Luke tells us that when Paul arrived in Athens, “he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and devout persons, and in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17, ESV). As contemporary pastors, we should rightly be concerned to stand firm in the only apostolic succession which has validity-that of proclaiming the same gospel of Christ, crucified and risen.
We know that the whole counsel of God needs to be taught within our equivalent of the synagogue, the local Christian congregations, planted around the world. But it also needs to be argued in the forum and in the specialist contexts such as the Areopagus, in all the public debates of our culture. However, we have to acknowledge that most of us pastors are more skilled, experienced and comfortable in the congregation, so that the forum is rarely addressed effectively and is more often ignored, often with disastrous consequences. More than one observer has pointed out that most contemporary Christian preachers are happier in the role of the scribe than that of the prophet.
Even when we embrace the prophetic role in preaching, we tend to have stereotypical and somewhat simplistic views about the prophetic methodology. Typically, the prophet is seen as a purveyor of doom and gloom about the future, and not without some reason, since the message of impending judgment is central to much of the Old Testament prophets’ ministry to Israel and Judah. But they are also great encouragers to those same people, about the covenant blessings which will accompany repentance, faith and obedience, and which a gracious, covenant Lord waits to pour out on a responsive people.
The common content to both strands of their message is that the prophets have been given divine insight into the future and so they are seeking to persuade God’s people to act now, in the light of what God has declared he will do. Present behavior will condition future experience, and so whether it is by warning or incentive, the prophet’s task is to persuade his hearers to act wisely here and now. But if they are going to do that, they will need to be convinced of the truth of what is prophe¬sied and so be motivated to respond to the prophet’s call.
A brief survey of Luke’s vocabulary in his description of the New Testament equivalent of the prophetic ministry-the apostolic preaching of the gospel-reveals the same methodological priorities. In Thessalonica, Paul attended the synagogue “and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving…,” culminating in his procla¬mation that “this Jesus…is the Christ” (Acts 17:2-3). When he arrived in Corinth, “he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). Other verses speak of him “testifying that the Christ was Jesus” (v. 5) and “teaching the word of God among them” (v. 11).
Ephesus reveals no difference in the pattern. “He entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). Later, “he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus…so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord…” (vv. 9-10). There is clearly no conflict between authoritative procla¬mation and a methodology of explaining, arguing and reasoning, in order to persuade. We need to regain this balanced approach in order to bridge the gap in our own context.
Our problem today lies in our sometimes frenetic quest for “relevance” in preaching, as though we have to “do something” with the text of Scripture, to enable it to speak into our culture. We do not have to make it relevant, nor do we need to try. Nothing could be more relevant than the living Word of the living God, spoken with all His unchanging authority to our gener¬ation. And that is what the word of Scripture actually is. Our task is to explain and prove, to proclaim and persuade. We have to allow the Bible to “do something” with and in us first, if ever we are to be able to speak “as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11).
Luke’s careful vocabulary indicates that there was no substantial difference in approach or methodology, whether Paul was in the synagogue or the marketplace. He did not conduct a research project among his pagan hearers in order to decide which of their pressing issues or felt needs he could use as a springboard for his gospel presentation, because that would mean that their agenda was in the driving seat. Of course, he was an acute observer of their culture, so that he can tell the Athenians, “I perceive that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22ff.).
Of course, he spoke to them where they were, in their cultural context, using language and thought forms which were normal and natural to them. But the con¬tent of his preaching was never governed by that culture. The striking thing about his Areopagus address is that its content is entirely devoted to declaring the character and activity of the true and only living God. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
It is surely the mark of an enfeebled church, on the defensive, that it seeks to meet the agenda of the secular culture, in what is preached and how it is preached. We need to dialogue with its questions, but we dare not dance to its music. The mark of the apostles’ authority was that they confronted and challenged the first-century Graeco-Roman world, by posing a different set of questions and proclaiming a radically different agenda, both of which emanated from God.
Yet all this was always in the context of reasoned explanation and persuasive argument. Dick Lucas has often put it with characteristic insight and penetration in this way: so much contemporary preach¬ing is persuasive but in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. We tend to enquire of our hearers whether there might be some way in which they could be “persuaded” to accept God. But the real issue, which the Bible stresses over and over again, is whether there is any way in which a holy God could be “persuaded” to accept us, in all our sinful arrogance and ignorance. And that leads to a wholly different preaching agenda.
Observation of Paul at work in Athens provides us with understanding of how this apostolic message bridges the gap, not with concessions to popular pagan culture, but by radical deconstruction of its very essence (Acts 17:22-31). At first sight one might think Paul’s message is incredibly negative, because the speech is built around three denials. The “unknown” God, whom Paul proclaims, “does not live in temples made by man,” (v. 24), “nor is he served by human hands,” (v. 25) and “he is actually not far from each one of us” (v. 27). Paul is quite happy to use contemporary cultural reference points, to illustrate and support his thesis (see v. 28), but he is actually deconstructing the whole foundation of Athenian religion. This is what he means when he tells the Corinthians, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strong¬holds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion (‘every pretension’ NIV) raised against the knowledge of God…” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). That is what was happening on Mars Hill and it is what needs to happen in our preaching today. It is how the Bible teaches us to bridge the gap.
Yet it is important to realize that Paul’s deconstruction method is also laying a new foundation for the positive proclamation, which is the major content of his address. Why does God not live in temples? Because “he made the world and everything in it” for us to live in (v. 24). Why is he not served by human hands? Because he doesn’t need anything, since “he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (v. 25). And why is he not far from each of us? Because “we are his offspring” (v. 28). So how, then, can we human beings imagine that “the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (v. 29)? Athenian religion lies smashed in pieces, just as much as Dagon lay shattered in his shrine when he encountered the ark of God (1 Sam. 5:1-5).
But out of the wreckage, Paul teaches the character of the true God, and as the clinch¬ing and most persuasive piece of evidence for his argument he proclaims the resurrec¬tion of the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 31). The real God has acted in time and space, in the arena of human history. He is no longer “unknown”-He has revealed Himself. There are no longer the “times of ignorance,” for “now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (v. 30). It’s magnifi¬cent, isn’t it? The gap is bridged by the deconstruction of false thinking at the hands of the revealed truth of God’s self-disclosure.
We urgently need to recapture our confidence in preaching that when the Bible is in the driving seat, God’s power will be at work and God’s Spirit will be armed with His sword. The rebellion of 21st century human ignorance equally needs to be exposed and confronted. As guilt is revealed and the reality of judgment and wrath are made clear, minds and hearts are humbled and wills moved, through conviction of sin, to repentance and faith.
Only as our contemporary hearers are confronted with these Biblical realities will the grace and mercy of the gospel shine out in all its light and life-changing power. But this requires hard work and hard work requires time, and I fear that many preachers today have little of either. Yet until we change our priorities and act upon our renewed Biblical convictions, the gap between the culture and the gospel, the world and the church will remain largely unbridged.
We need to work hard at understanding the Biblical text, making sure that we are really listening to God ourselves, and not just handling material for others. Then we need to work hard at explaining its message in accessible, contemporary language and thought-forms, so that the divine power inherent in God’s living and enduring Word is unhindered and on target. This must be so every time we seek to proclaim its penetrating analysis of our world, along with its life-giving imperatives.
Just as Paul exposed the spiritual igno¬rance of the sophisticated Areopagites, so we must seek to direct the message of Scripture straight into our contemporary culture, exposing its false presuppositions and confronting its arrogant rebellion. There is only one message that can truly change the world, and that is the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.
I think this is what Paul had in mind when he reminded the Corinthian church, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). The verse highlights a striking, almost shockking, alternative. Paul is saying that the preacher can choose between “eloquent wisdom” or the power of the cross, but he cannot have confidence in both.
The former term is probably best under¬stood as a summary of the skills of the contemporary rhetoricians, the star speak¬ers and performers of Paul’s day, equivalent to the pundits and media personalities and the glitzy presentations of our own culture. Some of the Corinthians seem to have become increasingly unhappy about their apostle’s lack of sparkle and cutting-edge trendiness in his preaching. After all, what else would impress sophisticated media-savvy Corinth?
Paul’s answer is the power of the cross of Christ. That is the only reason why a church exists in Corinth at all. “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach [the cross] to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Nothing else can save men and women, in time and for eternity. That is why the word of the cross is the power of God (v. 18).
It is also why Paul will not sacrifice one iota of its divine power for popular cultural methodologies, however beguiling and apparently “successful” they at first seem to be. He knows that they cannot bridge the gap. He knows that the real power lies elsewhere and he will not be diverted. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Do we stand in that apostolic succession?
An abbreviated form of this article first appeared on the Kairos Journal website, kairosjournal.org.
David Jackman is President of the Proclamation Trust, London, England. The trust’s efforts in promoting Biblical preaching can be viewed at proctrust.org.uk .