ACTS 17:16-34 MARCH 5, 2017
“SPEAKING THE RIGHT LANGUAGE”
In my last couple of years in college, I worked at Big Oak Boy’s Ranch, a home for troubled teens. I was a ranch hand working on the farm. I joined the other two ranch hands who participated in college rodeo. I was never good enough to compete so I assisted in the shoots and took care of the gear. We traveled all over the Southeast, mainly in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. A rodeo usually lasts three days over a weekend. We were all Christians and we usually held a worship service for any of the cowboys and cowgirls who wanted to come.
I discovered that cowboys are a unique subculture all of their own. Their stereotype is one of being free spirited who likes to party, drink heavily, and sleep around. Everyone wears jeans and the back part of the jean’s leg must drag the ground and wear off. Everyone has a belt buckle which you have won at a rodeo. And of course, you wear cowboy boots and hat. They are mainly a closed society and associate only with one another. Their language is very earthy and has a little twang to it. This is where I learned to appreciate country music as the same tape was played for three days. I was never fully accepted because I did not compete. Yet among outsiders, I was then considered a part of the group.
My friend Pat Branch was and remains a well-known rodeo chaplain. His sermons were very unique and earthy. (He would do the “I” sermon.) At first, I was shocked but then I was amazed when these rough looking young men and women would respond to the gospel and come to faith in Christ. Years later when I studied this passage in Acts 17, I realized that Pat was following the example of Paul when he spoke to the Athenians. One needs to speak the right language so those you are speaking with can understand the gospel.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy had been preaching in the city of Berea, where they saw many Jews and Greeks come to faith. Some of the troublemakers from Thessalonica traveled to Berea and began to cause problems. So the church sent Paul away and left Silas and Timothy to continue the work in Berea.
Paul was by himself when he arrived in Athens. Paul was at first a tourist and looked at all of the temples and magnificent marble structures in the city. Acts 17:16 (NIV) “16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” Paul followed his usual pattern of going first to the Jewish synagogue and speaking there. Acts 17:17 (NIV) “17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.”
Paul spent the days in the marketplace talking with people. Acts 17:18-21 (NIV) “18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)”
Paul was used to speaking with Jews and God-fearers who had a world view where there is one God who made all things and who had interacted with the Jews through the prophets, priests, and Kings and God’s messages were written down in the sacred scrolls. Greeks, on the other hand, believed in a plethora of gods instead of one god. Over the years a number of philosophers had put forth differing ideas on how one was to live the good life. Paul’s words seemed strange and the idea that a man, named Jesus was resurrected from the dead was seen as absurd.
So they asked him to speak about this strange faith to a larger crowd. How do we speak to someone who has a different background than we do and their understanding of what is true is completely different than our own world viewpoint? Our world is changing very quickly and we are encountering differing world views and other religions, or none at all. Many people today think that Christians are strange and backward just like the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers thought that Paul was a crazy man who kept talking about Jesus, who rose from the dead.
Acts 17:22-23 (NIV) “22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”
The Athenians were afraid of leaving out a god who might do them harm for the crime of not recognizing him so this is why they put up an altar to the unknown god. Paul uses this fear to introduce them to the ONE GOD! Deuteronomy 6:4 (NIV) “4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Paul mentions that their attempt to make temples for every god is foolish because God does not live in man-made temples. Acts 17:24-25 (NIV) 24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”
Paul lays out his argument that the one God created all things, including all mankind and that God is in control. Acts 17:26-28 (NIV) “26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
Notice that Paul quotes from one of their poets. Paul is using ideas from their own people to draw attention to the truth of God. However, Paul did not hesitate to tell them the hard truth. Acts 17:29-30 (NIV) 29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
Neither the Stoics nor the Epicureans had any concept of sin. Paul tells them that they have been ignorant of God and that God is going to hold them accountable for their ignoring the One true God. He goes on to tell them that God is going to judge the whole world. Acts 17:31 (NIV) “31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
Paul did not use scripture to back up his arguments. The Greeks did not know the Bible nor did they have any knowledge of the Bible. Paul sought to use reason and logic to appeal to the Greeks. From this episode in the missionary activity of Paul we should see that when we talk with non-Christians that we should know our audience and use the language and culture to speak to them in a way they will understand.
One of the truths I have come to realize is that the new generations speak in a language in which I often do not understand. Their use of technology and smartphones is often beyond me. This does not mean I am to be silent. By no means, yet I must seek to understand as best I can the newer generation and seek to use their language to talk them about Jesus. Paul did not have great success as he did in other places but a few did respond to the call of Christ. Acts 17:34 (NIV) “34 A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”
May the LORD grant us wisdom to understand the diverse peoples we come in contact with and respond in a way they may understand our love for Jesus and may they see our love through our words and actions! To God be the glory!
Let us pray.