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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.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department 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. []

25 Responses to Acts 17 and cultural contextualization

  1. Scottt,

    “He did not adopt their culture; he did not approve of their culture; he despised it.”

    1. to make sharp, sharpen
    A. to stimulate, spur on, urge
    B. to irritate, provoke, arouse to anger
    -to scorn, despise
    -provoke, make angry
    -to exasperate, to burn with anger

    So because Paul despised there cultural he shares the gospel? That’s how you take his purpose in sharing them the gospel message?

    That doesn’t seem to fit Paul’s heart in sharing the gospel “despise”

    It’s interesting that out of the definitions of this word you chose the word “despise”

    That’s scary.

    Or the word παροξύνω in this verse is better rendered (stimulated, spurned on).
    Which makes the act of sharing the gospel out of love rather then contempt for a culture.

    Grace and Peace,


  2. Drew,

    What about a culture full of false gods is there to like?

    You say about Scott’s analysis:

    “So because Paul despised there culture he shares the gospel? That’s how you take his purpose in sharing them the gospel message?”

    Now that’s a straw man argument and you are presupposing that that is what Scott is saying. Don’t put words in his mouth, brother.

  3. Scott,

    Where in the verse does their idols coincide with their culture. Or how do we know these idols are connected to their culture?

    Where do you see that in this verse?

    Grace, and Peace


  4. Drew,

    If their idols are not part of their culture, then what is? Culture, says Cornelius Van Til, is religion externalized.

    Grace and peace to you.

  5. Drew,

    Maybe reading John Stott’s commentary (see footnote 3) would help, or looking up the phrase “wholly given to idolatry” (κατείδωλος). Then I might suggest reading the myriad of books that discuss what culture is starting possibly with T.S. Eliot’s “Notes Toward a Definition of Culture.”

    For His glory,
    Christian Markle

  6. Reuben, Ok…still don’t see it.

    Christian Markle,

    I own “The Message of ACTS” John R.W. Stott commentary on Acts reading the section Chapter 17 now.

  7. Christian Markle,

    The Message of Acts (John Stott) pg.277-278
    “They were made not only of stone and brass, but of gold, silver, ivory and marble, and they had been elegantly fashioned by the finest Greek sculptors. There is no need to suppose that Paul was blind to their beauty, But beauty did not impress him if it did not honour God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, he was oppressed by the idolatrous use to which the God-given artistic creativity of the Athenians was being put. This is what Paul saw: a city submerged in its idols.”

    In Stotts commentary he reasons that Paul recognized the Beauty of these sculpted idols, even ascribes that the artistic expression is a God-given talent. Stott goes on to say that Beauty of these sculptures did not honor the God-head.

    What if one of these sculptures heard Paul’s gospel message and was saved. Then out of his love for God uses his instruments that sculpted the idols, to now sculpt beautiful art that ascribes glory to God.

    This is what Reformed Rappers are doing.
    Taking music…drums, guitars, pianos. Laced with weighty theological truth to honor God.

    It seems from the commentary that would be good.

    Grace, and Peace

  8. Drew,

    In my first reply, I fired at you…and as you probably sensed – not in a spirit of love. Forgive me, brother.

    I desire to display the charity and love of Christ here, as well as a spirit of humbleness.

    I look forward to more discussions.


  9. Drew,

    I trust it is helpful. Stott does not explicitly use the word culture as I recall, but his description of what Paul saw as well as how Paul reacted I think will be helpful for you to see how Scott may have come to the conclusions he did.

    It is possible that a thinking about and interacting about what culture is will be necessary for you to “see it.” It will be most helpful to understand Scott’s words to understand what he means by them. You might try the series of articles that start here ( I have not read them all, but I think the second in this series may be of help.

    For His glory,
    Christian Markle

  10. Reuben, I didn’t take it that way. All is forgiven.

    Christian Markle,
    Thank you for the information.

    Christian you never answered the question about the marriage feast in the previous string we had conversations in.


    Grace and Peace

  11. Drew,

    You may be leaping too quickly. Stott’s assessment of the pervasive idolatry was the reason for the footnote and my suggestion to go there. Do you see better Paul’s severe reaction to the culture of idolatry or is this still an enigma to you?

    Stott’s assessment of the beauty of the idols is Stott’s assessment and not the assessment of the Holy Spirit. When we engage in discussions about beauty from God’s perspective based on Philippians 4:8 we are assigning a particular value which is moral and I would suggest that to say that a idol is beautiful is a powerful statement about one’s view of idols. If an idolatry is evil then those things that represent such evil are only deceptively beautiful not authentically so. The external features may have been well done from a strictly technical perspective and made to be attractive, but what the attracted to was evil (idolatry). Summary: I would hesitate to agree that Paul thought any of the idols he saw were beautiful (I take Stott to mean that he was likely aware of this external attractiveness — I obviously am hesitant to use the word “beauty”). It is important to see that the text does not state anything of this regarding Paul attention or notice, so we should withhold judgement on that without more revelation.

    Now to your hypothetical scenario. I would suggest that a skilled sculptor would not need to produce the same style of sculpting he used for idols. I would also hesitate to believe that if he produced the same exact (or only slight variations) thing (the appearance of an idol) post-salvation as he did pre-salvation that one in the first century would agree that he is not producing idols. Although the argument of 1 Corinthians 8:4 appears to mean the object (idols) have no meaning, Paul seems to argue against that in chapter 10. The statue of an idol had meaning; therefore, a Christian sculptor would need to produce something other than what he produced before if he would not want to communicate the same meaning to his audience (those engaging with his art).

    Others may answer differently, but this is my understanding at this juncture. Frankly, I would like to have others weigh in. I would point out that for some Conservatives I have interacted with (not sure how much of one I really am) the comparison between various kinds of art (ie music, sculpture, video, painting, writing) are at times apples and oranges because of how they communicate. This is a whole other study in and of itself and not my realm of strength. As I have stated previously, my time and concern is with big ideas (that are bad or good) as well as exegesis of Scripture. Some of the applications require more education in specific areas than I feel I have; I would defer to those that have spent the time to think and study in those areas.

    For his glory,
    Christian Markle

  12. Brother Drew,

    “Christian you never answered the question about the marriage feast in the previous string we had conversations in.”

    You lost me here… can you point to a link and the date and time of the post you are referring. Unfortunately, sometimes I get lost in all the postings.

    For His glory,
    Christian Markle

  13. Christian, thank you for taking the time and care to explore these analogies. I appreciate the careful and respectful way in which you handle the Word of God, and the gentlemanly way in which you communicate your ideas. It certainly blesses me. I agree with you here.

  14. Christian

    Thanks for you reply
    We won’t see eye to eye on this. And it’s not really going any where other then you draw your line and so do I.

    I pray you continue to exalt Christ and love people for His glory.

    Do me one favor please listen to this and prayfully consider if this is dishonoring to our God.

    Grace and Peace,


  15. Am I missing something? Verse 16 says he was provoked by their idolatry (religion) not their culture (art, music, drama)

  16. Drew, I don’t see any contradiction between despising a culture and sharing the gospel out of love. There is a great section on the unknown God’ in Athens in book “Eternity in Their Hearts” – explaining this is all going back to an incident when the Athenians knew the Truth but this was lost on them after a few centuries. Paul was likely aware of the historical details and therefore might have been angered about their ignorance – a natural reaction. Still, as we can see from what he said, he mustered up his patience to reason with them.

    SCOTT – I was wondering about the charge that Paul used ‘lofty speech’ in Athens and thus adopted elements of their culture. Some exegetes actually contrast the presumed lofty speech in Athens with the simpler speech in 1.Cor 2. Some think Paul later realized the intellectual approach was not working. Presumption indeed, even if plausible. I found the following, which seems more in line with Paul’s declared intentions and other verses:

    “Like Paul above, we’re not supposed to begin teaching by getting them to say “yes” or any other carnal speech tactic (II Corinthians 1:12). We’re supposed to reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine (II Timothy 4:2). Notice how Paul really taught the word of God: “But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (II Corinthians 4:2).”

    Or this:

    “Nevertheless, he [Paul] despised the pedantry, superficiality and narrow conceit of those who were received as intellectuals. Paul rejected their methods because he was above them, not because he was inferior to them. Paul had a wide acquaintance with all the learning of his generation. He quoted Aratus (Acts 17:28), Epimenides (Titus 1:12), and Menander (1 Corinthians 15:33); but he counted all such polite learning as mere dross, as compared with the gospel of Christ (Philippians 3:8).

    “It is the style among certain commentators to construe Paul’s method in view here as a reversal of what he allegedly did in Athens. They say Paul tried to preach philosophically in Athens, sustained a miserable failure, learned his lesson and announced his return to a more simple advocacy of the gospel in these verses. Despite the popularity of such a view, however, there is nothing, either in the word of God or in history, to give the slightest credibility to it.

    “There is no hint whatever, either in this passage or in Acts 17, that Paul preached “Christ crucified” at Corinth because of a sense of failure of the philosophical approach in Athens. As a matter of fact, “His sermon at Athens was not basically philosophical.” He preached the resurrection of the dead, and when did that get to be philosophical? Furthermore, his preaching in Athens was in no sense whatever a failure. Dionysius the Areopagite, Damaris, certain men, and others with them were converted (Acts 17:34). An exceedingly large number of people in Athens became Christians. “The church in Athens was one of the strongest congregations in the empire in the second and third centuries,” and Lange pointed out that “A Christian congregation in Athens flourished in an eminent degree.” The “others with them” of Acts 17:34 may not be construed as “a mere handful,” except arbitrarily and with no logic to support it. It is also most probable that Sosthenes and his household were converted in Paul’s work in Athens (see my Commentary on Acts, under Acts 17:34).

    “In the light of the above, we feel that comments to the effect that “There (in Athens) Paul had one of his very few failures”; “He feared a failure similar to that in Athens” “Athens was a sad memory for Paul. He never mentions her name in an epistle. He sends no word of greeting to any of her children”; etc. – that all such notions are absolutely untenable. For example, how can it be known that Paul never wrote to the saints in Athens, there being at least one letter to the Corinthians which was lost?

    “Grosheide’s views on this question are undoubtedly correct. He declared that:
    The answer to the question of whether Paul had ever preached anything but Jesus Christ must of course be negative. The meaning is not that the apostle did not resolve to preach Christ until he came to Corinth … but that he had to go on preaching Christ.”

    I would submit that the above has major implications for the idea that we can use poplar music to try and evangelize, as Makujina explained in his book way back…

  17. Thanks for the discussion, guys.

    Here is the most critical point in this discussion: culture is the visible expression of religious commitments. In Paul’s day that was obvious. In our day people deny this, but it is no less true.

    Because culture (behavior) is the externalization of beliefs, values, and worldview, when religion changes, culture must change.

    Now, if a person happens to grow up in a culture that has been heavily influenced by the gospel and Christian values, when he is converted, not much of his culture will need to change necessarily.

    But if a person has been shaped in a culture that has been dominated by anti-Christian values, the behavior (culture) he is accustomed to will need to change.

    The West was dominated by the gospel and Christian values for so many years, that it lulled us into thinking that when someone comes to Christ, his culture will not need to change.

    But, as many have rightly observed, the West is now decidedly post-Christians. For example, while our country was founded on Judeo-Christian values, and that shaped our culture for a long time, those days are quickly coming to an end.

    Second, to Paul’s methods in Athens. Paul was clearly confronting the religious commitments and culture of the people with the gospel. He didn’t have the chance to finish his presentation before being run out, but he began by dismantling the presuppositions of the people by revealing the inconsistencies in their own thinking as evidenced in their own poets.

    Here is some more reading to help expand these ideas:

    My article on a biblical definition of culture.

    Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Reading: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation, 1996), 235–76.

    Malcolm B. Yarnell III, “Shall We ‘Build Bridges’ or ‘Pull Down Strongholds’?,” Center for Theological Research (March 2008).

    Rolland McCune, “Paul and Educated Unbelief.”

  18. dr. fiddledd– The notion that their culture might have been related to if not included in their idolatry is not terribly far-fetched.

    My son heads off to college next fall and one of the schools we’ve been looking at notes the following in the introduction to their BA in Media, Culture and Arts:

    “Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, “So this is the little lady who started this big war.” The influence of Stowe’s novel illustrates what Plato said long ago, “Give me the songs of a nation and it matters not who writes its laws.” These and many other instances point to a broad truth: cultural production, such as the writing of books and music, plays a major role in the development of a society.

    At The King’s College, we believe that a well-ordered society loves God and neighbor above all else and that from this love cultural life is created.

    Consequently, while some would say that religion is merely a byproduct of culture, Christians believe the opposite is true: Religion—what a society loves and worships—is the wellspring of culture.”

    More here:

  19. I see your point David O. but “might” is not the same as certainty. I’ve preached on this passage a number of times and have usually dealt with Paul’s confrontation with religious error, be Judaism or idolatry. To inject culture into and exposition of the text on the basis of “might” is something I would be hesitant to do. It seems a bit more eisegesis than exegesis.

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