Devotion on Acts 17:16-34 “How To Find Common Ground”
Living the Mark 12 Life
Daily Devotions, Bible Study, Scripture Memory, History and More
In an effort to fulfill the Great Commandment
Series I: The Basic Gospel
Week 1: Crucial Question- Is There A God?
Memorize Gen.1:1 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Day 2 Reading: Acts 17:16-34 “How to find common ground”
In this passage we find Paul is in Athens waiting for Timothy and Silas and using his time wisely in evangelism. In vss. 16-21 Paul began in the synagogues with his own people, then moved to the marketplace where every day he reasoned with the people who were of different philosophies like the Epicureans and Stoics. But in vs. 22 we find Paul at the Areopagus, Mars Hill, which is where Athens held court, especially in religious, philosophical, and moral matters.
Paul begins his address by acknowledging they are religious in every way. This is likely a simple statement of fact, not a compliment, but it can be interpreted as a criticism, “You are too religious,” or “superstitious.” He then refers to all their many temples and idols but focuses on the one to “the unknown god”. Here is Paul’s entry point, his bridge into this pagan culture. The Athenians are not atheists; they are very religious; Paul and the Athenians have something in common, they both believe in the supernatural. Paul takes that unknown god and uses it to begin proclaiming the gospel.
Paul is not equating the God of the Bible with this pagan unknown god, but he uses the idea because it is true, the Greeks do not know the God who is. We must be very careful to not equate the God of the Bible with other gods, false gods, like Allah or any of the Hindu gods. Unfortunately, there are many people who believe that everyone worships the same god but by different names- that belief must be objected to by all true Christians. The key idea here is that the Athenians did not know the true God and Paul is about to explain to them who this God is. So in Paul’s opening he establishes that there is a God, the Athenians are ignorant of him, but he is knowable.
Notice that Paul begins his evangelistic message with the God of creation, the Lord of heaven and earth. In other words, Paul is making it clear to the Athenians that the God he is talking about is supreme in every way. The Greeks and Romans had a hierarchy of many gods but the God Paul is speaking of does not live in temples nor does he need anything from humans because he is the giver of life, breath and everything. This sets the God of the Bible above all the other gods of the pagans and presents a logical truth as well. Realistically, what can a man offer the God who created all that is? We come to God with nothing; we ourselves need what only He can give.
Paul next directly confronts one of the core beliefs of the Greeks when he states that God made all nations from one man. The Greeks believed they were superior to all other people, all outsiders were barbarians. Paul is showing that God is Lord of all, including every nation and people. With this statement he cuts through all prejudice and racism; all people are created in the image of God and all people need the salvation that only God can give.
In vs.27 Paul is showing that because of the evidence for God in nature, in our conscience, and in reason people ought to be seeking God. People have become incurably religious in their seeking after God, but due to our fallen, sinful nature our seeking is not a genuine seeking for the God who is, it is a seeking for gods after our own nature. People feel their way towards God as in a thick darkness, and everything they find along the way they make into a god. Paul is NOT saying here that anyone can seek God on their own and find Him apart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sincere seekers in other religions are only saved as they hear about Jesus, are convicted by the Holy Spirit, and repent of their idolatrous ways and follow Christ in faith.
Paul states in vs.28 that God is not far from each one of us because God is everywhere present, omnipresent. He then quotes from a Greek poet of Crete, Epimenides, who establishes that all of us live and exist in relationship to the Creator. Paul also quotes Aratus of Cilicia, Paul’s home region, saying that all of us are the offspring of the Creator. Although these pagan authors were referring to their pagan gods, Paul can legitimately take their concept and apply what truth is there to the God who is. These pagans are confirming the universal natural revelation of God yet they remain pagan, lost, doomed to hell unless they repent of their sin and trust in the Jesus Paul is proclaiming. Paul emphasizes that God now commands all men everywhere to repent; judgment is coming.
In vs. 31 he mentions the assurance of a day of judgment we have because of God “raising him from the dead.” Here is the special revelation of the gospel. Natural revelation is enough to reveal there is a God and some of his attributes, but natural revelation only condemns, it cannot save. But God has revealed himself fully in his Son, Jesus, and has provided salvation through the cross and the resurrection. Luke does not here record the name Jesus nor does he mention the cross. In all likelihood this speech before the Areopagus was much longer than what Luke records; we can expect that Paul expanded on these comments.
How did the intellectuals of Mars Hill respond to Paul’s proclamation? Because of the resurrection some mocked. There will always be those who reject the gospel as foolishness and ridicule those who proclaim it. But some were intrigued by what Paul said and wanted to hear more about it. There are sometimes honest unbelievers who hear the gospel and see its logic and historicity and are open to discussion. Finally, some were called by the Holy Spirit and believed in Jesus and joined Paul, including Dionysius of the Areopagus and a woman named Damaris.
In this encounter with the elite philosophers of Athens Paul boldly entered into their domain and did battle on their turf, using some of their own poets and idols as a bridge to bring them the gospel in terms they could understand. Paul did not feebly invite them to come to the synagogue for a revival. Luke did not record any Scriptures that Paul may have used, the philosophers may not have been familiar with the Old Testament so Paul may not have used them here, or, he could have used them and Luke just did not include that part of his sermon.
Do we even notice the false gods around us? Do we care? Paul was provoked in his spirit upon seeing all the idols and temples to false gods and goddesses (vs.16). It is all too easy to get used to the false gods and idols around us so that we lose our evangelistic zeal. Granted, we do not have idol worship around us in America like some countries do, at least in the sense of statues and altars where people sacrifice sheep and cattle; but we have become a pluralistic society; there is an Islamic Mosque close to me.
Pluralism is now taught in the schools and accepted in everyday life. Pluralism says that all cultures and religions are of equal value and merit. There are many ways to “god” and we should not only be tolerant of these other religions but we should not put ours forward as the only true religion let alone try to convert someone else. This is now the dominant thought in our culture and it makes our modern society much more like ancient Athens. We have allowed people from every country and culture to come into America and worship as their religion sees fit. There are mosques being built every day as Islam is now the fastest growing religion in America. Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Neo-paganism and witchcraft are growing. My church is beginning a ministry to refugees from an eastern country where the main religion is Buddhism The public schools are teaching our children that all these religions are just as true as Christianity. Are we provoked?
Then, when you speak with average Americans who are mildly religious and attend church sometimes, or are even very active in the church, you find that many worship a god who is not the God of the Bible. Many liberal churches often teach that Jesus was just a man and that he really did not die for our sins nor did he rise again. Many churches now welcome sin instead of condemning it; homosexuality and abortion are defended by many liberal preachers and bishops while conservative preachers often tolerate immorality of the heterosexual kind by church members. Are we provoked in our spirit? Many conservative Americans who are religious nonetheless have a religion that says, “As long as you try to be good, and your good outweighs the bad, Jesus is glad for you and will take you to heaven when you die.” Or, God is primarily concerned about your physical health and financial status here on earth. Are these not false gospels and false gods, idols? Are we provoked in our spirit?
Paul used an excellent technique in his speech before the Areopagus. Though he was deeply provoked by the gross idolatry all around him, he spoke the gospel to the leading intellectuals of Athens with respect and with knowledge of their own poets. All too often we are quick to criticize others who worship false gods without ever seeking to listen to them or study their belief system or show them any kind of respect. Yes, there may be a time to “hack Agag to pieces before the LORD” (1Sam.15:33) or to seize the prophets of Baal and slaughter them as Elijah did in 1Kings 18, but more likely you will be called to share the gospel in love, with respect, to the unbelievers around you, like Paul did in Athens.
When those opportunities arise, it helps to find a point of contact, some common ground, with the lost person. Paul did that by quoting from their poets and examining their altar to an unknown god. We need to look for points of contact, without compromising the gospel, that can be used to reach the pagans around us.