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An Evangelistic Interpretation

Acts 17:16-34

The last few months I have been walking through several neighborhoods in Bellingham and Whatcom County. Not only is the walk enjoyable and good exercise, but it is also one of the best ways I know to get an understanding of a ministry area. As I have walked through these regions of our city, I have again been impressed with the unique culture of Bellingham, as well as the diversity of neighborhoods. We all have a tendency to define our hometowns in the light of our immediate surroundings/neighborhood, but that exposure often offers an incomplete picture.

As one application of studying this topic, I want to encourage you to walk through your area of town too, and pray; listen to the Lord; and listen to the people you encounter. It is also very helpful to ask yourself some questions about the people and the setting. For example, you might ask:


  • What are the people in my target area talking about?
  • What do they seem to be interested in?
  • Are there many children?
  • Are there many singles?
  • Is there an area of entertainment they seem to be into? How do they spend their leisure time?
  • What do the architecture, the living conditions, the churches, the parks, the shopping areas, etc., tell me about the people?

As you are taking this prayer walk/run, you might also ask the Holy Spirit about the needs, problems, sins, and challenges of this geographic area. I call this kind of investigation and prayer an evangelistic interpretation. The purpose is twofold:


  1. To try and discern what might be the entrance points for the gospel in this particular area
  2. To know how you might continue to pray for this area/neighborhood

The idea for an evangelistic interpretation comes from the apostle Paul, who had several of these walks. In particular, we want to concentrate on his walk in the city of Athens, recorded for us in Acts 17:16-34.

The Apostle Paul in Athens

—Acts 17:16. What did Paul see and sense as he walked into the thriving, noisy metropolis of Athens? "The scene he faced was completely unlike anything he had ever experienced. An oppressive atmosphere enveloped him. Being alone, the apostle strolled through the city. Amazing sights surely caught his eye: the music hall, Odeion of Pericles; the 60,000 seat stadium; the impressive structures like the Temple of Zeus, the splendid Parthenon, Erechtheum, and the Wingless Victory temple; and, of course, the 512 foot high hill called Areopagus"—Charles Swindoll.

The city had been the intellectual center of Greece, especially in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., but was now in a period of decline. Something of its past glory still lived on, however; it was still the greatest university town in the world, and people came from everywhere to Athens to learn.

The Schools of Philosophy:

When Paul walked in Athens, there were apparently two prominent schools of philosophy: the Stoics and the Epicureans, which had their similarities as well as their differences.

The Epicureans believed that everything happened by chance; that there was no life after death; that the gods were distant and remote (many Epicureans were atheists); and especially that the chief end of life was to have fun—to experience pleasure!

The Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists. They believed that gods were everywhere, in all things; but that those gods really didn't care and were very impersonal. They also believed life had a fatalistic ending, and that each of us should live our lives fiercely independent of others.


As Paul walked, one thing caused him great distress: a city full of idols. "While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols"—Acts 17:16. There were temples, idols and statues everywhere—some estimate 25,000 to 30,000 public statues, plus an additional 30,000 in the Parthenon. It was said there were more statues to the gods in Athens than in all the rest of Greece put together. People would say, "It was easier to meet a god than a man." So here was a spiritually hungry city.

Not only was Athens a center for religious activity, though; it attracted intellectuals and philosophers, too. It had been home to such men as Socrates, Plato, Epicurus, Zeno and Aristotle. In all fields of knowledge it had reached the zenith, and a great sense of pride permeated the city.


Paul's Evangelistic Interpretation and Strategy for Athens

—Acts 17:17-21. After taking this walk through the city, what strategy Paul might develop from what he observed? With a religious, philosophical and lifestyle profile of the city in mind, how would he design an outreach to this city that would keep its distinctives in mind? More specifically, how would Paul introduce the one true God in a city that has thousands of them? How would he get the city's attention to introduce God and present the Good News of Jesus?

It was critical that Paul find a way to say to the Athenians that the one true God had come to this planet; that He had shown them how they might know and enjoy Him. Paul would draw upon his evangelistic interpretation to develop a specific strategy and approach tailor-made for the Athenians. Remember, when Paul walked into Athens and saw the thousands of idols, he was distressed to the point that he had to say something. Where would be the best place to begin? He went to the synagogue and to the marketplace!

"So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks..." Here again, Paul reasoned with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles there, carefully choosing his way through the Old Testament writings and pointing out to his listeners the truth of the gospel. This is, again, "an evangelistic interpretation." (Another example of this is in Acts 13:13-52.)

"So he reasoned... in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 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." Paul knew that the real action was in the marketplace, the Agora, so that's where he headed. This was a place of free speech. A number of different speakers stood and shared; some presented their wares, others waxed eloquent, but no one came to any conclusions.

The Stoics and the Epicureans, the two prominent groups present, listened to what Paul had to say. But neither agreed with him, which was unusual for this setting. First, they gave him a title, "spermologos," which means "seedpicker." It's the idea of a person who, like a bird, picks up seeds of thought here and there and fashions them into his own unoriginal philosophy and words. Second, they accused Paul of advocating foreign gods, because he spoke of Jesus and the resurrection. In the past, this had been a very serious charge, because others like Socrates had lost their life introducing deities into Athens. But these people were also curious about what Paul said, so they invited him to come to the Areopagus.

areopagus 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.) [Verse 21 is a little commentary by Dr. Luke on university cities!]

The Areopagus was a place of prestige and sophistication—kind of like the Oval Office of Athens. At one time this group operated much like a senate, and while the growth of democracy diminished its powers, it remained a prestigious body with responsibility in three areas: religion, morality, and homicide. Paul was invited to speak to this group of people. The question was, would they respond any differently than they had on previous occasions? These men loved to talk and to think, but their activities rarely resulted in changed lives.

Paul's Evangelistic Message

—Acts 17:22-31. "Paul had his work cut out for him. Facing this group of thinkers, he had to have a strong message, one which these men would listen to. It was short, recorded in only ten verses, and this time there wasn't one quote from the Old Testament (as there was when he addressed the synagogue) since these men weren't Old Testament scholars"—Charles Swindoll.

Five major factors made this an excellent evangelistic message.

Paul started where they were and made a positive affirmation of their value.

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."
These people didn't have Scripture as a reference point as did those in the synagogue, so Paul started with an observation; he stated that they were religious. This they could all agree to; it was a fact.

When we share the Lord with people, we need to show by our comments or actions that we appreciate and value them; not seeing them as targets, but as people we value. Our attitude will come through louder than our words.

He used the familiar to introduce the unfamiliar

—vv. 23b-24a.
23b] Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. 24] The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth...
This is a familiar technique to all teachers: start with something known to explain something unknown. Find some common ground and build on it. On Paul's walk through the city, he observed a statue that was built to the unknown god, and it caught his eye. (Watch for things that jump out at you.) Could this be the familiar item that might unlock the city for the gospel? Could this provide him with a way to answer the greatest need of the people of Athens? Yes!

So, Paul began by informing them that he knew the God that was unknown to them. "Paul wasn't saying, his audience were unconscious worshippers of the true God. Rather, he is drawing their attention to the true God who was ultimately responsible for the phenomena which they attributed to the unknown God"—I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale N.T. Commentary, p. 286.

Likewise, it is a good strategy to express the gospel in terms that will be understood by the hearers without changing the essence of the message. Find something they can relate to, and use that as a vehicle to explain the gospel. For instance, look for:

  • a need
  • a longing
  • a question
  • a weakness
  • a strength
  • a parable
  • a story or illustration
  • a hobby
  • a sport
  • an interest
  • a tradition
  • a news event or a statement in the media
Look for anything that can become the open door into the life of the one you are sharing with. You need a vehicle to provide an entrance point for the gospel. You might look for media statements from famous people, and then ask others what they think about what was said.


For example, Carl Sagan once said this when commenting on environmental issues: "I am personally skeptical about many aspects of revealed religion... but I am sure of the awe and reverence that the meticulously balanced nature of the global environment elicits in me" (Bellingham Herald, Saturday, January 20, 1990).

What might you do with that statement? How might you use it in your conversations? Who might you ask for their comment?


Let's apply it a little closer to home. What's the entrance point or open door to a person experiencing one of the following conditions?


  • a guy empty and frustrated after a night of partying
  • an unwed mother
  • a person whose marriage is falling apart
  • a neighbor experiencing financial hard times
  • a roommate or friend who is depressed

Paul used the everyday—the familiar—to explain the unfamiliar, and so should we.


He communicated God's characteristics forcefully and clearly.

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. 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.

After he introduced the thought of this God to them, Paul then elaborated on that introduction by pointing to six of God's characteristics.

  1. God is the creator and sustainer of life, and thus He cannot be contained or controlled—vv. 24-25. The truth of God as Creator was directly opposed to Greek ideas, for they regarded the physical universe as eternal. But Paul challenged their thinking and spoke to them about "the God who made the world and everything in it... God cannot be contained or controlled... and does not live in temples built by hands..."—v. 24b.

    Paul wanted them to know that the unknown God is self-sufficient, and does not need human hands. He is able to care for the world He has brought into being. This is a blow to those in any age who think they have the power to control or disregard God. Only the person who creates his own god will believe He can contain that god.

    Verse 24b means that God cannot be contained or controlled by our religious systems and beliefs. Some will declare their religious viewpoint and in essence say, "Because I believe it, it must be so." Their statements become sort of an infallible declaration. But just because you or I say it, doesn't make it the truth. The most important thing is what God has said about Himself and how has He proven that His words are to be honored! God can't be contained in temples made with hands, nor can He be boxed up in our religious systems and beliefs. Our God is outside the box!

    Not only that, Paul continues by inferring in verse 25 that God continues to sustain life in creation. "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." The one true God cannot be appeased by our service or good deeds, because He doesn't need anything. We can't earn our way to God or into His favor by our service, because He is not sustained by our life, arguments, beliefs, or works. God is central and necessary, for He is the source of all life. Paul effectively canceled out any idea of an absentee or distant God and revealed the one, true God who actively sustains life on this planet.


  2. He is intelligent and has a definite plan for the nations of the world. v. 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." God relates not merely with individuals, but also with nations. He has plans as to their set times for emergence, development and, in some cases, decline (e.g., parts of Europe). He also has set the exact plan for where nations should be located—v. 26.

    This gives us amazing insight into world events and wars. Meditate on this truth as you watch the evening news. The rise, fall and locations of nations is set by God. It has all been determined by His wisdom.


  3. His plans for the nations were so that people might seek Him, find Him, and be His children. vv. 27-28—"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. For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, We are his offspring." The intention of God's work among the nations and people groups has all been for one reason: that people might seek after Him—v. 27a.

    This is a profound truth that bears repeating. Paul says

    the location of the nations, their emergence, their development, their turmoil, hardship, and success is all for one reason—so that men might find God The story behind the headlines in the activity of nations is this: the God of the heavens and the earth is designing life so that men might reach out for Him. Think of China, Russia, Yugoslavia/Kosovo. God has made humankind in such a way that instinctively we long for Him. God promises to work among people and nations. He says He is not far from each one of us. We don't need to look far if we want to find God, for He has promised not to be far from us. In v. 26a, Paul points out that all men have the same source for their creation. This, of course, does not mean that all men everywhere are His children in a spiritual sense. That happens only through Jesus Christ. But we are all, nonetheless, made in the image of God and thus are, in a general sense, His offspring.


  4. God will no longer overlook ignorance of Himself, or idolatry, and He calls for all men to repent of their ways. vv. 29-30—"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. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent." God has eliminated all excuses, for they are based on ignorance that has been exposed—v. 29; Rom. 1:18-32.

    Our God is not made by man's design or skill; there is no designer God. No matter how crafted our idols or philosophical images, God is not made by man. We can't get away with that kind of ignorance any more! The God of the universe, therefore, commands all people to repent, to turn from their sin and idolatry, or the making up of a God that fits their own taste or system. We are to turn from and turn to, or repent and follow God —v. 30.

    Action is called for, not just knowledge.


  5. God has a set a day when He will judge the world. v. 31a—"For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed." Notice Paul is reading his crowd, and counters its belief system. He says, in essence:
    • Life is not a journey to extinction (the Epicureans).
    • Life is not a pathway to being absorbed by God (the Stoics).
    • Life is a journey to the judgment seat where Jesus Christ is Judge. All roads do lead to God, but all but one are to His judgment, not His blanket acceptance.
    We will all have to give an account at the day He has appointed. How sad it is when people think they can avoid God just by not thinking about Him or the end of life. We will all face Him at the appointed time.


  6. He gave proof for all that is said here, and to the deity of Jesus, by means of the resurrection. v. 31b—"He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." Here's the foundation of the Scriptures—the resurrection. It is the only proof one needs to verify the authenticity of what Paul has to say about Christ. He is not an unknown god, but one who is alive (risen from the dead) and therefore personal with His children. What a message!


The Athenians received a wonderful picture and explanation of God. Paul used such helpful language here, it still stands up today.


He kept their attention with relevant illustrations

—v. 28. "As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'" At the right moment, Paul interjected a line of poetry to recapture the attention of his audience. He quoted a line written by Aratus of Soli who lived in the 3rd century B.C. Though it was written about the god Zeus, Paul changed it to apply to Christ. That was bold and caught their attention.


He applied the message personally

—vv. 29-31. After spelling out a series of truths, Paul narrowed it down to what their response should be. He then called them to repent.


These five factors become very applicable to our evangelistic activities as well. When sharing with others who have no background in the Scriptures and haven't been influenced appreciably by the Judeo-Christian ethic, remember to use as many of these five factors as are applicable. Here's how Paul's talk might be adapted to a modern conversation:


Men and women of Bellingham, I see many of you are very active. For as I walked around in your city and looked carefully, I noticed especially that you love sports and outdoor activities. stadium I saw your numerous parks, your athletic fields, your stadiums, your gymnasiums, your YMCA, your sports stores, and your many places to keep yourself in shape—The Tennis Club, Gold's Gym, World Gym, Bellingham Athletic Club, etc. I also witnessed intermural sports, school teams, and the numerous sporting events for both participant and spectator.

You have become famous for the diversity and the spectrum of sporting events and options here in Bellingham and Whatcom County. Many have actually moved to your city because of the lifestyle they can enjoy here. I even found an inscription on one of your schools which states: "Waste not thine hour."

You certainly are active people. But are your hours being maximized? Is there something you are missing in all your activity? The one event that really caught my eye was your Ski to Sea celebration over the Memorial Day weekend. The event was witnessed along the route by many people from all over your state and British Columbia. But the greatest participation, rejoicing, partying and revelry was at the end of the race, in Fairhaven.

bicyclist Interestingly, what you have illustrated in this event is not only a team sport. I am here to proclaim to you that what you have celebrated as a yearly event, is also a parable of your lives. It speaks of the journey; it provides an occasion to speak about God's purposes and the ending of all life for every person.

Please give some consideration to the fact that your ability to joyously participate in sports and an active lifestyle is because of the One who made you, the world and everything in it. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He does not live in churches built by human hands. And He is not served by an active lifestyle, appeased by your service, nor does He need anything, because He Himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man the Lord of heaven and earth made every nation, so that man should inhabit the whole earth. Our Maker also determined the times set for nations, cities and persons, as well as the exact places where people should live.

You don't live in this city or this nation by chance. Our God created us, set us in cities and nations, and provided us with energy to live and enjoy our surroundings for one reason: that we would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For it is in Him we live and move and have our being. Also, as one New Age teacher has said, we are His offspring.

Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think God as limited by time, space, or our religious beliefs. God does not fit within the limited religious systems we have created, nor is He impressed with the belief systems we make up that are counter to His written revelation of Himself in the Scripture. We are not the creator; we were created and designed by God to fit in with His purpose and will. He has the final word.

runners In the past, God overlooked the ignorance of people and the religious systems they invented, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, to turn from running their own race, and choose to run God's race!

We should also know that just as there is an end to the Ski to Sea race, and awards passed out to the winners, God has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed, Jesus Christ. He, too, will pass out rewards for all who run His race! By the way, the Father has given proof of the authority of Jesus to judge all mankind by raising Him from the dead. Therefore, He is the ultimate judge, the only one qualified to judge your race, because He, too, has run the race, enduring its pain and difficulty for the joy of enabling you to run the race He has marked out for you!

This is an illustration of how Paul's teaching is very relevant to today and how it fits within many contexts and cultures. But how will people respond? What if you heard this speech for the first time—how would you react? You would probably respond like they did to Paul.


The Evangelistic Response

—Acts 17:32-34. As always, when Paul spoke, people responded. Rarely was there neutral ground, for his message was always powerful. Here the people reacted in three ways:
  1. Rejection—v. 32a. Nearly all Athenians disbelieved in any sort of resurrection from the dead. Therefore, when Paul began speaking of this, many men immediately rejected all he had to say. Today some might reject the resurrection, but if they do, it is to overlook a profound proof. (See The Resurrection: Vicious Hoax, or Fantastic Fact?)


  2. Procrastination—v. 32b. Some were passively interested and wanted to hear of this again, but weren't yet ready to make a decision. If you read this study and are not ready to respond... may I urge you to reconsider and not put it off? At least read Honest Questions and Hard Questions.


  3. Acceptance—v. 34. The third group accepted what Paul said. We get the impression that not too many believed, however. Two specific people are named: Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris. Athens is never again mentioned in the book of Acts, and we never read that a church was established there. We don't know what happened to these people; we can only surmise they grew and a church was established.


If you accept that Paul's message is for you, please come and join us. Don't let your beliefs keep God in a box, or in a temple made with hands. Turn from your lifestyle, to the One true God, and follow Jesus Christ.



Do you see the need for an Evangelistic Interpretation? Paul has given us a marvelous model. Let's appreciate it, study it, and apply it.


Application Questions

  1. Pick an area where you want to minister; e.g., dorm, apartment complex, campus, job site, medical institution, neighborhood, etc. Take a mental walk through that area. Describe its education level, religious activities, philosophy of life. Now devise an evangelistic strategy for this area.
    • What do you see as some of this area's needs, uniqueness, weaknesses, vulnerabilities to Satan, etc.?
    • If you were going to identify evangelistic approaches that might be most effective in this particular area, what would they be?
    • What approach would be best suited for you?
    • What are the various places you might carry out this strategy?
    • What might you identify as a familiar item, story, or experience that might be an entrance point into these people's lives?


  2. According to Paul's message, how would you speculate God might be involved in Kosovo, or some other country/area experiencing conflict or disaster?


  3. Describe how important the resurrection is to every evangelistic presentation. How do you present it?


  4. What illustration can you use from the culture, or from current news items, that verifies/illustrates the need for Jesus Christ? How might you use these items or illustrations in an evangelistic conversation?
  5. Of all the references to God in Paul's speech to the Athenians, which was most striking to you? Which will be most striking to your ministry target described in Question 1? How much of Paul's speech is still relevant today? Why?