When I say ‘Acts’, what immediately comes to mind?
Early church? Paul’s conversion? Pentecost? Speaking in tongues?
Perhaps you’re like me in thinking ‘Holy Spirit’, ‘encounter’ or some variation. To be fair, all these are great answers; however, they also occur during the first half of Acts. And as vocationals, I believe it’s important we examine Paul’s ministry in the latter half to understand modern-day application as Kingdom influencers in the marketplace.
That said, after discussing the Capernaum centurion in our last SOAP study, let’s fast-forward to Acts 17 where we find a provoked Paul stirring in Athens.
Scripture: Acts 17:15-34
Relative to prior pitstops, the setup to Paul’s Areopagus address is fascinating. After mixed receptions in Thessalonica and Berea, Paul lands in Athens, a densely paganized hub drenched in idolatry (v. 16). Weary from travel, it’s fair to say Paul could have withdrawn or charged the scene in an abuse of confidence; however, as v. 17 states, Paul not only turned the other cheek, but reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews, city officials, and…[wait for it]…marketplace leaders “every day with those who happened to be there“.
This tells me three things off the bat:
- Paul knew his audience, intentionally seeking it out realizing where the influence was coming from.
- Paul was persistent, persuasive, and patient in his dealings with people from the get-go. As we’ll later see, how else could Epicurean and Stoic philosophers go from “What does this babbler wish to say?” to “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” in one verse?
- Paul understood the seeds of truth he needed to sow, but also the soil he needed to cultivate for those seeds to take root.
Continuing on through v. 28…
Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 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. 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,25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 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, 27 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, 28 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.’”
From here a couple more points stand out…
1. Paul, knowing his audience, not only adapted his language in preaching the Gospel but included secular references in verifying the Scriptures. Note how in v. 28 he cites Epimenides of Crete and Aratus’s poem “Phainomena” to prove the invalidity of temples gods.
I love how Cameron McAllister, a speaker with RZIM, captures this as “cultural apologetics”…
2. Paul, up until now, has not introduced the concept of repentance. This is because he was more concerned about connecting God’s love to creation than freedom from sin – which they lacked context for anyway.
3. Like today’s world, 1st century Athens valued diversity, connectedness, and were open-minded towards many philosophies (v. 21). This is likely why Paul prioritized a) singularity and relationship when explaining God’s absolute nature and b) centralization metaphors/analogies that made sense to them. In other words, Paul knew to capture the sovereignty of God, he had to first emphasize what they inherently knew about Him whether they recognized it or not.
4. As we find in v. 32-34, Paul saw few people converted in Athens on behalf of his presence; however, the lasting influence of his ministry is evident in that today the text of his speeches is still engraved on a bronze plaque at the ascent to the Areopagus.
As Paul portrays, relating to the Athens of life is one of the most significant choices we can make as marketplace leaders. Like some of our working environments, Athens was a junkyard of idols, a toxic wasteland where intellect trumped truth. But amidst the funk, there were still people, blind as they were, who were open enough to listen – to give an open space as the Message translates. Thus, it could be said the greatest weakness of the Athenians was also their greatest strength given their misplaced devotion ultimately gave Paul the opportunity to testify.
As for us, there’s something to behold about this moment, especially as it pertains to our vocational environments. For one thing, I believe there are more people with receptible bandwidths in our midst than we think. Like Paul among the Athenians, we are often surrounded by colleagues, co-workers, and supervisors – many of them with a story, a set of ears, and a desire to be heard. Why then do we assume these people wouldn’t want to hear what we have to say? Is it because we’re afraid our vulnerability will not be received? Because we fear the truth will fall on deaf ears? Or are we so insecure, we evade judgment before it’s even cast? Not to downplay the discouragement Christian workers face operating in worldly systems of enterprise. I get how tough it can be when twenty seconds of insane courage become twenty minutes of painful rejection. I’m just sayin’ like Paul, we don’t have to resent the lost for being lost or the hurt for being hurt. Rather, we can sit down, invite them into our confident zones¹, and peacefully present the good news by which we live our lives.
Furthermore, I believe the power in our testimony is enhanced when we choose to speak the language of those we’re witnessing to. Remember everyone has skills and abilities, but very few know where they come from. As such, it’s imperative we acknowledge and affirm the areas God is manifesting through, whether or not they’re immediately recognized. After all, we’re all created by a master Creator with breath to take in the evidence of His presence. Hence, why it makes sense to incorporate the simple things we share in common into the unique ways we capture God’s love.
“Lord, we thank you for being our source and our rock. We thank you for going before us to make a way when none seem possible. Day in and day out, you are our sovereign sustenance. What can we do but declare gratitude and victory in your name? But Lord, we also realize as vocationals, as marketplace leaders, as Kingdom influencers…we are not immune to daily alignment. Every day we’re exposed to idolatry, deception…worldly systems of tolerance and reciprocity disguised as love and compassion. We confess there’s much to be frustrated and angry about; however, we also confess your will in us, your Holy Spirit burning within, we have everything we need to counter culture with goodness, godliness, and the love you’re constantly perfecting inside our deep (Psalm 42:7). Give us the strength and discernment, Lord, to use your words in a language those around us can understand. Help us not be closed off to the raw giftings you’ve planted inside those who are far from you. If anything, help us know how to steward those divinely sown seeds so one day those carrying them will know without a day who they come from and why they are there. We choose you and accept the paths you’re establishing even now as we speak. May this all be so in your precious name. Amen.”
- As opposed to comfort zones