by Mike Ratliff
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:1-2 ESV)
Without a doubt the culture in the 21st Century is “out of season” for the Gospel. Resistance to the truth of God’s Word is strong because our society has rejected absolute truth. Along with this is the downgrade in morals. I was a teenager in the 1960’s. Even in that “free love” culture there would never be the filth allowed on TV that we see in prime time shows in our time such as “My Name is Earl.” However, our Lord Jesus Christ preached the exclusivity of the Gospel. He confronted sin head on, but in our time preachers water down the message so they won’t offend people by preaching against sin.
This “seeker-sensitive gospel” is not THE GOSPEL. Nor is the Jesus they present the real Jesus of the Bible. However, if we confront these things along with the New Evangelism of Rob Bell, for instance, then even the pagans descend upon us rebuking us for our divisive, polemic message. They claim that all religions are valid and it is wrong for any adherent to a religion to claim that his or her “faith” is superior in any way to anyone else’s.
How do we confront a culture like this with God’s truth? We use the Apostle Paul as our example. Paul faced a culture that was just as hostile to the Gospel as ours, but there was no spirit of tolerance to shield him from the hostility of those offended by the message he preached. However, this did not stop him. Let us look at how he confronted the hostile culture of his day by examining his sermon at the Areopagus on Mars Hill in Athens. This is found in Acts 17:16-34.
Paul was actually a refugee in Athens. He had been forced to flee Thessalonica and Berea when the Jews there became outraged at the message of the Gospel (Acts 17:1-15). The Athenian culture was quite sophisticated. It was home to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. However, it was also pagan to the core. The city was full of idols. Paul became offended with the idolatry and so he began reasoning with all who would hear. He reasoned from scripture. The philosophers heard Paul and brought him to Mars Hill to speak. The group he spoke to was some of the most astute philosophers in the city. However, they really were not interested in Paul’s message. They simply wanted some “entertainment.”
Paul was not naïve. He understood the inherent hostility to the exclusive message of the Gospel that would be expressed by this group. This did not stop him though. We find the method Paul used to present the Gospel to this indifferent and arrogant audience in Acts 22-34. First, let’s look at his introduction.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “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. (Acts 17:22-23 ESV)
What did he tell them? He starts by telling them that God IS. He used the altar to an unknown god to clarify that the Athenians were ignorant and he was going to give them the truth. All people are religious. It is how God created our race. We must worship someone or something. The religion of the Athenians was one of worshiping in ignorance. This is exactly what Paul wrote of in Romans 1-2.
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (Romans 1:19 ESV)
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Romans 2:14-15 ESV)
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18 ESV)
So we see here that Paul was in not in any complementing the Athenians about their religion, but was, in fact, confronting them for willfully rejecting what they know to be true and choosing instead to worship in ignorance.
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. (Acts 17:24-29 ESV)
Paul began by telling the Athenian philosophers that God IS in vv22-23 then he told them WHO He is in vv24-29. I grew up going to church and what Paul taught to these intellectuals is the basics of the theology I was taught from my earliest years until I left home to join the US Navy in 1973. These men thought they knew it all yet all of this was new to them. I know many today who have this same attitude. They see this as supreme foolishness or something that is beneath their dignity. However, we must never be ashamed of the Gospel even before people like this.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:25 ESV)
What did Paul teach these men in this sermon about God? God is the creator (v24), God is Lord or Ruler of all (v24), God is the Giver not the receiver (v25), God controls all things (v26), and God is the revealer (vv27-29). I wonder how much preaching done today actually presents to the hearers these truths about God.
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 17:30-31 ESV)
Paul began by telling the Athenians that God IS. Then he told them WHO God is. Then he closed this sermon by telling them WHAT God SAYS. He spoke the truth to them. He told them that judgment was coming and that this judgment was for all who do not repent. He made it clear that now was the day of salvation. God’s grace is past. God’s judgment is coming with His wrath. Repentance is required to be saved from it. Is this the gospel message most heard nowadays? No, it isn’t and that is tragic.
Most who heard Paul that day laughed and scoffed and sneered. However, that is not the point. The majority always rejects these truths. Paul’s message was effective.
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (Acts 17:32-34 ESV)
I saw a book at Barnes and Noble on Saturday that was titled, Heaven’s Door is Open Wide. It proclaimed that the Church is huge and full of innumerable people who have come into the Kingdom through the “evangelism” of the seeker sensitive movement. However, if we examine the New Testament closely we do not see this sort of thing at all. In Athens there were some who heard the truth, believed and repented, but that was not the majority of whom heard that sermon.
When we confront our culture like Paul did here with the truth we must not be surprised when the response of the majority is negative. We must not be discouraged when only a few believe and repent. There may even be times when it looks as if no one is responding. We must not give in to the pressures to compromise the truth in order to appeal to the flesh. No, we must preach the truth into the darkness knowing fully that the Holy Spirit will draw God’s people to the Saviour.
Soli Deo Gloria!