By most modern metrics of church growth, Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill could easily be deemed ineffective and unfruitful. Acts 17:34 names only two converts from the gathering he drew in Athens—Dionysius and a woman named Damaris. That small harvest somehow looks less spectacular than the revivals Paul saw in Antioch or Thessalonica.
But Paul had a dramatic effect on the city at the top level. He exposed its highest court to the knowledge of the true God. This event planted a church in Athens and launched Paul’s ministry in nearby Corinth. Paul also opened up more opportunities to preach (“We shall hear you again concerning this”). Although the response of the Areopagus court may not have been as sensational as Paul’s preaching had provoked elsewhere, we can be certain that God’s purposes were accomplished and the Word did not return void. The threefold response of that day—contempt, curiosity, and conversion—is typical whenever and wherever the gospel is faithfully preached.
It was immediately after the Areopagus incident that Paul went to Corinth. Years later, he wrote, “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1–2). Some interpreters believe Paul was renouncing the approach he had employed at the Areopagus. That view undoubtedly reads too much into 1 Corinthians 2. Paul nowhere indicates that he viewed his Athens ministry as a failure. I reject the notion that his sermon at the Areopagus miscarried. From all we are told in Scripture, it was totally consistent with Paul’s approach to ministry everywhere else. Nevertheless, this much is clear from 1 Corinthians 2, as well as the rest of Paul’s pastoral epistles: Paul did not believe the secret to his powerful ministry lay in his ability to quote Greek poets. You don’t see him counseling Timothy or Titus to bone up on secular culture, learn to quote the classics, or study philosophy so they could engage in debates with the intellectual elite. He simply commanded them to preach the Word, in season and out of season—and to be prepared to face the world’s hostility if they were faithful in that task.
Acts chapter 17 proves that while Paul adjusted his style in speaking, he never adapted his message. Most significantly, he never adopted the spirit of his age. In 1984, near the end of his life, Francis Schaeffer observed: “To accommodate to the world spirit about us in our age is the most gross form of worldliness in the proper definition of the world.” Schaeffer added:
Unhappily, today we must say that in general the evangelical establishment has been accommodating to the forms of the world spirit as it finds expression in our day. I would say this with tears—and we must not in any way give up hoping and praying. We must with regret remember that many of those with whom we have a basic disagreement over these issues of accommodation are brothers and sisters in Christ. But in the most basic sense, the evangelical establishment has become deeply worldly.
That is precisely what many today are doing—but what Paul would not do. He never conformed himself—and more importantly he never tried to conform the God he declared—to the tastes and expectations of his audience. He was content—as we must be—to allow the power of the gospel to speak for itself.
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