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Leveraging Culture

Acts 17:16-34

 

 "Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols. [17] So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. [18] And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, 'What would this idle babbler wish to say?' Others, 'He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,'-- because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. [19] And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, 'May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? [20] For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; we want to know therefore what these things mean.' [21] (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.) [22] And Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, 'Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. [23] For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. [24] The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; [25] neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things; [26] and He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, [27] that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; [28] for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are 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, an image formed by the art and thought of man. [30] Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, [31] because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.' 
    [32] Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, 'We shall hear you again concerning this.' [33] So Paul went out of their midst. [34] But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them." (NASB) 

 It would be impossible for me to overstate the importance of Acts 17 in understanding a postmodern approach to evangelism and apologetics.  If your heartbeat is for the evangelization of our community and world, please join me in paying particular attention to this text.  First, please notice how close the Athenian culture of Paul's day is to our contemporary culture.

 Look at verse 16.  "Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols."  The idolatry and paganism of their culture turned Paul's stomach, or to be more accurate, "provoked his spirit."  Athens was an accommodating, inclusive place.  One god was as good as another, so they built idols to all of them they could name and even to those they couldn't (vs. 23).  Like today, their primary doctrine was tolerance.  Have you noticed that tolerance embraces every perceptive, and encourages everyone to speak, unless the speaker wishes to make an exclusive claim. 

 In my opinion, we've slid down this slippery slope to the miry pit at the bottom.  Instead of simply protecting the right of the minority to speak, we've elevated the sensibilities of the minority to the ultimate authority of what can be said and what can't.  In my humble opinion, it is not the conservative right that is active censoring free speech; it is the liberal left who've decided what can and what can't be said in the public arena.  I relate to verse 16, because sometimes I get sick to my stomach when I observe the cultural idols that dot the landscape.  Those building these "idols" want their voices to be heard, yet are attempting to crowd out any dissenting voice. 

 Before we leave this text, let me comment by saying that Paul did not utter a word of criticism about the culture to the people.  Yes, it provoked his spirit, but he didn't go into a rant, like I fear I just did.  Instead he used their idolatry to proclaim the gospel.  More on that later. 

 Times haven't changed have they?  Skip down to verse 21 and I'll show you one more reason why I believe that.

  "(Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)" First Century Athens was the original "information age." 

 Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold more than 15 million copies, just released another book entitled "The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness."  The reason for the sequel to the original book is his recognition of the ramifications of the information age.  "We have moved from an industrial model into a knowledge-worker economy," he says. "And that needs a new habit."  According to Covey, in the industrial age effectiveness was the goal, today, in the new information age, "everybody has become truly important." His eighth habit is  "finding your voice - and inspiring others to find theirs."  Covey says "What people want is significance,  They want their voices to be heard." (http://www.Freshministry.org/illustrations.html)

 Many of us spend a majority of our time sifting through, digesting and disseminating information.  The other day Adult 3&4 had a party out at Curtis' ranch and spent the afternoon riding horses.  The Armstrong's paint pony was ill and actually laid down while Kathryn was on its back.  Curtis started tending to the horse to see what was wrong and I was surprised by a thought that went through my head while he was listening to the horse's abdomen with his stethoscope.  Why doesn't he just reboot the horse and start it over, I thought.  That thought tells you two things about me.  One, it has been years since I've spent much time around horses, and two, I probably spend way too much time around computers.  Information was a hot commodity in Ancient Athens too.  Times really haven't changed that much.

 Times haven't changed, and neither has the message.  Look at verses 18-19.   "And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. And some were saying, 'What would this idle babbler wish to say?' Others, 'He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,'-- because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. [19] And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, 'May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming?'"

 Paul was faithful to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  His messages weren't self-help, "how to improve your life and feel better about yourself" sermons.  He kept his focus on what really mattered Jesus and the resurrection.  The end result as verses 32-34 indicate was that some of the people mocked him for his beliefs while a few of them believed. 

 Which brings us to the key truth here.  Look at verse 23  "For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you."  Paul didn't criticize their culture.  Instead he made reference to one of their idols here and used one of their poets in verse 28 to support the biblical assertion that God created mankind as a foundation for his proclamation of the gospel. 

 Neither did Paul adapt to culture and try to become culturally relevant.  He didn't integrate idol worship or readings of Greek poetry in his worship services elsewhere.  There is no evidence that he was attempting to be hip, cool or relevant.

 What Paul did was leverage culture for the gospel's advantage. He established a fulcrum point at the point of inclusiveness, and then he used it to leverage culture.  Or to put it another way, he used the inscription of the idol and the poetry as starting points to proclaim the gospel. 

 Today I urge you not to be silenced by the false prophets of tolerance.  Get past letting the culture "turn your stomach."  Enter into the marketplace and interject your ideas.  Do it when you are visiting chat rooms online or while you are having lunch with your buddies at school.  Talk to your grandchildren about your beliefs and don't be ashamed to defend them to your friend's parents.  Do it in a spirit of humility, but do it.  Leverage culture to win the right to be heard and then speak up.  And when you do, be sure not to cheapen the gospel.  Tell it like it is, and pray that God will use your words to impact the hearts of those who listen.

For more information on Leveraging Culture for the Gospel's Advantage, go to http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0805431349/freshministry

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