In a crowd of people who have never heard of Jesus, what would you say, given the opportunity?
That’s the situation the Apostle Paul found himself in as he made his way through Athens alone, waiting on his Christian colleagues to catch up to him. Idols were everywhere, the Greek pantheon mutely watching over the public spaces, in particular the market, the Agora. Both his lifelong monotheistic Jewish sensibilities and his relatively new understanding of Christ as the path to God caused him to be horrified at the idolatry he saw.
In some ways, the situation was similar to what Peter faced when preaching the day of Pentecost, a story we heard just a few weeks ago. A gathering of lost people needed to hear the truth of Jesus Christ as Savior.
In other ways, the situation was very different, however. At least Peter had Jews before him, giving him a common understanding of one God over all things as a starting point. The radical events surrounding the arrival of the Holy Spirit also had drawn Peter a crowd.
Paul faced a distracted people who had little in common with a strange Jew espousing concepts even other Jews were rejecting. Ideas were everywhere; Athens’ glory had faded at this point, but it was still considered one of the great centers of learning and philosophy.
The people in Athens, we are told, “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.”
In other words, Paul’s situation was a lot like ours today, as people’s eyes and minds dart everywhere, focusing briefly before moving on.
Paul’s strategy gives us some additional insight into telling others about Christ, insight that is particularly useful in our culture, which seems to be shifting toward what Christians like Paul encountered in the early days of the church. Let’s look at some of his strategies:
1. He went where the people spent much of their everyday lives. The story of Christ and the concept of the resurrection was enough to get their attention, gaining him a more formal hearing before a council that oversaw public discourse in Athens. In the marketplace of ideas, we have plenty to offer—in fact, we should have confidence we offer the finest fruit in the market.
2. When given the opportunity to explain his beliefs, he met his audience where they were. He didn’t insult them; in fact, he complimented them on what they held dear, their broad-based interest in religion. He respected them as the people they were.
3. Paul used what the audience had in their culture to make a connection, tying his understanding of God to their altar to an unknown god. People want to know more about what they’ve already sensed.
4. Knowing the concepts surrounding Jesus and the resurrection can seem complicated when heard for the first time, Paul barely hinted at these ideas when before the council. I think his goal mostly was to get his audience to ask for more, and some of them did. A few joined the ranks of believers.
On the surface, Paul’s effort seems less effective than Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, where 3,000 were saved. What Paul started in Athens and in other parts of the Roman Empire using similar rhetoric remains astounding, however. The Holy Spirit ultimately worked through Paul to establish Christianity in the non-Jewish world, where it has thrived.
For example, tradition holds that one of the new Athenian believers, Dionysius, eventually became bishop of the church that formed there.
A measured, patient, thoughtful approach to telling others about Christ can have far-reaching consequences. We remain in great need of people willing to do this today.