Proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom
· To look at barriers to faith and to discuss evangelism.
· To study Paul’s approach in Acts chapter 17.
PRAYER: Lord, we pray that your Holy Spirit will help us hear and understand your revelation to us today. We ask that you guide our every word and deed so that we will say and do the right thing at the right time. We pray that the light and joy of Jesus Christ will shine through our lives as a witness of our Christian faith so that we are always able to give reason for the hope we have in you. AMEN.
"Among the gods there is none like you, Lord; no deeds can compare with yours. All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, Lord; they will bring glory to your name. For you are great and do marvellous deeds; you alone are God." (Psalm 86:8-10)
This is a wonderful call to worship in which the psalmist is desiring the one true God. For among all those which are worshipped as "gods" there is no one that can hear and save. God is beyond compare. That’s a huge place from which to begin. I think quite a lot of people begin with the mistaken understanding that God is a tyrant, a deity who lays down impossible rules for us to follow and gets angry when we fail. So they say things like, "Unless you can prove it to me, I won’t accept it!"
But this need not bring our attempts at sharing the Gospel to a dead-end. God is not like that. So let’s look at:-
· How our Christian faith can challenge the hunger for absolutely certainty and resistance to the Gospel.
· How we are doing at fulfilling the task which Jesus gave us.
· How we reflect the love of God to those around us.
2. WHAT IS EVANGELISM?
Has it ever happened to you? It’s Saturday afternoon. You’re washing the car, the hose is filling the bucket running over with soapsuds. Two ladies stroll up onto the drive and ask if you go to church and whether you’d be interested in taking one of their magazines. It’s called The Watchtower.
How many of us here have been proselytised by JWs? Well I’m not going to say that we should copy their techniques, but I do have a bit of admiration for them. They are ambassadors for what they believe in. I don’t agree with their beliefs, but there’s no doubt that we, as the church, need to do our part as ambassadors for Christ to obey the Great Commission (not the great omission!) – and evangelise the lost.
In a nutshell, evangelism is passionately sharing, or spreading, the Gospel. We tend to think of it on a global scale. It’s about missionary endeavour to the world, our country, town, community, street, family and friends). It refers to us "winning people for Jesus" and playing a numbers game for we concern ourselves with the numbers of people becoming Christians and joining the church. We tell people that "Jesus loves them" – and try to explain why we hold to a particular set of beliefs, introducing the important themes of incarnation, atonement, sin and forgiveness. It happens as a one-off encounter, or over a series of weeks, months and even years – as we find ourselves ministering the Word over coffee, in an email, on Facebook or walking alongside a newly bereaved person – helping them to try and answer those important questions of life:-
· Who am I?
· Where am I going?
· What’s it all about?
It’s often through suffering and tragedy that, as we share the gospel in a natural and loving way, our faith and our lives helps others. We evangelise because we believe it’s God’s will that everyone should be saved. We do it because right now:-
· Someone is dying of cancer.
· Someone has died and gone to a lost eternity.
· Someone is being abused.
· Someone is injecting heroin into their arm.
· Someone is calling out to be held, loved and looked after.
The world "evangelism" is used 52 times in the NT. That’s our motivation! To be "labourers alongside God" (1 Cor.3:9). Jesus says “Go into all the world” – appealing to us to bother because of the privilege of being disciples. Therefore, if we discharge our obligation to proclaim the Good News we’re going against God and not living the kingdom as God’s people.
Seems pretty simple, but what holds us back sometimes from following the Lord’s command?
3. THE PROBLEM
We know from our experience there’s incredible resistance to the Gospel. In terms of our society and culture it feels like we’re operating in a hostile land. Perhaps that’s why we’re called "ambassadors?" After all an ambassador represents his country in a foreign land. Some people say it’s because we’re living in post-Christian times. But I’m not so sure about that. There’s always been hostility to the Gospel.
If we’d been one of the 72 commissioned disciples whom Jesus sent out, we wouldn’t have been smiling: "Steady on, not so fast. Lord! I’m Jewish and kosher; I can’t share a table with just anyone. I follow all these laws about cleanliness. Also, I am allergic to certain food and what if I’m offered strange food that I’ve never tried before? What if it’s a dirty house? I can’t just mix with anyone. What if they have a different lifestyle to me…and on…and on." And even if you could cope with this, there’s still more as Jesus says: “Go, I am sending you out as lambs among wolves”
It has nothing to do with the fact we’re 21st century folk. It does, however, have everything to do with our human nature:-
· Sometimes we just put it off. We know we should be doing it – we just haven’t got round to it.
· We let others do it because we don’t have the gift. It’s a specialist ministry. So we discourage ourselves believing we’re no good at evangelism.
· We don’t see it as exciting.
Also, I believe, the Church has got it wrong. Look at this cartoon:-
Diluted theology within churches has produced what I call "shallow evangelism" – where the Gospel is just about the Alpha Course – but then there is no nurture afterwards. Or where too much teaching is placed on God’s love that emphasizes Him not being Almighty, but All-Matey! We’re not sure of the soil in which we’re sowing. It’s "hit and miss" evangelism because Christians lack instruction from their church leaders. Members evangelise as they are nourished by the preaching, prayer and worship of the church.
Sometimes we say, “Preach the gospel and where necessary use words!” Great I support this but it’s also misleading. Actions don’t always speak louder than words:-
Bill and Ben worked together for years. When Bill became a Christian he told Ben the news, Ben replied “I’ve been a believer for years – didn’t you know?” Bill answered, “You’re the main reason I didn’t become a Christian sooner! I thought he’s so good why does a person need God?”
Saying that "Jesus saves" is only one side of the coin. In terms of evangelism, the love of God is never mentioned a single time in the entire book of Acts. Instead the emphasis is on: preaching; repentance; forgiveness; righteousness; resurrection; the nature of God and the reality of judgement. We recognise the world was never meant to be this way; we long for peace, love and justice to exist. And the challenge we face is to show people that God’s mercy and grace can meet their all their needs, can answer their questions and so bring them to the crossroads of life where they can choose life in all its fullness, or choose to remain separated currently and eternally from God.
We need to know the type of soil by recognising that there are many barriers to faith:-
· The intellectual argument. Science has disproved God.
· The problem of the established church and the historical associations of Christianity.
· The problem of relevance. Why doesn’t Christianity make people nice? It should do!
· The issues with other faiths and belief systems. I can get to heaven by being a good person!
I could go on, but from our evangelism we see that many are convinced that Christianity is false and out-dated. Consequently, many people lack knowledge of God and the basis of the Faith. And it’s not so great when we become tongue tied and confused when asked to speak about our faith. The URC Moderator of General Assembly, Stephen Orchard, said in his address several years ago that: “Our common stock of biblical knowledge is running down – because, apart from Sunday, we’re simply not reading the Bible.”
Is he right do you think? Surely, he doesn’t mean decent Church folk like us?
They lie on the table, side by side, the Holy Bible and the TV guide. One is well worn and cherished with pride. Not the Bible, but the TV guide!"
How can we expect people to take the Bible seriously, when we’re neglecting it ourselves? We’ve seen how zealous Muslims are for the Koran. For a Christian country, we’ve let people down badly by not spreading the Gospel properly. As each generation slips away from the Bible and forgets the basis for morality and how special it is to be in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ – our mission is undoubtedly going to get harder. Look at what happens when God’s Word is replaced by man’s opinion:-
As the Psalm says: "If the foundations are destroyed what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3). So what can we do?
4. THE EXCITING GOSPEL
Nearly a hundred years ago, in 1911, a naval officer put an advertisement into a national paper. It went something like this:-
Needed: people who are willing to lay down their lives. You will spend months, possibly years, away from your family. You will face some of the most challenging situations imaginable. You will spend nights in sub-zero temperatures. You might go hungry. Sleep is not guaranteed. You will be laughed at and ridiculed. There will be times that you will want to give up as you will be physically and emotionally drained. You might lose part of your limbs. You might think there are times when you are losing your mind. Your wages will be nothing, but you will have accomplished one of the greatest challenges known to man and your name will go down in history.
This doesn’t sound very encouraging. But Robert Falcon Scott received thousands of letters in reply. The challenge was, of course, to reach where penguins live – the South Pole. Do you think we need to make the Gospel more exciting for folk? And if so – how? Here’s one suggestion (although clearly it depends on the context you’re ministering in) – use imagination and humour!
Following a great sermon on evangelism, the wife in one family thought they had better do something to witness to their neighbours for Jesus. So she invited their less well-to-do next-door neighbours to dinner the following night. When it came to the meal, the hostess was keen to show their neighbours that they upheld Christian standards in their home. So she asked little 5 year old Johnny to say grace. Little Johnny was a bit shy. "I don’t know what to say." There was an awkward
pause, followed by a reassuring smile from the boy’s mother. "Well darling," she said, "just say what Daddy said at breakfast this morning."Obediently, the boy repeated, "Oh Lord, we’ve got those awful people coming to dinner tonight!"
Now I’m not saying that we all have to become comedians, but humour is valuable in evangelism because it breaks down barriers, shows we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and a joke is often very memorable. Most people find it difficult to receive information from someone who has little or no sense of humour. Especially when it threatens their worldview. There’s no doubt that Spurgeon’s humour was a major factor in his ability to communicate the gospel clearly.
Jesus also had a sense of humour. He gave His disciples nicknames. He told stories about judges who only gave justice after being pestered repeatedly, and rich men who amassed a fortune only to die the next day. He talked about the blind leading the blind, big pieces of wood in people’s eyes and camels going through the eye of a needle! I think many of His comments would have had His listeners laughing, while at the same time making a significant point.
We’re looking for solutions, but then after the break we’ll be looking at Paul’s approach in Acts chapter 17 and why it is a good example to modern-day evangelism.
5. CLOSING THOUGHTS
Now I often share some of my personal experiences in order to illustrate a point I’m trying to make. So before we break for refreshments:-
Working as a hospital chaplain, in a multi-faith NHS environment, is not about trying to thrust the Gospel on patients. It’s about being gentle, respectful and non-judgmental. It’s about understanding the person’s current situation, past experiences and philosophy of life.
Following a freak accident Leon had broken his back and was paralysed from the waist down. Clearly, Leon didn’t know me and it took a few weekly visits to win his trust and although he was difficult to talk to, I sensed a definite spiritual hunger in him. Moreover, as his treatment was long-term I had several opportunities to build up a relationship with him. Facing an uncertain future he was both physically and spiritually depressed, but over the weeks I saw many barriers to faith come down. Remember we don’t know how we’ve affected someone – but God does.
The added difficulty with Leon was that he couldn’t see any point in living with his paralysis. He was struggling for answers and there were none. He had already made it clear that he was thinking of suicide. During one of my initial visits he told me in no uncertain terms, “Don’t talk to me about God and don’t tell me I’m going be ok!” I told him I wasn’t even going to attempt to do that, as I wasn’t there to cause offence, or indeed add to his distress. In fact, on one visit, he said that didn’t want to talk and yet I was with him for over 20 minutes! I started to find out things about him, got him talking about his background, his life on the trains, his RAF service; his wife and family.
On about my third visit, he had just come back from physio and was in his wheelchair. I said encouragingly how good it was to see him mobile and asked how he was finding the chair. He was quite positive, though tired, but this time he started asking me questions about Christianity and my faith in God. I injected a little humour into the conversation, before we got onto the subject of suffering. Now Leon was not a Christian, and therefore I didn’t want to make him feel uneasy. I know we should always be prepared to preach the Gospel in and out of season, but what was going through the back of my mind was remembering the writings of Julian of Norwich in Revelations of Divine Love – not the Book of Job. Julian was a caring woman, whose words of comfort; healing and advice were a real witness to God.
I asked him if he’d heard of Julian. He hadn’t. So, I briefly told him a bit about her. He seemed fascinated that she had lived in a cell in Norwich Cathedral all her life, and he couldn’t believe it that she had actually prayed to be ill (so as to understand something of Christ’s suffering). So Jesus came into the conversation and then the basics of the faith. He fired question after question in quick succession and I knew I had him hooked! He wanted to know how I became a Christian, why there are so many different churches, why some people who say they’re Christians aren’t nice and was he being punished by God. Trusting the Holy Spirit for guidance, I was able to let Christ’s light shine through the conversation. I didn’t tie him up in knots with concepts he wouldn’t understand and spoke of how Jesus Christ offers real hope against the background of human suffering. Naturally, there was a lot of resistance to all this (certainly not plain sailing!), so I invited him to tell me something of his ideas and it was clear that he misunderstood what Christianity was all about. I told him that just because we don’t have answers, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care. He seemed genuinely interested and asked if he could borrow a copy of Revelations (this was progress, because he’d previously told me that he couldn’t be bothered to read a book!)
I’m convinced that Leon became more receptive and accepting of both his condition and Christianity following that conversation. I saw him several occasions afterwards and he told me he’d been perusing Julian’s daily readings and had even picked up the Gideon’s NT from his bedside drawer. Meanwhile, I upheld him in prayer. Imagine my surprise when one Sunday he wheeled himself up to the chapel for morning worship!
This experience was difficult to handle. I only provided Leon with limited spiritual care, but I like to think that he stopped brooding over the past and was prepared to meet his future. I never got my book back, but I trust Leon still has it. I believe I helped him draw near to God by giving him a reliable and attractive alternative. I wish I knew how he was doing today.
So to some final thoughts:-
Whatever form it takes, evangelism is for every Christian. The well known Parable of the Sower (Mk.4) tells us that Satan deliberately stops people believing in Jesus. So, as “Sowers of the Word” we need to make sure, in and out of season, we can given a reason for the hope we have in Jesus Christ.
And we’ve also got to pray for people. I think we should make it our duty to choose someone we know and intercede for them for a period of time and then hand it over to God. So when we read in 1 Corinthians 3:7 that “only God can make the seed grow” – our petitions may prepare the way for the Holy Spirit to come into their lives.
Christianity is “foolishness” in the eyes of many today. It’s our children and grand children, the future generations that we need to pray and be concerned about. Because if the majority lack knowledge of the Bible and Jesus now and what goes on in church, what will the spiritual landscape in this country look like in 50 years time?
DISCUSSION & QUESTIONS
ACTS 17:16-34 (New International Version)
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
1. What does Paul take time to do?
He took the time to take in the sights and sounds of Athens. We’re told his personal experience. In v.23 he says:- “I walked through your city and looked at the places of worship.”
Earlier in v.17 he tries to reason with his own people [Jews] in the synagogue and the Gentiles [Greeks] who believed in the Jewish God and then he even goes into the market place to reason with the “people who happened to pass by” – the public square being the natural gathering place for those who wanted to discuss such matters. He’s trying to grasp what the intellectual and the pragmatic faith barriers are. Before he can criticise, he needs to soak up the culture. But it comes with a price:
2. What’s Paul’s reaction to the city and why would he have felt like this?
It’s important we don’t miss this: v.16 says “He was greatly upset (some translations have “distressed in spirit”) when he noticed how full of idols the city was.” Having been brought up as a strict Jew he would have observed the 2nd commandment which is? … “You shall not make for yourself a carved image of God” and consequently found these statues of false gods abhorrent. But, he didn’t just brood over this; it provoked him to action. He began witnessing the Gospel.
3. Who is Paul preaching to and how is he perceived?
Greeks predominantly: v.18 the big-wig philosophers, the Epicureans and Stoics who had very different practical approaches to life and had no foundations of God’s Word. What an incredibly hard audience to proclaim the Gospel too!
v.18 also says that Paul is seen as “an ignorant show-off” and that they misunderstood him in thinking he was “a proclaimer of foreign gods.” In the RSV he’s called a “babbler” rather than a “show-off.” The Greek for “babbler” means literally “seed picker”, like a bird picking up seeds here or there. His foray around Athens has allowed him to obtain scraps of Greek philosophy (understanding the soil isn’t he), ideas which they recognised alongside Paul’s beliefs in Jesus. Because actually they were the collectors of scraps: v.21 “For all the citizens of Athens and the foreigners who lived there liked to spend all their time telling and hearing the latest thing.”
4. What do they do to Paul?
v.19 “they took him” is a good translation of the original which carries the hint of force, to the city council – the Areo-pa-gus or “Mars Hill” the centre of the Athenian religion and the location of the religious leaders of the city. Paul would need the approval of this group of men to be allowed to continue preaching in Athens.
5. How does Paul start telling the Gospel?
What he doesn’t do is begin by saying “God loves you and Jesus saves!” What he does is to be courteous, complimenting them for being v.23 “very religious”, almost “buttering-up” his hearers so they will remain receptive and starts by building a case for the one true God using examples the Greeks understood. He says, “What you worship as unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”
The story behind the altar and its inscription to an unknown god goes back to a time of terrible plague in the city. Legend has it that attempts to appease the gods failed until one philosopher brought some sheep to Mars Hill and released them. Wherever these sheep stopped, an altar was erected to an “anonymous god” and the animal sacrificed. This was effective and Athens returned to health.
So there’s Paul, on Mars Hill, overlooking the city, from where you could see the many idols representing gods that Paul knew were worthless, using his knowledge of the culture, not in order to agree with the Greeks, but to point out their failings all the more clearly. Anytime a new god was discovered they would be able to say “don’t be angry with us for we’ve been worshipping you all along”, but this is not the intention of the text. Paul’s positive opening statement should be seen as “Yes, but…”
6. What’s Paul doing in these verses and what four attributes does he mention belong to the true God in verses 24-25?
He’s using their ignorance about the true nature of God as his starting point and begins with natural revelation. The idea that the whole created world / nature reveals God. And it reveals God because the first attribute is God is the Creator: v.24 “God, who made the world and everything in it…”; the second attribute is the Sovereignty of God “…Lord of heaven and earth…”; the third attribute is His omnipresence “…and does not live in temples made by human hands”; the fourth attribute is that God is Self-existent, doesn’t require anything from us, but we are dependent on him: v.25 “since it is he himself who gives life and breath and everything else to everyone.”
Paul may have adapted his message, and showed respect, but he never compromised the truth. In these two verses he’s basically saying to his audience “your belief in many gods is false. There is only one God and he made everything and he is both distinct from his creation and in v.27 is “actually not far from any of us” although we cannot confine him. Ultimately, we need him!”
What Paul’s doing is positively de-constructing their beliefs and presenting them with the Christian alternative (re-sowing the seed). He’s showing them they’re right in their ignorance about God, but wrong about everything else.
7. Who or what does he quote from?
He quotes from two different Greek writers, again showing he’s knowledgeable about their culture, v.28 “in whom we live, move and have our being”, is not an OT quotation, and interestingly nowhere does Paul quote from the OT. Since his hearers do not believe the Bible has any authority, let alone that it is the Word of God, this would have been a waste of time. But he does present many OT concepts as we’ve seen above (look at the footnotes for 17:24-25 pointing to Scripture references).
8. Are there any other attributes of God mentioned in this passage?
Yes. Paul mentions that God is Judge in v.31”For he has fixed a day in which he will judge the whole world with justice…” And Paul’s cleverly links this attribute with those mentioned earlier: Since God created us; since he is sovereign over us and since he is infinite and thus knows all that we do, he has the right and ability to judge us.
9. Where does Paul first allude to Jesus and resurrection in this passage?
Again in v.31 as God will judge “…by means of a man [Jesus] he has chosen” and proof of this has been given to “everyone by raising that man [Jesus] from death.” Jesus has not been mentioned previously since the Greeks needed to know who God is before they could grasp the significance of the Person and work of Christ.
10. What’s the reaction to his speech?
Certainly there is a mixed reaction. Some people laughed, some wanted more information and a few believed. Maybe a church was never even established in Athens. There is no epistle like there is to the Corinthians, or Ephesians.
LIFE APPLICATION FEEDBACK
What have we learnt from today’s programme thinking of Paul’s style of proclaiming the Gospel and from our own experience?
Some ideas may include:-
· Adapting the message to suit the context (i.e. contextual theology)
· Motivation to share the Gospel with people today who are searching for meaning and order, still looking for an “unknown god” in a confusing and complex world. We cannot assume that those who call themselves religious truly know Jesus or understand the importance of faith in him.
· Don’t hesitate to tell others about Jesus because we fear some won’t believe us.
· Don’t expect vast numbers, or an overwhelming positive response to our witnessing. If only a few believe it will be worth the effort.
· You can’t say “Jesus is God” unless people understand about God first. You can’t tell people about judgement unless they understand sin and repentance.
· Quoting the Bible to people who don’t trust it will probably just turn them off.
· Asks questions about their worldview (i.e. “What do you mean by that?” or “How have you reached that conclusion?”) as this reveals how they employ logic to their beliefs. For example a New Ager would say they believe in God as an impersonal force (i.e. c.f. to the wind) but would also say “God is love.” I may love the wind when I want to fly a kite – but how can the wind love me back! It’s not logical!
· We need to be prepared to present Biblical concepts “to anyone who asks” (1.Pet.3:15) and give a positive deconstruction of false beliefs ensuring we aim to interest; to persuade and to challenge our listeners.
· Paul persuaded his listeners “to consider Jesus”, but he doesn’t say “accept Jesus and all will be ok.” He challenges his listeners with Jesus’ resurrection and its meaning to all people – either blessing or punishment.
CLOSE – THE TRINITARIAN BLESSING