Day 330 (Again): Did Paul “Fail” at Mars Hill? (Acts 17:18-34)

Mars Hill, Athens, Greece

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”
‭‭Acts‬ ‭17‬:‭32‬-‭34‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Through the Bible: Acts 17

I don’t know what to make of Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill. On one hand, it is held up as a model for presenting the gospel in a culturally relevant way to skeptics and unchurched people. On the other hand, the description of the results in verses 32-34–“some men joined him and believed”—seem pretty tepid compared to those in Thessalonica (v. 4) and Berea (v. 14).

Notably, Paul didn’t plant a church in Athens. There’s not an epistle to the Athenians. And apparently, Paul didn’t stay long. The very next verse (18:1) just says “after this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.” And at that point, the most prominent city in the Greek world drops out of the history of the New Testament.

Understandably, some will look at the title of this blog post and have a strong negative reaction: “How can you suggest it was a failure? God’s word went forth, and it never returns void—it always accomplishes its purposes!” (see Isaiah 55:11). That is true. Others will say, “Some people believed. And if even one person responds to the gospel, you can’t call it a failure.” That is also true.

Paul does indeed model some great practices for speaking to unchurched people. He gives a shout out to the local culture in verse 23, when he comments on the Athenians’ altar to an unknown God. He skillfully pivots to a gospel proclamation: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” He even drops a couple of pop culture references by quoting some Greek poets (v. 28).

But notice what’s missing. There’s no cross in the sermon. There’s no Jesus in the sermon. Now, you can give Paul the benefit of the doubt and say that he had been preaching Jesus and the resurrection earlier in the marketplace (see verse 17-18). But it almost seems like, when he got to the big stage of the Areopagus, he lost his nerve. He forgot the message that got him there in the first place.

Remember that Paul went to Corinth from Athens. Notice, then, what Paul says to the Corinthians years later, as he reflected on the experience: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimonyof God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of menbut in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-4).

Beloved, we can learn a lot from Paul’s approach as we are interacting with unbelievers. But take a moment to consider that God’s Word may be teaching us as much about what not to do as it is what to do. Effectiveness is never about our cleverness or relevance. It’s about the spirit’s power. A sermon without Christ and Him crucified is no sermon at all. And no matter how much we seek to be culturally relevant, we are not likely to see a demonstration of the Spirit’s power just because we quote the lyrics from a Taylor Swift song. 

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