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Acts 17 and cultural contextualization

Acts 17 records Paul’s attempt to evangelize three cities, each of which had very different kinds of people. Paul’s audience in Thessalonica was predominantly Jewish. He spent time in the synagogue there speaking to Jews and Jewish proselytes, but it was not a receptive audience. Some did come to Christ, but for the most part, Paul’s audience was hostile. Verse 5 records that these Jews were jealous when a few began to convert to Christ, and so they stirred up the crowd against Paul. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians he notes that they received the gospel amid affliction (1:6). In his second letter he reminded them that they accepted his message in the midst of much conflict (2:2). So evidently the few who did come to Christ did so despite much persecution.

In Berea, Paul’s audience was mostly Jewish, but these Jews were generally open to his message. Verse 11 states that they were more noble than the Thessalonians because they received Paul’s message with eagerness, so this audience was similar to the one in Thessalonica except that they were much more receptive.

After Berea, Paul went to Athens, where his audience was much different than the other two cities. Athens was the center of Greek mythology, which in verse 16 Paul noticed when he saw that the city was full of idols.1 Furthermore, this city contained a number of high class philosophers, exemplified by whom Paul meets in verse 18, a group of Epicureans and Stoics. Epicureans were pure materialists who did not believe in the spiritual world, similar to secular humanists today. Stoics were pantheists. Not only did they believe in many gods, but they also believed that all people have divinity within them, similar to modern New Age beliefs.2 So this was a completely different kind of audience than those that Paul had found in Thessalonica and Berea.

Thus Acts 17 records Paul’s attempt to communicate the gospel to these three different audiences. The question is whether Paul contextualized the message depending on the culture he was in, and if so, to what degree. Verse 2 records that he reasoned with the Jews in Thessalonica from the Old Testament Scriptures. These Jews would have respected the Scriptures as inspired by God, and so it was natural for Paul to start there. Verse 3 records that he explained those Scriptures to them and proved that the Messiah had to die and rise again, and then he explained to them that the facts about Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled these prophesies about the Messiah. The proper response, then, would be to believe in Jesus Christ. Paul could make assumptions with these Jews, he could leave some things unsaid, and he reasoned from Old Testament prophecies. His method was evidently similar with the Berean Jews.

Paul’s method differed with the audience in Athens, which needed more information than the Jews. He had to tell them that God created all things and ruled them all, that God expected them to serve him, and that judgment was coming for those who did not. The Jews already believed this, but he had to explain these issues to the Athenians because, as he said, they were ignorant. In Athens, Paul did not reason with them out of messianic prophesies, trying to prove that predictions about the Messiah and facts about Jesus’s life matched, which would have made no sense to them. Instead, he appealed to the needs he knew the Athenians had and showed them why they needed to turn to God.

So in this sense, Paul presented the same gospel message in different ways depending on his audience. The first way Paul communicated differently was in relation to their religion. With the Jews in Thessalonica and Berea, Paul was able to build on the foundation of their current religion and explain new revelation concerning Jesus. He could not do that with pagans since they had a different understanding of the nature of the world, and so Paul had to consider their current religious understanding and then explain what was necessary to correct their faulty thinking. He does this in verses 22–23:

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

Paul had evidently spent some time studying the religion of Athens, and he used that knowledge to present the gospel in the best way possible, but what Paul thought about this religious culture is enlightening. Verse 16 reveals that Paul was “provoked” (parōxyneto) by the culture he saw in Athens.3 He did not adopt their culture; he did not approve of their culture; he despised it. Furthermore, Paul did not try to garner respect by speaking positively about their beliefs. In verse 22 when he says that they are “religious,” he is not complimenting them. The word here is deisidaimōn, literally “superstitious,” which would have been considered a negative charge.4 Some people suggest that the term is neutral; however, Paul’s other use in Romans 1:20–23 is a decidedly negative tone and communicates spiritual ignorance.5 This is reflected further in verse 23 where Paul references their “unknown” god. Again, some missional advocates suggest that Paul was seeking to gain common ground with his audience.6 However, Paul’s use of the term agnoeō here again connotes a negative charge of ignorance. The NASB is perhaps the clearest translation here: “What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”7 Even the phrase “objects of your worship” is used elsewhere in Scripture only negatively.8 Thus Paul was accusing his audience of being ignorant in their religious beliefs. In fact, he implies their ignorance again in verse 30 and says that God commands them to repent of it.

Paul continues by addressing their philosophy. In verse 28, Paul quotes their own philosophers: “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” Some missional advocates insist that this is an example of Paul immersing himself in the culture of Athens and quoting their own philosophers as a way to gain respect from his audience.9 However, careful consideration of Paul’s argument here clarifies the issue. His primary argument begins in verse 24:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.

Paul’s argument is that God is the Creator and Ruler of all and that he is not served by human hands. Then he quotes their own philosophers who admit that they come from a god, which reveals their inconsistency. They say that they came from a god, and yet they still try to bring that god under their control by making idols. Paul is attempting to discredit them by pointing out this glaring inconsistency in their thinking. He reveals that purpose in verse 29:

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.

Paul was not using cultural references in a positive light; again, he was showing how futile they were. He was discrediting the popular religious philosophy of the day.

Paul did communicate the message of the gospel differently to pagans than he did to Jews. However, the difference involved the fact that he could build on the truth of the Jewish religion, while his attitude toward the religion of the pagans was one of disgust and condemnation. He did not immerse himself in their “culture” in order to reach them; instead, he exploited the ignorance and superstition of their religion in order to confront them with the truths of the gospel. Rather than highlighting similarities between his worldview and that of the Athenians and seeking to express the gospel in their philosophical categories, as many evangelicals suggest, Paul was pressing the antithesis between their worldviews and ways of life in order to reveal the inconsistencies in their own thinking and highlight the authority of the Christian worldview.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Mal Couch, A Bible Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2004), 338–39. []
  2. John B. Polhill, Acts (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992), 336–37. []
  3. Cf. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, and the World (Bible Speaks Today), Reprint (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 278. []
  4. David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 494. Cf. Polhill, Acts, 371. []
  5. Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 564. []
  6. Losie, “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus,” 229–30. []
  7. Polhill, Acts, 372; R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire (Wheaton: Crossway, 1996), 233. []
  8. Cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:4 and Romans 1:25. []
  9. See Simon J. Kistemaker, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 636–37; Richard N. Longnecker, Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 984. []