Paul in the Marketplace
The apostle Paul’s missionary work was never contingent on cultural adjustments. He maintained a singular focus and consistent message throughout his missionary journeys. When provoked by the gross idolatry of Athenian culture, Paul’s response was to do what he had done in virtually every city where he had ever ministered. He went to the synagogue and the marketplace and preached Christ. Acts 17:17 says, “So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present.” His approach was direct, confrontive evangelism. He did not do a community survey. He did not conduct any special research. He did not try to put together an evangelization committee. He just went to the synagogue and the marketplace and preached to whoever was there.
“God-fearing Gentiles” refers to Gentiles who were associated with the synagogue—people who knew about Jehovah God and believed enough about Him to fear Him. So Paul was ministering to Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, and rank pagans. There was no marketing focus or target group. Paul proclaimed the truth everywhere to everyone, just as he had done all over Asia Minor.
The marketplace in Athens was called the agora. It was the hub of all activity for Athens. Situated at the southern edge of the ancient city, it stood in the shadow of the hill called Areopagus. Looming to the southeast was the great Acropolis, the geographical high point of Athens, where the most spectacular temples were situated—including the massive Parthenon, a magnificent marble structure that was already five hundred years old by the time Paul saw it.
The agora was a large courtyard in the midst of all the civic buildings. There, under a large colonnade, people would set up little shops and booths. Vendors would peddle their wares. Farmers brought produce and cattle to sell. Tradesmen would be there to ply their services. It was always a busy place. A modern equivalent might be a town square or the central area of a city mall. In the middle of the marketplace, philosophers would congregate and vie with one another for people’s attention. Peripatetic teachers in the tradition of Aristotle, specialists in the healing arts, magicians, hucksters, and street performers of all kinds had a forum where they could work the crowds.
Paul saw it as an ideal place to preach. Scripture says he reasoned there “every day with those who happened to be present.” What form did his discourse take? Verse 18 says he preached the gospel. He was preaching about “Jesus and the resurrection”—classic Pauline ministry.
How could one man hope to have an effect on a city like Athens? From a human perspective Paul stood literally alone against centuries of traditional paganism—and intellectual paganism at that. What could he hope to accomplish by standing in the marketplace and preaching about Jesus and the resurrection?
Those are questions a marketing specialist might have asked, but not Paul. He didn’t see himself as one man alone against a city. He saw himself as a voice through which the power of God—the gospel—could be loosed on the largest and most influential metropolis in that part of the world. He believed that by standing there in the agora proclaiming Christ he was unleashing God’s own power on the city of Athens. The impact of it was in God’s hands.