If the Apostle Paul were to walk onto a university campus or modern work place in North America, he would probably feel the same way he did when he went to Athens. “His spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Examining how the Apostle responded to this situation can be helpful in dealing with the belief systems we come across today.
He let the weight of his argument rest on the claims of the gospel.
First of all, note what Paul did not do.
- He didn’t try to get involved in local politics in hopes that the right candidate might change the people’s perspective on God and morality.
- He didn’t try to become friends with everybody so that a few years down the road he might be able to get them to a church barbecue.
- He didn’t try to get academic credentials so he would be accepted by the intellectual elite and show how smart he was first, then later strengthen the Christian cause by giving them a seat at the highest academic level in the world, which Athens was at the time.
No, he preached the gospel—fearlessly! He wasn’t afraid to speak to the political rulers. He was friendly and intelligent about it, but he let the weight of his argument rest on the claims of the gospel.
Paul Used Reason.
The first thing you’ll notice about Paul’s response is that he used reason. He reasoned in the synagogue and the marketplace (Acts 17:17). He wanted people to know that the gospel made sense.
Earlier in the chapter he did this with the Jews: “He reasoned from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and rise from the dead” (17:2-3). He likely would have referred to many Old Testament passages, like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.
He also used reason with unbelievers. The rest of the passage provides a taste of how he did this.
Today, you’ll commonly run into two types of unbelievers—those who accept the Bible as God’s word, and those who don’t. When talking to the first group (who may be Jews, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses or some other group), it makes sense to reason from the Scriptures since there is already an agreed upon authority.
But what happens when you run into the other type of unbeliever? Paul provides an example in Acts 17:22-31.
How To Know if You’re Lost
Paul’s defense at Mars Hill can be outlined into three answers to the most fundamental questions everyone asks. When you’re talking to someone about God, I like to ask them these questions:
- “Where did we come from?” They will likely say something about a big bang and some goo, but the conclusion will likely be that they aren’t really sure.
- “What is the purpose of life?” Again, the likely response will be one of uncertainty.
- “What happens to you when you die?” When asked about life after death, most people will say they are not sure about that either. And finally…
- “What do you call someone who doesn’t know where they came from, doesn’t know why there here, and doesn’t know where they are going?” With a wee bit of help, an honest seeker will confess that the right answer is, “lost.”
By establishing this foundation, you’ll have the opportunity to pursue the issues of life, eternity, sin, death, and the need for a savior. While this may not lead the person to accept the Lord Jesus Christ, it will open them up to the truths of the Gospel. And it will give you a solid foundation on which to build a profitable relationship (from an eternal perspective.
This is essentially what Paul is doing much in Acts 17. He is giving directions about how to get right with God.
While people have a sense of justice about life, they also want to have a sense of hope. The gospel reconciles these two desires in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Where Did We Come From?
After complimenting the Athenians on their spirituality and announcing that he is going to proclaim who God is, Paul first introduces God by giving an abbreviated version of the design argument. “The God who made the world and everything in it…” (Acts 17:24).
The design argument states that since we see design all around us, there must be a designer. Plato and several other ancient philosophers used this argument, so there is little doubt that the Athenians were aware of it. But the god they proposed didn’t have the attributes of the one true God.
They believed in a creator, but that creator didn’t necessarily have a personality. Paul argues that the Creator is unlike their deities, He is “Lord of heaven and earth” and “does not live in temples made by man” (Acts 17:24).
People know that there must be a God who created everything. Paul states this in Romans 1:19-20, there he says that it is so obvious that people are “without excuse” when it comes to recognizing who God is. At Mars Hill, Paul simply reminded the Athenians of what they already knew, but were suppressing in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18).
We don’t have to be afraid that unbelievers are going to come up with an argument that defeats the idea of belief in God, since without an all knowing, all powerful, consistent Creator, nothing makes any sense. All arguments that deny God’s role in creation are foolish. If everything is a result of chance, then there is no reason we should go looking for order in the universe. If there is no Creator, what did the supposed big bang come from? Nothing plus nobody can’t equal everything.
Why Are We Here?
The next question Paul answers is about the meaning of life. All people have an underlying sense that their life has a purpose. Even atheists think their life should have a purpose. As one atheist from the Richard Dawkins Foundation recently wrote, “we as secular people can use science to fill that emptiness deep in the pit of our stomach that comes from a lack of a personal sense of meaning and purpose.”
So how do they use science to do that? It’s less than clear from most atheists’ arguments. That same article admits, “the source of the purpose itself is not so important.” So what if we get to decide our own purpose for life? What if someone decides that something diabolical is what their life is all about?
We know we need a purpose bigger than ourselves. There are very few people who would say that life has no meaning, and even those people had to come to that conclusion by rejecting their previous belief that life had a purpose. Nihilism just doesn’t resonate with people. Paul states that people have been created by God and set in their circumstances so “that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27).
This understanding of the meaning of life is powerful because it explains that the purpose of life is bigger than my limited personal goals. All people want to have a life that is worth living. They want to be involved in a cause bigger than themselves.
A recent article about the terrorist group ISIS said that this was one of their biggest recruitment strategies. They are getting young men from around the globe to forsake their lives in developed countries and move to a war torn region and throw their lives away for a cause they think is bigger than they are.
Paul says that the instinct that we have that life has a greater purpose is right. And that purpose is even greater than a political movement, it’s the reason we have been created – to know God.
Where Are We Going?
Paul’s message concludes by answering the question everyone has – “what happens after we die?”
His answer hits on the desire we all have for justice and hope beyond the grave. Ask university students, “do you think Adolf Hitler and the Virgin Mary are going to be in the same place for all eternity?” The answer is almost always, “no!”
Few will deny that Hitler should be punished for his crimes in World War II. But if God is going to send Hitler to hell, won’t he have to send all murderers there? And if he is going to send murderers there, he will also have to send all attempted murderers there. And so the logic goes until we realize that we are going to be judged.
Paul says God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). That is a scary thought, but we know it has to happen, otherwise Hitler and all the other criminals and sinners of history get away with their crimes.
While people have a sense of justice about life, they also want to have a sense of hope. The gospel reconciles these two desires in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul concludes his message that God has appointed the Lord Jesus to judge the world, and he has proven this by raising him from the dead.
What we need to do now is repent of our sins so that we don’t face judgment when we die. The repentant sinner can have real hope, not just positive thoughts, but a biblical hope, a for sure hope, that they will not come into judgment because Jesus Christ took God’s judgment for them when he died on the cross and rose again.
The resurrection is the proof that all believers in Jesus have been made right with God, as Paul says in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
The gospel makes sense. The Old Testament backs it up and we can communicate it to people in a way that answers their deepest questions.