Dr. Jeffrey L. Cockrell serves as Associate Professor of New Testament at Welch College. He is currently the Program Coordinator both for Theological Studies and for the M.A. program in Theology and Ministry. He has served our denomination in a variety of different capacities, including almost thirty years of experience as a local church pastor.
Paul, Peter, and other early Christian preachers generally proclaimed the gospel to audiences that were Jewish in character, but occasionally they had the opportunity to share the Good News with the worshipers of pagan gods. Paul did so on two occasions in Acts; the first took place in Lystra as recorded in Acts 14:15-17. The second is his famous sermon before the Areopagus in Athens as found in Acts 17:22-32. As Bruce correctly notes, “Probably no ten verses in Acts have formed the text for such an abundance of commentary as has gathered around Paul’s Areopagus speech.”
In this paper, Cockrell argues that Paul’s speech to this well-educated and sophisticated congregation can serve as a model for presenting the Gospel to secular audiences in today’s world. He begins by explaining that Paul was well prepared for this important task. Cockrell writes, “His background was cosmopolitan. He was a citizen of Rome and Tarsus.” While growing up in Tarsus, Paul experienced both Hellenistic rhetoric and Stoic philosophy. When he came to Athens as an adult, Paul was well prepared for the cultured pagan environment that he would encounter there. Yet these experiences did not lead Paul to abandon his Jewish, and later Christian, heritage. He remained true to the monotheistic faith that he had been taught as a child.
Cockrell demonstrates a thorough understanding of the intellectual conditions existing in the city of Athens during the first century. The Areopagus was an important court in the city that had jurisdiction over issues of religion and morality. The term “Areopagus” described both the court and their meeting place on the hill of Ares, the god of war. When the Romans took over the Greek gods, they gave the Roman name “Mars” to this location.
In the conclusion to his paper, Dr. Cockrell outlines several ways in which modern Christians can use this sermon as a model for presenting the gospel today. First, he points out that Paul knew how to adapt his remarks to the audience he was addressing. This does not mean that Paul compromised his message; it does mean that he presented the message in such a way that the Athenians could understand and appreciate it.
Paul introduced his sermon by pointing out several positive aspects of the religious practices of the Athenians. He did not ridicule or belittle them. He followed this instruction by presenting the true God who had created the universe. He presented this God as One whom they could know in a personal way.
It is true that some began to mock him when Paul began to preach about the resurrection, but it is also true that some did believe his message. This essay gives us an excellent understanding of the background behind Paul’s famous sermon. It also offers several helpful suggestions on how we can present the gospel message to our secular world.