Witnessing To Intellectuals
Wisdom calls for us to use different approaches when we speak about spiritual things to people having different educational backgrounds and social positions. The Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul both did so, and so should we.
The Lord Jesus approached an uneducated, immoral Samaritan woman and began a conversation by showing her that He accepted her as a person. He did this by asking her for a drink of water, something a strict, pharisaical Jew would never have done. In so doing, He opened the way to speak to her about “living water” and ultimately to convince her along with her neighbors that He was “really … the Savior of the world” (Jn. 4:42 NIV). Doing anything initially that would make a person feel inferior would never open that person’s heart, and the Lord knew that.
With the educated and religious Nicodemus, His approach was quite different. Nicodemus was “Israel’s teacher” and was socially prominent as “a member of the Jewish council” (Jn. 3:1,10). Such a person would be ready to hear of the kingdom of God and of the necessity for being born again to enter it, and then to later hear that wonderful truth, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:3,7,16).
In Acts 17:22-34, Paul provides us with an excellent example of how to witness to people who are educated in the wisdom of the world, who have a secular education. Athenian philosophers had taken him to the Areopagus1 to speak to the thinkers who regularly gathered there. Paul did not begin with controversial matters like the resurrection, or with unsettling matters like God’s judgment upon them for their idolatry. Of course, he did eventually get there, but he began where they were intellectually and spiritually, and that is what we should do as well.
Start Where They Are
The Athenians had an altar “to an unknown God 1 ” (Acts 17:23) and he used that fact as the starting point to arouse their interest. They clearly thought that there might be a God whom they did not know, and Paul offered to introduce them to Him. Take careful note that he said nothing critical of them as some translations indicate. He simply referred to them as “very religious” (Acts 17:22). 2
God Is Creator
Paul’s witnessing began with the fact that this God, whom they did not know, really exists and is the creator of everything (Acts 17:24-28). We are not told how, or even whether he explained his statement, but we do know that he referred other people — who did not consider the Scriptures to be authoritative — to that other revelation of God, creation itself, where His “invisible qualities — His eternal power and divine nature (are) clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Rom. 1:20). Note that Paul did not take up the creation account in Genesis 1 and neither should we. A debate is too likely to ensue about when and how God created — matters not essential for salvation.
God Is A Personal God
It is not enough to get people to accept God merely as a creative force — He is a Person who is also a participant in the affairs of men. Hence, in proclaiming God, Paul next said that God wants men to “seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him” (Acts 17:27). We need to encourage even agnostics to do that! In a long conversation I had with a highly educated agnostic, the most effective thing I said was simply, “Talk to Him!” The agnostic later did just that — reached out for God, and found Him!
Use Truths They Accept
This is what Paul did! He recognized a most important fact: All truth is God’s truth! Knowing that the Scriptures would carry no weight with his hearers, he effectively made his point by quoting truths they accepted. And he even used writings other than the Bible! (Acts 17:28). 3 With believers, he always used the Scriptures as authoritative, and so should we! The fact that the Scriptures are the Word of God is a most important truth, but its acceptance can be deferred, if necessary, until the person becomes a believer. Then it will be accepted readily!
Repentance Is Called For
Attributing their idolatry to ignorance, Paul did not condemn them, but called them to repentance saying, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people to repent” (Acts 17:30). In a similarly gentle way, we too can stress God’s mercy and forbearance, and call for repentance. Intellectuals may not be guilty of anything so obvious as idolatry, but, if they are honest with themselves, they know they have wrongs they need to repent of!
There Will Be A Judgment
The call for repentance is issued in view of a coming judgment. Paul and we announce that God “has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed; He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Everyone, particularly the well informed, recognize that injustice abounds in the world, and everyone secretly desires that injustice be punished. It is reasonable then to proclaim that man “is destined to die once and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Death is not an escape!
There Will Be A Resurrection
This fact must be insisted on. Many people will believe that there is a personal God who is the Creator, and they may even believe that Jesus is a man whose teachings should be followed. But when told that they must believe in the literal resurrection of dead bodies (1 Cor. 15:16-17), they will do as some of the Athenians were said to do: “Some began to sneer” (Acts 17:32). The resurrection must be presented in the same way Paul did to establish it for the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15), not as a “doctrine” but as a fact. However, let us honestly admit that we do not, in a scientific sense, know how the dead are raised nor, in a biological sense, with what kind of body we will be raised, but we do know that all will be raised. Our Lord Jesus said so! (Jn. 5:29).
Acceptance Will Be Limited
What was the response to Paul’s excellent presentation? Some sneered, others procrastinated, and only a few believed (Acts 17:32-34). Our Lord was the greatest teacher that ever lived and yet many people rejected Him and His teaching. It is not our “methods” nor our “excellent presentations” that cause people to come to the Lord. We plant the seed but it is God who makes it grow! (1 Cor. 3:5-7).
1. “The tribunal which watched over the morals of the Athenians and saw that due honor was paid to the gods, held its sessions on Areopagus (Mars Hill) and was so designated.” J. N. Darby, New Translation, footnote to Acts 17:19.
2. “Too superstitious” (KJV) or “demon worship” (JND) imply a meaning that the Greek word, “deisidaimon” would not imply to Athenians. The Greek is literally “demon worship,” but to the Greeks, demons were merely inferior deities which could be good or bad. The meaning “very religious” also agrees with the meaning found in Greek writers, according to W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Oliphants, 1964; Vol. 1, p. 291, Vol. 4, p. 94.
3. “In Him we live and move” is a quotation from Epimenides and a further line from the same context is quoted in Titus 1: 12. Also “we are His offspring” is quoted from the poem “Phenomena” by Aratus of Cilicia, according to The New Bible Commentary, Revised, Eerdmans, p. 996.
By Alan Crosby
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.