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Lesson 44: Reaching Intellectuals for Christ (Acts 17:16-34)

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In 1941, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was invited to preach at Oxford University to a mostly student congregation. After the message, there was a question and answer time. Dr. Lloyd-Jones later learned that the first student to venture a question was studying law and was one of the leaders of the Oxford debating society. He got up and with all the polish of a debater, said that he had much enjoyed the sermon, but that it left one great difficulty or perplexity in his mind. He really could not see how the sermon, which he admitted was well constructed and well presented, might not equally well have been delivered to a congregation of farm laborers or anyone else. Then he sat down, as the crowd roared with laughter.

Dr. Lloyd-Jones responded that he really could not see the questioner’s difficulty. He admitted that he had regarded undergraduates and indeed graduates of Oxford University as being just ordinary common human clay and miserable sinners like everybody else, with precisely the same needs as farm laborers. And so, he said, he had preached as he had done quite deliberately. The students both laughed and cheered, and from then on, Dr. Lloyd-Jones had an attentive hearing (Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers [Zondervan], pp. 129-130).

Dr. Lloyd-Jones (p. 128) quotes Martin Luther, who said, “When I preach I regard neither doctors nor magistrates, of whom I have above forty in the congregation. I have all eyes on the servant maids and the children. And if the learned men are not well pleased with what they hear, well, the door is open.” Lloyd-Jones comments that if the learned man is not able to benefit from a message aimed at the servant girls, he is condemning himself as not being able to receive spiritual truth.

If the thought of sharing the gospel with intellectuals intimidates you, then Paul’s sermon to the philosophers of Athens should both encourage and instruct you. He was at Athens, not by his plans, but because he had to flee persecution in Berea. He was waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him. As he strolled around the city, his spirit was provoked by the abundance of idols that he saw. One early observer said that you were more likely to meet a god in Athens than a man, and it was statistically true. It is estimated that there were about 30,000 idols in the city, but only 10,000 people when Paul visited there. The glory days of Athens had been four centuries earlier. But it was still an intellectual and cultural center, with two predominant rival schools of philosophy, the Epicureans and the Stoics.

Epicurus (342-270 B.C.) taught that pleasure is the chief goal in life, especially the intellectual serenity that is achieved by overcoming disturbing passions and superstitious fears, especially the fear of death. He was a materialist, believing that at death the person ceases to be, and thus there is no afterlife. He believed in the gods, but taught that they did not get involved in human affairs.

The Stoics followed the teachings of Zeno (332-260 B.C.), who thought that the good lies in the soul itself, which through wisdom and restraint delivers a person from the passions and desires that perturb ordinary life. The Stoics tried to live in harmony with nature and put great emphasis on man’s rational ability, his self-sufficiency, and his obedience to duty. This emphasis on their own ability also filled them with pride. They were pantheistic, regarding God as the World-soul.

These two schools of philosophy were Paul’s main audience for his sermon at Athens. Since they did not know about the Bible, Paul did not quote Scripture. But, as F. F. Bruce observes (The Book of Acts [Eerdmans], p. 355), “Like the Biblical revelation itself, his argument begins with God the Creator of all and ends with God the Judge of all.” He hits on sin, righteousness, and judgment, the three areas where Jesus said the Holy Spirit would convict people.

After a brief introduction where he establishes some common ground, Paul points them to the supremacy of God as the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth. He shows God’s sovereignty over men and nations, and man’s utter dependence on God for life, breath, and all things. He shows how foolish idolatry is: God made us; we cannot make God! He concludes by calling them to repentance before God judges the world through a Man whom He raised from the dead.

At the mention of the resurrection, many in Paul’s audience began to sneer. Others said that they would hear more later. A few, including a leading man and woman, joined Paul and believed. Because of the scant response, some have said that Paul failed in his approach. But I believe God gave us this synopsis of Paul’s sermon as a model for how to reach intellectuals for Christ. To sum up:

To reach intellectuals for Christ, we must begin on common ground, show them God’s supremacy and their own sin, and call them to repentance and faith in the risen Lord Jesus.

1. To reach intellectuals for Christ, we must begin on common ground.

Paul’s spirit was provoked by all of the idols that he saw in the city (17:16). This led him to reason in the synagogue as well as in the marketplace, where the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers heard him. They brought him to the Areopagus, a body of administrators that exercised jurisdiction over religious and educational matters. There is debate over whether or not this was some sort of trial to determine if Paul could promote his ideas in the city. It seems not to be a formal trial, but rather a preliminary hearing of his views.

Paul began by stating his observation that they were very religious in all respects. He was restraining his indignation over all the idols that he saw, and picking up on the fact that at least they were interested in spiritual things. One way to begin a conversation about the Lord is to ask a person, “Do you have any spiritual beliefs?” Or, if a person is spouting off intellectual ideas about God, you can say, “I see that you’ve done some thinking about spiritual issues. Have you given any thought to who Jesus is?”

Next, Paul mentions that he found an altar in town with the inscription, “To an unknown God.” We cannot be certain of how such an altar (or altars) came to be, but it was probably out of a fear of offending some god that they did not know about. They wanted to cover all their bases! (See Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts [Regal Books], pp. 9-18, for a speculative historic drama of how these altars came about.) But Paul picks up on this well-known fact in their culture and turns it to his advantage. In effect, he says, “You admit that you do not know this God. Let me tell you about Him.” So he establishes a common point and then proceeds to tell them the truth about God.

Don’t feel intimidated to talk to an intellectual about Jesus Christ, because you know something he does not. You know God and he is ignorant of God. The word “agnostic” means that he does not know if there is a God. Tell him what you know!

I grew up in a Christian home. When I was in college, I sensed God calling me toward the ministry, but I felt a bit sheltered. So I decided to major in philosophy to expose myself to the world’s thinking about God and the other important issues of life. I discovered that philosophers have a lot of questions, but they don’t have any good answers! My professors would speculate about their speculations, which were the same speculations that philosophers had been speculating about for centuries, but nobody could arrive at any helpful answers. They are like the men Paul warned Timothy about, who are “always learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). If you know God through Jesus Christ, you have something that the philosophers lack. Begin on some common ground and tell them what you know.

2. To reach intellectuals for Christ, we must show them God’s supremacy and their own sin.

Paul exalts God and humbles proud man. He begins at the beginning: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things” (17:24-25). Intellectuals need to learn a basic fact: God is God and they are not God! Invariably, intellectuals sit in judgment on God, as if He were an idea that they are free to bat around and leave on the table when they’re done. But Paul begins, as the Bible does, by declaring, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” He is the inescapable fact! Since He created the universe, He is Lord of it. To think that you can make a temple to contain God or that He needs anything from you is to make a huge blunder!

Where does your life come from? It comes from God! He has every one of your days numbered, and when the number is up, He will take your life and you will stand accountable before Him. He gives you breath. In the past minute, you drew about 18 breaths of air. In the past hour, you breathed 1,080 times, which adds up to more than 25,000 times in the past 24 hours. If you are 40 years old, you have gulped in more than 365 million breaths of air. Each one was a gift from God. Have you thanked Him for the air He gives you to breathe?

But God not only gives you life and breath; He gives you all things! Do you have a roof over your head? God gave it to you. Do you have a family or friends who care about you? God gave those people to you. Do you have money to buy clothing and food and other things? It came from God. Do you have the ability to enjoy the taste of food, the aroma of a rose, the touch of a baby’s skin, the sound of music, or the beauty of a snow-covered mountain? All these gifts come to us from God. An intellectual needs to know that the fact that he has taken all of these gifts for granted all of his life, and what is worse, that he has had the audacity to challenge the existence of the Creator, only reveal his incredible arrogance. If the Sovereign of the universe so willed, the proud intellectual would choke on his next bite of food and die!

Furthermore, intellectuals need to be humbled by realizing that they have nothing to offer God. He is not served by human hands, as though He needed anything. He has gotten along just fine all of these centuries without their astute intellect, and He will do just fine in the centuries to come whether they offer Him their services or not! While He graciously gives His redeemed children the privilege of serving Him, He does not need any one of us to accomplish His purpose. The minute I start thinking that I am indispensable to God, I am in big trouble! God is able to raise up children for Himself from the very stones, if He wills (Luke 3:8).

Intellectuals also need to realize that God is sovereignly active in determining the rise and fall of individuals and of nations (17:26). Paul is here confronting the deism of the Epicureans, the view that God is not actively involved with His creation. He is also confronting the racism of the Greeks, who called everyone who could not speak Greek “barbarians.” No nation or race is superior, because God made us all from one common ancestor. Any form of racism stems from sinful pride. God in His sovereign wisdom determined the appointed times and boundaries of every nation’s habitation. He raises up world powers and He takes them down again, according to His purpose. No nation or ruler can boast that we are what we are because of our own intelligence or power. We are what we are only by the grace of God. If He plunges our nation into abject poverty and weakness, He has every right to do it.

Paul is arguing here much as he does in Romans 1, where he shows that that which is known about God is evident to all people. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). Men do not know God because they have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:21-22), and plunged into idolatry.

Thus Paul’s meaning in Acts 17:27-28 is not that fallen men of their own natural ability and free will can seek after and find God. He clearly refutes that idea in Romans 3. Rather, he is showing that even though men are in fact dependent on God for everything, and even though God has graciously given men life and breath and all things, men have ignored God and gone their own way. They should have sought God and groped in the dark for Him, and if they had, God would have graciously let them find Him. Even though God is high and lifted up, He is also near to all who call upon Him.

In verse 28, Paul cites the Cretan poet Epimenides, “in Him we live and move and exist.” Then he cites a Cilician poet, Aratus, “we also are His children.” Both of those lines were written in the context of Greek polytheism, which Paul was not in any way endorsing. Rather, he is taking a strand of thought from these pagan poets and showing how these thoughts lined up with the revelation of the one true God. The first quote supports what Paul has just said about all of us owing our very life and breath to God. The second quote supports Paul’s contention that God made all people and nations from one man, so that we all are His children by creation. So Paul is using the debating tactic of quoting your opponents’ own writers in support of your point.

Then he applies it in verse 29: Since we are the children of God in the sense that He made us all and we owe our very existence to Him, idolatry is ludicrous. To think that we can make God by creating a statue of gold or silver or stone is absurd. So Paul, in this capital of idolatry, shows the absurdity of idolatry! It would be like going to the casinos of Las Vegas and crying out against the absurdity and wickedness of gambling!

But don’t miss the point: Intellectuals are all idolaters at heart. In our day, they may or may not have little statues that they bow down to. Surprisingly, many who pride themselves on their intellect are pure idolaters. Did you know that we have an entire store in this university town devoted to selling idols? I would never have thought that there would be enough of a market to support such a store, but there must be! They have Hindu idols, idols of Buddha, and idols of Mary and Jesus. I have also noticed an increase of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags around lately, usually flown by those who worship the earth and advocate animal rights above human rights. They are idolaters, worshiping the creature rather than the Creator!

Those who promote atheistic humanism are also idolaters, worshiping man and his intellect. Ironically, at the same time they worship man, they say that he evolved by sheer chance from pond slime, and most recently from apes! And so they “exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Rom. 1:23). As Paul puts it (1 Cor. 1:21), “in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God.” Reason alone is not sufficient to bring men to salvation and the knowledge of God. We cannot reason an intellectual into the kingdom, because the heart of his problem is sin, not just wrong thinking.

The root sin of intellectuals is pride, which clearly shows itself here. Even before they heard Paul’s defense of the gospel, they sneered at him and called him an idle babbler (17:18). The Greek word is a “seed-picker.” It referred to birds that would flit around pecking at a seed here and a seed there. So it came to be used in mockery of a man who picked up a stray idea from one place, and another idea from another place, and went around promoting them as his own wisdom. But Luke, in a parenthetical comment (17:21), shows that the Athenians were the real babblers. They liked to pass their time with mind games and endless banter, attempting to prove the superiority of their intellects. John Calvin calls them “drunk with their own pride” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Acts, 2:146).

Thus to reach intellectuals, begin on common ground and then show them God’s supremacy and their own sin of pride.

3. To reach intellectuals for Christ, call them to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s forceful conclusion (17:30-31) is, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring (or, commanding) to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

Some say that Paul blew it here because he skips over the death of Christ and jumps to the resurrection. I think that there are two possibilities. Luke is obviously giving us a summary version of Paul’s sermon, and so he could have spoken about Christ’s death, but Luke did not record it for us. He does say that earlier Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection (17:18), which is obviously a summary. To proclaim that Jesus is risen implies that He died, and it is not difficult to assume that Paul explained that Christ died as the substitute for sinners.

Or, Paul may have been intending to explain Jesus’ death, but he got interrupted and never got the chance. I think this is more likely, because he never mentions the name of Jesus or the offer of God’s forgiveness through faith in Him. Spurgeon mentions that the apostles often plowed the ground with the doctrine of God’s judgment before they came in with the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ (“Jesus the Judge,” on Acts 10:42, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Ages Software]). Here, Paul got through the repentance part, but before he could mention faith in Christ, he got cut off by the jeering of some in the crowd.

The only way an intellectual can be saved is the only way anyone can be saved, by repenting of his pride and other sins, and by trusting in Jesus Christ as the one who bore his penalty on the cross. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”


Plato told a story about the Greek philosopher Thales, who lived about a century and a half before him. The philosopher was walking along a road with his head thrown back, studying the stars, when he stumbled into a well. Hearing his cries for help, a servant girl pulled him out, but not without making the observation that while he was eager to know about things in the sky, he failed to see what lay at his own feet (The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, ed. by Clifton Fadiman [Little, Brown], pp. 539-540).

Many intellectuals are like that. They concern themselves with lofty questions, but they never face their own sin and need for a Savior before they die. If we follow Paul’s example of establishing a common ground, showing them the supremacy of God and their own sinfulness, and calling them to repentance and faith in the risen Lord Jesus, some will sneer and some will put us off till later. But some will believe and be saved.

Discussion questions

  1. What are some helpful ways to initiate a discussion of spiritual things?
  2. What do you say if someone says, “I don’t believe in God,” or, “I don’t believe in the Bible”?
  3. Why is the doctrine of creation crucial to the gospel? Should we debate evolution with an unbeliever? If so, how?
  4. Some argue that we should not mention repentance in a gospel presentation, but only faith in Christ. Why is repentance inseparable from saving faith?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Apologetics, Discipleship, Engage, Evangelism, Faith, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

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