Acts 17:16-34 gets a lot of love. In my brief existence, I have heard it used as justification for all kinds of things. Growing up in my extra-conservative church as a young boy, I heard preachers use Paul’s indignation at the culture in Athens as grounds for our culture wars in the midst of godless America. Years later in my missionary training, I heard Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill touted as the quintessential example of contextualization. Paul pulls on Greek philosophy and yet never strays from the biblical grounds of the gospel. Of recent, this passage has become a slogan to call people to refugee and immigrant care. I use it for this purpose. In Paul’s sermon, he reminds those at Mars Hill that it is God who decides when and where people live, and he does so that they might find him.
Some of these applications are just and fruitful; others not so much. Nevertheless, we need to keep in mind that there is more going on here than any of these specific points. This passage is more than a manual for contextualization, and it is more than a theological proposition about God’s sovereignty that should make us feel okay about immigration. By telling this story, Luke is pulling back the curtain on Paul’s mission. Of course, our mission is the same one entrusted to Paul; it is the same mission given by Christ to his fledgling church. Here, at Mars Hill, we get a view of what that mission should look like, and a thorough read should cause us to ask some questions of ourselves.
Do we even see the world around us?
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16).
Paul sees the culture around him and is burdened by it. In fact, burdened is probably too soft a word. His spirit is broken by the idolatry around him. You might try and chalk this up to culture shock. Paul is, after all, moving out of the Jewish world into the Greek world and finds himself in the very seat of Greek polytheistic philosophy. However, that overlooks this same concern that manifests itself when Paul is still in more Jewish areas and his earnest desire to reach the Jews in the synagogues everywhere he travels. No, this is more than culture shock. Paul is broken by brokenness.
Fact is, Paul has his eyes open and is trying to understand the world around him. This passage confronts us with that reality, and it calls us to do the same. It is too easy to move through life without seeing the world the way Paul does. If we are honest, we think things around us are normal. But that is not true. The world as it is now is not normal, it is the opposite of normal. The gospel provides us with the eyes to see that. The Bible reveals to us the world as it should be, and it is up to us to examine the world around us against that standard. We need these eyes.
Does what we see demand a response?
But before we think seeing is enough, Luke is clear that Paul’s emotional response issued forth in real action. If many today do not see, I think there is another group of us who spend all our time gazing. We pontificate on culture and society, playing armchair quarterback. I certainly think there is space for those who help us understand context and culture. At least, I hope there is, because much of what I do here on this website aims at that end. Nevertheless, we must not fool ourselves into thinking this descriptive work is somehow enough. The mission is not gazing; it is going.
And that is what happens in Acts 17. There is a direct correlation between what Paul sees and the actions that follow. Paul’s reaction is a response to the conditions he has discovered. It is important, however, to note his action. Luke tells us the appropriate Christian response to a broken world.
Paul proclaims the gospel. Luke writes, “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshiped God and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). Paul’s grand plan to counteract the evil in society around him starts with clear gospel proclamation. He keeps with his usual pattern of going to the synagogue, but he also makes a point to go out into the market place daily. Notice the language used here. Paul reasoned with them. This is a dialogue. It is more than veiled Jesus jukes or spiritual platitudes hoping it will peak someone’s interest.
Paul is intentionally pressing into conversations with everyone who will listen. We know this is the case because of the following verse. Luke continues,
Then also, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers argued with him. Some said, “What is this pseudo-intellectual trying to say?” Others replied, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities” — because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the Resurrection (Acts 17:18).
Luke points out that Paul is explicit about both Jesus and the resurrection. Furthermore, this passage is a very real indication of what happens when we share a message as foreign as the gospel. Some of the people thought he was crazy. However, the strangeness of his message was enough to earn him a hearing.
Here is a call for everyday evangelism in Acts 17. Our eyes should be open, and this should issue out in a response of proclaiming the good news that is the only true medicine for what we see.
Is our response appropriate?
Finally, we get to the famous sermon delivered by Paul on the Areopagus. The sermon is markedly different than others recorded in Acts, and yet it is the exact same in all the most important ways. Paul does not start with Abraham or discuss the lineage of David. He even calls on Greek philosophy in order to direct them toward the most high God. Nevertheless, the result is a clear presentation of the gospel, one that demonstrates the totality of sin and Christ as the only hope. He loses most of the crowd at the resurrection, but not all of them. Some believe.
Paul could not have delivered this sermon had he not had his eyes open in the beginning. There is a place for understanding our audience. Paul’s actions were incited by discovery, and what he discovered shaped the course of those actions. We need to have eyes to see our world, what we observe demands a response, and that response should be appropriate for what we have seen.
Parts of Paul’s message changed in order to create understanding in his hearers. He looked for conceptual bridges that revealed meaning in his message. We too must look for bridges of understanding, but like Paul, we need to keep the gospel true to itself. Paul was not trying to make people like the gospel, he was trying to make them understand the gospel. In the end, Paul’s good news had not changed, and many did not like it. Yet some did, and that is the final focus of the passage.
Paul’s mission is no different than our own. Neither is his message. Yes, Acts 17 serves as a model for contextualization. Yes, it should remind us of God’s sovereignty in bringing the nations to our doorsteps. However, it must also serve as a model for our own actions in the place where God has chosen to put us. Fact is, God is not only sovereign over the placement of refugees and immigrants here today. He was also sovereign over placing you where you are, and he did so for a reason: so that people can seek God and perhaps find him. Let’s take a hint from Paul and open our eyes so that we may reason with those around us in a way that makes sense, even daily as Paul did.