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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 8am & 11am service, 2016-09-18

Text: Acts 17:16-34

One common misconception that people in our part of the world have about the Christian faith is that it is a ‘western religion’. And when we attempt to share our faith with them, they say, ‘No thanks, I don’t want to disown my own culture and become westernised.’ The truth is that Christianity is not western nor eastern, but universal. Christ is God’s gift to the whole world. And therefore we are to reach people in every part of the world with the Gospel, regardless of their culture. But in order to do that, we need to overcome the cultural barrier. How can this be done?

In the 19th century, missionaries to China like Hudson Taylor and William Burns did this by dressing, eating, and living like the Chinese did. They preached in Chinese and even used Chinese characters to communicate the gospel message. E.g. the Chinese word for “righteousness” consists of the character “lamb” placed over the character for “me” thus bringing out the Biblical truth that the righteousness of Christ, the Lamb of God is imputed to me and that makes me righteous in God’s sight. By God’s grace, their efforts of cross-cultural witnessing have paid off. Today, there are about 70 million Christians in China, and churches in China are now sending out missionaries to do cross-cultural missions in other countries!

As we in Singapore live in a multi-cultural environment, we have ample opportunities to reach out to people of different ethnic groups. It is therefore useful for us to learn how to witness cross-culturally. One passage that can help us to do this is found in Acts 17, which describes what Paul did in the city of Athens in Greece.

This passage begins with the words,  “Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.” Athens was a city with many temples and shrines (more than 200 of them). There were altars at every street corner to the Greek gods. As Paul walked through the city he probably saw idols of Zeus, the chief god, Hera his wife, Ares - the god of war, Athena - goddess of wisdom, Aphrodite - goddess of love, Dionysius the god of wine, plus a whole host of other gods. He saw the Athenians coming daily in great numbers to worship these lifeless idols, having no hope of eternal life.

These gods were worshipped with drunken festivities and orgies, with animals that were slain and sacrificed in their honour. All the meat that was sold in the market had already been offered to one of the gods. The people of Athens were bound by plenty of superstitious beliefs, not daring to go outside the house on certain days, for fear that something bad would happen to them. In Greek religion, everyone went to hell, no matter how good or bad he was in this life. There was no place called heaven to look forward to.

Seeing all this caused great stirrings in Paul’s soul. His heart melted for the idolatry of the people. Even though there was much to be admired in Greek culture, there was also much that is very sinful and depraved that must be rejected. This brings out an important lesson for cross-cultural witnessing…

1. Do not Accommodate any Sinful Elements of their Culture.

Many today are buying into a dangerous trend in missions called syncretism. By that they mean adapting or modifying the message of Christ to make it culturally relevant to the people we are trying to reach. It is true that we ought to love the culture of the people we are trying to reach, but we must be careful not to accommodate anything that is sinful in it. For example, when Matteo Ricci came to China over four centuries ago, he blended Christian teachings with the ancestor worship that the Chinese practiced. We must be careful not to adapt the Gospel as he did, in order to make it culturally relevant to the people we are reaching. That is why we don’t participate in Chinese funeral rites, or in the hungry ghosts month, Ching Ming or Feng Shui. These have religious significance and are not purely cultural like eating mooncakes.

The Gospel is a sword that God has designed to cut away whatever is sinful and pagan in human culture, and not accommodate it. Paul wielded this sword strenuously in Athens. On the Sabbath day he went to the local synagogue to preach to the Jews. For the rest of the week he went daily to the market place in Athens, known as the Agora, where there were crowds of people, and preached at the street corners and meeting places there to everyone who passed by. This brings us to a second lesson that we can learn for cross-cultural witnessing:

2. Work hard to Gain their Interest.

Cross-cultural witnessing often involves much diligent hard work for success. As Paul preached diligently, people from all walks of life stopped and listened to him preaching. As a result, he gained a unique opportunity to address the highest assembly of Greeks in Athens. This happened when some philosophers who heard him became interested because they had never heard this new philosophy called the Gospel before. They were so curious about it that they invited him to come and speak at a meeting of the city council of Athens. We see this in verses 18-19 – “Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. …. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is?” The word “Areopagus” here literally means The Council of Ares or The Council of Mars’ Hill. This was the highest council or assembly of about 100 men in Athens who met regularly to listen to excellent orators and to decide on matters of importance.

Paul found himself with a very unique opportunity to address to such an elite group. In our day, it would be like an opportunity to speak in Parliament or some other gathering of high-ranking officials. And if the Gospel of Christ was accepted favourably by this council, who knows that this may open even more opportunities for Paul to preach to the whole city of Athens!

According to v.22 Paul began his address by saying, “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.” The word ‘superstitious’ here is not to be understood in a bad sense, otherwise it would appear that Paul was insulting the council. He was not insulting them. Actually he was commending them, saying that he had noticed that they were a very religious people, with intense zeal about religion. We see this in v.23 – “For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” Paul was saying that in their zeal to serve all the gods, the Athenians had even set up an altar for an unknown god, just in case they might have left one god out.

This then becomes Paul’s point of contact to make God known to them. He said  “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.” and he proceeded to reveal basic truths about God we all know, like His omnipotence, His omniscience, His omnipresence, and His universal claims upon all men regardless of nationality or race.

Now anyone who has ever taken time to study all the speeches of Paul in the Bible would notice that this particular speech is quite different from all the rest. We must take careful notice of the following differences: Instead of beginning with the promise of salvation made by God, Paul began with religion in general. Instead of leaning heavily upon Old Testament prophecies, Paul cited the writings of two Greek poets. Paul’s use of such a different approach to present the truth here show us the principle that different audiences need different approaches of delivering the gospel.

To communicate eternal truths about God, we need to use the right means of delivering it, and this depends on the audience we are reaching out to. For instance, in reaching out to children, a good way to witness is to use the Wordless Book or ‘the Secret of the Watermelon’. Adults may respond to a Gospel rally where a gifted evangelist is speaking, or to a well-written gospel tract. Some people respond better in one-to-one Bible study. The point here is that whenever we deliver the gospel, we need to know our audience well. Try to find out everything you can about their background. Take time to learn about their view of life and the world, and then use the best way to make Christ known to them. This leads us now to the third lesson we can learn for Cross-cultural witnessing:

3. Use Concepts That Are Familiar to Them.

Let us see how Paul used concepts that were very familiar to his audience at Mars’ Hill. These Greek intellectuals knew nothing at all about the Scriptures. All that they were familiar with were their philosophers, their poets and their astute reasoning skills. The Greeks were proud of their philosophers. By Paul’s time, Athens had become famous because of Epicurus and Zeno, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In fact, many people regarded Athens as the world’s centre of learning.

In verse 18 two groups of Greek philosophers were mentioned: The Epicureans and the Stoics. Both believed that the traditional polytheism of the Greeks was not true, but other than this, they disagreed and debated on everything else. The Epicureans believed that God exists but that He is not concerned at all with what happened to man. To them, the purpose of life is pleasure. One Epicurean maxim that expresses this well is “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

The Stoics on the other hand had a pantheistic view of God: Everything is God; all of us, together with all the objects and the world together make up God. The Stoics thought that the purpose of man’s life is to be seek harmony with nature through the use of one’s sufficient rational powers. Stoics refused to be excited by pleasure or troubled by pain. Everything must be accepted stoically. A very stoic maxim is, “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die.”

So the audience that Paul had at Areopagus, consisted of intellectuals who were either Stoic or Epicurean. He knew that. His message shows that he had more than a passing knowledge of these philosophies. Paul had probably studied them in order to find the best means to approach them. Thus, in vv.24,25 he argued against idea that an idol could be God “God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though He needed any thing, seeing He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” This would be readily accepted by all the Greek philosophers on Mars’ hill.

Then in vv.26-27 he dealt with the purpose of life, which is neither to seek pleasure as the Epicureans believed, nor to seek harmony with nature as the Stoics believed, but to seek after God and having a close relationship with Him. “And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;  That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us.”

In order to support this, Paul appealed to the writings of two Greek poets that his audience at Mars’ Hill were familiar with. Although much of what they wrote was pagan and unreliable, they did contain some universal truths in them which Paul could now use to his advantage.

The first poet he cited was Epimenides who lived in 600 BC and had written the words concerning God, “But thou art not dead; thou livest and abidest forever, For in thee we live and move and have our being.” The last line of this can be seen in the first part of v.28, and it effectively expresses the scriptural truth of depending upon God and trusting in Him.

The second poet that Paul cited expressed the fatherhood of God over all men. This poet was Aratus who lived around 300 BC and had written,  “It is with [God] that every one of us in every way has to do, for we are also His offspring.” By using the words of two Greek poets to expresses Scriptural truths, Paul was showing that these truths are universal. They belong not to the Jews nor to the Greeks alone, but to all mankind.

Paul then proceeds to reason with the same reasoning skill that the Greek philosophers used. In v.30 he says that this formerly unknown God has now ended the times of ignorance concerning Himself. “And the times of this ignorance God winked at [or overlooked]; but now commandeth all men every where to repent.” Now that God has revealed Himself clearly to all men, all their idolatrous beliefs and practices should cease, since the truth is now made known. No one can claim anymore that God has not shown us who He is and how He should be worshipped, and make this as an excuse for carrying on in ignorance.

And if those Greeks had only asked Paul, “Where has the Unknown God revealed Himself?” I think Paul would have replied: “In Jesus Christ who is both God and man.” If they asked him, “How do you know that God revealed Himself in Jesus Christ?” Paul would probably have replied: “It is through His resurrection from the dead!” This is mentioned at the end of v.31 – “…whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after He had been crucified is the conclusive proof that validates Him as God’s revelation to all mankind.

This point was actually the foundation to Paul’s Gospel presentation. It is the resurrection that validates all the claims of Christ and clears away all doubts about His identity. The resurrection of Jesus is the central tenet of Christianity. Everything that we believe in stands or falls with it. Even Paul said in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 that if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, then our faith is empty, we are still in our sins, and those who have died believing in Him are all perished.

But unfortunately it was also on this point that the Greeks stumbled. According to v.32,  “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.” That brought Paul’s opportunity to witness at Mars Hill to an abrupt end. At this point it may be asked, “Did Paul make a mistake by bringing up this matter? Shouldn’t he have kept silent about the resurrection? And if he had known that the Greeks would scoff at this teaching about Christ’s resurrection, would he have spoken differently?” To the apostle Paul, the resurrection is so essential to the Gospel, that it could not be omitted, even at the risk of losing an excellent opportunity to witness. This brings us to the fourth and final lesson we can learn for cross-cultural witnessing:

4. Present the Gospel Fully and Trust God for the Results.

Even though there are different ways of presenting the Gospel the content must always be the same full gospel message. Any method of witnessing that dilutes the Gospel, or that misrepresents the truth, or that deliberatelyhides certain truths because of the sensitivities of the people, must be rejected in cross-cultural witnessing.

Above all things, it must be faithful to deliver the Gospel fully and accurately, even if that may bring little or no apparent results. We should just trust God for the results of sound biblical preaching. The apostle Paul did not seem to mind the cold dismissal he received at Mars Hill. He did not stay long in Athens after that. Perhaps he knew that once the news got out that he was dismissed at Areopagus, no one in Athens would listen to him. So he went on to the city of Corinth to await the arrival of Timothy and Silas.

When we witness to others, we must expect to face disappointments. There will be times when we may feel discouraged because people do not respond well to our efforts to bring them the good news of salvation. We expect them to accept our message with joy, but instead most of them reject it with ridicule. Sometimes they respond with doubts, questions or excuses which are difficult to answer.

One excuse that I have heard many times is, “There are so many Christians I know who are hypocrites. Their faith has not done them any good.” Another common excuse for not wanting to believe in Christ is “I believe all religions are good, and all of them can lead us to heaven.” Another person would ask, “If there is a God, why does He allow so much evil in this world?” Now, with some preparation and prayer we can give good answers to these doubts and excuses.

But there will also be some who will shut themselves off completely and not want to listen anymore. I have encountered situations when the person I am sharing the gospel with just says, “Sorry, but I don’t want to talk anymore about this.” Or some may be a little more polite (like the Athenians), saying, “Thank you for your time. I’ll think about it later, but right now I have something else to attend to.” It can be quite disappointing to get responses like these, and we might want to give up all efforts to witness.

When you feel this way, please remember that it is not your witnessing efforts, or speaking ability that saves men. It is God alone who does all the saving. We must do our part as witnesses. But the results are all up to God. Only God can change a sinner’s heart and convict him of his need for salvation. He knows how to glorify Himself in the lives of men. And so when people refuse to accept the gospel, we should just end politely and part with them on a pleasant note, and then pray that God will one day cause the seed we have sown to take root in their heart.

Remember the parable of sower: Some seed fell by the wayside, some fell on stony ground, some fell on thorny ground, but some fell on good ground. Sometimes the seed takes a longer time than expected to germinate. A person may hear the gospel but does not respond to it until many years later. Sometimes a person responds to the gospel after he has heard it 10 or 20 times. The timing of a person’s salvation are best left to the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit in his heart.

We see this at the last part of our passage. Before Paul left for Corinth, he met with a few people who had come to know Christ through his witness in Athens. They had not responded immediately to the Gospel when they first heard it, but probably came to learn more from Paul later on. They are mentioned here as Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris and a few others.

The scriptures do not mention anything more about Athens, nor about what happened to these new believers after this. But if you were to visit Athens today, you will find a building just 1½ km away from Mars Hill that is named, “the Church of St. Dionysius the Areopagite.”

If Paul had not done any cross-cultural witnessing in Athens, this church may not be standing there today. And if he had not presented the gospel fully and diligently, using concepts that are familiar to the Greeks, this church may also not be there today. This church therefore stands as a testimony to God’s working through a cross-cultural witness that was carried out faithfully.

It also serves as an encouragement to all who are involved in this oftentimes difficult ministry. As long as our sovereign God is on the throne, there can be no barrier to the gospel – whether linguistic, cultural, or ethnic. The success of cross-cultural witnessing is actually a foregone conclusion.

Revelation 7:9-12 tells us that in John’s vision of the end times he beheld,  “…a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb.”

Therefore, let us not keep the Gospel all to ourselves, but keep crossing cultural barriers to make it known to others, for they need it as much as we did. Hudson Taylor was once asked by one of his first converts in China – “How long have you people in the west known this good news of Jesus?” And he had to reply, “We have actually had it for many centuries.” On hearing this the convert looked painfully at him and said, “Do you mean to say that you people had the truth for hundreds of years, but only now you have come to tell us about it?” May the Lord help us to make Him known to everyone whom we can reach with the Gospel. 

 

 

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25