Brethren, we are not apostles, but their example instructs us. We cannot be exactly like the apostle Paul, but we can learn basic principles and practices from the biblical record of Paul’s missionary service. We can even develop a biblical evangelistic or missions methodology based upon Paul’s example. A careful study of Paul’s missionary efforts reveals that his methodology exhibits flexibility. Although he often begins with the synagogues (Acts 17:1–4, 10), he makes exceptions—as he does at Philippi, going to a group of women meeting for prayer outside the city (Acts 16:11–13). Each strategic church plant comes about through different means. Here we examine only one target city: Athens.
Paul’s gospel ministry in Thessalonika and Berea comes to an end when the attacks from anti-gospel forces take aim at him (Acts 17:5–14). Luke remains in Thessalonika while Silas and Timothy go on to Berea, where they stay a little longer after Paul’s departure for Athens (Acts 17:15). Paul has come to this great population center to escape the opposition and to await Silas and Timothy.
After his arrival in Athens, Paul sends for Silas and Timothy so that they might join him as soon as possible (Acts 17:16). Later, in order not to neglect the infant churches he has already established, Paul sends Timothy back to Thessalonika (1 Thessalonians 3:1) and Silas to Philippi (Philippians 4:15). Paul never neglects infant churches in order to advance the gospel ministry to new regions and new cities. His methodology involves the total care of all the churches (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:28). Moving onward never means abandonment.
Paul might not plan to remain long in Athens. The strategy he develops seems to be to follow the Via Egnatia from Philippi all the way to Dyrrhachium on the Adriatic Sea and then to go on to Rome as soon as possible. However, as usual, God has other plans for the apostle (see Romans 1:13; 15:22–23). God knows what Paul does not yet know—that Claudius has expelled the Jewish community in Rome and that the authorities in Macedonia will be hostile to Paul’s gospel preaching. Whenever Paul must alter his plan due to circumstances, he still watches for new opportunities to spread the gospel message.
The Spirit of God moves Paul’s spirit to be provoked (literally, to go into a “paroxysm”) by the rampant idolatry and humanistic philosophies he encounters among the proud Athenians (Acts 17:16). Therefore, he cannot remain silent. He commences his ministry in Athens by meeting with Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue (Acts 17:17). The antidote to idolatry and to secular humanism always exists in the gospel concerning Jesus Christ. The Athenians need to repent and to believe in the Christ of the gospel. Paul begins with those who understand God’s antipathy to idolatry—Jews and proselytes. But, he also goes out among the idolaters to preach the gospel in the market place on a daily basis.
Paul uses the synagogue as a means of contacting godly Gentiles who have become proselytes to biblical Judaism out of idolatry. Those individuals become his chief contacts enabling him to get the gospel into the higher echelons of Athenian society. He also adapts the Athenian custom of spreading new concepts in the market. The Agora (the market) is the gathering place of philosophers and a place for conducting hearings by the city fathers.
When Paul receives an invitation to present his message in public, he accepts it (Acts 17:18–21). He meets with the chief philosophers and legal authorities of Athens on Mars Hill. (Interestingly, the Supreme Court in Greece still bears the name “Areopagus.”) It does not matter to Paul that some people refer to his gospel preaching as the rantings of an “idle babbler.” That kind of attention works to his advantage in gaining a hearing. The leaders of Athens might think that they can toy with Paul, entertain the onlookers, and gain an easy philosophical victory. Paul, however, sees this as a perfect opportunity for the gospel.
Paul seizes upon an object, an altar, by which to begin his oration (Acts 17:22–23). His acute attention to his cultural setting provides him a tool for engaging his hearers’ interest. As he speaks, he demonstrates his grasp of biblical theology by focusing on God as Creator, Sustainer, Sovereign Lord, and the omnipresent Source of life (Acts 17:24–28). Paul also quotes from Aratus and/or Cleanthes (Acts 17:28), showing his knowledge of the pagan writers and philosophers so familiar to his hearers. Athens’ leaders must be surprised. Citing the Greek poet keeps the attention of his audience and sharpens the impact of his biblical teaching. After arguing that the “unknown god” is the Creator Himself, Paul calls upon the assembly to repent of their idolatry and seek the righteousness only Jesus Christ can provide (Acts 17:29–31). Paul’s gospel presentation emphasizes the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:18, 31–32; cp. 1 Corinthians 15:1–3). That one truth distinguishes those who believe from those who do not believe (Acts 17:32–34).
The leaders of the Areopagus do not extend permission for Paul to continue his preaching of Jesus and His resurrection. Legally, this ties Paul’s hands. The outreach in Athens ceases at that point, as far as the biblical record is concerned. Since Paul plants no church in Athens, it appears, from a limited human perspective, to be a failure. In actuality, Paul’s overall strategy appears to be to identify the believers and at least to spend a little time with them (Acts 17:34). We do not know what eternal glory God obtains for Himself through the few who believe. They may be instrumental to the work of God in ways we still do not understand. What we do know, though, is that Dionysius, one of the thirty members of the Areopagus court, becomes a Christian, along with the woman Damaris and a few other people. Paul soon leaves for Corinth (Acts 18:1) and the next location for his gospel ministry.
Implications for Our Gospel Ministries
What can we learn from Paul’s brief time in Athens? Here are but a few of the basic principles and practices we might apply to our own gospel ministries:
- Organize a team of devoted evangelists or missionaries who can pick up various aspects of the gospel-preaching ministry. Paul chose men whom he knew could help solidify significant advances in planting a church.
- Have a strategy for opening a gospel-preaching ministry—begin somewhere in a setting with which you have some familiarity. Paul’s setting was normally the synagogue.
- Be flexible. Be willing to depart from your normal plan of action in order to take advantage of a key gospel-preaching opportunity. Paul went to a group of praying women at Philippi and preached in the market place in Athens.
- Trust God to initiate a gospel-preaching ministry and to close it—in His timing and for His reasons. Paul used wisdom in moving on when persecution increased to a point of endangering others, especially new believers.
- Provide for the encouragement and teaching of infant churches, even if you have to move on to another location. Never abandon infant churches. Remain prepared to return when possible.
- Seize any opportunity to preach the gospel of Christ and His resurrection publicly—whether in the market place or in a forum of philosophers, teachers, and/or government officials.
- Carefully observe your surrounding culture and read its literature in order to use it to a gospel-preaching advantage when it is appropriate.