#ENGAGINGCHURCH - ATHENS
Read Acts 17:16-34
Athens was the intellectual capital of the Greco-Roman world. It was known throughout the empire as the heart of Greek philosophy. The city was a diverse hodgepodge of worldviews and constant conversation about the life’s big questions. The Areopagus (v19, 22) was an official city council of leading thinkers that evaluated new ideas.
Luke preserved Paul’s remarkable speech to the Areopagus as a model for us to learn from as we engage both skeptical and curious people with the gospel message. In our day, people rarely change their core belief systems in one conversation or in one fell swoop of Christian persuasion. Conversion is a massive reconstruction of reality as they understand it. Most often engaging skeptical or curious people requires many steps from unbelief to faith. Here’s are three ways Paul’s speech shows us how we are to engage others with the gospel:
Where to Bring Our Faith | The speeches interspersed throughout the book of Acts provide us with models of how to talk about the Christian faith in different contexts. It’s important to note that the unchanging gospel message is presented in different ways depending on the changing audience. Here we find Paul, for the first time, making a case for the Christian faith in the marketplace of Athens - the center for the exchange of ideas as well as commerce and communication. What Luke means for us see here is that Christians are to bring our faith into the marketplaces of our culture - into public life.
We also see that Paul “reasoned” with them in a way that they were familiar with (this word implies the dialogical method of Socrates, the famous Athenian philosopher). This shows us that we are to engage in a way that is gracious, understandable & meets people in our culture where they are.
In our pluralistic and post Christian culture, Christians have often failed to graciously bring their faith into the public square. Instead, we often respond by 1) avoiding the culture out of fear of contamination 2) attacking the culture in order to regain what we see as our place of prominence/respect or 3) assimilating into culture out of fear of others reaction to our faith. Paul models for us a different option – we are to bring our faith wherever we go and learn to talk about our beliefs with sensitivity and respect.
How to Have Conversations about Faith | Paul’s speech to the Aeropagus (the “town council” of Athens) also shows us how we are to have meaningful and effective conversations about faith. In his speech we find three steps to effective communication in the public square.
1) Understand Other People’s Points of View – Paul “passed along” throughout the city observing what was important to the people of Athens and what they believed. He knew the philosophies of the Epicureans and Stoics well. He quoted from their own poets and thinkers. Francis Schaeffer was once asked what he would share if he had 1 hour to speak with someone about the Christian faith. He said he would listen for 55 minutes and then, in the last 5 minutes, he would have something to say. Paul shows us that we should begin by listening.
2) Look for Points of Contact – When Paul saw the altar to the unknown God and read what the Greek poets had to say about their idea of God, he saw points of contact with the truth of the gospel. Instead of starting with places of disagreement/difference, he saw signs of the truth in their own belief systems & culture and he began by affirming these. If we are looking, we’ll find all kinds of points of contact in our culture’s books, movies, music and art.
3) Graciously Challenge Pressure Points - In every culture there are points of contact with truth, but there are also pressure points where the gospel challenges the unresolved tensions in the beliefs of the culture. Paul challenged the Athenians by saying 1) God can be known, not by our imagination/reason, but by revelation 2) He is a personal & transcendent God and 3) There is a coming day of judgment/resurrection. These ideas stirre
Why to Have Conversations about Faith | Paul’s engagement with intellectually skeptical and curious began when “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (v16). It’s the word used to describe God’s reaction to Israel’s idolatry in the Old Testament. It’s a word that describes a jealous lover provoked into action. Our idolatry (false worship) provoked God to engage us – not to pour out the wrath of his jealously on us but to come to win us back by taking it upon Himself.
The right motivation for engaging in faith conversations is our jealously – for God to be known, worship as he deserves AND for our friends to direct their worship, love and lives to the only One who can satisfy their hunger for love & joy.
1. What about the sermon stood out to you or impacted you most? Do you have any follow up questions about the sermon?
2. There were 3 common Christian “postures” to culture shared in the sermon: Avoid, Attack, Assimilate. Why do we react in these ways? Which do you most tend toward? Why? Where do you most struggle in having a “public” faith.
3. What are some of our culture’s points of contact with the gospel? List these as a group. Where do we see evidence for these assumptions in music, movies or literature?
4. Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. (Pascal) How does first affirming people’s beliefs (before challenging) help us to show Christianity is reasonable, worthy of respect and attractive? What are some of the most important points of contact we need to affirm today?
5. Why is it so hard to have conversations about faith? How does the motivation of “jealous love” help us to move past fear & awkwardness?