Paul’s letters never compromise God’s message, but he uses the language of his culture to articulate that message whenever possible. Sometimes God’s message is compatible with our culture; often it challenges our culture. But we hear both its affirmations and its challenges most clearly when we understand it in the language of our day.
By Paul’s time, Athens was no longer the greatest academic center of philosophy, but it retained that reputation from its earlier days. It also had a market and citadel full of idols, which revolted a worshiper of the true God like Paul (Acts 17:16). This drove Paul to preach there. But Athenians did not license just anyone to teach “philosophies” in their city, so they brought Paul before the Areopagus, the leading court of the city (17:19), demanding to know about his “strange deities” (17:18). Ancient readers who knew how Athens got its philosophic reputation would remember that Socrates was earlier brought before this same court—and that he was condemned to death on the charge of sacrilegiously denying Athens’ deities.
But Paul had seen altars of unknown gods around Athens. Centuries earlier, the Athenians had sacrificed to all their deities to stop a plague, yet the plague had continued. Finally they sacrificed to whatever unknown deity may have sent judgment against them, and the plague stopped. God had prepared Athens for his gospel, and Paul preached to them about the God unknown to them.
He began with a respectful address (Acts 17:22), as was standard, and quoted their own poets (Acts 17:28). He identified with their culture as much as possible so that the only stumbling block, if there was one, would be the stumbling block of the cross. Stoic and Epicurean philosophers comprised some of his audience (Acts 17:18), but the Christian worldview had very limited agreement with Epicureans (except that the divine was transcendent). Stoics were different; at many points, Paul could teach biblical ideas that the Stoics also related to. Stoics agreed that God is not limited to temples (17:24), needs nothing (17:25), created people (17:26-29), and so forth. When we share Christ with others, it is helpful to build on what insights they already have correct.
But Paul did not stop there.
He was not simply “monologuing” to let the Stoics know that he was a good philosopher whom they should welcome. At some points the gospel may agree with values in our culture, but at other points it challenges them. Philosophers knew about “conversion” to philosophy, but Paul summons them to turn to the one true God (17:30). Epicureans denied life after death; Stoics affirmed the soul’s immortality but could not conceive of bodily resurrection, and also believed that history was cyclical, with no final judgment. Yet Paul preaches a final day of judgment, which God proved in advance by raising Jesus from the dead (17:31).
In a sense, Paul may “divide and conquer” his audience, as he did later with the Pharisees and Sadducees (Acts 23:6-9). He had limited common ground with the Epicureans, but had at least some with the Stoics (17:18). Yet the culture’s assumptions were so different that even these intellectual conversation partners did not understand his message fully. Some wrongly thought he was preaching “strange deities”—plural—namely, Jesus and Resurrection (Acts 17:18; “Anastasis,” or “Resurrection,” was also a woman’s name in Greek!) Paul had to clarify that he announced one true God who had resurrected Jesus. When he finished, some scoffed (probably especially Epicureans), but others listened and, most importantly, some believed (Acts 17:32-34). It was a start, and eventually the Christian message spread throughout Greece.
Like Jesus and Paul, we should not avoid those outside the faith. We should labor to explain Jesus to them in terms they understand, yet without compromising the gospel’s truth. Whether we are bridging gaps with unchurched youth using some of the saner rap lyrics, secular thinkers with the best of their ethics, immigrants with genuine respect for their culture, and so on, we need to try to relate the good news of hope to people in their own language, lovingly yet unashamedly. Usually that means that we must learn to understand their culture first (as Paul must have done long before Acts 17), which comes through sensitive and caring relationships. It also means that we must labor to understand and faithfully articulate Christ’s work without compromise.