People who have been shaped by the Good News of Jesus have a responsibility to embody the Good News of Jesus. And one of simplest and yet most powerful ways we can embody the Good News is through our conversations.
Think about the kinds of conversations we have over the course of any week. Think about the opportunities present in each of those conversations. What would it look like if those conversations became missional conversations?
In Acts 17:16-34, we find Paul waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him in Athens. Athens was the glorious capital city of Greek culture, the place where Plato and Aristotle taught. The city drew its name from Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and knowledge. Athens symbolized the highest of art, culture, and philosophy in the ancient world.
Paul sees that Athens is filled with idols and the text says he was “greatly distressed.” Literally, Paul is “outraged.” And this really challenges me. While I believe our idols are much more sophisticated than the idols of the ancient world, our city is filled with idols nonetheless. But when was the last time I was “outraged” over this? I’m not sure missional conversations can truly begin until we share Paul’s distress over our cultural idolatry.
Paul begins to talk to the people; some translations say that Paul “disputed” with people. We have to remember that debate was part of the discourse of the day. The point isn’t that Paul had an argumentative personality; the point is that he engages people in the mode of communication that is familiar to them and their culture. He engages them in meaningful and relevant conversation.
Paul goes to two places:
- The synagogue – in the local synagogue, Paul can interact with the Jewish people as well as God-fearing Greeks, those who have the greatest context to understand Jesus as the promised Messiah.
- The marketplace – a general gathering place for business and conversation. Paul is present here as well, which affords him the opportunity to dialogue with all types, including the philosophers.
Paul doesn’t seem to think that conversations about faith should only occur in places of worship. He’s taking these conversations into the public arena. And the Bible says he does this every day while he’s in Athens.
The Epicurean and Stoic philosophers dispute Paul’s teaching, not in a hostile manner, but honestly. Philosophy was extremely important in the ancient world. Ancient philosophy was not merely a discussion about abstract doctrine that you might hear at an academic seminar. Rather, these philosophical viewpoints referred to a particular way of life. Different philosophies (or worldviews) were hotly contested in the ancient world, advocated vigorously by street preachers, and discussed in everyday conversation.
Epicurus taught in Athens in the 4th century BC. His followers believed in the gods, but taught that human life was free from interference from them. Life was ruled by chance, purely an accident of nature. Therefore they did not believe in a future beyond death. Since that was the case, the Epicureans considered personal happiness the supreme value. Avoid suffering at all costs. There is no such thing as a personal god.
Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists; that is, they believed that God was in all things. Therefore, they could say, “in him we live and move and have our being.” Stoics sought to live in harmony with the cosmos, because divinity is in everything. They believed the moral life was the reasoned existence, since everything was governed by logic. Stoics were highly rational and analytical.
These philosophers refer to Paul as a “babbler” – literally “seed picker.” Picture a bird hopping around the marketplace pecking at various seeds, without a coherent approach. That’s what the Stoics and Epicureans think of Paul. They say to each other, “What is he trying to say?” They view Paul as a simpleton, a peddler of second-rate philosophy and religion.
Others make a more harmful accusation: “He seems to be a preacher of foreign gods.” This is a serious charge. The law forbade Athenians from introducing new religions. Centuries earlier, Socrates had been executed on the same charge. But they accuse Paul of this because he’s preaching something they’ve never heard: Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection (v18). Paul is evangelizing – he’s literally “good news-ing” the crowd. Paul’s philosophy / worldview was one of Good News focused on Jesus.
These philosophers take Paul to the Aeropagus, an elevated, open-air site where the city council gathered. Some see this as Paul on trial, but the tone seems more civil. The leaders ask, “May we know what this new teaching is that you’re presenting?” In essence, they’re saying, “We’d like to know more.” And Paul stands ready to tell them about Jesus.
Paul says to them in v22-23, Men 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. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. Paul has made careful observations about this culture. He uses this altar to an unknown God as his inroads to a missional conversation. Paul is careful to say that he’s not preaching a “new” religion; he’s merely telling them about this God who is “unknown” to them.
Here are a few of the things Paul tells them about this “unknown God”:
- God is the universal God. Paul uses universal language to affirm that the Creator God has made “everything”; he gives “all men” life and “everything else.” He made “every nation” to inhabit “the whole earth.” And Paul says this same God wants “all people everywhere” to repent.
- God is a transcendent God. He doesn’t live in temples built by human hands. Nor does he live in temples of the human mind. The Stoics were wrong when they taught that everything was a part of God.
- God is the God of history. He has allotted the times and places for human history to unfold. The Epicureans are wrong when they say life is an accident of nature.
- God has made himself known. Paul says God desires that we seek him and reach out for him. Paul could’ve easily pointed to the many shrines around him as proof that the people were looking for meaning and purpose to their lives. Paul says this reflects God’s desire that we should seek him. And the Good News is that God is present. As Paul says, he is not far from each one of us. In Christ, He has made himself known.
In order to make this final point, Paul quotes from Greek philosophy and poetry. He does this with two lines in v28:
For in him we live and move and have our being. We believe this comes from Epimenides, a philosopher from the 6th century BC. Of course, Epimenides would’ve been originally speaking about Zeus, but Paul uses this familiar line and attributes it to the God of Israel.
According to tradition, Athens was once afflicted by a terrible plague and the people didn’t know what else to do, so they sent a ship to Crete to ask for the help of wise Epimenides. Epimenides agreed to help the Athenians and when he arrives, he (like Paul) finds the city filled with shrines to a number of different gods. Epimenides concludes that there must be a god unknown to Athens and this god must be appeased. So he takes a flock of sheep to the Areopagus and wherever one of these lambs lies down, he has an altar built right there and they sacrifice the lamb to the unknown god. Within a week, those with the plague have recovered and Epimenides is hailed as a hero. Thus, from that day onward, visitors to Athens would find altars to unknown gods around the city.
And Paul alludes to this philosopher in his speech, a philosopher who believed that the blood of a lamb could bring healing to the people. I wonder why Paul would quote someone like that?
We are his offspring. This is a quote from Aratus, one of the greatest Greek poets who lived in the 3rd century BC. Aratus was known for blending poetry and science in a refined manner of writing. Paul cites this poet who would have been quite revered in a city like Athens. Paul quotes Aratus to supplement his argument. If we are indeed God’s offspring, He cannot be like these images of gold, silver, and stone. He’s a living being, not something we can create.
At the conclusion of Paul’s speech, Luke tells us that some in the crowd scoff while others are more open. Some even choose to become disciples, including Dionysius the Areopagite, a member of the assembly.
So here are a few things we can learn from Paul’s experience in Athens:
- Missional conversations begin on common ground.
This is where Paul begins in his discussion at the Areopagus. He says, I can see that you’re very religious and I’ve seen your objects of worship. Paul has carefully observed the surrounding culture and he’s found common ground by acknowledging that the Athenians are quite religious. Of course, Paul wants to correct those faulty religious views, but he begins by establishing some common ground.
And this is instructive for us as we seek to have the same kinds of missional conversations with people today. So, for instance, say you find yourself talking with someone about politics. And they’re talking about a particular candidate and expressing concerns over what will happen if / when that candidate is elected. How does that conversation become missional in nature? Well, you could respond by saying, “I can tell that you’re very concerned about the future of this country and I share those concerns. But one of the things that helps me deal with those concerns is to remind myself that God is in control and thankfully my ultimate future is defined by him, not by any politician.” This is just one approach, but a missional conversation begins by seeking to establish common ground.
- Missional conversations bridge the gap between places of worship and the marketplace.
Remember, Paul talks about his faith in both the synagogue and the marketplace. In our culture, the conventional attitude is “Believe what you want to believe, just don’t say anything about it to anyone else.” But Paul doesn’t subscribe to this point of view.
What sorts of things are people talking about in the marketplace these days? What conversations do you have with friends over dinner or at the coffee shop? And here’s the next question: What bearing does your faith have on these conversations?
So, again, we can see this in our political discussions: in this election cycle, we’ve heard a great deal about what it means to be an outsider. A lot of people look at Washington and see a system that’s broken and many believe it will take an outsider to change the status quo. So if you find yourself in that kind of conversation, it’s an opportunity to say, “You know, Jesus was considered an outsider by the power brokers in Jerusalem. In fact, he was such a threat to their power that they decided to have him executed.”
Or perhaps the people in your marketplace are talking about the latest blockbuster coming out of Hollywood. Have you ever thought about our cultural infatuation with superhero movies? Why is it that we’re drawn to these stories of good and evil with these heroes who have incredible power to save? Do you think that’s just random or could that be evidence that we’re looking for something deeper, that our souls are uniquely hardwired to crave such stories of salvation and redemption?
- Missional conversations focus on the Good News about Jesus.
Paul is very tactful and thoughtful in confronting the views of the Epicureans and the Stoics. Remember, he is outraged over their rampant idolatry, but that doesn’t mean he lashes out in anger at them. In fact, Paul seems perfectly at ease in this conversation.
Paul exercises tact by engaging the Athenians on their own terms: most notably philosophy and poetry. Those were important cultural elements in Athens. And Paul demonstrates thoughtfulness by connecting these disciplines to matters of faith. And the people say to him, “We’d like to know more.” And the same thing can be true in our conversations today.
When we engage in conversations like this, we embody the Good News. The world hears plenty of bad news; you can find bad news at every turn. But there’s an opportunity there for us to be a Good News people, even in our conversations. To take part in missional conversations is to do what Paul did all those years ago in Athens: to speak a word of Good News in the name of Jesus.