From time to time, I hear enough misuse or misunderstanding of a particular passage of scripture that I feel compelled to correct the record. We are called to be contenders of the faith and to defend God’s Word, and sometimes, that can be as simple as providing the correct insight into a passage of scripture.
I don’t think, for the most part, that people intentionally misuse Acts 17, but I do think maybe they heard a sermon, read a book, attended a seminar, or read church marketing materials that use this passage to prove we should contextualize the Gospel. So to begin, let’s first take a look at the definition of “contextualize”. After all, it’s not a bad word. It’s just a word used in language that has meaning and looking at it’s meaning may provide help in understanding the purpose of my post.
Definition of CONTEXTUALIZE
to place (as a word or activity) in a context
— con·tex·tu·al·i·za·tion noun
Examples of CONTEXTUALIZE
When the rebellion is historically contextualized, it becomes clear that there were many factors contributing to it.
Now, I would just like to make an interesting observation here. I was actually surprised when I looked up the definition in the dictionary since the whole thrust of why I’m writing this post is people using the phrase “contextualizing the Gospel” to mean changing or altering scripture or how we deliver it to unbelievers in an attempt to reach them more effectively. But that’s not really what it means at all. As you can see, the word “contextualize” actually means to take something in it’s original form and place it in its proper “context” or “setting” to better understand it.
Now, if this would be the case when I hear people use this phrase, I would be all for it. Taking a passage from scripture and explaining the cultural and situational circumstance at the time of the writing often leads to the real meaning which edifies the Body of Christ. Unfortunately, this is not the case anecdotally when I hear this phrase being used.
For example, in an attempt to “contextualize” the gospel, I once witnessed a young pastor degrade the character of the Apostle Paul. This pastor actually claimed Paul had serious issues with sin. He used Romans 7 and also the issue of the “thorn” Paul had to bear. I’m sure he didn’t realize it, but the sermon really came off badly. Had he been pastor of a church with any spiritually mature members, he would have had a serious problem on his hands. But there in lies the problem… The whole gist of this church plant was to only attract unbelievers. They did not want many mature Christians at all, so the problem was a 3 fold problem. 1). Instead of studying scripture to create his sermons, he was reading books promoted by the emerging church movement. 2). He had no members in the church capable of providing him spiritual guidance such as elders or teachers. 3). As a result, he could teach false things unchecked doing a lot of damage to those unfortunate people’s understanding of Jesus and His Apostles. And all you heard in the days leading up to this sermon was how churches need to “contextualize” the gospel. What he meant was change the Gospel to attract numbers instead of making disciples like Jesus instructs us to. Unfortunately, this same pastor (who I’m careful to leave anonymous) had a blow up with several other members in a panic over money as the church began to fail. Too bad. But that’s the reason why James said “not many should become teachers”.
Now that was just one example. I’ve heard many people reference Acts 17 as scriptural proof that we need to “adapt” the gospel to our culture in order to win people to Jesus. And my reason for posting this today is to emphatically say 1). This is incorrect to do according to scripture itself and 2). Acts 17 doesn’t even say or prove this. To me, it’s a case of people using scripture to prove something they want to do (usually associated with marketing trends in churches) instead of letting the scriptures speak for themselves as to what we should do. 3). It’s ineffective. Churches have been taking this approach for many years now and we continue to lose the cultural battle for souls. According to recent surveys, more people in this country now disassociate themselves with Christianity than at any other time in our nation’s history. Considering the Apostle Paul said “the gospel is God’s power unto salvation”, this should tell us something is wrong. Could it be we don’t communicate the real gospel in our churches today?
Let’s look at my 3 points specifically:
1. It’s incorrect, according to scripture itself, to change or adapt the gospel in order to win people to Christ. Look at these 2 passages from Paul himself:
1Co 2:1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.
1Co 2:2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
1Co 2:3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling,
1Co 2:4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
1Co 2:5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
Rom 1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Rom 1:19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.
Rom 1:20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
In these 2 passages, I pick up 3 key points Paul makes. The gospel is simple and meant to be delivered in simple terms, the gospel has the power to save men without the aid of wise or additional speech from men to “help” it, and it works this way because, from the beginning, God makes it plain to mankind He exists and they are convicted of their unrighteousness. I think I could also go with a 4th point on this that God does it this way so that no man can boast.
To think Paul said this and then decided to change his mind at Athens and take a different approach to convince people of Christ renders the inspired Word of God as contradictory. It also makes Paul look a little insincere too. Imagine a fellowship with Corinthian and Athens Christians if Paul had actually contradicted himself with the 2 groups. Wouldn’t that serve to cause them to question their faith? My point is I think those of us taking on the responsibility of teaching others need to be mature and think these things through carefully and not act like a train wreck.
2. Acts 17 doesn’t even demonstrate or prove that we need to “contextualize” the gospel. In order to show this, let’s read the passage.
Act 17:15 Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.
Act 17:16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.
Act 17:17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
Act 17:18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
Act 17:19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?
Act 17:20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”
Act 17:21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
Act 17:22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.
Act 17:23 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.
Act 17:24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,
Act 17:25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
Act 17:26 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,
Act 17:27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,
Act 17:28 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.’
Act 17:29 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.l
Act 17:30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,
Act 17:31 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.”
Act 17:32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.”
Act 17:33 So Paul went out from their midst.
Act 17:34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
The passage reveals in Acts 17:16 that Paul is waiting or Silas and Timothy to join him on his missionary journey. Athens is just a rendezvous point. How do we know this? Because the 2nd half of the verse says Paul was “provoked” at all of the idols he saw in Athens. Then, in verse 17, it says it’s because of this provocation that Paul decides to enter the city and preach. So this wasn’t a planned missionary effort Paul had decided to undertake like others. We can also observe Paul didn’t look at this culture and say, “Gee, how can I connect with this people and bring the gospel to them so they understand it and not be revolted by it”. No, instead, I think we can surmise that Paul was led by the Holy Spirit to go preach because of all of the idolatry he saw.
In the next verse, we see Paul following his usual routine by first going to the synagogue and preaching to the Jews. It says he did this for several days. It then says during these discussions, he encountered others of the Epicureans and Stoics that were inquiring into his preaching. So he didn’t go pursue these people with an adjusted message just for them. No, when they heard about what he was saying, they came and sought him out. And when they heard him speaking of Jesus, they insulted Paul calling him a “babbler”.
What they do next is key. In verse 19, it says “they took him”. The Greek wording would denote they took him by force. This wasn’t an invitation. By studying ancient Athens, the story reveals even more. You see, the Epicureans and the Stoics took him to Mars Hill. At that time, Mars Hill was where the council of judges met. In ancient Athens, it was against their laws to introduce a new religion without permission. So in effect, when Paul was taken “so we can hear more of these things”, Paul was being brought before judges to decide if he was breaking the law. If proved he was, the punishment would be death. Historically, this is the fate that Socrates suffered. So the notion that the Epicureans and Stoics were “fascinated” with what Paul was saying that they invited him to Mars Hill to speak to a larger audience is just not true. Sorry Marc Driscoll, I know this kind of throws a wet blanket on the name of your church, but oh well…
Now mistakenly, many have claimed what Paul does next is “contextualize” the gospel. No, that’s not it at all. What Paul does next is revert to his instincts being raised under the teaching of Gamaliel. He reverts back to an expert sense of how to argue the law. You see, Paul had noticed the inscription of the “unknown god” on one of the Athens monuments. So he basically pleads his case that he is, in fact, not introducing a new religion or god to the Athenians, but no less THE GOD of the Athenians. He then proceeds to preach the gospel as he always does. God created everything, therefore He is entitled to the Athenian’s worship over their other gods, and since He is the Judge of all men, they should repent and worship Him. And when Paul says this has been proved to be true since God has raised a man from the dead through Whom God would judge the world, the Athenians around Paul scoffed at him. Others said they would hear him again about these things; probably a veiled threat that Paul would once again be tried if He hung around.
And yet, there were a few who did believe. The passage ends with Paul leaving out of their midst.
So, to my point, the circumstances surrounding Paul’s experience in Athens can’t be used to justify some “missional” cause in which a church needs to become like the culture around them in order to win them to Christ. This brings me now to my 3rd point.
3. It’s ineffective.
From a logical standpoint, let’s just pretend that Paul did decide to “contextualize” the gospel as an intentional way of reaching the Athenians with the gospel so they would understand it and accept it. Heck, Paul even quotes one of their poets in an effort to do so. How effective was it? Not very. I mean, from a heavenly standpoint, angels would be rejoicing at the few that did accept the gospel. I wish we, as churches, would be more like them! But as far as “missional” standards go, and let’s face it’s always about the numbers, it would have been a failure. There would be no articles written about it’s method, no books written by the person responsible for it, no big mega church built as a result of it. So using it as justification for a new church program to match the church with the culture just doesn’t hold water logically. So if it doesn’t make sense scripturally or logically, I think we really need to be asking if it’s something we should be doing at all.
Now for those that would then point to 1st Corinthians to try and prove the same point because Paul says he becomes all things to all people in the hopes that some will be saved, I suggest going back and re-reading that book again. Because Paul is talking about sacrifices he’s making to reach people and he’s specifically talking about food rituals of the time. Paul also cautions about building the church God’s way and not ours…Taking it beyond that is taking it too far. And those making their profession in religion may want to especially tread lightly since Paul makes it clear he surrenders his right to any material gain from the church too…
Now, I would like to close this post out with some thoughts on how to really reach out to the communities around us.
1. People will do what the Lord’s will is if they KNOW what it is. So if you’re responsible for a body of believers, make sure you disciple them so they know what the character and activities of a follower of Jesus Christ are. Then you will really see God begin to move.
2. Get the people you fellowship with as Christians out of the church. All of God’s meaningful work takes place outside of your church building. Make it a priority for people to do this. Involve your church in local ministry. Feed the poor, cloth the naked, take care of the widows and orphans. Sound familiar? It should. Jesus said to do these things. If you have people in your church so wrapped up in things that really don’t bring value to the Kingdom of God, then you’re wearing them out for doing real Spiritual sacrifices. This is the same thing the Pharisees were doing!
3. If you’re a leader in your church like a pastor, an elder, or a teacher, lead by example. Get involved in local ministries in your community. There’s plenty to do, and as Jesus said to His disciples, there’s not enough workers. So if you’re too wrapped up in non value add things you need to change too. Remember, if you’ve assumed the mantle of shepherd, your flock is going to follow you. So if you place more priority on the worship music, marketing gimmicks, and writing checks to solve problems, well then, don’t complain when all you get is selfishness from your members and a dead church with God not doing much at all.
I close with saying I pray for all the brethren. I know we can do better! If God’s for us, who can be against us?