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7 tips for talking to non-Christians: Insights from Paul’s trip to Athens

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How does someone who believes that no one comes to the Father but through Jesus (John 14:6) communicate that message to those with a different worldview? The Apostle Paul, in Athens (Acts 17), gives us a good road map to follow.*

Like our society, Athens was a diverse place. There were people who worshipped idols. The Epicureans believed life was the result of chance, death ended it all, the gods didn’t care, and therefore, there was no need to fear divine judgment. The Stoics were pantheists, believing that everything was God.

Paul began by informing himself about his audience, walking around, noticing their values (idols, v. 16) and conversing with people in their gathering places.

He did his homework on their culture. He twice quoted their poets (v. 28). In one of those poems, a god named Minos addresses his father Zeus. Yet Paul uses that poem to tell people about the living – and only – God! “Paul was prepared to take over the glimmerings of truth in pagan philosophy about the nature of God,” explains commentator I.H. Marshall.

Finding common ground

When Paul began to speak, he used his observations and knowledge of their culture to establish common ground. First, he affirmed that which was good in their way of life. “I see that…you are very religious” (v. 22). He didn’t make fun of idol worshippers as others did, but rather spoke of them “as earnest seekers of God,” as author C.R. Holladay says.

Continuing to work from the point of view of common ground, he explained there was something incomplete in their information about God. Specifically, the Athenians had an altar to an unknown God. Paul’s intent was to enlighten them in the area in which they were lacking.

Key differences

While Paul stressed common ground with people of other faiths, his message was uncompromisingly about the God of the Bible, addressing squarely the key points where he differed from them, the key points of the gospel, and the danger of failing to turn to Jesus:

1. Contrary to the beliefs of the Epicureans, this world and everything in it was created by God (v. 24–5), who cares about the details of their lives (v. 26), and who wishes relationship with them (v. 27).

2. Contrary to the beliefs of idol worshippers, God does not live in human-built temples (v. 24), needs nothing from humans (v. 25), and cannot be represented by a human-built image (v. 29). Unlike the pagan gods, this God is fair (v. 31).

3. Contrary to the beliefs of the Stoics, this Creator God is separate from his creation (v. 24–5).

4. Contrary to Greek belief in their racial superiority, the fact that all humans were created by God and descended from one ancestor means there is no place for racism.

5. God has raised from the dead the One who will one day judge all people (v. 31) – Easter is the most important event in history!

6. That means we will one day be judged for our choices. Commentator William Barclay explains it this way: “Life is neither a progress to extinction, as it was to the Epicureans, nor a pathway to absorption to God, as it was to the Stoics; it is a journey to the judgment seat of God where Jesus Christ is Judge.”

7. Accordingly, it’s not OK to stay in the worldview of your choice. Instead, you must turn from the ignorance which has guided your values, to the living God, mindful that the Risen One will be your judge.

Careful listening, background research, a search for common ground, respectful presentation, all without compromising the Bible’s claim that Jesus is the only path to peace with God – how does Paul’s pattern translate to your setting?

Marvin Dyck is pastor of Crossroads Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg.

*For further reading, please see William Barclay’s The Daily Study Bible: The Acts of the Apostles and I.H. Marshall’s Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Acts, F.F. Bruce’s The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Book of Acts, and C.H. Talbert’s Knox Preaching Guides: Acts.


Acts 17:24-28
(link to BibleGateway.com)
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”

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