Engaging the Culture: Lessons from the Apostle Paul

How can we, as Faith Driven Consumers, engage a culture that is increasingly secular and antithetical to Christianity and its values? This week, we are going to look at Acts 17 and read Paul’s famous speech – a bold declaration regarding the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ – to the men of Athens.  If there was ever a people who were “cultured,” it was the ancient Greeks. In fact, the ancient Greeks provided the western world much of its cultural heritage, with the invention of philosophy, drama and history. But chief among these cultural contributions was an extensive religious narrative developed by Homer. This narrative included a vast pantheon of gods and a captivating story about where they came from, who they were, and how they involved themselves in the affairs of men. This theological story would soon become a full-fledged pagan religion that grew to dominate the cultural and religious landscape, not only in Ancient Greece, but also in the subsequent Roman Empire. This Roman Empire, who had adopted the Greeks’ religious traditions, had also expanded them greatly, until these pagan practices dominated the everyday lives of the millions who lived in the Roman Empire by the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The culture of the early church and of the apostles at that time, consisted of values, traditions and practices which were utterly antithetical and hostile to Christianity. Monotheistic claims of one perfectly good, big “g” God, who shares His glory and His greatness with no other “god,” were not very fashionable to say the least. Still, Paul, while in Athens, addressed these men in the Areopagus – the forum, or marketplace of ideas – and proclaimed the gospel to these men anyway. Let’s read the Apostle Paul’s great proclamation of the gospel and see if we can pull out a few important truths around how we can engage our own secular culture:

[22] 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.’ [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. [30] The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, [31] because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

[32] Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” [33] So Paul went out from their midst. [34] But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (ESV)


Here are 4 things we can learn from this important passage:

  1. Paul knew his culture. The apostle Paul understood the people he was addressing. He was educated and aware that the ideas they shared were contrary to what he knew to be true. But just because he knew the truth, and just because we know the truth, doesn’t mean Christians should be ignorant of the values and beliefs within culture that stand against those revealed in Scripture. Knowing your audience means caring enough about others to understand what they believe and caring enough about their salvation to know how to reach them.
  2. Paul related to his culture. It’s not enough just to know the various beliefs and values of a culture. As Christians, if we are going to make a difference, we have to engage our culture in a way that will encourage others to listen. Paul knew this very well and demonstrated this important practice when he spoke to the men in Athens. He quoted two ancient Greek poets to them in verse 28, and even affirmed what they said. But what made this so effective evangelistically was that he recognized a grain of truth in what these pagan authors had said. He used it to show how much more profound, intuitive and ultimately, how true it was when understood through a biblical lens. St. Augustine said, “All truth is God’s truth,” so we should find ways to point them to Christ through their own beliefs and values, even those which are missing Him.
  3. Paul doesn’t compromise truth. Even though Paul understood the culture and the audience he was speaking to and related to them using their own ideas and beliefs, he demonstrated his courage and integrity by never sacrificing the truth of gospel. He boldly proclaimed the One True God as the very thing they are missing. He said their efforts have been in vain and that they are all deceived. Paul demonstrated his love for his neighbors, including the leaders in his culture, by telling them the truth. He said, that for all their efforts to cover their religious bases, so to speak, they have utterly failed to find God and are helplessly lost without Him. This is a difficult truth to convey in today’s culture. And to be sure, we should proclaim it with love and grace, but the apostle Paul shows us the importance of the truth of the gospel and the need for it to be proclaimed as such.
  4. Paul makes an impact. What is the fruit of our proclaiming the gospel in a world that is secular and hostile to the truth of Christianity? By God’s grace we will make an impact in our culture. Quite obviously, Paul’s testimony in Athens had an impact. Not only does the passage say that some came to believe because of it, but the impact of this speech is still reverberating through the kingdom over two thousand years later. And yes, the next time you witness to a coworker, it won’t be included in the Word of God. BUT, we can be assured that when we engage our culture like Paul did his, we will make a powerful impact in our community. Why? Because of our dynamic and well-rehearsed evangelistic strategy, right? WRONG. We can be assured only because of the power of the gospel, which can change lives and transform cultures.

Armed with great examples like the ones from the apostle Paul above, the early church not only survived in a remarkably hostile and anti-Christian environment, it flourished. As our culture becomes increasingly secular and we find ourselves becoming marginalized as Faith Driven Consumers, we should remember this great proclamation in the face of cultural opposition, do our best to follow Paul as he followed Christ, and engage our culture like he engaged his. And when we do, we will begin to see a transformation in our communities, by the power of the gospel.

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