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According to a recent Barna Research Group survey, 73% of people in the USA today believe, "God is an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfect Creator." But this means 27% of Americans hold radically different conceptions of the nature of God.
So, on average, one in four people met during evangelistic efforts will have completely non-biblical viewpoints about God (and life in general). And even among the 73% category, there are probably many whose worldviews are not fully biblical.
But, "It is reassuring to remember that the apostle Paul also encountered a pluralistic culture, as exemplified by his speech to the folks at Mars Hill (Acts 17:16-34). His approach to the Athenians of his day models for us the methodology that we should use" (Enroth, p.vii).
Following is a verse-by-verse study of this paradigm for modern-day evangelism.
Now while Paul waited for them [Silas and Timothy] at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw 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.
Be sure to note Paul's reaction to seeing the nature of God being perverted by idol worship, "his spirit was provoked within him." Moreover, he didn't just brood over this; it provoked him to action. He began witnessing to the Athenians.
In accordance with his principle of "to the Jew first" (Rom 1:16), he began in the synagogue. Here and initially "in the marketplace" he encountered Jews and "Gentile worshipers." The latter would have been "God-fearers" - people who had accepted the Jewish religion up to but not including circumcision (Acts 13:16,26).
Both of these groups accepted the Hebrew Scriptures as being the inspired Word of God and would believe that God is the infinite, personal Creator of the universe.
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.
Paul next encounters Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. In doing so, he is now dealing with people whose conception of God is radically different from the others.
The Epicureans were "deistic polytheists." Deists today believe there is a God who created the universe. But they believe after He did so he is no longer involved with its operation. In other words, they deny the idea of miracles, the sovereignty or providence of God, the efficacy of prayer, and even the possibility of having a relationship with God. These ideas lead to a denial of any kind of afterlife.
A better term for this idea might be "practical atheist" i.e.. a person who says he believes in God but this makes no practical difference in his day to day life. Many included in the above 73% category could possibly be described in this way.
But the Epicureans were also polytheists. They believed there are many gods, not just one. But again, none of these gods are involved in human affairs. On the other hand, the Stoics, were pantheists. They taught everything is God. This view is seen today within the New Age Movement.
The Stoics further believed that "Fate" (whatever that is) ordained all things that were to come to pass. This again would include a denial of the Biblical concept of a personal God being in control of human history (see Dan 2:21; 4:34,35).
And finally, these people misunderstood Paul in thinking he was "a proclaimer of foreign gods." They took the Greek word for resurrection (anastasis) as being the name of a god in addition to Jesus.
And 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." For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but to either tell or to hear something new.
The Athenians now wanted Paul to clarify his "new doctrine." They also had an insatiable appetite for "hearing something new." So Paul was taken to the Areopagus.
The Areopagus was the center of the Athenian religion and the location of the religious leaders of the city. Paul would need the approval of this group of men to be allowed to continue preaching in Athens.
Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I perceive in all things you are very religious; 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."
Paul begins his sermon by telling the Athenians they are "very religious." Now some believe this phrase is a compliment. The idea being, Paul is "buttering-up" his hearers so they will be more receptive to what he has to say.
However, the word can also be translated "superstitious" (see the KJV). And besides, in the Roman world virtually everyone was "religious." So Paul is probably simply making a statement of fact to set up his next observation.
While walking around Athens, Paul found an altar "to an unknown god." In fact, there were many altars in ancient Athens with this inscription. The pagans of the day wanted to make sure they didn't "miss" any god lest someday he (or she) should show up and be angry at them for not being worshipped. They would be able to point to one of these altars and say "This is your altar; we have been worshipping you."
Paul used this ignorance about the true nature of God as his starting point.
"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. Nor is He worshipped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things."
In these verses, Paul mentions four attributes of the true God. The first is, God is Creator. So the Epicurean belief in many gods is false. There is only one God and He made "everything." Further the pantheistic beliefs of the Stoics (and New Agers) is false since, being the Creator, God is distinct from His creation.
Second, Paul alludes to the Sovereignty of God, "He is Lord" over everything which He has made. Third, he hints at the Omnipresence of God; He cannot be confined in a temple (see 1 Kings 8:27).
And finally, Paul proclaims God is Self-existent. He does not need anything, including the sacrifices the pagans offered to their gods. But we are dependent on Him for our very lives!
"And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and He has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 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;"
Now Paul deals with a false notion which led to a superior attitude among the Greeks. They believed their race originated from their own Attic homeland and was thus different from the rest of mankind. But Paul informs them the one, true God made all peoples "from one blood." No race is superior to another, not then or now. Paul then strikes right at their wrong concept of history. God "determines" the course of human history, not "Fate" - and neither is "chance" (again, whatever that is) and mere human efforts as is propagated by Humanists today.
Thus, any "deistic" notions of God are also contradicted. God is intimately involved in human affairs. He even wants us to "seek" Him. And any number of people can "find" Him and have a relationship with Him since He is infinite, "He is not far from each one of us" (see Jer 23:23,24).
"'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.'"
Paul now quotes from two different Grecian writers. The first quote is from Epimenides (c. 600 BC). The second is by Aratus (c. 300 BC). Paul also quotes from Aratus in Titus 1:12. In their original contexts, both quotes are referring to Zeus, the main god of Grecian mythology.
These quotes raise a couple of important points about Paul's evangelistic methods. First, it should be noted, nowhere in this sermon does Paul quote from the Hebrew Scriptures. Since his hearers do not believe the Bible has any authority, let alone that it is the Word of God, this would have been a waste of time. He has, although, been presenting many Biblical concepts.
The same would be true today. Quoting the Bible to people who don't trust it will probably just "turn them off." However, the Christian needs to be prepared to present Biblical concepts "to anyone who asks" (see 1Pet 3:15).
Second, "When Paul addressed the Athenians, he made it clear that he had studied them and that he was listening to them" (Enroth, p.viii; Prov 15:28; 18:13).
But what was Paul's purpose in quoting from the Athenian's own philosophers? The answer to this question requires a look at the next verse of the sermon.
"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."
The Athenian's own philosophers had taught that they were dependent on God and had been created by Him. But an important part of their religious tradition involved making idols to worship as gods and taking care of them.
Paul is pointing out the inherent contradiction here. In essence he is asking, "If you are dependent on God, how can you make a god who is dependent on you? If you were created by God, how can you create a god?" In other words, Paul is showing them the logical inconsistency of the basic presuppositions of their religion.
An example of a logical inconsistency today can be seen in New Age beliefs. As stated before, New Agers are pantheists. This idea includes the concept of God being an impersonal force like the wind or electricity. However, New Agers are also fond of quoting the Bible's statement, "God is love" (1John 4:8).
But it must be asked, "How can an impersonal force love?" I may love the wind but it cannot love me. And I have never felt loved by electricity. Think about it.
"Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 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."
The last attribute Paul mentions is, God is Judge. Since He created us; since He is sovereign over us and since He is infinite and thus knows all that we do, He has the right and ability to judge us. And further, since He is self-existent we can not give Him anything to appease His wrath against our sins.
Also, it is at this point that Paul first alludes to Jesus. Jesus has not been mentioned previously since the Athenians needed to know who God is before they could grasp the significance of the Person and work of Christ. The same is true today. For instance, the statement "Jesus is God" would be greatly misunderstood by a New Ager.
Paul uses Jesus' resurrection as proof of life and judgment after death (Heb 9:27). Elsewhere, Paul indicates Jesus' resurrection also demonstrates God accepted Jesus' sacrifice as payment for our sins (Rom 4:25). It is through repentance and faith in Jesus' death and resurrection that one can find forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to the one, true God (Rom 3:21-26; 10:8-13).
And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead some mocked, while others said, "We will hear you again on this matter." So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
The three different reactions Paul received to his sermon are the same which always occur whenever the Gospel is preached. First, "some mocked" and completely rejected the message. Second, "others" were willing to hear more on the matter. They did not immediately reject the Gospel but weren't quite ready to believe either.
Third, "some men joined him and believed." And among these new believers was even one of the leaders of the Athenian religious world, "Dionysius the Areopagite!"
Furthermore, "The apostolic example of Paul should motivate us to prepare to share the evangel, the good news, with people today who are still searching for human meaning and order, still looking for an 'unknown god' in a confusing and complex world" (Enroth, p.viii; Col 4:2-6).The links below are direct links to where the book can be purchased from Books-A-Million.
Bibliography: All Scripture
references from: The New King James Version. Nashville,
TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
Barna Research Group as reported in The Valley News Dispatch 3/7/93.
Enroth, Ronald. preface to Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions, and the Occult . Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993.
Calvin, John. Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, contained in Calvin's Commentaries . Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.
Criswell, W.A. The Believer's Study Bible: NKJV. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991.
Elwell, Walter. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology . Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
Longenecker, Richard. Acts. In Gaebelein, ed. Expositor's Bible Commentary . Grand Rapids: Regency, 1981.
Rienecker, Fritz and Cleon Rogers. New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament . Grand Rapids: Regency, 1980.
Paul in Athens: A Paradigm for Modern-day Evangelism. Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).
For another article on Acts 17:16-34, see The Athenian Challenge.
The above article was adapted from a
presentation the author gave at a singles group in March 1992.
It was published in Darkness to Light newsletter in 1993 and posted on this Web site in July 1996.
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