Andrew Fountain - The Gospel 3: Presenting the Gospel to Pagans

  • Two witnesses in Luke
    • Two examples of preaching to Gentiles who come from a pagan background (unlike Cornelius)
    • We will watch first, go through passages and then watch the second
  • Watch video: (disk 2, 01_1-04:10) 13:44—>14:20 (8:02)
  • Only twice do we have a record of Paul’s preaching to Gentiles who have little or no contact with the Old Testament.
  • There is no reference to the Old Testament Scriptures at all, but he particularly addresses their context and meets them where they are.
  • Read two passages in Parallel: Acts 14:8-20 Lystra & Acts 17:16-34 Athens

Audience and Context

  • Both contexts describe an idolatry that is excessive to the point of being ridiculous, and which shocked Paul. The Lystrans were so superstitious that they were prepared to identify Paul with Hermes and Barnabas with Zeus, and even to sacrifice to them on the spot.
  • Horrified, they “tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude” (14:14).
  • The Athenians displayed a level of idolatry that caused such a reaction in Paul that “his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols” (17:16).

Extreme Idolatry

  • Both the Lystrans and the Athenians interpreted Paul’s religion in the framework of their own.
    • e.g. Hindu Landlord (Chandra)
    • To the Lystrans, the miracle showed that he was one of their gods.
    • To the Athenians, he was merely the proclaimer of another god, whom they happened not to have heard of yet.
  • One of Paul’s main concerns is to distinguish himself radically from this conception
    • and to show that the God he proclaims is utterly outside their own framework.
  • In both cases it was the idolatry that provided a point of contact for Paul.

The True God is Radically Different

  • Paul points out the rational failings in their systems, and sets the living God against their idols.
    • The Lystrans have failed to observe that Paul and Barnabas are ordinary men of flesh and blood
    • and the Athenians’ own system exposes their ignorance.
  • Although Paul uses persuasive reasoning in both cases, the style is one of proclamation.
    • He announces the true God and demands that they turn to him.

Creator of All

  • The arguments here are almost identical.
    • The creation itself bears witness to a God who is, by definition, greater than his creation.
    • In 17:25 Paul uses language similar to that of Solomon at the dedication of the Temple: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!”(1 Kings 8:27).
    • There is not a pantheon of gods, each responsible for one aspect of the universe,
      • but one God who created everything, and provides directly for his creation.

Sovereignly in Control and Brings us Good Things

  • If the first witness provided by Paul is the creative work of God,
    • the second is his providential care.
    • In 14:17 Paul uses the word witness, and in 17:27 tells them that God’s providence is intended to direct them to himself.
    • In Athens he refers to their preappointed times “—by which, following the analogy of the Lystran speech in Ch. 14:17,
      • we are probably to understand the seasons of the year by whose sequence annual provision is made for supplying men with food.”
  • Paul’s words are chosen to directly contradict the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.
    • The Stoics believed in cosmic determination and natural law,
      • whereas Paul says that a personal God controls all events.
    • The Stoics taught that deity was impersonal and distant,
      • but Paul says that “he is not far from each one of us” (17:27).
    • The Epicureans said that the soul perishes with the body,
    • and the general Greek view of history was of an endlessly repeating cycle,
      • but Paul announces that “he has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness” (17:31).
  • Paul’s use of quotations from pagan philosophers has caused some problems.
    • These quotations, from Epimenides and Aratus, when seen in their original pagan contexts, do not teach the one true God.
    • However, by quoting from them, Paul is not validating their belief systems but demonstrating that their paganism was self contradictory.
    • They claimed to be the offspring of God, and yet worshipped gods of stone and metal, inferior even to themselves.
    • Yet even so, he does cite their philosophers as being truthful.
      • “creatures of God confronted with the divine revelation were capable of responses which were valid”

Now You have Heard, You Have a Responsibility to Respond

  • These verses could be taken to mean that God was not concerned about their sins up to this point, and they were not guilty,
    • but the statements that God had not left them ‘without witness’, and had provided some means for them to ‘grope for him’,
    • indicate that they were still culpable, and repentance from their idolatry was demanded.
    • “His ‘overlooking’ their errors was not indifference but patience”.
      • If before they had some excuse for their errors, now they had none.
  • There have been many stories of people who “groped after God” and God revealed himself to them

By Turning from Your Present Way of Living

  • The call to repentance is present in both sermons, albeit in a slightly different place.
    • The repentance is from idolatry
      • in contrast to the repentance demanded from the Jerusalem Jews which was from rejecting Christ,
        • (although, as we can see from Stephen’s speech, the Jews themselves were guilty of idolatry.)
  • In Athens, Paul adds a reference to the judgement at this point, and uses it as a bridge to proclaim the risen Christ.
    • Although the reference to Christ was minimal here
      • one must remember that these two speeches are Paul’s first ground-breaking addresses to these audiences
      • those such as Dionysius who ‘believed’ (17:34) must have received further instruction.

Response of the People

  • Watch video: (disk 2, 01_2-04:00) 17:14—>17:34 (6:09)
  • It seems that neither message received an overwhelming response
    • The popular idea that his determination, when he arrived in Corinth, to know nothing there “save Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” was the result of disillusionment with the line of approach he had attempted at Athens, has little to commend it.
    • there is no hint given by Luke that Paul regretted the sermons.
    • The fact that Luke gives us this pair of very similar addresses indicates that this was a representative message to such an audience.
    • Maybe it was also a representative response.


1. Reason

  • It is clear that Paul accurately understood the beliefs of those he was addressing,
    • and was not just blasting them for being pagans.
  • On the one hand, he used reason and attempted to persuade them,
    • but on the other, he never appealed to them to make a choice based on whichever sounded most rational to them.
  • The truth was proclaimed, as it was to the Jews, and their responsibility was to accept it.

2. No Scripture

  • Paul made no reference whatever to the Scriptures for two reasons.
    • First, they would have carried little weight with his audience,
      • who would have viewed Judaism as just another religion, with its own set of religious literature.
    • Secondly, Paul’s Old Testament arguments presupposed a fairly good understanding of salvation history.
      • In order for his audience even to understand his reasoning, Paul would have had to have spent a long time training them in Old Testament concepts.
  • Nevertheless, the ideas he presented are firmly rooted in the Old Testament
    • and the call to turn from idolatry is an echo of the prophets’ call to Israel to turn away from the foolishness of worshipping images of wood and stone (e.g. Isa 44:9-20).
    • What is more, there is a parallel between
      • the call to Israel to believe on the basis of God’s gracious dealings with them in the past
      • and the call to the Gentiles to believe because of the blessings that he has given them.
  • The reference to a judgement to come is common in most of Paul’s preaching in lots of different contexts
  • In summary, perhaps the most important thing to be learned from Lystra and Athens is that
    • Paul adapts the message to his hearers,
      • and is sensitive to where they are in their understanding
      • and what they will accept as an authoritative argument.
    • He is also careful not to be misunderstood as ‘just another religion’,
      • but takes pains to distinguish his Gospel from their current beliefs, as Van Til has pointed out:
    • He points out how foolish their current way of living is.
We must surely do what Paul did, tear our garment when men would weave our message into the systems of thought which men have themselves devised. We must set the message of the cross into the framework into which Paul set it... the doctrines of creation, providence and the consummation of history in the final judgement [Cornelius Van-Til]
  • How can we apply this?
    • Do we really understand our culture, and the way people think?
    • Can we show people how ridiculous their way of life ultimately is?
    • Are we really being clear about how different the Gospel of Jesus is?
    • Do we hold back from “declaring” the unpaletable truths like judgement because it is uncomfortable in our culture to be so direct?


  • What do you think?