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.

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

  1. This post resonates with me for many reasons. To start, I would like to touch on what titling your Ministry or Church as Mars Hill means. You touched on it in your post, that people at the church cannot go halfway to get the unreached people, but they must go into the darkness with a candle and seek out the lost to bring them to the place they need to be (Powerful imagery right there). We are reading a book for our CE class about what makes a good Sunday school teacher. There was a quote in the book that said “Home goers make church goers”. When people in the ministry reach out into the darkness to find the lost, people are found at brought to God. I believe that if you are using Mars Hill, another title, or are a Christian that a large chunk of your ministry should be reaching out into the darkness to the lost and being that light to them.
    “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)” This part of the post got me because of the Churches that use Mars Hill as their name. In my experience, the people that go to a Mars Hill church are almost looking to be accepted halfway and want their sins to be overlooked. Like a “we do what we want and still come to church” kind of feel. I think it is important to note that Paul is not meeting anyone halfway and still believes in his strict moral code of conducts. I realize this paragraph is very much an opinion and I am not laying judgment on anybody, it is just what I have seen.
    I love how Paul uses Greek culture in his sermon. Paul, with his passion and intelligence (Paul you have gone crazy from too much study!) was a very effective preacher that could meet just about everyone on the level they were at or the culture they were in too reach them and say something profound that would affect his audience’s lives.

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  2. I think that pointing out the fact that Paul did not use direct reference to the bible is an importan thing to know. He didn’t use specific scripture but rather brought the good news of Jesus and his resurrection to the people. Also I think it is important to point out what p long said about not just basically addin on Jesus to their gods but that Jesus was the only God in human form. I agree that they don’t need just “a little bit of Jesus” they need all of Him. I also liked the thought on mars hill. We live in a dark world and The Holy Spirit lives in us to shine our light and brighten up this world. We do need to go all the way and reach the peopl not just meet then half way. Amen p long!

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  3. I really liked the conclusion to this Post, “The church cannot “meet them half way,” we need to go all the way to where the darkness is and shine the light.” (P. Long). The fact that we are called to go the extra mile instead of having those who don’t know of Christ work harder. I think that most Christians in this world have allowed themselves to become complacent, to not go the extra mile. To get close to the border of your comfort zone but never step outside. In Costa Rica I know that it is a huge tendency for people who have been Christians for a while to sit back and not go out of the way to tell others about Christ with words and actions. There was a woman named Ana Maria in our church who became a Christian and wanted to tell everyone she could about the amazing news of salvation that she bought a ticket back to her home land Chile to tell her family. Her family was struggling financially but they still took a leap of faith by using their money to tell people in Chile about Jesus Christ. Then there are people like myself, who go to a school full of people who do not know about the good news and I don’t seize the opportunities that arise to tell them. I know that I shared it only when they asked me, I didn’t go out of my way to tell them. I wish I would have gone that extra mile and sparked conversations to tell my non-Christian class mates about Jesus.

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  4. OOOOOO your gunna make Kevin mad by connecting him on a public forum!!! He always told us not to do that!! Anyway, I do find it funny when churches claim to be “seeker friendly”. In fact, the church I work at makes this claim, yet we tend to ask people to come to us instead. I fully agree that we need to go out and be the church outside of our building. It is only through this that we are ever going to actually meet new people and make an impact.

    It is hard to get this concept through people’s mind though. Often times the Church are focused on what people can do for them instead of what they can do for other people! I can see an honest attempt at making a change though. I just think it will take some time to fully accept that we need to leave the comfort of our home and head towards that darkness.

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  5. Using Paul’s Mars Hill techniques for reaching people with the truth of the gospel is effective. It is necessary to get on the people’s level bringing the gospel to them using words that they may understand it clearly. In First Corinthians 1:17, Paul states that Christ sent him to preach the gospel “not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” If people do not understand what you are saying, the gospel will not mean anything to them, but when they understand, they are able to receive salvation and life. When Paul shares with them about the One True God, “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 (“Paul’s Speech on Mars Hill” post). Paul did not allow the people of Athens to believe that they could just add Christ and what he did on the cross to their beliefs as just another one of their gods. Paul made it clear that all they needed was Christ.

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  6. Paul is taking a big risk telling people who are close to the truth that they are completely far from it. To tell someone that their way of thinking or believing is completely false is definitely a risk in any culture. This could bring great persecution to the point of death. However, Paul’s example shows what the church today should be doing. Rarely do we as a church body really march into the darkness and attempt to reach the lost where they are at. It is possible that we are afraid of the darkness. We may fear that we will fail, fall, or become lost. This would be a result of a lack of trust in Christ. We won’t trust Him to protect us in the darkness. The fear is understandable, but unacceptable. Paul’s example of walking into darkness with the light is one that should be followed, even in this day and age.

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  7. I like the way that people use Paul’s Mars Hill techniques for reaching people. There are many succefful ministries and even churches that have used that name to reach those the same way that Paul reached them. I think that it is definately a key and important ministry. It is true that he could have been confused with a Greek philosopher the way that he was talking and by the things he was talking about such at Stoic and Epicurean philosophy. Paul gave the perfect example of talking in such a way that people can understand and that you can relate to people. If you aren’t talking in a way that people can understand because of where they are at or relating to their education and culture, then it’s going to be hard to reach them with the Gospel. We can learn a lot about Paul and how to relate to others and explain things in a way that they can understand. We need to speak in the same way that the culture speaks, or that the people in a certain area speaks, so that they can understand us and that we can present them with the Gospel.

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  8. I do find it interesting that Paul doesn’t use any scripture but I think that it is important to consider that he was likely forming his argument in agreement with the Bible. I do also think it is important to watch how much of the culture we ingage in. While it is important to meet people where they are at and to talk in a way they can understand it is important not to anything that would jeopardize the testimony of the gospel.

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  9. This event is a really cool example of Paul jumping into culture and contextualizing the gospel accordingly. He is a Jew from Tarsus who was became a Christian. He did debate and argue with people, like the philosophers in Athens did, but he would do so over Scripture. Paul says, “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:23). He then uses this unknown God to proclaim the one and only God who has created all things and sent his son to die on the cross for all of man’s sin. He didn’t just show up and preach the gospel. He first observed, by checking out all of the gods they worship, and then used their culture to share the gospel more effectively.

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  10. Culture is important to understanding when you are looking at concepts and when you are looking at the components that come into play during the event. It is important to understand where each person is individually. It is important to understand the heart and the back story of the individual you are talking to and the ones you are ministering to. You do not want to proclaim truth that is too far advance for the person you are spreading the gospel to. You want to communicate on their level. You take risks jumping to people to proclaim the truth of God. You need to be understanding and eager to start challenges of Christ. We can turn to the Bible and learn from the individuals who expanded God’s kingdom. We need to keep in mind the great impact we can have, if we allow ourselves to expand as well.

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    • Miranda, I agree fully. When speaking the Gospel, it is very important to know their culture. I think when spreading the gospel, it is important to have a good relationship with the individual because then you can disciple and mentor them. In addition, having a relationship enables you to see their level of understanding and when and when you should not bring up different topics. It is a big risk, yet it is God’s truth that is alive and active and it is that, that works into the hearts of others.

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  11. Miranda, great job on your discussion post this week. I agree and think culture is an important part to look at when explaining concepts about Christ to others. Something I have really been thinking about lately, and even mentioned in my discussion post this week, is the importance of using ethos, pathos, and logos when preaching/communicating with others. Especially others of different cultures. The use of these three tools will allow an individual to better communicate the gospel with others. I think the greatest example of all who used ethos, pathos, and logos the best was Jesus. There are so many examples found throughout the gospels when Jesus used stories and so forth to spread the gospel even though he was not actually preaching scripture or referencing old prophets. For example when Jesus told the story of the rich man with the three servants he gave money to (Matthew 25:14-30). By no means was this story scripture, yet he explained in a way that went with the culture so those who were listening would be able to understand it and accept it the truth. I think Paul realized Jesus did this and therefore he mimicked his actions in Acts 17 when referencing the two different poets.
    Also, going off what Long said in this post, I think the church needs to do more to witness to those in the dark. I think as Christians we get so comfortable in our own little communities that most have stopped going out and trying to reach the lost. Personally, I would fall into that character. However, this needs to change. We are called to go into all the world and preach the gospel (Matthew 5:13-16, Mark 16:15, and 2 Corinthians 5:20). Do you have any ideas on how the church could start doing this more? Maybe we could simply go out more and make friends with people? Sounds simple, right? I feel like if more individuals were simply willing to open up their circle and let others in, more individuals would know of Christ.

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  12. Culture is so important to understand why Paul did not use scripture directly. We do the same thing with kids in our churches, I have never seen a group of 5 year olds reading from the Bible the story of Noah’s Ark and having a discussion about it after, but rather they color a picture of animals on a boat and have goldfish for a snack. We have to understand that if Paul would have just quoted from Scripture, it would not have meant anything to his audience.
    I love the idea of going all the way to meet people rather than expecting them to meet us half way. If people have been in the darkness for so long, they may have forgot that the light exists, so we need to bring it to then rather then expecting them to ask for it. I think a problem with Western churches sometimes can be expecting the lost to find themselves and then show up at our doorstep rather than us finding them and bringing them into our houses and our churches.

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  13. I found this post extremely interesting. One quote that I also found extremely interesting was, “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.” As I mentioned in my last post, the church is not just a building, but it is a body of believers that comes together to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. This quote models what I said, and I believe that this is something that as Christians, we need to live by.
    As you mentioned, people are unable to find the light if they are not shown. This is shown throughout the entire Bible, but we see it specifically in Acts. This is shown very clearly in Acts 17. Paul has many journeys from place to place and is spreading the Gospel in each of these places. Each location responded in a different way. Sometimes Paul had some issues with the people. Ultimately, he was fulfilling his mission though and he was doing it to further the kingdom of God. Sometimes we have to step out of our comfort zone to do what is best for us and for our mission. Overall, I believe that Mars Hill is something that we can take as an example and use it to be a witness.

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  14. One thing that resonated with me while reading this post is that the church cannot meet people halfway but have to be immersed in the culture to try and reach them where they are at. I think that we have lost this a little bit because we all want to be in our comfortable little bubble and want the people we are trying to reach to come to us. Culture is such a huge part as to who people are and I think we are doing ourselves a disservice when we do not get fully immersed into the culture. I am not saying that we completely do everything the way of that one culture but I think in order to be effective in ministry, we need to be able to figure out where they are and meet them there. For example, if I went into the Mayan villages in Belize and just completely shut down their way of thinking, none of the Mayans would listen to me because I have no respect for their culture. Paul shows just how important it is to relate it back to where the people are at. We cannot just dip our toes half in to the water and expect that to be enough. We need to dive in head first and meet the people where they are at.

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  15. I find that this particular speech Paul gave on Mars Hill is pretty significant to how we as Christians should be living our lives daily. The description that was used in the beginning of this really resonated well with me, as it helped me to think of and relate this idea of what Paul was wanting to accomplish on Mars Hill. It was mentioned that Paul on Mars Hill attempts to meet the culture of the Greek world where it is. This made me think of a book that I am going through in my Youth Evangelism and Discipleship class this semester titled The Gutter by Craig Gross. Basically, the main idea behind this particular book is a challenge; a challenge to meet others where they’re at in the gutter. Which in this particular context, the gutter just basically means a place where some people are when they are in a dark, low point in their lives. What is interesting to think about here too is the fact that yes, we are all called to go out into the world to share the Gospel and make disciples of all nations and to baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Yet, like you mentioned towards the end of this post, Paul goes on to say that “the seekers are in such total darkness that there is very little possibility they will find what they are looking for”. I like where right at the end you said that the church cannot meet these people halfway. We have to be ready and willing to step out of our comfort zones and, as you described it, go all the way to where the darkness is and shine the light and help those that are “lost in the dark”.

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  16. As Christians I agree that we need to be a light to the darkness. Many of us are a light to the darkness, but our light only shines for a part time and the darkness quickly takes over. The article highlights the preaching’s of Paul have a pretty big influence on church today because we are essentially “meeting people half way” we bring the word, and the people should be listening. However, one of the big factors involved in preaching is understanding the culture. Culture is huge in churches because people come from all over in beliefs today. If you show up to a church and don’t know the culture of the church and how it works, it will be a total one-sided street. Where you are doing all the work and sometimes that is not effective at all. We can all be the biggest and brightest lights in the world that we live in if we continue to meet people where they are, but to not just meet them, but lead them to other people. Bringing more lights together.

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    • Great Post Brian, I like how you make the example as Christians only shine their light when they want too. We live in a dark world and if we are not fully committed to being that “Light” all the time are we really doing are job? Creating a positive culture that allows us to shine our light all the time will start to lighten that darkness. Showing people God’s love by creating a positive and welcoming culture will continue to grow the culture.

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  17. Acts 17 gives us a good view of Paul’s teaching techniques. It is a well-known sermon and unique for one main reason. We see Paul connect the sermon to the people he was speaking too. He looked at the culture of the people and tied them into Bible-centered teaching. This spoke to the people listening but also gave them a strategic lesson. When we try to replicate this today we often focus on connecting with people and making sure they are comfortable. Paul does connect with the people in Athens, but he does not lose the Biblical centrality. One example we see Paul doing this is in Acts 17:27 as he connects with the people, but at the same time, he is teaching from Deuteronomy 32:8. In our society today, people make up their own interpretations and try to teach on the controversies but also trying not to step on other’s toes. This is not what we’re supposed to do, God wants us to connect with people, but the truth needs to be shared. John Spooner once told me a story about teaching a group of high schoolers on the song Blowing in the wind. The song speaks of meaningless, and that was when he connected it to Ecclesiastes. It was not that he was making his own interpretations or his own understanding to try to fit it with what the Bible said. He first took the Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes and related it to the culture’s music. The difference is you are starting with a Biblical foundation first, then connecting it with people.

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  18. We need to start taking the word to them and stop expecting the lost to find their way to us. Most of them don’t even know they are lost. Paul meets these people 100% where they are at. We are too stuck on having our ministry be under the roof of the Church. We are the original Church and the Spirit in us is meant to go mobile. We are in a society that if it isn’t convenient for us then we won’t make a move. We need to push to move meeting people more often where they are at in this dark world. We don’t go in acting better than them, but we go in with an attitude that can’t go unnoticed. Paul wants us to continue to take action and keep it 100.

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  19. I have been learning more and more throughout my Christian walk that we need to meet people where they are at. We cannot expect that people around the world know of Jesus or the Bible. We should be living with the assumption that NO ONE does and live boldly in our faith, willing to share the gospel to anyone. In order to do this may have to share the Gospel in different ways each time. Not by changing the content will we do this, but by adapting and finding common ground with those who may be from a different culture or background. For example, you wouldn’t try to teach first-grader math by starting with calculus. You would realize that they should begin with the basics, such as addition and subtraction because without a foundation they will not be able to do more complicated math problems in the future! We would not want to share the Gospel with people who have never heard of Jesus in an intimidating manner. And depending on the culture, we will want to share it in a way that others will be able to understand and relate. Paul’s techniques on Mars Hill are a great example of adapting to the culture around you in order for them to best understand the Gospel.

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  20. I love the thought of being relevant to culture when we preach or share the gospel. I think that it is so important to be relevant to culture, I also think that it is so much more to know that the gospel of Christ. It is important to know however that culture can have a gripping hold of us, and can sometimes make us do things as Christians that we would in otherwise not be ok with. so we need to be careful as we witness to others to know that we engage in culter to know how to best witness to others.

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  21. Culture has such a great impact on our faith that it is hard to separate the two. Societal morals and acceptable behaviors seem to blend well with biblical commands and encouragements. We see from Paul’s Mars Hill speech that cultural intelligence is necessary for evangelism. We often talk about meeting people where they are at within their spiritual walk, yet we often seem focused on bringing people to a greater understanding of our specific faith,which entails a large portion of our personal culture. Jipp comments on how Paul appears to commend the Greek’s deep religiosity or superstition (excessive and ignorant worship) (100). Ignorance seems to be common throughout all of human history, Acts 17:30 even speaks about the ignorance of the Jews towards the Messiah’s earthly presence and actions.

    Paul had a deep understanding of his audience and their culture so he was not ignorant to the beliefs or understanding of the people his speech was directed to. As much as he was connecting with the logic and reasoning of the Stoic philosophers and using this to his advantage, he also is implementing doubt and disruption to their beliefs about authority and power (Jipp 101). This looks like Paul going into the ‘darkness’ of the people in order to be both credible and reliable while standing by biblical truths that shine light upon the topics at hand.

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  22. I find Paul’s behavior very thought provoking. Many today among churches, have instilled this way of thinking, that we should meet others where they are at and speak on their level of understanding.

    However, what does it really mean to be “Seeker friendly”. Is it those who are seeking, and we should be friendly to them? Or does it communicate an attitude that we seek the lost and are friendly about it? Paul was indeed respectful and friendly to the culture around him and found ways to communicate the Gospel to them. For those on Mars Hill, they loved new ideas (v. 19, 32). At the beginning of the Athens passage Paul was speaking to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in hopes that they would turn from their empty idol worship and found himself debating with the Epicureans and stoics. Epicureans loved the idea that there were many gods. The Epicureans did not believe in any resurrection of the dead. They in fact, called Paul a “babbler”, which Polhill clarifies as a, “seed-speaker, which evoked images of a bird pecking indiscriminately at seeds in a barnyard. It referred to a dilettante, someone who picked up scraps of ideas here and there and passed them off as profundity with no depth of understanding whatever (Polhill. Acts. p. 367; Acts 17:18).

    In an ironic fashion, the Epicureans and Stoics were babblers and called Paul a babbler for his teaching on Jesus and the resurrection. Which can speak of today’s context. Everyone has a different view on who is God, ever wondering and coming up with ideas of what or who he is. Romans 1 parallels this imagery of creating different ideas of God and being lost in the dark and still searching for the right answer (Rom. 1:18-22).

    I believe Paul educated himself well enough to minister to the people of Mars Hill. This does not mean we have to do extensive outside research of a culture or people group in order to preach the Gospel and get them saved, rather it adds to the fact we should build relationships with these people and learn their way of life in order to minister the Gospel to them. This is what getting in the dark and providing light means (Matt. 5:14-16, John 3:20 etc.). It’s giving hope and light to those who are in need of hope and light. Mars Hill was a dark hill, but Paul ventured there to be and reproduce the light on top of a hill as Jesus had instructed His followers.

    Christians need to be able to reason or defend the faith, but they also must be willing and ready to go into the darkness and learn with people and be able to teach them of God’s love and forgiveness of sins (1 Peter 3:15, 2 Tim. 4:2). Paul said that God overlooked people’s ignorance of these things before but now he commands all to repent of their sins and turn to back to Him (Acts 17:30).

    Any needs or questions these men of Mars Hill had was found in the one they deemed “The Unknown God”, whom is the one true God and has no need in of Himself, but what He is and has supplies our every need (Acts 17:22-28). Therefore, all are in need of God and looking in some form, it is just a matter of providing and making known the light they need in their lives.

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  23. This story of Paul is always one that I have really appreciated. He is able to take a piece of what the people there are already familiar with, their “unknown god” idol, and use it to share the Gospel. This is something that should be very inspiring to us. For some the idea of who God is can be intimidating, but because part of Gods nature is being relatable, we just have to find that one thing that makes a person or a people group be able to connect with Him. Also, in this chapter we see that Paul uses the Greek poets that the people there would have been familiar with. This is also something that we should be able to do: communicate. When we just quote Scripture, or use a lot of churchy jargon, people can become overwhelmed, confused, or even frustrated, and therefore be very turned off by the idea of religion because they cannot understand it. Paul is able to use quotes of other poets to help make what he has to say more understandable and applicable to the people group that he is talking to. The people that he is speaking to do seem to be very open to new ideas, which is beneficial. However, Paul’s ability to really connect with a people group and help bring them to an understanding of the Gospel is really seen demonstrated in this passage.

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  24. I think that Paul’s strategy of citing Greek poets that would be familiar to the people he was talking to was very smart. Instead of going up to them and telling them right away that their religion was wrong, he talked about their religion in a way that made it sound like the one true God was not too far away from what they believed in. He did this so that they wouldn’t be completely turned off to what Paul was saying right away before Paul got a chance to say what he wanted to say. This is why many modern ministries have taken their name from this chapter because it was such a good ministry strategy.
    Using this strategy is a good ministry tool but like it says in this post, you still have to tell the Bible how it is. You cannot change things about it to fit what the person believes in. It is okay to mention the things that are similar in order to make the people listen but you still have to tell the Bible how it is and let the people know that what they believe in is in fact wrong.

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