Daniel Strange of Oak Hill College, speaking at the Evangelical Alliance’s “Confidence in the Gospel” initiative, argues that Paul’s Mars Hill speech in Acts 17 is not actually gospel, but the necessary context for understanding the gospel.
In this 10 minute talk, he gives a nice overview of Paul’s attitude, approach, and appeal:
Here is a summary from Dr Strange:
Paul’s speech to the Areopagus (Acts 17) is bad news. It doesn’t talk about God’s love or grace, it talks about judgement. Then, when he does talk about the resurrection, it’s to point to the coming judgement! It doesn’t mention the cross and neither does it mention the name Jesus—only ‘he’ at the very end.
Actually, Paul’s speech is not expounding the gospel, rather it is commending the gospel; drawing attention to its ultimacy and urgency. The point is this: you will not understand the good news of Jesus and his resurrection unless there is a context to it. This is what Paul provides to the Athenians.
Paul’s attitude: He is repulsed by what he sees of this city submerged by idolatry. He is provoked and he is distressed. The whole of Luke / Acts is about the New Exodus and the theme of that is an anti-idol polemic. What we see in Acts 17 is the climax of this and it acts as the discursive framing for Acts 18; the anger toward idolatry frames the gospel message.
Paul’s approach: There is a comparison and collision of worldviews. Paul recognized that in order for the resurrection to be understood he needed to set the context. He introduces who God is, what he is like and the Christian view of history. It’s only in the context of the Christian worldview that the gospel makes sense. Worldview thinking has to be part of gospel proclamation.
Paul’s appeal: It’s not just a call to repentance; it’s a command to repentance. Again, it’s quite negative; it’s bad news—The Day of the Lord, a day of wrath is coming and the resurrection is used as proof that judgement is coming and that Jesus is the judge. This should be our appeal because idolatry has consequences and we have to take seriously the prospect of an eternity in hell.
But, of course, it’s also good news, because we can turn from these things toward the living God.