Ours has been called a post-Christian era. North American culture is not friendly towards and does not support our Christian faith and values. You cannot assume that people have even a basic knowledge of the Bible and a basic understanding of what the Christian faith is all about. We live in a day and in a culture where the Christian faith sounds “rather strange” to most people, as it sounded to the Athenians. (Acts 17: 20) How can you talk about Jesus in a context and an environment like that?
The apostle Paul in his sermon to the Athenians, as recorded in Acts 17, gives us an outstanding example of how to do that. In the book of Acts, when Paul was talking to a Jewish audience, he was talking with people with whom he shared the Hebrew Scriptures. They had read and had a basic knowledge and understanding of what we call the Old Testament. So when Paul was speaking to a Jewish audience, he could and would make frequent reference to the major personalities and events of the Old Testament. His basic sermon to a Jewish audience had two main points – contrary to our concept of the Messiah, the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead; and Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 17: 3)
But when Paul was talking with a non-Jewish audience, he was speaking to people he did not share the Old Testament with. He was speaking to people who did not have a basic knowledge of the Old Testament. So how was he going to talk with them? He gives us an outstanding example of how to do that in Acts 17, when he was brought to the Areopagus.
First, he spoke as one who was “deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (verse 16) Are we deeply distressed over all the idols that people have in their lives? Maybe not images carved out of wood or stone, but idols like the ones parked in their garages or driveways. Or idols like the superstars in sports and entertainment. Are we deeply distressed over all the idols, or do we not care? Are we concerned about the kinds of things that people place first in their lives?
Second, he started on a positive note. He began by saying, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” (verse 22) He did not begin by blasting them for all their idols. Rather he began by acknowledging that all their idols represented a spiritual emptiness, hunger, and yearning in their lives.
Third, he had put in the effort to become familiar with their culture and values. He said, “As I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship.” (verse 23) Do you care enough about people who do not know Jesus to put forth the effort to become familiar with their culture and values?
Fourth, he found a connecting point. He used an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god” (verse 23), as a way to connect with them and as a way to launch into telling them about Jesus. As the Athenians built temples and erected altars to all sorts of gods, they also had this deep, inner sense that there is more. They sensed that they were missing something or someone. What are the connecting points in our culture? What are the evidences that people sense that they are missing someone or something? Do you look for connecting points? I have found that movies and music often express the spiritual longings of people. For example, in the movie “Gravity” Sandra Bullock plays a person who has been stranded in outer space on a space station. Not knowing whether she will ever make it back to earth alive, she says, “I would pray, but no one ever taught me how.” How many people do you know who are in situations right now where they are at the end of their ropes and they would pray, but no one ever taught them how?
Fifth, he could quote their poets. He quoted from two Greek poets – one of whom said, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and a second one who said, “For we too are his offspring.” (verse 28) Again, do you know contemporary culture well enough so that you quote from its poets?
What are the altars to the unknown god today? What in our culture reveals the spiritual yearnings of people? Do you know the values, longings, and desires of the people you would like to tell about Jesus well enough so that you are able to use their values, longings, and desires as a way to talk with them about Jesus?
Acts 17 tells us that the people listened to Paul until he mentioned the resurrection. At that point some scoffed, while others said, “We would be willing to listen to you again.” As we read Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, which is where he went immediately after his time in Athens, it seems that Paul must have felt very badly and been very discouraged by how it went in Athens. But the author of Acts tells us that “some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris.” (verse 34) As an Areopagite, Dionysius must have been a leader in the city, and the way Luke writes suggests that Damaris might have been a woman of means. It might not have been all that Paul had been hoping for, but his work in Athens did bear fruit.
What experiences have you had talking about Jesus with people who do not know anything about Jesus? What did you say? How did it go? Having read and studied this account, how would you now do it differently?
by Dennis D. Nelson
President of the Board and Director of Lutheran CORE