In Acts chapter 17, the apostle Paul is in Athens. He ends up at the place where the Greek philosophers discuss and debate, and ends up giving a long speech to them. Acts tells us that Paul was addressing the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.
In the course of this speech, Paul starts with what the Greeks would understand, and eventually ends up with the gospel message, speaking of the resurrection of Jesus. He was successful, for Acts 17 tells us some became Christians during Paul’s message.
I did a study of the content of Paul’s message in Acts 17, comparing Paul’s message with what the ancient Epicurean and Stoics believed. Without going into tedious detail, the summary is this: Paul understood very well what the pagan philosophers taught, for in his speech, he systematically goes through the main teachings of both of these groups and uses Christianity to refute what they teach, point-by-point. Keep in mind that the Epicureans and Stoics did not teach the same things as what is meant by the modern definitions of the words “epicurean” and ‘stoic”……which is a mistake made by many. The same man, Paul, who tells us to beware of philosophy, understood philosophy well enough to refute bad philosophy with the truth of scripture. Paul’s message was surgically accurate, based on a knowledge of the truth and knowledge of the false philosophy.
Paul’s speech tells us that he understood very well what these philosophers believed. Paul even quotes a couple of their teachers in his sermon. Perhaps a surprise to some is the fact that in Acts 17 the Bible quotes non-Christian philosophers in an effort to give the gospel message to lost people.
What can we learn from this? The Biblical pattern can be summarized as “start where they are.” When we reach out to non-believers, we start at the point where they can understand, and then quickly move them to the message of the gospel.
We should not expect non-Christians to understand Christian lingo, theology, mannerisms, etc. but rather we should adapt the container of our message to fit the culture where we’re speaking. But the content of the message should never change: all people are sinners and separated from God. So God, through Jesus, paid the price for our separation, and gave us life by rising from the dead. Through faith in Jesus, we can have fellowship with God again, and Jesus is the only way of being saved from eternal separation from God.
The questions all Christians should ask themselves are these: Am I reaching out to a lost world? Am I going out to Athens, or am I expecting Athenians to come to Me? When I speak to lost people, am I able to start where they are, then lead them to Jesus, the only true way? Am I able to follow Paul’s example by knowing enough of the false teachings in the world, and enough of God’s truth, to refute the error and present the truth?