Paul establishes common ground and adapts to his audience
Based on Acts 17:16-34
1-3. (a) Why is the apostle Paul greatly disturbed in Athens? (b) What can we learn by studying Paul’s example?
PAUL is greatly disturbed. He is in Athens, Greece, the center of learning where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle once taught. Athens is a most religious city. All around him—in temples, in public squares, and on the streets—Paul sees an array of idols, for Athenians worship a pantheon of gods. Paul knows how Jehovah, the true God, views idolatry. (Ex. 20:4, 5) The faithful apostle shares Jehovah’s view—he abhors idols!
2 What Paul sees upon entering the agora, or marketplace, is especially shocking. A large number of phallic statues of the god Hermes line the northwest corner, near the principal entrance. The marketplace is filled with shrines. How will the zealous apostle preach in this deeply idolatrous climate? Will he control his emotions and find common ground with his audience? Will he succeed in helping any to seek the true God and really find Him?
3 Paul’s speech to the learned men of Athens, as recorded at Acts 17:22-31, is a model of eloquence, tact, and discernment. By studying Paul’s example, we can learn much about how to establish common ground, helping our listeners to reason.
Teaching “in the Marketplace” (Acts 17:16-21)
4, 5. Where did Paul preach in Athens, and what challenging audience awaited him?
4 Paul visited Athens on his second missionary journey, in about 50 C.E.* While waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive from Beroea, Paul “began to reason in the synagogue with the Jews,” as was his custom. He also sought out a territory where he could reach Athens’ non-Jewish citizens—“in the marketplace,” or agora. (Acts 17:17) Located northwest of the Acropolis, Athens’ agora covered 12 acres (5 ha) or so. The marketplace was much more than a location for buying and selling; it was the city’s public square. One reference work notes that this place was “the economic, political and cultural heart of the city.” Athenians delighted to convene there and engage in intellectual discussion.
5 Paul faced a challenging audience at the marketplace. Among his listeners were Epicureans and Stoics, members of rival schools of philosophy.* The Epicureans believed that life came into existence by accident. Their view of life was summed up as follows: “Nothing to fear in God; Nothing to feel in death; Good can be achieved; Evil can be endured.” The Stoics stressed reason and logic and did not believe God to be a Person. Neither the Epicureans nor the Stoics believed in the resurrection as taught by Christ’s disciples. Clearly, the philosophical views of these two groups were incompatible with the elevated truths of genuine Christianity, which Paul was preaching.
6, 7. How did some of the Greek intellectuals react to Paul’s teaching, and what similar reaction may we encounter today?
6 How did the Greek intellectuals react to Paul’s teaching? Some used a word that means “chatterer,” or “seed picker.” (Acts 17:18; ftn.) Regarding this Greek term, one scholar states: “The word was originally used of a small bird that went around picking up grain, and later was applied to persons who picked up food scraps and other odds and ends in the market place. Still later it came to be used figuratively of any person who picked up odd bits of information, and especially of one who was unable to put them together properly.” In effect, those learned men were saying that Paul was an ignorant plagiarist. Yet, as we will see, Paul was not intimidated by such name-calling.
7 It is no different today. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we have often been the target of name-calling because of our Bible-based beliefs. For example, some educators teach that evolution is a fact and insist that if you are intelligent, you must accept it. They, in effect, label as ignorant those who refuse to believe in it. Such learned men would have people think that we are ‘seed pickers’ when we present what the Bible says and point to the evidence of design in nature. But we are not intimidated. On the contrary, we speak with confidence when defending our belief that life on earth is the product of an intelligent Designer, Jehovah God.—Rev. 4:11.
8. (a) Some who heard Paul’s preaching had what reaction? (b) What might it mean that Paul was led to the Areopagus? (See footnote.)
8 Others who heard Paul’s preaching in the marketplace had a different reaction. “He seems to be a publisher of foreign deities,” they concluded. (Acts 17:18) Was Paul really introducing new gods to the Athenians? This was a serious matter, echoing one of the charges for which Socrates had been tried and condemned to death centuries earlier. Not surprisingly, Paul was led to the Areopagus and asked to explain the teachings that sounded strange to the Athenians.* How would Paul defend his message to individuals who had no background in the Scriptures?
“Men of Athens, I Behold” (Acts 17:22, 23)
9-11. (a) How did Paul endeavor to establish common ground with his audience? (b) How can we imitate Paul’s example in our ministry?
9 Recall that Paul was greatly disturbed by all the idolatry he had seen. Rather than unleash an unbridled attack on idol worship, however, he maintained his composure. With the utmost tact, he endeavored to win over his audience by establishing common ground. He began: “Men of Athens, I behold that in all things you seem to be more given to the fear of the deities than others are.” (Acts 17:22) In a sense, Paul was saying, ‘I see that you are very religious.’ Wisely, Paul commended them for being religiously inclined. He recognized that some who are blinded by false beliefs may have receptive hearts. After all, Paul knew that he himself was once “ignorant and acted with a lack of faith.”—1 Tim. 1:13.
10 Building on common ground, Paul mentioned that he had observed tangible evidence of the Athenians’ religiousness—an altar dedicated “To an Unknown God.” According to one source, “it was customary for Greeks and others to dedicate altars to ‘unknown gods,’ for fear that in their worship they had omitted some god who might otherwise be offended.” By means of such an altar, the Athenians admitted the existence of a God who was unknown to them. Paul used the presence of this altar to make a transition into the good news that he was preaching. He explained: “What you are unknowingly giving godly devotion to, this I am publishing to you.” (Acts 17:23) Paul’s reasoning was subtle but powerful. He was not preaching a new or strange god, as some had charged. He was explaining the God that was unknown to them—the true God.
11 How can we imitate Paul’s example in our ministry? If we are observant, we may see evidence that a person is religiously devout, perhaps by noting some religious item that he is wearing or that is displayed on his home or in the yard. We might say: ‘I see that you are a religious person. I was hoping to talk to someone who is religiously inclined.’ By tactfully acknowledging the person’s religious feelings, we may establish common ground on which to build. Remember that it is not our aim to prejudge others based on their religious convictions. Among our fellow worshippers are many who at one time sincerely embraced false religious beliefs.
God “Is Not Far Off From Each One of Us” (Acts 17:24-28)
12. How did Paul adapt his approach to his listeners?
12 Paul had established common ground but could he maintain it when giving a witness? Knowing that his listeners were educated in Greek philosophy and unfamiliar with the Scriptures, he adapted his approach in several ways. First, he presented Biblical teachings without directly quoting from the Scriptures. Second, he identified himself with his listeners, at times using the words “us” and “we.” Third, he quoted from Greek literature to show that certain things he was teaching were expressed in their own writings. Let us now examine Paul’s powerful speech. What important truths did he convey about the God who was unknown to the Athenians?
13. What did Paul explain about the origin of the universe, and what was the implication of his words?
13 God created the universe. Said Paul: “The God that made the world and all the things in it, being, as this One is, Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in handmade temples.”* (Acts 17:24) The universe did not come about by accident. The true God is the Creator of all things. (Ps. 146:6) Unlike Athena or the other deities whose glory depended on temples, shrines, and altars, the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth cannot be contained in temples built by human hands. (1 Ki. 8:27) The implication of Paul’s words was clear: The true God is grander than any man-made idols found in man-made temples.—Isa. 40:18-26.
14. How did Paul show that God is not dependent on humans?
14 God is not dependent on humans. Idolaters were accustomed to clothing their images with lavish garments, showering them with expensive gifts, or bringing them food and drink—as if the idols needed such things! However, some of the Greek philosophers in Paul’s audience may have believed that a god would need nothing from humans. If so, they no doubt agreed with Paul’s statement that God is not “attended to by human hands as if he needed anything.” Indeed, there is nothing material that humans can give to the Creator! Rather, he gives humans what they need—“life and breath and all things,” including the sun, the rain, and fruitful soil. (Acts 17:25; Gen. 2:7) So God, the Giver, is not dependent on humans, the receivers.
15. How did Paul address the Athenians’ belief that they were superior to non-Greeks, and what important lesson can we learn from his example?
15 God made man. The Athenians believed that they were superior to non-Greeks. But pride of nationality or race goes against Bible truth. (Deut. 10:17) Paul addressed this delicate matter with tact and skill. When he said, “[God] made out of one man every nation of men,” Paul’s words no doubt gave his listeners pause. (Acts 17:26) He was referring to the Genesis account of Adam, the progenitor of the human race. (Gen. 1:26-28) Since all humans have a common ancestor, no race or nationality is superior to another. How could any of Paul’s listeners miss the point? We learn an important lesson from his example. While we want to be tactful and reasonable in our witnessing work, we do not want to water down Bible truth so as to make it more acceptable to others.
16. What is the Creator’s purpose for humans?
16 God purposed that humans be close to him. Even if the philosophers in Paul’s audience had long debated the purpose of human existence, they could never have explained it satisfactorily. Paul, however, clearly revealed the Creator’s purpose for humans, namely “for them to seek God, if they might grope for him and really find him, although, in fact, he is not far off from each one of us.” (Acts 17:27) The God who was unknown to the Athenians is by no means unknowable. On the contrary, he is not far off from those who truly want to find him and learn about him. (Ps. 145:18) Notice that Paul used the term “us,” thus including himself among those who needed “to seek” and “grope for” God.
17, 18. Why should humans feel drawn to God, and what can we learn from the way Paul appealed to his audience?
17 Humans should feel drawn to God. Because of Him, Paul said, “we have life and move and exist.” Some scholars say that Paul was alluding to the words of Epimenides, a Cretan poet of the sixth century B.C.E. and “a figure significant in Athenian religious tradition.” Paul gave another reason why humans should feel drawn to God: “Certain ones of the poets among you have said, ‘For we are also his progeny.’” (Acts 17:28) Humans should feel a kinship with God; he created the one man from whom all humans descend. To appeal to his audience, Paul wisely quoted directly from Greek writings that his listeners no doubt respected.* In harmony with Paul’s example, we may at times make limited use of quotations from secular history, encyclopedias, or other accepted reference works. For example, an appropriate quote from a respected source might help to convince a non-Witness about the origin of certain false religious practices or observances.
18 Up to this point in his speech, Paul conveyed key truths about God, skillfully tailoring his words to his audience. What did the apostle want his Athenian listeners to do with this vital information? Without delay, he went on to tell them as he continued his speech.
“They Should All Everywhere Repent” (Acts 17:29-31)
19, 20. (a) How did Paul tactfully expose the folly of worshipping man-made idols? (b) What action did Paul’s listeners need to take?
19 Paul was ready to exhort his listeners to act. Referring back to the quote from Greek writings, he said: “Seeing, therefore, that we are the progeny of God, we ought not to imagine that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone, like something sculptured by the art and contrivance of man.” (Acts 17:29) Indeed, if humans are a product of God, then how could God take the form of idols, which are a product of men? Paul’s tactful reasoning exposed the folly of worshipping man-made idols. (Ps. 115:4-8; Isa. 44:9-20) By saying “we ought not to . . . ,” Paul no doubt removed some of the sting from his rebuke.
20 The apostle made it clear that action was needed: “God has overlooked the times of such ignorance [of imagining that God could be pleased with humans who worshipped idols], yet now he is telling mankind that they should all everywhere repent.” (Acts 17:30) Some of Paul’s listeners might have been shocked to hear this call for repentance. But his powerful speech plainly showed that they owed their life to God and were thus accountable to Him. They needed to seek God, learn the truth about him, and bring their whole way of life into harmony with that truth. For the Athenians, that meant recognizing and turning away from the sin of idolatry.
21, 22. Paul ended his speech with what forceful words, and what meaning do his words have for us today?
21 Paul ended his speech with forceful words: “[God] has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and he has furnished a guarantee to all men in that he has resurrected him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31) A coming Judgment Day—what a sobering reason to seek and find the true God! Paul did not name the appointed Judge. Rather, Paul said something startling about this Judge: He had lived as a man, died, and been raised from the dead by God!
22 That rousing conclusion is filled with meaning for us today. We know that the Judge appointed by God is the resurrected Jesus Christ. (John 5:22) We also know that Judgment Day will be a thousand years long and is fast approaching. (Rev. 20:4, 6) We do not fear Judgment Day, for we understand that it will bring untold blessings to those judged faithful. The fulfillment of our hope for a glorious future is guaranteed by the greatest of miracles—the resurrection of Jesus Christ!
“Some . . . Became Believers” (Acts 17:32-34)
23. What were the mixed reactions to Paul’s speech?
23 There were mixed reactions to Paul’s speech. “Some began to mock” when they heard of a resurrection. Others were polite but noncommittal, saying: “We will hear you about this even another time.” (Acts 17:32) A few, however, responded positively: “Some men joined themselves to him and became believers, among whom also were Dionysius, a judge of the court of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris, and others besides them.” (Acts 17:34) We experience similar reactions in our ministry. Some people may deride us, while others respond with polite indifference. However, we are thrilled when some accept the Kingdom message and become believers.
24. What can we learn from the speech that Paul gave as he stood in the midst of the Areopagus?
24 As we reflect on Paul’s speech, we can learn much about logical development and convincing argumentation as well as how to adapt to our audience. In addition, we can learn about the need to be patient and tactful with those who are blinded by false religious beliefs. We can also learn this important lesson: We must never compromise Bible truth just to appease our listeners. Yet, by imitating the example of the apostle Paul, we can become more effective teachers in the field ministry. Furthermore, overseers can thereby become better qualified teachers in the congregation. We will thus be well-equipped to help others to “seek God . . . and really find him.”—Acts 17:27.
See the box “Athens—Cultural Capital of the Ancient World.”
See the box “Epicureans and Stoics.”
Located northwest of the Acropolis, the Areopagus was the traditional meeting place of the chief council of Athens. The term “Areopagus” may refer either to the council or to the actual hill. Hence, there are differences of opinion among scholars as to whether Paul was brought to or near this hill or to a meeting of the council elsewhere, perhaps in the agora.
The Greek word rendered “world” is koʹsmos, which the Greeks applied to the material universe. It is possible that Paul, who was trying to maintain common ground with his Grecian audience, here used the term in that sense.
Paul quoted from the astronomical poem Phaenomena, by the Stoic poet Aratus. Similar words are found in other Greek writings, including Hymn to Zeus, by the Stoic writer Cleanthes.