Every Christian throughout church history has been faced with the challenge of living faithfully in a sinful society—to be in the world but not of it.
Scripture strongly warns against exposure to carnal, worldly culture. The apostle Paul commands us, “Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). John likewise admonishes us, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). And James sternly warns, “Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
Obviously, isolation from the outside world is no solution for those of us who want to please God. After all, how can we “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) if we remain quarantined from the outside world?
The challenge then, for all Christians, is how to reach this sinful world without being seduced by it—to engage the culture without imbibing it. The apostle Paul’s missionary endeavors provide us with the ultimate biblical blueprint for navigating that challenge.
Those who believe “cultural relevance” is the secret to powerful preaching often point to Paul’s ministry in Athens as a prime example of how Paul accommodated his message and his methodology to the culture in which he ministered. They suggest that Paul’s sermon on Mars’ Hill is a paradigm for market-driven ministry.
And at first sight, it may seem that they have a case. Paul was preaching among the city’s intellectual elite. He spoke to them in their own language, quoted extemporaneously from their own poets and philosophers, and used their method of discourse—public debate—as the vehicle through which he communicated to them. Is this not a fitting prototype for “contextualization” and market-driven methodology?
Acts 17:16–33 thus becomes a key text in addressing modern innovations—and fixations—regarding the gospel and cultural assimilation:
Now while Paul was waiting for [Silas and Timothy] at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols. So he was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the market place every day with those who happened to be present. And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears; so we want to know what these things mean.” (Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.)
So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” So Paul went out of their midst.
Paul’s ministry experiences prior to Athens amounted to one long chronicle of persecution and rejection. Now he was by himself in a vast, highly cultured but extremely pagan city. His familiarity with Greek culture could have afforded him the luxury of infiltrating their society virtually unnoticed—he certainly knew enough to fit in and avoid further persecution.
But as Acts 17:16–33 reveals, Paul proceeded to use his cultural awareness to confront the gross idolatry that was rampant in Athens. And as we’ll see in the days ahead, Paul’s sermon on Mars’ Hill is an example of cultural confrontation—not accommodation.
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