Biblical Theology Weekly Bible Study Acts 17:16-34. Sowing Seeds

From: "Biblical Theology Weekly Bible Study" <>
Subject: Biblical Theology Weekly Bible Study Acts 17:16-34. Sowing Seeds
Date: December 30th 2017

Acts 17:16-34.
Sowing Seeds.


As we travel through each day's activities we see people who are searching for something that is missing from their lives.  We see this in the marketplace, at work, and through the media of newspapers, radio and TV.  We see this continually through social media posts.  People are engaged in a never-ending search for peace, security and significance, often seeking to find it by identifying with ungodly, worldly, and materialistic sources.  Such identifications are becoming so great that people divide themselves into rival groups who deride and even hate each other.  This is a form of tribalism that characterized ancient pre-Christian human culture.  In this tribalism there is no peace, there is no security, and there is no realization of true personal significance. 


The good news is that every Christian has the answer for those who are searching.  There is one source where those people will find the peace, the love, and the significance they desire: the Hoy-Spirit inspired good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  However, those people who are searching are not hearing the good news due to two primary reasons:  (1) Christians who are unwilling to share their faith, and (2) non-Christians who are unwilling to listen.


If people of faith are obedient to God's calling, they will be part of the solution for both of these hurdles.  Christians can affect the hard hearts of the lost through the uncompromised demonstration of agape love, and then communicate to them the source of that love.  The following biblical passage, taken from the book of Acts, provides us with an example of evangelistic action in circumstances very much like our own.  Paul is on his second missionary journey, recorded in Acts 15:36 - 18:23.  He has traveled from Jerusalem up the coast a distance of about 1200 miles through Antioch, Syria and Cilicia, Phrygia and Galatia, to Thessalonica and Berea.  On his return trip he swings more west, through Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Caesarea and Antioch.


Athens was a principal city of the ancient Greek state of Attica and is now the modern capital of Greece.  The city was built about 5 miles (8 km) from the Mediterranean coast, around a rocky hill known as the Acropolis, atop which lie Athens’ famous monuments, most notably the Parthenon.  Following the Athenian victories over the Persians at Maraghon (490 B.C.) and a decade later at Salamis, Athens reached the height of its cultural and political influence under Pericles (459-431 B.C.).  Although conquered by Rome, its culture and learning spread throughout the Roman world. 


Ancient Athens gained fame as the home of philosophers and sculptors, and for its early experiments in democracy.  First-century Athens, however, had no real role in the spread of Christianity.  The Bible mentions Athens only in Acts 17.  That chapter summarizes a sermon which Paul gave there in defense of his teaching.  The sermon shows how the apostle adapted his presentation of the Gospel to his audience without compromising basic truths.  Thus, Paul does not start by quoting from the OT, as Peter did when speaking to Jews (Acts 2-4).  Instead Paul reasons as one of the Greek philosophers might.  He actually quotes a Greek poet (Acts 17:28), not to prove his point, but to establish common ground with his listeners.  In this way, Paul leads his listeners to a logical conclusion about God's nature (Acts 17:24-31), and then launches into a presentation of revealed truth.  This God, whose existence can be demonstrated through reason, "has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:31).   No church was established in Athens at that time, but some of Paul's listeners did respond to the message and believe.


A Sincere Concern for the Lost


Acts 17:16.  Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.


We find Paul in Athens, and left by those who were escorting him.  He sent them to tell Silas and Timothy to come and join him as soon as possible.  It is about 175 miles from Berea to Athens, about a two-week round trip.  Paul had plenty of time to observe the Greek culture and was greatly distressed at their lost state.  We see here an important attribute of the evangelical Christian: a true concern for the lost.  Paul was distressed to see all of the idols around the city, because people were engaging in the useless activity of worshipping them as they seek for answers to questions that are found only in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


Promoting Interest in the Message


Acts 17:17  Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.


As was Paul's usual practice, he used the synagogue as a base from which to teach the Gospel.  The usual response by the Jews to his message was the immediate persecution of Paul.  However, the Greeks were very interested in philosophical arguments and were more tolerant of other's ideas.  So, Paul "reasoned" with them.  It is likely that his presentation to the gathering of Athenians was principally different from that of his other, similar, enounters as he patterned his arguments to that which is common to Greek debate.   Paul met them where they are, and used their own form of argument.  He spoke with the entire community that can be categoried into three groups: (1) Jews, (2) the Greeks who sought God, but would not be circumcised, and (3) in the marketplace, the agora, those common Greeks who did not know of God.  Basically, Paul was talking with anyone who would listen.  He was looking for every opportunity to communicate the Gospel.  This illustrates a second characteristic of the evangelical Christian: seeking opportunities to share the love of God and the gospel.    One of the weaknesses of the modern Christian church is the hesitancy of its members to seek and follow such opportunities.  For most Christians, their love for others is not sufficient enough to make the effort to bring to them the good news of salvation.  This hesitancy to proclaim the blessings of God is something that Paul would not have understood, as he could not help to share what he knew to be the most important news in all the world.


Acts 17:18.  Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.


Paul was taking advantage of sharing the gospel while waiting for Silas and Timothy, and he was noticed by some of the philosophers of the area, particularly some Epicureans and Stoics.  Epicureans followed the teaching of Epicurus (341 - 270 BC) who taught that happiness and pleasure was the goal of life.  Epicurus held that God may exist, but is not concerned with the events of mankind.  When a person died, life was over.  This is the basic philosophy behind secular humanism.  The Stoics were almost the opposite of the Epicureans.  Their founder was Zeno (336 - 264 BC) who taught from a porch (stoa), giving his philosophy its name.  He taught that both God and Man, and all creation, assume mutual components in the word, the logos, or universal wisdom that pervades the universe.  God is all, and is in all.  Everything is part of God, and God is a part of everything.  This philosophy is the basis of much eastern and new-age thought, and also implied in the theology of George Lucas’ movies, “Star Wars.”  “May the Force be with you.”


The Greek philosophers accused Paul of being a “babbler,” literally a chicken that pecks off of the ground.  They used this term to refer to someone who takes a little bit of different philosophies and combines them to create their own.  Others recognized that he was talking about a God who is much different from their own well-studied list of deities.  Paul’s position was so radically different than anything that they had heard, the were presented with a unique challenge.


Acts 17:19-21  And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? 20For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. 21(For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)


The Areopagus was a hill in central Athens where a community of philosophers resided.  There was a group of philosophers who met regularly there, and that group was also referred to as the Areopagus.  Their favorite pastime was talking about and listening to the latest ideas, and Paul was providing them with some new ideas to listen to and to debate.


Paul experienced the most ideal of open doors.  He was asked to share the gospel in an environment where it was not generally known.  Such opportunities are probably rare for most people of faith, and most would probably not be overfilled with confidence at the opportunity.  However, when one shares the love of God with someone who is not expecting it, the same opportunities are presenting themselves as we meet people where they are.  Paul was meeting a group of philosophers on their own turf, bringing to them an engagement that fit the context of the situation.  Likewise, when a person of faith shares the love of God, it can be done fully within the context of the situation, and when encountered wisely and engaged with the power of the Holy Spirit, lives can be changed.


Sharing the Message Where the People Are


Acts 17:22-23.  Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. 23For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.


Notice that Paul did not start his message with an overview of the Old Testament and its prophesies concerning the coming of the Messiah as he would in the synagogue.  He did not start with “In the beginning” and bring a presentation of God’s purpose, our need, God’s provision, and our response, a common sequence that is used in faith sharing today.  Instead, Paul observed the setting in which he was immersed, and used the characteristics of this setting to shape his message.  This is an illustration of the third attribute of the evangelical Christian:  he shares the gospel in the context of the hearer.


Paul started the gospel presentation with a complement, again his normal methodology in both his oral and written presentations.  He treated the people with respect and showed respect for their beliefs.  What would have happened if Paul had stood up and told the people that they were all wrong in their beliefs and that they had to listen to him to be saved from their impending peril?  Though he may have been correct in his statement, it would not have been received since the Greek philosophers would have no basis upon which to evaluate his argument.  By approaching his presentation in the context of the situation Paul was able to continue his presentation without compromising his respect for the hearers.  People will not listen to a message that comes from someone who is treating them with arrogance or disrespect.  However, people will be responsive when treated respectfully, and they can perceive that the speaker is sincerely interested in the well-being of the hearer.


Paul found a way to complement them in their search for truth, and announced that he had some answers for them.  As he wandered through the city, he found an altar "TO AN UNKNOWN GOD."  He used this observation as the basis for his gospel presentation.  When I went through a witness training program, we were taught that upon entering the home, we were to look around and try to learn something of the people from their surroundings.  A fish hanging on the wall may be used to open a conversation about their interest in fishing, toys strewn around may provide an opportunity to talk about their children.  It is imperative that we show genuing interest in their lives, and observation of their surroundings can result in the opening of doors of communication.


Acts 17:24-31  God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; 25Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; 26And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; 27That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: 28For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. 29Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. 30And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: 31Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.


Paul presented the gospel in a form that was unique to the situation.  One of the characteristics of formal witness training programs are a common, memorized, gospel presentation.  Many popular witness training programs require the student to memorize a single "canned" presentation of the gospel using specific questions and scriptural references.  In reality, the sharing of such a presentation in its entirety is rare.  Instead, the known presentation is used as a foundation to share the message of the gospel in a way that the hearer can identify with, using the training to “stay on track” and have some resources to present while appropriating more of the presentation from the context of the situation. 


Paul started his presentation by describing the God that they have missed in their search.  Note that Paul did not mention the pantheon of gods that they were substituting for the one true God.  He simply used this situation to describe the characteristics of that one true God: the one who made all things, including mankind, so that men would seek him, reach out to him and find him.  He told them that God is not far from them.  He then quoted from a well known Greek poet, presumably Aratus, that they all knew and respected, providing a bridge of commonality between them.  The Greek word for offspring is the same used to describe "race", "nation", "kind," saying that God is the source of life.  In the past, God knew of people's ignorance, but since Christ was crucified, there is no reason for any more ignorance.  He will now judge the world through Jesus, proven by His resurrection.


Sowing Seeds of Faith.


Acts 17:32-34.  And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. 33So Paul departed from among them. 34Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


What was the result of Paul's testimony to the Areopagus?  Some (likely most of them) sneered at would have sounded to them like an outrageous idea.  However, some were curious and yet still rejected his statement.  A few wanted to hear more, and a few believed.  Likewise, what can we expect when we share Christ with the lost?  Some people will come right out and tell us that we are nuts.  Some will listen and quietly reject the message.  Some will be curious but too busy with other things.  A few might listen and respond.  Christians are sowers of the seeds of faith, not reapers of the harvest.  Jesus taught this in Matthew, Chapter 13:


Matthew 13:3-9.  And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; 4And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: 5Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: 6And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. 7And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: 8But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. 9Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.


Matthew 13:18-23.  Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower. 19When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side. 20But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; 21Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended. 22He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. 23But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.


God has called all faithful Christians to sow the seeds of faith in others, sharing His love with the world, and communicating the Gospel to them whenever the opportunity arises.  We will find many different ways that His love and gospel can be shared.  Let us always be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit, looking for opportunities to share His love and do so within the context of the situation, appropriating the wisdom of the LORD and seeking His lead as we work to bring the peace, love and joy of faith to a lost and dying world.


Acts 17:16-34; 1 Thessalonians 3:1.

Two notable examples are Evangelism Explosion and Continuing Witness Training, the latter a program of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Acts 1:9.


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Written each week by our publisher and editor, John W. (Jack) Carter, these are original, researched, commentaries that may be used for individual study or small-group discussion.
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