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And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself. John 12.32
When Paul finds himself in Athens, even though he is worried about the congregations he has just established in Macedonia, even though he is completely alone, even though he feels oppressed by the idolatry of the city – he rolls up his sleeves and starts preaching in the market-place (Acts 17.16-34). Soon he is noticed by the brain-trust that gathered regularly on the Areopagus. Up to this point in his career as a missionary he has used his skill as a rabbi to argue the truth of the gospel from the Old Testament scriptures. This strategy will be of no use in Athens and so he doesn’t use it. He doesn’t quote book, chapter, and verse to the Athenian Philosophers – he argues from the truth their own poets and thinkers have arrived at. He does this for one purpose – to lead them to Jesus.
By this I mean that he is leading them to the story of Jesus. He mentions the resurrection and is about to tell them of the man raised when some interrupt. Paul didn’t make 3000 converts that day – or even 30 (maybe not even 10), but I think, given the crowd, this sermon was a great success because he converted 1 Areopagite, Dionysius, a woman named Damaris, and a few others. Five or so conversions would be a big Sunday for any congregation. Five is the most I’ve baptized on a Sunday.
The example of Paul in Athens is invaluable for us today. We rarely find ourselves in the position of instructing someone with a working knowledge of the Bible, or the truth of the gospel. We increasingly find ourselves sharing the gospel with folks who have no knowledge of the Bible at all – or worse, those with a trunk-load of misinformation about it. Increasingly we are surrounded by people who might describe themselves as “spiritual,” but never “religious.” These folks have been taught by the culture, and often by their own experience to associate organized religion with corruption, hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and discord. They likely believe in God. Even more of them believe in angels. Most believe in heaven. Few believe in hell, and of those that do even fewer believe they will end up there. The Bible for them is an ancient curiosity. Asserting the authority of book-chapter-and verse in a conversation with our secular neighbors will only reinforce their prejudices. This is why Paul doesn’t quote Isaiah 53 in Athens.
Paul begins with the truth the Athenians already know and makes a b-line to Jesus. This is as it should be. It is his method when preaching to a synagogue audience – start with the truth they already know (the Hebrew scripture) and preach Jesus.
Let us learn this lesson. We are not tasked with winning any culture wars. We are commissioned to share the gospel. The way to do this in these post post-modern times is the way it was done in the first century – tell the story of Jesus. There is no other way. In these last days God has communicated through His Son (Hebrews 1.2). Jesus is the One who draws all people to Himself. He is the irresistible one.
And so when I study with folks today, before pulling out anything by Ivan Stewart, Jule Miller, or John M. Hurt I send folks to the gospels. When someone has fallen in love with Jesus, then we are ready to talk about following Him.