Gospel In Idolatrous Culture (Acts 17)


  • Parents are often challenged to get their children to wake up in the morning… for school, during summer, and other times. But if the next morning is… an athletic game, a friend’s house, or Christmas, then getting up early is somehow easy.
  • We are motivated by deep joy.
  • The apostle Paul had just experienced a public beating with rods and a night in jail (Ac 16). Yet, in the next day’s journey he is walking 30+ miles from Philippi to Amphipolis, another day’s journey of 30+ miles to Apollonia, and then another day’s journey of 30+ miles to Thessalonica. Paul travels nearly 100 miles in three days despite his trials and troubles. Undoubtedly, Paul’s deepest delight was God’s greatest glory. He sought to bring glory to God through sharing the gospel in unengaged places with unreached people.
  • Today’s passage will help us understand how to share the gospel in a culture that is unengaged with God’s truth and unreached with God’s love.
    • Acts 17 – gospel in an idolatrous culture
    • Acts 18 – gospel in immoral culture
    • Acts 19 – gospel in a hostile (demonic) culture

EXAMINE       Acts 17

To reach the unreached, Christians must elevate essentials of the faith.

1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things. And when they had taken money as security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.

As a missionary, Paul traveled into larger cities to share the gospel. He believed reaching the cities and starting churches would result in concentric circles of influence with the global spread of Christianity. Time has proved Paul was right as the movement spread from a few peasant disciples to populous cities and powerful nations around the world and throughout history.[1]

Paul’s primary focus was not about cultural identity or political perspectives but the essential nature of the gospel: preaching Christ crucified and resurrected! The gospel came not only in word but in power in the Holy Spirit and conviction and enabled many to turn away from idols to trust in Jesus and turn to the living God (1Thes 1:5-9).

It was stated that they “turned their world upside down” (Ac 17:6). The religious leaders conspired with city officials to form a mob to pursue the Christians, only to capture their host – Jason – and secure arrangements for Paul & Silas to immediately leave their city.

  • The true gospel always disturbs the religious and disrupts the irreligious. God’s truth does not make us comfortable but compels us to make a bold difference for Jesus Christ. What is one act out of your comfort zone that you can begin to make a gospel difference?
  • Paul’s message focused on the essentials. Today, many Christians misplace their focus on the world’s domain rather than an eternal kingdom.
    When we become obsessed with secondary issues then primary matters become obscured. What is a non-essential that you have misplaced focus/emphasis in your conversations and the way you spend your time?
  • One practical action can be to introduce & study Bible with non-Christians. Paul & Silas left Thessalonica for Berea to examine the Scriptures to discern what was true. Many believed in the gospel, despite being run out of town again.

10 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. 12 Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. 13 But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds. 14 Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. 15 Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.

To reach the unreached, Christians must grieve over idolatry.

16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.

Paul travels almost 200 miles southeast to the next city to Athens, which was famous as a capital city with intellectual brilliance, cultural influence, and even athletic prowess, being the founding of the Olympic games.[2] Today, we might think of places like Washington D.C., New York City, or perhaps London.

Yet, Paul’s observations of Athens did not lead to appreciation or reverence but heartache and grief. His spirit was provoked (παρωξύνετο = pointed and prevalent disturbance) viewing a city full of idolatry.

  • Illus: Like going to an Oriole’s game and seeing NY hats; or a Raven’s game and seeing Steeler’s jerseys.

In the 6th C B.C., Athens was devastated by an ongoing mysterious plague. [3] When no explanation for the plague could be identified or no cure found, the approach was to assume one of the city’s many gods had been offended. As the city leaders sought to appease the many gods, their efforts failed. Long story short, they erected an altar to “unknown gods” in hopes of stopping the plague. Over time the plague subsided, and the altar remained.

Further, Athens was known for its highly religious superstitions. They had countless Greek gods/goddesses and statues

  • Ἀθηνᾶ Athena: goddess of wisdom; depicted woman with crown and crest; patron of Athens
  • Ἀπόλλων Apollo: god of art, music, knowledge; depicted as youthful man with a lyre and bow & arrow
  • Ἄρης Ares: god of war; depicted as man with helmet, six pack abs, sword & shield
  • Νίκη Nike: goddess of victory; depicted as person in winged flight
  • Ἄρτεμις Artemis: goddess huntress; depicted as woman with quiver full of arrows
  • Διόνυσος Dionusios: god of wine and fruitfulness; depicted as man crowned with grapes and drinking cup
  • Ἀφροδίτη Aphrodite: goddess of beauty & love; depicted with custom curvature for female body
  • ᾍδης Haides: god of underworld/dead; depicted as man with long staff and 3-headed animal.
  • Ζεύς Zeus; god of sky & weather; depicted as sturdy bearded man with royal scepter.
  • Cloācina: goddess of the sewer, which was one of Rome’s impressive feats of engineering that increased the health of its citizens by reducing waste related diseases. She’s often depicted as one with a clothes-pin on her nose and a long plunger – – – maybe not her real depiction though the was a real Greco-Roman deity.[4] Let’s not even discuss how one would make offerings to her![5]   

Seriously, Paul examined all the idolatry around Athens, and he was provoked in spirit. And don’t think for a minute that God is not grieved over our idolatry of academics for our children / entertainment to escape our circumstances / greed to consume and conquer / lusts for indulging the flesh / power and position / or yes, even pursuit of health and hygiene. Like the ancients of our day, we can turn worship into a god of our imagination rather than to the God of revelation. Faith in Jesus is not an automatic means to receive good times and getaway from trials. So, Christianity is about a transformation of heart and mind to align with God’s design and resist fleeting satisfaction.

Like the ancients of our day, we can turn worship into a god of our imagination rather than to the God of revelation.

Also, there are some Christians who view the world’s idolatry with not grief but anger. They look down on sinners, as if they are better than them or they are not equal sinners. Yet, Paul’s disturbance of idolatry did not cause him to run away from Athens but run toward them in compassion. He knew they were missing out on the forgiving grace and faithful goodness of God. Likewise, our churches need people whose affections have been redeemed and able to tell the old gospel story in relevant ways. 

To reach the unreached, Christians must answer questions being asked.

18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.

Paul interacts with Epicureanism and Stoicism – modern thinking of the day. Epicurean philosophy centered on happiness, or today’s peace and love.[6] While Epicureans did not advocate licentious behavior, they did believe pleasure should be pursued at all costs to avoid any pain. Stoic philosophy centered on virtue and logic. Their view of an ordered world came from a cosmic logos that was impersonal and incomprehensible.

Both factions debated endlessly and were locked in a philosophical stalemate; both attracting new followers but neither gaining any ground against the other.[7]

  • Illus: Like Atheists or Universalists / Democrats or Republicans.

They called Paul a “babbler” or “seed-picker,” which carries the connotation of a person who picks up bits of information and passes them off as if he knows what he is talking about[8]; like a third-tier journalist hack, or a teacher/preacher with a downloadable degree certificate. You too can be a PhDfor just $99.99, or a licensed leprechaunologist for $33.33.

The philosophers take Paul over to the Areopagus, aka Latin name of Mars Hill, the place of influence through philosophical lecture, academic instruction, public morality and trying crimes, and overall city life.[9] Paul finds common ground: ““Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” He started where they were in the spiritual journey and their wise wants.[10] He answered the questions they were asking rather than merely giving them philosophical ideas or religious information.

Each of us are created for profound joy and worship. We want to belong to something/one greater than ourselves and what we can see. We want and need help and hope in a world filled with tension, troubles, and trials. We can see these wise wants in others and help them discover fulfillment and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • We might say things like
    • To a skeptic: “I appreciate your lack of impulsiveness to easy believism, and counting the cost of genuine faith.”
    • To an unbelieving parent: “I admire the way you care about the future of your children.”
    • To a social advocate: “I can identify with your compassion and effort to relieve the world’s brokenness.”

So, Paul proclaims

  • God as Creator. He made everything in Heaven and on earth. He was not made by human hands, nor does he live in a temple like idol statutes. He is never lonely, in need, nor does he require upkeep. Our LORD is self-sufficient and sovereign, always in control.
  • God as Sustainer. He grants us His glorious image, and we are His offspring with breath and life on earth.
    • V.28 is not Paul quoting OT Scripture but Greek philosophers. The Athenians would not have valued Scripture, so Paul’s attempting to build bridges and
      addressing them in their own poets, philosophy, and culture (cf 1 Cor 9:9).[11] In short, he was answering the questions they were asking.
  • One of the ways you can answer the questions unbelievers are asking is by listening. We learn by listening and observing what matters to people and their personal heart idols. Like Jesus, we ask questions to inspire dialogue and self-discovery for them to face the obstacles of their worldview.[12] Questions have the power to confront without accusation or aggression. Questions can probe to the heart of the matter that cause us to encounter the truth of the living God. As God asked man in the garden, “Where are you?”
  • Challenge: In next 3 months, identify 3 people to ask where they are in their spiritual journey, and discern willingness to study a Gospel.

To reach the unreached, Christians must call for a response.

30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from 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.

God’s judgment can be active in punishment or passive in allowing us to face the natural consequences of our choices. I often say, “We are free to make any choice and receive/reject God, but we will not be free from the consequences of those choices.” Paul is saying previously God was passive but there will be a day when He actively judges the world. There is an appointed expiration date for each person, and no one knows the day or hour. The only question is, “Are you willing to postpone faith in Christ when you are not promised another opportunity?”
Today is the day of salvation.

  • Note that Paul’s outreach is not in a synagogue or church. His ministry setting is the marketplace and preaching in the public square. This does not mean you and I need to go setup a sound system in Park Plaza with chips and salsa from Mi Pueblo (although the latter idea isn’t half bad). But the Christian’s witness is among friends, neighbors, classmates, and co-workers. The church’s witness is local outside the doors of the church and into the community.

After Paul’s speech, there were three responses:[13]

  • 17:18 instant rejection. Their minds were made up before they listened, and they were unwilling to consider the evidence. Many reject Christianity without an honest quest to their questions.
  • 17:32 tentative reflection. Some are open and willing to hear more. As the gospel is proclaimed with conviction, questions are answered with clarity, and compassion is shared with sincerity, gradually a person is awakened to the forgiving grace and faithful goodness of God. Yet, you must be careful because cautious contemplation can pose as polite rejection.  
  • 17:34 immediate reception. While some needed more time, others were ready to take the next step and believe: Dionysius & Damaris.  
  • What hinders you from becoming Dionysius or Damaris?
    • Sep 25 is another baptism @spbc… #whosNEXT #whosyour1


For Christians, how many accepted the gospel based on the first presentation you heard? (Raise hand) The second time? Third or more times… the latter is most people. This reality reflects the need for Christians and churches to be persistent in planting seeds by elevating the essentials of our faith, grieving with compassion over the brokenness of others, asking questions and clearly communicating God’s truth in relevant ways. Successful evangelism is being faithful to share God’s truth in the power of the Holy Spirit, and leaving the results to God.

For unbeliever, you are loved by God and by us. We want you with us and we believe together is better. You’re not alone. We trust you to take the time you need to learn, ask questions, and grow. But be careful of postponing crossing the line of faith indefinitely. The right time is God’s time – listen for His voice, and may He speak today.

[1] At least 10 factors for Christianity’s spread: Pax Romana, easy travel, common language, Christian compassion, Christian equality, courageous martyrs, Christian contrast of polytheism, profound message of grace and forgiveness, prophetic fulfillment for God’s global salvation, and the Great Commission mandate.

[2] Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 557.

[3] https://bible.org/seriespage/27-apostle-athens-preaching-philosophers-acts-1715-34

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfmTA5F3n24

[5] This and following two points inspired from J.D. Greear on Acts 17 https://summitchurch.com/GetFile.ashx?Guid=f827089c-2a12-4443-a6c2-2a7dc2a9009a

[6] Gary Poulton, “Epicureanism,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 501.

[7] Charles R. Swindoll, Acts, Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2016), 346.

[8] Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 561–562.

[9] Darrell L. Bock, Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 563.

[10] https://www.ccef.org/counseling-angry-unmotivated-self-centered-and-spiritually-indifferent-teens/

[11] John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 375.

[12] See Randy Newman, Questioning Evangelism.

[13] Three response applications adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Acts, Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2016), 351.

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