Reaching the Worldly Wise -Acts 17:16-34

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

July 23, 2006

Reaching the Worldly Wise

Acts 17:16-34


This morning we come to an extremely interesting section of Scripture because
it not only gives us insight into the mind of Paul, but also a wonderful model
of the proper approach to reach the unsaved with the gospel. But I should warn
you from the beginning that Paul’s example is quite the opposite of what has
become popular in American evangelical Christianity.

Tragically, the methodology of many of the people who call themselves
"evangelists" do not follow any Biblical pattern, but instead use the models of
modern marketing. That is not to say there are not principles derived from
marketing that cannot be used in proclaiming the gospel, but it is to say that
there is a big difference between selling Jesus and proclaiming him. The actions
of some religious salesmen have greatly tarnished the wonderful Biblical title
of "evangelist." Paul never marketed Jesus. He never became a hawker of the

At the same time Paul also avoided the other extreme exhibited by some who
seem to concentrate so much on what they are saying that they forget to whom
they are talking. People who become so insensitive that they end up offending
people by their manner. While it is true that the gospel is an offense to the
non-Christian, we should make sure that it gospel that is the cause of the
offense and not because we are obnoxious.

Paul was sensitive to his audience and tailored his message accordingly. We
saw that last week in our study of the first part of Acts 17. Verse 2 tells us
that when he arrived in Thessalonica, that according his custom, he went to the
Synagogue first to speak to the Jews, and that he continued to reason with them
from the Scriptures for a period of three Sabbaths. Verse 3 specifically says
that he was "explaining to them and giving evidence that the Christ had to
suffer and rise again from the dead."
He then went on to tell them that
"this Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ."

Paul understood that to reach a Jewish audience you have to approach them
from the Jewish world view. Since they already believed the Scriptures to be
truth from God and understood its basic message he was able to start his
presentation with messianic prophecy. Unless he could prove by the Scriptures
that the promised Messiah (Christ) would have to suffer and then rise from the
dead, proclaiming the fact that Jesus had done just that would have been
pointless. They would have just understood him to be a man who had received a
wonderful miracle from God but they would reject Him as Messiah.


Recall from last week in our study of Paul going to Thessalonica that some of
the Jews there had become jealous when a great multitude of the God-fearing
Greeks had responded to the gospel. It severely bothered them that this gospel
Paul was preaching did not require these Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes in
order to receive salvation from sin by faith in the Messiah. Their jealousy
provoked them to stir up a mob and cause trouble. The brethren sent Paul away to

In Berea he also went to the Synagogue first and found the Jews there to be
more noble minded because they not only listened carefully to what Paul said,
but they then went and compared what he said with the Scriptures. The Bereans
were diligent to search out the truth and in doing so came to believe the
gospel. That is a good model for us to follow today for it is our protection
against being "carried about by every wind of doctrine" (Eph. 4:14) that
comes blowing through by popular speakers or writers. Follow their example and
check out the things you hear and read with the Scriptures so that you will know
the truth. That includes the things I teach and preach. We are all better off
when you do things because the Bible says it instead of because the Pastor said

We don’t know how long Paul was ministering in Berea, but at some point the
jealous Jews of Thessalonica heard about it and came to Berea to cause trouble
there. The brethren then sent Paul by ship to Athens. A place he will have to
use a different strategy if he is to reach the pagan Gentiles of that city. We
pick up the story this morning in Acts 17:16.

Arrival in Athens (17:16-34)

Paul Provoked by the Idols (16-18)

16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being
provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. 17 So he was
reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing [Gentiles,] and in
the market place every day with those who happened to be present. 18 And also
some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some
were saying, "What would this idle babbler wish to say?" Others, "He seems to be
a proclaimer of strange deities,"– because he was preaching Jesus and the

When Paul arrives he finds himself provoked by the many idols in that city.
It was not the Greek idolatry itself that was causing this reaction in Paul, for
he had seen many such idols in his many travels. It was that the city was full
of such idols. The Athenians had collected so many idols that it could be
considered the gods capital of the ancient world. These people were obviously
very religious, but they were also very lost. Paul was provoked in the sense of
being stirred up to action. If there was any irritation or anger present it
would have been over the tragedy of their lost condition and not against the
people themselves. Paul is spurred on to do something to help them.

Paul continues his custom of reasoning in the synagogues with the Jews and
God-fearing Gentiles, but he also goes to the market place to talk with whoever
was there. The end of verse 18 tells us that Paul was preaching Jesus and the
resurrection. He went to where people would be gathered and he would speak to

Some say that Paul was street preaching, and certainly in some sense he was
doing that. But don’t get the idea that he was on top of a soap box on some
corner in the business district hollering to whoever was walking by. That may be
a fine thing to do, but that also takes a lot of boldness and skills that keep
most Christians from ever attempting it. What Paul was doing was much simpler
and something any Christian can do.

Don’t think of this market place like a supermarket or strip mall where
people go intent on buying stuff. Think of it more like a mall or street fair
where people go not only to buy things, but also to meet each other and "hang
out" and interact with the other folks that are there. It is not rude in such
settings to engage people you don’t know in conversation and see where you might
be able to lead it. One of the reasons we go as a church to events such as the
"Picnic in the Park" earlier this month or "Town Day" in September is to do that
kind of evangelism. But the same thing should be done in the normal course of
our lives as we go about our daily business and interact with people. The main
reason most Christians do not follow Paul’s example is because they miss the
first step. Paul purposed to do it. It was not chance but purposeful effort that
brought him in contact with the folks in the marketplace and to whom he could
"preach Jesus."

Among those at the market place were some of the Epicurean and Stoic
philosophers of that city. The Epicureans sought contentment by finding a serene
detachment from the world. They did not believe in divine intervention in life
or in divine punishment afterward. This lead to a materialistic view of life.
The Stoics on the other hand were pantheistic and sought to find happiness in
accepting nature as it existed and then finding their place within it. Some of
these philosophers are contemptuous of Paul and call him a
spermolovgo" / spermologos which is literally "a
seed picker." It was a derogatory term used of someone who picked up scraps. It
was also used, as in this case, of a vagrant philosopher. Others present were
curious about what Paul was saying. This lead to an invitation in verse 19.

Paul Invited to the Areopagus (19-21)

19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know
what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? 20 "For you are bringing
some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things
mean." 21 (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend
their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)

Athens was famous as a center for philosophy boasting such people in its
history as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The Areopagus, or Mars hill, is where
the philosophers of the city and those visiting would gather to talk. They were
always interested in something new, so they invited Paul to explain more to them
about things he was saying that were so strange to their ears. This was a golden
opportunity for Paul and he took full advantage of it. His sermon is a model of
how to properly speak to not only to the worldly wise, but anyone who has a
world view opposite of your own.

Paul’s Sermon (17:22-34)

Careful Introduction (22-23)

22 And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I
observe that you are very religious in all respects. 23 "For while I was passing
through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with
this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance,
this I proclaim to you.

Paul began his sermon by finding a common ground which could then be used as
a foundation for building his arguments that would point to their need of Jesus
Christ. It was the prevalence of so many idols that was provoking him to action
in the first place, so he used that as the starting point in stating that he
recognized that they were a very religious people. The common ground was being
religious, however, just being religious is not safe ground because differences
in religion are often the cause of war. If Paul attacked their religion they
would become defensive and not listen to what he had to say about his religion.
If he ignored their pantheistic religious convictions and just proclaimed
Christ, they would just overlook him as the preacher of a foreign god that had
no bearing on them. Remember that in pantheism gods are localized so they are
only important if you are in an area where they have influence. A god from a
distant land would have little importance to them.

But Paul had seen something that would be the bridge he needed to gain their
attention and build his case for the superiority of Jesus Christ over all gods,
and therefore One that they needed to know and follow. He pointed out that he
had passed a certain altar that was engraved with the inscription, ‘TO AN
Paul would tell them about this particular God they did not

There is quite a story behind this particular statue and one that Paul may
have known since he had grown up in Greek culture and later in this passage he
quotes from the very man that is central in the story. Don Richardson records
the story in his book, Eternity in their Hearts. In brief, in the 6th
century B.C. Athens was hit by a plague which they believed was caused by one of
the gods, but no amount of sacrificing to the various gods brought appeasement
to end the plague. Finally they contacted a fellow from Crete named Epimenides
and brought him to Athens for advice. He set up a test based on the assumption
that they had missed a god and that this god was both great enough and good
enough to do something about their plague if they would acknowledge their
ignorance and call upon him. The test involved releasing a flock of sheep on
Mars hill early in the morning when they would be very hungry. It would then be
assumed that any sheep that would lie down instead of eating would have been
chosen by this great and good unknown god as a sacrifice. When the test was
carried out a number of the sheep did go against their normal nature and laid
down on the grass instead of eating it. The Athenians sacrificed them to this
unknown god and the plague ended. Then, not only in Athens but also in other
parts of Greece, altars were made to this unknown God as reminder that there was
a God that was good and greater than the many lesser gods they worshiped. What
they had been worshiping in ignorance, this idol, Paul would now proclaim to
them the truth about this God.

Declaring the Nature of the True God (24-29)

Creator & Lord (24)

Paul’s first point in declaring the true nature of this God that was unknown
to them was to use a particular Greek word for God,
/ theos. This was the only name among the many names for pantheon
of Greek gods that was not yet tied directly into the errors of pantheism.
qeov" / theos had been used in the writings of
the philosophers Xenophanes, Plato and Aristotle as a personal name for the one
Supreme God. The true God was different from the various gods the Athenians had

24 "The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of
heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands;

Paul first declaration was that qeov" / theos,
the supreme God was greater than nature, for he is the Creator and therefore the
Lord over all creation. The Greek gods were part of nature for they were created
beings themselves, often the offspring of other gods. Certain gods were supposed
to be able to control certain aspects of nature, but were in turn subject to
other aspects of nature they could not control. The true God created and is Lord
over all nature.

The Athenians had built temples throughout the city as homes for many of
their gods. The temple of Zeus, their "King of gods," being one of the most
famous. The supreme God does not live in such things for He is transcendent. The
true God is far beyond anything men could build for Him for nothing man can make
is truly worthy of the Creator. As the Lord Himself said in Isaiah 66:1, "Heaven
is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could
build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest?

Autonomous & Source of Life (25) – Paul’s next point in verse 25 is that God
is autonomous.

25 neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since
He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things;

The gods of the Greek pantheon were served by humans. Their mythologies are
full of stories of the god’s manipulating humans to get what they wanted. The
true God is autonomous. He needs nothing from man. All that God does for man is
a function of His good and gracious character and not to manipulate man into
gaining for Himself. On the other hand, man needs everything from God, for He is
the giver of life and breath to all things.


Ruler (26) – In verse 26 Paul sets God apart as the supreme ruler.

26 and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of
the earth, having determined [their] appointed times, and the boundaries of
their habitation,

In the Greek pantheon the various gods will war against each other using
humans as the means to gain additional territory and control for themselves. The
true God is far beyond any of the Greek gods for He is over every nation on
earth and not just some local area or people group. The supreme God is the
source of creation of all the nations and in turn sets their boundaries in both
time and space. We see the proof of that throughout the Old Testament. The great
King Nebuchadnezzar had ignored this but he too was forced to acknowledge and
praise God "for His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom
endures from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are
accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven
And among the inhabitants of earth; And no once can ward off His hand or say to
Him, "What hast Thou done?"
(Daniel 4:34-35)

Approachable (27) – Verse 27 points out another difference about the true
God. He is approachable.

27 that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find
Him, though He is not far from each one of us;

The gods of the Greeks were not approachable. They could be near. They could
be far away, and if you did meet one you could never be sure what kind of
response you might get. The true God is not far away from any man who will seek
Him. Paul was affirming the assumptions made by Epimenides so many centuries
earlier that there was a God who was both great and good who would deal with
them mercifully even though they were ignorant of Him. They only needed to
acknowledge that ignorance and seek Him. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, "And without
faith it is impossible to please [Him], for he who comes to God must believe
that He is, and [that] He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

Source of Existence (28) -In verse 28 Paul quotes the ancient philosophers to
back up his claims.

28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have
said, ‘For we also are His offspring.’

The fact that man’s existence is in God was recognized by even the Greek
poets. The particular Greek poets cited by Paul are Aratus and Epimenides.
Epimenides is the same man who six centuries earlier had given the Athenians the
advice about how to appease and worship an unknown god.

Now here I have to make a short footnote because there are those that say
Paul was wrong to quote the Greek poets and others that attack the veracity
(truthfulness) of scripture because he did so. Paul’s quote of these
philosophers was not an endorsement of everything they taught. He was simply
using it to point out that even the men these Greeks considered wise had reached
the same conclusion. If it will help you make your point, you can quote other
people favorably even if they are wrong in other areas. Quoting someone is not
an endorsement of everything they say. Those who criticize Paul or attack the
Bible over this are grasping at the wind and only showing their own ignorance
brought on, at least in part, from a failure to ever learn how to actually
listen to what someone else says.

Not an Idol (29)

In verse 29, having laid a solid foundation on the nature of the true God as
opposed to the gods of the Greek pantheon, Paul directs his attention to correct
their idolatry.

29 "Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine
Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought
of man.

God is not like His creation and therefore cannot be represented by material
things of any sort or art or even the thoughts of man. This is in direct
contradiction to the practices of these Greeks of either their idolatry, which
included fine art, or their philosophies.

Declaring the Requirements of God (30,31)

In verses 30 & 31 Paul declares the requirements of this God that were
previously unknown to them.

30 "Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring
to men that all everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which
He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed,
having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. "

God had overlooked their ignorance in the past, but that time was ending and
God had requirements of man which were now being revealed to them. He commands
that all men everywhere repent. They needed to change their minds about what is
true and then change their practices accordingly. To fail to do this will leave
you under God’s judgement. Paul then directed his argument to the Epicureans who
denied any future judgement by proclaiming the proof of it in the resurrection
of the one God had appointed to bring this judgement.

This was as far as Paul was able to get before he was interrupted by those
that thought themselves wiser than Paul and rejected his claims.

Responses (32-34)

Rejection (32a)

32a Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some [began] to
sneer. . ."

It was the mention of the resurrection from the dead that caused these folks
to sneer. They began to jest and mock him. That is still a common response by
people today that profess themselves to be wise, but they reject the truth and
in doing so become fools.

Interest (32b-34)

Others were still curious.

32b . . . but others said, "We shall hear you again concerning this." 33 So
Paul went out of their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among
whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others
with them.

Some said they would like to hear more. Perhaps they were genuinely curious
and did hear Paul again. Then again, they may have just been trying to be
polite. However, some others joined Paul as he left and believed. Among these
that responded positively that day were two people Paul mentions by name,
Dionysius the Areopagite
(a philosopher), and a woman named Damaris.
They and some other join Paul and believed. They became the nucleus for a church
in Athens.

This is kind of response that we should expect when we properly proclaim the
gospel. The hearts of men are proud and the natural response for them is to
either refuse to acknowledge their sin, as in the case of these Athenian
philosophers who would not even acknowledge their responsibility to the true
God, or they will continue in their effort to somehow gain forgiveness by their
own abilities. They refuse to accept the fact that the only way to receive God’s
forgiveness is by His grace through faith in the person and work of the Lord
Jesus Christ. But God is gracious and there are the few that will respond
positively and repent to be forgiven their sins and follow Jesus Christ.


There are at least six important lessons about evangelism from Paul’s example
while he was in Athens.

1) Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. Paul was and so he was moved to action.
Are you praying for the salvation of others? Do you have specific people you are
bringing before the Lord by name?

2) Don’t be passive in waiting for opportunities to talk to others about
Jesus Christ. You have to be pro-active and put yourself in places where those
opportunities can be created.

3) Know something about those you are talking to and adapt your presentation
of the gospel accordingly. This means you may need to ask them questions about
themselves & what they believe first.

4) Try to find some common ground with the person you are talking to and then
bridge the conversation to the truth about God and the claims of Jesus Christ.

5) Don’t directly attack the religion of other people. The goal is to glorify
God by declaring His true nature and actions which will always be superior to
both false gods and false ideas about the true God. After you have done that,
then declare the claims the true God has upon all people.

6) Be faithful and true to do the very best you can to tells others the truth
about God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, but leave the results in God’s hands.
You cannot argue someone into belief and salvation. You can only point the way.
Pray for them.

If you will take these lessons to heart and apply them in your own life, I
have no doubt that among the many you talk with you will see God respond in
grace and mercy so that some will be saved. What a joy it is to be faithful in
serving God and then see Him at work.


Sermon Study


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives.
Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you
hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch.
Older Children –
Do one or more of the following: 1) Keep count of how many
different times "Paul" is mentioned. 2) Talk with your parents about what Paul
said was true about God and how the contrasted with the Greek gods.


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others.

What do you think when you hear the word "evangelist?" What is the difference
between marketing Jesus and proclaiming Him? What was Paul’s method in trying to
reach a Jewish audience with the gospel? What caused Paul to leave Thessalonica?
Berea? What did Paul do when he got to Athens? What was provoking his spirit?
Why? What was his response? What was the marketplace in Athens like? Why was
this a good place for Paul to go? Who are the Stoics? Who are the Epicureans?
What is the Areopagus? What did people do there? Why did Paul go there? What
common ground did Paul find with the Athenians? What was the altar to an
"Unknown God?" How did Paul use that to introduce his subject? What did Paul say
about the character and actions of God? How do those things contrast with the
character and actions of the Greek gods? Why does Paul quote Greek poets? What
was the responses to Paul’s sermon? What kind of responses should we expect?
What did you learn about evangelism from Paul’s example? Are you praying for the
salvation of specific people? How can you create opportunities to tell the
gospel to others?


Sermon Notes – July 23, 2006

Reaching the Worldly Wise – Acts 17:16-34



Context (17:1-15)


Arrival in Athens (17:16-21)

Provoked by Idols (vs. 16-18)


Invited to the Areopagus (vs. 19-21)


Paul’s Sermon (vs. 22-34)

Careful Introduction (vs. 22-23)



Declaring the Nature of the True God (vs. 24-29)

Creator & Lord (vs. 24)


Autonomous & Source of Life (vs. 25)


Ruler (vs. 26)


Near (vs. 27)


Source of Existence (vs. 28)


Not an Idol (vs. 29)

Declaring God’s Requirements (vs. 30-31)


Responses (vs. 32-34)

Rejection (vs. 32)

Interest (vs. 33-34)



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