Posted by: Billy Marsh | February 4, 2008

Where’s the Gospel in Acts 17? (Part II)


In my previous post, I began an inductive study on Acts 17, not just the scene at Athens, in order to dissuade Christians from being so quick to cite verses in Acts that contain the term “reasoned” or Paul’s disputation at the Aeropagus as rock-solid arguments for the necessity of the role of the “thinking man” and philosophical arguments in the Christians’ day to day evangelism. That’s only half the story. Now, as a disclaimer, I must note that am not trying to downplay the intellect or the Christian mind or the use of apologetics; instead, I am wanting to reemphasize just how these texts in Acts are actually retold by Luke so that we might recapture what the essence of these stories was about.

As I was sitting in class one day not that long ago, after hearing someone proof-text Paul’s appeal to first-century literature as evidence for the need and importance of knowing the culture, I realized that all too often, these passages have been utilized for only one side of the issue. Thus, I became aware of the fact that when I think about Acts 17, I have been conditioned only to think about one thing, namely, apologetics or philosopy. So, I decided to go back and re-read the chapter just to see how closely the gospel and apologetics/reason were connected, and these two posts represent what I found.

Athens ~ Acts 17:16-34

*This post presupposes you read the previous one.

Paul immediately begins his ministry in Athens with public proclamation and personal discussions. Luke gives us another instance where Paul “reasoned in the synagogue with Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace everyday with those who happened to be there (17:17).” But once again, we see from the conversation between the Epicureans and Stoics, that Paul was not just hanging around Athens philosophizing and “reasoning” with its citizens on Socrates or Aristotle; based upon the content of the Epicureans and Stoics reactions, it is obvious that Paul had been preaching Christ, namely that Jesus is God. Notice their response: “‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities‘–because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection (17:18).” Inferring from the substance of Acts 17:18, we can be sure that Paul’s “reasoning” in 17:17 consisted of making thoughtful and persuasive arguments for the certainity and truth of the gospel of God in Jesus Christ. As Luke shows us, this fascinated the Athenian crowd, and thus, they craved for more of Paul’s talk about this new “foreign divinity”.

Now we come to one of the most familiar passages in the book of Acts: Paul at the Aeropagus. Here, we all are pretty familiar with the setting. The Apostle Paul recognizes their idol for the “unknown god” and removes their ignorance by teaching them about the only true God, that is, Yahweh. The discussion is actually a very brilliant display of a mixture of philosophy, culture, apologetics, and the gospel in doing evangelism. However, my complaint resides in this point: Most of the time, when I hear Acts 17 preached, taught, or cited, it seems only to be mentioned and read up until v 28, which is where Paul quotes the secular poets. But, ceasing there leaves the entire scene at Athens unresolved and opens the door for people to think that Paul saw a sound argument for the existence of God and him as Creator as sufficient saving knowledge in which faith may be placed and hearts may be regenerated.

However, just as in Thessalonica, Berea, and the earlier Athens passage, so also at the Aeropagus Paul is bent on preaching the gospel of Christ. Look at how Luke ties this account into the past parallel presentations in this chapter: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, . . (17:30). Repent? Repent for what? Or better yet, how does a purely philosophical or culturally relevant message convey the need for one’s repentance of sin? As we can see, Paul wasn’t quite finished: “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 (17:31).”

What we must realize from all of these cases is that Paul was bound and determined to make his way into proclaiming the gospel, namely, Jesus is the Christ, who suffered, was buried, and raised on the third day, and now all men must repent of their sins and believe on his name for eternal life (cf. 1 Cor 15:3ff; Rom 10; Jn 20:30). Once again, as in the other accounts in Acts 17, Luke shows the fruit of Paul’s preaching of the Word of Christ, when he writes, “So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed . . . (17:33-34).”

So, as we can tell, each story shared three of the same elements:

  1. A “reasoned” discussion or dialogue.
  2. Presentation of a Christ-centered gospel message.
  3. People believed! (this is evidence that Paul’s message was the gospel; not proof that everytime you preach the gospel, people will always respond in faith)

So, taking a final look at Acts 17, it is clear that though Paul utilized the intellect, apologetics, philosophy, and the Athenian culture, ultimately, they all served as means or channels by which he was able to communicate the gospel. Now, please do not take this to mean that the aforementioned sciences are only valuable inasmuch as they function as forerunners for sharing Jesus. All that I have been trying to do in these posts is show that Paul’s ministry in Athens was primarily about preaching the Christ, and that he made use of convincing dialogue and cultural familiarity to find commonality with his hearers so that the gospel could be understood. So, I hope that as you reflect on Paul’s philosophical encounter and apologetical methods at the Aeropagus, you will not divorce his message there from the fact that he ended on Christ and the resurrection, summoning on behalf of God that all men repent, and leaving that place joined by those who believed in Jesus.

My final plea is to ask who out there will be the one to write the book, Christian Apologetics: A God-Centered Approach? If there’s one already written by that name, please forgive my ignorance. Or did I just volunteer myself?

“For I want you . . . to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

~ Colossians 2:1a, 2b-3 ~



  1. Billy,
    Great post!. Yesterday in my SS class in Genesis I asked the class if we should even attempt to “prove God” using classical apologetics. While I certainly believe in the value of apologetics, answering the questions put to us about the hope we have (1Pet.3:15-16) I believe the starting point is Scripture.

    Begin with the Gospel, find relevant cultural bridges, answer their serious questions, return to the gospel of repentance and a crucified, resurrected, reigning and returning Lord.

    Yeah, why don’t you write that book brother!?


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