Do you ever feel at a loss for how to interact with that skeptical friend, family member or coworker? What about spiritual conversations with unbelievers who seem hostile or unlikely to ever submit to the Lordship of Christ? How should we engage as ambassadors of Jesus?
In Acts 17:16-34, the Apostle Paul gives us an example of engagement in his first century context that can help us consider our own attitudes, methods and the tone of our conversations with unbelievers today.
Back in Paul’s day, Athens was a great intellectual center. People who lived there were very interested in having a variety of religious and philosophical discussions. For example, the city was home to the Parthenon—a huge temple honoring the city’s patron goddess, Athena. What can we learn from the way Paul approached his ministry in this particular context?
Paul's Example in Acts 17
Here are three cultural engagement lessons from Paul’s engagement in Athens:
1. Engage from a Heart of Compassion
Paul cared about people–even when their beliefs seemed a world away from his Jewish background. Seeing a city full of idols “greatly distressed” him (v.16), especially knowing how God dealt with his own people’s idolatry in the past.
But Paul didn’t get flustered or defensive. He didn’t show up with a spiritual chip on his shoulder, even though he was offended by the idolatry which enslaved the entire city.
On an episode of the Table Podcast, Dr. Mark Bailey highlighted the tone and character of Paul’s speech:
“He doesn't hedge on the truth at all…but he doesn't do it by saying, ‘You're all wrong, you're all wrong.’”
Like Jesus, his engagement was all about compassion. How often is compassion on our hearts and minds when we seek to engage the culture?
2. Prepare for Insults and Interest
It’s no surprise that rejection comes with the territory for ambassadors of Christ. On another episode of the Table Podcast, Dr. Darrell Bock notes:
“Popularity is not something that the New Testament tells us to expect. It is, again, another tension in the Christian life that we reach out to the world, we stretch out a hand to the world, we say, ‘God cares for you and loves you,’ and yet there is a rejection that often comes with that. But Jesus said, ‘If they rejected me, they're going to reject you.’”
Indeed, some of Paul’s listeners basically called him an ignorant show-off who was repurposing ideas from other philosophies. Still, that doesn’t mean that everyone will reject the gospel. For example, Paul’s message was accepted by people like Dionysius, Damaris, and others (v.34). And some who didn’t come to faith were intrigued and wanted keep the conversation going (v.19).
We can’t know how God might use our conversations in the spiritual journeys of people who will eventually come to faith. Don’t give up on your friends, family or co-workers! After all, persuasion often happens incrementally. Gently inviting your skeptical friend into the next conversation can be a step in the right direction.
3. Be a Wise, Respectful Challenger
In Athens, Paul spoke to a diverse people representing a variety of religious backgrounds. But he approached the conversation this way: “What you worship without knowing it, this I proclaim to you” (v.23). Here, we see a kind of tension in Paul’s method. Dr. Bock explains ,
“In Paul address to the people of Athens…the sense is he's saying, ’I sense you are people grappling to come to grips with the unknown god’…You see Paul engaging with this tension of a hand extended on the one hand, but there is a challenge that's wrapped up in it, and you watch him wrestle with the skill. And the tone of it is engaging.”
Indeed, it’s interesting to see Paul’s wisdom in the way he challenged people. He respects their quest for spirituality, but then he clarifies what they’re looking for. In fact, he defines it. Paul knew where they were spiritually and where they needed to go in order to find a real relationship with God—the one thing which truly brings lasting human fulfillment.
This should challenge us to engage with unbelievers in a way that respects their quest for truth or spirituality. Let people know you are sympathetic to their situation and seek to understand their viewpoint in all of this, even as your gently turn the conversation towards the Bible and the hope you have in Jesus.
Learning from Paul
A countercultural part of this kind of engagement is helping people to think differently from the views of the prevailing culture, and consider the claims of Christ. Paul’s time in Athens can teach us simple lessons on engaging the culture as an ambassador of Jesus—caring about people with a tone of compassion, being prepared for interest alongside rejection, and wisely navigating spiritual conversations.
See how Paul’s engagement in Acts 17 can help you engage the culture for Christ. Watch How to Function as a Christian in a Shifting Culture
About the Contributors
Mikel Del Rosario (ThM, 2016; PhD, 2022) is a Professor of Bible and Theology at Moody Bible Institute. While at DTS, he served as project manager for cultural engagement at the Hendricks Center, producing and hosting The Table podcast. You can find him online at ApologeticsGuy.com, the Apologetics Guy YouTube channel, and The Apologetics Guy Show podcast.