by Roger McCay
23 August 2020
Sermon Passage: Acts 17:16-23
Link to Audio Version
You may have heard of the little tract used by Campus Crusade (now calling themselves Cru) … the little tract published by them, concerning “the [so-called] four spiritual laws.” This tract is a very simplified explanation of the gospel, and the pros and cons of it are all protracted out there in cyberspace. There are some helpful images in the tract, though, like the third spiritual law, which illustrates how Jesus Christ bridges the gap between a Holy God and sinners. Also helpful is the image after the fourth spiritual law, of a couple of circles with the chairs in them that illustrate what it means for Christ to be the Lord of one’s life.
Nevertheless, personally, I don’t care too much for tracts. In my opinion, they tend to promote lazy mental and procedural evangelistic tactics, are too impersonal, and sacrifice much for the sake of brevity. I know there are those out there who have found them helpful, and I agree that the Lord can and has certainly used them for his gospel purposes. They are, indeed, one of the various methods that the gospel can be communicated to the lost. However, tracts are very limited, as they oversimplify evangelism into a “one-size fits all,” inflexible, formula.
The Scriptures, praise the Lord, describe a better way, even providing us various, more engaging patterns to use for gospel proclamation. You don’t see the apostle Paul, for example, leaving tracts in bathrooms or sticking them in doorjambs. Rather, the Scriptures paint a picture of evangelism that involves proclamation, person-to-person interaction, and patient and careful reasoning, explaining, and proving. The Scriptures show us that what works for one person or group might not work for another, and each of the ways that work for those groups or individuals won’t work for a third, and so forth. Hence, while there are patterns to proclamation, there is a tremendous flexibility to those patterns based on the situation. Gospel proclamation involves an understanding of various types of people (where they are coming from, and where they are), in order to lovingly build a relevant bridge for the gospel into their lives. Such a bridge consists of reaching out to the “true truths” in their lives, latching on to them with the truth of the God’s Word, and bringing across the message of Christ.
Now, there are difficulties when it comes to making bridges for the gospel, not the least being our own sin, which inhibits our seeing and responding to the world’s cry for Jesus. However, in the Lord, we can overcome, as he shows us the way by the light of his Word and the power of his Spirit.
In today’s passage, we see the Apostle Paul alone in the city of Athens. There he recognized the city’s cry for Jesus, seeing it exposed in their idols. Thus, he responded with a righteous indignation towards their idolatry, by diligently setting to the task of gospel proclamation to any who would listen, tailoring his approach to each situation. As such, he made bridges for the gospel of Christ into the lives of the people of Athens.
So let’s look, first, at how Paul recognized the world’s cry for Jesus. In vv. 16-21, we find Paul arriving in Athens, initially in tourist mode, going around seeing the sights. This is no surprise, considering the nature and history of the city. Athens was a major city in the Greek world, with the height of its glory found long before, around the 5th Century BC. It had diminished quite a bit, after the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, which lasted 27 years, ending in 404 BC. Centuries later, however, even after Rome conquered Greece at the battle of Corinth in 146 BC (and hence, Athens), it continued to retain, as John Stott describes, “a proud intellectual independence,” boasting “of its rich philosophical tradition inherited from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, of its literature and art, and of its notable achievements in the cause of human liberty.”
Yet, by the time the Apostle Paul was sight-seeing, taking in its rich culture, its superb works of art, and its magnificent structures (like the Acropolis), Athens was a shadow of its former self.
As Jim Boice explains, “The master philosophers … were succeeded by men of lesser ability and finally by those who were only imitators of the giants of the past.” And, while Paul, with his great education and intellect, may have been like “the student of a great university, visiting an older but yet a kindred university, surveying it with appreciative admiration, and mixing in its society as an equal conversing with men of like education,” as Sir William Ramsay put it, Paul found himself incensed, provoked, righteously outraged at something he saw—idols and idols everywhere.