Any road to understanding marketplace Christianity, or how we need to approach sharing the gospel in the wider world around us, has got to go through Acts 17, that great chapter in the history of the early church which includes Paul’s encounter with the philosophers of the Greek intellectual community in Athens. As in the other cities in the region that Paul visited and established churches, he began by preaching and debating with fellow Jews in the Jewish synagogue. “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’” (Acts 17:17-18).
So they invited him to come to a place called the Areopagus where “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” This would be none other than the public square of Athens. It sounds like the ultimate of free speech.
Paul relished this opportunity, and though, as always, he had help from the Holy Spirit as he spoke, you can also surmise that he had been planning this speech for some time in his mind. This is the same Paul who in 1 Corinthians 9 stated that he became all things to all people that by all means he might save some. “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law, so as to win those not having the law” (1 Corinthians 9:21). Indeed, Paul here is standing in the shoes of the Greek philosophers of his day that he might find a way to speak with them. Where he starts would surprise the most liberal of saints.
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 you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 17:22-23)
First, he compliments them on their spirituality, and then he reveals that he has been doing some research: he’s been observing their objects of worship — their idols. Now why would he study their pagan, in some cases demonic, idolatrous forms of worship? Because he can’t stand inside their shoes without knowing what they worship, and he’s looking for something he might have in common with them. In the process he found a golden opportunity; he found an idol to an unknown god. That enabled him to proclaim that he was there to reveal to them what they had been already worshiping without knowing it.
“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.’ (Acts 17:24-28)
This paragraph tells us a lot about Paul’s marketplace strategy which is nothing short of brilliant, and, I think, different than what we would have tried. Having studied their objects of worship, we would most likely have been tempted to condemn them for what we found. After all, this was a religious culture of Satanic worship and temple prostitution. But instead of that, he reasoned with them over the fact that if God is God, how could we have created Him with human hands? Then he argued that if God is God, He doesn’t need anything; it’s us who need Him. And then he painted this desperate and paradoxical picture where we as humans are groping around looking for God, when, in fact, God is all around us. We just can’t see Him. It’s as if we were fish swimming in an ocean looking for water. And finally, both sayings: “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “We are his offspring,” were quotes they would have recognized from their own poets. It would be like us quoting a famous Bob Dylan song in the marketplace.
Notice how Paul didn’t take down one god to put up another. He simply showed how the true God was already among them — indeed all around them. He did not seek to bash them, but to open their eyes.
The lessons here are obvious:
Observe the culture.
Find something you can compliment them on.
Find something you can agree with.
Find out what people are worshiping.
Ask how that’s going for them.
Look for something you can attach the message of the gospel to.
Look for what you can use from art, poetry, film, theater and the general culture.
Affirm, don’t condemn.
Embrace your own need while trying to point out theirs.
Don’t feel like you have to say everything you know in one hearing.
Paul concluded his talk by indicating the resurrection of Christ proved He was from God and that’s why they should pay attention to Him.
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 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 17:32-34)
People looking for God are like fish in the ocean looking for water.