The effective ability to discuss and engage on spiritual matters goes beyond heart and conviction. It involves sensitivity, tact, and even strategic wisdom. The Bible gives us a blueprint for doing so. ♦
In Athens, Greece, Mars Hill (also called the Hill of Ares or the Areopagus in the Bible – see Acts 17:19,22) is a literal hill just below the larger mount called the Acropolis on which stands various Greek temples including the famous and massive Parthenon.
Mars Hill (pictured) was a meeting place for the highest court in Ancient Greece for civil, criminal, and religious matters. This “Classical” or the “Hellenic” period ran for most of the 5th and 4th centuries BC (roughly between 500 BC to 320 BC). These were the times and stomping grounds of the famous Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and the great playwrights Sophocles and Euripides.
As we find in the Bible, even under Roman rule in the time of the New Testament (1st century AD), Mars Hill was still an important meeting place where philosophy, religion, and law were discussed.
The Apostle Paul and Mars Hill
In any period of time or location there are wide variances in human beliefs, ideas, philosophies, education, and information exposure. The time of Paul’s missionary trip to Greece was no exception.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. – Acts 17:16-21
Paul was facing Scripture-savvy Jews who knew their Old Testament history and were skeptical of news of a risen Messiah, as well as secular Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The Epicureans were known as moderate yet practical utilitarians. They believed in empirical reasoning, no after-life, and that all the world was made of atoms, even the gods who were distant and non-involved. Stoics sought happiness in virtue not material goods and believed attainment of that came through self-control, namely via meditation, training and self-vigilance.
He approaches them in a very intelligent and effective way, fully respectful of their philosophical differences and penchant:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So what you therefore worship as unknown, this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though He is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” – Acts 17:22-31
Paul the Skilled, Master Salesman
Paul could engage effectively at the level of deeply religious Jews given his Hebrew pedigree and knowledge of the Old Testament history and Scriptures. Great ministers of the Gospel, like great salespeople, know their product and its context.
Paul could also deal with the secular intellectual elite of his day, the equivalent to our modern-day atheists. (I would have loved to see that Great Debate had it been set up!)
But note how wise and gentle, yet shrewd Paul is in his discourse. He finds immediate common ground with reference to their being “very religious in every way” and their altar to the “Unknown God.” There is no harsh confrontation or ridicule of their ignorance or philosophical bent. He connects them to the one true God and how they can be reconciled to Him.
This is a classic example of good salesmanship and Christian apologetics (reasoned arguments) in action where the Gospel message (product) is presented in a logical manner that is conversational and not overly didactic and heavy-handed.
He nails the sales message while reaching back and positioning human life today in the context of God the all-powerful yet practically approachable Creator. He closes out his presentation with a challenge to end the period of ignorance and give way to full repentance to avoid coming judgement. He reinforces his point with the fact that all of this is backed up by the unavoidable fact of the resurrection of Christ from the dead.
Long Sales Cycle
What’s interesting here is that Paul didn’t convert everyone immediately on Mars Hill. As the Bible states and history records, some were intrigued and some scoffed and mocked him. Paul never did establish a church in Athens like he did in Corinth 65 miles away.
Sometimes it’s a long sales cycle.
But ultimately, Athens, Greece, like the entire Roman Empire, succumbed to the power and truth of the Christian gospel message. As the old song says: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going…”
Can you effectively engage in Christian apologetics?
At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. – Acts 17:33-34