Paul’s passion to reach Gentile philosophers

Posted Oct 16, 2020

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Daily Scripture

Acts 17:16-34

16 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 17 He began to interact with the Jews and Gentile God-worshippers in the synagogue. He also addressed whoever happened to be in the marketplace each day. 18 Certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers engaged him in discussion too. Some said, “What an amateur! What’s he trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods.” (They said this because he was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 They took him into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? 20 You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean.” (21 They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)

22 Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. 23 As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth. He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands. 25 Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else. 26 From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. 28 In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought. 30 God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives. 31 This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed. God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some began to ridicule Paul. However, others said, “We’ll hear from you about this again.” 33 At that, Paul left the council. 34 Some people joined him and came to believe, including Dionysius, a member of the council on Mars Hill, a woman named Damaris, and several others.

Reflection Questions

On his second missionary journey, the apostle Paul spent time in Athens, the “other religions” capital of his world. Athens was, in its day, what we might call a university town, with lots of novelty-loving philosophers. Given a chance to speak to a gathering on Mars Hill, Paul declared his own faith winningly while giving a model for dealing respectfully and lovingly with people of different faith traditions.

  • Luke, maybe with a wry smile, wrote that the Athenians and their foreign guests “used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.” Paul’s message about Jesus, especially his resurrection, seemed very novel in Athens. Could it be that in increasingly un-Christian parts of our culture and world, the “novelty” of the good news might get more of a hearing from some people than its antiquity?
  • Some people would expect the apostle Paul (and Christians after him) to denounce the Athenians as pagan libertines and idolaters, going straight to hell. But Paul’s actual sermon had a respectful, inclusive tone. (In verse 28, he quoted a Cretan philosopher named Epimenides and the Stoic poet Aratus.) Was quoting pagan writers “selling out” his faith? How can openness to faiths and cultures other than your own allow you to create conversation rather than condemnation?

Prayer

King Jesus, when Paul preached in Athens, he quoted Greek poets and Cretan philosophers. Help me to know the culture around me well enough that I can use it to communicate without letting that culture subvert my faith. Amen.

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Darren Lippe

Darren Lippe

Darren Lippe helps facilitate Journey 101 “Loving God” classes, guides a 7th-grade Sunday school class, is a member of a small group and a men’s group, and serves on the curriculum team.

As I considered today’s passage I recalled that when I was in high school, my debate coach recommended that I should read Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends & Influence People.” (Mr. Carnegie was born in Marysville, Missouri in 1888. Upon the publication of this book in 1936, Dale became a famous lecturer on sales techniques, public speaking, & developing interpersonal skills.) Let’s compare & contrast 3 of Mr. Carnegie’s tips with Paul’s speech:

Aside: Back in 1997, when I was part of Resurrection’s Singles Ministry, I recall a presentation on the benefits of friends & networking. The speaker wryly noted, “The most over-looked miracle of Jesus’ ministry was that here was a person in their 30’s making 12 new friends.”


Don’t Criticize, Condemn, or Complain - As Carnegie noted, “Any fool can do that…and most do.” Interestingly, Paul might have been tempted to give a fire & brimstone sermon & really lay down the hammer on the Athenians for their beliefs, but he pointedly avoids criticizing or condemning their theology.

Imagine if we followed Dale’s counsel today. The Kansas City Star newspaper would be the size of a pamphlet & my social media feeds would be limited to Scooby-Doo History, Throwback Sports, & Funny Basset Hound Videos. I’m just spit-balling here, but maybe, just maybe, speeches & social media posts that condemn people who dare to disagree with us might not be the best means of persuasion.

I like the old joke to illustrate the point:

Therapist: Anyways…
Patient: “Anyways” isn’t word. You should just say, “Anyway.”
Therapist: Thank you. ANYWAY, we were talking about your difficulty in making new friends.

Be genuinely interested in other people – Carnegie urges us to listen 75% of the time & only speak 25% of the time. “You make more friends in 2 months by becoming genuinely interested in them than you can in 2 years by trying to get them interested in you.”

As we read Paul’s speech, we quickly realize that Paul has done his homework preparing to speak to the folks in Athens. He notes the work of a poet named Aratus, who lived some 400 years earlier. Aratus’ poetic works about constellations & weather patterns were still the rage among the deep-thinking Athenians. Paul also cites a line in his presentation from a popular ancient philosopher, Epimenides, who was known as a seer & prophet. Paul’s outreach to the Athenians started way before he even began speaking.

Start With Common Ground – Dale argues that seeking connections with others is essential to building a dialogue & relationships.

Notice how deftly Paul uses the altar dedicated to the “Unknown God” as his opening to discuss Jesus? He incorporates the Athenian’s struggle of worshipping some mysterious deity with his own discovery of Jesus as the solution to their shared quests. They aren’t rivals trying to play a godly game of one-upmanship, but rather now they are teammates working together to try to solve the great mystery of the universe.

A few years ago, I was the Spiritual Advisor for our Boy Scout troop. I led classes for the Protestant scouts for the God & Church award & helped organize classes for religious awards for our Jewish & Hindu scouts as well. (Our class for the Hindu Dharma award was the first such session ever held in the Kansas City area.)

As I sat in on the Hindu gathering, I was fascinated as the counselor guided the boys through the stories of Hinduism & the tenets of the faith. Afterwards I praised him for keeping the boys engaged. He appreciated my compliment & noted that he taught a class for young people each week at his temple. I replied that I did the same thing. We immediately connected with the same joys & concerns of teaching young people: We loved when the “light-bulb” went on, we enjoyed how the ancient texts still could prompt interesting discussions, & we both worried that our younger generation was becoming distracted from their spiritual walk. As we wrapped up our conversation, I said, “Keep the faith, brother.” He smiled & replied, “And you as well.”

Perhaps Mr. Carnegie & the Apostle Paul were on to something. Paul is considered one of the world’s greatest evangelists & Dale is regarded as one of the great social thinkers. What would be the harm if we started mimicking their techniques this weekend? We might just be pleasantly surprised at the results.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, a friend of mine is going to be on TV competing in the World Origami Championships. Unfortunately, it’s only on paper view.

1Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York City: Simon & Schuster, 1936, p. Various

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