There is a debate about whether or not Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill was "a success" or not. Several note that there seems to be little positive response to Paul’s sermon. Luke records: "A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others." (Acts 17:34)
I tend toward the view that while there were few converts, that was more a reflection of the hard soil that had been created by the prevalence of human philosophy in Athens.
Robert Shannon, however, notes that Paul did many things right in his introduction to his sermon on Mars Hill. He lists sixteen things about his introduction from which we can learn. (A few of his observations seem to come more from the body of the sermon rather than the introduction proper).
“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.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
1. While the first sentence begins with the pronoun “I” the intro is really focused on “you” (the hearers)
2. It is not (at least in the introduction) an accusatory “you”
3. He showed a familiar with their customs, with their city, with their faith.
4. He began with their “unknown god” and declared to them his own well known god.
5. He did not begin with flattery
6. He does not begin with an apology about bothering to address them at all
7. His topic is simple : the unknown god. (Not “Thoughtful Considerations of Cosmic Deities and their Concrete Representation in Art”)
8. It suggests a little of what lies ahead, but only a little.
9. He did not begin with a complex theological argument
10. It is concrete, not abstract
11. It is not arrogant
12. It is not technical
13. It is Interesting. A dull introduction signals a duller sermon. Everyone puts his best foot forward and if that’s the best we’ve got it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the sermon
14. He begins by talking about idolatry, but does not begin to condemn it (at the first). He has already faced hostility at Iconium, Lystra, Philippi and Thessalonica. He saw no need to evoke unnecessary hostility with the introduction to his message at Athens. v. 29: Not “You should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone…” He said “We should not think…” Paul had never in his life thought that God could be captured in graven images, but he uses “we” as a mark of courtesy. His persuasive ability required that he rhetorically include himself.
15. His into sets the tone for the rest of the message: it is going to be a friendly sermon and respectful. If we set a negative or hostile tone, many will decide not to listen. If we signal that a depressing half hour lies ahead…all diagnosis and no prescription, a diatribe against things the listeners are helpless to remedy, then we should not be surprised that people begin to look out the window.
16. Paul’s intro is short. That reassures the listeners. If an intro goes on and on we wonder if the preacher knows where he is going.