• The Explore the Bible lesson for Jan. 14 focuses on Acts 17:22-34.
By now, we are well aware of the Apostle Paul’s usual practices when he entered a new city. He would visit the synagogue, seek out followers of The Way and find opportunities to preach the gospel to all. We also see his usual practices brought a great deal of attention and controversy.
We need to remember it was not Paul who was offensive. Rather, it was the gospel message that offended people. In their society, the teachings of Christ and giving one’s self to one deity was a foreign concept. Ask your group: How have you seen people offended by the gospel message?
Now we meet Paul in an unusual place. He was left alone in Athens waiting for his friends to join him. But that would not stop Paul from fulfilling his call. We get a picture of him meandering among the people, looking for his opportunity to share the Good News of Christ.
Unknown God (Acts 17:22-23)
Even though we know from other passages Paul’s oratory skills did not meet everyone’s high expectations, here we see the beginning of a skillful speech given by a man who knew how to engage these high thinkers. To begin with, he was observant. He took note of their practices and found his opportunity in the form of a nameless god.
We need to remember Paul’s goal with this speech was to meet the people where they were and lead them to an understanding of the one, true God. This is why he engaged them on their own turf. We need to ask ourselves: What is the common ground I need to find to share the gospel with my unbelieving friends?
It is impressive that Paul could both acknowledge the Athenians’ religiosity and challenge their understanding. It is not every day that you can use the word “ignorant” and get away with it. This would have enticed the listeners to hear and gain greater knowledge.
The Known Creator (Acts 17:24-29)
The audience must have been hanging on each word because of their interest in attaining more knowledge. This “babbler” was taking advantage of their desire by introducing a monotheistic faith.
Paul’s Jewish roots aided him in speaking to the uselessness of idols and the presence of a Creator God who is actively revealing himself. What are some other tactics Paul used to lead his listeners to a better understanding of who God is?
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Consider having your group read Romans 1:16-25, connecting Paul’s concerns for the people in both Rome and Athens. The gospel Paul preached had to include a God who was “not far from any one of us” (17:27)
Judgment by the Son (Acts 17:30-31)
This is where things get dicey. Paul seemed to be very understanding of their ignorance in 17:23, but he would not hold back the truth that God will hold us all accountable, even for truth we are ignorant of. A decision is required: Believe in the one, true God, or receive the negative consequences of God’s righteous judgment.
Even though it is difficult to acknowledge God’s judgment, we do others a disservice when we are silent concerning it. Ask your group: Why do I stop short of telling others about God’s judgment? What are we guilty of when we don’t point to the significance of deciding to follow God or not? We must not forget the fullness of God’s love includes his divine role as judge.
Split Decision (Acts 17:32-34)
This part of the story describes the most nerve-racking part of sharing the gospel—the invitation and response. It is not surprising to see these mixed responses to Paul’s speech, and it is encouraging that a portion of the listeners were wanting to hear more.
Nevertheless, as J. Bradley Chance reminds us, “Openness to further discussion is not the same as belief” (J. Bradley Chance, Acts, 313). This should compel us to keep on sharing, receiving encouragement from those who believe while gaining stamina to continue witnessing to those who do not.
The key issue was on resurrection and its possibility. In truth, it was difficult to embrace for the listeners, possibly on account of its inability to be proven. Yet, we see that those who embraced the faith would continue to take part in the gospel sharing.
The word “bold” stands out as one reads this account. Noting Paul’s situation, it would be easy for anyone to lose heart and simply “fall through the cracks” rather than continue sharing. Stepping out into the Areopagus to find a way to meet the intellects of Athens was a bold move.
This is what the gospel does. When we have experienced its impact, it emboldens us to share in spite of lacking reception. We must also be bold by seeking opportunities, finding common ground, and sharing the offensively life-changing gospel.
Ask each member of your group to answer this question: What do I need to overcome so that I will be bold in sharing the good news? Also, have each person identify one friend whom they need to seek an opportunity to witness.
Seeking boldness reminds us of Joshua’s plea, “Be strong and courageous,” because our God is with us. He is the one who is unknown to many, yet wants to be known to all. Our part is to share boldly so no one will be unaware of him.
Heath A. Kirkwood is lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Lorena.