When is the last time you’ve seen a presentation of any kind done on an overhead projector? Somebody would probably say “have you heard of PowerPoint?” To make habitual use of the overhead projector in preaching and teaching today would put one a few decades behind, yet to “over bombard” with slides and gadgets may detract and distract from the message where the true power lies, in the gospel (Rm.1:16).
The more we live the Christian life, the more the word balance is appreciated. Balance in the sense of avoiding extremes and being able to be consistent in thought and practice. While the Christian must have total unwavering faith and devotion to Christ, there must be balance in presenting the truths of Christ to others concerning His love and His wrath, His grace and His truth (Mt. 6:24; Eph. 4:15). So in our day and age, how can we properly present the truth about Jesus Christ and Christianity to a seemingly hostile, media frenzied world? How can we be in touch with the scriptures but not so far out of touch with society and culture that we have no influence in the world? The Christian must be properly balanced to the point that he or she is in tune with God (without compromise) yet aware of culture, so that he or she can communicate to others in proper fashion.
Throughout the book of Acts in the New Testament you have Christians encountering others, mostly of the Jewish faith, and engaging in dialogue with them about the gospel. These Christians will usually start off by trying to establish common ground, for instance, belief in the Old Testament scriptures, and then from there they would cite verses that pointed to a new arrangement with God and His people and the Messiah (Acts 2:14-36, 8:30-35, 9:20, 17:1-3). However, as the gospel began to be furthered on to gentile soil (non-Jewish territory), the common ground of familiarity with the Old Testament scriptures was absent. Now these preachers and teachers needed to continue to preach the gospel and engage with individuals who seemed to have little in common with them from a spiritual perspective.
The apostle Paul finds himself in such a situation in Acts 17 when he is in Athens on Mars Hill (the Roman name for a hill in Athens, Greece named after the god of War in Greek mythology). After reasoning with Jews in the synagogue he comes into contact with Epicurean and Stoic Philosophers (Acts 17:17-18). Epicureans were influential in educated upper classes and their views about God were similar to deism (he was involved in the universe and irrelevant), the Epicurean’s life goal was pleasure, if there was a god he could only be found on stars or planets (Keener 372). While the Stoics professed belief in gods, they were not regarded as pious and opposed pleasure of any kind (Keener 372). So as Paul is before these two polar opposite groups, how can he reach and connect with them and stay true to the gospel?
We might ask ourselves: “when I come into contact with an angry evolutionist or some ‘spiritual’ person who wants to reject organized religion altogether, just how can I engage them without being purposefully insulting and yet do so without compromising conviction?” Paul masterfully blends both in balanced fashion. Let’s notice some of the things he does and how we can apply them to our own cultural setting.
Paul was aware of the culture
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (Acts 17:22-23 ).
Although Paul was no fan of the idolatry that flooded Athens, he did not keep his head down or pretend he didn’t see anything (Acts 17:16). Paul observed and was aware of what the people believed around him so that when given the chance he could use it to his advantage. Imagine Paul being afforded the opportunity to speak, only to get up in front of the audience and quote a bunch of Old Testament passages that hold no relevance to this group of people. He had to know what they practiced and what they believed so that he could communicate effectively. Paul even quotes from a poet they would have no doubt been familiar with (Epimenides) to illustrate a Divine truth (Acts 17:28). We too need to know what’s going on in our world, what type of terminology is being used, what books people are reading to shape their thinking, and what the popular thoughts and views being promoted are (however false they may be) so that we can relate to culture as well as refute the falsehoods which may be propagated.
It’s impossible to be aware of culture if we hide and tuck ourselves in our own little closets and never engage with those of differing views and just hide as if we are in a monastery. Jesus wants us to shine in the midst of darkness and be the salt that creates spiritual thirst among the spiritually dehydrated (Mt. 5:13-16). If we are not aware of culture, if we are 6 years behind in our application and we refer to things like Myspace and AOL, we may be out of touch and fail in reaching those we come in to contact with. The knowledge of culture doesn’t have to equal a compromise with truth, one can use culture to further promote truth (e.g. Facebook, blogs, Twitter, etc.).
Paul taught the truth
After Paul had observed the surroundings and acknowledged that these individuals were very religious (superstitious, KJV), he proceeds to tell them the true way that God can be reached and that they are not going about this in the right way:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
As even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man (Acts 17:24-29).
When we get the chance to speak in our culture like Paul did on Mars Hill, we need to speak the truth. Leave the pop-psychology and spiritual pep-talks to the talk show host and reality television channels, we ought to speak the truth (Jn. 8:31-32, 17:17). Paul spoke the truth in their own language without using the Old Testament. We can do likewise depending on our audience—using the logical stance of design demands a designer, the transcendental law of morality (cf. The Truth About Truth), or even a simple acknowledgement that there must be something more to this life.
Many times we may only have one opportunity to speak the truth of the gospel to a certain group and we, like Paul, must make the most of it. The way that we can remain relevant in a culture that wants to push out Christianity is to be eternal. Paul didn’t waste his time discussing their (Epicurean and Stoic) philosophies about God, he simply told them who God is. We need to be sure we know what God says so when we have the chance like Paul we can tell people what the God they are seeking after or dismissing wants them to do (1 Pet. 4:11).
Paul challenged them and lived with the results
Paul calls for these men to repent as all men must do, and speaks of a resurrection although he is no doubt aware that some there have no belief in the resurrection whatsoever. Paul challenged these individuals to change their mindsets and even goes as far as to challenge their mindset regarding the after-life:
‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst (Acts 17:30-33).
Our culture, like all others, must be challenged and called to repent. We cannot merely pacify people with puny preaching and feel good sermons, the truth is good news but not all people will feel good after they hear it, as is evidenced with Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill. We must not curtail our message but challenge people with the truth and push them toward thinking about what will happen to them at the resurrection (Jn. 5:28-29). If what we preach and teach has no bearing on repentance and judgment, people will push it off as another philosophy among many, or simply our choice of religion among many. However when the absolute truths of the gospel are taught and challenge others, though every response will not be positive, the responses will be genuine. Paul taught the truth and was willing to live with the results, we should not expect to fail in our evangelistic efforts as Christians, but we also should not measure our success by the number of people who respond positively. If positive response was the standard of success, then Jesus was a failure (Jn .6:60-68).
Some became Christians after hearing Paul’s message and others mocked him and went on with life as normal, and so it will be with us (Acts 17:32-34). However people respond, let it not be because we didn’t relate the gospel properly, or because we failed to teach truth and did not challenge them. Let us, like Paul, preach the truth in a culture that is moving further and further from Him. Christians can be relevant and righteous, we can be truthful and remain tactful, God’s word holds the power for man’s salvation, let us remember that as we teach the gospel (Rm. 1:16).
Keener, C. THE IVP BIBLE BACKGROUND COMMENTARY: NEW TESTAMENT. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993.