Daily Bible Studies & Sermon Notes

Athens & Jerusalem
Pastor Steve Schell
Acts 17:15-34
The culture around us is changing. What used to be “Jerusalem,” a society whose beliefs and morals were rooted in the Bible is becoming “Athens,” a society which is ignorant of God and the Bible, and looks for help elsewhere. It’s important that we understand this change and recognize where it has occurred, because God speaks to “Jerusalem” one way, but to “Athens” another. When He confronts “Jerusalem,” He speaks very directly, because these are people who know His Word and at some point in their history promised to serve Him. When it comes to spiritual matters, they’re not ignorant, when they sin it’s rebellion. But He speaks differently to “Athens.” It’s not filled with people who know God and have made a covenant with Him. Though they also do sinful things, their deeds are not done in direct rebellion to God. They don’t know Him (Mt 11:20-24).

Today, as we watch Paul preach in Athens, he models a very important lesson for us. He shows us how to reach people who are ignorant of spiritual realities and who live in a world of self-made philosophies. As he passed through that city, he became deeply grieved at the demonic bondage which held those people in its grip. He knew they were deceived, and that knowledge stirred him to action. Luke says as he walked through the city and saw all those idols, he became very upset, yet notice how he responded. He didn’t march into the marketplace and angrily rant at the crowds about their sin. He began to look for people to lead to Christ, because he was confident that even in that deeply confused place there would be individuals whom God had been drawing to Himself and who were ready to hear the truth.

Paul in Athens (Ac 17:15-34) • DBS (Sun-Sat)

Paul’s Strategy
The inner turmoil in Paul quickly turned to compassion, and that compassion drove him to action. He couldn’t remain silent, so he targeted two very different groups of people. Luke says “…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” (v17). Undoubtedly, in the synagogue (“Jerusalem”) he preached something very similar to the sermon he preached in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Ac 13:16-41). He must have referred to Israel’s history, mentioning people like Abraham, Samuel, Saul, David, and even John the Baptist, and then he would have announced that Jesus is the Messiah and proved that the prophets had promised His coming. And ultimately, he would have proclaimed the cross and the resurrection and called them to repent and believe.

But he approached the people in the market place very differently. He moved about looking for opportunities to speak to those who walked or sat beside him. He was watching for those individuals whom God had prepared to hear what he would say. When he preached there, he indeed called for repentance and proclaimed the resurrection, but he reached that conclusion differently than he would have in the synagogue. He started with things they understood and then led them toward truth.

Reaching Athens
What is the right way to reach a deceived culture? Before we look at how Paul did this, let’s notice what he did not do. He did not:
1) Prophetically confront them by quoting from the Bible. He didn’t say, “Therefore, take heed so that the things spoken of in the prophets may not come upon you…” (Ac 13:40)
2) Abandon them. He didn’t say, “I’m leaving this demon-infested place.”
3) Agitate for political change. He didn’t say, “Let’s take a vote, we need new political leaders.” That city was the cradle of democracy, but what they needed was not a vote. They needed changed hearts, and when hearts changed, votes would change.
4) Ridicule them. He didn’t say, “Seriously? You worship little statues? How can people who claim to be so smart, be so stupid!”

What Paul did, undoubtedly, was to pray and then go out into public places looking for people whom God had prepared to hear what he would say. His goal was to plant a “seed” in that city which would grow, and as more and more people came to Christ, the city itself would change. And it worked! Though Luke doesn’t tell us, church history does. Listen to G. Campbell Morgan:
“In the next century that Church at Athens gave to the Christian Church Publius, Quadratus, Aristides, Athenagoras, and others, bishops and martyrs; and in the third century the church was peaceable and pure. In the fourth century, the Christian schools of Athens gave to the Church Basil and Gregory. Men cannot wholly mock the Christian fact out of existence. Men cannot entirely postpone. The apostle may pass, his work being done, but he always leaves behind him Dionysius and Damaris. Christ always wins a vantage ground.” (G. Campbell Morgan, Acts, Fleming H. Revell, 1924, p. 425).

Where do you live?
Do you live in “Jerusalem” or “Athens,” in a Christian culture or a post-Christian culture, or maybe even a pre-Christian culture? Do you live among people who believe in the God of the Bible but may not choose to obey Him, or do you live among people who really know nothing about God or the Bible, at least, nothing accurate? In actual practice, some of us may be living in several different cultures. At school or at work we’re in Athens, but at home, at church or with certain family members we’re in Jerusalem. The lesson we learn from Paul is this: If we talk to people from Athens as if they were from Jerusalem, they won’t understand us, they’ll just get angry. And likewise, if we treat Jerusalem like Athens, we may be so non-confrontational people will not even realize they’re being called to repentance. In the synagogue Paul spoke one way. He preached from the Word and called for decision. In the market place, he introduced them to their Creator and explained that God had mercifully overlooked the fact that they worshiped other gods, and that He loved them, and was calling them to repent and come to Him before the day came when they would face His judgment (v31). Paul had only begun to tell the Areopagus Council about Jesus when he was interrupted…but amazingly, some of the most intellectually capable and sophisticated people, in the most learned city on earth, walked out beside him and listened to the gospel, and believed.

Our Athens
As we observe Paul in the city of Athens, he shows us how to present Christ to our “Athens,” that growing number of people among whom we live, who don’t know God.

1) Pray. Prayer isn’t mentioned here, but we know from his letters Paul relied heavily on prayer (Ro 15:30-32; Col 4:2-4). He asked people to pray with him for “doors” to be opened for the gospel, and to pray for him to have the courage to speak boldly. Whether we are called to reach a place, a group, a family, a school, or a business, we need to pray first, until we sense God has prepared the way before us and is telling us it’s time to act.
2) Go out among the people (v17). Paul didn’t sit and wait for people to come to him. He went out among the people, trusting God to guide him.
3) Expect divine appointments (vs18-20). Effective evangelism always depends on miracles: “Accidental” encounters with just the right person, unexpected invitations, etc. Paul’s invitation to speak to the Areopagus Council is a perfect example of this.
4) Look for areas of agreement and speak using terms they understand (v28). Look for common ground. Start where they need to start, and use language and illustrations they understand. (1Co 9:22) “To the weak I become weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.”
5) Expect opposition, especially when God starts working (v32). A few believed, but others ridiculed.
6) Watch for those God has prepared to be a bridge into that community (v34). Only God knows people’s hearts. You and I cannot tell by looking at the outside or evaluating their past behavior. Sometimes people are hostile at first, but in time become radical disciples. Jesus told us to watch how people respond, not rely on our own judgment.
“Whatever house you enter, first say ‘peace be to this house.’ If a man of peace is there your peace will rest on him, but if not it will return to you” (Lk 10:5, 6).
Only a few weeks later, when Paul was in Corinth, the Lord Jesus spoke to him in a vision at night and said, “Do not be afraid…but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.” (Ac 18:9, 10)
7) Disciple those who respond (v34). Paul met with them daily (Ac 20:31).
8) Expect the “seed” to grow. You’re not just rescuing a few, you’re sowing seeds that will multiply (Mt 13:8).

Cultures change one person at a time. You can’t legislate morality, though, I admit, good laws strengthen those who want to obey. God must write His laws on the hearts of individuals. You can’t scold people into better behavior, you must introduce them to Jesus. Then, with the passing of time, as more and more people become disciples of Jesus Christ a powerful, transformative influence is released into that community. As years pass, as one generation gives way to another, the culture of “Athens” is changed into a culture that knows God and His Word. This approach requires faith, courage and patience, and admittedly it may not be as personally satisfying as political activism, or scolding, or moving to a remote hideout, but it is God’s way…and it actually works!
“And He presented another parable to them saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and rest in its branches’” (Mt 13:31, 32).

1) Do you live in “Athens” or “Jerusalem”? Or both? Describe how you know.
2) Were you raised in “Athens” or “Jerusalem”? How was the gospel presented so you could hear it? When did you receive Jesus?
3) Have you ever had a divine appointment when you miraculously encountered a person who was ready to hear about Jesus? Please tell us, if you have.


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