Acts 17:22-31

A. INTRODUCTION

1. The Responsibility of Evangelism
One of the things that can make church people very uncomfortable is the need for evangelism—the need to go out and share one’s faith with others who do not believe. Which is odd really, because the one task that Jesus gave all of his disciples—and not just those of the first century—was the responsibility to do exactly that. In fact not one Christian is exempt from that responsibility.

The question of evangelism, therefore, should not be about “How do we avoid doing it?” and “How can we pretend that the responsibility doesn’t exist?” But rather it should be on “How do we do it?” and “What do we actually need to say?”

2. The Challenge of Evangelism
And for us, in Australia., the importance and urgency of the need for evangelism should be quite clear if we consider the state of the nation.

For example, from a humorous perspective, in Melbourne, Australian Rules football is considered to be a very important religion. And I would imagine that in Sydney, Rugby League would be considered much the same. And unfortunately for some, that is all that they live for.

But from a more serious perspective, we have a census every five years which specifically asks people about their religious affiliations. And although these days it has become an optional question, the majority still answer it. But in this is the crunch: the number of people who identify themselves as Christians is far greater—indeed, many times greater—than the number of people who actually attend Church. And that says something about people’s understanding of the Christian faith.

3. The Task of Evangelism
The situation that Christians face in Australia, then, is particularly clear. On the one hand, every Christian has been given the responsibility to be involved in evangelism—in sharing their faith with those who have not accepted Jesus as their saviour. But on the other hand, we live in a country where it is clear that many people may identify themselves as Christians, but most have no idea about what the Christian faith is really all about.

Consequently, as Christians, we have the responsibility of sharing our faith. But we also need to correct people’s misunderstandings of the faith. And with the level of people who have clearly not accepted Jesus as their Lord and saviour, there is an urgency in that task.

But those questions again, “How do we do it” and “What should we say?”

B. PAUL IN ATHENS

Well, to answer those questions I’d like to refer to the passage from Acts. Because in it we have the description of the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens. And I believe Paul’s example can give us a number of pointers on how we should proceed.

1. Paul’s Approach
Now Paul’s normal approach—on his missionary journeys—was that when he arrived in a new town, he would begin his ministry at the local synagogue. In other words, he would begin by trying to persuade the local adherents to the Jewish faith that the Messiah had indeed come and that they should put their trust in Jesus.

However in Athens, Paul was so upset about the number of idols that were present in the city, he not only began to evangelise the Jews—to whom he shared a common Old Testament background—but side by side with that he began to engage with the local Greeks, who knew nothing about the Christian faith. And as the Greeks were used to debating new ideas and issues of philosophy, Paul used that to his advantage to spread his message. And so Paul stood up in the usual debating place in the Athens market.

2. Paul’s Speech
But what Paul did was not to immediately launch into an explanation of the gospel. Rather he engaged the people in something with which they were far more familiar. He had seen all the idols and he’d seen an altar “to an unknown God”, so he began his speech by referring to the things with which they were familiar. But more than that, he adopted the language and style of debating to which the people were familiar with too.

The people were used to debating new thinking and philosophical issues. And consequently Paul used terms which, on the one hand, were quite biblical. But on the other hand, were also familiar to the adherents of Epicurean and Stoic philosophies as well. He took the tomb to an unknown god—to which there was no real connection with the Christian God at all—and simply raised the basic question, “Who is God?” And from there, Paul used concepts influenced by Plato and Aristotle in describing the real God.

He described him as being the creator—that he wasn’t some sort of statue that was man-made or could be represented by things that were man-made. He then went on to describe God as not only being the creator but being the God of history. He then moved on to talk about God as being the source and goal of human aspirations—that he had made men that they might look for him and perhaps find him. And then he argued that yes, the Stoic belief that God is imminent in all things was true. But that belief didn’t go far enough.

Paul described God in terms of being a living and personal God too. And he used some Greek poetry which again would have been familiar to his audience. He then went on to describe humanity as being made in the image of God. But that God, being a deity, was so far beyond an artist’s imagination that any artists’ impression would be a gross injustice to God.

And then, because of all of these things, he challenged his audience to repent—to return from their evil ways of idolatry. Because God was not only their creator but he was also their judge. Their ignorance in the past may have been relatively excusable, but a new age had been inaugurated by Christ, and God had fixed the day when the whole world would be judged.

C. APPLICATION

Now, of course, it is easy to look at Paul, and people like him, and excuse ourselves from the responsibility of sharing the faith. After all, Paul had been a Pharisee and teacher before he even became a Christian—he knew how to talk to people about religious matters.

Furthermore, we can look at his speech and say, “I couldn’t do that. I have no idea about Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, let alone the works of Aristotle or Plato.” We can also say, “That was OK for Paul, but the world has changed. It’s not like that any longer.” And some or all of that may be true. But none of those things excuse from the fact that God has given every Christian the responsibility to share their faith.

And that means among Christians today, some will be good public speakers, and some not. Some will have a good grasp of philosophy or whatever it is that is currently being debated, and some will not. But none will be excused from sharing their faith, no matter how scary that may be.

Consequently, the question remains: “How do we do it?” and “What should we say?”

And in the context of this passage there are a number of very clear clues that we can follow.

1. Seeking Opportunities
And the first is that we need to actively seek opportunities for evangelism.

Paul’s first preference (on his missionary journeys) was to go to the synagogue, to talk to people who had a common background. But after a very short time in Athens, not only had he seen lots and lots of idols, but he had identified the market place as a meeting place for the Greeks. Indeed, he had noted their custom of debating new ideas and philosophies, which was all part and parcel of Athenian life.

So if we are to follow Paul’s example, then, we need to be looking for opportunities to share the faith too. And not necessarily just ones that involve talking.

So the concept of observing the people and culture and identifying opportunities for evangelism has to be the very first part of the journey.

2. Finding a Starting Point
Secondly, we need to discover a starting point.

Paul’s preference on entering a new town was to engage the people who had a common background in the debate. But failing that he would discover something that was relevant to the people to spark their interest—something he could use to make his point.

So if we are to follow Paul’s example, then, we need to discover some sort of ground which is of interest to those with whom we wish to share. And the sort of ground to which we can build a case for the need to have faith in Jesus.

Paul took the Athenians on a journey from something they knew to something they didn’t know. But he had them hooked from the start because the topic of discussion was something in which they were interested. And that is precisely the kind of approach we need to take too, if our message is to mean anything at all.

3. Speaking the Same Language
Thirdly, we need to use terms which are familiar to the people.

Paul spoke the same language as the people. Yes, he discussed some deep theological issues but only in the language and style which were familiar to the people. He dropped all the jargon that he used in the synagogues and churches. Because as far as Paul was concerned the message was far too important to have people scratching their hands or even misunderstanding what he was saying. He used their language, their terms, and concepts—and he used them to make his point.

So if we are to follow Paul’s example, then, we need to be careful of how we speak too. We need to realise that much of our Christian jargon is incomprehensible or easily misunderstood by those who don’t know Jesus. (And quite frankly it is often misunderstood or misused in church as well). Instead, we need to take on board the need to speak only in terms that the people to whom we are speaking to can understand.

4. Being Familiar with the Culture
Fourthly, we need to be familiar with the culture of the people.

Paul used the culture of the people. He met the people where they were at, in their debating hall just off from the market. He used the, then, current place of philosophical debate. And he referred to their various philosophers and philosophies. Indeed, he was so familiar with the literature of the people that he was able to use a well-known poem to make his point.

So if we are to follow Paul’s example, we need to become familiar with our culture too. And not only with the culture but whatever sub-cultures that are relevant to the people concerned. We need to learn what makes people tick—what interests them. Because without an understanding of where people are coming from it will be very hard to relate to them at all.

5. Keeping it Simple
And the fifth thing is, we need to remember to keep it simple.

Paul’s example was that he didn’t make his message unnecessarily complicated. He simply talked about God the creator; he talked about God being a living personal God; and he talked about a man being appointed by God to be the judge. And as a consequence, he then called the Athenians to repent. Paul’s whole focus was on getting the people to turn away from their false gods and false beliefs, and to turn to a relationship with the only, one, true God.

So, if we are going to follow Paul’s example, then, we need to keep it simple too. And that may mean that we need to avoid talk of a number of things that are an unnecessary part of evangelism. Indeed, there may be no need to talk in terms of church involvement, prayer, bible study, giving, fellowship, and caring for one another—things that are more relevant to people who have faith. And all things which Paul omitted from his speech to the Athenian people.

Instead we should concentrate only on what is necessary to receive faith—things necessary to begin a relationship with God. Because anything else may confuse the issue and make the way to salvation a whole lot more complicated than it really is. It will also detract from the primary message of the need to having a saving faith in Jesus.

Comment
Now in many ways people may look at Paul, and his speech to the Athenian people, and say “I couldn’t possibly do that”. But break down what Paul did into its component parts and it really isn’t that complicated at all. Indeed it is something that all Christians can and should be doing.

D. CONCLUSION

Because today, as well as throughout history, every Christian faces the responsibility of the need to share their faith. And today, that’s particularly important living in a country where many people claim to be adherents to the faith, but most have little understanding of what the is all about.

The responsibility to share one’s faith is not an optional extra—it should be part and parcel of every Christian’s life. But to the question of “How do we do it?” and “What can we say?” . . . Well, Paul’s example has given us those five clues.

Firstly, we need to seek opportunities to share the faith. We need to keep our eyes and ears open for a chance to tell others about Jesus. Secondly, we need to find a starting point. We need to find something we can latch onto that is relevant to the person or persons concerned. Thirdly, we need to speak the same language. No gobbledegook, no jargon, just the language that people know. Fourthly, we need to be familiar with the culture. We need to know where people are coming from and what makes them tick. And fifthly, we need to keep it simple. Because if we complicate things then we’re in danger of losing the main message.

And with those five things in mind it should be easier to share the Christian faith. To share that God is the creator, that he cares, and that he has appointed Jesus to be the judge. As a consequence, it is in Jesus that people need to put their faith in, in order to be saved.

Paul may have had much experience in evangelism and we may have had very little, but we have the benefit of the clues that he left behind. So all we need to do is to put them into practice, and to pray that God will use us and bless us in our endeavours.



Posted: 10th October 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
www.brianacurtis.com.au