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The Athenian Challenge:
Lessons from Acts 17:16-34
By Carmen C. DiCello
One of the striking features of our society is that it tolerates almost everything, while simultaneously committing itself to nothing. Just about any opinion is to be respected (except those which herald absolutes, but that's another story), in a world that decries universal truth. In short, culture is becoming decidedly pagan.
This paganistic outlook has obviously been a source of major frustration for all Biblically minded people. Many believers have asked, "How can we stem the tide of religious and philosophical pluralism?" At one level, of course, the question is a good one, and I, for one, am in favor of any legitimate attempts to push our nation in a more godly direction.
At the end of the day, though, no group of people can be expected to uphold righteousness (or even define it!), unless people themselves are righteous. This isn't to say we ought to minimize reasonable efforts to shape culture; indeed, I feel that Christians should make a mark on society (e.g., as "salt" and "light"). But in the final analysis people must be transformed if ever we are to expect society to significantly improve.
This being said, it is interesting to note the similarity between modern society and the ancient world. We, like our predecessors, are consumed with idolatry and paganism. Thus the "don't rock the boat"--"construct your own deity" mentality is really nothing new. And while many believers are--as mentioned above--rightly concerned about the course our nation (the USA) has chosen, there may be a positive side to this whole out-of-control mess. Positive? Yes, in one very important sense, positive!
What could be good about the amoral climate in which we find ourselves? It is this: We now face a situation which, perhaps more than any other in Church history, resembles that which the early Church encountered. Those early Christians turned their pagan world upside down, as God utilized humble believers in the unfolding of His saving plan. I don't mean to imply we can guarantee the same results in our day; that, we will have to leave with God. It does mean, though, that the basic evangelistic practices of the early believers become that much more relevant within our current cultural milieu.
The Gospel is always relevant. But the manner in which we present it is determined, in great measure, by the environment in which we find ourselves. The first century Christians conducted their "business" within a basically pagan environment (though, obviously, not exclusively so). Their evangelistic techniques were implemented against the backdrop of paganism. Since we experience a similar situation today, the instruction of the apostles becomes that much more germane.
Perhaps no N.T. passage is more relevant to the subject of reaching pagans than Acts 17:16-34. Here we find an apologetic-evangelistic paradigm for communicating the Gospel among those with little or no knowledge of God's inscripturated will. In Athens, Paul encounters a people who are religious yet blind; a society which knows God in some limited sense, even as it dishonors His name.
The Athenians, like all unregenerate individuals, possessed a faint and partial understanding of God (see Romans 1:18-21), but lacked full and accurate knowledge of Him. They retained the image of God--scarred and damaged as it is--but their moral and spiritual antipathy blinded them to the truth. For the Athenians, God could only remain "unknown."
With these things in mind, what can we learn from Paul's witness to pagans? Though much more could be said, at least the following principles are apropos when it comes to reaching those influenced by paganism in our day:
1. Our approach to evangelism is inextricably linked to the thoughts we have of God.
As Paul entered Athens, one thing caught his attention immediately: Idolatry was rampant. For the Apostle, any object which sought to displace the living God was abhorrent. Though Athens was a place of great beauty, what struck Paul most was the pitiful atmosphere of the city. Indeed, he was "provoked by the idolatry" he observed (v. 16). The Roman satirist hardly exaggerated when he said it was easier to find a god in Athens than a man!
Of course, we mustn't think of God's appointed emissary as speaking to the Athenians in a
condescending tone. In fact, his evangelism never falls prey to self-congratulations and pride. Rather, he experiences what might be termed an inner unrest. In other words, the apostle's attitude is affected by what he sees, because what he sees is dishonoring to God.
What stands out in this section of Scripture is the apostle's great zeal. He views Athens through the lens of his own (Biblically informed) knowledge base. So filled is he with an understanding of God's person and purpose that he can't help but recoil from that which makes light of his Lord.
The question we must ask ourselves is whether we too feel such jealousy for God's honor. To the degree that we fall short, it is imperative that we seek greater zeal. But how is this accomplished? Answer: By filling our minds with great thoughts of God.
There are no magic formulas here. What is needed is consistent contact with God's mind in Scripture. As we meditate on the wonders of His Word, we too will learn to view life from God's perspective. This, in turn, will shape our attitude toward the lost, even as it fuels our passions for God's glory.
2. We simply must seek to show forth the beauty of God within the framework of our world.
Unlike many contemporary believers, the apostle is no stuck-in-the-mud evangelist. Neither is he an isolationist. Instead, Paul desires to share the Good News among those who are basically ignorant of the Biblical world view. Among other things, this involves CONNECTING with people, CORRECTING their error, and CALLING them to repentance.
It is essential for us to notice the apostle's observational skills. In fact, Paul's great distress over idolatry is the result of his having taken notice of the Athenian practices in the first place (vv. 16, 22-23). Furthermore, he appears quite familiar with a number of pagan ideals and beliefs (v. 28). These he will eventually utilize.
For now, though, we can at least learn how important it is to have a knowledge of the real world. This involves rubbing shoulders with unbelievers, getting to know their thoughts and habits, and rightly perceiving societal trends. We simply cannot afford to live in an isolated, disinterested fashion. Christians must learn to connect (uncompromisingly) with non-Christians.
Somewhere along the way, though, we must point out the errors of those entrapped by them. This doesn't mean that we should arrogantly attack unbelievers. It does imply, however, that paganistic individuals need redirection. That is, it is ours to communicate the inadequacies of modern philosophy, while at the same time offering a Biblical alternative. Paul accomplishes this by sharing with the Athenians a number of important truths.
These truths include a description of God's Lordship (v. 24) and a declaration of His independence (vv. 25-26). God is much bigger than any creaturly conception, and He surely doesn't depend on people. On the contrary, we desperately need Him! Thankfully, He also offers Himself to all who will have Him. God is near (v. 27), and His creatures (i.e., "the offspring of God"--v. 29) are responsible for how they respond to His prompting. Indeed, sinful people are invited into fellowship with Jesus, the divinely appointed/ resurrected Judge (vv. 30-34).
In Jesus' resurrection, therefore, we find both threatenings and mercy. The unrepentant He will flawlessly judge and, as a result, condemn. But those who see in Christ the identity of the unknown God, He will be the realization and full manifestation of eternal hope and life. In God's grace, some of the Athenians accepted the message and believed (v. 34).
But the apostle isn't satisfied with mere abstract formulations. He is concerned with truth, of course. It's just that he has a tendency to do more than theorize about it. Instead, he applies theological truth to the lives of his listeners. In other words, he gets personal with them. That is, he asks and invites and pleads with people(vv. 22, 30-31).
While we aren't given any precise normative pattern as to the form this personal plea should take, we are at least given the broad principle that men and women must consider the truth for themselves. Whatever shape it takes, it is ours to go beyond the theoretical (i.e., people somewhere "out there" need God) and encourage unbelievers to personally (i.e., you need Him) appropriate truth.
Acts 17:16-34 contains a wealth of data related to the evangelistic-apologetic task. Integral to this enterprise is the Christian's own knowledge of God, coupled with conscientious efforts to share the Gospel with the people of our world. Only by thinking God's thoughts after Him, and considering culture in light of Biblical truth, will we be equipped to properly convey the Good News to the lost.
Evangelistic confusion is fostered whenever we ignore either God's will or His world. On the other hand, those who bury their minds in God's Word, considering society in light of His revelation, are more apt to engage in a truly Biblical witness. May God Himself fill us with love and zeal, and may He enable us to communicate the Christian message in lively, creative, and culturally sensitive ways.
The Athenian Challenge: Lessons from Acts 17:16-34. Copyright © 1998 by Carmen C. DiCello. All rights reserved.
About the author: Carmen C. DiCello is one of the pastors of a local independent Baptist church (Word of Life), and also a school teacher in a public school district.
For another article on Acts 17:16-34, see Paul in Athens.
For books on defending
the faith, see
Apologetics Books: Books-A-Million Recommendations.
The above article was posted on this Web site March 15, 1999.
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