Acts 17 – Paul’s Speech on Mars Hill

Luke’s description of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill is well known from the many modern ministries which have taken their name from this chapter.  The intention is quite good, since Paul on Mars Hill attempts to meet the culture the Greek world where it is, granting a few of their premises and arguing on their own ground that there is a God who created all humans and that God is about to judge sin left unpunished before this time.

The fact that Paul cites Greek poets is often used as an foundation for doing ministry that uses our culture as a starting point.  This is an excellent method and does in fact work well, but it there are some dangers from taking only one element of the sermon in Acts 17 as a “mission statement.”  Culture is only one side of the equation, Paul is clearly teaching biblical theology on Mars Hill!

While it is true that Paul could stand in the Aeropagus and discuss Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, and even cite Greek poets, he cannot be confused with a Greek philosopher.  His point is the story of the Bible, told without direct reference to the Bible since the audience simply does not know the scriptures.  He is not saying that a Greek can add Jesus on to their Stoic beliefs and they can be right with God; he is not saying that an Epicurean is “almost saved” and just needs a little bit of Jesus to get them into the Body of Christ.  As Witherington observes, Paul is using somewhat familiar idea in order to pass judgment on the idolatry of the Athenians – he is not meeting polytheism halfway! (Witherington, Acts, 518)

Let me illustrate this with one key element of the speech.  Paul says that God has determined where men should live over the whole earth (Acts 17:27).  This is a phrase which would resonate with Stoics, but it is entirely possibly Paul is alluding to Deut 32:8.  He is using the idea of a single God who has created all people and determines the times and seasons for them to argue for a single God.

This seems to run counter to Romans 1 (all men suppress the truth of God), but the syntax used by Luke at this point indicates the unlikeliness of the possibility of men seeking God.  Luke uses an aorist optative of ψηλαφάω, “to grope for” and an optative of εὑρίσκω, to find.  An optative expresses wish or hope:  “would that men would grope around in the darkness for God and find him!”  It is a hope, but of all the ways this idea could be expressed, this is the least likely possibility.

Ironically, the name Mars Hill is commonly associated with a seeker-sensitive congregation, but Paul says here that the seekers are in such total darkness that there is very little possibility they will find what they are looking for, they are incapable of finding God in the darkness.  If we are going to persist in using Mars Hill as a model for ministry, we need to realize that the task of the church is to take a light into the dark world and help those lost in the dark to find the truth. The church cannot “meet them half way,” we need to go all the way to where the darkness is and shine the light.

Epilogue: In contrast to most American attempts, here is an example of a Mars Hill ministry which has had the right idea for a good many years.  I stole the image for this post from their website, sorry Kevin.  Jumpin’ Llama is a great coffee.

13 thoughts on “Acts 17 – Paul’s Speech on Mars Hill

  1. I agree…I don’t think we should be meeting anyone half-way. I think the Mars Hill ideal is often taken out of context. It seems to me that a biblical Mars Hill approach is founded on meeting someone where they are culturally…not bending the Bible to fit their culture. Using a knowledge of culture (norms, etc.) to help communicate the Bible more effectively is completely different than trying to mold the Bible into secular norms. The goal of all message sharing should be the same, but the Mars Hill approach seems to fit our pessimistic, guarded, and even hostile (toward Christianity) culture much better than forceful Baptist-style evangelism, and it seems more akin to the message of the New Testament, especially Jesus’ approach to his culture.

  2. I also agree. I think it is important for us to focus on what the Bible is saying straight up and not as Joe says bending it to fit our culture, or other cultures. As Plong mentions “the name Mars Hill is commonly associated with a seeker-sensitive congregation” I think it is important for us to be seeker-sensitive in our ministry, but at the same time i feel that we are in a day where we need to be more real with each other and not hold back with our preaching and the way we live our lives in order to really reach the lost.

  3. I also agree that we, as Christians cannot pervert the gospel message, but let us not forget that if people had not crossed cultural barriers for the sake of Christ none of us would be believers today (aside from the fact that God had a sovereign will in the course of history). Therefore I agree with both Mike and Joe. The Gospel of Christ can stand alone and is perfectly capable of holding its ground when facing the pressures of different cultures. So, we must take advantage of the message which we have been tasked with, the message that transcends all people and all cultures. Sometimes we must set the Bible aside for the sake of people’s eternal lives. Ex: We shouldn’t start off telling polygamist Africans that the Bible only permits one wife, and we shouldn’t ignore that person because Biblical truths are difficult for them to understand.

  4. First off, I want to say that it is so cool the name “Mars Hill Cafe” is used for the Ministry, considering this chapter and these points, we as Christians should not meet someone halfway, we should go all the way to reach out and proclaim the gospel. And as Michael makes a good point that we should not be seeker-sensitive, we should focus on going full out on all our Ministry’s and in life in general. Like Jared said, we should reach out to those in their elements, and from there we can reach them with the gospel and show them the truth.

  5. I agree that we absolutely see this pattern with Paul in which he relates culturally – through respect for others’ traditions and understanding of their lifestyles and values – but also unswervingly according to Biblical theology. But then I wonder what it was that made Paul’s ministry so influential without compromise. Many of our “Mars Hills” today have influence but not without compromise. How can we impact our world for Jesus Christ the way that Paul did? I agree with the above comments. We need to move beyond our spheres, willing to engage with different thinkers.
    I think that a common thread that Paul grabs onto is that people are universally aware that our lives are incomplete. We wait and search for something greater. Paul seems to say whatever your personality, whatever your preferences, wherever you live, whatever your traditions, Jesus is what your life is missing. And gaining Him will change everything in such a way that you will continue to be exactly who you are, only complete.

  6. Setting aside the word “seeker-sensitive” – if only because the word probably means something different to me than to most people, and it consequently turns me off to whatever a person who uses that word is trying to say – setting that aside, I agree with what seems to be the general consensus thus far. I would add however that it is not enough to go all the way rather than only meeting them half-way. If we only go all the way to where they are to meet them, then we have accomplished little or nothing. We must go all the way to the heart of our culture, understand our culture, and witness in a way our culture understands, and the final step I haven’t heard expressed yet, that has probably been implied. We need to bring the people out of the culture in order that they might see the culture for what it is. That is where a lot of this “seeker-sensitivity” gets mixed around. Christians get so caught up avoiding legalism and breaking traditional Christian paradigms, that they forget that the moral teaching they bypassed to preach the gospel is still important, and still needs to be taught at some point. It may be good to water some of that down a little for the new baby Christians so that they can get it all down, but it still needs to be taught.

  7. I agree that Paul was speaking to the people in a way that they could understand, without watering down the gospel. That is what missionaries do, they present the good news in the foreign culture’s language without changing the message…
    “Sometimes we must set the Bible aside for the sake of people’s eternal lives”…I am not sure how i feel about this statement. In modern culture relationships are very valuable to building credibility and bringing people to points where they are open to hearing the word of God. The Lord blesses these cases all the time, but I am not sure if this is how Paul went about it…He definitely met the people where they were at, he went all the way to present the gospel in a way they could fully grasp the original ideas. But I don’t see the emphasis on forming relationships first. He was not worried about being too straightforward. I doubt he cared if he offended anybody…As long as he was spreading the gospel, he knew that the Lord would bless his ministry and bring people to Himself…

  8. If we need to go all the way to where the darkness is and shine the light (which I totally agree with) then why does it seem like the church is as far away from the darkness as possible. I would also argue that these Mars Hill ministries (specifically the ministry shown in the picture) are actually acting as they should. They are not “meeting them half way” but they are actually acting as the candle in the darkness. They have placed themselves in the darkness and without putting a “church” label on the building are shining the light. They have gone into the dark; it is our legalistic churches that are settling. They are shinning a light in the lamp section of home depot.

  9. I find it interesting the amount of people who take this story and name there ministry behind it. Yeah its a hill that Paul spoke to Greek people and he quotes other Greek people, and so we say we should meet people have half way,m we should talk the way they do. Would meeting people half way be the same as Jesus meeting the needs of individuals. More importantly most people want to fit the culture so much that that they forgot that some one told them, and lead them to Christ. “If you truly love people then you will share them the knowledge that will keep them out of Hell, and that is Jesus ” by John Piper in a sermon. To do good works for people is a humanitarian and some of them still need Jesus too.

  10. This is a great conversation that we are having. I think it is so cool that a lot of the stuff that we are studying in class relate to our calling and ministry as Christians. I do feel that Cameron made a great point about the church being very far away from the darkness. the church wants to give off the image that they are a God-Fearing people, but also be accepting to the darkest people. this can bring a lot of conflict in the church. Paul makes this clear, he does not keep feeding the people that have already accepted Christ. He moves on to the people that need to be saved.

    This is where Paul shows us the way. He is speaking to the lowest of low people. This is a message in itself from Paul to the church today. Do not worry about your image as a church, just seek the people that need Christ the most, which is just about everybody. Another thing that churches worry about is the gossip that goes on with the “christian” followers about have lower people allowed at church. This is not the heart of any Christian.

  11. I really like how Tammy said she sees, “This pattern with Paul in which he relates culturally – through respect for others’ traditions and understanding of their lifestyles and values – but also unswervingly according to Biblical theology.” It is so true that we need to do as Paul does in respect to this topic. “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He beautifully meshes going into the darkness and meeting people where they are at with their culture, yet he holds soundly enough to God’s Word without shoving it down the people’s throats. If only all of us Christians could do this! So many more people would be saved.
    I also liked KillaCamMyers’ said that some of our churches are, “shining a light in the lamp section of home depot.” There needs to be a distinction though because not all churches are that legalistic or fake. Not every church is called to be in an impoverished area where the Gospel has not been shared. Some churches need to be in suburban areas because, in regards to sin, they are just as dark.

  12. I am very familiar with Paul’s Sermon on Mar’s Hill. It is must for Bible College lever pastoral preachers to study it see how, when preaching to mixed audience, one uses contemporary information and Biblical Quotes.

    One needs to outline the sermon and deduce from such an outline that Paul use contemporary quotes to add credence to Biblical Passages not as proof to their Authority.

    In this biblical revelation that God alone has set of the boundaries of humanity is astounding in and of itself. But to follow that with the General revelation of the Athaianean Philosophers is equally astounding.

    This information had been revealed to Israel on the Plains Of Moab, but is now repeated to a predominate Gentile audience as to explain their existence and alienation fro God Promises and privileges- until the Gospel has come to liberate them, as well as the Jews, from their sins!

    In fact, Paul is practicing what he has preached. For he has said in ch 10 of Romans that “Faith comes by Hearing the word of God” not merely the word of Man.

    He uses Scripture and Mans Philosophy to make his pint – God now calls all men to repent!

  13. Idolatry is rampant in today’s churches, schools and people’s lives and people will always try and find “something new under the sun” because people need and will follow “something”. Paul made it very clear to ALL listeners that God controls ALL things. There is always opposition for man to do right. It is the devils way of diverting the glory of God to those that desperately need him. Paul cut through the garbage of philosophy and used the truth of scripture to enlighten any who would listen. Praise God!

Leave a Reply