For the last two weeks, we have been looking at Acts 17 and Paul’s sermon in Athens (often called his “Mars Hill Sermon”) for inspiration as we reach out to our 21st century generation. He was placed into a daunting—but amazingly providential—situation where he could teach some of the brightest academic minds of the first century about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus far, we have observed that Paul had (1) a touched spirit over their idolatry and (2) the courage to engage them in discussions about the truth. Ultimately, Paul’s actions led to several in the audience believing and following him (Acts 17:34).
It is with that same end in mind that we turn our attention to the final area of an effective contemporary ministry. We should always seek the truth about how to reach souls with the gospel; we should always look to the Bible for guidance in so doing; we should keep in mind that it works!
The final aspect of Paul’s situation was that he proclaimed the message boldly. He had a powerful message, and he preached it powerfully. He did not skirt the truth about idolatry; he did not leave room for the Athenians to think their way was okay also; he preached the full, unadulterated truth about the God of the universe and about his risen Son. Notice briefly some of Paul’s phrases:
· “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (17:23)
· “The God who made the world…does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything…” (17:24-25)
· “We ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, and image formed by the art and imagination of man” (17:29)
· “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”
· “of this he has given assurance to all by rising [Jesus] from the dead.”
As we remember his original audience (and their gods that surrounded them), some of these things would definitely fall into the “stepping on toes” category. Although Paul himself said to preach the truth in a loving nature (Eph. 4:15), the truth still needs to be taught specifically. At Athens, Paul preached with love, and that meant challenging the error of the Athenians. Today, we must lovingly address and meet the challenges of the 21st century. The person from whom I was inspired to do this study said in his lesson, “It’s not hard to be Biblical if you’re not committed to being contemporary. And it’s not hard to be contemporary if you’re not committed to being Biblical.” That statement exhibits the truth of our position in the 21st century. We must always be Biblical; we must also make sure the saving Biblical message reaches our surrounding audience and culture.
Briefly, I want to think about this same idea from a slightly different angle. Within the church, we have struggled over the past several decades to have the same success in reaching people as we did 40 to 60 years ago. Not only do we face that challenge, but we are often reminded of limited success “within our own walls.” Many of our young people grow up and then grow out of service to the Lord. I readily admit that the ultimate responsibility for our young people exists with their parents. However, let’s think about how far powerful, sound, challenging, and loving preaching will go in not only reaching the lost around us, but also in meeting the spiritual needs of Christians.
Sadly, many congregations—intentionally or unintentionally—preach and teach messages that do not challenge their audiences out of fear that they might not come back. Although we want people to be happily in Christ, they can’t be such without hearing and obeying the full truth. Today, the issues may not be the same as they were for Paul, but preaching the truth will still be unpopular. It will be difficult for us to proclaim God’s will regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage; many people are sensitive about preaching on homosexuality; many are not comfortable when preaching the truth about gambling; many do not want to hear what God says about “social drinking.” Yet the truth about those things is vitally important to pleasing God and enjoying true fellowship with him and with other Christians.
May we be committed to preaching the powerful gospel message…in so doing we save ourselves and our generation (1 Tim. 4:16).