Paul was a misfit. When it came to a place like Athens, the crusty apostle clashed with the decor.
Made no sense at all. The classic oil-and-water combo. A monotheistic Jew smack dab in the middle of polytheistic Gentiles. Narrow-minded former Pharisee surrounded by broad-minded philosophers. One idol-hating Christian among many idol-worshiping pagans. Outnumbered. Outvoted. Outshouted. But not outwitted.
Those eggheads may have felt superior. They may have looked upon this little runt from Tarsus about like a grizzly views a dirt dauber, but when he opened his mouth and started preaching, they closed theirs and started listening. It wasn’t very long before they realized this guy hadn’t just fallen off some turnip truck. When it came to communicating, Paul had his stuff together. He was a class act.
The extemporaneous excellence of a message like the one in Acts 17:22–31 makes every preacher’s and teacher’s mouth water. Unintimidated by their brilliance, unimpressed with their position, and singularly unprovoked over their opinion of him, the apostle captured the attention of the Stoics and Epicureans by means of a genius game plan. With the confidence and deliberateness of a veteran returning to the heat of battle, the seasoned warrior tightened the belt on his toga and took charge. He covered every base necessary for quality communication.
Ever analyzed his Mars Hill message? Allow me:
- He started with a jolting attention-getter.
“Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.” (v. 22)
- He then used a relevant illustration to amplify his opening remark.
“For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.'” (v. 23a)
- Next, he employed an interesting yet brief transition into the body of his speech.
“Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” (v. 23b)
- At the heart of his speech, he presented sound theology in clear, easily understood terms.
“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him.” (vv. 24–27a)
- He held their attention by making it personal . . . he even quoted from their own literature.
“Though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.'” (vv. 27b–28)
- He then challenged them with a theological truth woven neatly into Athenian culture.
“Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.” (v. 29)
- Finally, he “drove home” the application (“all everywhere should repent”) by a declaration of two inescapable facts (God’s judgment, Jesus’s resurrection).
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” (vv. 30–31)
Put ‘er down, friend. That’s quality communication . . . all the ingredients necessary to guarantee edge-of-the-seat interest. The preacher could have gone longer (the speech didn’t last two minutes), but the philosophers had gotten enough. Soon as they heard him mention the resurrection, end of Paul’s speech. But not end of God’s speaking. Some sneered. Others said they’d be back again. A few believed. Typical response. The song had ended, but the melody lingered on.
It’s the same today. A mixed bag Sunday after Sunday. Change the particulars and you’ve got a similar setting in places the world over. One speaks, many listen, some believe. How easy for the spokesperson to be intimidated . . . to think, like Andrew, “But what are these among so many?” . . . to forget that empty philosophy doesn’t stand a chance against biblical theology. It’s the timeless David-and-Goliath principle—one plus God . . . aw, you know the equation.
But wait. A warning is in order. Before we rush to judgment and claim a pushover victory regardless, let’s understand that the strategy calls for quality. It’s not as simple as dumping a half-ton load of religious whine, a hodgepodge of verbs, nouns, and adjectives, but preparing the heart, sharpening the mind, delivering the goods with care, sensitivity, timing, and clarity. It’s the difference between slopping hogs and feeding sheep.
Occasionally, it’s good for communicators to go back to Athens. To blow the dust off those ancient idols in the street and hear again the voice of the preacher as it echoes across that historic wind-swept hill. To look into those dark eyes and to feel again his passion. Then to trace the incomparable heritage of God’s mouthpieces down through the centuries.
What a band of magnificent misfits!
If you are one of them, study hard, pray like mad, think it through, tell the truth, then stand tall. But while you’re on your feet, don’t clothe the riches of Christ in rags. Say it well.