Acts 17: Culturally relevant failure


I find Acts 17 both challenging and extremely encouraging. On the one hand, we see how Paul adapted his presentation of the same gospel message to be culturally relevant for each of three different audiences in Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens. And on the other, we see that even though he did adapt the presentation, the response was extremely limited. Let’s talk for a moment about both of these things.

In Thessalonica, Paul, Silas and co. found themselves on a completely different continent in virtually ever sense of the term. No longer were the people primarily Semitic. Rather, they were European. Greek, to be exact. And the differences didn’t stop at the tone of their skin. Greeks were a philosophical people. While Jews and other Semitic peoples tended to focus on the concrete, Greeks loved nothing more than to sit around and debate abstract concepts. And while the people of Asia Minor and the Middle East generally embraced the idea that there was such a thing as absolute truth, the Greeks tended to frown upon such a concept. To them, truth depended on your perception of reality and your understanding of the world, and they really didn’t like to hear that they were wrong about that.

So we see Paul’s approach to ministry change as he enters Thessalonica. No longer does he start his gospel presentation on the absolute facts of Jesus life, the miracles He performed, and His death and resurrection, the facts of what He did. Rather, Paul goes back to Scripture – the Old Testament – and uses the abstract concepts of the prophets to form an argument for why Jesus had to come, die, and raise to life again. In Berea, we see the same basic approach, but the people there were eager to verify the authenticity of the teachings rather than resisting the change. And then there was Athens, which was a very religious (in a pagan sense) and cultured city. When Paul went there, he recognized that the audience was no longer even remotely Semitic but almost entirely Greek, and so he didn’t even start with Scripture. Instead, in what may well be the greatest Biblical example of making the gospel culturally relevant, Paul started with one of the many pagan altars that he had seen scattered around the city and continues with a reference to a popular poetic work which the Athenians would have immediately recognized to weave together a presentation which brought the gospel to right where they were.

A couple of things to notice about each of these presentations, though. First, they all went back to Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. In other words, the essential content of the gospel was never compromised. And second, they neither endorsed nor embraced the pagan way of life by word (i.e., by telling them it was okay) or by deed (i.e., by Paul, Silas, and co. acting in a similar manner). In other words, the context of the gospel was preserved. Both of these observations stand in stark contrast to what I believe are dangerous tendencies among evangelists today. We’ve all seen and heard the gospel presented as a way, a truth, and a life. And a couple of years ago, I was horrified to hear that a missionary that I knew and respected had, while on home ministry, taken a minor into a bar and bought him something to drink in the name of reaching patrons with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Equally dangerous, though, is the flip side of this coin: those who say that the gospel presentation must take this form and no other. I once read an article by a popular fundamentalist preacher who proclaimed that contemporary worship music was the music of Satan. All while he sang his hymns that originated as bar tunes and stormed the stage of his church auditorium which was outfitted with beautiful carpet and an extensive sound system. Truly, Acts 17 challenges us to shoot the center of these extremes.

Perhaps even more interesting than the way that Paul adapted the gospel to the cultures he encountered at Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens, though, is the response that the gospel received in each of these places. In Thessalonica, we’re told in vs 4 that “some” Jews, “a large number” of Greeks, and “not a few” women believed. But then there was a riot, and Paul, Silas, and co. were compelled to leave town. In Berea, we learn in vs 12 that “Many” Jews, “a number” of Gentile women, and “many” Gentile men embraced the gospel. Then a bunch of people from Thessalonica crashed the party and forced Paul to head south to Athens and out of their reach. And in Athens, we read in vs 34 that merely “a few men became followers of Paul and believed.” In other words, in two of the towns, there was a significant response to the gospel. But then there was almost no response in Athens.

Talk about a mixed bag! And yet, how encouraging it is to know that even the master missionary Paul didn’t have success 100% of the time! The guy was driven out of two towns, and left the third city because no one responded.

Needless to say, I won’t feel so bad the next time I deliver what I believe to be a master gospel presentation and receive no response whatsoever. But this compels me to ask a question: Why do I expect the altar to be full every time it’s open? And why do I get frustrated and feel dejected whenever that doesn’t happen? Paul recognized that the people of Athens, especially, weren’t going to believe en masse, and so in vs 33, he simply left the Council, and at the beginning of chapter 18, he moved on to Corinth.

Paul failed. So I guess I can, too. And Paul moved on. So I guess I must as well. That’s an encouraging message if I’ve ever heard one.



  • (2-3) Once again, we see that the gospel message is essentially the same, even though Paul’s approach may have been a bit different. In Thessalonica, he started with why Jesus had to die.
  • (4) Notice the proportions. “Some” Jews, “a large number” of Greeks and “not a few” women. I find it interesting that women were distinguished from the rest of the count, indicating that there was indeed a significant response from the men of Thessalonica.
  • (6) Again, we see that the gospel message draws attack from outsiders. Notice, though, that these people weren’t willing to stop at just attacking Paul, Silas, and co. When they couldn’t find the missionaries, they went after the people around them. Never underestimate the willingness of the world to make life difficult for believers and those associated with them.
  • (8) I suppose “turmoil” here indicates that the officials couldn’t decide what to do. Some, no doubt, were alarmed by the riot and the possible consequences it could have. Others were probably ready to act on the false charge. And I wold guess that there were still others who defended Jason and co., saying that the gospel was not harmful but hopeful, and Paul and co. were not encouraging insurrection but proclaiming the resurrection.
  • (11) What a compliment to the people of Berea! “They received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” If only people today would do the same!
  • (14) In Berea, the resistance seems to have centered specifically on Paul.
  • (16) I wonder what Paul would think if he was left in modern Des Moines.
  • (17) Notice that Paul didn’t limit his venues for evangelism. He spoke at the synagogue and in the marketplace, and so should we!
  • (19-21) I tend to think that this is the pattern of our culture as well. We are willing to listen to anyone who gets a little attention, and we won’t hesitate to pick and choose what we like of their teachings and incorporate them into our own cross-bred faith.
  • (22-31) This is perhaps the ultimate example of making the gospel culturally relevant. Again, without compromising the integrity of the good news, Paul related it very specifically to the people of Athens, starting with their own misguided sense of faith and familiar literature, and moving to the good news of the resurrection.
  • (32-34) Although the invitation to return sounds encouraging, Paul apparently realized that the point wasn’t so that the Aereopagus could grow in some newfound faith but simply listen and debate. And so, rather than wasting his time continuing to engage the Council, he left. A few people believed, but the vast majority were simply desensitized by lifetimes of intellectual orgy. And in fact, by 18:1, Paul left Athens and moved on to Corinth without having established a church in that great city. Apparently, even the great apostle Paul sometimes failed to plant a church!

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