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Acts 17:16-34 by Robert Dean
Why do some people get mad as a hornet when talking about God? Listen to this lesson to learn the vital need for listening to others as they talk about what they already believe. See how the Apostle Paul skillfully used his insight into the Athenians to reason with them in a logical manner. Find out how he challenged them to worship the Creator rather than the creature. Discover key elements to sharpen your Bible study methods.
Series:Acts (2010)
Duration:1 hr 3 mins 5 secs

Athens: Understand Your Audience
Acts 17:16-34

We are now in Athens and this is one of three passages in Acts where the apostle Paul's message is recorded. There is also one in Antioch in Acts 13 and there is one in Acts 20. It is in these three different messages of Paul that we get a glimpse of the core of his message. There is a different audience each time and it is important to pay attention to that. One of the great axioms of military strategy is to know your enemy. While the person we are witnessing to isn't quite an enemy it is somebody we need to understand if we are going to clearly articulate the gospel. Paul doesn't have a canned approach. He doesn't go after each audience the same way. Because people come from different backgrounds, have different education levels, and people are at different locations along the path, we might say, in coming to faith in Christ. Some have never heard anything about Christianity. There are others who have hears quite a bit about Christianity and almost all we have to do is breathe hard and they will fall over in faith in Christ. They have heard the gospel, have maybe been raised in the church, the terminology is familiar with them but they have never quite reached the point where they have realized that they personally need to believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins. We never know who and where people are, so we need to be engaged in asking them questions and finding out their backgrounds and where they are coming from.

In Acts 13:15-41 we studied extensively Paul's address to the Jews in the synagogue in Antioch. It was interesting to see how he used what they knew in order to present the gospel. He had a firm understanding. In the text we have an abbreviated version of what Paul said, not everything he said. This is how many of the discourses in Scripture are handled. They are not summaries, they Are simply divinely edited snapshots of what was said. Not every word the person spoke at the time is recorded in Scripture but every word given in Scripture they said. Paul has an assumption that he makes in Acts 13, that is, that his audience is made up of Jews who understand and believe the Torah and Gentiles who were God-fearers. So he doesn't need to define certain terms for them. When he talks about God they have a shared commonality in the meaning of that particular word. They know they are both speaking of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His starting point is with the Old Testament and Old Testament prophecy related to the Messiah.

But when we come to Acts 17:17-31 we have a completely different audience which is made up on the intelligentsia of the Greek world in Athens, which was one of the three foremost university towns in the ancient world (Rome, Athens, Alexandria). When Paul talks to them he doesn't assume that they understand or have as a common foundation the truths that are in Genesis 1-11. He is not going to take that for granted; he has to define his terms. We are going to see that as he tries to communicate the gospel to these pagans in Athens when he mentions Jesus and the resurrection they are not even sure what he is talking about, they immediately redefine his terms and think he is talking about two new gods they can put into their pantheon. It is a great example of how the unbelieving mind is going to take what we say in certain evangelistic situations and completely twist and distort what we say, because they have been in the situation of suppressing the truth in unrighteousness for so long that no communication can take place. So we have to work down to basics.

But that doesn't apply to everybody. It is disturbing that there are some people who think that every person needs to get the same basic four points and they've heard the gospel. This has been called drive-by evangelism: "I yelled, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved," and therefore I did my evangelistic duty. I had no conversation with them, I don't know if they understood anything that I said, but I witnessed to them because I just threw the gospel at them." That is absolutely absurd and worthless. God, of course, can use anything but when we look at the Scriptures and any of the examples we have of a believer communicating with an unbeliever there is a lot more going on that simply citing a pat formula and then moving on down the road. There is conversation. There is conversation with those who end up in condemnation sometimes, for those who reject what has been taught. Then there is ongoing conversation and follow-up with people who have heard the truth and have responded to the truth.

As we get into Acts 17 we need to take some time to see how Paul is handling these sceptics, these rationalists, these philosophers, these self-defined intelligentsia. What we are going to examine is Paul's address to the Council of the Areopagus—a sort of oversight council in Athens—where he is going to explain to them what it is that he is teaching.

About this address, a great New Testament Greek scholar by the name of Adolf Deissmann stated back at the turn of the last century:

"This is the greatest missionary document in the New Testament. I have taught through this passage several times and every time I finish with it I am always frustrated because I always feel like there is so much more that can be taken out the passage."     

 One of the things I want to do just to explain this a little better as we get into Acts 17:16ff is to follow the basic procedure of what is called basic Bible study methods.

What we are really talking about here is how to present the gospel more effectively. God the Holy Spirit makes it clear to the individual, but that doesn't give us an excuse to be ignorant, sloppy or irresponsible in our presentation of the gospel. That is not an excuse for intellectual laziness in the presentation of the gospel. We are to communicate as clearly and as precisely as we can. So the first principle is, in any kind of evangelism we have to know the person we are talking to. We have to know our audience. That means we have to talk to them, to ask questions, find out what they think and what they understand. Paul understood his audience in Athens. He understood their philosophical systems—what the Stoics believed, what the Epicurians believed, and he used that information in his presentation.

Don't get in an argument. That gets one totally distracted and diverted from the point. It is not an ego context. We just make it as clear as we can and it is not about us being right.

Don't use a formulaic gospel presentation. A lot of times as we are developing our ability to communicate the gospel to people we start with things that give us the basic structure. But don't be limited by that because what is going to be used for one person isn't going to mean anything to somebody else. We need to just know the basic facts and have conversation with people and then present the gospel.

In commentaries on this passage in Acts chapter 17 you will find, on the one hand, theologians talking about the fact that Paul is using a lot of the things that the Stoics and Epicurians believed in order to find common ground between what he is saying, his view on Christianity, and what they believed. On the other hand, there are people who say that there is no common ground in that sense between the gospel and what these groups believed. The common ground is explained in Romans chapter one. It isn't some other aspect; it is that every unbeliever has an internal knowledge of the existence of God. They have reached God-consciousness and in Romans 1 they are suppressing that truth in unrighteousness. And what we are doing many times in evangelism is giving them information that just makes them mad as a hornet. Because they have been suppressing the truth for a long time and we come along and tweak them with it.

How is it that somebody can be Jewish and Buddhist and the rest of the Jews aren't mad at them? You can be a Jewish Buddhist but you can't be a Jewish Christian. Jewish Christians believe everything that Judaism believes in the sense of the Mosaic authorship in the Torah, the God of the Old Testament, the absolutes of the Torah and the Ten Commandments, and yet they believe a little bit more. Jewish Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah. You can't be Jewish and believe that but you can be Jewish and believe that there is no personal God, that God never spoke to Moses, that God never appeared on Mount Sinai, that there is no such thing as creation. You can believe all of these things that are 180 degrees contrary to the Torah and still be Jewish—unless you believe Jesus is the Messiah. Then you can't be Jewish anymore. It is not logical.

One of the first things we have to understand when witnessing to people is that the problem isn't logic. It is an issue of spiritual authority with God.

The four key elements in the development of any kind of Bible study.

1.      Observation. We have to ask, what does the text say?

  1. Interpretation. This answers the question, what does it mean? In other words, what did the original author intend to communicate to the original audience?
  2. How does that fit with other parts of Scripture? This is called correlation where we compare Scripture with Scripture.
  3. Application. What does it mean to me?

Anybody who has studied the Bible very much knows that the more time you spend in observation the less time is needed to spend in interpretation, correlation and application. So many people just fly right past observation. They don't take enough time to ask what the text says, they immediately jump within five minutes to what am I supposed to do? And they don't even understand what the passage says to begin with.

So what does the text say? What is happening in this particular episode as Paul comes into Athens.

There are six different sections here. The first is in 17:16-21. This occurred in March of 51 AD.


Acts 17:16  NASB "Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. [17] So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing {Gentiles,} and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. [18] And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, 'What would this idle babbler wish to say?' Others, 'He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,'—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. [19] And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, 'May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? [20] For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean. [21] (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)"

They are just intellectually promiscuous. They run around with any new idea that comes up and don't take any time to really get serious about anything. That is what characterized them.

Then we have Paul's response. Basically what we have just learned is that as he was talking about Jesus and the resurrection that has really caused them much confusion because it violates their belief system. The Areopagus is a place, Mars Hill. On top of Mars Hill they would convene a council of approximately thirty leaders who would evaluate somebody's teaching. So there was the Council of the Areopagus which met on the top of the hill. Paul is going to be asked to explain in more detail what it is that he is teaching. This is what we refer to as Paul's sermon, although it is not really a sermon per se, it is an explanation. He gives us an example of how he is reasoning, logically explaining what he is saying.

Belief in God is not illogical. Paul was intensely logical. It is just that unbelievers and cynics don't like his first principles. Their first principle is that there is no God, end of story. Paul's first principle is: you are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness; there is a God and He is not a God who is within creation, He is outside of creation. So Paul is going to challenge the Athenians to worship the creator rather than the creature (vv. 22-31).

Paul is using this altar to the unknown god as a touchstone. He is not saying the unknown god is the God he is talking about. One of the reasons he is doing that is because Socrates was accused of introducing new ideas and new gods, and that brought a death penalty. Then he committed suicide. Most Greek communities had several idols to unknown deities just in case they missed one. They didn't want to offend any god so they would have one or two or more that were to the unknown god, and so Paul uses this because it shows that they have this God-consciousness; that there is some sort of deity.     

Acts 17:22  NASB "So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, 'Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. [23] For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.'"

There is a play on words there because the Greek word that he uses for "religious" is daimonion, the word for demon. So if there was a Jew in the audience listening they would catch that there was a little tongue-in-cheek humor going on there because of the word that he used. All false religion has its source in Satan and so he uses a word that means superstitious or religious and is having a little bit of fun with them. He is going to proclaim God to them using this as a touchstone to the fact that it recognizes that they don't know everything there is to know about gods.

The God that he defines (vv. 24-29) is unlike any deity ever imagined. The reason is that in their philosophical religious system all of the gods and goddesses were part of the same reality. There was no creation-creator distinction. All of the gods and goddesses were part of what has been called the scale of nature or the chain of being.   

Acts 17:24 NASB "The God who made the world and all things in it …" He immediately establishes that creation-creator distinction.  " … since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; [25] nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all {people} life and breath and all things; [26] and He made from one {man} every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined {their} appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation." That is a great text for the divine institution #5 on nations. God determines the times, the rise and fall of nations, and their territorial boundaries. [27] "that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us [28] for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children.' [29] Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man."

Then his challenge to them: Acts 17:30 NASB "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all {people} everywhere should repent, [31] because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead."

That immediately flies in the face of everything that the Greeks believed. They were strongly opposed to any idea of bodily resurrection. They immediately categorized Paul as somebody who was just absolutely nuts and saying it is impossible as far as they are concerned for there to be resurrection.

Acts 17:32   Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some {began} to sneer, but others said, 'We shall hear you again concerning this.' [33] So Paul went out of their midst."

This ought to give all of us great confidence because this is Paul giving one of the best gospel presentations and he is rejected by almost everybody who listens to him. Just because people don't listen to you and don't respond to your gospel presentation doesn't mean you haven't effectively and accurately given it. It has to do with their volition. You have given it and God the Holy Spirit has made it clear to them; they have rejected it on their own because of their hostility toward God. However, there is always going to be some who respond.  

Acts 17:34 NASB "But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them." Paul had a smaller response than at other times in his ministry.