The Three Places Paul Reaches Out to in Athens and What We Can Learn From It

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In Acts 17 Paul has gone to Athens to tell people about Jesus. In verse 17 we get this fantastic verse for formulating a good ole 3 point sermon,

So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.”

Here we find three groups of people:

  1. The synagogue: insiders
  2. The God fearing Greeks: seekers
  3. The marketplace (agora): outsiders

Paul usually started with the synagogue. It was a natural first step to reach out to those who already knew and respected the scriptures and who were monotheisists…worshiping the one, true God. These are the people he could probably most be himself with. He could probably converse in Hebrew with some of them…you know, insider language like “guide, guard and direct.”

But he didn’t stop there. Paul was also very well aware of the “in between” group…those who were not yet Jewish but who were also interested in God. They were usually called “God fearers.” Cornelius was called that in Acts 10:2. This group had ties inside and out. Convincing them of Jesus as the Messiah was one more link closer to the third group.

These first two groups had one thing in common…they were on “Paul’s turf.” What I mean by that is that in a sense Paul didn’t have to go to them because they were already present in the synagogue. Now Paul certainly had to travel to them and Paul had to go to the synagogue to teach them but both of these groups were already “bought in.” They didn’t need invited to be there on the Sabbath or any other time of worship. These first two groups are who most ministers spend quite a bit of their time with…the people who show up on Sunday. These are the people we are most comfortable with and converse most easily with.

Then there is the third group…those in the agora or marketplace. Paul was born and bred for the Gentile mission. God had readied him for this long again. Paul was from Tarsus and Tarsus was a city well acquainted with Greek philosophy, in particular the Stoics and Epicureans who Paul converses with in Acts 17. It is important for us to realize that hanging out with the insiders and the seekers will only take us so far. At some point we have to go from “our turf” to “their turf.” We have to go to the place where our perspective doesn’t give us any perceived advantage on the part of the people there. We have to go where the people are who need Jesus the most and that is going to require us to step out, to learn some things we might not have studied otherwise and to learn to converse with people who think differently than we do.

As with Paul, if we are willing to do this and work at this, we can be certain there is a harvest among those who are not already Christians and who haven’t already showed up at church but who haven’t even considered a relationship with Jesus yet at this point in their lives. That is very exciting to think about!

5 Responses

  1. I hope that you either have already or soon will “preach” this ‘good ole 3 point sermon.’ Next Monday I plan to be at the support group where I first met you. It promises to be interesting, as always. As always, we’ll miss you, but are still happy to count you as one of the group even in abscentia.

  2. By Paul understanding the Torah and the prophets as well as Greek philosophy, it demonstrates to us the need to understand the modern world, the problems facing people today and different groups of people other than our own. As much as Paul has been preached on in the cofC, there is still a problem with understanding anything occurring in the real world. Even people sitting in the pews on Sunday don’t think the same way that everyone else does.

    1. Right on point. We cannot insulate ourselves for fear that “they” might infect “us”. If you follow the ministry of Jesus you see him reverse the cleansing process or mindset of the Jewish world. In their world contamination always makes the pure impure. But in Jesus it is the pure contacting the impure that makes the impure, pure. The church can have that affect as well but we have to get outside our bubbles.

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