In Acts 17:16-34 we see Paul entering into a world vastly different from his own; here in Greek culture sex was a way of worship, many deities made up the pantheon of worship, men slept with men and woman with woman, and the mind was the central point of being. These Greek truths were the antithesis of Jewish understanding. The heart was the central point of being, men married woman, then slept with them, one God was worshipped and sex other than within marriage was sinful and punished by death. Paul was colliding in complete opposition with this culture, yet he sought to use a communication style which would speak to the people he tried to persuade towards the Gospel.
First, we see Paul being spiritually “provoked…as he saw that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16b ESV). He allowed the Spirit of God to provoke him righteously to action. It doesn’t say he was repulsed by the people, nor does it say he was shocked and decided not to defile himself. The Scripture says he was spiritually provoked by what he saw. There is a difference. The response to repulsion and shock would be hatred, the response to a spiritual provocation is love. Paul was hurting for these folks. We then see that he took time to reason with them (Acts 17:17-20 ESV) and he took time to explain, discuss and dialogue about Jesus and the Gospel. It doesn’t say that he forced them to believe, it doesn’t say that he bitterly argued with them, but rather that he reasoned with them. When I think of reasoning, I think of a father gently trying to teach his child something. I think of this father showing the ideology of the child to be off a bit, but in a loving manner, not a demeaning or hating manner.
This reasoning caused a curious uprising to occur, people desired to know more about what he was talking about. They were hungry to know this new “philosophy” or this new “religion”. It had something to it that caused them to wonder what else was lying within it, so they brought Paul to the Philosophers where they asked Paul to share it with them.
Paul then discusses with them from his observation of the people. Dr. Dirks says “One of the tasks of the cultural worker is to observe what is present in a culture, its beliefs, values and objects, and use these to build bridges to the truth about God” (Week 2 Lecture notes, Dr. Randy Dirks, 2010).
Here we see that Paul cared enough about the people of this different culture to observe them, to study what they study and to share with them his findings of themselves. He took time to understand their culture. Culture as described in the book Intercultural Communication is: “…stored in individual human beings, in the form of their beliefs, attitudes and values” (Rogers, E.M. & Steinfatt, p. 81). He opens with an exhortation of the people for being very religious. He then comments on a deity he saw in the marketplace which said: “To and Unknown God” on the inscription (Acts 17: 23). Paul realized that the people were so afraid of missing a god they were supposed to worship that they made idols to god’s unknown so those gods would be appeased. Paul then uses that portion of culture as a launching point of describing the unknown god, who happens to be the only God they need to worship. He breaks it down using their own philosophers and writers of that day. Warren Wiersbe in his book The Bible Exposition Commentary says this about the following portion of Acts 17:
“Here Paul quoted from the poet Epimenides: “For in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” Then he added a quotation from two poets, Aratus and Cleanthes, “For we are also His offspring.” …This led to Paul’s logical conclusion: God made us in His image, so it is foolish for us to make gods in our own image! Greek religion was nothing but the manufacture and worship of gods who were patterned after men and who acted like men. Paul not only showed the folly of temples and the temple rituals, but also the folly of all idolatry” (Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Ac 17:16).
Here, Paul used a form of cultural exegesis to show the people the folly in their worship of idols, and the importance of worshipping the only God who is the God-Man Jesus Christ. Paul took time to understand them enough to quote back to them their own philosophers to use those portions of culture to point to Jesus.
We should look at preaching the Gospel in such a way as Paul did: it is for all people and we must become all things to all people for the sake of saving some (1 Corinthians 9:22). This means that if we desire to speak to a certain people group the truths laid out in the Scripture, we must study that culture, we must observe them and become wise people as to how they live. We must figure out how to best communicate the truth to them to ensure that they receive it. If we fail to study people of different cultures and fail to see how it is we can best communicate to them the truth of the Gospel, we will have done wrong. We, like Paul need to have a spiritual provocation to action, then we need to start learning as much as we can about those we expect to teach.
For example, I am a youth pastor; it is my job to effectively communicate the gospel to teenagers. If I have no references to their culture and know nothing of their language, they will hardly listen to a word I have to say. They will blow me off as another “adult” who “doesn’t understand them”. So, it is them I must study, them I must learn from, them I must understand or at least seek to understand. If I fail to try, I am in the wrong and they will rightfully ignore me. This is why I studied youth culture for 4 years and continue to attempt to do so. It is important to keep up to speed to live missional lives, for that is what God calls us to and if we’re living missional lives, we will bump into people different from ourselves. It is then we must study, and get to know them in order that we might show them the truth of Jesus Christ.