Paul at Athens: A study in tactical leadership
Every church leader prefers certain settings in which to minister. Speaking in different venues and varying cultures is often fraught with risk. And yet God often calls His spokespersons to do exactly that. Consider the experiences of apostle Paul.
In Acts 17, Paul arrived in Thessalonica and spent three Sabbaths in the synagogue explaining to the people from the Scriptures that “Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead” (v. 3).1 Some Jews and a “great multitude of the devout Greeks” accepted the saving message of the gospel (v. 4). Evangelism had struck its victory note. But envious Jews gathered a mob against Paul and Silas, whom they accused as those “who have turned the world upside down” (v. 6). These gospel heralds escaped “by night to Berea,” where the evangelists found the people to be “fair-minded” and “many of them believed” (vv. 10–12). But the troublemakers stormed in from Thessalonica and again “stirred up the crowds” against Paul (v. 13). The believers sent Paul away to Athens, while Silas remained in Berea, along with Timothy, to continue studying with those “fair-minded” people.
Not one given to enjoy the ease of life, Paul forged ahead with his ministry while waiting for Silas and Timothy. Acts 17:16, 17 tells that Paul’s spirit “was provoked within him when he saw that the city [of Athens] was given over to idols.” That provocation led the apostle to launch his evangelistic proclamation in three directions simultaneously, with tactical skills born of the Holy Spirit. First, he worked in the synagogues, reasoning with the Jews. Second, he worked among the God-fearing Gentiles, wherever they could be found. Third, he spent time in the marketplace with the pagans, shopping or holding philosophic dialogues there.
Of the three groups, Paul would have been naturally comfortable with his fellow Jews. They were acquainted with Scripture and shared a common background in worldview, Scripture, culture, language, eating, feasts, and ceremonial habits. Paul’s fellow Jews were family. As long as Paul was careful not to antagonize them with his distinctive Christian beliefs, the Jews were glad for his presence.
Paul was in a comfort zone. How easy it would have been for him to operate carefully among Jews without upsetting anyone. Had he worked more cautiously and conservatively in the synagogues around Asia Minor, he could have been a welcome celebrity among the Jews most anywhere. Additionally, he could have racked up a great number of conversions, so long as the required changes were minor. He could have felt really satisfied with incrementally deepening his flock’s spirituality, increasing their tithing, building up their outreach, and establishing their institutions. Paul could have spent the rest of his life in productive work and lived as a hero among his own Jewish people. But he was more mission-minded than that.
Paul refused to be satisfied with working only among his own people; he was conscious of his commission and calling by Jesus to be a messenger to the Gentiles. Yet, even then, had Paul been so inclined, he could have been much more comfortable working with the many God-fearing Gentiles that were around him. While working with Gentiles might have been more difficult than working with Jews, the most difficult hurdles may have been swept away. After all, these Gentiles were God-fearing. Their worldview had previously undergone substantial changes. These Gentiles already possessed a foundation for Paul to build upon and had much-needed room for improvement. Therefore, Paul could have felt that he was indeed a missionary to the Gentiles and maybe even enjoyed the challenge of working among them because they did not necessarily share the same background, culture, language, and eating and purity habits. He could have convinced himself that he was living dangerously yet obediently to his commission. For Paul, however, this was not enough.
Paul’s mind was singularly focused on Athens. At first sight of the great city and its famous idols dotting the streets everywhere, “his spirit was provoked within him” (v. 16). Why was Paul provoked by the city full of idols? Perhaps for three reasons.
First, he was provoked for God’s sake. Here was a great city, known for its philosophical schools and rational discourses, given up completely to idol worship, with multiple idols beckoning men and women of reason to bow before them in worship, with false gods masquerading as the true God. Paul was legitimately provoked and upset for God’s sake.
Second, it could be that Paul’s discovery of Jesus and His saving grace, love, and truth led the apostle to be compassionate toward the people of Athens and reveal to them the true Creator-Redeemer God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (v. 28).
A third reason why Paul would be provoked at the sight of what he saw in Athens is the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Paul was so constantly tuned in to the Holy Spirit that he was provoked at the sight of ignorance and the denial of the true God in preference to the emptiness of idols. Paul not only felt strongly about the situation but also was determined to do something about it. Out of step with the beliefs of his Jewish heritage, Paul believed that God wanted the Athenians to be saved as well. He understood the global mission concept of taking the gospel to those who were entirely unreached, including the idol-worshiping pagans. Paul knew that the God of the Cross is the God of all.
Paul went where people were: to the marketplace, to the city square, to the debating corners of Athens—wherever pagans congregated, wherever ignorance of the Creator-Redeemer God prevailed, and wherever worshipers congregated to bow to the “Unknown God” (vv. 22, 23). There, we might say, Paul formed the first global mission study center where he used the marketplace and the city square to study and test methods of reaching the hearts and minds of pagans in ways they would understand and respond to. He talked to people. He studied their literature, their poets. He studied their gods. He probably asked many questions. Paul knew that he could not blindly dive into preaching to the Athenians the same way that he approached Jews or even God-fearing Gentiles. Through the Holy Spirit, Paul understood that the worldview of the Athenians required an entirely different approach to reach them.
The people at the marketplace reacted to Paul’s investigation and speaking in a variety of ways. Some rejected him immediately, saying, “‘What does this babbler want to say?’ ” (v. 18).
What Paul saw in Athens can be seen in our cities today. Our cities are still full of idols, even though they are less obvious than what Paul saw. Unfortunately, how-ever, most of us are fully capable of walking through a city without being offended in the least by its idols. Where is our sense of God’s honor? Where is our compassion for the people?
Studying his audience
It seems that Paul did not know exactly how to reach the pagans in Athens. And evidently, he experienced a few fits and starts. But he learned how to reach them as he mingled with the people as one desiring their good. This direct contact led some people to want to know more, until some said, “Hey, let’s listen to him. Bring him to the Areopagus.”
Luke pauses the story here to inform us that the people of Athens did nothing all day long but talk about and listen to the latest ideas (v. 21) . Was he accusing the Athenians of being lazy or slothful? It seems more likely that he was referring to Athenians as thinkers and debaters. Paul may have been a little overawed by the reputation of the philosophers of Athens, causing him to call upon his eloquence, logic, and oratory, something he later regretted doing (1 Cor. 2:2).
When Paul’s moment arrived on Mars Hill, the Holy Spirit was at work in him by using his experience with the Athenian heritage—his study of their culture, philosophy, religion, literature, and world-view—to transform his method of speaking to the Athenians. But the apostle had not reckoned the way the Holy Spirit would work through him. Paul thought that his oratorical skills and eloquence, his upbringing and his education under Gamaliel, would be his tools of effective communication. In reality, it was Paul’s education on the streets of Athens that the Holy Spirit was able to use.
Here lies an extremely important point of gospel communication. Paul’s depth of learning, his knowledge and eloquence, his logical thinking and preaching skills, were all-important. But at Athens, God used what Paul had learned on the streets of the city during his direct contact with the people. God used his observation of the people, their customs, their literature, and their religion and empowered Paul to reach out to the Athenians as one desiring their good. Note some key points in Paul’s experience:
1. Paul respected the people for what they were. Paul did not, in anyway, disparage the false religion or false gods of the Athenians. He gathered whatever points of good he could find, few as they were, and capitalized on them. He acknowledged the positive among them: “‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious’” (Acts 17:22). F. F. Bruce, the New Testament scholar, points out that even though the practice of the times in a public oration, according to the ancient writer Lucian, was to discourage the use of “complimentary exordia [beginnings] to secure the goodwill of the Areopagus court,”2 Paul opened his speech with complimentary words. Perhaps Paul was unaware of the convention, or maybe the compliment was mild enough to be allowed. Although the Athenian religion was misguided in every way, Paul noted their devotion. Caring about even misguided religious faith and conduct is more commendable than not caring at all
2. Paul communicated a respectful attitude toward the Athenian’s faith. Note his gentle words: “ ‘As I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship’ ” (v. 23).
Paul had the right answers to the religious issues that plagued Athenian life, but Paul did not present himself as such. Instead, he cared for the people and desired their good.
3. Paul carefully crossed the line between what one is and what one should become. The line is very delicate. He had shown that Athenians were religious. He had shown that he cared for their culture and belief. He had told them of his respect for their heritage, even though such heritage involved the worship of the “‘Unknown God’” (v. 23). From awareness and appreciation of their culture, Paul gently moved the line and proclaimed, with much love and care, “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth” (v. 24).
Paul now was reaching out with his appeal, a step in which he embraced the dynamic principle of inclusion: “Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (vv. 29–31).
One can almost imagine a bit of squirming at the Areopagus. Paul just crossed a line that he had carefully avoided to this point. He had avoided it because crossing this line too soon would close the minds of the people against what he had to say. But he also knew that, eventually, he had to cross the line and share the inevitable consequences of continuing to ignore the true God.
Luke provides two reactions to Paul’s closing words. Some sneered at the idea of resurrection. Others said they wanted to hear Paul again on the matter. But the central point in this story for our purposes is that all of them had actually listened. And that was Paul’s hope from the beginning.
We know that some people will reject the gospel, but we must do everything possible to ensure that before they reject it, they understand what they are rejecting. For the Athenians who rejected the gospel, Paul, by his method of working among them and strategic use of what he had studied and learned of them, ensured that they understood that a God existed whom they did not know but who had created them, still loved them, and was merciful to them in spite of their ignorance but that judgment day was coming, and there was verifiable evidence for all of this in the resurrection of Christ.
Treasure of knowledge
What is the great takeaway for us from Paul’s experience in Athens? It is how to approach an unreached group of nonbelievers. Paul speaks of it himself, writing later to the Corinthians: “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:2–5).
Paul abandoned oratorical strategy and philosophical contentions that he used in the Areopagus. He recognized that his reliance on his skill as a speaker had profited little. Meeting logic with logic, philosophy of the world with the wisdom from above, Paul could have broken the Athenian school of human self-sufficiency with the power that comes from above. But in the process, he realized he would have made only enemies. So, he placed before the Athenians the great Creator God “‘in whom we live and move and have our being’” and who “‘commands all men everywhere to repent’” (Acts 17:28, 30) in order to receive eternal life.
Through his tactical leadership—direct contact with people, the study of their culture, and respect for their beliefs—Paul man-aged something notable among the pagans in Athens. He avoided irritating his listeners. He got all of them to listen, he got many of them to believe, and he got some of them to follow (vv. 32–34). Ellen White comments, “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.”3
This heaven-inspired tactical leadership is a model we need to pay attention to, even as we go about meeting multitudes in the diverse Areopagus settings of our time.
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1 All Scripture passages in this article are quoted from the New King James Version.
2 F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text With Introduction and Commentary, 3rd ed. (GrandRapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), 380.
3 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Ass., 1911), 240, 241 (emphasis added).