Paul on Mars Hill

In the days of the early church, we can see another example of the issue of worship, and of what people worship—this time in the ministry of the apostle Paul when he was in Athens, the place where three of the world’s most influential philosophers (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) once lived.

What a different audience Paul had to deal with here than Peter did years earlier before all those devout Jews in Jerusalem!

Read Acts 17:15–34, the account of Paul’s preaching in Athens. How different was Paul’s witness to these people than Peter’s was to his audience on the day of Pentecost?

One of the most obvious differences is that, unlike Peter, Paul here does not quote the Bible. In fact, he quoted a pagan author instead. At the same time, notice how Paul appealed to logic and reason: look around at the created world, he was saying, and you will see powerful evidence of the Creator God. He was starting out, using a kind of natural theology and pointing to the natural world as a reason to believe in the Creator God.

It is interesting to note the issue of worship here. These people were worshiping something that they did not understand. Paul sought to take that devotion and worship and turn it away from idols and other vain things and toward the living God. Humans seem to have an innate need to worship something, anything, and Paul here seeks to point them to the only thing truly worthy of their worship.

On what point did some of these people have a real problem, and why?

In the end, appeals to logic and reason and natural theology can take us only so far. Paul, in his witness, then sought to teach them about repentance, judgment, and the resurrection, teachings that need to be taken on faith. Hence, he did not have that much success with them. Though he had a few converts, most seemed to have gone back to their worship of what is vain, useless, and unable to save.

In what ways can our worship services be better able to reach out to those who do not have a biblical background, who do not start with the same premises we do? How can we make our worship services more seeker-friendly?



Paul on Mars Hill — 6 Comments

  1. Paul was so discouraged about what happened at Athens that he totally dropped that approach to evangelism. “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2 NKJV).

    What he learned was that the cross is the drawing card. The thing that wins a soul is the revelation of love seen in the cross not logical argumentation. “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19 NKJV). From the standpoint of argument Paul won the day but not the souls for whom Christ died.

    I think we all can learn something from Paul’s mistake.

  2. I am not sure that Paul made a mistake. He was discouraged, yes; but he had an audience that was quite different to Jewish audiences and he made an effort to connect with them. Converting Christians is relatively easy when compared to converting the un-churched. All too often our approach is to simply shout louder in a language that is foreign to non-believers. Communication is more than just making a noise. Paul had a difficult audience, but he has to be applauded for his attempt to use their ideas to expose them to Christianity.

    • Maurice, I think much of what you say is correct. It is possible that I over stated the situation. If you would be patient with me let me show where I was coming from:

      In preaching the gospel in Corinth, the apostle followed a course different from that which had marked his labors at Athens. While in the latter place, he had sought to adapt his style to the character of his audience; he had met logic with logic, science with science, philosophy with philosophy. As he thought of the time thus spent, and realized that his teaching in Athens had been productive of but little fruit, he decided to follow another plan of labor in Corinth in his efforts to arrest the attention of the careless and the indifferent. He determined to avoid elaborate arguments and discussions, and "not to know anything" among the Corinthians "save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." He would preach to them "not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power." 1 Corinthians 2:2, 4. (Acts of the Apostles 244.1)

  3. There is truth to what both of you are saying. Remember, there is no one size that fit all. And, how does one measure success when it comes to God's work?

    It is the Holy Spirit that gives the increase. Jonah preached a message out of protest (i.e., he was not in the mood to preach), and yet God blessed) Stephen preached the message Christ and was stoned to death.

    We are to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

    • Paul worked under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Yet not all his decisions are necessarily perfect. He decided that Mark was not fit for the gospel ministry, while Barnabas had a contrary view, and Mark's subsequent labors Barnabas's view was demonstrated to be correct.

      Ellen White makes an interesting comment on Paul's labor in Athens:

      "Paul's words contain a treasure of knowledge for the church. He was in a position where he might easily have said that which would have irritated his proud listeners and brought himself into difficulty. Had his oration been a direct attack upon their gods and the great men of the city, he would have been in danger of meeting the fate of Socrates. But with a tact born of divine love, he carefully drew their minds away from heathen deities, by revealing to them the true God, who was to them unknown.

      "Today the truths of Scripture are to be brought before the great men of the world in order that they may choose between obedience to God's law and allegiance to the prince of evil. God sets everlasting truth before them--truth that will make them wise unto salvation, but He does not force them to accept it. If they turn from it, He leaves them to themselves, to be filled with the fruit of their own doings." (See Acts of the Apostles, p. 241)

      Paul decided to follow a different course in Corinth, but that does not necessarily mean that his course in Athens was wrong. Dionysius, one of the most prominent citizens, and some others, accepted the gospel message and united themselves fully with the believers.

      When we are submitted to the Holy Spirit, He will give us wisdom in each situation, guiding us in in the fine science of dealing with different minds.

  4. The last paragraph says it all....When we are submitted to the Holy Spirit...God help me and all of us to move to that submission!


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