Read Acts 17.
Yesterday we read about Paul’s venture into Greece. Today’s reading in Acts 17 continues to chronicle Paul’s Grecian mission. This chapter begins with Paul’s evangelistic efforts in Thessalonica (vv. 1-14). While he was there, Paul found people who were ready to receive the gospel and others who were ready to persecute him and his team. As he always did, Paul started presenting the gospel to the Jewish people in every city, then expanded his witness out to the Gentiles (v. 2, 4, 10, 12, 17).
After Thessalonica, Paul went to Athens (vv. 15-34) but not because he was planning to preach the gospel there. Instead, he was waiting there for his teammates Silas and Timothy who were supposed to get there ASAP (v. 15).
While in Athens, Paul did speak to the Jewish people who lived there (v. 17) but he also found a secular audience for his message in the marketplace (v. 17b) and on the hill called Areopagus (v. 19). This passage gives us a glimpse into how Paul presented Christ to Gentile non-believers. Notice that he did not seek common ground with these men; rather, he used their altar “to an unknown God” (v. 23) as a starting point for his message, but quickly moved to direct confrontation by saying they were “ignorant of the very thing you worship” (v. 23b). He told them that the true God, the Creator God, did not reside in manmade structures (v. 24) or need food from human hands (v. 25a). Furthermore, he chided them for thinking that manmade statues had any significance for knowing and worshipping God (v. 29), then he moved to preaching repentance, judgment, and the resurrection of Christ from the dead (vv. 30-31).
Of all the controversial things Paul said, the resurrection of the dead was the one that seemed to create the strongest negative reaction among his listeners (v. 32). This is not at all the only place where people objected to his teaching that Christ rose from the dead. Yet Paul never shied away from teaching the resurrection, nor did he shy away from teaching that God was invisible rather than an idol. In other words, he didn’t try to accommodate what was true to what the secular audience thought was true. He didn’t downplay any aspect of our faith in order to appease and appeal to secular people.
Instead, he went straight to the truths of the Christian faith that would be most controversial. This approach is quite a bit different than the way that many of us talk about God. When we talk about God, we may be tempted to avoid the supernatural and just stick to talking about Jesus and what he can do for you. But the reason that Paul didn’t retreat from the controversial aspects of the gospel is that he knew that believing the gospel required God’s supernatural gift of faith, not a group of secular arguments.
The point for us to emulate here is not to minimize the difficult points of the gospel like the resurrection but to feature them in our presentation of the gospel. When we do that, we are relying on God’s power to save people, not our ability to argue people into assenting that Jesus is the Christ. It takes a supernatural act of God to save anyone, so if we try to avoid the parts of the gospel that we think might be offensive to modern people, we are showing that we don’t truly believe that God can do the supernatural or that he will do the supernatural in salvation.
But when we go straight to the hard parts of the gospel, if God is working in that person’s life and drawing him supernaturally to himself, then the gospel will do his work and save them.