I can remember when I first read Acts chapter 17 where Paul engaged the high culture of the Athenians on Mars Hill. I can remember how vividly my mind painted this scene and how I embellished it with an obelisk reminiscent of “2001, A Space Odyssey,” which read “To an Unknown God.” I can remember others championing this story as the pinnacle of good Christian apologetics. Along with Romans 1, Acts 17 became one of my most favored chapters in scripture.
I would have to admit that I am a thinker. I would rather read, meditate, and think about profound spiritual truths than do most other things. To this day, I still love to engage the “upper crust,” of academia, the philosophers, scientists, lawyers and doctors. I can play well in their arenas. I enjoy bringing their unknown gods into the discussion and playing minds games. And while those engagements are fun, they’re not always fruitful.
My thinking on this hadn’t changed until the other day when a commenter on this blog post suggested that Acts 17 and Paul’s skirmish with the Athenians might just have been his most Epic ministry fail.
I thought for many years and admired the sheer brilliance of Paul’s approach. I respected Paul as an underdog of sorts and his tenacity in bringing the Gospel into whatever situation he encountered. His message to them was original, rational, methodical, and culturally relevant.
He enters their Areopagus with finesse – “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.” Acts 17:22
He quotes some of their own poets – “for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Acts 17:28
It’s interesting to note that Luke never mentions anything good about Paul’s approach as a model for ministry. In fact, he even subtly mocks the Athenians for wasting their time philosophizing (Acts 17:21). Paul’s sermons don’t lead to thousands converting to Christ. In fact, the crowd mocks him when he’s done (Acts 17:32). Only a few believe (Acts 17:34). We never see the city of Athens featuring prominently in church history, nor do we have a letter from Paul written to the church there. If we accept Paul’s approach on Mars Hill as a model for ministry, then can we say that it’s a mediocre model, an epic fail, or neither?
I am not settled on which, but I am reconsidering the import of the passage itself. What are your thoughts? What are the good things about this interaction? What are some “not so good” things?