Acts 17:16-34

  • 29 August 2021
  • Stuart Robinson

I stumbled across an internet piece when I was trying to pick music this week.

It must have been from a self-improvement course or some such thing – but the headline did catch my attention:

Don’t tell me what your priorities are, show me where you spend your time and your money, and I can tell you what your priorities are, it read.

Now there is a truism.

Where and how we spend our time and our money is indeed a clear indicator of our priorities, don’t you think?

St. Paul is an excellent example of this:

His time and his resources are given over – in their entirety – to the advance of the Kingdom of God.

Last week we saw St. Paul preaching the gospel and planting churches in Europe (Acts 16 and 17).

He experienced much success and much opposition.

To keep him safe, the new Christians in Eastern Greece (Macedonia) immediately escorted Paul to the relative safety of Athens (Acts 17:16) as he was, I should think, in need of safe harbour, respite, and refreshment.

This week we heard in the reading that far from lying low, Paul – deeply distressed by the idolatry of this vast multicultural metropolis – made a beeline for the Synagogue and then to the marketplace – to preach the gospel; to tell people the good news of Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18)


Because that was St Paul’s vocation or ‘call’, his divine priority.

And I believe the Lord honoured his fidelity with a remarkable opportunity:

Intrigued by Paul’s preaching, a group of philosophers (from different schools of thought), invited him to share what they referred to as ‘new teachings and strange ideas’ (Acts 17:19-20) with the Areopagus – kind of like a council of city elders who also exercised judicial authority, of sorts.

Cannily, in his presentation, Paul refers to an idol to ‘an unknown God’ (Acts 17:23) that he had seen during his reconnoitre of the city of Athens.

He then builds a rhetorical/philosophical bridge in his argument – from where they are in their thinking, to where they need to be – that they might grasp the good news of Jesus.

‘All I’m simply doing’, says St. Paul, ‘is proclaiming to you the God whom you inadvertently (or in ignorance) worship!’. Acts 17:23.

John Stott pithily summarises his case thus,

Paul portrayed this ‘unknown god’ as the Creator of the Universe, the Lord of heaven and earth; as the Sustainer of life who therefore does not need to be sustained; as the Ruler of nations, determining their times and places; as the Father of human beings, whose offspring we are (as the Stoic philosopher, Aratus, had said); and as the Judge of the world who has overlooked past ignorance but now commands everybody everywhere to repent, having appointed the Judge and raised him from the dead.

Paul’s message is breathtakingly profound, yet succinct.

He proclaimed God in his fullness as Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Father and Judge.

This message, dear friends, is anything but trivial; especially in the light of pandemics and global upheaval – where nothing is a certainty any longer.


How do people respond to Paul’s proposition – that there is a Creator God who is likewise Sustainer, Ruler, Father and Judge?

Luke helpfully lists what I think are three universal responses to the gospel.

Paul’s listeners were either (and these are my words) contemptuous, curious, or convinced.

Contemptuous: Acts 17:32 – “when they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered”. Yes, they rejected the gospel (for whatever reason) and engaged no further.

Curious: Acts 17:32 – “but others said, ‘we want to hear you again on this subject’. Their interest has been piqued (aroused). They were not cynics but seekers.

Paul had taken them on a journey from ignorance to interest.

Convinced. Acts 17:34 – “some of the people became followers of Paul and believed the gospel. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.’

In passing, I should add that Dionysius -after his conversion to Christ and according to tradition, became the first Bishop of Athens, and the specific mention of Damaris, by name – indicates the prominent role that women had in the early church.

Do please notice what happens next:

Absolutely nothing.

That is, Paul then left Athens according to the next verse (Acts 18:10): ‘After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth’.

I wonder if Luke’s tacit point is that Paul had faithfully done his bit – he’d been obedient to his divine call, he’d discharged his responsibilities and in accord with his priorities, he left to preach the gospel in Corinth.

As he later said to the Corinthians, he [Paul] planted the seed [he preached the gospel] …but God was/is the one who makes it grow. I Corinthians 3:6.

Martin Luther agreed with that premise.

He once famously said,

In short, I will preach [the gospel], teach it, write it, but I will constrain no [person] by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example…I simply taught, preached, and wrote [of] God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf; [God’s] Word did everything. (LW 51:71).

Here are some take-home thoughts from what we’ve considered this morning:

First, whilst we may not all be called to serve as evangelists or church planters, we all have a God-given vocation ‘as Ambassadors’ of our Lord Jesus, for God will make his appeal to be reconciled to himself, though us. II Corinthians 5:20.

Our responsibility and our message is anything but trivial in age of great uncertainty and global upheaval.

Second, we can be sure of a response. It may be contemptuous and derisory; it may be one of curiosity and genuine interest; or indeed people may respond in faith and obedience – as many of you have; some in recent times.

Third – we can trust God with the outcome. He brings the increase…though do pray with me that he would indeed add to our number a great many Dionysius’ and Damaris’.

So then, may we pray?

Our great God and Heavenly Father,

You have entrusted us with the message of reconciliation (to God) through faith in Jesus.

Give us courage to prioritise our lives such that we do live as Ambassadors of Christ in this age of uncertainty and instability.

May our trust in you, pique an interest in the gospel in the lives of our friends and relatives.

Please use us, to reach a great many more Dionysius’ and Damaris’.


Latest Sermons