When Paul arrived in Athens, he was so disturbed by the idols all around the city that he could not remain silent. He found the synagogue and shared the gospel with the Jewish worshipers, but he also shared the gospel in “the marketplace” (Ac 17:17). The market place was a square in the heart of the city where people gathered to do business and to converse with their friends. Among others, Paul’s audience included “a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” (Ac 17:18). These local philosophers were not impressed by either Paul’s credentials or his message. They labeled Paul with two condescending terms (17:18). First, they accused him of being an intellectual sparrow who picked up bits and pieces of knowledge in an indiscriminate way and then spouted it out to his audience to impress others with his vast knowledge. Second, they accused him of “advocating foreign gods.”
Whether out of a curiosity to know more about these strange new teachings from Paul or out of concern that Paul would lead people astray, Paul was called before the Areopagus to explain his teaching. The Areopagus was both a place and a group of leaders. In our text, the word is used to refer to a group of leaders who were apparently the custodians of new ideas and the guardians against unwanted itinerant teachers.
Paul’s sermons before the Areopagus was brilliant in its rhetorical approach but decidedly different from Paul’s other sermons recorded in the book of Acts. In fact, its rhetorical brilliance is demonstrated in its distinct approach, because Paul’s audience was different than in his other sermons. At Athens, he quoted from Greek poets instead of quoting Hebrew prophets from the Old Testament. He emphasized God as creator of the world instead of identifying God as the redeemer of Israel. He began with an experience in the lives of the Athenians, not with a Scripture. He shaped his rhetorical strategy to fit the audience.
Because of his rhetorical strategy, the message Paul delivered in Athens is different than the message he delivered at Antioch of Pisidia (Ac 13:13-41). Granted, Luke probably gives us only a summary of these messages, but even from the summary the distinctiveness of the Athenian message is clear. Paul ends up pointing the Athenians to Jesus and rooting his message in the resurrection. But he travels a different pathway to arrive at that destination.
And the response is different as well. Instead of many responding in faith, with a few who made a more cautious response, after his sermon in the Areopagus, a few responded in faith while many made a more cautious – even a more caustic – response.
I’ve heard preachers in the past who attributed the more cautious and caustic response of the Athenians to Paul’s failure to “just preach Jesus.” I think that misses the point. The different response can be attributed to the different audience. In Athens the soil had not been prepared through the instructions of the law and the promises of the prophets. Paul did not change the message as he shared in these more hostile settings, but he did change his methods because he realized that the message had to be presented in such a way that the audience could understand it and respond properly to it.
We can probably learn more from Paul’s experience at Athens than from his other sermons in Acts for we are living in a day when more and more people know less and less about the Bible. Both the skepticism of Post-modernism and the tolerance of pluralism create a more challenging environment in which to talk about Jesus today. The issue is not what we believe about Jesus. Our faith in the Jesus of the Gospels is firm. The issue is how we can effectively communicate with the Post-modern mind this New Testament picture of Jesus.
From Paul, we can learn these lessons.
We learn that our methods for sharing might have to be changed.
We learn that we must look for points of connection with those to whom we share.
We learn that we must nevertheless not water down the basic elements of our faith.
The message of the gospel does not change. However, our methods must change if we are to continue to communicate the message to a changing world.