CONNECTIVITY: A FOCUSED BIBLE STUDY OF ACTS 17

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a connection as “a relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else.” The key word in this definition is “relationship” because the parts interacting with one another create a cumulative whole whose functionality exceeds the value of its constituent parts. From a theological perspective, the Holy Spirit is connected to the Father, Who is connected to the Son, Who is connected to the Holy Spirit.

The connectivity and subsequent relationality within and amongst the Holy Trinity is what allows salvation. Furthermore, the connectivity between the three Godheads helps us all to clarify how we should behave, think, and act in a myriad of human institutions—such as marriage, the church, and our vocation.

The ultimate connection to have ever been made was the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, when God forever became physically linked and associated with humanity. In Luke 1:35, the angel says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” This connection resulted from a gesture not only of love but of pure undeserved grace embedded in history that irrevocably opened the door for an immeasurable number of people who would have otherwise been disconnected from the Father due to the depravity of sin. Jesus is the ultimate connection between a fallen humanity and a Divine Father.

Christ therefore is the ultimate example of how the Divine connects with humanity. Yet how should we connect with one another? The apostle Paul gives us a worthy template to follow.

In one of my favorite passages in the New Testament, we find Paul speaking at the Areopagus (meaning “hill of Ares” or “Mars Hill”), located in Athens, Greece. The Areopagus used to be a place where a council met in order to decide matters of the entire Greek city-state. That was not the case when Paul spoke there. At that time, those who met considered themselves solely the custodians of the teachings that introduced new religions and foreign gods.

Acts 17:22–34 says:

“Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

So what strategies did Paul use in order to connect with those unfamiliar with the good news of Jesus Christ?

He prepared. People often neglect that Paul was one of the most learned men on Earth during his lifetime as it concerned matters of doctrine. As Acts 22:3 tells us, before his conversion to follow Christ, Paul (then called Saul) had formal education in the most prominent rabbinical school of that time. He was trained by Gamaliel, a notable and well-respected Pharisaic teacher (Acts 5:34). Gamaliel was not only the leader of the Sanhedrin but also the grandson of Hillel, who founded the leading school of Judaism. This becomes exceedingly important only to point toward one truth: Paul was a well-educated man who realized his schooling was meaningless unless he could connect with others and reveal to them what he knew. For what good is profound knowledge of the Word if the only person who is aware of that knowledge is you?

The relevance to today is to prepare and then get out of the building and start meeting and talking to people.

He met them where they already were. Paul did not connect with the Greeks by using his language or resorting to Jewish apologetics. Instead, he met them on their home turf, speaking their language, and quoting their poets. In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes the Cretan poet Epimenides (“In him we live and move and have our being”) and the Cilician poet Aratus (“For we too are his offspring”). Furthermore, Paul’s use of secular sources is not limited to this one speech—he also incorporates them into his writings in I Corinthians 15:33 and Titus 1:12.

The lesson for today is to use references that contemporary individuals will recognize and understand and show them how God more completely and perfectly reveals ultimate meaning.

He began by highlighting their similarities. As a devout follower of Jesus, Paul was very religious. He also used to be very religious as a Pharisee, but back then he was actively persecuting and killing Christians. He began his speech be recognizing that, indeed, the Athenians were also religious (Acts 17:22), but just as his zeal was previously misdirected, the Athenians now dealt with the same problem. Religiosity wasn’t the problem; the problem was where that attention was directed. After all, it is human nature to worship and to seek transcendent meaning, just as Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “[God] has put a sense of past and future into [our] minds.” While the Athenians thought the Divine was unknown, impersonal, and distant, Paul clarified that Christ is known, very personal, and with us always. (Matthew 28:19).

The lesson for today is that, as controversial as it seems, Christians and many non-believers can agree on one irrefutable point: most “religions” are indeed hocus pocus. As Craig Parton intelligently points out in Religion On Trial, the overwhelming majority of religious truth claims are either non-verifiable or crumble under the burden of proof. So when a staunch atheist tells me, “Religion is nonsense!” I then smirk and reply, “Yes, I agree. Religion is nonsense. Now, let me tell you about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

He pointed to Jesus and the resurrection by redirecting his audience. In speaking to the Athenians, Paul made the very striking point that Yahweh cannot be contained in a temple fashioned by human hands (David made the same mistake in II Samuel 7:2), nor can He be restricted by His creation’s creations. What the Athenians failed to realize was that if these activities were in fact valid, then they could control God, which would call His deity into question in the first place. Furthermore, death is the ultimate egalitarian marker of human finitude. No matter who we are or what we do, death consumes all of us. Yet, Paul says, there is a God Who has already walked among us, Who conquered death, rose from the dead, and stuck around to tell a bunch of people about it. He says there is a God Who, through barrenness and darkness, brings new life and novel possibilities, a paradigm that transcends what humans can fashion with their own minds. Paul therefore connects with the Athenians by giving them insight into their own religious system: why worship a god that you can contain in a house and fashion with your own hands when there is a God that even death cannot contain?

Jesus Himself had the longest recorded conversation in the New Testament with the woman of Samaria in John 4. He prepared by being the Incarnate Word of God in the flesh. He traveled very far and met the woman where she already was, in Samaria, and He defied conventional norms at the time in order to so do. Lastly, He highlighted how similar He and she were in their common thirst. She came to the well to get water, and He asked her “give me a drink” (John 4:7). Little did the woman at the well realize that what she had been looking for all along could not only quench her natural thirst but also baptize her into a new life with abundant waters of grace. Had Jesus not gone out of His way to purposely and intentionally connect with the woman; had He not demonstrated how God Incarnate can enter our reality, awaken us, illuminate us, and liberate us; had He not diligently made the long journey; then the woman at the well would not have been convinced by Him, and she would have not in turn connected with others in sharing the good news (John 4:39). All connecting roads lead to Christ.

Hence Jesus, in teaching humankind how to be Divine, personifies the ultimate lesson in connectivity: mediation. For just as He serves as mediator between us and the Father, we should serve as mediators between the truth and those who do not yet know it. For in order to connect people with the truth, we often have to mediate in a way that is compatible with the target audience and also has receptivity, applicability, and relevance. The message never, ever changes, but the approach may from time to time. After all, if the destination is always Jesus, should it matter if we use literary quotes from secular writers, travel to faraway lands, or sit down and talk with those that social norms would suggest are unacceptable?

I think not.

 

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

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