Sermon title: Make the Message Fit the Audience
Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, April 25, 2021
How do you share the Good News of salvation in Christ
with people who know nothing of the Bible?
People with no church background?
People who were raised in secular households
and who know next-to-nothing about Jesus?
How do you begin to share the Good News with them?
We find a How-To guide in the Apostle Paul’s speech
to the men of Athens on Mars Hill.
And we can also learn by comparing and contrasting
Paul’s Gospel message there
with how he witnessed for Christ
in the synagogues in the same city.
It’s all found in the 17th Chapter of Acts.
Heading South from Philippi in Macedonia,
where he had been thrown in jail
by enemies of the Gospel,
Paul passed into the territory
of what is now modern Greece.
And he ended up stopping at Thessalonica,
a city that is called Thessaloniki on maps today.
And there he planted seeds of faith
that resulted in the formation of the
Thessalonian congregation of Christians—
the ones he later wrote to in his
1st and 2nd Letters to the Thessalonians.
Beginning with Acts 17:1, we see how Paul preached there.
1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 Paul, as was his custom, went in to them, and for three Sabbath days reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”
Notice that his approach in each city was to start
with the Jewish synagogue.
Like many large cities, Thessalonica had a synagogue,
and that’s where Paul went
to begin sharing the Gospel of Christ in that city.
How did he do it?
Well, he started with what his audience already knew.
They were Jews, and they knew the Hebrew Scriptures.
So, Paul[ NO SLIDE ]
reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and demonstrating
that the Christ had to suffer
and rise again from the dead,
and saying, “This Jesus,
whom I proclaim to you,
is the Christ.”
He started what they already knew,
and showed how that pointed to
what they needed to learn—about Jesus.
There are dozens of Scripture passages
in the Jewish Old Testament, that point to the coming
of a promised Messiah or Christ.
Written 1000 years ahead of time,
the 22nd Psalm describes Jesus on the cross,
the words that would be spoken then,
and even how the soldiers
would cast lots for his clothing.
Written hundreds of years ahead of time,
Isaiah Chapter 53 tells how Jesus would suffer for us,
dying as a sacrifice to take away our sins,
being put to death as a criminal,
buried in a rich man’s tomb,
and rise to life again,
victorious over the grave.
So, Paul went through those and other prophetic passages,
one by one, and explained how Jesus was
that One promised in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Many Jews and Greeks listened eagerly
and became Christians.
But many others in Thessalonica hated what they heard,
and stirred up trouble for Paul and the other believers.
Paul escaped the city by night,
and went to the nearby city of Berea.
There he also started preaching in the Jewish synagogue,
and met with a much better reception
than in Thessalonica.
Verse 11 says that his audience,
“examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
Paul showed them Jesus in the Old Testament prophecies,
and they eagerly looked up the passages themselves
to verify what Paul told them.
But trouble-makers from Thessalonica soon came
and stirred up hostile crowds,
so Paul fled to the seacoast,
and booked passage on a ship heading farther South
to the Greek capital, Athens.
He sent for Timothy and Silas to join him there,
but meanwhile Paul preached in the Jewish synagogue
and in the marketplace,
where his audience was quite different.
Athens was a very religious city,
but religious in the sense of practicing idolatry.
Everywhere you looked, there were statues
of Greek ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses.’
Paul found this disturbing.
But he preached Christ, anyway.
Verse 16 says,
16 Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw the city full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who met him.
His approach to preaching Jesus in the marketplace
had to be quite different
from his approach in the synagogue.
The Greeks in the marketplace did not accept—
or even know about—the Hebrew Old Testament
that foretold that a Messiah or Christ would come.
So, how did Paul introduce Jesus to these pagan Greeks?
That’s what we’ll see when he gets to Mars Hill
and his message there is recorded for us.
First, though, we get to see the flavor
of the initial Greek reaction to the Gospel
in Verse 18, where it says,
18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also were conversing with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”
Others said, “He seems to be advocating foreign deities,” because he preached Jesus and the resurrection.
So, whatever Paul said to them was new to their ears.
That roused the curiosity of these Greek intellectuals,
and they wanted to hear more.
But, rather than just talk to him in the marketplace,
they brought him before the Areopagus.
Verse 19 says,
19 They took hold of him, and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is, which is spoken by you? 20 For you bring certain strange things to our ears. We want to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the strangers living there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell or to hear some new thing.
For us here in Massachusetts,
our equivalent of taking him to the Areopagus
would be taking him to Beacon Hill—
so that he could talk to a group of officials.
In fact, the word Areopagus means “Ares Hill”—
and a group of leading officials regularly met there.
The Areopagus or Ares Hill was
named after the Greek god Ares, the god of war.
It’s also referred to as “Mars Hill,”
because the Roman god Mars, their god of war,
was the same as the Greek god Ares.
And the group of Greek officials
who met at the Areopagus
served as Greece’s highest court,
but also met as an informal body discussing
religion and philosophy—
topics that were important to the Greeks.
So, when Paul was hauled before the Areopagus,
it was not to face criminal charges,
but rather to explain his beliefs and teachings,
since these Greek intellectuals
and eager to hear something new
in the areas of philosophy and religion.
And the Gospel message about Christ
was totally new to them—
a foreign concept to their ears.
That’s why Paul’s message to them
is of special interest to us.
It tells us the words Paul used
to share the Good News about Jesus
with pagans unfamiliar with
the Old Testament promise of a Messiah.
Paul started out establishing common ground,
to make his message less foreign to the Greeks,
and to make it easier for them to accept.
Beginning in Verse 22, we read,
22 Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus, and said, “You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in all things. 23 For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you.
This approach made what Paul was going to say
more acceptable to his audience,
since that Greek altar dedicated
‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’
opened the way for them
to hear about the God of the Bible.
Paul explained that he was talking about
the Creator of heaven and earth.
24 The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands, 25 neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things. 26 He made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth, having determined appointed seasons, and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27 that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
So, Paul introduced them to the concept
of the true Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth.
Paul never needed to do that
when he spoke in Jewish synagogues,
because they already believed
the Hebrew Old Testament.
But this audience of Greek high officials at the Areopagus
knew nothing of the Genesis account of creation
or how mankind survived the Flood in Noah’s ark
and later separated abroad into nations.
So, Paul summed up all of that for them in just a few words.
The men of Athens were accustomed to idol gods
made of silver and gold,
but Paul introduced them to the living God
by quoting their own Greek poets.
28 ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’ 29 Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design of man.
Instead of harshly denouncing their pagan idolatry,
he gently introduced them to the true living God.
He even quoted Greek poets who spoke of humans
as being God’s offspring.
Then Paul used that to show
that the true God must not be an idol
made of stone or precious metals.
And then he went on to explain that the true God
wants people to give up idolatry and know Him.
He told them a day of judgment is coming
when God will judge people’s behavior
through a judge who was raised from the dead.
He told them,
30 The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked. But now he commands that all people everywhere should repent, 31 because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained; of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.”
The audience apparently interrupted Paul’s talk
after he mentioned resurrection from the dead.
That comment divided the audience
between those who scoffed at such a thought
and those who wanted to hear more.
32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, “We want to hear you again concerning this.” 33 Thus Paul went out from among them. 34 But certain men joined with him, and believed, among whom also was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.
Paul’s words divided his audience into 3 groups:
scoffers who ridiculed him,
the open-minded who wanted to hear more,
and a smaller group of those who believed
and joined Paul to become Christians.
We looked so closely at Paul’s example, because
our efforts to share the Gospel today
will likely achieve similar results:
ridicule from many people,
opportunities to speak again to the open-minded,
and maybe a few who are drawn to Christ.
Much of that will depend on our listeners—
the disposition of their hearts and minds,
and their own choices and free will.
God’s calling also enters into the picture,
but we can’t see the invisible realm,
so our job is to do our best to reach them
with the Gospel.
And, to help us do that,
we can apply what we just saw in Paul’s example.
If those we speak to have a church background,
we may be able to do as Paul did with the Jews—
call them to return to the faith,
by showing them the Scriptures.
If they are like the pagan Greeks—
like so many today who’ve had a secular upbringing—
we may need to do as Paul did,
telling them of our Creator, and telling them
what Jesus did for us on the cross.
Of course, it won’t be easy, in either case.
I believe people today are a tougher audience
to share the Gospel with
than either the Jews or the Greeks Paul spoke to.
Folks from a church background
may feel they are “all set” because
they were baptized as infants, or because
they still attend a church from time to time.
Recent polls report that 65% of Americans
identify themselves as “Christians,”
but only 6% have a biblical worldview.
Let me repeat that: 65% of Americans
identify themselves as “Christians,”
but only 6% have a biblical worldview.
Only 6% really know and believe the Bible,
and only 6% let the Bible guide them
in everyday life.
The rest of the 65% who call themselves “Christians”
actually believe in a mish-mash of ideas that come from
other religions, from secular society,
and from false teachers in the churches.
The published poll results actually used that term
—“mish-mash”—to describe the mixture
of Christian, pagan and secular thinking
in the minds of Americans
who call themselves “Christians.”
Because they think they are already Christians
and are “all set” with God,
they are very difficult to witness to.
They may think they are following Jesus,
but they don’t really know who Jesus is
or what Jesus requires of his followers.
They may have heard that Jesus teaches love,
but they may not have head
everything else Jesus said—
especially his hard sayings that challenge us
to be different from the sinful world around us.
When he left instructions before going to heaven,
Christ said he wanted new believers to learn
to obey everything he taught.
At Matthew 28:19, he said
go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
Chances are, their church background
didn’t teach them “everything” Jesus commanded,
because so many modern churches
focus just on “love” and keep silent on the rest,
--afraid to offend people.
So, our commission to share the Gospel with people
may include showing them in the Scriptures
the things Jesus taught
that are different from the mish-mash of ideas
commonly found today among people
who say they are Christians.
In order to help them become real Christians
or to help them grow up in the faith,
we need to do as Paul did
with the Jews in the synagogues—
showing them the Scriptures.
But then there are the 35% of Americans
who say they are not Christians.
Our work sharing the Gospel with them
requires a different approach—
more like what Paul did with the men of Athens
at the Areopagus.
He met them on common ground,
making reference to things they already believed
to help them add Jesus to that knowledge.
Paul knew where to start,
because he already knew Greek culture,
and he observed the religious environment in Athens.
We may need to listen to people today,
to know where they are coming from,
so we can help them see where they need to be.
For example, letting them talk might reveal
whether they’ve never thought deeply
about why we are here,
and what the future holds.
Or, it might reveal that they are heavily into
another religion or philosophical tradition.
And if their thinking is purely secular,
they might be put off
if you start by mentioning “the Bible,”
but if you start off speaking about
wisdom found in “ancient writings,”
their curiosity might allow you to continue.
Our situation today is complicated, however,
by the fact that non-believers
may think they already know about Jesus,
and they have rejected Christianity,
as they saw it.
They never encountered the real Jesus,
but they’ve been hurt or offended
by people who claimed to represent him.
And that makes them close their ears
to anything about Jesus today.
Or they may have seen Christianity only from a distance,
as it’s been mis-represented on TV
and in the other media.
Many people today are inoculated against Christianity
by bad things they’ve heard or experienced.
To reach such people, we may need to start off
acknowledging how much evil has been done
in the name of Christ by false Christians.
Remember how Jesus publicly denounced the
scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites,
and that truth resonated with ordinary people.
Remember, too, that it was the Holy Spirit who guided
the Apostle Paul, as he spoke to Jews & Greeks alike.
That same Holy Spirit lives in us believers today
and will empower us
as we share the Gospel
with people around us today.