1 Cor 2:1 And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God.
2 For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
3 And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.
4 And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power:
5 That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
6 Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought:
7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory:
8 Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
I still believe that Paul's sermon in Acts 17 is an object lesson in how to set forth the Gospel, just as is Peter's sermon in Acts 2. And yet it appears that only a few believers were added in Athens. The sticking point had been the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It was the culmination of the short sermon but the result was that just a handful believed. Many preachers today would be glad of that many responding to a sermon, but we need to ask if Paul was a little discouraged. He had put a lot of effort into Athens, spending days in research, finding out just how to get alongside this people who spent all their time discussing "some new thing." And the fruit of it all was a handful of souls saved. The very next verse, Acts 18:1, sees Paul setting out for Corinth with a different approach, that of the Cross alone.
PAUL 'GOT IT WRONG'
It was the 19th-Century Christian writer Sir William Ramsey (1852-1939) who first suggested that the Apostle Paul 'got it wrong' in Athens and 'put it right' in Corinth. There are probably as many who hold that view today as there are those who continue to regard Paul's speech in Athens as the model sermon. However, I have heard that Ramsey later recanted his view. If so, it would not be the first time he had to admit he himself 'got it wrong.' The distinguished archaeologist spent fifteen years as a young man in Asia Minor and Greece, from 1881, trying to prove the book of Acts wrong.
Ramsey took a view, popular in the late nineteenth century, that Acts was a late-second-century forgery at worst, or an imaginary account of mythical events at best. He was certain he could prove that Acts, and it would follow the Gospel of Luke and then the whole New Testament, was unreliable. In 1896 he published the results of his work; St Paul, the Traveller and Roman Citizen. His friends and colleagues were astonished. He had discovered that in minute detail, Doctor Luke had it right. Indeed, Ramsey had become so convinced of the historical accuracy of Luke's account that he had even converted to Christianity. Ramsey wrote:
'I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without prejudice in favour of the conclusion which I shall now seek to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavourable to it.' He went on, 'Luke is a historian of the first rank ... this author should be placed along with the greatest of historians.'
ALMOST A DIARY
In fact, the absence of any reference to Roman persecutions of Christians which began around 60AD put the writing of the book of Acts very close to the events the book record, almost as if Luke had been keeping a diary. The book is the framework around which we read the Epistles of the Apostles, especially those of Paul himself, who is of course the main character of the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
What else could Paul have done in Athens? It was a hard place to make a pitch for monotheism and righteousness at all, let alone repentance and the Resurrection. Greek-mindset philosophers, priests and the Athenian intelligentsia would have been hard to convince. The Epicurians and Stoics were battling it out between themselves, and although both were opposed to Athenian idolatry, neither had much time for the message of the Gospel. The Epicureans were materialistic and opposed the resurrection (their motto: live now for tomorrow we die). The Stoics believed in a unity of god as a supreme being and divine fire, but they were hopelessly fatalistic and utopian - almost unitarian in their approach.
DIONYSIUS - NEVER THE SAME AGAIN
But was Athens such a disaster? Suppose we had in our day to preach the Gospel to a university school of philosophy, or an audience for Jerry Springer the Opera, would we think to have any more success among our present-day sceptics than among those of first-century Greece? Looked at in that light, Paul did well. Although we do not read of a church established there, one of the converts was a leading politician, Dionysius, who served on the council of the Areopagus. He was among perhaps half a dozen or a dozen believers who had experienced such an earth and heaven shattering time on Mars Hill that they were never the same again.
The lesson Paul took away from Athens might not have been that he needed to modify his style of preaching at all. It may have been the encouraging message of parable of the sower. Seed will always fall into good ground, but there will always be seed which falls by the wayside. We need to live with the fact that there is nothing we can do about that. There are some whose hearts are not yet ready for the Gospel. There are some whose hearts sadly are never ready. As Paul himself tells the Corinthians, the call of God goes to 'not many wise men after the flesh.' Those who think they are clever will not see their need for the Gospel of Grace. And the Athenians, with a few brave exceptions, certainly thought they were clever.
We should not forget that Paul was only in Athens for a few short weeks, waiting for Silas and Timothy, who had not even arrived when he set off for Corinth. It was not a planned mission. Obviously, too, we are wrong to talk of Paul's 'success' or 'failure' at all. All any of us can do is faithfully perform that which God has called us to, and then have the faith to leave the rest to Him. It is God who builds His church, not us. We may plant and water, but where the seed falls and how it gains its increase is for Him alone.
NO EXCELLENCY OF SPEECH NEEDED
Once in Corinth, Paul stayed with Aquilla and his wife Priscilla, helping them in their tent-making business (hence the expression) and debating in the synagogue every sabbath. The KJV says Paul 'reasoned' and 'persuaded' the Jews and the Greeks, (Acts 18:4) but the next verse sees the arrival of Silas and Timothy, and Paul testifying to the name of Jesus as Messiah. Many in the synagogue objected and blasphemed that glorious Name.
This is the defining moment. From hereafter Paul will direct most of his energy to the Gentiles rather than to the Jews. Despite that, Crispus, the leader of the synagogue believed, 'with all his house' and many more Corinthian Jews were baptized. Paul stayed in Corinth for eighteen months, preaching, teaching, encouraged by the Lord Himself and filled with the Holy Spirit. And to go back to the words in the Epistle to the Corinthians, his central - in fact he says his only - message was that of the Cross: 'Jesus Christ, and him crucified.'