Paul and the Pagans


In his role as the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul is sometimes described as trying to bridge the gap between Judaism and the pagan world. His sermon at Athens in Acts 17 is often used as a model for “how to do ministry” today. In order to reach the world, we have to present the Gospel in ways which appeal to the world. In some cases this is involves using art and philosophy to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity, but more commonly this methodology is used defend worship styles or it quickly devolves into using movie and TV clips as sermon illustrations.

To determine how Paul reached out to pagans. I want to look at a passage earlier in Paul’s career, from his so-called first missionary journey. When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, Paul heals a man who was crippled in the feet. This miracle in intentionally parallel to Peter’s healing in Acts 3, although the results are much different! In Acts 3, the miracle takes place in the temple courts, Paul is in a Gentile town which is more likely to believe he is Hermes incarnate than a representative of the Hebrew God! When Paul was among Jews in Iconium he did many miracles and saw great success. The working of a miracle among the Gentiles of Lystra is counter-productive and results in Paul being stone and left for dead.

There is only the briefest hint at the sort of “sermon” Paul might have preached to this crowd. This is unfortunate, since this is the first time in Acts that Paul addresses a pagan audience. Often Paul’s speech in Acts 17 at Mars Hill is set up as an example of Paul’s method of reaching the Gentile world, rarely is this speech in Acts 14.

Paul states that there is a living God, as opposed to the worthless idols that never show their power. Like Acts 17, Paul does not allude to the many acts of God in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, he uses God’s preservation of men through the giving of rain and crops as an example of his power. This might be called “general revelation,” since the crowd would neither know about the God of the Hebrew Bible, nor would they care what he did for the Jews.

But Paul is not giving up on the biblical story at all in this sermon. He begins with God’s creation and provision. He says that he represents the creator, something which this group can understand within their own world view, but Paul uses the language of Genesis (the heaven, the earth, and the sea, along with everything in them).

But notice that Paul more or less attacks the gods of Lystra: they are worthless things. This is even more powerful when you realize the priests of Zeus have brought out bulls to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas. Paul could very well be pointing at these prepared sacrifices when he says, “worthless idols.” The noun used here (μάταιος) means that these idols and their sacrifices “lack truth” and it is pointless to worship them because they are not true at all!

This dismissal of idols is also found one of Paul’s earlier letters. In 1 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul contrasts idols and the “living and true God.” The implication is clear: the idols are neither living nor true. In fact, this clear attack on idols is at the foundation of Romans. In Romans 1:21-23, humans reject the clear revelation of God in creation, become fools, and “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (ESV).

This does not sound very hipster and emergent to me! How can the brief sermon in Acts 14 be used as a model for contemporary evangelism? Should we directly attack another world view as “worthless”?