My heart was very heavy when I read of a 16 year old girl who took her life just before sitting her GCSE exams. At the inquest, her teacher described her as ‘one of the brightest pupils he had ever taught’ and added, ‘she believed life was pointless. She said she never heard anything to say that life was worth living.’
To be moved with compassion and to feel the plight of the lost will be the normal emotion of a Christian in tune with the Lord. We read of Jesus being moved with compassion as he saw people as sheep without a shepherd. The apostle Paul is an example of how we should live as a Christian. In Acts 17, when he arrived alone in Athens, the cultural capital of the world, he was surrounded by beautiful art, architecture and idolatry. Athens was a city dominated by non-Christian religion. As Paul looked, thought and pondered, a fire burned within him. The people he saw there were not Israelites, of whom he had said that his heart’s desire and prayer was that they might be saved, but he loved them too, for he knew that they were also lost.
Paul did not weep uncontrollably or raise his hands in horror, nor did he simply sign a petition. But he did respond and he did so in the way that a Christian knows best. The love of Christ compelled him and the commission of Christ commanded him to proclaim the gospel to all.
Communicating the gospel to all
Paul could not simply be a sightseer when there was such spiritual need. He was in Athens as a soul-winner. The Great Commission is to proclaim the gospel to non-Christians who are listening and the paganism of the Athenian people led Paul to devise a strategy to proclaim the gospel to all, whether they were in a place of worship or not. We fail if we abandon the streets of our towns and cities to the cults.
Paul first went to the synagogue, where he found the Jews, those who feared God, and reasoned with them. But that was not enough for him. There were many who didn’t go to a place of worship and they too needed to hear the gospel. So, he went daily to the market place where he met people who ‘happened to be there’, speaking to them of Christ. We never know who we will meet when we witness on the street. Paul had not bought into the myth of the ‘trickle-down’ approach to evangelism, which seeks to reach only the influential people of society. He was following his Master, of whom we read, ‘the common people heard him gladly’ (Mark 12:37). Most of the people that Paul met in the market place would have been ordinary people who never hit the headlines, yet who needed to hear of Jesus.
Inevitably, he encountered people enthused by the popular world-views of that time and this resulted in an opening of further opportunities. He was invited to the Areopagus, the Athenian administrative, educational and religious centre. If we are to reach all in our godless nation, we must get to ‘the market places’ as well as the synagogues and the Areopagus’. We cannot afford to settle into a siege mentality, hoping that people will just come into our meetings. There has to be an intentionality in each Christian’s mind to tell the gospel. If we know that people need the Lord, we must tell them so. If we don’t tell them, who will?
Communicating the gospel in a relevant way
When preaching to the Jews, Paul used the Old Testament (Acts 13:15) to proclaim Christ, but in Athens, speaking to pagans, he used what the people knew and understood to lead them to the same gospel. He started where the people were, using the familiar things to introduce the unfamiliar gospel. He developed his theme by declaring, not an unknown god or idol, but the Creator of the universe who sustains all life, ruling the nations and who will judge the world, but who has come as the Saviour of the world. Paul kept their attention by quoting their own poets, then applied the wonder of the gospel forcibly. His approach to preaching to these people may have been slightly different, but the message remained consistent and faithful.
This is the challenge for us: to communicate old truths faithfully whilst capturing the ear and attention of godless people. Paul knew, as do we, that even pagans need to hear the clear gospel and the claims of Christ on their lives. When I use words familiar to me, such as ‘God’, ‘sin’, ‘the cross’, ‘Heaven’ or ‘Hell’, what does the hearer actually understand? They may know our vocabulary, but do they use our dictionary? We have the most wonderful and yet most urgent message in the world. What people do with Jesus matters for eternity. The ‘stakes’ could not be higher. But do the majority of people in the United Kingdom have any real understanding of even the most basic Christian message? Personally, I love reading Victorian sermons and biographies, but their times are not ours, and their basic assumptions are not the ones communicated in schools and universities or via the media today.
Communicating the gospel
In Luke’s account of the Great Commission, Jesus tells us exactly what we are to proclaim to our neighbours and all nations: Jesus’ sufferings, his resurrection, repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46-47). Anything less is an incomplete gospel. Everyone needs to be made aware that their greatest need is God and his forgiveness. For the Athenians, it was the resurrection from the dead that became a stumbling block to belief, but the basic ingredients of the gospel could not be amended, altered or added to. Accommodating our message to the whims and foibles of today’s fickle culture makes it farcical. We have no authority to change our message because an aspect of the basic gospel is not in vogue. We, the messengers, have to be true to the word given to us.
When Peter wrote that we should always be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have, he was telling us to be ready to present the gospel. That is the reason for our hope. It is not that some apologist agrees with us, but that Jesus died and rose again. We have to ask ourselves the question: can our neighbours, who no doubt know that we are Christians, explain what it is that we believe? Are we really communicating the gospel?
Expecting to see results
Of course, in Acts 17, some mocked and others delayed responding (though they never did hear Paul again), but some believed. The gospel is not an idea to be debated or a philosophy to be discussed, but a power to be unleashed (Rom. 1:16). That power was demonstrated in transformed lives. We cannot allow ourselves to be content if we are not seeing conversions through our witness and ministry. We cry out to the Lord to save men and women, whilst examining our relevance and earnestness in making known to all the good news of Jesus and his love. God still uses prayerful proclamation. Believing this, let us strategically reach out to the God-fearers, the people in the market place, and the philosophers in the Areopagus.
In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that or whether both alike will be good (Ecc. 11:6).