I have read dozens of books on evangelism. I have sat in conferences and seminary level courses on how to share my faith. I have equipped churchgoers with tools to present the good news to neighbors, strangers, and foreigners. On paper, I have a lot of knowledge and experience sharing the gospel, but in reality I still feel inadequate when it comes to personal evangelism.
I find the Book of Acts an indispensable and encouraging guide for proclaiming the gospel. It is heads above all other resources on evangelism available today. I am able learn all I need to know to share the gospel in the 21st Century by how 1st Century church did it. Acts is filled with case studies, one of which you and I will study together today. In this case study, I will share six essentials for proclaiming the gospel by plagiarizing another mans sermon, Paul’s sermon that is.
1) Stand in the midst the lost (Acts 17:22a)
Our text begins with “Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus,” literally it means “high place” and it rests above the city of Athens on top of Mars Mill. It was sort of a temple to the human brain, a forum for philosophical talks. Why would Paul stand in the middle of a crowd of philosophical eggheads? To understand Paul’s present situation you need to go back in Acts and hear the undergirding motivation for his trip to Athens (cf. 9:15; 16:10; 17:16ff). What you discover is that Paul has a deep rooted, God-given burden for people to hear the truth about Jesus. His burden for the lost leads him to stand in the midst of the lost.
You might ask, why doesn’t my heart beat for the lost, like Paul? Why do I struggle so much just to love my neighbor? Remember, a burden for the lost is birthed and nourished by the Spirit of God setting your heart blaze for the lost.
Charles Spurgeon said,
“The Holy Spirit will move them by first moving you. If you can rest without their being saved, they will rest, too. But if you are filled with an agony for them, if you cannot bear that they should be lost, you will soon find that they are uneasy, too. I hope you will get into such a state that you will dream about your child or your hearer perishing for lack of Christ, and start up at once and begin to cry, ‘God, give me converts or I die.’ Then you will have converts.”1
Undoubtedly, you have a burning passion for the gospel, however, one must never assume that just because one serves God as a career that you are actually living out the gospel or proclaiming it often and well. When was the last time you stood in the midst of the lost and spoke about Jesus? Does your heart ache for the lost? Will you die if God doesn’t give you converts? Stand among the lost.
2) Know the people to whom you are speaking (17:22b-23a)
Paul was in Athens, the seat of the worlds intelligentsia. It was home to philosophical legends like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno who have influenced human thought ever since. In Paul’s day, Athens was a city in philosophical flux, particularly between two parties of thought: the Epicureans (pleasure seeker) and Stoics (long-sufferer). Both quests for truth were polar opposite, and therefore, truth was thought of as unknowable, yet the people continued to spend their days talking about the newest philosophical fads at Areopagus (v.21). Athens was Starbucks on Steroids!
Paul knew the people to whom he is speaking because as he toured Athens he took good notes. He walked in the shadow of the Acropolis. He saw temples filled with a smorgasbord of gods. Upon invitation by the local philosophers, he said with kindness and clarity, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship…”
Are you a learner of people around you? What do you observe about their beliefs and culture that are different or even similar to yours? How would you describe their God? In their words and deeds, how do you see their beliefs lived out each week? How are they struggling? What questions are they asking? What do you observe?
Now you will never know another culture completely like you know your own, however if you walk around, sit with people, and ask questions you will learn a lot. Yesterday, I sat with a father who lost his 4-year old son through an unexpected accident. The boy who was sleeping on a mat when in the night a car backed over the boy crushing him to death. I regarded many men come to my neighbors mat, greet him politely, and then each guest proceed to repeat short prayers. I heard these prayers at least a dozen times within the 10-minutes that I sat with him. I was broken for him and the others who were praying. I perceived they are very religious.
3) Seize interest in the gospel by using common ground (17:23b)
Interestingly, Paul doesn’t rest with just learning about people and culture, he turns his observations into a provocative statement. Can you imagine ears perking up? Especially, as he says, “I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you…” Paul seizes their interest by using the one thing he has in common with the Athenians. What is their common ground? Worship. Paul sees at the heart of Athens is a quest to understand life, a desire to find meaning and significance, and a hunger to worship, even if they did not know exactly what it was they were worshiping. Isn’t that the quest of all men? People want to know what matters most. People want to worship something or someone bigger than them. Worship is at the heart of the matter.
Albert Einstein echoes this in his 1932 credo,
“The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.”2
A.W. Tozer clarifies Einstein’s words by saying,
“Worship is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring and awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient Mystery, that Majesty which philosophers call the First Cause (the ultimate truth), but which we call Our Father Who Is in Heaven.”
Paul uses worship as a springboard to say, “This unknown God that you worship. Yeah, I know Him. And you can know Him too. This God you say you cannot know, in Him, I live, I move, I have my entire being.” It’s an audacious statement Paul makes and in a sense he says, “I know God, therefore, I know Ultimate Truth.” How is Paul so confident that God knowable? He met Him on the road to Damascus (cf. 9:5).
I find that the religious culture I live in can be accurately summed up by this phrase, “ignorantly worshipping an unknown God.” My heart is burdened when I see people praying to a God they do not believe is unknowable just to continue with religious traditions and expectations. My neighbor believes that if God wills he will go to paradise one day, but he will never really know the God that He is praying to, but I’m sure that he will always pray. A religious façade has become his god. The form of his worship becomes more important than the one he is worshiping.
Listen, if your faith is not rooted in Jesus Christ, you too are ignorantly worshiping an unknown God. If your daily life would go on as normal if God were no part of it, you are ignorantly worshiping an unknown God. When your devotion lies in the practices of your church or tradition rather than the person of Jesus Christ, you are ignorantly worshiping an unknown God. If your knowledge of how to worship exceeds your knowledge of who you are worshiping, you are ignorantly worshiping an unknown God. If the gospel ceased to be your sufficiency, dependency and satisfaction, you are ignorantly worshiping and unknown God.
4) Make sure your message is saturated in Scripture (17:24-29)
Have you noticed that Paul’s sermons are saturated with Scripture? What Paul understands it that the power in a message is always in the Spirit of God through the Scripture. Paul is not the authority, he has another authority. Scriptures are his authority. In short, Paul will use the Scripture to give the Athenians a crash course on God 101. And without a doubt, this is one on the most beautiful treatises on God in all of Scripture.
- God is the omnipotent Creator (v.24a). Your world begins with God, not you.3
- God is omnipresent (v.24b). You cannot limit or localize God. He doesn’t dwell in tiny hand-made shrines,4 He dwells in hearts.
- God is completely self-sufficient (v.25). God doesn’t depend on us; we depend on God for everything.5 This is the most humbling verse in Scripture and a good verse to remember as you serve others.
- God is sovereign sustainer and ruler (v.26). He is intimately involved within history and geography.6
- God is a gracious pursuer (v.27; Romans 1:19-20). God has placed within each man a GPS (Godward Pursuit System), a homing beacon that is questing for the Most High.
- God is a revealer (v.28a). God imprints Himself everywhere, even in secular poetry and art (creation and heart).
- God is the life-giver (v.28b). God is the Father of all humanity.
- God is eternally priceless (v.29; Romans 1:22-23). People make idols of God from precious things because they have a high view of God, but He is incomparable to any object or form.
Why does Paul give this treatise on God and His character? Remember, when Paul entered Athens, he was provoked within his spirit when he saw the city full of idols (v.16). He was deeply torn and his heart stirred because the God of Scripture is stirred by idolatry too. God is jealous and angered and does not share His glory with another. He is provoked to crush any substitute, “high place”, or Areopagus in this world and in your lives. God alone desires the high place because He is the Most High God. The Scripture says there is no adequate substitute for the living God.
5) Boldly proclaim the whole gospel: call for repentance (17:30-31a)
As Paul presents the living God to Athens, he doesn’t just say “Believe in Him.” Yes, belief in God is critically important, but it’s not the whole gospel. Many people believe in God, but it doesn’t change their life. That’s why Paul, like Jeremiah, walks into an idolatrous hot bed and proclaims, “Repent!” He says, “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 by a man whom He has appointed.”
Who is “the man God has appointed to judge the world”? Jesus. Jesus is the blazing center of Paul’s gospel. Jesus is what makes the gospel shine. Athens could no longer claim ignorance or hide from the light. They were now cognizant of Christ, the Judge, and they stood before Him guilty and condemned (just as are those to whom you share the gospel). Yet Paul gave them a life-changing proposition: humble yourselves before Jesus and repent. If not, now, when? When Jesus judges you on the fixed and final day? It is better to face Jesus today as Savior than tomorrow as Judge.
6) Proclaim the gospel expectantly, but leave the results to God (17:31b-34)
Notice the different responses to the gospel? (vs.32-34) Not everybody responds with immediate repentance. Some doubt (mock), some wait to hear more, and some believe. We find out that at least two women were changed by the gospel, including a member of the Areopagus council. Even if no one believed, the mission to Athens wasn’t a failure. God be praised!
God calls us to proclaim the gospel (v.31b); he doesn’t call us to convert people. God holds us responsible for faithfulness; not fruitfulness. He calls us to scatter seeds, water and till peoples souls; not harvest them. Paul was simply a vehicle—a voice box of the truth. It took the Holy Spirit to convince people of that truth, it is the Spirit that opens eyes to have faith in His Son, like Lydia (cf.16:14). Conversion is the work of God and God alone. We can expect results in good faith. So let’s do God’s work in God’s way with God’s power and leave the results to Him.
In high school, I worked at Schmidt Sporting Goods. It was a great high school job. I got sweet deals on new shoes, Packer gear, and I got to watch sports while working. It was also a great opportunity to mingle with many unbelievers. During the evening shift the customer flow would slow and I’d have time to talk to other employees. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever see a breakthrough. No one ever came to church with me. No one repented and turned to Jesus. However, 10-years later, long after our days working together, I got an email from a fellow employee. He shared a story from that summer. He jump out of a boat into a murky lake. Unknowingly the water was shallow and he snapped his neck. As he lay in the hospital paralyzed he recalled our conversations at work, he also had another close friend who was shared the gospel with him regularly. He gave his life Christ that summer. The seed I planted, another watered and tilled, but God opened his eyes and produced a harvest.
You might not see the results of the gospel in your lifetime. Keep sharing. Continue praying. Never give up.