Selling Out or Just Selling?

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
Default image

Read Acts 17:16–34.

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22–23)

When I went to my first student-teaching assignment (more than a few years back), my supervising teacher said, "You’ve got to be a salesman." I almost choked on my lunch. Sales? It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind as a career path. He went on, “If you don’t sell your program, then who will? There’s competition to fund these programs, and you have to sell the administration, faculty, parents, and students. If you believe in the work you’re doing, just let it show and talk about it.”

As you can tell, those words made an impression on me. Years (okay, decades) later, I remember the conversation vividly. My coworkers will tell you that I’m not shy about my passions. What I’ve learned, however, is sensitivity. Whatever my passions, I need to be sensitive to what the listener is able to hear.

As a parent, I’ve tried to tell my children something, and it goes past them like a gust of wind. They just won’t listen until they hear it from someone else. That’s what I mean by being sensitive to the listener. It happens at work too. I can float an idea, but if the listeners aren’t ready to hear it, or if I haven’t put it in terms that are meaningful to them, then my idea is just not going anywhere.

This is what we can learn from Paul at Athens. He finds himself in the world of ideas surrounded by the Council of the Areopagus. While its governing power had eroded over the centuries, the Areopagus still consisted of highly respected influencers in Athens. Even the Roman rulers had respect for the council. Paul engaged these intellectual aristocrats of Athens on their terms. He pointed out an altar “To an Unknown God.” Paul didn’t try to teach them about the Jewish faith and culture. He engaged them in the rhetorical style and language of Greek philosophy.

You could call Paul a salesman. He was sensitive to his audience’s needs. Remember, these were the intellectual leaders of the city, and he was selling them on the idea of a God who supersedes all other Gods. Paul didn’t quote Hebrew Scripture to the Greeks as a means of persuasion. Instead he took what the Greeks already knew. They were familiar with the idea of an unknown God. Paul tried to get them to see that the One God was not contained by temples or controlled through human activities.

Only when he got their attention did he subtly introduce the notion of the Hebrew God. There is one God who made all humanity. He doesn’t need humans to give him anything to complete him. His breath gives life to everyone. Paul then moves on to a more dialectic style as he tries to persuade the Greeks by calling to mind their own poets.

We don’t have a transcription of the oral argument Paul put before the Areopagus, but the description of the encounter recorded in Acts gives us enough information to see the style Paul used with these Athenians.

His strategy for selling the idea of a new faith worked. We know that at least one member of the Council, Dionysius, was persuaded. Others who overheard his discussion with the council were also persuaded. Although Paul moved on quickly from Athens, his strategy for persuading the Greeks and Romans was incredibly successful.

Paul knew his audience. He was a Romanized citizen of Tarsus in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) who was heavily influenced by Greek culture. But he was first a Jew—and out of his Jewish faith came the Messiah who would save the world. Now that was something worth selling.

Questions for Reflection:

  • How would your rank yourself as a communicator? Are you a master of rhetoric and persuasion? Or do you struggle to express yourself in ways that people can understand?
  • Do you talk about your faith when you are going about your daily work?
  • Are you a good listener? Or are you more interested in selling your own ideas?