It can be difficult and scary to talk about God. And maybe for some of us, it always will be, as talking about God can feel very personal, or very easily offensive. But in this post, as we continue to follow Paul’s journey as told in Acts 17, Paul will demonstrate how to talk about God with graciousness. In the first post, Paul was in Thessalonica, and the in second post we learned about his visit to Berea. After his ministry was so well-received in Berea, trouble flared up, so Paul traveled to Athens.
In Paul’s day Athens was, as it is now, a historically famous city, featuring the famous Parthenon, depicted above. A couple hundred years before Paul’s time, Athens was home to some of history’s greatest philosophical minds: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Things had changed since those days when Athens was the center of the philosophical world, but even in Paul’s day, Athens was still a very important academic city.
We read in verse 16 that soon after Paul arrives in the city, he became greatly distressed because he noticed many idols there. Eventually, using his regular custom, he begins his ministry by visiting Athens’ Jewish synagogue. He “reasons” with his fellow Jews there, as well as with people in marketplace. The Greek word for “reasons” is where we get our English word “dialogue.” It could be that Paul was giving a formal speech, but it seems more likely that he was engaging people in conversation.
Once again trouble follows Paul. In verse 18 we read that the Athenian philosophers start to dispute with him. These academic elites are watching this newcomer Paul preaching boldly in their city streets, and some call Paul a “babbler.” In the original language these philosophers are making fun of Paul, using a word picture that likened Paul to a bird that picks up seeds. What did they mean? One source I read says that they were accusing Paul of being the kind of person who, “learns lots of trivial things and wants to tell everyone about his knowledge, ‘a pseudo-intellectual who insists on spouting off’.” (Louw & Nida)
You probably know people like this. Know-it-alls. They talk…a lot. They almost certainly don’t know as much as they think they know, or as much they want everyone to believe they know. They’re babblers!
When these philosophers, whose lives have been dedicated to reading and learning big ideas, encounter Paul in the marketplace talking about Jesus, some think he is a pretender. They bring him to a meeting of the Areopagus, which translated means “Hill of Ares,” or “Hill of Mars,” depending on whether you go with the Greek or Roman name for the same god. Most often, the place they take Paul to is called Mars Hill, and it was a regular gathering place for philosophers and academics in the city. Why do they take Paul there? It seems that though they are inquiring about his teaching, many are not taking him seriously. But maybe there were some who were genuinely interested in the new ideas that Paul was teaching. So they give him a shot.
Now let’s pay close attention to what Paul says in front of this gathering of academics. This would be a tall order for Paul, wouldn’t it? How would you feel about telling the story of Jesus to a group of college professors? What will Paul do? Paul uses some methods in his speech that just might be very helpful for us, as we seek to talk about Jesus in our communities, whether we are talking to intellectual people or any others. Read verses 22-27, and try to discover Paul’s approach.
Did you see how creatively he handles this unique occasion? Paul is not speaking to Jews, so he doesn’t mention Jewish Scriptures or ideas. Instead, in front of the Greco-Roman academic elite of Athens, Paul speaks in words and concepts that they will understand. He uses a three-step process to tell the story of Jesus. In this post, we’ll look at the three steps, and in the next post, we’ll further examine how he develops his speech. So maybe look over Paul’s speech again, verses 22-27, and see if you can observe the three steps. Then come back, and continue with the post, as I attempt to describe Paul’s steps here.
First, he begins by complimenting them, saying they are very religious. He talks about walking around Athens looking at their religious symbols. This is a wise move on Paul’s part because he knows the story of Jesus might feel like a critique to their view of life. He starts off with a compliment to show he is not on the attack.
Second, he finds a connection point. When he first arrived in Athens and walked around the city, he says he noticed one altar in particular had an inscription, “to an unknown god.” Paul is eager to find a cultural touch-point that might serve as a bridge to communicate the gospel, and this altar is it. You can see his eyes light up when he first noticed that altar. The unknown god…, he thinks, that is what Jesus is to them, unknown. Perhaps Paul can help the unknown become the known. Maybe this altar will help the Athenians make a philosophical connection to the one true God.
Third, only after complimenting them and connecting with them does Paul begin to communicate the story of Jesus. He doesn’t start with Jesus though. He goes back further to talk about the one true God. Notice in verses 24 and following that Paul presents a particular view of God. In other words, Paul is doing some theology and philosophy of his own here. His is a biblical view of God, but one that not everyone in the Areopagus would agree with.
As he continues, he makes a statement about the relationship between God and man. Look at verse 27. Paul explains why God created humanity. God wants people to seek him, reach out for him, and find him. Paul is presenting a relational view of God. This is a God who wants to be close with his creation. Paul goes even further when he says that God not only desires closeness with humans, God is also “not far from each one of us.” Paul wants his listeners to know of the possibility of a warm relationship between God and humanity. Again, this would be a different conception of God for some of the people listening to Paul.
Paul has complimented them, he has found a connection point, and he has begun to communicate the message of the one true God who wants to have a close relationship with humanity. Paul knows that he has to prove his case to the scholars there who disagree with his view of God, especially because he has more to say about the resurrection, and they had previously (vs. 18-20) called his teaching into question. So in verse 28, he does something incredibly smart, and we’ll learn more about that in the next post.
For now, think about Paul’s three-step method: compliment, connect, communicate. How can you follow Paul’s example as you tell the story of Jesus in your community?