My family and I just returned from a great vacation in Greece. We spent several days in Athens with friends and then several more days on the island of Santorini. Athens (and the surrounding area) was incredible for the historical significance-Santorini was shear beauty. While on the mainland we had the privilege of touring both Mars Hill and Ancient Corinth. Interestingly, my yearly Bible reading schedule had me reading Acts 17 on the very day we were at Mars Hill and Acts 18 on the very day we were in Corinth. I don’t think that was a coincidence and it has caused me to reflect more deeply on the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul, the advancement of the gospel, and leadership. I want to take a few minutes and draw out some leadership observations from Acts 17 and Paul’s Athens experience. I think there are three critical leadership principles to hold on to from Acts 17.
1. Effective leadership begins and is sustained from a “hot stomach”
Paul was in Athens waiting on Silas and Timothy to join him from Berea. While he was in Athens verse 16 tells us that his “spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” This word “provoked” in the original language can mean to be upset with someone or something causing severe emotional concern. In the colloquial language of the day it was sometimes rendered “his heart was eating at him” or “his stomach was hot.” Why? Because Paul was correctly observing that things were not as they should be. God’s creation was worshiping the creation instead of the Creator-and this was both ironic and wrong. The need to lead begins with a disparate situation-something observable that is not as it should be. And the situation is so compelling that one must take action to correct the difference. Paul recognized that the Athenian population was going out of their way to worship everything but the one true God. He had to do something about it. You might be provoked that there is no witness for Christ in a certain community or among a certain people. You might be provoked by the needs of the poor and disenfranchised that are going unattended. You may be provoked by a moral wrong that is clearly winning the day in the hearts and minds of a culture. When that provocation moves you to action it is time to lead. Let me also suggest that leaders must stay provoked to continue to lead well-to stay engaged and enlist others in that engagement. What provokes you as you look out on the landscape of culture and society? What needs to be remedied and will remain undone unless you act? What will keep your “stomach hot” to see the task through?
2. Effective leadership is fully engaged at the crossroads
In verses 17-21 Paul’s provocation results in clear action. He went to the heart of city life and talked with at least three distinct groups of people-the devout, the business people of the day, and the intellectuals of the day. What we have to notice is that Paul did not sit back nor did he engage from the fringe-but he went to the Agora. The Agora was the market place of ancient Athens that stood just below Mars Hill and the Acropolis. Having walked through there you get a sense of what a bustling and thriving place of city activity this would have been. As Paul often did he began with those who might have been most open to the gospel-the Jews and other religious types. But he also reasoned with the commercial leaders of the day and with the famed Greek philosophers who no doubt controlled Greek intellectual life. In other words he was not reticent to go the power centers of a particular culture to correct a wrong. It would have been easy for him to sit back and only comment about the great spiritual needs that lay before him. But Paul knew that he had to rub shoulders with the very ones who were shaping Greek life. Too many times today we hope to affect others from afar-but we have to be engaged and we have to be engaged where it truly matters. Are you fully engaged at the crossroads of your ministry field-where ever God has placed you? You need to be for true impact and sure learning-your followers need you to be fully engaged for their instruction and courage.
3. Effective leadership takes full advantage of the opportunity presented
In verses 22-34 Paul is finally taken up to Mars Hill by a few philosophers to better discern this new teaching that he was presenting about Jesus Christ and the resurrection. Mars Hill (the Areopagus) sits high above the Agora and just below the Acropolis. It is a large rock plateau that affords itself well to teaching, listening and discussion. Even today from Mars Hill one can get a great overview of the city of Athens and her 6 million inhabitants. This was a key opportunity for Paul to engage with those who shaped the intellectual life of Athens-and it flowed out of Paul’s initial choice to engage at the crossroads of civic life. Paul wisely presents the one true God in a way that Athenians could best understand-and we have the only recorded fruit from this encounter. True engagement leads to greater opportunity-certainly the reverse is true. If you never really engage you can almost be certain that no greater opportunities will emerge. Paul was willing and ready for the task. He took full advantage of what God put in front of him. How about you? Are you boldly in faith taking the opportunities that are right in front of you? Or are you sitting back-hoping someone else will make a move?
Don’t miss what was at the crux of Paul’s provocation-wrong worship. Paul profoundly understood that people were created to worship-they will always worship something. If they do not worship the one true God than any false substitute will do. This is not only an affront to a Holy God who created us and provided our redemption-but is tragically sad as the worship of anything else other than God will only lead to personal confusion, social chaos and eternal death. Our effective leadership in these three ways described above begins and ends with our humble worship of the One who has enlisted us.