A Primer on Reaching your City for Christ: 3 Creative Examples of Faithful Gospel Witness
In Acts 13 through 20, the Apostle Paul visits 48 cities, and in every city, people come to faith in Christ. Lives and families are changed. Communities are transformed by the gospel of grace.
You say, “Well, sure. But Paul’s situation was different. He lived during a different time. He was trying to reach completely different people. And he was doing all of this in a completely different area.”
That’s true. But none of those factors change the essential message of the gospel.
Your city is not exactly like any city that Paul visited. But it’s a little bit like all of them.
Yes, people are different, but we are all still sinners.
Yes, times change, but human nature does not.
Yes, context make a difference, but it doesn’t radically change our gospel mission.
Paul’s ministry in Acts is actually the perfect primer for reaching our cities with the gospel.
3 Creative Examples of Faithful Gospel Witness
Let’s look at three cities where Paul faithfully and creatively proclaimed the gospel, and let’s see how he faithfully and creatively communicating truth to very different people.
In chapter 13, Paul gives the gospel to two men - Sergius and Elymas.
In the Roman Empire, the peaceful and civilized provinces were not occupied by soldiers. They were governed by a kind of senate. And a local man was setup as a governor or deputy of that region. In this area, Sergius was that man.
So Sergius was a very powerful and intelligent man in that area. He was also very interested in spiritual things.
One of his spiritual advisors was a man named Elymas. Elymas was a sorcerer. You might think of him like a court wizard – an on-call sorcerer for the local governor.
Elymas and Sergius are contrasting characters in the story. They are both outside the faith, but one who is vehemently against it while the other is open to it.
And in true form, Paul adopts two different styles to address these two types of people. He harshly rebukes Elymas for trying to silence the gospel, and he actively works to create the context where Sergius can hear and respond to the truth.
Sergius is like many people today. Many people are interested in “spiritual things”, but to them, “spiritual” is just a junk drawer term for everything from the occult to Christianity to Buddhism.
We live in the age of tolerance. We live in the age of pluralism.
Pluralism says that since there is no absolute truth. Every faith and ideology is equal in the universe of faiths. No one has the right to say that one is wrong and the other is right.
Paul and Barnabas refused to present Christ as one of many options. Christ is not someone who can be placed on the shelf with a bunch of false gods and false religions.
He is Lord of all. He is absolute Truth. Everyone and everything must bow to His authority and power.
This message is going to be offensive. But that doesn’t mean that we need to be.
Paul could have ripped into Sergius for having a sorcerer on his staff. He could have unloaded judgment on him for his idolatrous and blasphemous view of worship.
But he didn’t do that. He recognized Sergius’ interest in spiritual things, and he validated that by not ridiculing or patronizing him.
But he didn’t stop there. Then, he gave him the truth. And the Bible says that “he believed”.
In chapter 14, Paul heals a lame man, which gives him the opportunity to present the gospel to a group of uneducated, superstitious pagans.
When they see Paul heal the lame man, they assume that Paul and Barnabas are gods come to earth. At first, Paul and Barnabas have no idea what’s going on, because the people were speaking the native tongue of that region, not Latin or Greek.
It’s not until they started offering sacrifices that Paul and Barnabas realize what was happening. Paul stops them and speaks to the crowd in Acts 14:14-17.
The major difference in the way Paul shares the gospel here is in the initial evidence that he supplies for his arguments.
In settings with religious people, Paul begins by appealing to authorities that they recognize – the Scriptures, Moses, John the Baptist.
But these pagans don’t know or trust the Scriptures. So Paul starts by pointing to what they can see in the world around them.
He points to the greatness of creation. This is evidence for a Creator God, and he points to the providential provision of God. They are given food and joy – all that is necessary for life. And this is a gift from God.
Essentially, Paul reasons like this: “Look at this and this and that about the world and your life. I can account for these things. They are there because there is a God who made and manages everything in the universe.”
As we present the gospel in our communities, we are going to find that many people are very ignorant of the Christian faith. To be faithful witnesses, we are sometimes going to have to start further back than we expect.
It would be great if we could just start with the assumption that God is holy and we are not. It would be great if everyone we met understood that chasm between God’s holiness and our sinfulness. Then, we could just explain that we can’t span that gap with our works, so Jesus came to do that for us.
But more than likely, we will be talking to people who have been told that God doesn’t exist, that sin is just a social construct, and that the guilt they feel is just the result of their environment.
We need to learn from Paul. He meets these people where they are, and he lays a foundation for what he will later tell them about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
And in chapter 17, Paul gives an evangelistic sermon to philosophers and educated pagans.
In the city of Athens, there were two powerful groups of intellectuals – the Stoics and the Epicureans. These groups represented the two most popular philosophies of that day.
Paul enters this world famous city and marches straight for the “Areopagus”, which was a council of the greatest philosophers and leaders of the city. They were the ones with all the power and influence.
He was already familiar with the city of Athens, but on this visit, he came armed with more than just a knowledge of the city. He came with the gospel.
In Acts 17:24-31, Paul proclaims a Creator God who is both transcendent (not dependent on anyone or anything) and sovereign (Lord of history).
He challenges the beliefs of the Stoics by proclaiming a personal God. Paul tells them that God wants people to seek him and find him. He wants to have a relationship with us. The God who is entirely independent desires us to know Him and love Him.
Then, he challenges the beliefs of the Epicureans by proclaiming a risen Christ. Paul tells them that Jesus was not just another man. He was God. And He is the only Savior of mankind. And he says that the resurrection proves that Christ will return to judge the world.
This was Paul’s message in Athens. And you’ll notice that it was specifically tailored to his audience. He was specifically challenging the idols of both of these groups.
The Epicureans saw the gods as personal, but remote and uninvolved with human affairs. They were “happy hedonists”. Their purpose in life was to follow their desires.
The Stoics on the other hand saw God as a kind of life force controlling everything. But He was not a personal being to know and obey. They were moral pessimists. Life was only about performing your duty.
So think about Paul’s message.
To the Epicureans, Paul said, “God is near and he is a Judge — you cannot do anything you want without consequences!”
To the Stoics, Paul said: “God is personal and Savior — you can be free from the bondage of living only out of duty!”
He was telling the Epicureans not to make an idol of pleasure.
And he was tellling the Stoics not to make an idol of duty.
Paul sees the idolatry of the city. He grieves over it. Then, He boldly proclaims the gospel.
Perhaps we do not speak like Paul did because we do not see and feel like Paul did. We do not see the idolatry of our city and grieve over it as we should, so we do not preach the gospel with that kind of passion and burden.
We have much to learn from Paul. He had an incredible ability to contextualize the gospel for different groups without losing the essential truths of the message.
He was intensely committed to being both doctrinally sound and culturally aware, and we desperately need this balance in our churches today. We are hopelessly prone to run into the ditches on either side of this road.
Sometimes, churches are too aware of the culture. They are so eager for the approval of the culture that they sacrifice truth. This just exposes a lack of confidence in the gospel.
Other churches are not aware of the culture at all. They fall in love with their own traditions and preferences and they place unnecessary roadblocks in the way of unbelievers. This exposes a lack of love for their neighbors.
What we need is more churches that are both doctrinally sounds and culturally aware.
We want to attract our culture, but we also want to confront it.
We want our message to be understandable, but we also want it to be compelling.
Paul didn’t adapt to the culture so that he could avoid giving them the truth. He adapted to the culture so that he could have a platform to speak the truth.
Many times, when Christians talk about being culturally relevant, it’s nothing more than a smokescreen for worldiness. They love the world, and they want to be like the world.
But there is a biblical motivation for being culturally relevant. Paul demonstrates this again and again.
Our desire should be to remove as many hindrances to the gospel as possible. If the Bible doesn’t require it, we don’t want it to keep people from coming to Christ.
This was Paul’s heart – “I am made all things to all men.” Weak. Strong. Under the law. Free from the law. Simple. Intellectual. Whatever it takes to get the gospel to the people who need to hear it.
Theologians sometimes refer to this as contextualization. It’s just a big word for the relationship between the church and the culture.
Tim Keller defines it this way: “Contextualization is not giving people what they want. It is giving God’s answers (which they probably do not want) to the questions they are asking and in forms they can comprehend.”
As long as the gospel can be preached without compromise, we should be willing to compromise our preferences and traditions, and we should be willing to use creative methods to communicate it.