Mars Hill Part 1: The Method Amid the Religious Madness (Acts 17:16-34)
Updated: Jun 10
Rev. Erik Veerman
Mars Hill Part 1: The Method Amid the Religious Madness
Speeches change the world. Think of Ronald Reagan next to the Berlin wall, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” or Winston Church Hill’s “never never never give up” And that’s only the 20th century. There’s Lincoln’s inaugural address, or Cicero… the great orator of Rome, and of course Socrates in Athens. Well, we need to include Paul’s address on that list. His sermon in Athens is one of those great world-changing speeches. It’s been studied and studied. Books have been written. Blogs and podcasts have been named after it.
And I would agree. It’s masterful, penetrating , caring, compelling, and thoughtful. Really, it’s a model for us in so many ways. Paul’s approach, his sensitivity to his audience, his Gospel witness.
If you are a believer in Christ, you will have opportunities in life to share what you believe with people who have vastly different views. Some may not believe in any god. Others may believe in a different god or gods. How should you approach those conversations? In what ways could you connect with them, and make them think, and challenge them to consider Christianity? What should be your methodology?
That’s what we’ll focus on this morning - the pattern from Acts 17 for those kinds of conversations. In other words, the tactics for presenting Christianity to a person or audience with radically different beliefs.
Given its significance, instead of preaching these verses in 1 sermon, we’ll take two weeks. We’ll begin, as I mentioned, with methodology. Looking at Paul’s approach as he considered the idols in Athens – you can see that outline on the back of your bulletin.
And for the second sermon, we’ll apply Paul’s method to a couple of idols in our culture today. Idols, by the way, are the things that we worship which replace worship of the true God. That second sermon will be 2 weeks out – June 20th. Next week for our one-year church plant anniversary, we’ll be considering a different text.
So here we are in Athens, Greece. Although it had been politically eclipsed by Rome at this time, Athens was still the cultural, philosophical, and religious hub of the entire Mediterranean region. It was a melting pot of people and beliefs. In the previous 6 centuries leading up to this moment… Athens had been conquered by the Spartans, then the Macedonians, and most recently the Romans. Each empire bringing different cultures including music and art… and different beliefs.
• Many of the Athenians believed in the Greek gods and goddesses.
• The city had a temple dedicated to Zeus and other gods.
• You may have heard of the well know Acropolis – the huge rock outcrop in the middle of the city – about 500 ft tall. That’s where the Parthenon sat – it was the massive temple to the goddess Athena – in fact, the Parthenon still partially stands today. And Paul himself would have seen it in his day.
Not only culture and religion, Athen’s history included Plato and Socrates, the great philosophers of their time. The identity of the people was wrapped up in all the gods and philosophies of the day. It’s what they worshipped.
Paul had never been to Athens before. When he arrived, he experienced all of this. He spent time walking the streets, seeing and hearing. He witnessed the different idols – these idols were wood and metal images of gods that the people worshiped. Besides his usual time in the Jewish synagogue, he also daily visited in the marketplace. Verse 17. He spoke with anyone who would talk to him. And what was Paul talking about? You guessed it. Verse 18 – Jesus and the resurrection. Well, no one had heard of Jesus and the resurrection because Paul was bringing the Gospel to Athens for the first time. So, of course, he drew interest from some of the local philosophers.
Two groups are called out here. The Epicureans and Stoic philosophers.
• The Epicureans didn’t really believe in any gods or for that matter anything supernatural. They sought pleasure and believed pain could be endured.
• The Stoics were vastly different – they believed in this oneness between humanity and the deities. Theirs was a reasoned religion which emphasized obedience and deemphasized emotion.
So the Epicureans were different from the Stoics and both were very different from Christianity. It’s no wonder that they called Paul a “babbler” because the ideas were so novel. That word “babbler” literally translated means “seed picker.”
I have a little office space in the corner of our basement. It’s a nice space because I have 2 window, one on either side of my desk. And when I’m down there studying and thinking, I’m often staring out one of the windows. And there’s usually birds out there… they hop around and they peck at different things. Well, that’s exactly what some of these people thought of Paul. To them, he was pecking at seemingly random religious and philosophical ideas. The irony is that they were actually the ones who spent their time seed picking – telling and hearing something new. Verse 21.
Well because of their curiosity, Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus – translated, that’s Mars Hill. In times past, political counsels and courts met there. In these days, it was more of a place to hear about general matters of importance and philosophy. Located near the Acropolis, the Areopagus was a popular gathering place and Paul would have had quite an audience.
Now, here’s where I want to transition and unpack Paul’s method. His apologetic method. That’s a fancy way to say his reasoned approach - how he presented Christianity to this mix of religious and non-religious philosophers. It’s very helpful. His sermon gives us some really good guidance
1. Develop compassionate hearts (Acts 17:16-17)
And the first point, which you’ll see on the outline, comes from before Paul even presented his case. And it’s this: Develop compassionate hearts.
As soon as Paul arrived in Athens, his heart ached for the Athenians. Remember, he was by himself. Silas and Timothy had yet to arrive from Berea. It had been a long couple of months. A public beating in Philippi, further persecution in Thessalonica and Berea. Yet, he gets to Athens, and he didn’t rest. He sees these idols all around him and a fire burned within him. That’s the language from Jeremiah 20. “there is in my heart a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
Look at verse 16. Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him.” This is not anger, it’s compassion. These people, made in God’s image, as all people in the world are, do not know Christ. And he longs for them to know him. He goes out each day to present Christ.
We need that heart desire for people to know Jesus. It comes from a heart that knows what the Scripture teaches…. that all mankind has fallen short of the glory of God and is doomed for judgment. That’s part of Paul’s message which we’ll come back to.
Arguing for Christ without a compassionate heart will come across stilted and detached. It doesn’t convey the grace and hope of Jesus.
I just read an article a few days ago about Francis Schaefer. Schaefer was one of the most compelling Christian philosophers of the 20th century. He wrote this about his philosophical interactions: "I need to remind myself constantly that this is not a game I am playing. If I begin to enjoy it as a kind of intellectual exercise, then I am cruel and can expect no real spiritual results.” He went on to write, "Merely to be abstract and cold is to show that I do not really believe this person to be created in God’s image”
Kids, it’s like this. Let’s say that you are talking to someone at school. And he or she says, “oh, you’re one of those Jesus freaks.” In response, if you said, “well, your dumb if you don’t believe in Jesus.” Just how do you think that is going to go over?! Not well! No instead, how about: “well, Christ is my redeemer and my Lord. I want you to believe in him, too, because it is life changing.”
Remember, the hope in Christ that we present, is the same hope in Christ that we believed. His grace in our lives is the same grace that gives us hearts for those who don’t know him.
That’s where Paul begins. A desire to see his hearers come to know the one true living God.
2. Identify false gods and false hopes (Acts 17:22-23a)
And second, identify false gods and false hopes. Here is where we dive into Paul’s Mars Hill speech.
Notice how he began. He connected with them. “I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Verse 22. Paul had been listening and observing. He even highlighted something he saw while walking around Athens, “I found an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown God’’” Paul was not just connecting with them. He was also entering into their belief systems. Remember, his audience believed different things. The Epicureans were agnostic – meaning they didn’t think god was knowable if he even existed. So the “unknown god” altar highlighted their beliefs. And the Stoics? Well, they did believe in a god or gods, but to them he wasn’t personal. So the “unknown god” altar also connected with them.
What was Paul doing? He was identifying their false gods and false hopes. It wasn’t in a way that was antagonistic or combative. No, and actually, Paul’s compassionate heart came out all throughout his speech. He was saying, “I see that you believe this or that.” He entered in to their world and he identified a central belief that was in contrast with Christianity.
Now, you may be thinking, “ok, but I can’t do what Paul did. I don’t know much about other philosophies and religions.” Well, you don’t need to. This is where good listening is helpful. Good listening is critical, really. And you can and should start out by asking questions.
There’s a helpful and short book I read called Tactics. It’s written by Greg Koukl. In it, he shows how to employ the use of questions. He gives a few helpful examples. One time he met someone with a necklace with some sort of religious symbol. He said to her something like “that’s a pretty necklace, what does that mean?” He was able to hear from her what was important to her and what she believe.
If you know someone, and you’ve heard them mention in the past what they believe or don’t believe, you could ask, “would you explain a little more what you believe about [XYZ]?” Whatever that specific belief is. And then be sure to listen rather than think about what you plan to say next.
Koukl includes a very insightful second question to ask. “What made you come to that conclusion?” That’s a good one, isn’t it? It requires someone to think about and explain why they believe something.
You see, through that process, you would be able to identify their thinking and beliefs to respond to.
3. Respond with truth about the true God and true hope (Acts 17:23b-28)
And that brings us to point 3. Respond with truth about the true God and true hope.
That’s what Paul does next. The second half of verse 23. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” And from there, he went right into the God of the Scriptures. We can know him. Who is he? He is the creator and sustainer of all things. The Lord of heaven and earth. He gave you life. He knows you. This true God is not detached from the world he made. No, rather he is sovereign over it… is working in it. He is near us (end of verse 27). He is known and he is knowable.
Paul then continued his connection with his audience in verse 28. Both of those quotes come from philosophers of their day. And in both cases, there was a kernel of truth in them. And Paul employed them to make his case. “‘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'" Paul was saying, “we are made in God’s image. You and me.”
Do you see how he’s responding to their particular beliefs and unbelief? And he does so by presenting truth from what the Scriptures teach about the living God. This will be different to different audiences. When Paul is speaking with Jews, like in Berea where he had just come from, he reasoned from the Scriptures about the promises of God. And here, Paul next brings his hearers from their beliefs into what Christianity teaches.
To be sure, Paul didn’t try to first prove that God exists. Remember, the Epicureans didn’t really believe that God existed, yet Paul skipped over trying to prove God exists. Why? Because Paul knew that everyone deep within actually believes in God. God’s law is written on our hearts and he’s stamped his image on us. So, it’s there. To be sure, in our sin, we suppress that belief, but it doesn’t take it away.
Now, if you’ve taken a philosophy class in High School or maybe college, you may remember the different proofs for God’s existence…
• like the cosmological proof – the things around us couldn’t happen by random chance.
• Or the teleological proof – there must be purposefulness in nature.
• Or the ontological argument - That than which nothing greater can be conceived.
I’m not saying we should throw those proofs away. I think they testify to God’s existence. Maybe we can say they are indirectly beneficial. But Paul’s method doesn’t include these proofs. No, rather he went right to the God of the Bible. He responded to their worldview with the Scripture’s worldview. Remember what a worldview is from a few weeks ago – how we see or understand the world.
God is not unknown. Rather he is the sovereign Lord and creator who made you. Respond with truth about the true God and true hope.
4. Call to turn from false beliefs (Acts 17:29-30)
Fourth: Call to turn from false beliefs.
Notice in verse 29 Paul made a pivot. He had just responded to their beliefs, but now he tells them they need to change what they believe. Look at his language, “Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think.” “Ought” is a word that means “should.” They should not believe that God is “like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” Verse 29. Those things, Paul said, are false idols which are conjured up in our minds. They are not true and you ought not to believe them. At the end of verse 30, he uses the word “repent.” That means to turn away from those beliefs…. to express regret in your heart over them…. to change what you think and believe.
This is a difficult step. Especially so if you are non-confrontational. But telling someone they need to change what they believe is necessary. Yes, it will make someone uneasy, perhaps even angry. But really, it’s not coming from you. No, Jesus said, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” And God gave us his commandments, which includes the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath… you shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Paul is relaying what the Bible teaches – the clear call to repent from unbelief.
Let me make a quick side note. Verse 30 is one of those verses where there are different views over its meaning. One thing is agreed upon, though, that there’s a progression from a prior time to a current time. Over time, God has revealed himself and his promises more and more. And now, at this time in Acts, Christ has come. Jesus had completed his earthy ministry. He is ascended to heaven… and the Holy Spirit continues his ministry on earth – bringing conviction and repentance. The time to repent is now – everyone – all people. That’s Paul’s message.
In a couple of weeks, we’ll spend more time on this point – turning from idols.
5. Reveal the promise and judgement of the resurrected Christ (Acts 17:18, 31-34)
That brings us to the fifth and final point: Reveal the promise and judgement of the resurrected Christ.
I know that’s a lot of words in that point: Reveal the promise and judgement of the resurrected Christ. Simply, Jesus needs to be presented. Being clear about the God of the Scriptures and the call to repent needs to include the work of Christ. Specifically, Paul hones in on the resurrection. It is the key. It’s central to the Christian faith. Everything hinges on it. It makes clear who Jesus is and the future promise and judgment he will bring.
It’s not that Paul didn’t speak about the cross. He did. You can’t speak about Jesus’ resurrection without speaking about his death. Remember, this was a summary of Paul’s Mars Hill address. Acts chapter 2 indicated that the sermons written down in Acts are summaries.
Here in Athens, Paul focused on the resurrection. We know from back in verse 18 but also here in verse 31. By emphasizing Jesus’ resurrection, he connected Jesus’ victory over sin to Jesus’ future judgment of sin, including their sin of unbelief and idolatry. God’s judgment will be perfectly righteous, verse 31, because God is righteous, Jesus is perfectly righteous.
And that is a warning. Judgment is coming. God’s judgment. And if you don’t know Christ, his judgment will fall on you for your unbelief and idolatry. I know that sounds harsh, but let me say it this way. The Bible is clear about God’s judgment for sin. If you’re not a Christian… but you have a friend or family member that wants you to believe in Jesus – and is calling you to repent. It’s because they love you. Because they believe in both the promised hope of Christ and the promised judgment of Christ. They want you to believe so that the judgment that the Bible speaks of is taken on by Christ for you.
It’s the resurrection that ensures both. Both the coming judgment and the future hope for eternity. Know the promise of the resurrection.
Points 4 and 5 make it pretty clear that there’s no neutrality with the Gospel. We see that in the result of Paul’s message. Some mocked. Verse 32. It stirred in others a desire to know more. And verse 34, Several believed. We’re given a couple of their names – “Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris” and some other unnamed people with them. Paul’s words, brought to them the words of life through the resurrected Jesus.
• Develop compassionate hearts - loving those you are conversing with
• Identify false gods and hopes - asking questions and listening
• Respond with truth about the true God and true hope – jumping right to what the Scriptures teach about God and the world
• Call to turn from false beliefs – the call to repent and believe.
• And… reveal the promise and judgement of the resurrected Christ – warning of judgment but the sharing grace and love of Jesus.
Paul’s speech did change the world. God used it and continues to use it to call people to him.
The next time that you have an opportunity to share your Christian faith, whether to an audience of 1 or 1001, Paul’s method here in Acts 17 will guide you.
Stay tuned for Mars Hill part 2. What would Paul say to us today?