The apostle Paul’s sermon on Mars’ Hill (Acts 17:16–33) has been exploited endlessly by evangelistic innovators and missionary methodologists in recent decades. The acute cultural awareness Paul displayed in his preaching has been used to validate everything from worldliness (under the guise of contextualization) to the appreciative study of other religions. But careful examination of the passage completely undermines those arguments. The apostle’s message to the sophisticated Greek thinkers of his day reveals an uncompromising evangelist armed with a narrow and exclusive message.
Paul launched right into that message, beginning with creation:
The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things. (Acts 17:24–25)
There’s a wealth of truth about God in those words, and it directly contradicted Greek religious belief. Paul was not stepping around their sensitivities or trying to avoid truth they might not want to hear.
All their gods dwelt in man-made temples, and they were manlike entities, not at all like the transcendent Supreme Being Paul was describing. These men were well-educated, and undoubtedly familiar with the Hebrew God. They knew about His exclusivity—“The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5). They knew His first commandment was, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). Surely as soon as Paul began speaking these men understood that he was declaring the same God the Hebrews worshiped, and they would have understood the ramifications of that.
Paul identified God as the Creator: He “made the world and all things in it” (Acts 17:24). He is the sustainer of all life: “He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). He is sovereign: “He is Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24); “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation” (Acts 17:26). And He is omnipresent: “He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).
Moreover, Paul told them, God desires that people should “seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him” (Acts 17:27). Paul was telling these philosophers that seeking God is a moral obligation. If He is indeed the sovereign, omnipotent Creator who desires that we seek Him, then not to seek Him is a sin. That truth would not have escaped these philosophers. They knew that Paul was laying before them a clear imperative that they seek and worship the one true God he represented. In other words, Paul said in essence, “The God I declare to you is supreme over every other being, and He is worthy of your exclusive loyalty and worship. You had better seek Him until you find Him.” This struck a blow directly at their syncretism and polytheism. There could have been no question in their minds about adding Paul’s God to their existing pantheon. Paul was urging them to abandon their religion and worship the eternal Creator of all things, the God who made all other gods petty and obsolete.
Notice the unusual way Paul buttresses his defense of the true God: He quotes Greek poetry. “In Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children’” (Acts 17:28). Both the first and the closing phrases of that verse are quotations from Greek poets. Epimenides—the same poet who erected the altars to the unknown god—said, “In thee we live and move and have our being.” The quotation from Epimenides is taken from the poem “Cretica” (and is part of the same verse Paul quotes in Titus 1:12). Aratus was the poet who said, “We are his offspring.”  The quotation from Aratus is the fifth line in his “Phaenomena.”
Oddly enough, when Epimenides said, “In thee we live and move and have our being,” and when Aratus wrote, “We are indeed his offspring,” they were talking about Zeus. Why would Paul quote these paeans to an idol and apply them statements to God? Because he was making a defense of the faith. His point may be paraphrased like this: “Your own poets, with no knowledge of the true God whatsoever, nevertheless gave testimony to the inescapable fact that there had to be a sovereign, life-giving, all-powerful creator. Zeus does not fit that description. But the God I declare to you, whom you don’t know yet, is that Almighty One.” Paul’s use of ancient poets simply underscored the truth of Romans 1:19–20:
That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
The rational mind demands an eternal cause for the effect of creation. Therefore many attributes of God are so obvious that even pagan poets understand them—although they attach them to the wrong god.
It was a powerful point. Paul was making the most of the situation, declaring that the true God whom they didn’t know is Creator, Sustainer, and Sovereign of the universe, then quoting their own poets as proof that such a sovereign Creator must exist. Spurgeon said,
It was most adroit on his part to refer to that inscription upon the altar, and equally so to quote from one of their own poets. If he had been addressing Jews, he would neither have quoted from a Greek poet nor referred to a heathen altar: his intense love for his hearers taught him to merge his own peculiarities in order to secure their attention.  Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “By All Means Save Some,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 20 (London, UK: Passmore and Alabaster, 1874), 248.
But Paul was not content with merely securing their attention. He was not trying to impress them with his intellect or obtain their approval of him personally. He was not trying to win the world’s respect or to gain acceptance as a philosopher. His sole aim was to convert these people to Christ, and he was just coming to the heart of his message.
(Adapted from Ashamed of the Gospel)