Acts 17:16-33 (AD 49)
This is the sermon and the place (Mars Hill) that has spawned church names, evangelistic strategies and fierce debate. How much was Paul ‘contextualising’ his mission? To what extent did he immerse himself in the culture he tried to reach? We won’t go a long way into that, except to note that he didn’t change the gospel or compromise on the truth. He started with people’s interests and felt needs, but he didn’t stay there. That is, he didn’t present God as the answer to their felt needs, but rather pointed out that their felt needs were a shadow of their real ones.
Remembering again that this passage is history, not doctrine; narrative, not prescription, what can we learn from what Paul did? What did he think, say or do that can inform how we live and speak gospel truth? We’ll spend a couple of days on this…
- When one door for the gospel closed, Paul moved straight on to the next one (v.13-17)
Paul had to escape from Thessalonica after a mob was formed to attack him and Silas. He went to Berea.
Then Paul had to run away from Berea as people were threatening to do him violence. His companions (Silas and Timothy) were not under the same threat so they stuck around for a while.
Next he was in Athens, where he quickly put himself in harm’s way once more, taking his opportunities to share the gospel.
- Being around idols and idolatry made Paul upset and angry (v.16)
Paul was around more evil and wickedness, idolatry, immorality and abuse than you can imagine. But that didn’t numb his moral senses. Worship of anything or anyone other than God still affected him deeply.
But why should we be ‘upset and angry’? Because it wasn’t just Paul – blatant lostness made Jesus upset and angry (see Luke 19:41 and his relationship with the religious leaders). Real people were headed for an eternity without God, as they are now, and if we care about people at all that will upset us. It angered Paul and Jesus because people rebelled against and insulted their creator, who gave up everything to give them life.
When we get blasé about the lostness of the people around us, we need to repent and ask God to give us hearts that are emotionally affected at the idea of people sprinting towards hell.
- Distress and anger at widespread idolatry provoked Paul into telling people about Jesus (v.17)
Paul didn’t jump on Twitter and gripe about how awful everything and everyone was. He didn’t even text his friends to say come Lord, come, as if he was the victims and Jesus needed to hurry up and rescue him from this mean old world. The idolatry of the people exposed the need of the people, and Paul loved God and people, so Paul did something about it. Being in a world filled with evil can lead us to anger directed at people, or to a stronger desire for Jesus to come again soon (which is good in itself). But we should also respond the same way Paul did, redoubling our efforts to help more and more people know Jesus. Then we can long – with them – to be with Christ out of a desire to be with him, and not merely out of annoyance at the people around us.
- Paul did not respond in kind when he was sneered at (v.32)
This may speak to younger me, more than it speaks to anyone reading this. Once I got over my terror and actually tried to talk to people about the gospel, I sometimes took a pugnacious attitude into evangelism. You want to call me an idiot for believing in God? Fine, then you’re an idiot for NOT believing in him. You think I’m arrogant? No, YOU’RE arrogant for dismissing what the Bible says. It didn’t happen much, but when it did, nothing good happened. Sharing the love of Christ means accepting mockery, contempt and anger with good grace – it took me a while to learn that.
What can you model from how Paul approached evangelism?