I love Acts 17. In this chapter the Apostle Paul gives us a glimpse into how to effectively and creatively reach those who have no point of reference for the message of Jesus. The stoic and epicurean philosophers from Athens were interested in the “strange” teachings of Paul so they invited him to their discussion group at the Areopagus, a rock-meets-hill above the city of Athens. On this rock Paul masterfully shared the gospel with men who had no reference point for The Rock of Ages or his amazing message of grace.
Here is the passage from beginning to end. Read it slowly to get a glimpse into how Paul made his plan for evangelism and then carried it out effectively to a crowd full of skeptical and superstitious intellectuals:
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate 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.
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? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 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. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
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 human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.
‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 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 human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 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 everyone by raising him from the dead.’
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.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people 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.” Acts 17:16-34
From this passage we can glean seven essentials for reaching the lost in a culture that doesn’t get Jesus:
1. Start with a broken heart.
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”
It was said of Athens that there were so many idols there you had more of a chance meeting a god than a man if you visited. This reality shocked and agitated the Apostle Paul. As he walked around and looked at the countless idols, temples and altars his heart was provoked, angered and broken. He hurt for the people of Greece who had bought such lies from the whispering lips of Satan.
Our hearts too must be broken by the rampant idolatry all around us. The size, shape and density of the idols have changed in the last 2,000 years but an idol doesn’t have to be made of marble to be an idol. From the quest for the American dream to a lifestyle defined by hedonism and self-gratification, idolatry in the good old US of A is as bad as the idolatry in the ancient city of Athens.
May this reality break our hearts and stir us to action…like it did the Apostle Paul!
2. Seek to genuinely understand.
Paul did his homework. He kept looking and looking at the idols and altars until he found one which he could use as a salvation segue. He discovered the altar “to an unknown god” and used it as a way to make Jesus known to the Athenians!
We too must look for onramps to the gospel message with the paganized culture around us. Sometimes these come in the disguise of a question about the meaning of life or the problem of evil. Other times they shake out of an everyday conversation or news story. We must be students of this culture so we can find our own salvation segues to the message of Jesus.
3. Identify common ground.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.”
Paul’s opening line was a compliment that gave him and them common ground to communicate. “You’re religious? Guess what? So am I!” was the gist of what he was saying. Paul already knew where they differed theologically. It was pretty obvious by their always paganistic and often pornographic polytheism. Instead, Paul was looking for areas of commonality.
In the same way when you’re sharing your faith with someone who has no/little point of reference for the real message of Jesus, look for areas of agreement. Build a conversation on this common ground and you’ll be much more likely to reach them!
4. Share the whole story.
Paul tells the whole story of the GOSPEL from beginning to end, from creation to consummation. We must do the same. An easy way to do that is to use the GOSPEL acrostic developed by Dare 2 Share. This easy to memorize acrostic will help you tell the whole story of the gospel in a way that paints a clear and understandable picture of the greatest story ever told.
5. Quote the pagan poet.
“As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
Paul quoted this pagan poet to make a spiritual point. We must do the same. Use the movie clip, play the rock song, quote the Broadway play. Do whatever it takes to take something your audience relates to and use it to make the gospel as clear and relevant as possible.
6. Finish with apologetics.
“He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
In a pagan culture apologetics are best used as the closing act not the opening line. Paul tells the story first and then substantiates it with the proof of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Too many times Christians lead with the statistics instead of the story. As a result we may win the argument but often lose the opportunity to genuinely lead someone to Jesus. The story of the gospel (which is full of facts by the way) breaks down barriers and circumvents intellectual strongholds to penetrate deeply into the heart of the hearer. Jesus used stories (aka “Parables”) to break down walls and in Acts 17 Paul shared the story of the gospel before he broke out the p word (proof) on his audience.
Biblical apologetics and fact-based proofs of Christianity are great but, in the ballgame of evangelizing a postmodern culture, they should be relief pitchers, not in the starting line up. Paul saved apologetics for the last pitch of the game and his game-ending throw sent the big hitters back to the bench.
7. Expect different reactions.
“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.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people 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.”
Some sneered. Some wanted to know more. Some believed.
These same three reactions to the gospel stand true today. Remember that when you are sharing the gospel and don’t be discouraged.