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.
— Acts 17:22
Once as I was listening to Christian television in the United States, I paused on one channel to hear what a particular minister was saying to his audience both at home and on air. As I listened, I was amazed at the derogatory way in which he was speaking to people. He spoke to them as if they were idiots! This minister obviously thought the way he was preaching to people was funny or cute. But by “talking down” to his audience, he gave the impression that he was on a much higher level than they were and that they were honored to be able to sit under his magnificent and wise teaching.
I was totally turned off by the minister’s preaching style and felt sorry for the people who had to listen to him each week! I thought, I don’t care if I ever hear this guy preach again! The truth is, his message was awesome, but his delivery was atrocious! After all, who likes being spoken to in a condescending manner?
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This is why it is so important for us to be careful in the way we reach out to people with the Gospel — especially unbelievers!
One of the best demonstrations of how to reach into the hearts of unbelievers is found in Acts 17:22, where Paul was addressing the high court of Athens on Mars Hill. Paul’s preaching in that idolatrous court is a shining example to us all of how to cross cultural boundaries, how to appeal to unbelievers, and how to address people in a way that opens their hearts instead of closing them. This is Paul’s clearest and most lengthy message directed toward a pagan audience recorded in the book of Acts. There is a wealth of lessons to be learned from his approach to these lost listeners that will help us cut across cultural barriers and direct our message into the hearts of the unbelievers God is calling us to reach.
The verse tells us, “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.”
First of all, Paul said, “Ye men of Athens.…” The truth is, Paul was likely speaking to the most pagan crowd he had ever addressed in his entire life! These weren’t just sinners; these were blatant sinners involved in the deepest, darkest secrets of the occult and, most likely, in depravity and perversion of the lowest nature. If he had taken the approach of some, he would have said, “You sinners and rebels!” However, had Paul taken this approach, he would have immediately closed the hearts of his listeners. He would have been viewed as an intellectual idiot, and the door to the Gospel in Athens would have been slammed shut!
What did it hurt for Paul to speak to these pagan leaders with dignity and respect? Whether or not he agreed with them, they were people made in the image of God Almighty, and they represented the highest court of the land. Therefore, although these Athenian men were sinners, Paul addressed them with respect and honor.
Second, Paul said, “Ye men of Athens, I perceive.…” The word “perceive” is the Greek word theoreo, which means to gaze at or to look upon. This is the root from which we get the word theater. By using this word, Paul alerted the high court with the knowledge that he had been watching and studying them and their culture. This let them know that he had not shunned them or shut them out. As a guest in the city, Paul had watched them. As one might study a performance on stage, Paul had witnessed their city, their culture, and their religion.
Third, Paul said, “Ye men of Athens, I perceive in all things that ye are very superstitious.…” I want to draw your attention to the word “superstitious,” which comes from the Greek word deisidaimonia, a compound of the words deilos and daimonia. The word deilos means fear or respect, and the word daimonia is the word for demons, although in Classical Greek language, it could also be used to mean gods.
But Paul didn’t say, “I perceive that in all things you are demonized and eaten up with black magic, witchcraft, Satanism, and demonic activity that will doom your souls to hell!” Instead, Paul appealed to the Athenian leaders on a much higher level. He said, “…I perceive in all things that ye are very superstitious….”
The Greek tense used for “superstitious” is comparative, which means Paul wasn’t just calling them religious; he was actually telling them:
- “…You are deeply religious and devoted to your gods….”
- “…Compared to people I’ve met elsewhere, you are among the most religious I have ever encountered….”
Paul never said he agreed with them or their false doctrine. He just found something about which he could compliment them, thus building a bridge between them and himself. With this one statement, that bridge was built and Paul’s audience received him with interest rather than as an enemy. This method kept the door open so he could deliver his entire message to the end, enabling him to shine the Gospel light into their world of darkness. All of Paul’s listeners would not receive Christ that day. But because he took this approach rather than a negative, condemning, stone-throwing style of preaching, the Holy Spirit was able to reach into the hearts of some of those who heard Paul, and they gave their lives to Jesus Christ as a result.
The truth is, the people on that high court were not just idol worshipers. As long-term citizens of Athens, they were most likely deeply religious and brazen idol worshipers. Because the city was sunken into moral depravity, it is probable that these men on the high court also led morally depraved lives, as was characteristic of Athenians.
But attacking and insulting these men on the high court wouldn’t have gotten Paul anywhere. So rather than insult them, he found common ground on which he could appeal to their souls and buy enough time to deliver the message of the Cross to them. As a result of his approach, there is no sense in this passage that the Athenian leaders felt attacked, talked down to, or insulted. Paul’s approach in speaking to these lost men was so respectable that they permitted him time to explain the Gospel message in full. Thus, this high counsel of men heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ clearly and intelligently in a respectable open forum.
Paul didn’t start his message with a confrontation of sin, but before he had finished speaking to that respectable crowd of judges, they had clearly heard the message and been confronted by God’s requirement of repentance. Paul worked his way into God’s demands as the message developed. If he had started there, it would have been like a slap in the face to his listeners, even though it was truth. That kind of direct approach would have been a sure-fire way to make certain that the crowd never heard another word he had to say!
When you treat people with heartfelt respect, it always keeps the door open, even when they don’t agree with you. In fact, showing sincere respect is a door opener to every person’s heart, regardless of culture, language, or skin color.
When we speak to people who are different than us or who lead a life far from the righteous standard God demands, we must remember that the way we approach them could determine whether or not they ever hear a full presentation of the Gospel. Even if they are sinners, they are made in the image of Almighty God and demand respect as human beings.
So rather than malign unbelievers with disrespectful or condemning words, ask the Holy Spirit to show you how to find common ground on which you can build a bridge into their hearts. Building a bridge with the love of God is always going to be a much more effective way of reaching people for Him than slapping them in the face with ugly words that bring judgment!
MY PRAYER FOR TODAY
Lord, I thank You for what I have just read. This has helped me rethink the way I am address- ing people who are lost and living their lives without You. I ask You to forgive me for the times I have approached them in a condescending or a negative way, and I ask You to help me find a way to reach them that will build a permanent bridge between You and them. I pray for their hearts to be open as I share with them so I can shine the truth of Jesus into the dark recesses of their lives. You are the best at reaching all our hearts, Father, so I ask You to teach me to do this as You would do it.
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
MY CONFESSION FOR TODAY
I confess that the Holy Spirit is teaching me how to reach people in a positive way with the message of Jesus Christ. I am kind, tender, sincere, and respectful in the way I speak to all people including people who are lost in sin. I declare that even though I walk by God’s standards of what is right and wrong, I am not haughty or insulting to people who are different than I am. With God’s help, I am learning how to reach out to those who are lost and without God and to those who are sinking lower and lower into a sinful lifestyle. Because of the respect and love I show to them as humans created in the image of Almighty God, their hearts are wide open to hear the truth that God is asking me to speak into their lives.
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
QUESTIONS FOR YOU TO CONSIDER
- Can you think of a preacher or speaker who “talks down” to people when he or she preaches? Who is that person? Why do you think this person takes this approach when preaching to people who willingly came to his or her meetings?
- As you read about Paul’s approach to the judges on Mars Hill, what did you learn about your own approach to unbelievers? Based on what Paul did, what do you think you should do differently?
- Can you think of some common ground you can use to build a bridge of mutual respect between you and the people you are trying to reach? Why don’t you take a little time to pray and ask the Holy Spirit to show you that common ground so it can become the bridge you need to cross over into their hearts and share with them the life of Jesus?