Athens: Facing Questions

Explore the Bible Series

August 3, 2008


Background Passage: Acts 15:36-18:22

Lesson Passage: Acts 17:16-19, 22-31


Introduction: Some folks have found fault with Paul’s message on Mars Hill, in Athens. In particular, some have criticized Paul’s efforts to contextualize the gospel.  It is true that his message to the Athenians differed somewhat from other sermons recorded in the book of Acts; however, the essential message remained the same.  In fact, I find great genius in Paul’s approach to evangelizing the philosophers.


The apostle engaged these men within their own cultural context, precisely as he did when he evangelized Jewish people.  Most of the time Paul initiated his efforts to evangelize a city by going to the local synagogue (in fact, that’s what he did in Athens).  While in the synagogue, he reasoned with the people from the Old Testament, a document that, in addition to its divine origin, served as the cultural foundation for Jewish people.  However, the Athenian philosophers did not share this social context with their Jewish neighbors, and Paul understood that engaging the Greeks would involve a different approach. 


Canned approaches to evangelism seem to fly in the face of Paul’s example.  There is, in my judgment, no single way to share one’s faith.  Jesus often used agricultural, familial stories (parables) to illustrate his sermons, but Paul, who primarily ministered in urban areas, did not use the same strategy.  The strategies may have differed somewhat, but the message remained the same.


Acts 17:18 clearly states that Paul’s message was Christ-centered; indeed, his emphasis on the resurrection piqued the interest of the philosophers.  They invited him to Mars Hill because of their curiosity about the gospel (Jesus’ resurrection in particular).  Acts 17:31 affirms Paul’s resurrection message, and this message evoked three responses: hostility (“some began to ridicule him”), curiosity (“we will hear you again about this”), and faith (“some men joined and believed him”).  How are those responses any different than the experiences of Jesus, Peter, or Paul’s work in other cities?


As I see it, Paul used a wise approach to his work in Athens, and we, as faithful servants of Christ, must understand the cultural context in which we evangelize.  Paul was all things to all men; that is, he sympathized with the unique social environments he found in various regions, and he properly (one can improperly accommodate to culture) accommodated the sensitivities of the people he hoped to convince.  In doing so, he did not compromise the gospel; rather, he demonstrated his compassion, adaptability, and wisdom. 




Lesson Outline:


I.                    Conflict Between Paul and Barnabas (15:36-41)

A.     Paul’s proposal to Barnabas (v. 36): Some time after the Jerusalem Council, Paul suggested that he and Barnabas return to the churches founded during the First Missionary Journey. 

B.     The disagreement over John Mark (vv. 37-38): Barnabas, Mark’s kinsman, determined that the young man should attend the apostles on this mission of encouragement; however, Paul, remembering Mark’s previous failure, refused to take Mark along. 

C.     Paul and Barnabas separate (vv. 39-41): Sadly, the disagreement over Mark intensified, and Paul and Barnabas parted company.  Barnabas took Mark, and they sailed to Cyprus, perhaps to retrace the route of the First Missionary Journey.  Paul, on the other hand, selected Silas to help evangelize Syria and Cilicia. The Book of Acts does not, of course, record the activities of Barnabas, and, from this point, focuses on the missionary labors of Paul.


II.                 The Second Missionary Journey (16:1-18:22): Curtis Vaughan suggests that this journey took place from 49-52 A.D. 

A.     Ministry at Derby and Lystra (16:1-5): Paul and Silas preached in these cities on the First Missionary Journey (See Acts 14:6f).  In Lystra, Paul met a young convert named Timothy, the son of a Gentile father and a Jewish (Christian) mother.  Believers commended Timothy, and Paul determined to take the young man on the remainder of this missionary enterprise.  Since Timothy was half Jewish, Paul circumcised him to prevent an unnecessary offense as the missionaries preached in synagogues.

B.     The vision of the Macedonian man (16:6-10): Paul, Silas, and Timothy traveled though Phrygia and Galatia, and they planned to evangelize in Asia Minor.  However, the Holy Spirit did not allow them to execute their plan, and, at Troas, Paul received a night vision, a man from Macedonia pleading with the apostle to come preach in that region.  Note the change in pronouns at his point in the text (from third person to first). It appears that Luke joined the missionary band in Troas and continued with them for some time.

C.     Ministry in Philippi (16:11-40)

1.      The conversion of Lydia (vv. 11-15): Vaughan suggests that Lydia may have been a widow, and the text tells us that she made a living selling purple (perhaps cloth or dye).  She came from the Asian city of Thyatira and apparently led a women’s prayer meeting on Sabbath days.  As Paul spoke to the ladies, the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to the gospel, and she became a believer.

2.      The healing of a demon possessed girl (vv. 16-21): The text identifies this slave girl as a “python”, a person devoted to the  pagan god Apollo (worship-center at Pytho, in Greece).  The people of Philippi believed the girl had the power to predict the future, and her owners profited handsomely from her fortune-telling. Apparently, this girl followed the missionaries for some time, and Paul, irritated by her activities, cleansed her from the demon.  Her owners grew angry at their loss of profit, and they accused Paul and Silas before the city leaders.

3.      Imprisonment of Paul and Silas (vv. 22-34): The girl’s owners stirred the crowd, and the magistrates, in response to the lynch-mob mentality, severely scourged Paul and Silas. Afterward, the leaders placed the missionaries in the Philippian jail. About midnight, as the two men worshipped God, an earthquake occurred, and the doors of the prison opened.  The jailer immediately drew his sword to take his own life, but Paul stopped him and spoke to him of the Lord Jesus.  The jailer took the missionaries to his home, tended their wounds, and fed them.  Not only did the guard believe, but his household trusted in the Lord as well.

4.      The apology of the Philippian magistrates (vv. 35-40): We do not know why the city officials changed their minds about Paul and Silas. Perhaps the men realized they have wrongly mistreated the missionaries; or, perhaps they received word about the earthquake at the prison. Whatever the case, the leaders decided to let the men go; however, Paul did not let their actions go unchallenged.  He and Silas were Roman citizens, and the magistrates had broken the law by scourging the missionaries; therefore, Paul required that the officials give a personal apology for their miscarriage of justice.

D.     Ministry in Thessalonica (17:1-9): Thessalonica was the capitol and leading city of Macedonia, and it was located about a hundred miles from Philippi.  For three Sabbaths Paul and Silas reasoned with the Jews about the Lord Jesus. Several of their hearers embraced the gospel, but others determined to drive the missionaries from the city.  Jason, one of the believers in Thessalonica, was arrested by the city officials and forced to pay a bond for his release, perhaps as a guarantee that Paul and Silas would leave the area.

E.      Ministry in Berea (17:10-15): The Berean people received the missionaries more warmly, and many believed in the Lord.  In time, people from Thessalonica traveled to Berea and stirred up opposition to the gospel.  Paul, aware of the agitation, departed from the city, but Silas and Timothy remained behind.

F.      Ministry in Athens (17:16-34): Athens served as the intellectual epicenter of the Roman Empire, and Paul, awaiting the arrival of Silas and Timothy, grew concerned about the spiritual darkness of the city.  He spoke in the synagogue and preached Christ in the city market place.  Greek philosophers, Epicureans and Stoics, debated Paul about the gospel.  Apparently these philosophers had some curiosity about Paul’s message, and they invited him to speak at the Areopagus, on Mars Hill.  Paul accepted their invitation and spoke to the intellectuals about the “unknown God”. The message of the resurrection, however, offended most of Paul’s hearers, and they mocked the gospel.  Gladly, some believed Paul’s message, among them a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris.

G.     Ministry at Corinth (18:1-17): After leaving Athens, Paul went to Corinth where Silas and Timothy rejoined him.  For eighteen months they preached in Corinth, and the Lord encouraged the faithful missionaries continue their gospel labors, for he (the Lord) had many people in this place.  Also, Paul made some dear friends in Corinth, Aquila and Priscilla, believers who had come to the city from Rome.   In concert, the missionaries won many to the faith, including Crispus and Sosthenes.  The Jewish leaders, angered by Paul’s message, accused the apostle before Proconsul Gallio, but the Roman official refused to get involved in the conflict. The Jews seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and they severely beat him for embracing the gospel.


Conclusion: After remaining in Corinth for many months, Paul, accompanied by Aquila and Priscilla, set his face toward Antioch.  On the way back, the apostle greeted many friends and strengthened the churches.