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

The Areopagus (Romanized to “Mars’ hill") is the composite form of the Greek name Areios Pagos, translated "Ares Rock" (Ancient Greek: Ἄρειος Πάγος). It is north-west of the Acropolis in Athens. In classical times, it functioned as the high Court of Appeal for criminal and civil cases Ares was supposed to have been tried here by the gods for the murder of Poseidon's son Alirrothios (a typical example of an aetiological myth).

According to the book of Acts, contained in the Christian New Testament, when the Apostle Paul visited Athens, he saw an altar with an inscription dedicated to that god (possibly connected to the Cylonian affair, and, when invited to speak to the Athenian elite at the Areopagus gave the following speech:

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:22-31 (NIV)

Because the Jewish God could not be named, it is possible that Paul's Athenian listeners would have considered his god to be "the unknown god par excellence". His listeners may also have understood the introduction of a new god by allusions to Aeschylus' The Eumenides; the irony would have been that just as the Eumenides were not new gods at all but the Furies in a new form, so was the Christian God not a new god but rather the god the Greeks already worshipped as the Unknown God.



A recent survey suggests that a question once firmly identified with American evangelism is no longer pertinent: “If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?” While societal ideology may be changing somewhat, people are searching for truth.

The myriad of voices offering their views and opinions makes it difficult for the credulous person to know what to believe. Thus, they believe what appeals most to them. There is a sharp decline in confidence that we can know what is objectively true and good. As one author notes, “Everyone can believe what he or she wants, and no one is accountable to anyone else for his or her faith”. How can we minister in such a culture?

The apostle Paul ministered to a similar culture in Acts 17. Athens was a place of speculation and ideas. The Athenians were so concerned about offending some gods that they even erected an altar dedicated to “the unknown god” (Acts 17:23). Peter M. Marty believes the Athenians suffered from scrupulosity in religious matters. In other words, the Athenians were indecisive in religious commitments.

Yet Paul’s approach summoned them to a place of decision. The events of Acts 17 offer us insight for reaching the lost today. Some have even called Paul’s speech “the greatest missionary document in the New Testament”. His speech is a defense, or an answer (‘apologia’). Thus, apologetics is answering objections to the Christian faith and establishing an attractive presentation of the Gospel. Here Paul is confronting Athenian culture with such a message. From it, we can learn four important principles for engaging the culture with the Christian faith.

Principle 1: Perception

Paul did not jump into The Four Spiritual Laws or the five points of Evangelism Explosion. He first developed a biblical understanding of God. In addressing his audience, Paul took his point of contact from an altar he had seen in the city with the inscription: “To the unknown God”. Paul started where the people were in their religious understanding and bridged that knowledge to Jesus. Similarly, if we are to reach our contemporary world effectively with the Gospel message, we must devote time and effort to understanding the philosophical framework of our world. As C.S. Lewis has written, “We must learn the language of our audience”.

Paul introduced his talk by focusing on the positive aspects of the Athenians’ belief system. Though the Athenians’ idolatry disturbed Paul, he did not ridicule their religiosity. To establish a link with the philosophers, Paul cited two of their own poets. And although Paul did not quote directly from the Old Testament, he was true to the biblical message of salvation.

What does this mean for us? To reach a contemporary world, the Christian should seek conciliation before conversion. In many cases, a Christian can begin a witnessing encounter by affirming some positive aspect of the person’s belief system. However, we must note that Paul did not give a blanket approval of the Athenians’ beliefs. Rather, he commented on the areas in which there was agreement. Thus, one can speak positively while not agreeing on ideas that are contrary to Scripture. While this may be difficult at times, we can generally find an area of agreement even if it is only in the fact that the lost person has some kind of belief.

Principle 2: Philosophical Reasoning

Once Paul had open ears, how is it that he addresses those problematic areas of their religion? He began to offer certain philosophical arguments for God’s existence and to explain God’s nature. In verse 24, Paul states that God is personal and is the Creator of everything.

Here Paul contrasts the Epicurean belief in chance with the Stoic belief of pantheism. Against that ideological backdrop, Paul introduces the idea of a living personal God before presenting the Gospel fundamentals.

Paul then declares that God made the world—He is the owner (v. 24). When Paul speaks of God, he is not referring to one god among many others, but to God who is God alone. Paul further describes God as the preserver of the world. Next, he makes a striking contrast between God and His creation (v. 25). God does not need anything from the world. The world needs God, rather.

Paul continues, stating that God created the entire human race from one blood (“one man,” v. 26), which contrasts with the Athenians’ notion of being indigenous. God placed humanity on the earth to dwell, which presupposes that God designed the earth and prepared it as a dwelling for people. God’s motive in preparing the dwelling place was that “they should seek God … and find him” (v. 27).

Skeptics today can also see evidence of God’s existence when they look at God’s creative order. The expression “having determined the allotted periods” (v. 27) refers to God’s establishment of the seasons of the year, for instance. Before a person has a concept of God’s existence in creation, he is like a blind man groping in the dark (v. 27).

Paul references the Athenian poets when he states, “in him we live and move and have our being” [17]. Paul explains that humanity is nothing without God. Since the Bible teaches that humanity is made in God’s image, humanity in some sense evidences God when it functions rightly. Thus, Paul concludes that humanity cannot construct an image of God by gold, silver, or stone (v. 29). Yet, the Athenians sought some form of worship, because they had some idea of God.

Similarly, the question we must ask when we begin to examine the arguments for God’s existence is: What is the relationship between man’s reason and God’s revelation? We must understand that though God does not reveal Himself through reason, correct doctrine is always reasonable. Christians cannot consider these arguments as proofs of God’s existence, because they are not totally convincing to people. However, the arguments affirm the likelihood of God’s existence. In witnessing to a contemporary world, we can use these arguments as Paul did—to affirm the probability of God’s existence.

Principle 3: Pointedness

Having engaged them philosophically, Paul enlightens their ignorance with some pointed theological claims. He is emphatic that the God he describes is the one and only God. Paul acknowledges in verse 22 that the Athenians had received God’s revelation of himself. For skeptics to believe in Christ, he must first know him propositionally. Paul thus informs the Athenians that the God who created heaven and earth is knowable.

Paul applied his message by explaining the true nature of God and by emphasizing God’s judgment on the world. He states that none will escape God’s judgment; therefore, all must repent (v. 30). He further states that the judgment day has been “fixed” (v. 31), which Christ will issue forth. And the proof of His judgment is His resurrection from the dead.

Principle 4: Persuasiveness

Finally, Christians are under an obligation to persuade. Paul’s persuasiveness was a result of his viewing of the idolatry in Athens. Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him” (v. 16). He was moved by the moral and religious plight of the citizenry. He was disturbed to see the Athenians give glory to idols that was due to God alone.

Though Paul’s speech encompasses only five verses in our English Bibles, there is no doubt that they continued their debate for a protracted period. The Christian who wishes to reach his neighbors with the Gospel must be persistent in his pursuit to persuade. Because a generation raised with minimal biblical literary has little familiarity with the symbols and terms of Christianity, it may take time for them to comprehend the Gospel before they actually convert. Thus, we must show patience in our perception, philosophical reasoning, pointedness, and persuasiveness.


Christians shall proclaim God’s truth in a world that is seeking truth. This proclamation will require apologetics if we are to be successful in our task. The conclusion of Paul’s apologia in Acts 17 shows that people will often mock Gospel presentation (v. 32). Nevertheless, Luke points out that some did believe (v. 34). From Paul’s example, we can see that the antidote to a lack of persuasion is a proper understanding of God’s nature. Paul was angered that the glory deserved by God was being directed to lifeless idols. Until this misdirected worship provokes Spirit-led Christians, the contemporary generation will not come to knowledge of God.

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