Paul’s Sermon at Athens: Culture & Common Ground :: By Dr. Donald Whitchard

Summary: Paul’s sermon before the men of Athens began with a topic familiar to all of them, and that was the common bond of religious belief and practice in their respective cultures. Jesus demonstrated it throughout the Gospels, and it is a biblical pattern for effective evangelism.

This month (June) will have marked forty years (1981) since I traveled to India on vacation, away from the business of the McDermott Fabrication Yard in Dubai, where I worked as an oil rig sandblaster and painter. I had moved there in early 1980 to live with my dad and to do some maturing of character away from people my age. I learned the value of hard work, how to read blueprints, do calculations and cost estimates of projects, supervise and train new workers, handle corporate management, and learn the customs and culture of the country, as well as how to steer clear of legal difficulties and handle the fact that I was a Christian living in a Muslim nation and to respect their beliefs.

I learned enough Arabic phrases to get by and appreciated the food and the hospitality of the nationals. I made it a point to be with the workers in the yard and be friendly with them. I worked with people from Jordan, Iran (those who had fled after the fall of the Shah), Iraq (before Saddam), Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the UK, and other nations except Israel (long before the Abraham accords of 2019-2020).

My stepmom (Mom no. 2) is from India, and specifically the city of Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, and was born in the last years of British rule. She had decided to go back to Mumbai, New Delhi, and other cities to buy varied artwork and handcrafted goods to take back to the U.S. to open a store specializing in Eastern imports. She had left Dubai a few days before I left to go to New Delhi.

I got horrendously sick for a couple of days while there but got the opportunity to see the Taj Mahal, Gandhi’s home, open-air markets, the abject poverty, and numerous statues and altars dedicated to the multitudes of Hindu gods and goddesses. I saw an altar to the death god Kahli (Remember Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom?), gurus, “holy men,” and met people who were Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Zoroastrians, and even fellowshipped with a few brethren in the LORD.

I had learned some Hindi and Urdu and how to greet and converse with those of different faiths and customs. When I told them that I was a Christian, the fact that I had taken the time and effort to learn their particular customs and language helped tremendously when I got the opportunity to tell them about Jesus and the Bible.

I say all of this to remind my fellow Americans (and those around the world reading this message) that we have nationalities and groups who have differing customs, beliefs, practices, traditions, and languages living here now; those of us who follow the Lord Jesus must realize that in order to get the Gospel to these dear souls, we are going to have to get somewhat familiar with the things they do and say even if it seems unusual or takes us out of our “comfort zones.”

This kind of situation is nothing new. Look at Acts 17:22-23 where Paul is about to address the men of Athens concerning Jesus and salvation. Paul, being not just a Jew but also a former Pharisee, was before a group of people that not too long ago would have been avoided and condemned for their idolatry, perverse behaviors, and because they were not of his nationality (racism, anybody?). We know by reading the Bible that after centuries of occupation by the Persians, Greeks – and at that time, the Romans, many of the Jews wanted nothing more to do with Gentile rulers and pagan customs. They wanted them out of Israel and for the nation to be free under the benevolent rule of a new Davidic king/Messiah.

I can understand the apostles’ shock and awe when the Lord Jesus told them that they would be witnesses to Him in Jerusalem, but also in Samaria and the world (Acts 1:8-11). What? You mean to tell us that we have to mingle among the heathen, godless Gentiles and share the Gospel with them? Jesus answered “Yes” and made this possible through the arrival and indwelling of the Holy Spirit among the brethren at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), enabling Peter and the others to preach the Gospel to the Jews in the city who had come from different parts of the Roman Empire (Acts 2:38).

All right, fair enough. They needed for the lost sheep of Israel to hear about their Messiah.

When we come to Acts 10 and the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius, this blew Peter’s mind along with the rest of the apostles. The mercy and saving grace of Christ was available to the Gentiles! What? Again, YES! They must have forgotten the tale of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) and the time where the Lord Jesus had talked with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:6-26), healed the Roman centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10), and to remember that dark and horrible day where the LORD was dying on the cross for our sins.

While the Pharisees and crowds – His own people – mocked and scorned Him, it was a centurion, a Gentile “pagan” who declared that Jesus was not only a righteous man but the Son of God (Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47).

Now, look back at Paul’s history before Jesus got a hold of him on the Damascus Road. His hatred and rage towards the followers of Jesus were on the same level as a jihadist in the service of ISIS, Hezbollah, or Hamas. He was a murderer, a terrorist for all practical purposes, a religious fanatic who saw anyone even slightly opposed to God (as he saw Him) as someone who did not deserve to exist. And he, no doubt, had a nasty, condescending, irritating, arrogant attitude and the determination to get the job done no matter what the cost or consequence (Acts 9:1-6, 22:1-21, 26:9-18; 1Timothy 1:12-17).

I am sure that there were a lot of believers who prayed that God would take him out and send him to hell for what he was doing to them, but there were also those praying for him to be saved by the very same Lord Jesus who had saved and rescued them from eternal death and destruction.

From Acts Chapter 9 onward, it is as the late newscaster Paul Harvey once said, “Now you know the rest of the story.” Paul was freed from his sins by the work of Jesus Christ and was the personification of the “new creation in Christ” he would describe in 2 Corinthians 5:17. Paul had once believed that by being religiously correct and ritually precise, all was good between him and the LORD, but in reality, he had been lost in sin, as were the Gentile pagans he would encounter on his missionary journeys.

Religious rituals and practices, no matter how sincere, will not get anyone into heaven nor give them the eternal peace that only Jesus can grant (John 10:28-30, 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 5:6-11; 1 John 1:8-10). Almighty God has provided only ONE way to approach Him, and it is through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 7:25), our real and great sinless High Priest.

Paul used the common bonds of culture, history, and the religion of the Greeks to begin his message of salvation through Christ. He made them feel at ease and used a calm mannerism in presenting the Gospel message. It kept their attention, which is an excellent pattern to establish with an individual or group so you can give your testimony or defend the faith. It is always a good idea to listen to those with whom you are sharing Christ and to find something that is mutual and interesting.

Paul was a mighty man of God, bold in his preaching and unafraid of the world’s hostility when it came to the Gospel message, but he was also a man of common sense. He trusted in the Holy Spirit to open doors and anoint him with the demeanor and tone with which to present the Good News to his audience.

This will be the opening statement of his message, and it is worth your time and effort to study as we see the world growing colder and hostile to the things of God. The Scriptures teach that soft answers turn away wrath (Proverbs 15:1). It goes for conversations, corrections, and the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Here ends the lesson.