Acts Chapters 17-19: Engaging the Culture with Respect
Note: PRS.work is a plug-and-play video Bible Study. Everything you need to connect the Bible to your work is in the video above. Feel free to press play and just listen. Or follow along with the transcript below.
Welcome to PRS.work, a video series that helps us hear the Bible together at work. In this video you'll hear a brief introduction, a Psalm read as an opening prayer, a long passage from the Bible, and a commentary about what this means for work, workers, and the workplace. When the video ends you can discuss how this applies to your work.
As the Book of Acts follows Paul around the ancient Near East, cultures clash.
Paul announces Jesus as the one true God, accepting of all people and replacing all idols. Some people view this as good news, and the multi-ethnic church grows. However, others view the emerging church as dangerous to their cultural values. So Paul’s work is marked by controversy and violence.
Before reading along to a dramatic recording of Acts Chapters 17 and 19, we will open with Psalm 46 in prayer.
To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. A Song for Alamoth.
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though its waters roar and be troubled,
Though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,
The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.
6 The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;
He uttered His voice, the earth melted.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has made desolations in the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariot in the fire.
10 Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” 4 And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas.
5 But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. 6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. 7 Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king—Jesus.” 8 And they troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city when they heard these things. 9 So when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go.
10 Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men. 13 But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds. 14 Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both Silas and Timothy remained there. 15 So those who conducted Paul brought him to Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they departed.
16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols. 17 Therefore he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with the Gentile worshipers, and in the marketplace daily with those who happened to be there. 18 Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”
Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection.
19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? 20 For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” 21 For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.
22 Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:
TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.
Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: 24 God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 26 And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. 30 Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.”
32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples 2 he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?”
So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”
4 Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”
5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. 7 Now the men were about twelve in all.
8 And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. 9 But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. 10 And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.
11 Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” 14 Also there were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who did so.
15 And the evil spirit answered and said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”
16 Then the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, overpowered them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17 This became known both to all Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. 18 And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds. 19 Also, many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted up the value of them, and it totaled fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
21 When these things were accomplished, Paul purposed in the Spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 22 So he sent into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, but he himself stayed in Asia for a time.
23 And about that time there arose a great commotion about the Way. 24 For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Diana, brought no small profit to the craftsmen. 25 He called them together with the workers of similar occupation, and said: “Men, you know that we have our prosperity by this trade. 26 Moreover you see and hear that not only at Ephesus, but throughout almost all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are not gods which are made with hands. 27 So not only is this trade of ours in danger of falling into disrepute, but also the temple of the great goddess Diana may be despised and her magnificence destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worship.”
28 Now when they heard this, they were full of wrath and cried out, saying, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” 29 So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theater with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul’s travel companions. 30 And when Paul wanted to go in to the people, the disciples would not allow him. 31 Then some of the officials of Asia, who were his friends, sent to him pleading that he would not venture into the theater. 32 Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the assembly was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together. 33 And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander motioned with his hand, and wanted to make his defense to the people. 34 But when they found out that he was a Jew, all with one voice cried out for about two hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!”
35 And when the city clerk had quieted the crowd, he said: “Men of Ephesus, what man is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple guardian of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Zeus? 36 Therefore, since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rashly. 37 For you have brought these men here who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of your goddess. 38 Therefore, if Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a case against anyone, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. 39 But if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly. 40 For we are in danger of being called in question for today’s uproar, there being no reason which we may give to account for this disorderly gathering.” 41 And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.
Pause For Reflection
Now we'll take a moment to reflect silently on what we have just read and heard in Scripture.
Engaging the culture with respect
From the Theology of Work Bible Commentary on Acts
In the latter half of Acts, Paul, his companions, and various Christian communities come into conflict with those who wield local economic and civic power. After run-ins with the men and women of Antioch, Iconium, Philippi, and Thessalonica, Paul comes into conflict with the silversmiths’ guild of Ephesians. The conflicts culminate with Paul’s trial for disturbing the peace in Jerusalem, which occupies the final eight chapters of Acts.
The Artemis cult in Ephesus was a powerful economic force in Asia Minor. Pilgrims streamed to the temple (a structure so grand that it was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) in hopes of receiving from Artemis enhanced fertility in the hunt, in the field, or in the family. In this context, as with other tourism centers, many of the local industries were tied to the ongoing relevance of the attraction.
A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, gathers together workers of the same trade and accuses Paul of drawing away their customers. Demetrius whips the artisans into a frenzy and the whole city is filled with confusion, as a large crowd drags Paul’s traveling companions to the theatre.
As Demetrius recognizes, when people become followers of Jesus, the way they use their money changes. Ceasing to buy items related to idol worship is merely the most obvious change. Christians might also be expected to spend less on luxury items for themselves and more on necessities for the benefit of others. Perhaps they will consume less and donate or invest more in general. There is nothing prohibiting Christians from buying silver items in general. But Demetrius is right to see that patterns of consumption will change if many people start believing in Jesus. This will always be threatening to those profiting most from the way things were before.
Although Demetrius tries to force the Christians into a direct confrontation, confrontation is not always the best way for the Christian community to engage the world. Often, the culture is misguided, struggling, or ignorant of God’s grace, but not actually oppressive. In these cases, the best way to proclaim the gospel may be to cooperate with the culture and engage it with respect.
In Acts 17, Paul provides a model for us in how to engage the culture respectfully. It begins with observation. Paul strolls the streets of Athens and observes the temple and the various gods he finds there. He reports that he “looked carefully” at the “objects of worship” he found there, which he notes were “formed by the art and imagination” of people (Acts 17:22, 29). He reads their literature, knows it well enough to quote, and treats it respectfully enough to incorporate it into his preaching about Christ. In fact, it even contains some of God’s truth, Paul says, for he quotes it as saying, “As even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’” (Acts 17:28). A commitment to the radical transformation of society does not mean that Christians have to oppose everything about society. Society is not so much totally godless as God-unaware.
In a similar way, we need to be observant. When we see sin or brokenness in our workplaces, our purpose is not to judge but to heal. Paul is particularly observant of the sin and distortion of idolatry. “He was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16).
At the same time, we can find many good practices in our workplaces even though they do not arise from Christians. If we are truly observant, we see that even those unaware or scornful of Christ are nonetheless made in the image of God. Like Paul, we should cooperate with them, rather than try to discredit them. We should make use of their skills and insights, with the goal of showing how it proves that God “is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). It is the difference between saying, “Because you don’t know Christ, all your work is wrong,” and “Because I know Christ, I think I can appreciate your work even more than you do.”
Our careful observations, like Paul’s, make us more astute witnesses of Christ’s unique power to set things right. Meanwhile, our respectful engagement with the culture around us makes us more adept at connecting with those who don’t yet know—and most have a need for—Christ.