Summary: In Athens Paul had a great debate with the wisest about the "Unknown God" There are lessons to be learned on how to win the debate.
This week the Presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romeny dominated the media. A lot of poles felt that Romney won the debate. There have been many famous debates over the years. The debate between Abraham Lincoln and Steven A. Douglas is certainly well known.
Perhaps the most famous debate took place in 1960 for the first time in front of a TV audience. In 1960, a not well known Senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy and then Vice President Richard Nixon met in the first-ever televised debate. The debate illustrated the importance of a candidate’s style and on-camera appearance. Kennedy appeared youthful, tanned and comfortable with the new medium, while Nixon, recovering from the flu, looked sweaty and pale. According to Newton Minow and Craig LaMay, authors of "Inside the Presidential Debates," radio listeners thought Nixon won the debate. Television viewers, however, gave the nod to Kennedy, who went on to win the 1960 election. John Kennedy knew the importance of reaching the masses through the new medium of television.
Today we will discuss another great debater who is found in the scriptures. His name is Paul. Let’s read his story in Acts, Chapter 17.
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city. He went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there.
He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.”
Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.” (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.)” (Acts 17:16-21)
Upon arriving in Athens Paul made himself familiar with the people and culture. He was troubled by the idol worship he saw but never do we see him attacking them by beating them over their head with word of God and declaring they were on their way to hell. When you approach people in this manner they will most likely ignore you or be offended by you. But they will certainly not heed your words.
So Paul presented himself as a Jew and a believer to those in the synagogue in Athens to warn and encourage them. That is a good role model for the church, to encourage with love and warn with the truth.
When he spoke of Jesus and the resurrection we was rebuffed and ridiculed. But their interest was peaked to the point that he was delivered to the high council, similar to our Supreme Court. And he was given an audience in which to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So Paul presented his argument to the high council. And in his presentation are lessons we can learn about evangelism.
1. Paul’s observation of God
“So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.” (Acts 17:22-23)
Paul immediately catches their attention by finding common ground. He finds a common ground on which to reach them, and that common ground is religion. He says “your beliefs do not go unnoticed.” Paul recognized three things common to all of mankind.
Firstly, mankind by nature is religious. Every society, no matter how primitive, has some conception of a higher power. Some seek this power through crystals and mediums. Some believe in evil spirits that attack us. Even karma, believing what goes around comes around, is a belief in a higher power. The word Paul uses for “religion” could also be interpreted “superstitious.”
The Athenians had idols for every god under and above heaven. However, in case they missed one, they built an altar and worshiped this “unknown God”
Secondly, mankind is on a constant search for God and the truth. The fact that they had an idol to the unknown god proved that they were groping about in darkness looking for some truth that existed but they could not find.
Thirdly, mankind has suppressed the truth about God. And in doing so has allowed idols to dominate their worship. The reason people don’t know God is simply because they don’t want to know God. We can witness to others but until they come to desire to know him they will continue to turn to their idols.