First Century Conversion
Quarter 2, Lesson 10

Lesson Ten

The Sermon in Acts 17:22-33

The circumstances in Athens were unlike those in any previously mentioned place. With Paul's sermon in Athens, Luke took Theophilus to God's complete objective. The fact of Jesus' death and resurrection was good news, and this good news was to be shared with everyone. Even those who did not know the living God's identity needed to hear about Jesus.

First, consider Luke's progression. In the gospel of Luke, Luke informed Theophilus about Jesus' origin, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. In Acts, Luke began with Jesus' post-resurrection appearances and his ascension. Progressively, Theophilus learned about the presentation of the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ (1) to Jews and proselytes in Jerusalem, (2) to the Samaritans, (3) to people in Palestine who knew God but were not Jews, (4) to people outside Palestine who knew God but were not Jews, and, finally, (5) to philosophers and idol worshippers who did not know God.

First century Jews in Palestine reacted against giving people who were not Jews direct access to God through Jesus. Acts 11 records the first reaction. Leaders in the Jerusalem church criticized Peter for visiting Cornelius. Acts 15 records the second reaction. Some Christians in the Jerusalem church challenged the conversion of people who were not Jews. The third reaction is seen in the Jewish instigation of Paul's arrest and trials (Acts 21:17-chapter 26). In each of the three instances, some Jewish Christians objected to giving people who were not Jews direct access to God through Jesus Christ. That fact deserves serious consideration.

With Paul's visit to and teaching in Athens, Theophilus was introduced to the reaction of educated people who knew nothing of God or Jesus. Paul toured this highly religious [superstitious] city (verse 23). He was distressed to see such concern for deity combined with such ignorance of God (verse 16). Initially, Paul taught in Athens as he taught previously in other cities. He taught in the synagogue and the market place (verse 17). Neither effort seemed to create fervent reaction or interest.

Some who heard his teachings in the market place were critical. His encounters with the philosophers were not curiosity reactions. They regarded Paul as an argumentative person who used foolish talk to discuss demonic thoughts (verse 18). Their invitation to Paul to address the council that met on Mars Hill was not an expression of polite interest. To them, Paul's message was strange, and they wanted to know its meaning (verse 20). Their attitude was more "how dangerous is this man" than "give the man an opportunity."

In Paul's address, he walked a "fine line." He tried to interest the council without endorsing their idolatrous concepts. He did not wish to alienate the council. He wanted them to give serious consideration to his message. However, Paul did not want them to think that Jesus represented another form of idolatry.

The essential, basic understanding of every religious view, of every faith system is its concept of God. For first century Jewish people, their concept of God was their critical concept. If Jesus did not "fit" their concept of God, Jesus was foolishness. If Jesus "fit" their concept of God, Jesus was Savior. To the proselytes, the Godfearers, and the idol worshippers, their concept of God was critical. To those whose concepts of deity permitted a resurrected Savior, the news of Jesus was received as good news. To those whose concepts of deity excluded a resurrected Savior, the news of Jesus was ridiculous.

Note that Paul approached these people [Epicurean and Stoic philosophers] on a common ground: the concept of God. He did not talk about Israel's history; Israel's history meant nothing to them. He did not use Jewish prophecy; Jewish prophecy meant nothing to them. He did not cite historical Jewish figures; the Jews' ancestors meant nothing to them. He began on the only common ground they shared: the proper concept of God. Their many religious objects in Athens affirmed their interest in deity. Their desire to honor every god created an opportunity for Paul to present the God they did not know.

Carefully note the distinctions Paul drew between their idolatrous concepts of deity and the living God. The living God existed in distinct contrast to their concept of deity.

He is the source of the world and everything in the world (verse 24).

He rules the world (verse 24).

He sustains people; He is not dependent on people (verses 24, 25).

All people are dependent on Him and need to acknowledge him (verses 25, 26).

He is approachable (verse 27).

He is the source of life (verse 28).

In the correct view of God, it is inappropriate to picture God as an object of art formed through human workmanship using precious metals or stone (verse 29). To present God as an object of human art work is an act of ignorance (verse 30). God overlooked such ignorance in the past, but now expects people to repent. People should repent of reducing God to an object of human art because God will judge all inhabitants of the earth on a specific day. An appointed man who was raised from the dead will serve as that judge (verse 31).

Paul's mention of resurrection prompted an immediate reaction. Some mocked. Others said, "We will listen to you later." The majority did not give Paul's message serious consideration. He and his concepts were not dangerous, merely ridiculous. Paul made no attempt to persist. He left. Paul responded to emotional reactions, not to apathy. One member of the counsel, Dionysius, and one woman, Damaris, believed.

For thought and discussion:

Paul did not ask them to add Jesus to the gods they acknowledged. Paul challenged them to change the way they looked at the world. The basic challenge of Christianity is this: "change the way you look at the world."

  1. How was Paul challenging the people on Mars Hill to "change the way you look at the world"?

  2. How did Paul often challenge the Jews to "change the way they looked at the world"?

  3. How will belief in Jesus as the Christ "change the way we look at the world"?

  4. List some differences that belief in God produces in ways people look at the world.

Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 2, Lesson 10

Copyright © 2001
David Chadwell & West-Ark Church of Christ

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