The characters in Acts are changing the world. Paul and his comrades are trying to soften stiff-necked, hardheaded unchanging people. Paul is bringing a revolution to the Jewish faith and opening up the gates of Christianity. But on the other side are the Gentile traditions that are very different their approach to the world philosophically.
That latter group is why Acts 17 is so important to church planters, I think. It contains amazing interaction that Paul has with the Athenian people. They are a long way from Kansas, if you know what I mean, and the arguments about the Old Testament law that Paul and his comrades are having up until this point, are a little less relevant when he is addressing Athens.
You can read the whole passage here. I want to distill some lessons from Paul’s leadership for us to use in our current context.
1. Paul allows himself to get angry about the sin and evil around him. Paul is waiting for his comrades in Athens and he is walking around this intellectual city full of idolatrous items. Athens is a free from the Roman Empire who respects it because of its storied history; it is a museum of Greek culture, and so Paul is noticing a lot about it. And he is getting angry about its godlessness; the word Luke uses to describe Paul’s anger is the same word that’s used to describe God’s anger in the Old Testament too. Paul engages in debate with his Jewish contemporaries, which is typical for him. His anger is being channeled. He knows he’s angry and he uses it. I wonder how angry we are about the sin around us—most of the time, I think we just avoid it or try to develop indifference. We unfriend or unfollow on Facebook.
2. Paul knows his audience’s philosophies. While he’s waiting he also debated in public to whomever was listening. He interacted with two philosophical groups, which Luke names: Stoics and Epicureans. I think it’s important to understand those two philosophies, not just so we understand the passage and why Paul says what he says, but so that we take the time to the research about contemporary philosophies that we may need to address as we do our part in the family business.
- Followed Epicurus and they had little “faith,” even in the Greek sense. They didn’t care about gods of any kind—they were too removed to be noteworthy.
- One Greek thinker summarized their thought this way, “Nothing to fear in God, nothing to feel in death, Good can be attained, evil can be endured.”
- They are following Zeno—he would teach from Stoa Poikile.
- These people were pantheists—believing in the unity of the divine and the earthly. Gods are the “soul” and we are the “body,” but we make up one being.
- Thought gods were made of the material.
- As a result, reason and the state were important themes in their thinking. Obedience and self-sufficiency were cornerstones.
Paul knows this about his audience and he can craft a speech that is directed toward their proclivities. He uses strictly Hellenistic Jewish and Greek philosophy to come up with his argument. In other words, he is using the culture that’s around him to declare the basic truth of Christianity. Further, Paul is following a typical Greek form of speech too. He is speaking to his audience using images they understand and a form of speech that the people would get too.
3. Paul uses cultural artifacts to make his point. He uses an inscription he sees to begin that point—that is the central point of the speech and how he makes a connection. He tells them he sees an inscription that says, “to an unknown God.” And he is about to tell them who that God is. The point is made clear: he is relating to the culture and trying to find God in it or at least an opportunity to God to begin planting something.
Paul then begins to describe this God. He describes him first as creator. He made the world and everything in it, and he is the life giver. He is agreeing with the Epicureans that God it he creator, but he is making him personal, undoing their thought that he is too distant to matter, and moreover, he is showing the Stoics that God is separate from us, too, and is not made of crude matter. God supplies our meaning and life.
4. Paul is inclusive, but incisive. Truthful and loving. Paul invites his audience to look for this God with him. And he assures them that God is not far off (maybe because Jesus and his Spirit are right with Paul!) and if they search they may well “grope” him, too. Even if they are blind and are mindlessly meandering, they may still interact with God. Paul continues his flirtation with the philosophy of the day when he uses language like “In him we live and move and have our being,” and he quotes contemporary philosophers too.
The truth of the message is still in tact: creation, being, judgment, repentance, reconciliation, and resurrection. Moreover, Paul doesn’t hesitate to undo the philosophies that he needs to, but he does it with care and while convincing the people that they are already on their way there. He doesn’t just let the entire faith be socially constructed. He doesn’t concede to pressure from the world around him/
5. Paul knows this work takes time. If you keep reading, you will note that some people came to faith in Athens. Paul didn’t undo all of the philosophy that day, but he did his part in the incremental work. These things take time and Paul is OK with that.
Circle of Hope is trying to do its part in that kind of adaptation. Here’s one of my favorite sayings from our collection about this: Life in Christ is one whole cloth. As we participate in and love “the world,” we bring redemption from the Kingdom of God to our society. Jesus is Lord of all, so we have repented of separating “sacred” and “secular.”
Paul does an amazing job of bridging that gap. He isn’t particularly rude to his audience, he finds artifacts that they can relate to, he uses their own philosophy to include them in the mission, and then he tells them that God is not that far off. We are the people that can show the world the whole cloth of Christ. Where are we seeing Jesus in the world and its philosophies? What good can we find? What can be a good starting place for a conversation?
But that also means that we need to bring the Gospel into the current era. Another proverb: Those among us from “traditional” Christian backgrounds are dying to our precious memories of “church” in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility.
Paul is a changer and a mover. He is flexible with the Gospel and he reserves his harshest words for those who are not.
Acts is all about how God changes us and grows us for his cause. If we are stuck on our old tradition and can’t become flexible for Christ’s sake, we may just become marginalized people in a changing culture and world. This isn’t about making up a new truth that’s philosophically en vogue, it’s not about constructing reality, but it’s about being flexible enough to bring Jesus to a new generation.
In Paul’s case it was Athenians, who is it in our case? Who do we need to present the gospel to with great flexibility? How we can help include them instead of just defending ourselves?