The story of the apostle Paul sharing the Gospel at Mars Hill is one of my favorite stories in the book of Acts because it’s a great example of how to use culture to reach culture like a good missionary should. Like Charles Spurgeon famously said:
“Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.”
I can probably write a book on this story alone. At least an hour long sermon on it happened a few summers ago at West Campus. However, for sake of time and everyone’s ADHD, here’s some of the most important things we can pull from this story on how to be a missionary to the culture we’ve been sent to share the Gospel with.
Before going into some specifics on how to contextualize the gospel, we must remember that we must be burdened for the people we are sent to share the gospel with. It’s why Paul’s spirit was “provoked” as he saw all of the idolatry in Athens (v. 16). After being burdened for this lost culture, he used the culture they were familiar with to share the Gospel with the pagan philosophers who surrounded him. This is called contextualization. Courageously, he began by respectfully establishing common ground with his hearers so he could work from their culture to the Scriptures (v. 17-21). The opposite of what he’d do with the Jews since they were already established in their firm beliefs of the Holy Scriptures. And this is how we do that same thing.
- Help Reveal the False Gods & Spiritual Longings of the culture. (v. 22-23, 27)
He noted that the Athenians were a spiritual people, as he was (v. 22). But he also noted that their spirituality did not include an understanding of who God is. Like culture today, the Athenians were very spiritual, yet in their ignorance, they embraced pluralism and a wide range of false gods. Athens had over 30,000 public statutes in addition to the countless private statutes in homes, all dedicated to various god. Six hundred years before, Athens was struck with a plague, and not knowing which “god” was punishing them, an influential poet named Epimenedes allowed sheep to roam the city so that they would lay down next to temples in hope that one of them could find the right temple of that god to be sacrificed. But this plan was foiled because most of the sheep laid down wherever they wanted, nowhere near many of the temples, and so the Athenians assumed that there were many “unknown gods” they still didn’t have temples for, and they created these statutes and then sacrificed the sheep there in hope of appeasing that unknown god.
We need to figure this out & help reveal such things. All are created to worship. All long for something more.
- Proclaim the One, True God. (v.24-27)
Paul shared with the Athenians that God is the creator who is separate from creation (in contrast of Athenian’s pantheism) and as the king who rules over all of heaven and earth (in contrast to their belief that certain gods ruled over certain geographic regions) and that God does not live in temples built by men and that He is not dependent on people (like their greek gods). He shared how this One, True God was not distant like their Gods but came down to earth to make a way to Him and not transcendent like their thousands of gods who they believed could not be known. He preached hard truth to them. Hard yet necessary truths because they needed to see that there is Truth that can be known and followed and it comes from the one, True God.
Truth is attractive when it’s held up and compared to lies, manipulation, broken promises, deceit and hypocrisy. Again, all very evident things in news, media and culture.
- Use the Culture to Reach the Culture. (v. 28-31)
Here Paul embraces the aspects of their culture that were helpful to his mission. In verse 28 Paul quotes Epimenides, the poet who came up with the stupid sheep plan—”In him we live and move and have our being”, talking about Zeus, and then he quotes the famous Greek poet Aratus talking about Zeus over 300 years before, “For we are indeed his offspring.”
In so doing, Paul affirmed some of their spiritual concepts but showed that they were wrongly applied to Zeus and should instead be applied to Jesus in verses 29-31.
In our day, this would be similar to unearthing partial truths about God from a culture’s film, music, comedy, sports, literature, theater, philosophy, economics, medicine, or politics, and working from those truths to the truth of the Gospel as the ultimate answer to all human questions and cultural problems.
For more on how to do this, especially using the culture to reach the culture, you can listen to this podcast I created about this exact passage last week at the links below. In the end we need to continue to share the gospel with the people we are sent to as the Great Commission commands us to and most times that goes beyond just reciting some things we’ve robotically memorized, and speaking into specific issues and need people have that the gospel not only specifically addresses but saves and redeems. Are you a good missionary to the friends, families, neighbors, co-workers, classmates you’ve been sent?
By: Erik Koliser — West Camps Pastor