The story of Nathan Barlow is remarkable. He was a missionary doctor to Ethiopia who dedicated his life to helping people deal with a miserable condition known as mossy foot. When he had to leave the mission field for a short time because of a toothache, he instructed his dentist to pull all of his teeth and give him dentures because he didn’t want to leave his life’s work again, not so long as to deal with something as minor as a toothache.
It’s amazing that one who would make such heroic sacrifices would live his life in obscurity. He is the example, though, of one who was willing to do whatever he had to do to reach people for Jesus Christ. If we are going to reach people for Christ…
We Must Speak Their Language
Paul had a similar zeal to see lives changed by the power and grace of God. He had developed a proven strategy in his missionary work, but preaching in Athens would be different. Normally, he would go into the synagogue and reason with people who already were predisposed to receive the good news about their Messiah. Churches were started across Asia Minor, in Philippi and Thessalonica using this approach.
Athens would be different, though. He reasoned in the synagogue, but the text says he was greatly distressed to see this intellectual and cultural capital was full of idols. Because of his zeal for Jesus Christ, he couldn’t let the idolatry of the Athenians go unchallenged. Paul was faced with the urgency of declaring the gospel in the hope of changing the prevailing intellectual climate of his day.
He demonstrated that he was aware of what all of their pagan poets had to say. He affirmed them for being very religious and having an altar to the unknown god—the God would make known to them. Paul demonstrated that he could speak their language intellectually, culturally and philosophically. That gave him credibility as he presented Jesus Christ to them.
We Must Tell Them of Their Creator
Paul proceeded from his awareness of their philosophical milieu, to a basic retelling of the story of creation. God created us for a purpose, and we are morally accountable to Him for how we accomplish that purpose with our lives. This God made the world, and He is too big to be contained in all the pagan temples or be represented by stone statues.
The Epicureans believed God was distant and remote and that the world was random and that God couldn’t possibly care about them. The Stoics took a very fatalistic approach to life. Paul told them this Creator wanted to know them. He created us, and He wants us to seek Him with all our hearts.
We Must Tell Them of the Need to Repent
Some people point to the contrast between Paul’s approach in Corinth and his approach in Athens and conclude Paul failed in Athens and went to Corinth with a renewed focus on the Jewish synagogue. In Corinth, he said, “I resolved to know among you nothing except Christ and him crucified.” I disagree. Paul spoke the language of the people he was trying to reach, he found common ground in telling them of their Creator, and he told them God expects them repent—to turn toward God. He spoke of the need for repentance in light of the coming judgment and resurrection.
The results may not have been spectacular, but there were some who wanted to hear more. In our neo-pagan world where the catch-phrase is “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” Paul shows us the way to reach people with the gospel of Christ. Learn to speak their language. Remind them of our common Creator and our common humanity as we open a dialogue where, in time, we can say, God wants you to turn to Him so you can have eternal life.