It was Earth Day and I happened to be visiting my sister in Atlanta. I must admit, I don’t get too excited about Earth Day, but on this particular Earth Day I was confronted with a sad reality. You see, as we meandered through Centennial Olympic Park gazing at the revelry surrounding this ‘holiday,’ I thought to myself – ‘Interesting, people worshipping mother Earth, when they should be worshipping Father God!’
Yes, people were created to worship. People do worship. Yet, in life, the object of our worship as human beings may very different.
As we think about contextualizing the gospel, a general principle to keep in mind is that all people worship someone or something whether they realize it or not.
The Apostle Paul was keenly aware of this reality as he engaged the marketplace in Acts 17.
Understand your audience
The Scene: The Areopagus in Athens. The Areopagus literally meant the ‘rock of Ares’ in the city and was a center of temples, cultural facilities, and a high court.
Earlier, when Paul entered the city, “his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols” (Acts 17:16). Now Epicurean and Stoic philosophers conversed with Paul:
“Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:18-21).
Epicureans believed “pleasure” was the greatest good, but the way to attain such pleasure was to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires. Epicureanism emphasized the neutrality of the gods, that they do not interfere with human lives. Stocism believed human virtue in accord with nature was the way to happiness. Stoicism equated God with the totality of the universe (pantheistic), which was deeply contrary to Christianity. Additionally Stoicism, did not posit a beginning or end to the universe.
Though these philosophies differed greatly from the doctrines of Christianity, Paul’s audience is curious about his message, despite its’ perplexing character. Paul, being a Roman citizen, a learned man, and God’s chosen apostle to bring the gospel to the nations (Gentiles), would have understood this particular audience.
We mentioned last time that understanding our audience will inform our witness. And one of the primary means by which we gain understanding in personal witnessing encounters is to ask leading questions, which are many. Click herefor a link with lots of conversation starter questions.
Find points of connection
Paul, knowing his audience, then contextualizes the gospel, by initially connecting with his audience:
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 pre-appointed 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’ (Acts 17:22-28).
In our last study, we noticed Paul in the synagogue opening up the Scriptures. This audience at the Areopagus knew little about the Scriptures (specific revelation). So instead, Paul begins by arguing for a creator through general revelation. Notice, Paul affirms points of connection while also communicating points of distinction. For example, He connects by proclaiming to them ‘The Unknown God,’ while distinguishing that He is Creator, rather than something ‘made with hands.’
This connecting of the dots for his audience is a rational argument in contrast with a scriptural argument he could start with in the synagogue. For you and I, connecting with our audience takes time and practice. Paul is a tremendous example for us.
Communicate the Gospel
Paul concludes his argument by presenting Christ ,the resurrection and the need for repentance:
“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 17:29-31).
Paul, in no uncertain terms, proclaims Jesus, the resurrection, judgment and the need for repentance. Clear and direct. Paul has contextualized the gospel without compromising it.
Expect the Unexpected
As we’ve stated, be prepared for any response and you won’t be caught off guard. Over the years of experienced a wide variety of responses to gospel proclamation. The book of Acts certainly corroborates this phenomenon.
Notice in Acts 17:33-34 the response to Paul’s proclamation here at Mars Hill:
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.
Some mocked. Some believed. Some remained curious. The important thing for Paul was to be faithful in sowing and watering while leaving the ‘results’ to God (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
May we contextualize the gospel without compromise, seeking to understand and connect with our audience – for the glory of Jesus and for the building of His Kingdom!