22 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. 23 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.
How do you preach the Gospel in a knowledgeable, trendy, pseudo-intellectual world? The circumstances we face today in the 21st century seem overwhelming in regard to witnessing for Christ… but we can learn a lot from the first trail blazer for Christ, the Apostle Paul in the 1st Century.
What did he do then that we should be about today?
1) Follow the Spirit!
Now if we look at Paul’s journey into Macedonia, we see he has a plan. He begins in Philippi and the moves on to Thessalonica… these are two stops on what was called the Egnatian Way! It was a paved roadway across the Roman Empire. Paul’s plan seems to make sense! Stay on the sidewalk and set up churches along the heart of the land.
But persecution in Thessalonica sends the team to Berea… which was a good thing because many people were saved there. But then more persecution hits and they are further turned away from the Main Highway and their team is fragmented. While Timothy and Silas stay behind to strengthen the young church in Berea… Paul departs alone for Athens: the philosophical capital of all time… home to greats such as Socrates and Plato.
Now Paul was more than ready to minister to Athens, it just wasn’t part of his plan… Rome, the capital of the empire, seems to have been the target. But by the movement of the Spirit he came to Athens, the capital of philosophical thought.
Is the Spirit leading you to place of witness that you haven’t though of before? Maybe a class at a local university or a seat on a community board, or a volunteer position at a local hospital would shake up things in your world. Stay open to the Spirit’s lead and follow the Lord’s call. You may have to get off your chosen sidewalk… but that’s okay.
2) Open Your Eyes!
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
A.T. Robertson notes: “Pliny [the Roman writer] states that in the time of Nero [A.D. 54-68], Athens had over 30,000 public statues besides countless private ones in the homes. Petronius [a Roman satirist] sneers that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Every gateway or porch had its protecting god” (Word Pictures of the New Testament, notes on Acts 17:16).
That sounds to me like 21st Century America. We aren’t tripping over marble statuettes, but we do live in a land of religious plurality.
Chuck Sackett in his sermon “At Ease in Athens” wrote: “I was reading an article from Newsweek recently: “In Search of the Spiritual.” Apparently, the religious website Beliefnet sends out more than 8 million daily emails of spiritual wisdom in various flavors to more than 5 million subscribers. Generic inspiration is the most popular 2.4 million emails, followed by inspirations from the Bible with 1.6 million. But there are 460,000 subscribers to the Buddhist thought of the day, 313,000 Torah devotees, 268,000 subscribers to daily Muslim wisdom, and 236,000 who get spiritual weight loss messages.
Even nature worshiping pagans are divided up into: Wicca, Druidism, Pantheism, Animism, Teutonic Platonism, and the God of Spirituality folk. And in case you can’t find one to suit you on that list, there’s Eclectic Paganism.
If I were to walk through Beliefnet’s website, I would draw this conclusion: we are very religious people. In fact, 79% of people in the U.S. under the age of 60 would categorize themselves as spiritual. Not religious, but spiritual.
For all of the choices, many chose not to chose.
“I believe in God. I just don’t know if that God is Jehovah, Buddha or Allah.” – Actress Halle Berry
She is not that different from a lot of your neighbors. Open your eyes to the belief systems of those around you. And from that, see… truly see… their desire to find God… All this belief points to the fact that they are questioning and seeking the Almighty.
3) Strike up a conversation!
In Athens Paul is without his support team, but cannot remain silent.
17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.
Jews and God fearing Greeks in the synagogue were his typical audience. But Paul also took advantage of the Agora (the marketplace) where ideas were sold as plenteous as groceries. Paul took the Gospel to whoever would listen. Verse 18 states at least two groups took note of Paul.
Epicureans – Now they believed that life was 100% chance… and death was the end. The other group was the Stoics – They believed that everything was god, that everything that happened was of god and had to be accepted without question. Hince, we refer to one that doesn’t show emotion in a situation that calls for it, as someone who is very Stoic.
These groups hear Paul’s preaching and say in verse 18: “What is this babbler trying say?”
The Greek word for “babbler” here originally was used of birds picking up grain and then of scrap collectors searching for junk and then of people that stole other’s ideas and peddled them as their own. This was not a flattering label they were putting on Paul.
To top it all off.. they also thought Paul was advocating new deities: Jesus and Resurrection. The Greek word for resurrection has an uncharacteristic feminine ending. Meaning, they thought Paul was saying Jesus and Resurrection were a couple. They apparently weren’t listening that well to Paul’s message.
What can we learn from Paul here about striking up a conversation in a diverse religious setting? We should expect to be misunderstood, mislabeled and at times, belittled. But that shouldn’t cause us to run away into our Christian subculture and hide… we need to find our feet shod with the Good News of the Gospel and firmly planted in the marketplace of our time.
But, you ask, how do I engage today’s culture?
>Read the paper, watch the news, if only to gain a frame of reference to talk to others.
>Talk to people: where you work and where you go to school.
>Talk to people of other faiths, other races, other economic statuses.
You can’t make people believe in Jesus… but that’s the Holy Spirit’s job anyway. We just work to impact people toward Him.