When my wife and I were married in 1988, we embarked on a honeymoon that was a bit different than most folks. We decided to go on a student trip to Europe, visiting and studying in England, Western Europe, Scandinavia, Poland, East Germany (as it was known then), and the Soviet Union (back when there was such a thing). Most of the time, we communicated and got our points across when dealing with people in those different countries. However, there was one time when communication completely broke down.
We were near Krakow, Poland. Driving in our 3 VW minibuses, we were hopelessly lost in the Polish countryside. We found ourselves on a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, with farmers giving us strange looks. I am sure they had never seen a VW minibus before, much less three of them filled with very American looking students. We stopped and asked one of the farmers for directions but were not successful in getting accurate guidance due to the language barrier. In the city, many people spoke English. Out in the countryside, not so much. It was getting late; we hadn’t eaten all day, we were tired and hungry.
After stopping one more farmer, he was able to sketch out (with a stick in the dust of the road) the way to a place where we might be able to get some food and better directions. We followed the directions, and it took us to a small building that had a sign written in Polish above it. We had no idea what the sign said, but we sent two leaders to check it out. They went in and quickly came out and waved for us to come in. It was a restaurant. We all sat down at tables to look over the menu. However, it was written entirely in Polish. Not being able to read the menu, one of the fellows in our group started pointing at different food items. For one, he pointed to the item and made his arms flap like a chicken, and he clucked. The server laughed and said, “No,” and then she mooed like a cow. She then pointed to another item, and she flapped her arms and clucked like a chicken. We had a choice of beef or chicken. We didn’t know what the dish would be specifically, but we were too hungry to care. Each of us, when the server came by, either mooed or clucked. Within a few minutes, steaming plates of delicious Polish food came out. It was the best meal we ever had. We also asked for directions back to our hostel near Krakow. The restaurant owner knew of the place and drew out a map on a piece of paper. That map got us back.
I tell this story because I want to present a picture of how the Apostle Paul might have felt while he was in Athens in Acts 17:16-34. He was a Christ-follower, a Jewish Pharisee, and a monotheist in a highly pagan and hedonistic culture. Indeed, Paul knew how to read and speak Greek and was familiar with Greek culture and some philosophies. However, Athens was about as far away removed from his own culture as he had ever been. What more, he was alone.
To set the stage here, we need the context of how Paul arrived in Athens. Acts 16 describes Paul and Silas on Paul’s second missionary journey, leaving Asia (modern-day Turkey) and crossing the Aegean Sea to Macedonia (Northern Greece) and Philippi. They had some successful evangelistic work at Philippi but were thrown into prison after delivering a demon possessed girl. She was earning her masters a lot of money, and with their income now dried up, blamed Paul and Silas. Paul and Silas were delivered from prison after converting the jailer. Acts 17 brings the duo south to Amphipolis, Apollonia, and Thessalonica. In Thessalonica, this time, it is the Jewish leaders that cause trouble. Paul and Silas escape, but a new believer, Jason, pays the price for associating with them. The Christians at Thessalonica send Paul and Silas to Berea. In Berea, they met a more reasonable Jewish congregation and were able to have some good dialogue with them. But the Jewish leaders from Thessalonica came to Berea to cause trouble. So, Paul was sent by himself to Athens. Silas and Timothy were on their way to join him there.
Preparing for the Apostle’s Speech
Paul found himself wandering the streets of Athens. Yes, he knew how to speak and read the Greek language, but this was a far-removed culture from his own. He was undoubtedly familiar with the culture, but it is one thing to know about the culture and another thing to find oneself alone in that culture. In 2006, I traveled by myself to Shang Hai, China, for business. I knew a fair bit about Chinese culture, but being alone in a world where everyone spoke, looked, and think differently than me. Even though I could get around with taxi’s and most people I met spoke English, I felt perpetually lost.
I imagine this is how Paul would have felt. Vs. 16 states that “he was deeply distressed when he saw that the city was full of idols.” He stuck to his tradition and found the Jewish Synagogue, and went into the marketplace to “reason” with people (vs. 17). By going to the market, Paul engaged with Athens’ tradition to entertain new ideas and philosophies in this public arena. Luke, the author of Acts, mentions two groups of philosophers who had trouble with what Paul was saying. The Epicurean and the Stoics were competing philosophical schools at that time. The Epicureans thought that all there was to life was material. There was no such thing as the supernatural, and the greatest goal in life was to find pleasure and avoid pain. The Stoics, on the other hand, believed in the supernatural. To them, the greatest good was outside of the material world, and in the world of the gods. The crowds at the marketplace at the same time ridiculed and were fascinated with what Paul said. Paul laid out the gospel, and the group wanted to hear more. Therefore, they brought him to an esteemed place where speakers can present their idea, the Areopagus.
The Apostle’s Speech
The Areopagus is northwest of the famous Acropolis in Athens on a hill dedicated to the god Ares or Mars. Here met the “Court” or “Council of Ares” [that] was the senate or city council of a Greek city-state.” The Epicureans and the Stoics were not very pleased with Paul’s message, so they brought him before the wisest minds of the city hoping he would be discredited. However, Paul spoke in a way they could all understand.
If you look at many of Paul’s speeches in Acts, you usually read about an appeal to Jewish Scripture. The Bible, what we call the Old Testament, was the Jewish people’s source of truth. Paul’s speeches reflect his interaction with the different Jewish communities throughout the Gentile world. However, for this speech, Paul does something very different. He does not appeal to the Bible directly. He instead remarks upon their culture. In Greek culture, gods were represented as statues. There were many statues throughout Athens to this god or that god. In fact, the Greeks did not understand how the Jews and the Christians could not be atheists because they avoided statues and images at all costs. Paul, understanding this worldview, instead appeals to a statue to an unknown god (vs. 23). Instead of relying on quotations from the Bible, Paul instead spoke their cultural language of reason. By using the statue of the unknown god, Paul methodically proclaimed the gospel, and the audience was able to engage with his teaching. That is until he mentioned the resurrection. From vss. 30-31, Paul states:
“Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent because he has set a day when he is going to judge the world in righteousness by the man he has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Vs. 32 states, “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some began to ridicule him, but others said, ‘We’d like to hear from you again about this.’” Paul was able to appeal to some of his audience. The others rejected his call for repentance. But regardless, Paul’s intentional use of their cultural language allowed him to appeal to their worldview.
Jesus called all of us to be disciple-makers. This call is one of the main parts of being citizens of the Kingdom of God. When we are out in the world communicating the gospel, we need to have a sensitivity to the audience – the person – we are talking with. In this day and age, we cannot assume that the person we are sharing the gospel knows spiritual things. Like Paul in Athens, we need to speak the cultural language and appeal to people’s worldview. As my wife and I in Poland learned, we must be patient and be ready to communicate uncomfortably. For many years, the evangelist’s question was, “If you died tonight, would you go to Heaven?” For many people in the past, the answer might have been “I don’t know.” In today’s culture, the answer is more than likely, “I don’t care.”
So how do we break through to a culture that no longer has a reference to the things of God? How do we communicate essential truth when the culture rejects even the notion of truth? The answers come from Paul: speak their cultural language. If we start our conversations with religious talk such as:
“Do you know Jesus as your personal Savior?”
“Have you repented for your sins?
“Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”
“Let me tell you the good news – you’re going to Hell!”
Then we will lose the conversation quickly. However, if we ask questions about the person’s worldview, get to know them as people, and discover their passions and feelings, we can start an inroad to presenting the Love of God and salvation through Jesus naturally.
In our post-modern culture, we need to speak the same language. The post-modern mind is very aware of groups, is very attracted to stories, and is very concerned with justice. As Christians, we can appeal to these things and use this cultural language, like Paul, to communicate the love of Jesus. If you are a Christ-follower, I encourage you to know the crucial things your neighbor believes and enjoys. Understand the recent movies and books to have a foundation on which your neighbor interprets the world. You don’t need to agree with the culture, but you must understand the culture to communicate with people.
If you are not a follower of Jesus, then I encourage you to give Jesus a fair hearing. You may have had religious people speak to you in the past about things you just didn’t care about or understand. I’m sorry about that. However, I challenge you to ask hard questions. Dig deeper. Ask Jesus to make himself known to you. If you have a Bible, read through John’s gospel and find out who this Jesus really was and is. Don’t be afraid to find the truth.