Scratch Where It Itches
In the book of Acts, Paul models contextualization to a Gentile audience (see acts 17). His discussions in Athens attracted sufficient attention to gain him an invitation to address the Areopagus (acts 17:19). This distinguished body “was a council that had oversight of the educational, moral, and religious welfare of the community.”5
The delegates asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean” (17:19-20). Paul’s response to the Athenians provides many important principles.
Points of Contact. Paul began with an observation about the religiousness of the Athenians. “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious” (17:22).
Paul was neither criticizing nor complimenting the people of Athens. He was simply making an observation about the life of the Athenians. They were a religious people. The word religious essentially means “respect for or fear of the supernatural.”6 The form this religiosity took was the worship of many gods, evidenced by the numerous public idols (17:16). Paul knew that idolatry would not save the Athenians, so he argued against it and called them to repent (vv. 24-30). But he also knew that behind this idolatry was a respect for the supernatural.
Paul had found a point of contact with the Athenians. Their sense of the supernatural provided a steppingstone to explain the truth about God. They were in agreement about the reality of the supernatural world. Paul mentioned their religiousness so that he could lead them into the new truths he wanted to present. In the same way, evangelism today should look for a suitable opening to present the gospel.
The Unknown God. Through his comment about religion, Paul won the attention of the Athenians. He then went deeper and identified their yearnings. He told them how he had arrived at the idea that they were “very religious.” He had “walked around and looked carefully at [their] objects of worship.” He said, “I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” (17:22-23). This was evidence of a deep, unsatisfied yearning in the Athenians, and Paul used it as an opportunity to
introduce God to them.
The Greeks attributed the various natural phenomena to the gods. Different gods were said to be responsible for troubles and for good fortunes, so they wanted to be on the good side of all the gods. But they were not certain that they knew all the gods, so they dedicated an altar to an unknown god “to ensure that no god was overlooked to the possible harm of the city.”7 This altar was an admission that their knowledge of the supernatural was incomplete, and Paul used this as a launching pad for his description of the God of the Bible. They had set up their altar in an attempt to cover all possibilities. Paul knew the God who was missing from the Athenian worship; He was the only true God. He introduced this God to the Athenians: “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (17:23).
Christ Fulfills Their Aspirations. Paul saw the worship of the “unknown god” as an expression of thirst for God. So he approached the Athenians with that understanding.
The present widespread interest in spirituality can become a steppingstone for Christian witness. The expressions it takes may vary in form, and we may find it difficult to engage with those who pursue such activities. The idols in Athens were revolting to Paul, but he used them as an opportunity to show the people that only God could give them what they were looking for. The spiritual pursuits of many today show us that the search for something deeper is ongoing.
There are other needs that are more easily recognized, such as the need to feel safe and secure. We can start with this need and from it direct people to the more basic need—a relationship with God. But if we start there, we may be dismissed as having nothing relevant to say. An effective witness tries to identify felt needs and demonstrates that Christ fulfills them.
From Felt Needs to the Gospel
Christ is the answer. But we must discover the specific questions our audience is asking, even if those questions may not be what we think they are or what we think they should be.
Many feel they don’t need religion. They feel quite adequate to face the challenges of life without God’s help. We may be tempted to conclude that they are not asking any questions of religious significance.
The problem may be that we are looking in the wrong place. Our lifestyles may be so different from theirs that we don’t know the deep yearnings of their hearts. They do have religious inclinations. But they take forms that we may not recognize as religious. We must be careful and creative when trying to find an open door to share the gospel.
When we proclaim the gospel, we interact with the aspirations and needs of our audience. A good witness is a student of both the Word and the world. Karl Barth is reported to have said that the preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
We must know the gospel thoroughly and communicate it faithfully and clearly. We must also know the world thoroughly. This knowledge of the world is the context in which we present the gospel. And we must be careful to present the whole gospel.
Grappling with the Uniqueness of Christ
A missionary about to return home after 28 years in Sri Lanka was interviewed by that country’s leading English-language Sunday paper. He explained how he had changed after coming to a multi-religious country.
“I was rather intolerant of other religions at the time and thought that mine was the only true one,” he said. “But all that changed during a visit to Anuradhapura” (a religious holy place).
The missionary went on to say that he experienced such a sense of peace in that place that he felt he was truly in the presence of God. He began to think that the difference in faiths did not matter. From that experience he said he learned “the lesson that all religions, lived up to their highest ideals, have the common threads of love and compassion in them. So,” he continued, “from that moment my ministry became not creed but need.”8
This missionary reflects a syncretistic attitude that is rapidly gaining popularity, even in the church. Many Christians are living in environments not conducive to maintaining belief in the uniqueness of Christ and are giving it up. But many texts in the Bible proclaim Christ as the only way to salvation:
Sustaining this belief today is a challenge, especially when we meet good and decent people who belong to other faiths.
All under Sin. By human standards, people may be good. But when judged by God’s standards, all people fall hopelessly short. Even a comparatively good person such as the prophet Isaiah, when he had a vision of the glory of God, cried out in despair, “Woe to me! . . . I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (isaiah 6:5).
The fact that every person in his or her natural state is guilty before a holy God, and is therefore lost, has been largely forgotten. Much Christian preaching, teaching, and writing emphasize the blessings the gospel brings. The blessings are important, but there should be a corresponding emphasis on the seriousness of sin and our separation from God.
Failure to emphasize both sides of the gospel is one reason people find it difficult to accept that there is no salvation without faith in Christ. They don’t see salvation as a transformation from death to life (rom. 6:23), from darkness to light (1 peter 2:9), from rejection to acceptance by God (rom. 5:9-11).
We could not save ourselves by our own efforts; therefore, God acted in Christ to offer us salvation. “And [we] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (3:24-25). These two verses exude grace. What we could not do for our salvation, God has done for us. Our only hope is the free gift of God’s grace through faith in Christ and His work:
Believing is not merely giving mental assent to what Christ did and then living any way we want. Faith that saves has three important steps. First, we must admit that we cannot help ourselves. Second, we must accept what Christ has done on our behalf. Third, we must entrust ourselves to Him and His way, accepting His way as our way. This implies that when He becomes our Savior, He also automatically becomes our Lord.
Why is faith so important for salvation? Faith is the opposite of the sin that separates us from God. The basic sin of humanity is seeking independence from God. When we exercise faith, we reject our own attempts at saving ourselves and controlling our lives and submit to the way God provided for us in Christ Jesus.
Sharing the gospel is the most important conversation we can have with someone. The way we share the gospel is often as important as ensuring that we present the full gospel. Being the messenger of a life-changing message means being a humble servant of all people, knowing the cares and concerns of our audience, and creatively finding an open door to show that Christ is the answer to the questions they ask. Then we can share the gospel: We are separated from God by our sin but Jesus has done all that we need to be reconciled to Him.
5 Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Zondervan Publishing House, 1986), 284.
6 Alan Richardson, editor, “Superstition,” A Theological Word Book of the Bible (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1950), 253.
7 E. M. Blaiklock, “The Acts of the Apostles,” The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959), 140.
8 Alfreda de Silva, “Change of Heart after Anuradhapura Visit,” The Sunday Observer, March 18, 1984.