Acts 17:17&18 “So he reasoned . . . in the market-place day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute 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.”
There are three basic convictions that every Christian holds, summed up in three words, creation, fall and redemption. These realities are non-negotiable. I mean by that, firstly, that this world around us, this planet and solar system, our galaxy (which we call the Milky Way) and the billions of other galaxies that are found in the universe were all planned, designed and created by the will and power of the personal omnipotent God of the Bible. Then secondly, I mean that man, who had been made in the image and likeness of God, defied and rejected the lordship of God over his life and became a fallen rebel. Thirdly, God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life, and that is the message of the redemption of all who believe in Christ through his life and death. Three great convictions, Creation, the Fall of man and Redemption.
Those convictions we Christians are under the highest obligation to share with others so that they also come to believe them. Firstly, because they are true; secondly, because Jesus Christ has told us to go and make disciples of people from all the nations of the world; thirdly, because such benefits have come to us from knowing personally these three truths that we would be callous and guilty keeping these blessed realities to ourselves. Other favoured men and women will benefit from coming to believe them.
It is not easy for us to speak to others about this because people aren’t asking us to tell them about creation, and about the fall of man, and about redemption. Most of them would prefer it if we remained silent about what they call ‘religion.’ So how do we go about doing this? What does the New Testament have to say to help us in reaching out to the people about us with this specific message? It tells us much, and one of the ways it helps us is by describing how the archetypal Christian, the apostle Paul, did this. He went about approaching the world in which he lived with this message of creation, fall and redemption. It was a different world from ours, and yet essentially man has little changed from his time.
Paul arrived at Athens by ship probably in the year 50, or maybe it was the following year. Athens was the foremost of the Greek city states. It had been the intellectual centre of the world for half a millennium though now it was in decline compared to its status 300 years earlier. Paul began by looking around, sight-seeing, and then, having gleaned basic information from that, his next step was to go to the Athens synagogue. There he reasoned with his fellow country men persuading them from the Scriptures that Jesus was the promised Messiah. That was always Paul’s plan, to start with the people with whom he had a point of contact. Both he and they believed that the Old Testament was the Word of God.
Then we are told that he turned his attention to the pagan population of Athens. And how did he reach them? He did not wait until they came to him. Paul went to where they were, beginning in the market place.
PAUL WENT INTO ATHENS PUBLIC SQUARE.
The agora, the market place, was not like Walmarts or any supermarket. It certainly was the place where there was trade, buying and selling food, clothes, land and slaves. It was also the place when you hired servants, met folk, drank wine and ate with your friends. You discussed political and international affairs. From some aspects it was like a huge coffee house. In Athens the agora was just at the bottom of the hill of the Acropolis; it was the centre of Athenian life and business. In fact this is where – many years earlier – the great teacher Socrates had met with men to discuss philosophical questions. The Stoics’ school was still on the fringes of the market place. So it was in effect a marketplace of ideas as much as a marketplace of commerce. We have nowhere just like that today, but we have many little places with echoes and opportunities of the Athens’ marketplace.
So notice what Paul didn’t do; he didn’t organize a meal or an evangelistic service in the synagogue and invite the Athenians to come in – even supposing the synagogue rulers would have allowed such an event. He didn’t hand out psalm and Christian hymn sheets and lead the Athenians in singing them to the latest hit tunes of Athens – “why should Zeus have all the best tunes?” Paul didn’t ask them in the marketplace to bow their heads for a word of prayer. We have observed those disasters, when members of the rugby club, students of engineering, have come to a university evangelistic meeting and someone on the worship committee has chosen the song, “If I were a bumble bee”!!
Of course when many religious people think of evangelism today they seem to be conditioned to think in terms of a religious meeting and a service. The evangelist is the man who conducts it. I was recently listening to a discussion of a suggested Christmas event here in Aberystwyth, and this is what was being considered. The organizers would try to have it held on the ground of Aberystwyth Football Club, a lectern set up before its little stand, and there would be children’s choirs from different schools asked to take part, and all the people invited (the mothers of the children singing in the choirs), would be asked to sing Christian hymns about the incarnation in which they’d praise God for truths which as unbelievers who’d been brought along they neither understood nor yet believed. There would be prayers, and probably the non-Christians present would be prayed for. An acquaintance had invited his neighbour to such a meeting and he had to sit through a prayer for “the unsaved who have been brought in tonight.” This acquaintance said he felt like crawling under his chair.
Is this style of evangelism really suitable for reaching 21st century pagans – as opposed to a service for those who have made a profession of truth in the Lord Jesus Christ? Visitors can feel that the choirs and the children singing have been intended to create an atmosphere to soften them up. Others feel bored by the whole proceedings. I have attended some excellent open air meetings on the promenade during the August Conference of the Evangelical Movement of Wales, and they have no singing, because when people sing it is an opportunity for bystanders to wander away. Prayers have the same effect, and Paul would have experienced the same challenge in the marketplace. There is no mention of praying or singing here – as there was none of that also at Pentecost in Jerusalem. Such activities are neither needed nor suitable when you are outside of your own congregation and are in the public square.
What are we seeing here? Paul went to where the people were, instead of trying first to persuade them to come onto his ground before he shared the Gospel with them. Necessity is forcing us to think like that in the 21st century. There are occasions when people will indeed come to us, to see a baptismal service, to be present at a wedding or a funeral, to attend a Christmas supper. On our patch there will be some people present who have no interest in Christianity and we must always have saving knowledge present in the message whenever we speak. But generally in evangelism we have to go out to what we call our marketplace. George Whitefield discovered that in the 18th century. Many felt they were too poor and dirty to attend a church, such as the miners near Bristol. And so Whitefield went out to them! Whatever the actual method, the principle that we learn from Paul from his entire missionary strategy (comprehensively described to us in the book of Acts) is reaching people where they are, not expecting them to come to us.
We had a letter last week from Malcolm Firth in Latvia telling us that a party of folk from his church were going to down-town Riga to speak the gospel to the pathetic sex tourists who visit the city from across Europe. Malcolm was asking us to pray for them. Well, a week later, how had it gone? He sent us another letter this week full of encouragements from the conversations and encounters they had, and this is how Malcolm finishes his letter (we read the whole of it last Tuesday), “Before the evening I was a little afraid about what we might encounter and how we would be received. Afterwards I was actually amazed at how easy it was to engage people in conversation and to offer to pray for them.” So the question is what can we do? How can we reach out to Aberystwyth? We all agree that we do little and we hang our heads. We have sent some money to support the Beach mission next month, and some of our families will be present in those meetings. D.L.Moody the American 19th century evangelist was criticized by some for his outreach and the various methods he used, and famously he told his critics that he preferred his methods of evangelism to their methods of non-evangelism.
I have wondered about the possibility of putting a TV screen and loudspeaker in the courtyard outside our Book Shop on a Sunday night with a rota of a couple of men and women from the church there to keep an eye on things and watch the screen. It seems to me to be a suitable space for that purpose. It is our property; there is no danger from the traffic; it is quiet, and yet it is in the middle of town. We would be transmitting on a coloured screen to the people who wander up and down in Aberystwyth the message of the Scriptures as I preached it. We wouldn’t relay the hymns and prayers and announcements. We’d switch it on just before the sermon starts. We could have some leaflets available for folk to pick up and some of you would be the Christians to engage with them. We need to discuss that idea. Maybe the morning would be better than the night, but probably not. Our marketplace is on our doorstep. Someone must get a spark and volunteer to organize and plan such an experiment. I am merely the facilitator.
There was no group in Athens who had invited Paul to come and conduct a series of meetings. The initiative was all the apostle’s. He was first on the scene. He first chose a place in the public square. He made his own effective contacts. It is in such ability and such willingness that the gift of an evangelist is largely shown. I was talking with a missionary in Nigeria and he described to me how the Muslims were making inroads into their area. He said, “We’ve recently got a Muslim who sits on the ground cross legged in the marketplace, day after day, with his Koran before him. He says nothing. He just sits there week after week and then people have begun to talk to him, and ask him questions and he answers and arranges to see them. It is very cost-efficient. He can look after himself for pennies, and in many markets around us there are Muslim men doing the very same thing.”
PAUL REASONED WITH THEM.
In the market place there was no singing, no hymn-sheets, no banners, no brass bands, no distinctive religious costumes, no public praying, no visual aids and certainly no gimmicks. The apostle would introduce himself as he chose a place and speak to the crowd that had gathered in front of him and there he told them about his Saviour Jesus of Nazareth, especially his death and resurrection. He would tell them of those three indispensable elements of Christianity, creation (“This is God’s word.”), fall (“We are sinners defying God.”) and redemption (“God has loved the world and sent his Son, Jesus Christ.”). Paul reasoned about those things, that the world didn’t happen by chance and luck; God created it. The reason for man, who is made in the image of God, behaving as badly as he does is that man is a fallen rebel, but there is hope of his redemption in the coming of the Son of God into the world, his righteous life and atoning death as the Lamb of God. You can receive him into your life and in receiving him you receive the forgiveness of God. Paul in the marketplace reasoned about these things – the verb is found ten times in the book of Acts to describe the method of Paul’s evangelism.
Our rationality is part of the divine image. To deny our rationality is to deny our humanity, to become less than human beings. So you find in the Bible an exhortation to Christians not to behave like horses or mules who have no understanding. Believing in God is not irrational; it is certainly not a leap into the dark. I was with my cousin, and her husband (who has a carpenter’s business) said to me just as I stood in their kitchen to leave to go to a meeting in Maesycwmmer, “What does ‘I’ve seen the light’ mean? There’s a man in work and he has changed from being a drunkard to going to church and he says to me, ‘I’ve seen the light.’ What does that mean?” What a wonderful question, and I was already late for the meeting in Maesycwmmer! I wish he’d asked me the question at the beginning of my time with them. I had to think quickly and said to them, “He has seen that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Light of the World, and by his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, your friend has been changed. He has seen the true light who illuminates the lives of all who look in faith at Jesus Christ the Son of God.” God helped me to say something like that before I had to go. That man’s mind had been changed by contact with the truth that is in Jesus Christ. I appealed to my family’s minds to understand this change.
Don’t we find that approach even from God himself in the Old Testament prophets, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord”? Surely we find it with Jesus; he appeals to men to think as they ask him questions. He is asked whether they as Jews should pay tribute tax to the Roman Emperor and he appeals to their minds. “Whose is the image on this coin?” “Caesar’s,” they say. “Then pay your due to Caesar, but we are not made in the image of Caesar but in the image of God. Then render to God the things that are God’s. Give yourself to God!” Can you see the reasoning of Jesus? He was not asking men to leap into the dark. There were his great words and his great works and his great person before them – all to be thought about and responded to. Think! Please think!
Now you have often heard the protest, “No one was ever argued into the kingdom of heaven,” and that is true. Human arguments alone are inadequate to make a man a true believer. And then if the argument gets heated and we start to raise our voices then there is even less likelihood that we can argue people into the kingdom of heaven. Of course we can’t preach people into the Kingdom – though be we ever so sound. But that inability on our part doesn’t hinder us from an obligation to preach, or to be rational and speak the truth and answer men’s objections and pray for people.
One night there was a gang of young men in Aberystwyth celebrating a coming wedding and they pushed one of their number through the window of the Christian Book Shop. He acknowledged what had been done and paid for it, and I went to meet him and talk to him (he had brought his older brother along to accompany him). During our conversation I reasoned with them of the gospel. The older brother dominated. He said to me, “All the wars in history have started because of religion” – that old cliché. I thought a second and said to him that the bloodiest conflict America was ever involved in, killing more Americans than all the other wars it has fought put together, was the American Civil War. There Baptist fought Baptist and Presbyterian fought Presbyterian and Wesleyan fought Wesleyan and atheist fought atheist. The cause of the war was not religion at all but the rights of the individual states as challenged by the claims of the federal government, and also the issue of slavery. Not religion. He acknowledged that that was true by a brief nod. I had to reason with him, and answer that one objection, and then I could keep going and press upon them both all the more the claims of Christ. One duty we have as Christians is to cast down vain imaginings and proud thoughts because no one who continues in his own wisdom is going to call on the wisdom of God. We have to kill that black grass.
We ask the world to think and consider the claims of Christ. Use your mind. Do you really think that it was just a billion lucky accidents over billions of years that’s made us as we are today? Do you think that men have always been raw in tooth and claw, hating and killing, that that is how it is with no possibility of transformation and redemption? Is that your bleak religion? Please think. Consider the life and works and teaching of Christ, especially his resurrection. Paul reasoned in the market place. He disputed; he argued. He used logic. He used the Bible. He did everything to clarify and help unbelievers understand. He used educational evangelism. Jesus Christ did no miracles on the road to Emmaus (though a week later he caused the fish of the lake to fill Peter’s net). As he walked down the road he argued with Cleopas and his friend from the Scriptures and rebuked them from Scripture for being so unbelieving. He engaged with their minds from the Bible.
There are Christians today who foolishly rely on other methods, for example, distracting the mind so that it can be by-passed, for example creating an atmosphere by music and lighting and emotional stories all to heighten our feelings. Francis Schaeffer uses the illustration of the burglar who enters a house and he tosses a tasty steak to the dog to distract it. Then he goes about his real business opening drawers and bags and the safe filling his sack with your valuable. So converts are gained and decisions are registered by good food, and by creating an exciting image of Christianity rather than facing people with their need of God’s forgiveness because they are sinners, and showing them what God has done in Christ, and meeting the range of objections people have to the gospel message. I am not talking about unduly exalting the mind but I am conscious that men’s thinking can be improperly neglected.
3. PAUL DAILY EMPHASIZED JESUS CHRIST AND HIS RESURRECTION.
You see that Paul reasoned in the market place “day by day.” We occasionally have a man from north Wales who comes to our town with a banner with two fine texts on it. He stands in the Owain Glyndwr square for a few hours and then he goes away for another year. If he were there each day, and smiled at people, and said hello, and began conversations concerning what he was doing then it would make more of an impact on some favoured residents. For three years Jesus traveled around Galilee, a region the size of Cardiganshire, preaching in village after village. He limited himself to that area and he gained 500 people by that ministry. So Paul went back to that one spot in the marketplace day by day. He became a fixture and people returned and listened and asked questions.
Then you see his theme, how he spoke to the crowd the good news about Jesus Christ and about his resurrection from the dead (v.18)? He had no qualms at all about preaching Jesus to a people who’d never heard of him, who didn’t possess the Scriptures or know the contents of the Old Testament. There was no pre-evangelism in the market place – free food and quizzes and historical lectures and music. There was no soft pedaling of specific Christian distinctives in order to gain a platform for further direct evangelism later on. There was nothing more relevant, and more fascinating, and more helpful to the people in the public square than the narrative of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Christ, and that is the unchanging message which we have to take to our world. We confront men and women with the greatness of the living Lord Jesus. What a person! No one was born as he was born. No one lived as he did. No one taught as Jesus taught. No one died as he died on the cross. No one rose from the dead as he did. He was great as an inspirational teacher, great as the Good Shepherd who keeps his sheep, great as the Lamb of sacrifice who takes away their sins.
The people listening to Paul didn’t at first understand him. There was in fact a colossal misunderstanding initially in some of the crowd listening to Paul. What was he talking about? Some people thought that when the apostle mentioned the word ‘Jesus’ that he was talking about a male god, and the word ‘resurrection’ was the name of this Jesus’ consort, the female goddess, anastasis. It is a pretty word, the Greek word for ‘resurrection.’ You get the Russian name ‘Anastasia’ from it. In other words some of the crowd in the public square personified the words ‘healing’ and ‘restoration’ (which is what ‘Jesus’ and the ‘resurrection’ mean in Greek) and they imagined that the apostle was introducing them to a brand new married pair of gods. You see how these early Christians had to overcome considerable misunderstanding. Remember how it had been at Lystra where the people had thought that Paul and his companion were actually two of the old gods who’d decided to visit the earth. “Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes” (Acts 14:12). How easily people can misunderstand the Christian message. If we faithfully preach it then the natural man will find it to be foolishness.
I have been reading the biography of the life of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ wife Bethan. She was unconverted when they got married, and I learned that it was not until listening to her husband’s preaching for two whole years – that could be almost 200 sermons of Lloyd-Jones – that she really understood the gospel and came to an assurance that the Lord had become her Saviour. Our clearest preaching is yet misunderstood even by those who might have heard us for years. On one occasion Ken Prior preached a sermon on salvation being all of grace, by faith in Jesus Christ and his finished work. He could not have made it clearer; “it is a free gift from God. We do not earn it by what we do” he told the congregation. But afterwards a woman shook his hand warmly at the door and thanked him for the ‘wonderful sermon,’ adding, “You said today just what my late husband used to say, ‘Do your best, and God will look after you.’” In other words there was a complete misunderstanding of the heart of Ken’s sermon.
But God continues to bless in particular this theme, the preaching of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. The dark minds of favoured men and women are illuminated by that theme. We preach the light of the world. It is our delight. There are many better preachers than me but there is no better Saviour! Let me tell you of the Lord Jesus. He was born in an obscure village. His mother was a young peasant woman. He worked in a carpenter’s shop with his father until he was thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher and healer. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never walked further than one hundred and fifty miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth while he was dying – and that was his coat. When he was dead he was taken down and his body was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend. Such was his human life. Then he rose from the dead. Almost 20 centuries have come and gone. Today he’s the centerpiece of the human race. As has been said, all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever were built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, all put together, haven’t affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as the great life of the living risen Jesus Christ. I have read much of the great books and sayings of men, many very striking and beautiful; but I never read in them such words as these of Jesus, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Who else says, “Come to me”?
Buddha never claimed to be God. Moses never claimed to be Jehovah. Mohammed never claimed to be Allah. They all lived and died and were buried, yet Jesus Christ claimed to be the true and living God: “I and my Father are one. If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” and he rose from the dead. Buddha simply said, “I am a teacher in search of the truth.” Jesus said, “I am the Truth.” Confucius said, “I never claimed to be holy.” Jesus said, “Who convicts me of sin?” Mohammed is said to have said, “Unless God throws his cloak of mercy over me, I have no hope.” Jesus said, “Unless you believe in me, you will die in your sins.” The challenge to each of us today is Jesus and his resurrection. Here is a man who did not come merely to preach a Gospel; he himself is that Gospel. He did not come merely to give bread; he said, “I am the bread.” He did not come merely to shed light on man’s predicament; he said, “I am the light.” He did not come merely to show us the door; He said, “I am the door.” He did not come merely to name a shepherd; He said, “I am the shepherd.” He did not come merely to point the way; He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
This salvation is his, accomplished by him and received by us as a gift of God’s grace. It can only be received by faith – not by any of our deeds, any pinnacles of achievement, any sacrifices for others that we’ve done or ever could do. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). No matter how good you are; no matter how religious you are; no matter what you do for God, you can never be good enough, or holy enough to earn or merit salvation. Any plans for self-salvation based on the efforts of man are doomed to failure. But the Bible tells us that salvation has been achieved because of Jesus Christ, his coming, his living and his dying when he bore our sins and the judgment they deserve when he hung on the cross. He saved us. He is the Saviour alone, and he can become our Saviour if we entrust ourselves to him, if we put ourselves in his hands.
Again I say it: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) All we can do is to believe and receive what Jesus did to bring salvation to us. God will over come our ignorance and shame and helplessness through Christ and by the Holy Spirit can give sinners the grace to receive him into our lives. Receive him, O sinner, receive him!
Jesus Christ declared himself to be the Son of God, the Saviour of the world and showed this by his blameless truthful life, his mighty miracles, his atoning death and his resurrection on the third day. He alone is “the way, the truth, and the life – no one can come to the Father, except through me” he says. Then trust him – trust yourself right into his safe keeping. Receive him as your Lord and Saviour. Put your life into his hands now. Do what he asks you to do. Go to him and be joined to him. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. Confess your sins to him and receive his complete forgiveness. He is offering this special gift to you; it is eternal life. I have set before you eternal life in Christ. Receive him! Believe upon him. Make him your own Lord and Saviour without any more delay.
June 21st 2015 GEOFF THOMAS.