Acts 17:16-31: November 25—Hit the streets
Nov 18, 2012

Wiley Richards is a retired professor of theology and philosophy at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.
Have you noticed how differently an innocent phrase can mean to someone else? In some Muslim dominated cultures, to hit the streets could be a call to incite a riot to protest some perceived insult. To us, however, it calls for us to get involved in an attempt to correct by peaceful means, perhaps by the ballot box, a trend or condition we believe can be harmful in some way. Good examples could be the harm caused by drug addiction, the tragedy of broken homes, or inept teaching in the public schools. In a time when our country faces major changes in social and moral standards, we are helpless to address personally most of the problems. How shall we decide what to do? Our text for today can offer guidance for us.

Because we cannot solve most, or even many, of the problems all around us, deal with one as the Lord leads (v. 16). Faced with the furor in Thessalonica (17:1, 10) and Berea, opposition by the Judaizers forced Paul to take refuge in Athens. The city had parallel walls reaching from the city to the harbor. Along the way were altars erected to the various gods. In the midst of the city was the Agora, a market place, containing also the Areopagus or Mars Hill, a place where people customarily gathered to discuss ideas. Paul took advantage of the open forum by addressing the inscription on one of the altars. It honored an unknown god. God had presented an open door of opportunity.

The next step is to adopt a strategy (vv. 17-18). That is, how should one get the witnessing conversation started? For us, a non-threatening question could be, “Do you ever give much thought to spiritual things?” Either the person has or has not, but the answer does not matter. You can then state that the Bible says we need a personal encounter with God. In Paul’s case, he built upon two different groups of people. In the first, the Bible says there was a synagogue there (v. 17). He disputed with the Jews. Read the Book of Hebrews to gain an insight about the way Christians dealt with Jewish questions about the Messiah. Second, Paul traveled to the Areopagus, the Market Place, where some of the “philosophers” had heard Paul discuss the resurrection of Jesus. They were baffled by the allusion to “some strange gods,” as they put it.

Paul wisely listened to their complaints (vv. 19-21). As people gathered to the market place who were curious about his beliefs, he listened carefully as they admitted the ideas he preached had sounded strange to their ears (v. 20). The Bible then explains what the usual order of discussion. Some Athenians and “strangers” customarily met at the forum to discuss new ideas which might come up. We know the gist of some of their line of thought. The Epicureans advocated the widely practiced slogan of eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you may die. The Stoics following Zeno taught people to be free from passion by submitting quietly to whatever happens.

Paul came forward to established areas of agreement (vv. 22-26). He directed attention to the Roman altar erected to the unknown God and from that premise set forth the Judeo-Christian view of God as the Creator the world, a Spirit-being not restricted to places of worship, the One who recreated all nations from one parental source.

Having established areas of general agreement about the nature of God, Paul made his application (vv. 27-31). He assumed they would accept the truth that God, a Spirit, could not be made of gold, silver or stone. In times past, Paul argued, God overlooked those ways of worship, but now presents a new concept, that God, being righteous will judge the world by “that man” He ordained, verifying this truth by raising Jesus from the dead. The mention of a resurrection set off a fire storm of discussion. Some mocked, saying they needed more time to think about it. But some believed, including Dionysus the Aeropagite. There was also a woman named Damaris (v. 34). As far as the biblical account goes, no church was founded at that time, but the gospel message was explained in detail. 

Our job is to sow the seed. God grants the increase.

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