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Gospel Access Among the Intellectual Elite

November 5, 2023 Preacher: Jeff Griffis Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles

Scripture: Acts 17:16–34

Gospel Access Among the Intellectual Elite – Acts 17:16–34


How do we begin interacting with those who have little knowledge of the one true God (or more likely an already wrongly skewed perspective), and who have little or no genuine respect for the Creator and Sustainer of all things? We have from Paul’s ministry in Athens (Acts 17) an example of how he dealt with that type of context.

Paul in Athens: Gospel Access Among the Intellectual Elite - How does the opportunity (speaking formally among the Areopagus) come about? How does Paul approach this audience? How does Paul correct secular thinking with a biblical worldview?

Acts 17:16–21 ESV

16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

What Should We Learn From How Paul  Gains  the Areopagus Opportunity?

Follow Paul’s example of faithfulness with opportunities, and possibly gain more opportunities.

Be Soul-Stirred to Say More

-What gets Paul going, gets him out of his seat? What causes him to be moved to action? No doubt Paul is motivated by Christ’s command & Christ’s compassion, but here particularly we see another motivator: righteous indignation for the glory of God. “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.”

Although this historically great Greek city of Athens had now been swallowed up by the Roman empire, it was and continued to be a central example of the worship of a pantheon of Greek gods.

In Paul’s day not only did Athens have a great stadium, a large theater, and an odeion (a building/location for musical activities, like musical shows and singing, even poetry readings and competitions), but it was home to numerous pagan temples.

Some of the most famous among them still have ruins at the citadel (fortified hilltop above the city)—called the Acropolis. There is found the famous Parthenon (the great temple to the goddess Athena), and the Erechtheion (for multiple deities).

You don’t visit a place like Athens with its history and not look around. Paul sees all the artistic beauty in the city of Athens, and the impressive architecture of its temples and statues of Greek gods, but Paul perceives beyond the external beauty to the idolatrous purposes for their existence. The honor of the one true God is at stake. And their are thousands of hearts held captive and led away from God by this idolatry.

This provocation, this inciting or stirring up, can be positive or negative. (It’s the right word because Paul’s reaction is both.) The negative reaction of provocation in this case is also one and the same with positive instigation to take action. - Be angered by sin and jealous for God’s glory, but don’t stop there. Be motivated to pray for and interact with those yet enslaved by such idolatry, as you yourself once were. - Paul is aware of the depth of deceptiveness and destructiveness of such idolatry: “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God.” (1 Cor 10:20)

What motivates us to say more among the intellectual elite, who are hostile toward the basic truths of the gospel (due to deliberate ignorance)? Is it not the stirring of our souls for the honor of the only true God, a holy jealousy that he be glorified and worshiped? Is it not a soul-stirring compassion for those held captive by the ignorant idolatry of the sinful human heart, as we ourselves once were and would be without knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ?

Be soul-stirred to say more. Then…

Faithfully Pursue What God Has Already Provided

Paul reasoned in the synagogue where the Jews and God-fearers were to be found on the Sabbath (from the last passage you know that Paul’s reasoning comes from the Scriptures and focuses on Christ, Ac 17:3). And during the workweek (when he was likely also busy making and selling tents to provide for his needs), he reasoned in the agora at Athens (or in the Roman forum, or probably both) with whomever was there. (Paul would have trusted God’s providence and prayed concerning whom he might encounter and witness to.)

Some who engage with him are Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

Epicureans rooted their philosophy in the senses and experience, not in reason alone. This led also to an emphasis on natural evidence in a more scientific and materialistic approach. A key overall concept was the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure and happiness, but with moral restraint of base and merely temporary pleasures. In fact, Epicurus (342-270 BC), the Greek philosopher for whom the movement is named, “realized that momentary pleasure can lead to enduring pain and that some pain can be beneficial.” But overall, the goal of avoiding pain and strife would ultimately lead to a tranquil mind and peaceful life, to happiness. (Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Epicureans,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 713.)

This also meant that the prevalent view of the gods as powerful, meddling, emotional beings was a threat to tranquility. “Epicurus taught that the gods were not, in fact, like this but were tranquil hedonists who stayed away from men.” (Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Epicureans,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 713.) - This would have run contrary to much contemporary pagan thinking of the day, and obviously contrary to the personal and involved God of the Jews.

Stoicism, on the other hand, was the most popular school of thought “among the Roman intellectual elite” (Judith Odor, “Stoicism,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).), and Athens had been ground zero for the development of this philosophy over the centuries. Logic was to be supreme over all other things, leading one to seek an understanding of the order of the cosmos by reason, unhindered by one’s experience of pleasure or pain. It was supposed to be indifferent to such things, more enlightened. They therefore also emphasized social responsibility and living an ethical life.

Although stoic thought would have lent itself to depart entirely from the idea of the pantheon of Greek gods, who seemed irrational and unworthy, the theology was too entrenched in all parts of society. A more syncretistic approach then led to a flexible pantheism, a belief that all things are part of a single divine reality. The philosophical notion became that the logos was not only the guiding principle, but the universally divine in all things. (In your Bibles, John begins his gospel by declaring that the logos is not some divine impersonal force in all things, but is in fact the eternally existing Son of the triune Godhead, whom God has revealed. The explanation for the existence and order and purpose of the cosmos is God himself. That divine logos, the Word, came to enlighten us through the person and work of Jesus Christ.)

Now, that would mirror Paul’s thinking, but not that of the philosophers he’s interacting with. However, Paul’s willingness to engage leads to further opportunity for gospel apologetics. It was Paul being faithful with opportunity in the synagogue and opportunity in the marketplace that led to a more formal opportunity with the Areopagus.

But before we get there, we also learn from Paul to not…

Don’t Be Hindered by Intellectual Arrogance & Persecution

Some of these philosophers insult Paul by calling him an intellectual seed-picker, an amateur philosopher. “The term suggested one who pecks at ideas like a chicken pecks at seeds and then spouts them off without fully understanding them.” (Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 2122.) 

Be thick-skinned toward personal insult. Roll with personal attack like water off a duck’s back. -I don’t think Paul cares as much about them insulting him as he cares about gaining a hearing for the gospel.

But in order for such to be unfair insult and attack, we must maintain intellectual integrity. Then we can know, as Paul does, that we have no need to defend ourselves, only to defend the right way of thinking that leads people to the only true God.

As those who biblically fear God, we should understand that arrogance always betrays a degree of ignorance. But rather than be arrogant ourselves because of the light God has given us (for which we are grateful recipients), we must be compassionate toward others and clear in what we proclaim.

Which leads also to, when dealing with the intellectual elite…

Don’t Presume Rejection; Trust God & Follow Opportunities

Because Paul doesn’t react to their mockery, they seem to take a more respectful approach. - vv. 19-20 - Alternatively, or in combination with slightly more respect, is that their intellectual arrogance yet compels them to view themselves and show themselves as open-minded. Those who view themselves as most enlightened are obligated to act open-minded, or at least proclaim themselves to be.

Luke gives a bit of this context for their behavior in v. 21, while also showing them to be more idea-pickers than Paul. There’s an irony: Paul thinks and speaks clearly. Luke believers that these others are the ones who have a mishmash of gods and philosophical ideas, whatever suits their fancy and convenience.

And with nothing more substantial to give their lives meaning, they pass their time tickling their intellect. ...with “Something new.” Paul will show that what he proclaims sounds new to them, and does have a new climax in Christ, but it is grounded in the one true God who is from of old.

(As we continue…) Gospel Access Among the Intellectual Elite…

Acts 17:22–34 ESV

22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “ ‘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.’ 29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

Having already discussed how this opportunity for Paul came about, and what we should learn, we ask here as well,

What Should We Learn From How Paul  Handles  the Areopagus Opportunity? (Part 1)

What do we learn about where to start gospel proclamation with those who are actively engaged in false philosophies/worldviews? (Worldview attempts to understand and explain existence and experience.)

Again here I have four things for us to note before even getting into the specific detail of his public discourse. (which we’ll plan to revisit next time)

Follow Paul’s example and…

Account for the Venue (Setting/Context)

Do you talk the same way in front of a large group as you do in a conversation? … Or differently in a group of youth than in a venue like this where we are all gathered? What are the expectations for formality, preparation, timeframe, and so on? Are you in a courtroom or in a locker room of sweaty football players? (We might also suggest here that we account for the medium as well: Am I writing? Am I speaking?)

Paul is now being asked to transfer whatever he’s been less formally presenting and discussing in the marketplace, to take that and explain his so-called new teaching in the midst of the Areopagus. While the Areopagus could refer to a prominent rock hill near the Acropolis, it is much more likely that this refers to the name of the Athenian governing council. Although this does not seem to be a judicial trial, it was at the very least a more formal inquiry into what Paul was teaching.

Our best understanding is that the Areopagus council would still have met in the Royal Stoa, the Stoa Basileios, dating back to the 5th century BC, and more recently repaired again after the Romans laid siege to Athen in 86 BC. Stoa’s were covered porticos to be used as public walkways and meeting places, and this was one among others that encircled the Athenian agora still in Paul’s day. 

This presentation would even have been different from his formal presentations in the synagogue, in various ways. Venues come with certain expectations.

While this is true, Paul must find a way to not water down or cheat the gospel, but he must bravely and kindly introduce foundational truths about God, and man’s relationship to him, in order to put the person and work of Jesus in this proper historical and spiritual context: who God is and his reasonable expectation of you.

This may only be a foot in the door for some to want to hear more. (vv. 32&34) Paul’s public speech, his apologetic discourse, puts a foot in the door, attempts to build a bridge for those who might listen more - establishing the supremacy of God and our accountability to him. As Paul tries to transition to Christ’s role in accomplishing what was necessary, let alone our appropriate response to worshiping him as Lord, Paul loses them at talk of Jesus’ resurrection.

Another thing Paul does, and we should follow this example, is to…

Establish Credibility Through Goodwill & Common Ground

Paul is respectful in the way he addresses them: ‘Men of Athens, I can see that you are very religious.’ Although this could negatively mean superstition, it seems clear to me that Paul means it literally and not as an insult: piously religious.

Paul can respect their position of authority, their serious intellect, their desire for truth, and even their pursuit of ethical behavior. Paul knows the foundation for these things they have fundamentally wrong, which leads to errors in judgment, but he is wisely careful and measured.

But he can’t  leave it there… He kindly but courageously...

Correct the Root of Wrong Thinking

In this too we absolutely must follow Paul’s example. We move from common ground to higher ground, … or (you might say) to more stable ground, to better foundational truth.

Paul corrects without being condescending. (Be fair to their ideas and the way they think.) Paul is not rude, but he does not shy away from the risk that this correction entails. 

[Next Week] More specifically we will focus on Paul’s Approach to Correcting the Root of Their Wrong Thinking: ‘You try to cover all your bases with even having an inscription to an unknown God. You’re missing that this is the one true God, who created everything and sustains everything and deserves your undivided worship.’

For now, take opportunity to contemplate the point that we should consider what is at the root of wrong thinking in order to know where to start and what to emphasize in particular with a given opportunity. (Note Paul’s approach in the synagogue is different than here.)

These two previous practices both require, even as Paul demonstrates, that you must (know something of)… 

Know What Your Audience Knows

(In order to establish credibility and correct wrong thinking, for such contextualization you have to know what your audience knows.) - Obviously, you can’t know everything, but you must know some of what your audience knows and how they think.

Paul quotes their own poets, whom they would at least respect for their thinking and craft. (v. 28)

(By contrast) Nothing will end a hearing with the self-proclaimed intellectual elite like poorly researched facts and unfounded claims. (So be prudent and humble, and don’t talk about what you don’t know.) But do the work and know some of what your listener knows.

Know your audience: You can picture and personally experience the validity of the principle not only among the intellectual elite, but in dealing with world religions and large religious cults (what are the major beliefs, what are the hidden differences?), and in cross-cultural contexts (among the Yanomami tribe, or the urban island, city-state of Singapore).


Taking Our Opportunities

There is so much application here. Review ***

So it is right that we must not be complacent, but should be fervent in prayer and diligent in planning.  While that is true, we must also remember that the God whom Paul preaches is the God in whom Paul trusts. We have cast ourselves in with Christ as his fully invested vessels, but we do not trust in ourselves; we trust in him.



Suggestions for Further Discussion:

Acts 17:16-34

(esp through v. 23 this time)

  1. What should motivate us to share the gospel? (God’s glory/honor, command, compassion, gratitude to Christ, etc.)
  1. What opportunities have you had making gospel inroads with someone who is pretty intellectually erudite? What did you discern was the foundational biblical knowledge they lacked? How did it go?
  1. Does this text put the practice and ministry of Christian Apologists in a better light for you in any way? (any respect and appreciation?)
  1. Compare and contrast Paul’s approach in the synagogue with Paul’s approach among the Areopagus. How might that apply to situations we face?
  1. While you are responsible to faithfully proclaim the gospel (which takes diligence and preparation), what Scriptures comfort you and confirm that it is God who does the work (and we can trust him)?

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