I will never forget the first time I met someone who hadn’t a clue what the Bible was Whether it was one book or multiple books; who any of the characters were or what could be found therein. I was floored. I thought the person was joking with me. It opened my eyes to the world in which I had become a Christian. Little did I know how much worse it would become as time went by. I don’t say or write any of this with any pride or self-righteousness about knowing much of the Bible. Instead I’m struck with a deep sadness that the majority of the world is not familiar with the book of books. The 66-volume love letter from the Creator lies mostly in obscurity to the minds of too many.
So, as Christians how do we take the good news of Jesus Christ to a world that is predominantly Biblically illiterate? Are there are any examples in The Book itself of how a follower of Jesus Christ is to engage a culture who has never heard of Noah, Elijah and Jonah? There is. Paul the apostle was once left in the great Greek city of Athens and though troubled by the rampant idolatry he saw all around him, he took to preaching to the Athenians about the very God they were worshiping as “unknown”. What can we learn about reaching the lost in a Biblically illiterate culture from Acts chapter 17? Much! Below is a lesson I recently shared with our church body. I pray it encourages, comforts, convicts and compels you by God’s Spirit.
1. To be troubled by the behavior of a lost world is normal
Acts 17:16 “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”
It’s OK to be repulsed by the evil you see in the world. You should cringe when you hear foul language, be sad when you watch the evening news and be angry at cruel injustice toward those who cannot defend themselves. This is a sign that you are truly converted and have the Spirit of God.
2. With restraint, we should engage and reason with those God puts in our lives
17:17 “So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.”
Just as it’s natural to be irked by the wickedness in the world, it should be just as natural for a Christian to engage this wicked world and proclaim the only solution to such rampant wickedness. Paul even used the very method of the famous philosopher Socrates when in Athens. Socrates walked among the Athenians, in the market square talking philosophy with anyone who would listen. Paul engaged the city, village and culture he found himself in with the gospel of
3. Find a connecting point – especially with the Biblically illiterate
17:22 “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious”
Paul’s patient and wise approach blows me away. Paul was the guy preaching the very God-Man himself who made a whip and cleared the temple and yet he doesn’t come into the meeting with theological guns-a-blazing! He finds a connecting point, a launch pad for presenting the gospel to these polytheistic Greeks. How instructive is this to us today? What are some connecting points with our culture and our time?
- Are you a parent who finds yourself talking to other parents about children and struggles with their behavior? That can branch right into a conversation about sin and the corruption every man is born with.
- Are you often talking to co-workers about the difficulties and strains of the work week? This so easily finds it’s roots in the story of the fall of man in Genesis 3 and the subsequent curse on the ground.
- Finding yourself in a few conversations about the economy lately? Bring it on home by introducing the fact of the sovereignty of God over all affairs of men, our great comfort from this truth and it’s personal implications on our lives.
4. Know your Bible, know your culture
17:24 “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.”
17:28 “For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.”
Paul knew his Bible. Trained in the school of Gamaliel, thoroughly versed in the 39 books that we now know as the Old Testament. Paul spilled OT passages over almost everything he wrote in the NT. He saw Christ as the fulfillment of the main message of the Old Testament and used it’s many promises to show and prove that this man Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. BUT – did you notice something missing here in Paul’s sermon to these non-Jewish hearers? No direct quotation of any OT scripture! Say it aint so, Paul?! Throwing in an “It is written…” or a “Thus saith the Lord…” wouldn’t have meant anything to this gentile audience. They didn’t have the background for Paul to directly draw upon. But Paul’s not abandoning the power of the written Word here. Though he doesn’t directly quote a passage, he’s still pouring Bible truth all over his message. He was so full of the truths in Scripture they colored everything he said. Is it not Genesis 1 and 2 that teach us about the “God who made the world and everything is it”? Does not 1 Kings 8 teach us that Solomon knew what Paul knew? That even heaven, the highest heaven cannot contain Him? Surely he “does not live in temples built by hands.”
Paul knew his culture. I’m not sure how much he read, but he sure was familiar with the philosophers and poets of his day. He not only acquainted himself with those considered teachers among the Greeks, but with much of their teaching as well! At least enough of it to be able to quote it when preaching to the very culture that produced these teachers. I know there is a danger to becoming too familiar with the culture the church finds itself in. But I fear that we have too often become so paranoid of compromise that we forget to contextualize. I am NOT arguing the emergent’s school of thought here. I’m arguing for the methods of Jesus, of Paul, of James. The method of using the context of the culture to which we preach as a bridge over which the gospel can cross.
5. Don’t forget repentance and don’t forget urgency!
17:30 “but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.”
Oh how far we have fallen from the command of the gospel found in the Bible. John the Baptist, Jesus, the 12, the 70, Peter, Paul, John, Peter, the early fathers, the reformers. What do all these have in common? The good news they preached always included one thing: repentance. You won’t find a feel good, ‘your best life now”, “you’re all that”, “come to Jesus, he’s your buddy and he needs you” message. You will find the truth of our lawbreaking, our guilt, our deserving death and hell, followed by a holding out of the precious remedy, the only remedy. The blood of the lamb, the blood of Christ. And one call comes with this message. The call to repent. The command to turn from sin and death and turn toward Christ. Agree with God about your condemned condition and flee Christ. Run to him as the Old Testament murderer ran to the city of refuge and was saved from death if he stayed within its gates. Turn from the direction you are going, like Jonah on his way to Tarshish and go the way you were commanded, to Nineveh.
Not only must we preach repentance to the nations, there is an urgency in our work. A day is coming and it comes quickly. A day of horrible judgment. A day that will right every wrong, lay every secret bare, reveal every idle word spoken, expose every hardened heart. This day comes like a thief in the night, comes upon the sons of men quickly and takes all of us by surprise. Whether by sudden death or the sudden return of the one who conquered death, this day will come to all. Therefore, our task of calling all to repentance is urgent. For our lives are but a vapor, here for a moment and gone quickly thereafter. Love people, serve them, be gracious and patient. But do not forget the urgency of telling them about Jesus; about telling them to repent.
6. Always use the secret weapon! (The Resurrection)
17:31 “He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
We Christians just celebrated the day of days. Easter is our holiday. Christmas is nice but without Easter, it’s nothing. The church didn’t even celebrate Christmas for the first few centuries. Easter’s where it’s at. Read 1 Corinthians 15 and you’ll see the prominent place the resurrection of Christ had in the mind of Paul. Here he associates the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection with the very proof that Christ will one day come to judge the world with justice. The fact that Jesus did not stay dead, the fact he isn’t still in that borrowed tomb is the very proof that God has accepted him, his perfect work and his coming role of judgment upon the world when he gloriously returns. Have you ever heard this objection before? “How do we even know any of this Jesus stuff is true?” How about this one? “Everyone always says judgment is coming, but nothing ever changes.” The answer to both of these objections and more is the same. Jesus Christ rose from the grave. All of history points at this reality. Our calendars changed forever. 11 scared and timid fishermen and tax collectors burst into the streets preaching fire and brimstone in Jesus name. Traditions like the sabbath day, the sacraments and the sacraments (Thanks Hank Hanegraaff!) were changed forever after the resurrection. The proof is in the pudding and no honest observer of history can deny that at the very least something happened in Jerusalem about 2000 years ago that truly turned the world upside down.
7. Expect a mixed bag of responses
17:32-34 “some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 34A few men became followers of Paul and believed.”
Many of the places Paul preached typically brought about three different responses. 1. Rejection. 2. Interest. 3. Belief. Obviously, we’d all love response #3 to characterize our experience when we present the good news of Jesus Christ to biblically illiterate, lost world. Don’t hold your breath. The gospel is a stumbling block to those who have not faith. The hardened heart does not enjoy being told that they are going the wrong direction, bag packed full of its good intentions. It’s very likely, at least at first, that you will experience the same scorn Paul received for preaching such “foolishness” as a crucified savior who came back to life after being dead three days. But praise the Lord, some will be interested in our message and will ask to hear more. God may be drawing their heart, keep on preaching. And praise him again that to some, he will give the increase. To some, he will rip back the veil that blinds their minds. To some, he will remove the sin-cursed hardened heart of stone and place in them a wonderful heart of flesh that loves and serves it’s creator the way it was designed. Don’t worry about the response, just spread the seed. Throw it everywhere. Don’t worry if you spill some. Him who plants and him who waters is nothing. But God is everything and His word will not return void.
Let’s go out and love a world entangled in false worship. Let’s find a connecting point, proclaim Bible truth, call all to urgent repentance and belief. Let’s behave as if we believe the resurrection actually occurred but be ready for a mixed bag of responses from the masses. We need only be faithful and preach Christ and him crucified and leave the results to the God who made the world and everything in it.