Knowing Where to Start

Acts 17 shows Paul presenting the same gospel in two different ways in two very different settings.

At the beginning of the chapter, Paul & co. come to Thessalonica, where he goes first to the synagogue (as he usually did in a new city. Here’s his MO for addressing these observant Jews and God-fearing Gentiles:

He reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” (Acts 17:3).

So he starts with the OT Scriptures, which they all agree are true, shows what those Scriptures teach about the Messiah, and then explains that Jesus of Nazareth is that Messiah; the Scriptures have been fulfilled. He does the same thing at the synagogues in Berea and Athens. But then he begins talking with some Greek philosophers, and it’s interesting how his approach changes. Here’s his speech in its entirety (or as much as Luke gives us):

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:22-31).

What Paul does with this pagan audience is start in a completely different place than he does with the Jewish one. He starts with an element in their culture, the idol to an unknown God, and uses that to get to the doctrine of the true God.

  • This true God is the creator (24-26).
  • He is entirely self-sufficient, unlike pagan gods (25).
  • All men are obligated to serve him (27-28).
  • He is not like idols— he does not exist only in the mind of man (29).
  • He now calls all men to repentance (30).
  • This repentance is in view of a coming judgment, which the risen Christ will execute (31).

The end result is the same for the Jewish audience and the pagan one: either they repent and trust in Christ or they don’t. But Paul knows that the context is different. He has much more in common with the people at the synagogue. With them, he can start with “Here’s what the Scriptures say about Christ.” But he doesn’t share nearly as much ground with the philosophers, so he has to go further back: “There is one God, and here’s what he’s like.”

There’s a lot of ink being spilled these days over contextualization, relevance, words like that. I think a lot of it goes way too far. But the fact is that although there’s only one gospel, we’re presenting that one gospel to lots of different people. If I’m talking to a guy who grew up Southern Baptist and left the faith, there’s a good chance he’ll have a lot of the same intellectual furniture as me; we just have to talk about whether those ideas are true and whether they apply to him. But that demographic isn’t the only one out there. If we’re talking to people who have no Christian frame of reference at all, we probably need to start further back when we want to talk with them about the gospel. They might be a lot closer to the pagan philosophers than the lapsed church boy. Their need is the same– repent and believe– but explaining it to them might look a lot different.

Of course, this all starts with listening, which isn’t a strong point for most of us!

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