Key text: “A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, ‘What is this babbler trying to say?’ Others remarked, ‘He seems to be advocating foreign gods.’ They said this because Paul was preaching the good
news about Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18).
Main point: Worldview evangelism is a type of cross-cultural evangelism that transcends cultural customs and traditions to reach the building blocks of thought running contrary to the gospel.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). Here Paul gives us insight to understand that the battle for salvation is waged in the world of ideas.
In the first century, Jews and Greeks were not only two peoples with separate identities, they also held to different structures of thought. The Jews’ worldview was monotheistic (only one God). The Greeks were polytheistic (many gods). The Jews were holistic (matter, spirit and human life were designed as good and to be joined). The Greeks were metaphysically and morally dualistic (matter is an evil that the good spirit seeks to escape from). The Jews held to a biblical worldview, the Greeks did not.
In this worldview mix, if we add religious perspectives and aspirations, we get a fuller picture. The Jews were waiting for a triumphant messiah to liberate them from the hands of their political Roman oppressors. They were awaiting miraculous signs on the scale of the parting of the Red Sea and the bringing down of Jericho’s walls. How could they believe that Jesus, a weak person who was accursed by the standards of their own law, to have been vindicated by God and risen from the dead? For the Jews it was not so much the resurrection from the dead that was a stumbling block (for most Jews believed in a future general resurrection), but who Jesus claimed to be and the manner of his death. Both the Incarnation and the cross were stumbling blocks for many.
On the other hand, Greeks felt themselves to be superior to other peoples, and they treasured the wisdom of a prestigious group of philosophers (e.g., Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and Zeno) from the past golden days of Greece. How could a god who is spirit ever contaminate his being with evil matter to become flesh – let alone be resurrected in it? The gospel was foolishness to the Greeks whose worldview did not leave room for a bodily resurrection!
Today as much as in ancient times, gospel messengers need to take into account the worldviews that unconsciously affect millions in our own nation as well as worldviews imported from other lands. It seems that globalization is bringing about a smorgasbord and syncretism of many incompatible ideas. The current competing worldviews in America seem to be naturalism, new age, pantheistic monism and postmodernism. Unfortunately, biblical or Christian theism has taken a back seat as society has become more and more politically secular. This makes for a formidable challenge to get the gospel articulated in terms that others can understand. Just as it was difficult in Athens for Paul, so it is today for gospel workers in this era. May it be said of us that we turned the world upside down for the gospel!
Questions for Bible study
1. Acts 17:16-21
a. Who is Paul waiting for in Athens? Verse 16a. See verses 13-15. What does Paul see there, and how does it affect him? Verse 16b. Why?
b. What three groups of people does Paul encounter, and where? Verse 17. How resistant or open might they be to Paul’s message? In your opinion, how receptive would each group be?
c. What class of intellectuals begins to dispute with Paul? Verse 18a. Who are the Epicureans and the Stoics? Consult a Bible dictionary. Fatalism and fear were the norm of the day for the Greeks. They tried to appease the displeasure of their gods with a variety of superstitions.
d. What first remark from this class is really a put down? Verse 18b, c. A “babbler” (the Greek word means a seed-picker) was a want-to-be who picked up bits and pieces of philosophy here and there but had no profound instruction.
e. What do others remark? Verse 18d, e. What is Paul preaching? Verse 18f.
f. What decision do the opponents come to? Verse 19. Where do they take Paul, and for what purpose? The Areopagus (hill of Ares) was the name of a place as well as a council that examined new teachings and philosophies.
g. How curious are the Athenians in their quest for philosophical wisdom? Verses 20-21. How willing do you think they might be to give up their comfort zone for the gospel’s sake?
2. Acts 17:22-31
a. Who is Paul addressing as he gives his apology (defense of his beliefs)? Verse 22. What does Paul say about them? The Greek word for “religious” can also mean “superstitious,” depending on context. Some commentators prefer the latter reading here, as in “very superstitious.”
b. What point of contact does Paul establish with his audience at the start of his speech? Verse 23. Paul’s point is not in what they know, but in what they confess they do not know (their ignorance of the one true God).
c. In the following verses Paul lays a foundation on terms that his audience could understand, and even quotes pagan poets. Can you find the themes of God’s nature, creation, providence and purpose? Verses 24-28. Explain.
d. What is Paul’s conclusion concerning his distress in Athens? Verse 29. Although the Athenians should have reasoned this out on their own, and some did, their reason was “darkened” on account of sin, as Paul writes in Romans 1:18-23.
e. What had God “overlooked” (that is, not judged) according to what it deserved? Verse 30a. What is different now for all people than in the past? Verse 30b. Repent of what in particular for the Athenians? Paul is seeking from the Athenians a radical change in worldviews!
f. What revelation does Paul give concerning the identity of the Judge of all humanity? Verse 31a. What proof is there of what God has done? Verse 31b. Not only is this proof of the coming judgment, but more so of the good news that salvation is available through Jesus Christ alone.
3. Acts 17:32-34
a. At what point does the audience encounter a problem, and why? Verse 32. What reactions does Paul receive for his exposition?
b. How does Paul respond? Verse 33. Do you think he was disappointed?
c. What results does Paul reap from sowing the gospel? Verse 34. There is no record that Paul planted a church in Athens. Most of the Athenians were resistant to the gospel, but a few believed.
1. Our educational system for the most part is plagued with the worldview of naturalism – the view that all of reality is confined to nature. What strategy is best for sharing the gospel to those who exclude God from reality?
2. Pantheistic Eastern religions have had a great influence in the West in recent times. How does one share the gospel with those who see themselves (we are all gods) and everything else as an extension of divine reality?
3. Postmodernism is an assault on absolute truth, the canons of logic, and language as a medium for truth. These concepts are at the core of biblical revelation. How can you share the gospel with someone who views everything as relative, subjective and ultimately meaningless to anyone but them?
The Holy Spirit is more than sufficient in tearing down the strongholds of those who hide behind false worldviews. The gospel is still the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. God’s love is stained on the cross forever.
Author: Lorenzo Arroyo