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Mars Hill Gospel for a Confusing World

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. …  Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  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. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you (Acts 17:16-23, NIV) 


One thing was clear about Athenians: they loved talking about religion. Paul had time to kill in the cosmopolitan city that boasted regal temples, majestic government buildings, and a bustling hero-worship economy. The temple of Jupiter was a fine structure, and yet the people’s souls were in ruins. He might have been impressed by the marvelous edifices of Greek architecture. Yet, he watched Athenians walking around depressed or confused about life. He saw a “city of idols” without any answer for its citizens. Perhaps Paul’s sightseeing tour was his attempt to get a lay of the Athenian religious landscape. 

In the midst of the religious shopkeeping of Athens, Paul managed to find a Jewish synagogue where a possible robust conversation was taking place. Filled with Jews and God-fearing Greeks who argued religion for sport, they might have taken great pleasure in debating the Hebrew Scripture for hair-splitting theological contests or presenting flowery speeches to display their performance to gain admirers. When the religious gadflies moved to the Athenian marketplace, they turned up their arguments to gain funds for being smart and clever. These debates could last for hours because nothing else was happening in Athens. Maybe many people gathered to hear the men’s persuasive rhetoric, but not many people brought their products. The city was looking for real-life teaching that mattered in the kitchen and city gate.


Paul would find the place where the most people gathered in Athens. Maybe he listened to the Epicurean preachers relate that life is about maintaining a simple life. The philosophy founded by Epicurus proclaimed personal happiness was the true end of life. Contentment was the way to it. There was nothing wrong with this kind of theology for the Athenians. Hours of trying to find happiness in worn-out sex prostitutes in Greek temples had lost its significance. Worshiping dead emperors did not do the trick either. The Epicurean sermons were attractive to some people. Maybe those who listened could have said under their breaths, “been there, done that”. 


Next, the Stoic preachers got their turn. An activist religion left it up to the seeker to do the work. Stoicism taught vigorous training of the body, mind and will under discipline was the way of the good life. Finding the right words and phrases of wisdom and reason would create a life worth living. Religion was based on one’s hard work and believing the universe would turn in their favor. Feelings were the worst thing to allow running a life. No grace allowed. With a city filled with various religions, most of the Athenians were working hard to find favor with any god. Maybe the Stoic sermons were not getting much traction. It sounded like another “working hard” religion that demanded more than it gave back. Possibly Stoicism offered more than the same works of righteousness garbage they heard before. Most of the Athenians had heard this message in the past. Ho hum.

The Unknown God

Paul decided to enter the debate. Paul might have started with what he knew best: the Old Testament. He began with the story of creation with a God who does not avoid the world, but entered to shape it for pleasure and enjoyment. He might have shown the preachers and crowd that humanity messed up the world by their own need to live without a divine being who goes looking for them out of love. Suddenly, the evangelist found himself doubled-teamed by both circles of preachers. His words were shocking and upsetting to most who heard him. He was called a “babbler”. According to the late professor William Ramsey, the word meant “one who was out of (touch)…one who lacked that through knowledge and practice in the rules of the game (of religion) that mold the whole character and make it one’s nature to act in the proper way and play the game.” (1) It made perfect that Athenians remarked, “he seems to be advocating foreign gods. They never heard of gods creating life out of love rather than revenge or jealousy. They never experienced religion based on relationships than rituals. Paul described the Old Testament was fulfilled in the resurrected Jesus as a person who would die for the undeserved, the overworked, and the underlived. 

The religious experts intrigued by the new teaching grew warm to Paul. He was ready to preach at the Areopagus in town. It was alleged the name derived from the first murder case brought against the god of war, Ares. It was the judicial and political jewel of Athens. In addition, approved lecturers could bring foreign lecturers to explain themselves in the interests of public order and morality. As Paul stood before a council of learned men, they asked, “may we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting. You are bringing strange ideas to our ears and we would like to know what they are.” In other words, what was he teaching that people felt spoke into their heart of hearts? Before Paul, the Athenians debated the latest idea that came from outside of their city. They were open-minded to listen to new things they did not understand. They were curious about how others lived life differently than themselves. They were interested in learning for the sake of learning. They did not know how to learn to live on God’s terms in Jesus than their own. Paul was given the Athenian pulpit to share the good news and resurrection of Christ. Paul was ready for the moment. 

Missionary Kosuke Koyama said, “good missionaries always find themselves sandwiched between two realities: the reality of God’s word and the reality of the cultural context they are trying to address….to probe for the hopes and fears of a people who seemed to be obsessed with their (own) treachery.” (2) In other words, Mouw agreed with Paul’s approach to speaking about a living Christ to a people who were sensitive to religious things. Paul picked up the spiritual temperature of the Athenians and gave him vital information to speak winsomely to their hopes and fears in a context of religious wreckages. 

Mars Hill Approach

Mouw suggested Paul knew the Athenians better than they knew themselves. Let us call this the Mars Hill approach. First, Mouw wrote, “the apostle studied the Athenian's perspective of reality”. Luke wrote, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious”. Mouw remarked, “Paul entered into a very real dialogue with the Athenians. The dialogue included two stages: listening and responding. When he spoke, he made it clear that he had been listening to them. Second, he observed their religious landscape. Paul commented, “for as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship” Paul took the time to suspend judgement on their religion. He sought to take in their culture before analyzing it. These were the hopes and fears laid out in Athenian architecture. Third, Paul used their own history as an example. Paul continued, “I even found an altar with this inscription: to the unknown god”. Mouw suggested that Paul “looked for positive points of contact with their experience.” Lastly, Paul responded with his critique. Paul said, “so you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you”. Paul, after finding common ground with the Athenians, laid out his case for Jesus as the unknown god they have been looking for all of their lives. Paul had a willing audience to hear the story of Christ with open minds and hearts. 

The air around Mars Hill was hushed with quiet. Learned men and women could not take their eyes away from Paul. Paul gave his sermon from the very city of their inscription to the ‘unknown god”. Paul does not bully them to believe or hand them a tract without a relationship. He took patient, careful conversation with the Athenians to know their world, their hopes, and their fears. He sought to understand their world from their eyes. He does not impose judgment until he has done his homework. We may learn a thing or two from Paul’s approach to humble conversation with people God may bring into our worlds. We cannot truly know people until we walk in their shoes.          

(1) Charles Pfeiffer and Howard Vos, Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands, p. 472

(2) Richard Mouw, Distorted Truth, p. 5, 6, 27


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