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The Challenge of Engaging the Culture with the Proclamation of Truth

The city of Athens was, and still is, known the world over for its magnificent art and architecture. The problem was that art celebrated nefarious activities of a cornucopia of gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon. Unfortunately, the most decorated of the buildings were temples to pagan gods. Like other ancient cities in Greece, the visual focal point of Athens was the Acropolis. The Acropolis was the “Upper City” of Athens. This elevated part of the city was where the people went to worship the gods. And the centerpiece of the Acropolis was the Parthenon. People would come to visit the Parthenon from all over the world—and they still do to this day. The structure is an impressive sight, one of the wonders of the world, even after two millennia.

On his second missionary journey, the Apostle Paul traveled through the city of Athens and presented the gospel to the people. The way Paul engaged the Athenians is both relevant and instructive. Paul faced many challenges that Christians face today. The culture was wrought with idolatry, the culture was in a state of conflict, and biblical literacy was very low. Despite these challenges, Paul proclaimed the gospel message with power. The point of this essay is to lay out a challenge: We need a generation of Christians who have troubled spirits and the willingness to engage a conflicted culture with the proclamation of truth despite the range of responses they will see.

A Provoked Spirit

Paul became angry as he entered Athens. “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). [1] Paul was beholding a city under the pervasive influence of idolatry. And he deeply detested what he saw. The text says that Paul was “provoked.” The term that the Greek text uses for Paul’s emotion (paroxyn┼Ź) is the source of our English word “paroxysm” (“spasm” or “seizure”). This Greek word means “to arouse, to excite, to stimulate.” In a negative sense, it means, “to provoke, irritate, cause to be upset.” In short, we could say, Paul was “ticked off.”

Ancient descriptions testify that the market place of Athens was lined with idols. And the more Paul saw as he walked the streets of this city, the more infuriated he became. As Christians today we should likewise be righteously infuriated at the idolatry of our culture. We should be angry when our culture worships wealth, power, and fame. We should be angry when it tramples on morality. We should be angry. But we cannot stop at being angry. Paul did not stop at being angry. He engaged.

A Willingness to Engage

Luke records the experience of Paul. “So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present” (Acts 17:17). Note that the specifics of the people, the places, and the frequency of his engagement are all mentioned. These details demonstrate that Paul was engaged at multiple levels. His engagements were intentional, and they were incidental. Paul intentionally went to the synagogue and engaged Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who might be open to discuss the claims of Christianity. But he was also available for the casual intermittent conversations with those who he might encounter in the city. He was responsive, and he was reachable. 

Paul exemplified the goal of Christian apologetics. “Apologetics” refers to defending the faith (not an expression of remorse). Apologetics has two components: a negative component and a positive component. In February 1997, Alister McGrath, a British theologian and apologist, delivered a four-part series titled, “Biblical Models for Apologetics,” for the W. H. Griffith-Thomas Lectureship at Dallas Theological Seminary. In his lectures he discussed this two-sided nature of apologetics:

Apologetics can be thought of as having two components. On the one hand it concerns the countering of objections to the Christian faith, and on the other it concerns setting out the attractiveness of the gospel. It thus has a negative and a positive aspect. Negatively it means being able to handle objections to Christianity which one encounters in the media, the shopping mall, and elsewhere. It means being able to give effective responses to hard questions people ask about Christianity. Sometimes those objections are spurious; sometimes they are real problems, which discourage those individuals from coming to a living faith in Christ. Trained Christians can make a difference here, by helping them see that the problem is not as serious as they may have thought.

Positively, apologetics is setting out the full wonder of the gospel of salvation. It is like unpacking a series of wonderful gifts, and marveling at their beauty. Helping people understand the full glory of what the gospel offers often means taking the trouble to explain central Christian ideas to people who may recognize the words but not the reality they represent. Words such as “grace” and “redemption” come easily from Christian workers’ lips, but believers need to explain what they mean and what they offer to an increasingly unchurched culture. [2]

By engaging his audience on all levels, Paul was living out his claim to the Corinthians: “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). John Stott once said, “One cannot help admiring Paul’s ability to speak with equal facility to the religious people in the synagogue, to casual passers-by in the city square, and to highly sophisticated philosophers both in the agora [the market] and when they met in Council.” [3]  Paul’s response to the idolatry he saw patterned how we should live out the truth and present it to our culture. We should engage the critics of Christianity with a defense of the truth and present the full wonder of the gospel for all who might hear.

A Conflicted Culture

How do you present truth in a conflicted culture? First, one needs to understand the nature of a conflicted, even a self-conflicted culture. Luke continues, “And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, ‘What would this idle babbler wish to say?’ Others, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). Two competing groups of philosophers conversed with Paul in these verses: the Epicureans and the Stoics. The philosophy of the Epicureans could be summarized as hedonistic—you only live once, so live it up! Eat, drink, and be merry because tomorrow you might die. That is hedonism at a glance. The Epicureans believed that God was far away from everyday life. If God was far away, then, said the Epicureans, one should enjoy life and forgo discomfort. They wanted to escape the negative, painful side of life. On the other hand, the Stoics believed that God was in everything (pantheism). They believed that everything was God, and God was in everything. As a result, they were fatalistic and rationalistic. They believed that nature has its own purpose in history, and one should play their part in a detached, virtuous manner. Ironically, the beliefs of the Epicureans and the Stoics were two extremes that were mutually exclusive and contradictory. Both could not have been right. Both could have been wrong, but both could not have been right.

The challenge that Paul faced was not unlike the challenge we face in our present world. Journalist Walter Truett Anderson observes,

Never before has any civilization openly made available to its populace such a smorgasbord of realities. Never before has a communications system like the contemporary mass media made information about religion—all religions—available to so many people.  Never before has a society allowed its people to become consumers of belief, and allowed belief—all beliefs—to become merchandise. [4]

Anderson goes on to suggest that America has become “The belief basket of the world.” This poses a serious challenge to those who would dare to proclaim Jesus Christ and the Resurrection.

The current American culture is no less divided than the Athenian culture. In our culture, you can be an atheist, or you can be pluralist, and you will be accepted and even celebrated. Aggressive atheists vehemently oppose all religions and see them as the great evil of societies throughout history. Pluralists believe that there are many gods, but all of these various gods and religious pathways ultimately lead to the same place. The atheists and the pluralists cannot both be right. Their views are mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, both are tolerated in American culture and, in many cases, both are promoted as valid intellectual perspectives.

But the atheists and pluralists do line up on one thing: they both deny the truth of Jesus Christ and the Resurrection. Jesus taught that there is a God, and He Himself is the only pathway to the Father (John 14:6). Holding to a single way to God was not popular in Jesus’s day, nor was it popular in Paul’s day, and it is still not popular in our day. In the past, American culture embraced Christianity for the most part. That has changed in the last few years. We have witnessed the collapse of theological literacy and the rise of unabashed unbelief in America. 

In 1996, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals held its first major meeting and presented the Cambridge Declaration to encourage the evangelical church to abandon worldly methods and embrace biblical doctrines. The Cambridge Declaration made a clarion call:

The loss of God’s centrality in the life of today’s church is common and lamentable. It is this loss that allows us to transform worship into entertainment, gospel preaching into marketing, believing into technique, being good into feeling good about ourselves, and faithfulness into being successful. As a result, God, Christ and the Bible have come to mean too little to us and rest too inconsequentially upon us. [5]

We live in a conflicted culture. But we should not turn tail and run. And we should not bury our head in the sand. Christianity is a confrontational faith. It challenges human nature, it challenges sin, and it challenges what one believes about the future. As a result, our culture hates Christianity. In the face of hatred and scorn, we need to do what Paul did: wisely and winsomely proclaim the truth.

A Powerful Proclamation

Paul had a troubled spirit because of the idolatry and immorality he saw. But he did not stop there. He engaged the conflicted culture with a powerful proclamation of truth. However, Paul did not quote a single passage from the Scriptures. A careful reader will note that in the Book of Acts, Peter quoted Old Testament passages when he was talking to Jews (Acts 2:14–36). Peter could do this because the Old Testament was familiar to his audience. But Paul’s audience in Athens did not share that biblical background. And the same is true for much of our audience today. We are now approaching a culture that does not know the Bible. 

How do we proclaim truth without directly appealing to Scripture? Paul modeled that for us. He painted a portrait of biblical theology from creation to final judgment without quoting a single passage. Yet all of his theology was rooted in and is supportable by a multitude of texts throughout the Scriptures.  

So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:22–23)

The Athenian culture was dominated by deities and idols and there in the city they had an altar with an inscription, “to an unknown god.” Paul picked up on this inscription and said, “Let me tell you about a God you do not know.” Paul was not saying that an idol to an unknown god represented the real God. He was using the inscription as a bridging opportunity for the truth of Scripture to be advanced.

Paul started with their views of impersonal divine essence (Epicureans) and pantheism (Stoics), and he pointed them toward a living God who is both creator, redeemer, and judge. In his speech, Paul made eight assertions about the nature and work of God that covered the grand narrative of the Scriptures.

God is the Almighty Creator

His assertion that God is the Creator contradicts both the philosophies of atheism (God does not exist) and pantheism (God is in everything). When you have an Almighty Creator, He is antecedent to, and yet distinct from, His creation. “The God who made the world and all things in it . . . ” (Acts 17:24a).  We dare not give up this truth. Many people make the claim that modern scientific theories conflict with the accounts of Scripture. The problem is not a conflict between the Bible and science. The contrast is between poor interpretations of scientific data and inadequate or incomplete interpretations of the biblical record.

One should never worry about a conflict of accurate interpretations of scientific data in God’s creation and the Bible because the truth never changes. Too often people shave the truth in an effort to make it more palatable to the unbelieving culture. Paul could have shaved the truth, but he did not. To a crowd of educated philosophers with mixed religious backgrounds, Paul proclaimed God as the Creator.

God is the Universal Lord

God cannot be confined in a shrine. He is not a deity of a limited region. He is the God of the universe! “ . . . since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24b).  From where Paul was standing, the Parthenon would have been at the top of the hill right behind him. He might have turned and pointed at the Parthenon when he said, “God does not dwell in temples made with hands.”

As stated before, Christianity is a confrontational faith. We claim that our God is the only true God in the entire universe. There is no room for other deities in our faith. And this means that we will be hated by a culture that praises syncretism and tolerance. But that should not stop our proclamation of God as the universal Lord of all.

God is the Bountiful Giver

Though He is the all-powerful Creator and Lord of the universe, the God we serve has not deserted His creation. He is a wonderful God who supplies our needs. And He does not need our supply for His needs. “Nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). You cannot contain Him and you cannot really contribute anything to Him. All the pagan aspects of religious sacrifice are for the good of the gods. But God does not need anything. God is the giver of all good gifts. We serve Him out of love because He is worth it—not because He needs it. We do not bring Him food so He can eat.  We do not give Him money because He is poor. We serve Him because He is a gracious God who loved us first (1 John 4:19). James reminds us “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).

God is the Sovereign Sustainer

God is the Sustainer of all—and not sustained by any. Look at what Paul says: “And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). The “one man” in this passage is a reference to Adam. Paul could have removed this detail from the creation story, but he does not. He does not cut this detail because it is important to his argument.

The Greeks prided themselves in thinking they were superior to all non-Greeks (calling them barbarians). But Paul affirmed a common origin in Adam, and thus argued against any racial or sectarian pride. All of us are made in the image of God as a part of the human race. We may have different ethnicities and different backgrounds, but that does not change our identity in Christ. If the church does not live out this truth, the culture never will. What would happen if when asked our race on official forms we all said “human!”? We must model unity in Christ within the church. When I was growing up, we sang, “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” The song is simple, and profoundly true. Jesus unites people of every race, tongue, and tribe. He is the Sovereign Sustainer.

God is the Divine Designer

Paul argued for a common origin in Adam because he was preparing his audience for his next argument: God is the Divine Designer. God is separate from His creation but intimately concerned about it. He wants all people everywhere to seek Him. “That they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children’” (Acts 17:27–28). 

Paul answered a question that was developing in their minds, “Where is the true God that I may know Him?” Paul said, “He is not far from you.” And in fact, He is not far from any one of us today. He is not like the Epicureans thought Him to be: He is not far away from everything. And God is not like the Stoics thought Him to be: He is not in the desk and in the floor. God is omnipresent. And if He is omnipresent, He is not far from you right now. Therefore, He is approachable, and He is believable.

God is the Eternal Father

God is the Eternal Father, the very living One who created us in His image. “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man” (Acts 17:29). With these words, Paul sought to eliminate idolatry of both hand and heart. For, God is not made by the artistry or the careful handiwork of men.

God is the Gracious Redeemer

God is the Gracious Redeemer. He is not willing that any perish. He wants all to come to repentance. How do we know that? We read in verse 30: “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent” (Acts 17:30). But we cannot earn our redemption. Our works apart from God are dead (Hebrews 6:1). As the writer to Hebrews summarizes, repentance from dead works and faith toward God is the only means of eternal life. It is a repentance from a wrongful trust in anything else to rightfully trusting in God’s provision though Christ alone. This is the kind of repentance Paul was talking about.

God is the Righteous Judge

Why is repentance so important? What happens if you do not repent? Paul’s message was urgent: Jesus has the delegated right to exercise judgment. “Because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Jesus is the resurrected redeemer, and He is also the supreme judge (John 5:26–27). These two facts separate Christianity from Mormonism, Islam, and all the other religions and “-isms” of the world. Thus, the main points of Paul’s powerful proclamation are these:

  • Time is limited.
  • God has been gracious.
  • Repentance is urgent.
  • Righteous judgment is certain.
  • Jesus is the judge.
  • The Resurrection is the crowning evidence.

To deny any of this for any personal or philosophical reason will be disastrous. F. F. Bruce said it well in his book, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament:

He [Paul] must confront men with the truth about God—creator, provider, Lord of history, judge of all—and his command to repent. He must confront them with the truth about man, and his moral bankruptcy in the sight of God. And above all he must confront them with Jesus Christ in his resurrection power, his authority to execute judgment, and his redeeming love by which he delivers men and women from their estrangement and rebellion, and creates them anew in the knowledge of their creator. [6]

I repeat my challenge: We need a generation of Christians who have troubled spirits and the willingness to engage a conflicted culture with the proclamation of truth despite the range of responses they will see.

A Range of Responses

Look at the range of responses: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, ‘We shall hear you again concerning this.’ So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (Acts 17:32–34). Some sneered, some waited, and some followed. There are three lessons in these responses.

First, in the face of opposition we need to continue to be courageous. Opponents of Christianity can sneer and laugh at the Resurrection, but Jesus rose from the grave. And Jesus brought back other people from the dead—He will bring you back from the dead. Just because someone refuses to believe the truth does not make it untrue. We can stand courageous because Jesus has overcome and death has lost its sting.

Second, when someone chooses to wait, we need to be patient. Barby, my wife, ministered to her nail tech for many years. Barby had to be patient. She quietly and gently gave witness to her faith in front of this lady. But, at the age of 70, her nail tech came to faith. Now she is meeting with Barby for a Bible study and attending our church. Her life has been transformed because God chose the opportune moment in a conversation about the Book of Revelation for my wife to point her in the right direction and faith was borne. Barby was willing to be patient.

Third, we need to rejoice like God rejoices. All of heaven rejoices when one sinner repents. After Paul gave his powerful proclamation, the crowd had a range of responses. But some followed Paul and believed him. Dionysius was one who followed and believed. Dionysius was known as one of the Mars Hill sitters. He had been there so long, and had talked so much, and had probably argued so often he was called an “Areopagite.” But that day was the day God chose to save that Mars Hill squatter!

When Paul saw the idolatry of Athens, his spirit was provoked. But he did not stop there. He was willing to engage a conflicted culture with a powerful proclamation of the truth of Jesus and the Resurrection. Today, we need the same thing. We need a generation of Christians who have troubled spirits and the willingness to engage a conflicted culture with the proclamation of truth despite the range of responses they will see.  

References & Acknowledgements

[1]    All Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).

[2]    Alister E. McGrath, “Evangelical Apologetics,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155, no. 617 (January-March 1998), 3–4.

[3]    John R.W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 281.

[4]     Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 188.

[5]    Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, “Cambridge Declaration,”

[6]     F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 49.

Dr. Mark L. Bailey
President, Dallas Theological Seminary

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