Witnessing in a Corrupt Culture (Acts 17:16-34)

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On Paul’s second missionary journey, his preaching ministry resulted in several church plants in Northern Greece. Most well known are the churches at Philippi and Thessalonica. But in Thessalonica, Paul and his traveling companions were run out of town by a mob and forced to flee to Berea. The Bereans were more noble than the Thessalonians because they examined the Scriptures every day, testing the teaching of the apostles. Many believed, but the Thessalonians heard about Paul’s success and went to Berea to oppose him. Paul was taken by several brothers to Athens, while Timothy and Silas stayed behind.

Acts 17:16-34 records Paul’s experience in Athens. From Paul’s example at Athens, what can we learn to help us be better witnesses in a corrupt culture?

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. 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. 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. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 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. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 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, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 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.’ 

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. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 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.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

Deeply Troubled by the Culture (v.16)

Athens, Greece was the world’s cultural and intellectual center, rich in art and architecture. There, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had developed their philosophies. When Paul was left alone in Athens, he began touring the city—one of the most beautiful in the world. If you’ve seen pictures of massive buildings with mammoth round pillars, that’s a sample of what Athens would have looked like. The crowning building was the Parthenon, which honored Athen’s patron goddess.

One ancient writer said there were 30,000 gods in Athens. Peterronius, an ancient historian, said that is was easier to find a god in Athens than a man. When Paul saw the pagan altars and idol-worship, he was deeply troubled.

Verse 16 says that Paul’s spirit was “stirred” or “provoked” by the city’s idolatry. He couldn’t bear the foolishness any longer. “Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save” (Isa. 45:20).

To be a faithful witness, we must be deeply troubled by the culture in which we live. How often do we go to school, work, or the store and ignore the ignorance and sinfulness around us? Are we so caught up in our lives that we are unmoved by the corruption of the world? We live in a culture that tells us to be tolerant—and to be sure, we should treat everyone with kindness. But Biblical tolerance is not about ignoring our differences. It requires us to lovingly confront corrupt culture with the truth, whatever the personal cost. Have we become apathetic about the wickedness of the world, or are we deeply troubled by it?

Intentional About One’s Witness (v.17)

Of course, simply being troubled is not enough. In verse 17, Paul takes action. In verse 17, we read, “Therefore.” Paul did something about his concern. He “disputed…in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.”

To be a faithful witness, we must be intentional about sharing the truth. When we are provoked by the culture but do not go on to reach out to the culture, we end up disdaining people instead of loving them. We end up looking down our nose instead of reaching out our hand. We must always act on our concern.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine a sheet of paper with two columns. On the left side, write down every time you have ever noticed sin in the world and looked on with grief, anger, or disbelief. On the right side, write down every time you have approached those individuals and talked to them about Jesus. What does your list look like?

When Paul reached out, he reached out to three major groups:

  1. The religious people
  2. The common people
  3. The philosophers

It was always Paul’s practice to start by speaking to the Jews in the synagogue. They wouldn’t listen to him after he preached to the Gentiles, and Paul knew that he had an opportunity to speak there. In the synagogue, after the public reading of Scripture, there was an opportunity for circumcised Jews to share an exhortation.

We should start witnessing where we have the best opportunities. Is there someone who attends your church that may not be saved? Do you have family or friends who need to hear the gospel? Start there.

Verse 17 says that Paul also reached out in the marketplace, commonly called the agora. The marketplace was the public square where people went about their daily business, vendors set up to sells their goods, and assemblies were held. Paul lingered there and started conversations with the victims of idolatry, encouraging them to think more deeply about what they believed.

Most of us visit the “marketplace”—Walmart, McDonalds, or the grocery store—on a regular basis. Do we ever go there just to look for opportunities to witness? When we visit the marketplace, are we in-tune to the people around us, or do we just go about our business? Paul made the most of every opportunity to build relationships and have conversations about the gospel. In verse 18, we learn that Paul was “telling the good news about Jesus and the Resurrection.”

The verses that follow (18-34) are the most famous in this chapter. They record Paul’s address to the philosophers on Mars Hill. Here, Paul provides a four-step example that we can follow for effective witnessing.

A Skeptical World (v.18-21)

In verses 18-20, several philosophers began to argue with him—the Epicureans, who taught that pleasure was the purpose of life, and the Stoics, who taught that the highest virtue is indifference to pleasure and pain.

Some called Paul a “babbler” or a “pseudo-intellectual” (HSCB). They looked down on Paul and his worldview as intellectually inferior, considering their philosophies to be based on higher reason. Today, Christians are still looked down upon and falsely accused of being anti-scientific.

These philosophers took Paul to the Areopagus on Mars Hill, where the Athenian courts were held, and asked Paul to defend his teachings. The people “spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new” (v.21). In the middle of the Areopagus, surrounded by unbelievers, Paul courageously spoke the truth. Sometimes we feel like Paul, surrounded by a world of skeptics. Paul’s example is an encouragement.

What People Care Most About (v.22-23a)

First, he observed what the people cared most about. “I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (v.22, ESV). The people’s primary focus was their religious ideas and practices.

Everyone has an instinct to worship something. It’s part of bearing the image of God. While the worship of the Athenians was tragically misplaced, the desire to be religious is God-given. Consider some other aspects of the image of God, such as the desire for love and relationship or the ability to think and reason. These desires have been distorted by sin, but they help us to better understand what makes people tick.

It is very likely that the people you meet will care most about love and relationships. They may be desperate for someone to truly care about them. Or, maybe they are like the Athenians, interested in new age spirituality. They may be preoccupied with knowledge and reason. It’s important to understand the people to whom you are witnessing.

A Bridge to the Truth (v.23b-29)

Second, Paul looked for a bridge to share the truth. On the way in, Paul found a  altar which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. He saw in this inscription an opportunity to talk about the true and living God—the one who they did not know. Paul said, “what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”

In verses 24-29, Paul tells how the true and living God is the Creator of everything and does not live in manmade temples—like the ones they were surrounded by. Paul tells how God sovereignly controls the whole earth, and that his intention is for people to seek him.

In verse 28, he quotes two poets that the philosophers would have respected. He says that God is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”—a quote from Epimenides, a poet from the Greek island of Crete. Paul also says, “For we are indeed his offspring”—a quote from Aratus, a poet from Paul’s home region of Cilicia.

As part of Paul’s bridge to the truth, he included cultural references that the people were familiar with, and used those cultural references to force them to think more deeply about how the Christian God is the best explanation for everything that we experience in the world. Paul wisely, carefully, but plainly corrects the errors of the people and confronts them with the truth about God.

The Gospel (v.30-31)

Third, Paul shared the gospel. Paul says in verse 31 that God will judge the world by Jesus Christ, whom he raised from the dead, and that in light of this truth, “God now commands all people everywhere to repent.”

Every time that the gospel is shared in the Book of Acts, it includes the resurrection of Jesus. It is possible that we need to rethink our gospel presentation, which often focuses on the message of the cross but places little emphasis on the resurrection that God has provided as proof of its veracity.

Whatever else happens in our conversations, we must get to the gospel. Until we share the gospel, we have not truly witnessed. “Living the life” and showing others a good example adds credibility to our witness, but it is not our witness. We must talk about the gospel and tell people that God calls us to repent and believe on his Son.

“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14)

Multiple Conversations (v.32-34)

Finally, Paul was willing to have multiple conversations with people about the gospel. “When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to ridicule him” (v.32). Whenever we witness, some people will scoff at us. That’s not failure. That’s inevitable! Paul didn’t lose heart, for “others said, ‘We’d like to hear from you again about this.’” There will always be some who are curious about our message and want to hear more. We need to sow enough seed so that some of it falls on good ground. If we sow enough seed, we will eventually meet someone who has ears to hear.

We need to be willing to build relationships with people, and keep an ongoing conversation with them about their beliefs. It is estimated that most Muslims who have come to faith in Jesus needed to first hear the gospel over one hundred times.

If we are faithful to sow and water, God will give the increase. When Paul left the Areopagus, “some men joined him and believed, including Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them” (v.34). Praise God for the harvest!

How serious are we about winning souls? Are we willing to keep trying—even if it takes 20 phone calls? 60 text messages? 10 meals around the dinner table? Are we committed to the work of evangelism in our community?

Or, have we grown apathetic about the sinfulness of our city? Is our spirit no longer stirred within us? Are we bothered, but not enough to be intentional and courageous about our witness? Do we pay enough attention to people to find out what really makes them tick? Are we always vigilant, looking for any bridge to share the truth? Are we actually telling people the gospel message, or just trying to be good examples? And are we willing to do the long, hard work of having multiple conversations?

Father, thank you for revealing the message of salvation to me and to your people. Give us boldness in the Holy Spirit to be faithful witnesses in a corrupt culture. Grant us wisdom to find bridges that naturally lead to conversations about the truth. Open doors in our community and around the world to reach people with the gospel of your Son. We will give you all the glory. Amen.

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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.