Paul’s Contextualization in His Speeches | Acts 13-17

  • Paul has mastered the idea of what we call “contextualization.” 
  • Contextualization is giving the people the Bible’s answers, which they may or may not want to hear, to questions about life that people in a particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.1
  • In Acts 13: 13-43, Paul shares the gospel with a group of Bible believers. 
  • In Acts 14: 6-16, Paul shares the gospel with a group of peasant polytheists.
  • In Acts 17: 16-34, Paul shares the gospel with a group who has abandoned their long-held religious beliefs and substituted in new philosophies. 
  • In Acts 21: 27-22:22, Paul speaks with a hostile Jewish mob. 
  • All people have a common set of beliefs that are culturally dependent and can serve as in-roads to spiritual conversation with them. 
  • “A Beliefs” are beliefs people already hold that, because of God’s common grace, roughly correspond to some parts of biblical teaching.2
  • “B Beliefs” what may be called “defeater” beliefs— beliefs of the culture that lead listeners to find some Christian doctrines implausible or overtly offensive.

Tim Keller on A and B Beliefs

Acts 17:16-34
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Paul Addresses the Areopagus
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,[fn] 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said, 
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
Group Discussion
If time allows, it could serve your group well to have different people or smaller groups take a few minutes and split up the texts from above. You could have each group share what they noticed in Paul’s method.  Ask questions like: How did Paul appeal to that specific culture?  Was the gospel presentation the same for each different group receiving Paul’s message?
In Acts 17, one of the first things Paul does is to “perceive” and “see” the culture around him.  He uses this learning as the jumping-off point when talking about Jesus to this group of people. He recognizes that they have a god they consider as powerful and as a creator. 
  • What are the cultural influences that have impacted the way you understand evangelism?  
  • What cultural influences have shaped your worldview?  What are the main sources you draw from when you understand humans, relationships, God, art, religion, or church?
  • Consider your friends who  are not connected to Christ.  Which biblical “B beliefs” do they find most challenging to understand? (Try to focus on biblical truths, not how Christians act. Sex, judgment, etc.).  

Hopefully, your group was able to identify some “defeater” beliefs that people in Denver have that prevent them from believing or considering faith.  
  • Which  “A beliefs” seem to be commonly accepted in the culture around us? (Again, try to think of biblical truths about God or humans, not on specific things that Christians have done. God’s love, justice, etc.)
  • Which biblical truths generate the most excitement in you? Give an example of an “A belief” in your own life. 
  • Consider one of your friends or family members who has difficulty coming to grips with Christianity. What seems to be a roadblock for them (a “B belief”).  
    • Can you think of any “A beliefs” that their belief depends on?  
    • How might you tie these two together in your next conversation? 
  • What do Paul’s different approaches mean for the way that we talk about our faith or share our beliefs with others?
  • Remember, strategy can only go so far! The Holy Spirit is the final worker, and it is because of what we read in Week 1, Jesus is With Us Always, that we can have the confidence to do this work!

Father, we ask that you give us the courage and creativity to walk in the world around us yet remain close to you as we do.  You give us the strength and knowledge to do this well, and the power that we receive is from you and you alone as you are with us. 
1 Tim Keller, Center Church
2 Tim Keller, Center Church