before anything else in the world existed. Therefore the world is not God, and God stands outside all of the creation as Creator. He is therefore distinct from the created order.
Other Greek philosophers describe God either as being the plane of spiritual or spirit reality or as inhabiting that higher plane, and therefore not the creator of the physical world (which is only a shadow of the “real” or “form” or “ideal”). Their god is therefore not interested in the material world, and humans need to transcend the physical to “meet” him. Their god is a remote one who is hard to reach. Paul has something to say to them as well.
26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
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 man’s design and skill.
While God stands outside the physical world as its creator, Paul does not see him as remote or uninterested. These would have revealed a very recognizable Jewish world-view to the Athenian philosophers – especially the aversion to images of God. So far he is saying nothing new to the council.
By this time Jewish and Greek philosophies had been in conversation with each other for at least 300 years, since Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire brought the two into contact. Some Jewish philosophers, such as Philo of Alexandria, had even attempted to express Jewish theology in terms of Greek philosophical concepts. [This is not as unusual as you might think. Christian theologians through the centuries, such as Origen and Thomas Aquinas, sought to do similar things with Platonic or Aristotelian thought.]
The next part is what causes the stir.
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 all men 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.
They may have been familiar with the Jewish notion of a redeeming Messiah who would gather the Jewish remnant from their dispersion throughout the world. For that Messiah to be a man who came from the dead was just a bit too much to take.
Remember that Paul is speaking to a group of judges. He is telling the most respected judges in the world that they will be judged for their idolatry by a man who is back from the dead. Not surprisingly, most of them don’t buy that story. It is such a ridiculous notion that they literally laugh him out of court. The result:
34 A few men 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. 8:1 After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.
There is not much to show for his work in Athens. Paul never goes back to the court. Only a very few become believers, though one of them is a high-ranking judge from that council. It seems that Paul does not even wait for his disciples to join him from Berea before leaving Athens to go to Corinth. This is unusual, since it normally takes riots and plots against his life from the Jewish community to make Paul leave. The gospel generates neither popularity, polarization nor persecution in Athens. Athens just seems to be ground that is too hard for the seed of the gospel to penetrate, so Paul goes on to the next centre.
If this is indeed the first foray of the church into a “culturally relevant” gospel presentation, it does not get the kind of results you might expect. The centers of learning and philosophy will tend to reject anything outside of their experience – especially the notion of a man rising from the dead to rule and judge the world.
Paul later notes, in a letter to the church in Corinth, that the gospel of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1:23) I would not be surprised if he is referring to the experience in Athens for the latter part of that statement.
Perhaps we Christians can learn a few lessons from this story. Here are some possibilities:
1) Some cultures are harder to reach than others. Jesus did tell his disciples that some ground would be hard while other ground would be receptive in his parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20).
2) Maybe we don’t have to try so hard to evangelize using cold-call or street-evangelism techniques.
3) Paul had been so distressed due to the idolatry of the city that he felt the need to begin haranguing synagogue attendees and even people in the marketplace. Perhaps we need a better motivation for evangelism than being upset at particular sins.
4) The message of the cross of Christ is counter-intuitive and even, dare we say, counter-cultural. There is no way to present the death and resurrection of a Saviour who is both man and God in a culturally relevant way without negating its power. Let’s not be surprised if we sometimes don’t get a hearing.
5) Perhaps it is important to know when to quit. Riots and threats mean that at least someone is listening. When there is no response, move on to more fertile fields.