Lead the Lost to Christ


Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about the need for believers and churches to move beyond their personal contexts to find contextually appropriate ways to reach people with the gospel.

Go Where People Are:  Acts 17:16-21.

[16]  Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. [17]  So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. [18]  Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, "What does this babbler wish to say?" Others said, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities"–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 that you are presenting? [20]  For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean." [21]  Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.  [ESV]

[16-21]  There is something enthralling about Paul in Athens, the great Christian apostle amid the glories of ancient Greece. Of course he had known about Athens since his boyhood. Everybody knew about Athens, the foremost Greek city-state since the fifth century BC. Even after its incorporation into the Roman Empire, it retained a proud intellectual independence and also became a free city. It boasted of its rich philosophical tradition inherited from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, of its literature and art, and of its notable achievements in the cause of human liberty. Now for the first time Paul visited Athens of which he had heard so much, arriving by sea from the north. His friends, who had given him a safe escort from Berea, had gone. He had asked them to send Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible [17:15]. He was hoping to be able to return to Macedonia, for it was to Macedonia that he had been called [16:10]. Meanwhile, as he waited for their arrival, he found himself alone in the cultural capital of the world. What was his reaction? What should be the reaction of a Christian who visits or lives in a city which is dominated by a non-Christian ideology or religion, a city which may be aesthetically magnificent and culturally sophisticated, but morally decadent and spiritually deceived or dead? There were four parts to Paul’s reaction. Luke tells us what he saw, felt, did and said. Paul saw the city full of idols. First and foremost what Paul saw was neither the beauty nor the brilliance of the city, but its idolatry. There were innumerable temples, shrines, statues and altars. In the Parthenon stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena. Elsewhere there were images of Apollo, Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Bacchus, Neptune, Diana and Aesculapius. The whole Greek pantheon was there, all the gods of Olympus. They were made not only of stone and brass, but of gold, silver, ivory and marble, and they had been elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors. There was no need to suppose that Paul was blind to their beauty. But beauty did not impress him if it did not honor God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, he was oppressed by the idolatrous use to which the God-given artistic creativity of the Athenians was being put. This is what Paul saw: a city submerged in its idols. When Paul saw this, his spirit was provoked within him. This word translated provoked is the same word used in the Old Testament to describe God’s reaction to the idolatry of His people, Israel. The pain which Paul felt in Athens was due to his abhorrence of idolatry, which aroused within him deep stirrings of jealousy for the Name of God, as he saw human beings so depraved as to be giving to idols the honor and glory which were due to the one, living and true God alone. Moreover this inward pain and horror, which moved Paul to share the good news with the idolaters of Athens, should similarly move us. Certainly compassion for people who do not know Jesus Christ, and who on that account are alienated from God, is a strong incentive for evangelism. But the highest incentive of all is zeal or jealousy for the glory of Jesus Christ. God has promoted Him to the supreme place of honor, in order that every knee and tongue should acknowledge His lordship. Whenever He is denied His rightful place in people’s lives, therefore, we should feel inwardly wounded, and jealous for His name. And this is what Paul felt as he walked around the city of Athens, seeing a city full of idols where the glory and honor of Jesus Christ was being ignored. So what did Paul do? He reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there [17]. Paul’s reaction to the city’s idolatry was not negative only (horror and dismay) but also positive and constructive (witness). He did not merely throw up his hands in despair, or weep helplessly, or curse and swear at the Athenians. No, he shared with them the good news of Jesus. He sought by the proclamation of the gospel to prevail on them to turn from their idols to the living God and so to give to Him and to His Son the glory due to their Name. The stirrings of his spirit with righteous indignation opened his mouth in testimony. We observe the three groups with whom Luke tells us he spoke. First, following his usual practice, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and reasoned there with both Jews and God-fearers. As in Thessalonica, so in Athens, he will have delineated the Christ of Scripture, proclaimed the Jesus of history, and identified the two as the heaven-sent Savior of sinners. Secondly, he went into the marketplace which was the center of public life in Athens, and reasoned there with all who happened to be there every day of the week. Thirdly, Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him, and he with them. The Epicureans considered the gods to be so remote as to take no interest in, and have no influence on, human affairs. The world was due to chance, a random concourse of atoms, and there would be no survival of death, and no judgment. So human beings should pursue pleasure, especially the serene enjoyment of a life detached from pain, passion and fear. The Stoics, however, acknowledged the supreme god but in a pantheistic way, confusing him with the world soul. The world was determined by fate, and human beings must pursue their duty, resigning themselves to live in harmony with nature and reason, however painful this might be, and develop their own self-sufficiency. To oversimplify, it was characteristic of Epicureans to emphasize change, escape and the enjoyment of pleasure and of the Stoics to emphasize fatalism, submission and the endurance of pain. One cannot help admiring Paul’s ability to speak with equal facility to religious people in the synagogue, to casual passers-by in the city square, and to highly sophisticated philosophers both in the agora and when they met in Council.

Know What People Believe:  Acts 17:22-23.

[22]  So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. [23]  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  [ESV]

[22-23]  What does the apostle say? It is a masterly blend of reason and rhetoric. He is addressing the intellectual elite. An examination of what Paul said brings up at three assertions. First, Paul asserts that they are surrounded by the revelation of God. Paul begins by avowing that the Athenians were a very religious people. He had witnessed during his time in Athens the plethora of deities carved in stone and marble. Why, Paul had even seen an altar bearing the inscription, To the unknown god, just in case they may have inadvertently missed one. Paul then launched into a full-blooded assertion bound to be seen as confrontational: What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you [23]. The true God was not, nor could be, among their pantheon. It is important to note what Paul did not do. Even though Paul began by asserting Athenian worship (the fact of it being a point of contact), he did not assert its validity. Both worshiped, but this did not imply that both forms of worship were valid. Paul did not began by finding some common ground between Christianity and their polytheistic superstitions. Paul was on a collision course from the very beginning, at least with the Epicureans, who claimed that even if gods existed, they were unknowable and irrelevant. True, Paul did not begin with the Bible, per se. Despite their learning, the men of the Areopagus were utterly ignorant of what the Old Testament Scriptures taught. But what Paul said is a lesson in evangelism to those who do not know the Bible. He did not begin with an attempt to prove the existence of God. Rather, Paul began with God. He did not buy into their unbelief or skepticism. They knew of God’s existence whether they admitted it or not. They knew Him through creation and providence.

Point People to God:  Acts 17:24-31.

[24]  The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, [25]  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. [26]  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, [27]  that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, [28]  for "’In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, "’For we are indeed his offspring.’ [29]  Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. [30]  The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, [31]  because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."  [ESV]

[24-31]  Paul went on to proclaim the living and true God in five ways, and so to expose the errors, even horrors, of idolatry. First God is the Creator of the universe [24]. This view of the world is very different from either the Epicurean emphasis on a chance combination of atoms or the virtual pantheism of the Stoics. Instead, God is both the personal creator of everything that exists and the personal Lord of everything He has made. It is absurd, therefore, to suppose that He who made and supervises everything lives in shrines which human beings have built. Any attempt to limit or localize the Creator God, to imprison Him within the confines of manmade buildings, structures or concepts, is ludicrous. Secondly, God is the Sustainer of life [25]. God continues to sustain the life which he has created and given to His human creatures. It is absurd, therefore, to suppose that He who sustains life should Himself need to be sustained, that He who supplies our need should Himself need our supply. Thirdly, God is the Ruler of all the nations [26-28a]. Although God cannot be held responsible for the tyranny or aggression of individual nations, yet both the history and the geography of each nation are ultimately under His control. Further, God’s purpose in this has been so that the human beings He has made in His own image might seek Him and find Him. Yet this hope is unfulfilled because of human sin, as the rest of Scripture makes clear. Sin alienates people from God even as, sensing the unnaturalness of their alienation, they grope for Him. It would be absurd, however, to blame God for this alienation, or to regard Him as distant, unknowable, uninterested: yet he is actually not far from each one of us. It is we who are far from Him. If it were not for sin which separates us from Him, He would be readily accessible to us. For in him we live and move and have our being. Fourthly, God is the Father of human beings [28b-29]. Although in redemption terms God is the Father only of those who are in Christ, and we are His children only by adoption and grace, yet in creation terms God is the Father of all humankind, and all are His offspring, His creatures, receiving their life from Him. Moreover, because we are His offspring, whose being derives from Him and depends on Him, it is absurd to think of Him as like gold or silver or stone, which are lifeless in themselves and which owe their being to human imagination and art. Paul quotes their own poets to expose their own inconsistency. These are powerful arguments. All idolatry, whether ancient or modern, primitive or sophisticated, is inexcusable, whether the images are metal or mental, material objects of worship or unworthy concepts in the mind. For idolatry is the attempt either to localize God, confining Him within limits which we impose, whereas He is the Creator of the universe; or to domesticate God, making Him dependent on us, whereas He is the Sustainer of human life; or to alienate God, blaming Him for His distance and His silence, whereas He is the Ruler of nations, and not far from any of us; or to dethrone God, demoting Him to some image of our own contrivance or craft, whereas He is our Father from whom we derive our being. In brief, all idolatry tries to minimize the gulf between the Creator and His creatures, in order to bring Him under our control. More than that, it actually reverses the respective positions of God and us, so that, instead of our humbly acknowledging that God has created and rules us, we presume to imagine that we can create and rule God. There is no logic in idolatry; it is a perverse, topsy-turvy expression of our human rebellion against God. It leads to Paul’s last point. Fifthly, God is the Judge of the world [30-31]. Paul reverts at the end of his address to the topic with which he began: human ignorance. The Athenians have acknowledged in their altar inscription that they are ignorant of God, and Paul has been giving evidence of their ignorance. Now he declares such ignorance to be culpable. For God has never left Himself without testimony [14:17]. On the contrary, He has revealed Himself through the natural order, but human beings suppress the truth by their wickedness [Rom. 1:18]. In the past God overlooked such ignorance. It is not that He did not notice it, nor that He acquiesced in it as excusable, but that in His forbearing mercy He did not visit upon it the judgment it deserved. But now he commands all people everywhere to repent. Why? Because of the certainty of the coming judgment. Paul tells his listeners three immutable facts about it. First, it will be universal: God will judge the world. The living and the dead, the high and the low, will be included; nobody will be able to escape. Secondly, it will be righteous. All secrets will be revealed. There will be no possibility of any miscarriage of justice. Thirdly, it will be definite, for already the day has been set and the judge has been appointed. And although the day has not yet been disclosed, the identity of the judge has been [10:42]. God has committed the judgment to His Son, and he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. By the resurrection Jesus was vindicated, and declared to be both Lord and Judge. The Areopagus address reveals the comprehensiveness of Paul’s message. He proclaimed God in His fullness as Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Father and Judge. He took in the whole of nature and of history. He passed the whole of time in review, from the creation to the consummation. He emphasized the greatness of God, not only as the beginning and the end of all things, but as the One to whom we owe our being and to whom we must give account. He argued that human beings already know these things by natural or general revelation, and that their ignorance and idolatry are therefore inexcusable. So he called on them with great solemnity, before it was too late, to repent. We learn from Paul that we cannot preach the gospel of Jesus without the doctrine of God, or the cross without the creation, or salvation without judgment. It is not only the comprehensiveness of Paul’s message in Athens which is impressive, however, but also the depth and power of his motivation. Paul saw men and women, created by God in the image of God, giving to idols the homage which was due to Him alone. Idols are not limited to primitive societies; there are many sophisticated idols too. An idol is a god-substitute. Any person or thing that occupies the place which God should occupy is an idol.


Questions for Discussion:

1.         How did Paul react to what he saw in Athens? What were the four parts of his reaction? What did Paul see, feel, do, and say?

2.         In 17:24-31, what five ways did Paul proclaim the living and true God?

3.         What do we learn about evangelism from this passage? What doctrines did Paul emphasize in his approach to unbelievers? Concerning evangelism, think about the statement: “The highest incentive of all is zeal or jealousy for the glory of Jesus Christ.” John Piper expresses this same thought in the following manner: “Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man” (Let the Nations be Glad!, page 11). How do these two statements influence the way you witness or do evangelism?


The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Acts, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker.

Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.

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