The picture that many have of Christian evangelism is an angry, in-your-face presentation. A grab-you-by-the-collar confrontation with a “Do you know Jesus?” Or perhaps it’s a harangue against certain sins with the threat of hellfire if the hearer does not repent.
The New Testament, however, does not present such a picture.
When the apostle Paul travelled through Asia Minor and southeastern Europe carrying the good news about Jesus Christ, his usual policy was to go “to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16); even though he was “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13). He usually began his work in a new area by finding a synagogue, where he preached to Jews and to God-fearing Gentiles. There are three Greek words used of preaching:
KERUSSO: to proclaim as a herald; KATANGELLO: to proclaim; and, EUANGELLIZOMAI: to announce or proclaim good news.
But though Paul followed his usual practice when he arrived at Athens, we find a few differences. The full story is found in Acts 17:15-34.
“…his spirit was agitated in him when he saw that the city was full of idols. So he was reasoning (DIALEGOMAI) in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearers and in the Agora everyday with those who happened to be there (Acts 17:16, 17).
Here we first find the word DIALEGOMAI in Acts. The word is usually translated “reasoning.” It was not simply a one way proclamation, but a two way conversation. The suffix DIA implies this. Our English word “dialog” is related. In Athens, Paul had come to the center of Greek philosophical thinking, the place where people came from all over to carry on discussions, to dialog. Perhaps even the Jewish synagogue was affected.
And Paul moved out from the comfort zone of the synagogue and went to the Agora, the market place, the very heart of public life and conversation. Here he encountered the Epicureans and Stoics, the philosophers of the day (verse 18).
[Luke, the author of Acts gives a rather noncommittal description of philosophers, “Now all the Athenians and visiting strangers used to spend their time with nothing else to do than to tell or to hear the latest thing (Acts 17:21).]
Paul’s radical ideas gained the philosophers’ attention and they brought him to the Areopagus, apparently not only to more clearly to understand these new ideas, but to pass judgment on them. The Areopagus appears to have been a forum for just this activity (17:18-20).
When Paul addressed the council of teachers there, we don’t find him opening the Scripture to them as he had done in the synagogue. I believe Paul knew better; he probably knew that Greek philosophers had no use for Jewish holy writings. They were committed to reason, to dialog, not to dogma. Rather, Paul started with where they were religiously. Even though he was internally agitated by the idolatry around him, he found a religious bridge.
“Men, Athenians, I observe that in all ways you are very religious. Why, when I was passing through and observing your objects of worship I even found an altar on which was inscribed ‘To An Unknown God.’ The One then whom you worship without knowledge, this is the One I proclaim to you!” (17:22, 23)
I don’t believe Paul was putting down their ignorance or their false religion. He had found an admitted area of need and was pointing out how the true God could meet that need and had met it through Jesus.
Paul goes on and introduces them to the Creator God, who did not need man’s worship, but who was seeking it (verses 24-26). He even quoted Greek poets to make his point (17:28). “’For in Him we live and move and are,’ as some of your own poets have said (quoting Epimenedes), ‘for we are His offspring’” (quoting Aratas).
Though Paul quotes pagan writers, he does not ascribe authority to them. His authority is always the Word of God, even though the Scripture isn’t mentioned.
There’s much more to the story. Paul argues the fact that God will judge through Jesus and that He “furnished proof to all by raising Him from the dead.” (That last doctrine, by the way, was totally objectionable to the Greeks.) The story goes on to tell of the Athenians divided reactions to the message (verses 32-34).
But there are some points I believe we should take from this passage concerning our witness as followers of Christ. I believe we can learn to be imitators of Paul in these areas.
• Paul listened and observed before he spoke.
• Paul tailored his presentation to his audience.
• Paul started where his hearers were. He sought to understand their religion and culture. He tried to speak to their perceived religious needs.
• Paul dialoged. While Jesus has given the authority to speak, listening gives the right to be heard.
• Paul was bold. He didn’t seem to fear the intelligence of the ones he dialoged with.
• Paul did not compromise the truth, even when attempting to make it palatable to his hearers.
In America, even more than in Athens, we who know Christ encounter a plethora of “gods”: The gods of philosophers, of scientists, of other religions. Do we do as Paul did – seek bridges to present to them the true God?