They snickered when we thanked God quietly for the food. My wife and I sat across a lunch table with Anna and Mats in Sweden, and when they inquired about us praying and why we did this thing called “missions,” we gently shared several concepts from the gospel. They sat there incredulous that, as intelligent beings, we could believe such a thing.
Pagans. You gotta love them. A calm conversation with a thoughtful pagan or atheist forces us to venture outside the thought-box of our own worldview and even our deep presuppositions about God and reality. It’s a real mental and spiritual workout that can leave you both exhausted and reflective. Most of us prefer the more comfortable realm of sharing the gospel with those who have God, the Bible, Jesus, and morality as part of their worldview orbit.
The evangelists and church-planters in the Book of Acts presented the gospel first and foremost to the Jews – to those who claimed to believe the Scriptures and follow the one true God. Although proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah was controversial and stirred a lot of opposition at times, belief in Jehovah, the sacred writings, and the worldview that came with them, were agreed upon by both sides in the debate.
But on his second mission, Paul arrived in Athens alone, and God gave him the opportunity to give an ordered presentation of the gospel to thinkers coming from a very different worldview, a worldview perhaps more like those we face in our Western culture today.
While volumes have been written analyzing Paul’s talk on the Areopagus (Mars Hill), and modern churches have even been named after the venue, I want to point out ten simple principles, in three installments here, about sharing our faith from Acts 17:16-34.
1. Be ready to share the gospel at any time. In Acts 17:16, Paul was waiting for some people to show up. What would we have done with such time on our hands? Waiting for the bus, for the flight, for our friends to show up. Ministry should have been on pause. Paul could have done touristy things and been amazed at the architecture and topography of Athens, the variety of products in the marketplace, and the unique aspects of the culture and social order. But no. God-time v. me-time is a false dichotomy. Free time is not me time. While vocational ministry might need to be on pause at times, personal ministry is never on pause. I am always God’s advocate, when it suits me just fine, and when it’s inconvenient.
2. See people as God sees them. In Acts 17:16, Paul’s spirit was provoked when he saw that idolatry permeated every aspect of life in Athens. He could have been taken up with accents or clothing styles or ethnic backgrounds or the plight of slaves and the poor, but he was bothered by the spiritual darkness and need. Even the people sensed that their idolatry lacked real meaning since they loved to hear any new idea that came to town (v. 21). When I look at a person, do I see their clothes, their new iPhone, their tattoo, or somehow attempt to measure myself in comparison to them, or do I attempt to learn about them and read them as God sees them?
3. Speak up and engage people. In Acts 17:17, Paul moves out and begins to engage people, something even experienced missionaries say is the single hardest thing to do. Later in Corinth Paul would be intimidated and get quiet (Acts 18:9-11), but not in Athens. Paul spoke to those with the same religious background that he had, updating traditional Judaism with the gospel that Messiah had come. But he also pushed himself; he got out in the marketplace every day and conversed with people, no doubt taking in almost as much new information as he was giving out.
© David J. Brown, JD, PhD
Picture of Mars Hill by Kevin Mearns, Benoni South Africa,