Evangelism Requires Wisdom and Flexibility
Putting Our Faith to Work
Scripture: Acts 17
Dr. Dan Foster: I consider Acts 17 one of the great chapters of The New Testament because of its emphasis on evangelism. This chapter is very instructive for those of us who have to consider evangelism consistently.
Point one: Paul is the single most important person in bringing Jesus to the world. Robin Griffin James, in The Gospel According to Saint Paul, subtitles his book “The Creative Genius Who Brought Jesus to the World.” Paul took three long missionary journeys. It is highly likely that, if Paul had not taken these very long journeys, the Christian faith would have been limited to Jerusalem and Israel. The Christian faith would have been very small and probably not lasting. So Paul is the primary evangelist of the early church.
It is clear that evangelism is part of the charge to all Christians. When Jesus sent out the non-ordained disciples, he told them they were to pronounce to all the villages where they went:
(1) That the kingdom of God is near (that is the evangelistic function, the evangelism of words). (2) That they were to heal the sick (that is the ministry of love and mercy to all sicknesses – spiritual or physical). So, evangelism and works of mercy and love are the unchangeable hallmarks of the Christian faith. When there is a defect in one or the other, in the Church or in individual lives, then the defect has to be corrected. If there is a defect in either the proclamation of the word or the evangelism of mercy, it is a death signal to individual churches and to the Church universal.
Paul’s evangelism was primarily an evangelism of the word because that is what his charge was. You could also say he had an evangelism of the body. He was lashed, he was jailed, he was starved and shipwrecked. He had an evangelism of cost. Anybody who looks at the life of Paul and then looks at one’s own life is hugely embarrassed at how little willing we are to pay the cost of evangelism relative to the great evangelist Paul. But, primarily his was an evangelism of word.
I want to talk about the two episodes of evangelism of the word that are contained in this chapter and they are different. One of the things I am going to say at the end is that we have to use wisdom about the techniques that we use in evangelism. Point two: The evangelism to the Jews involved bringing a profound addendum to the First Covenant – the addendum of Jesus as the Christ. Now, Paul’s modus operandi was always to go to the synagogue in the towns he visited. That was the case here in Thessalonica. The Jews in the synod are already in an act of faith. They are in a First Covenant. There does not have to be any explanation about the fact that there is a Bible, for example, or that there is scripture. Paul goes to the synagogue and he wants to expand and modify and complete the faith that is already there. Luke says that Paul argued in Thessalonica from the scripture, “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead and saying that Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” Now, when one looks at Paul’s letters and sermons, there are two central themes: One is the cross and the other is the new creature in Christ – the new being. So it is highly likely that when he talks about Jesus suffering here, he was addressing the issues of the cross in his sermon. Theodore Ferris said something vey interesting about the cross. He said, first, that “the cross does something for us. What the cross does is bring the grace that allows the forgiveness for our sins.” It is the mechanism of redemption of our sins. Ferris says, “The cross also does something to us and what it does is to call us to serve God, at cost, in gratitude for the fact that He has made us free and made it possible for us to live, in God’s terms, a very great life.” Thirdly, Ferris says, “The cross does something through us. Because of the cross and the people who follow, the cross has prompted the building of universities and hospitals, the establishment of thousands of charities, the administrations of millions and millions of acts of mercy and millions and millions of salvations.” It is through the people of the cross that many things have happened. So in this particular form of evangelism, which is a common evangelism that would occur in a country that knows something about Biblical faith, then the evangelism is usually to improve, to modify and to complete the faith. That is what Paul was trying to do with the Jews. We will see later his very great concern about why the Jews rejected the cross and Christ.
I want to say one other thing before leaving this event. When Paul’s Christian converts were hauled before the city council of Thessalonica, the council said, “These Christians are the people who are turning the world upside down. Moreover, they are against Caesar because they are saying Jesus is king.” What I want to say is that it is a good thing, at least now and again, for the Church and for individual churches to upset the communities where they are and to turn things upside down. Most churches are sort of anonymous. But sometimes we are called on to upset things.
Point three: Evangelism differs, depending on the setting. It is different in this synagogue than it is before the Areopagus in Athens. True evangelists have to be flexible and wise about their evangelism. In the synagogue there already existed faith and it only needed modification. In Berea the Jews were nobler than those in Thessalonica, “For they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if they were so.” They were open to having a modification of the First Covenant faith and they checked it out in the Bible. So they were people who were already in faith and presumably, because they were open to the word, had their faith grow. They didn’t have to learn a new language. They didn’t have to have the Bible defined. But that was not true in Athens. At the time Paul was there, Athens was the seat of cultural and intellectual greatness in the world. There were two dominant philosophies in the city. These were the philosophical schools of Epicurean and stoic philosophies. These are not religions. The Epicurean view is a devotion to pleasure and tranquility, free of pain and superstitious fears and anxiety about death. Stoicism focused on living harmoniously with nature, man’s natural rational thought and man’s self-sufficiency. Paul realized this was a tough audience because it is one thing to speak about faith to people who have a need for faith and have a partial faith and it is another thing to speak to intellectuals who have no need for God. Evangelism works most effectively when somebody is searching, has a need. Paul recognized that he could not turn to prophecy or scripture. He could not quote from a book they had never heard of – the Bible. So, while in the synagogue he spoke to specific theology; in Athens he decided to speak from the standpoint of general theology. He also decided he was going to make friends with them. With resistant people it is good to not attack, but to try to frame some sense that we are together about something. One can say to somebody who is hostile, “Well, you know, everyone has some kind of a faith. I have one, you have one; maybe we can chat about faith. Did you ever get a sense when you were looking at the stars that there might be something else out there?” Perhaps their faith is science or maybe it is money, but you want to try to identify with the person to whom you want to bring the evangelism of the word. That is what Paul did. He said, “I perceive that you are very religious because I saw all the idols and then I saw an inscription to the god you call ‘unknown.’ I want to tell you about this God that you call unknown and I am going to proclaim to you what He is like.” He then told them eleven things about God:
- God created the Earth and everything in it. He is the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
- God does not live in shrines or temples built by humans.
- He does not need anything from human hands.
- He is the source of human life, giving humans breath and everything else.
- He not only created all human life, He placed them around the world, and allotted periods and boundaries of their habitation.
- He induced in humans the desire to seek God and hoped that they might find Him.
- He is not far away, for in Him we live and move and have our being.
- We are God’s offspring.
- The Deity is not like gold, or silver, or stone or art. (God is not reflected by idols.)
- The times of ignorance, God overlooked; (If a person lives their whole life ignorant of the revelations of God, God overlooks that. One is forgiven for ignorance.) but now calls everyone, everywhere to repent.
- He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man He has appointed and given assurance by raising him from the dead.
Paul gave a great sermon to the rulers and intellectuals of Athens, but it wasn’t very successful. When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, some said they would like to hear more about this, and there were a few believers. The Athens sermon has received wide criticism from commentators, particularly from fundamentalists. Their argument is that Paul was too careful not to offend the intellectuals, that he didn’t have the courage to bring the whole Gospel. He spoke about being in God, but not about being in Christ. He appealed to Greek poets, but not to Biblical grace and redemption. He talked about world history, but not about salvation history. He mentioned resurrection, but not the cross. Then, the argument is that most intellectuals are not going to be persuaded by reason; that usually conversion occurs with an emotional response to something one has seen or heard. So what critics say is that Paul should have just preached the Gospel bluntly. That is an approach we see today in fundamental evangelism – you know, “If you die tonight, will you go to hell?” I don’t agree with this assessment because all conversions occur, not because of the messenger, but because of the presence of God to an open heart. So, if there is a failure, it is because of a failure of the person who has heard the message not to open their heart. Paul shouldn’t be blamed for this. I have a lot of experience with witness to intellectuals and I have never seen one that was convinced by Biblical proof-text. So you must take a different approach. Conversion is not always instantaneous or quick. I have had witnesses to intellectuals going on for years. Now, that does not mean that you never need to be blunt or hurried. I have also had a number of occasions where there was not time for anything except the briefest Gospel. There are lots of rapid conversions in events like Billy Graham crusades, but that is where the general knowledge of the Bible is already known – it is the synagogue model. You have to choose wisely how to approach people in different situations.
In summary, Acts 17 is a great chapter for three reasons:
It emphasizes to all of us that we are called to be evangelists, hopefully, evangelists of both word and deed. You don’t have to eloquent to be an evangelist of the word, just be trustworthy. If you are too shy to talk, then focus on the ministries of mercy and let those be a description of your evangelism. Without evangelism of the word, the Church dies.
It emphasizes wisdom in evangelism. I love the comparison of the synagogue model to the Athens model. What that says is that Christians should be wise as they seek to be evangelists.
Then, if someone asks, “What is the God like that you worship?” A terrific thing to share is Paul’s description of the God who is unknown – those eleven points cover almost all serious theology except for the more specific addition of Jesus as the Christ.
Here is a paragraph from Plato which is applicable in all sorts of places. I have used it in talking to young physicians about the need to always be a life student:
“Some things I have said, of which I am not altogether confident. But that we shall
be better, and braver, and less helpless if we think we ought to inquire than we should
have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowledge and no use of seeking to know what we do not know. That is a theme I am ready to fight in word
and deed to the utmost of my power.”
Plato understood that humans, at the highest level, want to know, they want to inquire. That is why we come to church school. We are continually inquiring about a deeper knowledge and understanding of the faith. Plato says if you think there is nothing new to learn, he is going to fight you on that. Plato would have loved the few in Athens that said they wanted to hear more about Paul’s message.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we thank you for Luke’s story of the missionary journey. Implant it in our hearts in such a way that we will wish to take our place at the end of the long line of those who are evangelistic in the best sense – evangelistic in proclaiming the word of the Gospel and salvation, and evangelistic in practicing mercy and love as a tool of evangelism as well. Help us to recognize, Father, that anything in love that we do is a tool of evangelism and help us to do the things that we do best. We ask you to bless our church and the Church universal, to be with us as we seek to be faithful in all that we do. In Christ’s name we ask this prayer. Amen.