READ: Acts 17
THINK: Paul’s message to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the Areopagus is one of the most concisely phenomenal theological statements and presentations of the gospel you’ll find anywhere. And it’s worth reading and rereading to equip yourself to share your faith with an unbelieving world. But the most phenomenal thing about it is the way that Paul contextualized his message, the way that he spoke in the language of the people who were there so that they could clearly understand his message whether they chose to accept it or not.
There’s something to be learned from Paul, here, about starting where people are at. At this point in time Athens was a once-proud city, now conquered by Rome and truly a shell of it’s former self with a fraction of its former glory. But its rich history meant that it was still respected, by Rome which allowed it to exist as a free state and by people and cultures all around, as a center of thought and philosophy. And it was highly religious, believing in a pantheon of gods and having active temples and altars to many of them.
So Paul walked in and used what was there. He used their openness to the idea of the existence of an “unknown god” – an ancient Athenian superstition – to introduce them to the existing God that they did not know. And then, to help them understand just who that God is, and how humanity relates to him, Paul quoted a few pagan philosophers. In verse 28, he quotes both Epimenides and Aratus. And by doing so he builds a cultural bridge in people’s minds. He uses words and images that are familiar to help them understand the truth about the God they desperately needed.
He put the gospel in a context that the culture surrounding him could grasp. And he set a phenomenal example for us. There are some in the church who are afraid of the word “contextualization.” They see it as watering down the message or altering it to fit the culture. They fear that it’s an attempt to make is simple and make it appealing while sacrificing truth. And they bang the drum that we should only use Scripture and words from the Bible to communicate the gospel, and never the words, images, songs, movies, or phrases of pop culture. A close friend of mine, whom I think is a pretty excellent preacher, was recently hammered by a colleague for preaching a sermon that included “only 5 minutes of directly reading from the Bible.” I’m glad that colleague wasn’t at the Areopagus cause he woulda really hated Paul’s speech. 2 quotes from pagan philosophers and 0 from Moses. :0 The truth is, if contextualization is a dirty word and we can only use direct quotes from Scripture to communicate then, well, we all better start hitting the Greek and Hebrew lessons hard because using the English language is…gasp…contextualizing the Bible. And history tells us that a lot of people died and got excommunicated for fighting to contextualize it by translating it into common languages.
Here’s the thing though, the big idea is NOT that we should forget about the Bible or fail to memorize and use Scripture passages in our conversations and our presentation of the gospel. That would be a horrible choice. The big idea is that we need to understand the culture we’re communicating to so that we can use imagery and language that make the message clear. Contextualizing the gospel is not at all about watering down the message to make it more palatable – “you are a sinner who is bound for hell unless you repent and find Jesus” is always gonna be offensive to our human pride. If we water it down we’re doing something else. Contextualizing the gospel is about making it explicitly and unapologetically clear.
So we need to be students of our culture. Paul couldn’t have quoted those philosophers if he hadn’t read them. He didn’t have Google on his iPhone back then. And he wouldn’t have been able to use the altar to the unknown god as a conversational entry point if he hadn’t walked around Athens and seen it. We need to understand our culture – it’s language, it’s sacred imagery, and it’s thought patterns – so that we can communicate well to the people who are a part of it. Whether they accept the message or not isn’t our burden – which is why we’re not about dumbing it down or making it easier. Most of the people at the Areopagus didn’t accept Paul’s that day. But everybody at the Areopagus understood what Paul was saying. And we ought to follow his example and speak Jesus to our world in ways that make sense.
PRAY: Pray that God would give you opportunities to share the message of the gospel with the people around you in your culture. And pray that he’d give you the courage to take advantage of those opportunities when they come. Also pray that he’d protect your heart and mind, that he would help you be a student of culture without being sucked in or drawn away from him by it.