Athens was the cultural and intellectual center of the ancient world. If Rome was New York - a bustling city made wealthy by commerce and trade - Athens was Hollywood. It was where the authors, the thinkers, the movers and shakers came to learn, drink wine and sit in judgment over the new ideas of the day. This region was so influential that when Roman Emperors in the Second Century - the height of Rome’s power - wrote to their governors, they didn’t do it in Latin, they did it in Greek. If you wanted to make a difference, you literally had to speak their language.
As a preacher, Paul could have taken a lot of different approaches here. He could have gone full fire-and-brimstone - scared them with the fear of Hell. He might have mocked their religion, challenging them to a Elijah and the Prophets of Baal style contest. Perhaps he could have stood in the market performing miracles to catch their eye.
Paul opts for a different strategy. He starts out by complimenting them - noting how religious they are. He then draws upon something they already believed - namely, that they were so concerned that they might have forgotten about some important god that they erected a shrine “to an Unknown God.” He even quotes some of their own poets in verse 28 (Epimenides and Aratus). Clearly he had done his homework.
In other words, instead of screaming at them, insulting them or challenging them, Paul flatters and persuades them. “You intellectuals are nearly there! You are just missing this one thing…” he seems to say.
And it works. Though some are unconvinced, many want to know more and end up coming to the faith. Even more surprisingly, Paul isn’t prematurely run out of town (a rare accomplishment)!
Christians today could learn a lot from the way Paul engages the world. So often we are tempted either to say nothing or else to gear up for battle. Our cultural image alternates between “Christian kid sitting at the back of the class afraid to mention their faith” and “obnoxious preacher on the street corner telling everyone they are going directly to Hell.”
Paul shows us that by looking for and using the truths our listeners already know, we can find a gentler and more effective way to win them over. We don’t need to be afraid to advocate for our faith, and neither do we need to attack people with a “believe or die!” style message. We can trust that the truth of our message is enough, as long as we don’t let our egos get in the way.
This is a good opportunity to remember that Jesus' instruction to all of us is to “go and make disciples.” Are you doing your part? Do you look for opportunities to share the word? Are you aiming to be persuasive rather than combative? Find inspiration in Paul’s fearless and brilliant evangelism. Go be a witness.