Acts 17 on Discernment and Apologetics for Christians Today

Kato Mivule | November 17 2011

One of the most instructive chapters, in my opinion, on christian discernment and apologetics is Acts 17. The chapter provides a Christian discernment and apologetics framework for both inside and outside the Church.

In Acts 17 that Paul the apostle visits Europe, the epicenter of western civilization then. Paul encounters the religious Jews, believers, and would be secular philosophers of his day. Paul the apostle did not dismiss or deny a response to any of the members in each of these groups but rather responded with truth, reason, indisputable logic, and most importantly the message of Jesus Christ.

If you may, this can be categorized in two ways, apologetics and discernment inside the Church and outside the church. Acts 17 is more like a framework, an outline of sort, first, Paul engages religious Jews in a discourse about Jesus Christ, then Paul,  moves on and engages the Bereans who were more astute when it came to scriptures, then Paul confronts the Jews in the synagogue, and lastly the Greek Philosophers.

Paul Reasons with the Jews out of scriptures...

Acts 17:1-4 KJV  Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:  (2)  And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,  (3)  Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ.  (4)  And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few.

The key words here is, 'reasons with them out of scriptures'. Reason was not cast aside by Paul but rather, through reason, implying logical reason, Paul was able to show to the Jews that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Therefore, 'reason' is not ungodly as some 'over-spiritual Christians' seem to suggest but actually a gift from God. Scriptures and faith in Christ are not illogical; rather than contradict, scriptures in the Bible will compliment each other. Yes, through 'reason' we can aptly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

Apologetics and discernment inside the Church, Paul meets the Bereans...
Acts 17:10-12 KJV  And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews.  (11)  These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.  (12)  Therefore many of them believed; also of honourable women which were Greeks, and of men, not a few.

Paul met another group of believers from Berea who searched the scriptures daily, to check if what Paul taught was so. The key phrase here, is that they “ searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so”. We could say this was discernment and apologetics inside the church. Rather than take Paul's message at face value, the Bereans did their own reading and research, to check if what Paul taught lined up with the scriptures.

Many Christians today lack this type of approach to their faith and as a result, some have been taken advantage of by opportunists who manipulate the scriptures for personal gain. The key issue is that Christians must get to that point in which they apply their God given reason, research, and check facts for themselves in the scriptures. The question that a believer must to ask is, does what the preacher teach line up with the whole counsel in God's word or does it contradict? One thing that false teachers do very well, is to always quote the Bible out of context, they love to defend their doctrines usually by one verse or a group of contradictory verses. Therefore, a believer must learn to read the Bible in context and cross check to see if what they hear that preacher teach is really from the Bible.

Paul goes to Athens, disputes with the Jews...
Acts 17:15-17 KJV  And they that conducted Paul brought him unto Athens: and receiving a commandment unto Silas and Timotheus for to come to him with all speed, they departed.  (16)  Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.  (17)  Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.

Interestingly when Paul went to Athens, rather than approach the Greek Philosophers first, he chooses to go to the religious Jews, the folks who should know about what he was preaching. Paul gets into a discourse and dispute with the Jews concerning Jesus Christ being the Messiah. Rather than confront the idols in Athens, Paul confronts those who should know The Lord better, those who have a prior knowledge of The Lord. What purpose does it serve to go to a city and preach to unbelievers while the believers in that same city cannot read their own bibles or are living contrary to the faith they profess? The priority would be to minister to the believers first.

Apologetics outside the Church Paul meets with the Greek Philosophers...

Acts 17:18-21 KJV  Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.  (19)  And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?  (20)  For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.  (21)  (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)

We see that Greek philosophers encounter Paul, intrigued by what Paul was teaching concerning Jesus and the resurrection, they condescendingly called Paul a babbler and took him to their debate hall so they could hear the “new doctrine” that Paul was teaching.

Paul observed and examined the Greek Culture and lifestyle...
Acts 17:22-23 KJV  Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.  (23)  For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

One of the things that Paul did was to study carefully with observation and examination of the Greek peoples and culture. This included studying their poets, philosophers, their religious belief systems, and way of life. Of course, if Christians are going to effectively engage this present culture and preach the gospel, then a study of other social groups and their lifestyles is important. Simply ignoring learning about other cultures hinders our ability to effectively reach out with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Secondly, it also shows not just ignorance but arrogance and a lack of care, people from other cultures and ethnicity welcome those who take the time to learn about their cultures.

Some Christians ignore study and knowledge, claiming that they only read the Bible. However, we see that Paul did venture out and did some rigorous study of the Greek peoples by observation and careful examination. Paul noticed that the Greeks worshiped the UNKNOWN GOD and that was an opening for him to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Effective apologetics and evangelism outside the Church today requires ministers who are knowledgeable, well studied, and have done their homework before they engage other people groups.

Yes, we do have the Holy Spirit but The Holy Spirit gives wisdom and knowledge too and in Paul's case, he had to study, observe, and carefully examine the Greek culture before he engaged it. Paul had to apply critical thought, reason and logic, God given tools that we seem to neglect these days as Christians.

Paul talks about the UNKNOWN GOD...
Acts 17:24-27 KJV  God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;  (25)  Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;  (26)  And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;  (27)  That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

Paul speaks to the Greeks about God as creator of heaven and earth and that God cannot dwell in temples made by human hands.

Paul quotes Greek poets  Epimenides Knossos and Aratus of Soli...
Acts 17:28-29 KJV  For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.  (29)  Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.

In reasoning with the Greeks, Paul quotes Greek poets Epimenides and Aratus, “ For in him we live, and move, and have our being”, and “ For we are also his offspring”, respectively. Paul reasons and makes a powerful point to the Greeks, that if we live and move and have out being in him(UNKNOWN GOD), then that God cannot be a stone, if we are his offspring, certainly, that UNKNOWN GOD cannot be a stone, an idol, or an object that people in Greek had set up to worship. Paul reasons that the UNKNOWN GOD must be living and alive and not dwelling in houses made by human hands.

Basically using logic, if we live, move, and have our being in him, and if we are his offspring, then that God cannot be a stone but alive and well. By contraposition logic and reasoning, an offspring of a stone is a stone, therefore since we are his offspring, God CANNOT be a stone but he is alive and well bigger than Humans since we live, move and have our being in him.  

The point to be made here is that Paul had done a careful study of the poets Epimenides and Aratus and pointed out the two issues they raised in their poetry, that in him we live, move and have our being, and that we are his offspring. We notice that Paul also employs logic and rational as he reasons with the Greek philosophers. Therefore for effective apologetics, evangelism and reaching out with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, such skills need to be employed, especially in this information age in which we live.

Ignorance and intellectual laziness about other cultures is no longer an excuse. While Paul depended on the power of the Holy Spirit in preaching the gospel, he did not ignore knowledge, careful study, reason and logic. Actually a combination of both helped him be more effective in preaching and defending the gospel he preached.

Paul preaches to the Greek Philosophers, rebukes their ignorance...
Acts 17:30-31 KJV  And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:  (31)  Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

After proving to the Greek Philosophers that God is alive and not a stone or an idol, Paul proceeds to preach repentance to them. Interestingly in this part of the discourse, Paul rebukes the ignorance of these supposedly knowledgeable Greek Philosophers by telling them that these times of ignorance God winked at but God know commands all men to repent. In all their reasoning, the Greek philosophers had never come to a conclusion that if your an offspring of God, then God cannot be a dead stone but alive just as the offspring is alive.

Greek philosophers reject the resurrection message...
Acts 17:32-34 KJV  And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.  (33)  So Paul departed from among them.  (34)  Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

The point was to preach the gospel effectively and Paul did just that. A few men believed and others made fun of Paul once they heard about the resurrection. Even to this day, the message of Jesus Christ rising from the dead is still very hard for many thinkers and philosophers to take.

So, the whole point of this study of Acts 17 was to show that Paul not only engaged in apologetic discourse inside the Church but outside the Church too, among none believers but in all cases, Paul employed the tool of study, careful examination, observation, logic, reason, even while being led and powered by The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not a Spirit of foolishness and ignorance but Power, Wisdom and Knowledge, and we do well to know that the fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom.