evangelical

An Unknown God—part 2

unsplash_RPelati

unsplash_RPelati

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

An Unknown God

unspalshcom_RLukeman

unspalshcom_RLukeman

Black and white—the epitome of contrast. This contrast may bring various things to mind for you, but what comes to mind for me is the dualistic dilemma we all face. It's a carry-over from the first humans who ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:17; 3:1-13).

As a rule, we tend to divide most everything in life into either-or categories—good-bad, right-wrong, big-small, etc. But life isn't that neat and tidy. There's a lot of color within the color spectrum between black and white.

Black is the absence of light and color, whereas white is the presence of light and all colors. Aren't you glad life in this world isn't just black and white?

I'm thankful for all the vivid colors that exist and that life can't be categorized into either-or categories. Neither does God nor His story of redemption fit into neat categories.

A lesson learned

Many years ago I taught a workshop to a group of pastors and leaders in the southern region of the Philippines. I needed the assistance of an interpreter, as I taught them the basics of Inductive Bible Study (IBS).

I tried to emphasize the importance of the biblical text as it's written in black and white. But my interpreter added his own take on what I said with, "It's either black or white."

I learned two important things that day. First, I need to be clear how I say things if I want to be understood. Secondly, I need to have confidence in my interpreter and be sure he or she understands me. True communication results in a fruitful dialog.

Words and ways of connecting

Last week I alluded to ways of sharing the redemptive message of the gospel other than traditional or trendier ways.

My experience as a cross-cultural missionary helped me learn how to teach in a simple yet effective way. I first needed to learn about the people I hoped to teach. This required time, many observations, a lot of listening, prayer, and guidance from the Holy Spirit.

As I gained more insight, I looked for ways to personally connect with those I taught and relate what I taught in words and ways they could understand.

This is what I see the apostle Paul do when he encountered people in a situation different from his typical experiences sharing the gospel.

Reception and resistance

Acts chapter 17 begins with Paul and his ministry team's encounters in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-9). Paul went to the Jewish synagogue as was is custom. He reasoned with them for three days concerning the purpose for the death of Jesus the Messiah on the cross and His resurrection.

But when the Jews became jealous of those who believed the gospel and began to follow Paul's teaching, things turned rowdy. So they moved on to a town called Berea. Again, Paul went to the Jewish synagogue to explain and prove the gospel from the Scriptures.

The Bereans were honorable men and serious students of the Scriptures (Acts 17:10-12) and received and believed the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. Once again, things turned badly when men from Thessalonica came to stir up trouble for Paul (Acts 17:13-15). So, Paul was sent off to Athens until the rest of his ministry team could join him.

Provoked and challenged

Arriving in Athens, Paul walked around the city and his spirit was disturbed and provoked by what he saw—a city full of idols. He went to the synagogue as usual but also preached in public at the marketplace.

The philosophers in the marketplace thought Paul was preaching about foreign gods because he spoke of the resurrection as he shared the gospel. Wanting to hear more from him they brought him to a place called Mars Hill where much debate took place (Acts 17:16-21).

The context of Paul's message to the Athenians helps us understand how and why he shares what he does (Acts 17:22-31). He speaks to them about the One whom they call "the Unknown God." Paul explains how this God is greater than any manmade image or religion.

A matter of perspective

The message Paul shares with the philosophers at Mars Hill serves as an example for communicating the gospel to people who are not familiar with Christianity or the Jewish Law, so it's well-suited for a postmodern, post-Christian mindset.

How Paul conveys the gospel at Mars Hill has come under fire by various Bible teachers because he doesn't present the gospel in a more typical direct evangelical approach. Some of my friends who are solid Bible teachers say Paul's message wasn't effective because the blood of Jesus and the crucifixion aren't mentioned.

But is this valid criticism? I think not, and nothing in the book of Acts or the NT epistles indicates that is was lacking validity. The problem comes from our own perspective of how it ought to be.

But that's exactly the issue—it's our perspective and doesn't take into account how others hear it. Or, in many cases, how they don't hear it because they have no frame of reference to understand a more direct modern evangelical presentation of the gospel.

Seeing a new perspective

I see 12 elements in Paul's message to the Athenians on Mars Hill where the redemptive message of the gospel is clearly expressed. Next week I'll go through those twelve points with cross-references to support each one.

Until next week, I encourage you to read through Paul's message at Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31) to see if you can identify these twelve points. Look at the context of the entire chapter (Acts 17). This should help provide the why to how Paul expresses his message.

The goal is not to pick Paul's message apart from a western evangelical perspective but to understand why and how he communicates the gospel the way he does.

Understanding this will provide greater insight for reaching people who don't have a Judean-Christian framework of understanding, whether in America or anywhere in the worldwith any unreached people group.


My interest in Paul's message at Mars Hill was originally stirred through the teaching of my friend Danny Lehman at a missions conference several years ago. He's a long-time and well-traveled missionary who speaks a lot about evangelism and has written quite a bit about it.

I highly recommend his book,  Beautiful Feet– Steps to a Lifestyle of Evangelism, if you're interested in learning how and why to share your faith with others.

A Results-Based Dilemma

unsplash_number_keys-ABranch

unsplash_number_keys-ABranch

Let's face it. America is locked into results. We measure and quantify everything, even our leisure time. Think not? We post life events or moments on social media, then check to see how many "likes" we've received. It's an epidemic and it's not healthy.

Christian believers are not immune to this epidemic. It infects churches and other ministries. We measure the sizes of congregations and buildings and responses to various types of ministry efforts.

Jesus wasn't results oriented in the way we are. He did expect results but not the kind we do.

One of the Lord's closest followers betrayed Him, the others abandoned Him at a critical point, and then He died. From a human point of view, that would seem like a failure. But of course, there's far more to the story than that! And far more to Christianity than measuring results.

Dwindling results

Much has been written about the dilemma American churches face today. In general, Millennials are not too interested or engaged with church, many in older generations have given up on church and become part of the Dones, and the majority of America's pastors are getting grayer.

Personally, I see this stemming from a lack of personal, intentional discipleship, which requires long-term investment in people and commitment. This is what we see the Lord Jesus model in His ministry on earth, but it's not easy to measure in terms of progress.

Perhaps this stems from the approach the church takes with evangelism—presenting the gospel, God's redemptive message.

American-style evangelism

Evangelism in America reflects our national cultural roots. We tend to be confrontational and analytical, so we present the gospel as if it was a legal argument in court or a debate that requires a yes-or-no answer.

Decisions can be measured, like the responses to a large-scale crusade or an altar call invitation at the end of a church service or evangelistic outreach.

I'm not saying these approaches are wrong. They reflect our historical and cultural identity and they appeal to our inclination to measure results.

How can we quantify God's Kingdom?

But is the Kingdom of God quantifiable? Was Jesus concerned that His followers—His church—be able to measure the results of their efforts at fulfilling the Great Commission?

Instead of counting decisions as a measurement, we need to make disciples who will also make disciples. There is no measurement that brings a point of completion for this, it will continue till we see Jesus face-to-face.

Another approach of presenting the gospel or sharing one's faith falls into the category of friendship evangelism. A current trend of personal evangelism is summed up with the unverified quote attributed to St Francis of Assisi, "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary."

Life example is vital for being a living witness of Jesus Christ to others (Acts 1:8), but words are essential for communicating the truth of the gospel.

A better way, or another way?

I love preaching and teaching and know they are still viable and valuable to present the gospel to others. Most people who respond to an invitation at a crusade or evangelistic rally, or in a church setting were brought by a friend or a family member.

But the evangelical church as a whole is not reaching the present generations as well as we could.

Is there another, better way? How about asking—Is there another approach to presenting the gospel to a postmodern, nearly post-Christian generation?

There is and I'll look at one such approach next week. But let me be clear. This is not the next best thing, it's just one more approach to presenting the gospel, and it has a biblical foundation.

Are you curious? Check back next week!


Why Do You Believe That?

Photo credit: unsplash.com_EDennis
Photo credit: unsplash.com_EDennis

What's the most visited page on a website? The About (Me/Us) page. It's true for my site, as it is for most others. Is it because our culture is so voyeuristic?

While this might be true to some degree, mainly it's because we want to know someone before we trust what they say. Christian believers also need to know the validity of what they say they believe.

Over the next several weeks, I want to take a look at why we believe what we believe. This includes a look at the 5 Solas, the basic pillars of the Protestant Reformation, from my own point of view as a follower of Jesus.

A very brief history

Every evangelical church, or evangelical community of believers, is rooted in the Protestant Reformation. Many people in evangelical ministries may not realize this, or if they know it, may not know why.

The Protestant Reformation (PR) started when men such as John Wycliffe, John Huss, Martin Luther, Huldreich Zwingli, and John Calvin, over a period of 200 years, objected to the sale of indulgences (kindnesses) and other practices of the church.

As a means of raising money, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) provided a way to pay for forgiveness, even for people already dead. There's more to what paying for indulgences includes, its origin and history, but it worked like a get-out-of-hell-free card.

The reform movement formalized

This led to a movement that set out to reform the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). When it was clear the church—the only recognized church at that time—would not change, the Protestant movement separated from the RCC.

Initially, three primary churches developed, then a fourth, for mostly the same reasons—

  • The Lutheran Church— started by followers of Martin Luther's leadership and influence
  • The Reformed Church— started by John Calvin's followers
  • The Presbyterian Church— started by John Knox in Scotland
  • The Anglican Church— this included the Reformers in England, but was formalized when King Henry the VIII broke away from the Pope

Luther's 95 Theses

Although many people had similar concerns, Martin Luther is most well known for his Ninety-five Theses posted on the door of the church in Wittenberg. Luther was a monk who taught moral theology at the University of Wittenberg.

The original intent for his 95 Theses was to promote discussion not dissension, but the church didn't see it that way.

There's much more to the story, but the essence is that Luther and other reformers challenged the authority of the pope and certain practices of the church that were not biblical.

The driving force of the Protestant Reformation was to bring the church back to its biblical roots. The Scriptures are to be the final authoritative basis governing all doctrines and practices of the church, not the pope nor other church leaders.

The roots of Protestantism

Protestantism is a broad term that includes churches or communities of believers who are not part of the RCC, but who hold to a biblical foundation of faith.

Other churches grew out of the four primary ones mentioned above because of other distinctions in theology, doctrine, and practices, but the essentials of the Christian faith remain the same.

The primary tenets of the Protestant Reformation are summarized in the 5 Solas (originally in Latin)—

  1. Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone – The Bible alone is the sole authority for all matters of faith and practice.
  2. Sola Gratia – Grace Alone – “Salvation by Grace Alone.” Salvation is proof of God’s undeserved favor; we are rescued from God’s wrath by His grace alone, not by any work we do.
  3. Sola Fide – Faith Alone  “Salvation by Faith Alone.” We are justified by faith in Christ alone, not by the works of the Law.
  4. Sola Christus – Christ Alone  “In Christ Alone.” Salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone; no one and nothing else can save.
  5. Soli Dei Gloria – Glory of God Alone “For the Glory of God Alone.” Salvation is of God and has been accomplished by God for His glory alone.

Why we need to understand what we believe

Pure and simple devotion

We need to be aware of deceptions perpetrated by the enemy of our soul (the devil). As Paul points out, we need a pure and undivided devotion to Jesus.

But I fear that somehow your pure and undivided devotion to Christ will be corrupted, just as Eve was deceived by the cunning ways of the serpent. (2 Cor 11:3 NLT)

It's always about Jesus! He's the Head of the Body of Christ—the church. He's the Core of the Gospel. He's the Alpha (first) and Omega (last). He's the only Son of God—Savior, Lord of Lords, and Returning King.

A strong and deep relationship

Our relationship with the Lord Jesus needs to deepen so we're not so vulnerable to clever arguments, deceptions, or anything else that would draw us away from a pure, uncomplicated commitment to Him.

I am telling you this so no one will deceive you with well-crafted arguments... And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him... Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. (Col 2:4, 6, 8 NLT)

Spiritual maturity

We need to pursue spiritual maturity, not by gathering more theological knowledge, but through deepening our understanding of Jesus—who He is and what He's done to redeem and restore us.

This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. (Eph 4:13-14 NLT)

It's who you know, not what you know

We need to be rooted and grounded in our relationship with Jesus, not just gain more knowledge about Him. We need to understand what He says.

The four gospels are the bedrock for our faith, as they were for the early church. Jesus is the one who interprets the truth of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms for us. He did this personally for the apostles (Luke 24:44), and He will do it for us by the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:27).

Jesus is the Cornerstone of our faith (1 Cor 3:11; Eph 2:20; 1 Pet 2:4-6).

Jesus is our plumb line, our spiritual point of reference. As Jesus said to His closest followers—

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63)

If the truths we hold about Jesus and the Christian faith don't line up with what He says, then we're on shaky ground.

Do you understand why you believe what you believe?


Helpful links for the history of the Protestant Reformation and the 5 Solas—

Protestant Reformation

Protestant Reformation History

5 Solas

Cambridge Declaration–Alliance–Confessing Evangelicals