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Paul at Athens

The apostle Paul gives us an insightful example as to how to engage with our culture during his time in the pagan city of ancient Athens as recorded in Acts 17. He spent time in the synagogue, in the marketplace and then was invited to the Areopagus to engage with the philosophers there. These places can represent three different environments or spaces in our own world today.

  1. The first space is the synagogue, which is where Jews and God-fearing Greeks gathered (vs.16-17). These are people who believe in God and share a common language, experience and belief system. This space can refer to the church community today or to a Christian organisation. It is where we share much in common with the people around us, including similar faith, beliefs, customs and language.
  2. Paul also spent time in the marketplace (vs.17).  This was the area outside the synagogue where people went about their daily life and work. There is less common ground here as there is a range of competing beliefs and insider language doesn't connect. This space can refer to the marketplace today, the places outside of the church community where we work and do life. This is where most Christians spend the majority of their time. The challenge is to connect and bring the good news of Jesus to people in this space in a language they can understand.
  3. The third space Paul went was the Areopagus (also called 'Mars Hill'). The people he had influenced in the marketplace invited him there (vs.18-34). He entered another world because of the interest he had created. Here Paul shared the good news of Jesus but never once quoted an Old Testament text, although his comments were based strongly on a biblical worldview. Despite his initial anger at their idolatry, he chose to build rapport with his audience by commending them for their spirituality and he even quoted some local Greek poets.

The result? Some people sneered or mocked, especially when hearing about the resurrection, others wanted to hear more, while others put their faith in Jesus (vs.32-34). We see these same responses today when people hear the Gospel.

There is much we can learn from Paul in living out his faith in these three very different environments, each of which has relevance for us. Today, we will focus on the marketplace.

The Marketplace

Most people spend over half of their waking hours in the ‘workplace’. Everyone works, whether we get paid or not, including students, stay-at-home parents, and retirees. God himself is a worker (Gen.2:1-3; John 5:17) and we are created in his image to work as his representatives on the earth (Gen.2:15). Work, despite the effects of the curse, is to have dignity, value and meaning. Unfortunately, we have been affected by a dualism that divides between the ‘sacred’ (the synagogue) and the ‘secular’ (the marketplace) when in reality all of life is sacred and part of God’s domain (see Col.3:17). God is just as interested in our Mondays as he is in our Sundays!

A few years ago, in our teaching series entitled Your Work God’s Work, we looked at a theology of work. The purpose of work is to: (1) glorify God, (2) serve people, (3) provide for meaningful contribution, and (4) generate wealth. Of course, work isn’t everything. You are not your job. We need to balance work with the other aspects of our life, including family, church, rest and recreation. However, because of the importance of work, how we work really matters (see Col.3:22 – 4:6). Qualities such as diligence, integrity and love usually lead to opportunities to share our faith in Jesus with ‘outsiders’. Each of us needs to be ready to give an answer (Greek apologia, from which we derive the concept of Christian Apologetics) for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15).

When speaking to these pagan people, Paul stated that, “God is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). This directly challenges the concept of certain people being “far from God”. The truth is that God is close to each person and we simply need to pray for them to awake to the reality of God’s existence and love for them. This is usually a process and occurs over a period of time. Our part to play is simply to join the work God is already doing in people’s hearts and lives.

The first Christians preached the same Gospel of Jesus Christ (1Cor.15:11) yet they expressed it in significantly different ways depending on their audience. For instance, Matthew emphasises ‘the kingdom’ while John focuses on ‘eternal life’ and Paul on ‘justification’. These are not different gospels. Contextualisation requires us to think about how the good news of Jesus meets the needs of a particular person, as well as how it confronts their idols (things they pursue to meet those needs but that, in the end, don’t truly satisfy).

Reflection Questions

  1. One approach to evangelism is to invite unchurched people into the ‘first space’. What kind of person is this applicable to? What kind of person may never come straight into a ‘first space’ gathering? What ways could we can make the ‘first space’ more welcoming and meaningful to outsiders?
  2. The majority of our church congregation spends a great deal of their time and energy in the ‘second space’. How can the church better equip people to fulfil God’s purpose for them in this space? What are some keys to them receiving more ‘third space’ opportunities?
  3. Reflect on a ‘third space’ experience you may have had? How did it happen and what was it like? What are some practical ways we can become more comfortable in communicating in ‘third space’ environments?
  4. What are some of the biggest challenges you face each week as a Christian in the workplace?
  5. Take the Workaholic Test. How did you score?
  6. In what ways does the Gospel meet the needs and confront the idols of the people in our world? Consider aspects such as the human longing for intimacy, meaning, purpose, belonging, and contribution.
  7. Conversion is sometimes described as an ‘awakening’. Reflect on your own coming to faith: was it an alarm clock conversion (like Paul on the road to Damascus) or a gradual waking up to the reality of God? How can this inform our evangelistic efforts?
  8. Consider the varied response to Paul’s message at Athens (Acts 17:32-34) and the parable Jesus told of the seed and the different soils (Matthew 13:1-23). How can we draw encouragement from this?

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