Have you ever completely flubbed up a first impression? I’ve had some doosies in my day. I’ve been on sales calls after which I found out that I had bad breath the entire time. I’ve come up to visitors in our church, introduce myself, ask them their names, and then find out that they’ve given me their name several times. Oh how I wish it wasn’t true, but it is: “You can never make up for a bad first impression.”
It’s especially important to get this right when sharing the Good News of Christ for the first time. I know that the Holy Spirit is the One who makes people understand their need for Christ. I get that. I know that the Spirit can take a godawful presentation and bring people to the Savior through it. I get that. I've experienced that. But that in no way mitigates our responsibility to present the Good News as attractively as we can.
So Paul is brought in front of the Aeropagus, the main assembly of religious and philosophical leaders in the religious/philosophical center of the world. Not that there’s any pressure or anything. So what do you do? How do you start?
Well, if you’re as smart and Spirit-led as Paul, then you start by doing some homework on your audience. I know that some preachers make it a point of pride to “let the Spirit move them,” which translates to "I don't need to take the time to prepare." But please don’t try to tell me that Paul just walked into that situation without knowing something about the backgrounds of his hearers. Every word in this speech/sermon is carefully and intentionally designed to draw these pagans into saving faith in Christ, or at least closer to it, and each word displays an uncanny knowledge of their background.
Now, before we get to the speech itself, I have to submit a disclaimer. I don’t intend to promote the idea--nor do I think Paul or Luke meant to either—that this speech is supposed to always and forever be our unalterable pattern of witnessing to pagans. Every situation is different and every person is different. Having said that, I think there are some things we can learn from this example. To the degree it works, use it. To the degree it doesn’t apply, don’t.
Now let’s look at the opening statement. Please remember: These are not Jews or God-fearers. They neither know nor care about the Old Testament. Paul’s religious education, which he cites several times in the N.T., is not mentioned here because his audience wouldn’t be interested in it.
How does he start? Well, he could hardly have started better. He addresses them-“People of Athens!” and then gets to his opening statement. “I see that in all things you are very religious.” That’s the way the NIV translates it, but it could also mean “superstitious.” The word could be either a compliment or an insult, depending on the context of its use.
By using this phrase, he forced them to pay some attention. In order to find out whether he meant it in the good or bad sense, they'd have to listen to the rest of his speech.
So how can we apply this to a Post-Modern audience? First, I think it’s always good to lead with a compliment. Every person is created in God’s image, and that image will be expressed some way and somehow in every person.
For example, Post-Moderns love the term “spiritual.” Maybe some well-meaning evangelists avoid it, but why should we? It means the person acknowledges that there’s more to this universe than we can know about through our five senses. They understand, as Hamlet did, that “There are more things in heaven and earth. . . Than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.” A Post-Modern has no problem understanding that there are spiritual realities which science can’t reach. Why not compliment them on that?
Second, he pointed out to them his observation of a certain statue. He'd seen how they had hundreds of statues all over the city, all bearing witness to some god or goddess. But there was one in particular that caught his eye: The one to the “Unknown God.” The Athenians were so worried that they missed some god in setting up their statues and temples that they wanted to “hedge their bets.”
This God, Paul declared, would now be proclaimed to them. The God to whom they paid tribute without even knowing his name? “Well, let me tell you about him!”
Please don’t misunderstand the point here. Paul was not saying that by “worshiping” God without knowing his name the Athenians were saved. If they were, why would he be standing here? But he was using that statue as a point of connection.
This is also not to condone idol worship, or to say that idolaters are “really” worshiping the true God in disguise. But it is to say that behind whatever idol a person is serving, that’s a sign of a need they can find in the true God, a need that they’ll never satisfy outside him. That’s a great starting point, I would think.
That’s what this is all about. Yes, your goal should be to bring people to a saving faith in Christ. But you’re not going to do that without making a point of connection. We’ll discuss that more in a couple of days. But for now I want that truth to sink in. That Post-Modern is on the other side of a gulf. If you’re going to reach him with the Good News about Jesus, you have to find a bridge. I plead with you to look for it, and pray for it. If you want to, you’ll find it.
Father God, please give me open eyes for open bridges. All around me are people who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. How are we going to reach out to them?