An Unknown God—part 2

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Formulaic ways of presenting the gospel—the message of God's redemption of humanity—have been developed and taught to many eager evangelists. But I wonder how many times someone, prepped with an evangelistic formula, shares the gospel only to meet with disappointment and rejection? I know I've experienced this on both sides of the gospel—hearing it and sharing it. 

As a young man lost in my own spiritual search, two clean-cut college guys approached me at the beach to share the gospel with the four spiritual laws, telling me I could be a Christian and still own a sports car. Their approach was far off the mark for me. I experienced several other off-target attempts as I've shared before.

As with so many things in life, we can set ourselves up for disappointment with unrealistic expectations. Formulas and approaches go along with our penchant for results. But more and more I want to equip people with the story and heart of the gospel. Reading through all four gospels and the book of Acts it's hard to find any set methodology.

A city full of idols

As mentioned last week, when the apostle Paul arrived in Athens he saw a city filled with idols (Acts 17:16). This disturbed him but he still went to the Jewish synagogue to share the gospel, as he had done in other cities and regions.

He also went into the public market area to preach among those who were not Jewish (Gentiles). While engaging in discussions with those in the marketplace, he was questioned about what he taught, since it seemed so foreign to them.

Some philosophers wanted to hear more about this Jesus he spoke of and about the resurrection, so he was invited to Mars Hill (the Areopagus), the city court where much debate took place (Acts 17:17-21).

Paul's message to the Athenians

Paul realized the gospel he preached in the synagogue was foreign or strange to the ears of these philosophers, which is much like what cross-cultural missionaries experience overseas. It's also similar to sharing the gospel with those who have a postmodern mindset.

Based on this context, Paul adjusted his presentation of the gospel for a people who were ignorant of the Scriptures and the theology revealed in them.

I see three general parts to Paul's message at Mars Hill focused on connecting with the Athenians at a level they would understand. The text for Paul's message is found in Acts 17:22-31.

Connection

Paul first acknowledges they are "very religious," what we might call superstitious, as he sees all their objects of worship (idols). He establishes a connection with the Athenians by noting an altar to "the unknown god" (vs 22).

Paul says to them, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (vs 23). By saying this he stirs their interest because those gathered at Mars Hill "would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new" (vs 21).

He also establishes himself as an authority regarding this unknown God. He preaches to them, but in a way they can relate to as philosophers.

Creator and Sustainer

The first thing he tells them about this "unknown God" is that He is living and is the Creator of all (vs 24). Not only the Creator but the Lord over all He's created. He is transcendent above all and doesn't live in a temple or shrine created by humans. He wasn't imagined or designed by anyone.

He's not in need of anything people can offer. Instead, God is the Sustainer of all humanity to whom He gives life itself, breath, and everything else (vs 25). Paul goes on to speak of God's relationship with people from God's perspective.

All humanity began with one person (vs 26). It's God who established the seasons within a year and set the boundaries of earth, the oceans, and our atmosphere, as expressed in the ancient book of Job (chapters 38-40).

God makes Himself known and seeks people out so we may know Him and have a relationship with Him (vs 27). He is the Sustainer of all life and Paul relates this truth to what their own poets have said (vs 28), making another point of connection with the Athenians.

Challenging the status quo

Paul begins challenging them to think differently about God, "the divine being," since we are "God's offspring" (vs 29). God isn't like any of the idols or images their artisans have imagined because God is Spirit and not restricted to human or physical constraints.

Then Paul tells them that their ignorance of God, whom they call unknown, is no longer acceptable to God. A day of judgment is coming and people need to repent and turn to God for the timing of this judgment day is already determined by God (vs 30).

He then introduces them to Jesus but not by name. There is one person whom God has appointed as the one who will be the judge. This person is known by His resurrection from the dead (v 31), an unparalleled supernatural event.

The resurrection is the open door into a personal relationship with God and eternal life. This is a truth Paul made clear to a church he planted not long after this message (1 Cor 15:20-22).

Response

One of the criticisms I've heard about Paul's message to the Athenians is the poor response to it as if the response to Peter's message on Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2:41) is some kind of norm. It wasn't the norm then nor is it now.

Most of the reaction of those who heard this message was to the concept of the resurrection from the dead. It's a great dividing line of faith. Although some mocked the resurrection others wanted to hear more, and some believed and joined Paul (vs 32-34).

As I've made clear in an earlier post, we American evangelicals tend to be very results oriented. It seems to be in our Christian-culture-DNA. But we don't see this with Jesus nor the early church leaders. They were committed to discipleship which is a long-term investment in people.

Evangelism or discipleship? Both!

Jesus invested more than three years in His chosen apostles. Paul spent a year (with Barnabas) teaching the church in Antioch, then a year and a half in Corinth, and two years in Ephesus (Acts 11:26; 18:11; 19:10).

Evangelism needs to be linked with discipleship to be effective in fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15), for church planting (the book of Acts), and to equip the church for ministry (Eph 4:11-13).

There should never be a choice between evangelism or discipleship, as to which is better. It's not either-or but both in concert with one another.

So, what are your thoughts on all of this and sharing the gospel in our times and within our culture?

Be sure to look at the notes and cross-references below and please share this with others if you find it helpful!


Here are some cross-references to go with each verse and the 12 elements I see in Paul's message to the Athenians—

  1. Paul observed the religious pursuit of the Athenians (vs 22)
  2. They focused on "objects of worship" [idols] (vs 23)
  3. Paul identified the altar "to the unknown god" as a point of connection (vs 25)
  4. He presented the Living God as Creator of all (vs 24)
  5. God is transcendent above human or earthly origins (vs 24)
  6. God is the origin of life for all people and all that exists (vs 25)
  7. All humanity is descended from one person and God is sovereign (vs 26)
  8. God makes Himself known and seeks relationship with people (vs 27)
  9. God is the Sustainer of life and connects God's nearness to all with their own poets (vs 28)
  10. God is Spirit and not restricted to human or physical constraints (vs 29)
  11. A day of judgment is coming, people need to repent and turn to God (vs 30)
  12. Jesus is the judge and proven to be so by resurrection from the dead (vs 31)
  •  Here are the Cross references—
    • vss 22-25– Psa 19:1-6; Rom 1:20; John 4:24
    • vs 25– John 1:4-5; Gen 2:7; Isa 42:5
    • vs 26– Gen 5:1-4; Dan 4:35-37
    • vs 27– Rom 1:20; Eccl 3:11; Psa 139:7-16
    • vs 28– Psa 82:6; Col 1:16-17
    • vs 29– Psa 115:3-8; Rom 1:22-23
    • vs 30– Matt 4:17; Luke 24:47; Rom 3:23-26
    • vs 31– John 5:21-27; Acts 2:22-24; Rom 2:11-16