Success and Failure in Ministry


“Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious;  “for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:  “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.  “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.  “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings,  “so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope 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 also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’  “Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.  “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent,  “because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:22-31)


Paul’s speech to the Areopagus on Mars Hill in Acts 17 has been hailed by many as the prototype of how to utilize cultural elements in evangelistic preaching. It has become the cornerstone of the emerging church movement with at least two very prominent U.S. churches being named after this event. Early on in my ministry, as I was learning how to reach postmoderns by reading the works of Leonard Sweet and others, I too saw this passage this way. My question is whether Paul saw this sermon and this event in the same light?

One of the difficulties we have in the task of biblical interpretation is to decipher between what is descriptive and that which is normative, or in other words, what is simply describing what happened vs. describing what Christians should look to as an example of how things should be done. Is Acts 17 descriptive or normative?

I think we should first look at the description of what happened as a result of this sermon.

“And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this [matter].” So Paul departed from among them.  However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” (Acts 17:32-34)

Some mocked, others said they wanted to hear more (which we never hear anything more about), some believed. This is a very different description than other accounts of Paul in cities like Ephesus, Galatia, or Corinth.

Speaking of Corinth, I believe Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthian church gives us a unique perspective on the event in Acts 17. We know chronologically that Paul went from Athens (the site of Acts 17) directly to Corinth. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, while addressing issues in the Corinthian church, Paul describes his demeanor and philosophy in trying to reach them when he arrived in Corinth.

“And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God.  For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.  And my speech and my preaching [were] not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,  that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Paul seems to spend a great deal of time in this letter contrasting an approach that relies on excellence of speech, wisdom, and persuasive words with preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified in weakness, fear, trembling, demonstration of the Spirit and power. The end difference is whether ones faith is placed in the wisdom of men or the power of God. I would say that in Paul’s estimation that distinction is just as true for the speaker of God’s truth as it is the hearer of it.

Paul’s view of this event and why becomes even clearer from something he talked about in his 2nd letter to the church in Corinth when he discusses a “failed” missionary endeavor.

“Furthermore, when I came to Troas to [preach] Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened to me by the Lord,  I had no rest in my spirit, because I did not find Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I departed for Macedonia.  Now thanks [be] to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.  For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.  To the one [we are] the aroma of death [leading] to death, and to the other the aroma of life [leading] to life. And who [is] sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:12-16)

Paul speaks of a missionary trip to Troas, created for him by the Lord, who opened the door. What was Paul’s response to this open door? He left. Why did he leave? He was worried about Titus.

Yet Paul’s perspective on this event is far different than what we read in regard to Acts 17 and Mars Hill. Paul describes his time in Troas, and even his departure to Macedonia to look for Titus because he was worried about him, as a victory. Why? Because God “always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.”

This is quite a contrast. The difference. Are we relying on our knowledge or God’s knowledge? Are we relying on our eloquence, our knowledge, our creativity, our wisdom, or are we relying solely upon God’s direction, wisdom, desires, motives and power?

I must confess that as I look back on much of my ministry, I must sadly declare that much of my approach was based on the philosophy of men or relying on my own wisdom and strength. I fear that much of it will become wood, hay and stubble when I stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

Yet, with Paul, rather than look back in despair, “I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12) I have an opportunity in front of me (more details to come soon) to start again. By the grace of God, may I have the opportunity to stand before the Lord and hear Him say “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” (Matthew 25;21)