Paul and the Pagans

In his role as the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul is sometimes described as trying to bridge the gap between Judaism and the pagan world. His sermon at Athens in Acts 17 is often used as a model for “how to do ministry” today. In order to reach the world, we have to present the Gospel in ways which appeal to the world. In some cases this is involves using art and philosophy to demonstrate the reasonableness of Christianity, but more commonly this methodology is used defend worship styles or it quickly devolves into using movie and TV clips as sermon illustrations.

To determine how Paul reached out to pagans. I want to look at a passage earlier in Paul’s career, from his so-called first missionary journey. When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, Paul heals a man who was crippled in the feet. This miracle in intentionally parallel to Peter’s healing in Acts 3, although the results are much different! In Acts 3, the miracle takes place in the temple courts, Paul is in a Gentile town which is more likely to believe he is Hermes incarnate than a representative of the Hebrew God! When Paul was among Jews in Iconium he did many miracles and saw great success. The working of a miracle among the Gentiles of Lystra is counter-productive and results in Paul being stone and left for dead.

Image result for gods of lystra

There is only the briefest hint at the sort of “sermon” Paul might have preached to this crowd. This is unfortunate, since this is the first time in Acts that Paul addresses a pagan audience. Often Paul’s speech in Acts 17 at Mars Hill is set up as an example of Paul’s method of reaching the Gentile world, rarely is this speech in Acts 14.

Paul states that there is a living God, as opposed to the worthless idols that never show their power. Like Acts 17, Paul does not allude to the many acts of God in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, he uses God’s preservation of men through the giving of rain and crops as an example of his power. This might be called “general revelation,” since the crowd would neither know about the God of the Hebrew Bible, nor would they care what he did for the Jews.

But Paul is not giving up on the biblical story at all in this sermon. He begins with God’s creation and provision. He says that he represents the creator, something which this group can understand within their own world view, but Paul uses the language of Genesis (the heaven, the earth, and the sea, along with everything in them).

But notice that Paul more or less attacks the gods of Lystra: they are worthless things. This is even more powerful when you realize the priests of Zeus have brought out bulls to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas. Paul could very well be pointing at these prepared sacrifices when he says, “worthless idols.” The noun used here (μάταιος) means that these idols and their sacrifices “lack truth” and it is pointless to worship them because they are not true at all!

This dismissal of idols is also found one of Paul’s earlier letters. In 1 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul contrasts idols and the “living and true God.” The implication is clear: the idols are neither living nor true. In fact, this clear attack on idols is at the foundation of Romans. In Romans 1:21-23, humans reject the clear revelation of God in creation, become fools, and “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (ESV).

This does not sound very hipster and emergent to me! How can the brief sermon in Acts 14 be used as a model for contemporary evangelism? Should we directly attack another world view as “worthless”?

7 thoughts on “Paul and the Pagans

  1. When looking at how to model a sermon, I would prefer to look at Acts 17. He uses their culture and the things that they know and understand to try and reveal who the Living God is. Instead of using the greek word for “futile” regarding the idols, he addresses their state of being as people as ignorant. Often it is easier to talk to someone about their state of being rather than criticize the things they value. Paul is being truthful in both circumstances, yet he articulates better in Acts 17. He results are also very different in both chapters: In acts 14 he is stoned in Lystra, whereas, in acts 17 some mocked, but some believed and followed him. The different preaching styles probably made a difference in outcome from the audience. Regarding your question at the end, I don’t think it is the best strategy to directly insult people based on what they worship. We have to share the truth, but also in the right place, time, and situation. There are better methods for evangelism that directly opposing culture, values and world views. We are not them, and we appear very ethnocentric if we blatantly criticize their beliefs. For example, in sharing the gospel with muslims, it is best to build a relationship with them first to gain trust. Then, begin to ask tough questions about Islam until they don’t have an answer. Then it is the right time to share your beliefs, even if you bring up an opposing view. I think it is fair to say that Paul himself learned a bit more about preaching/sharing the truth in between chapters 14 and 17.

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    • I like the points you have made here Rachel. I didn’t at first think of how the two circumstances had different outcomes. It is a good deduction of his approaches. I think the difference is how he appealed to their worldview. in Acts 17, He saw that they did believe in the Unknown God but they didn’t know who He was. Paul then explains it all to them. However, in Acts 14, Paul has healed a cripple and the crowd thinks he is Hermes and Barnabas as Zeus. As a result, they immediately thought they needed to bring sacrifices to them. This brought distraught to Paul and Barnabas, for they tore their clothes and said:
      “Friends, why are you doing this? We are merely human beings–just like you! We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them.”

      I do not think Paul was being as what would be perceived today as an inconsiderate Christian or die hard extremist. However, this healing appealed to what they knew in their worldview as a proper form of worship. Yet, Paul and Barnabas are in a way heartbroken that they have not noticed this was the doing of the Lord.

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  2. It is important to adjust one’s delivery of the Gospel depending on his or her audience. Different people receive and process information in various ways, so when you adjust your delivery, I believe that you are showing respect and genuine effort to reach those people. Paul illustrates this point in 1 Corinthians 9, when he mentions that he became like those he was trying to reach – the Jews, those under the law, and the weak, to name a few; however, the message of the Gospel should never be compromised throughout this process. Although the outcome was different in both Acts 14 and 17, I believe that Paul does an excellent job of presenting the Gospel without compromising the truth. As it was stated in the blog, Paul and Barnabas pointed out that which the people could all see in Acts 14 to prove the existence of the living God. They do not attempt to pander to the people’s beliefs in false gods, but rather, they speak the truth and point out that they are worthless compared to the living and true God. In a way, they are even protecting the people, as the Lycaonians were about to make sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas, which would have been blasphemous, as Paul states that they are of the same nature as the other men in Acts 14:15. Sadly, the crowds were stirred up, and instead of repentance, Paul was stoned.

    I do not think that we should attack other people as worthless, but if they are believing in something that is untrue and does not have any worth, we should try to point them in the right direction as we are given the opportunity. Paul accomplishes this in a creative way in Acts 17, when he comes across the altar to the unknown god. He uses this to direct his audience to the God of Heaven and Earth and says that they can find the Unknown God because “He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). In doing this, Paul provides an example that is relevant to those in Mars Hill and delivers the Gospel and yet does not compromise the truth in any way.

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  3. I wouldn’t say that Paul was attacking them by simply calling their idols worthless. I think both circumstances of Acts 14 and 17 they are of a similar nature in that their worldviews were either being challenged or appealed to. In Acts 14, Paul heals a cripple and as a result, the people think they are Zeus and Hermes incarnated in human flesh and bring their sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas. This distresses Paul and Barnabas and they tear their clothing and say:
    “Friends, why are you doing this? We are merely human beings–just like you! We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them.”
    Also, notice how he first appeals to them by saying “Friends”. It was a tender hearted approach and bold through love to tell them what they were doing was meaningless and far from God. He mentions that the living God made everything. (As Paul also does in Acts 17). The reactions as a result of this preaching were different yet Paul still yielded a harvest.

    So, when I think of a biblical approach to ministering to the lost. I don’t think “Hey, let’s go proclaim Jesus to them and tell them everything they believe is a lie.” nor do I necessarily agree that we must build a relationship with them before ever mentioning Jesus to them. They could die tomorrow and we were hesitant because we could offend them and thought “Oh, yeah I should probably build some relationship with these guys before I tell them the Gospel of Christ.” Does that not seem like a fallacy in our thinking?

    The primary model we get from these passages is that we must appeal to their worldview. Whether it is challenged by witnessing a crippled miraculously healed or by having somewhat of the right idea but making it known to whom it really is who made everything, that being, of course, the one true living God.

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  4. In Ephesians, we are called to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Inevitably, this verse causes many human beings to believe that the truth needs to be sugarcoated—making it painless for the individual being taught differently. In today’s day, with the growing number of conflicts, the truth continues to be taught, yet in a completely incorrect way. Loving an individual does not dismiss the reality that they may experience pain from the love being given. The book of Hebrews, stating “…because the Lord disciplines the one he loves…” can be remembered as an example (Heb 12:6).

    Paul used the word ‘friends’ at the beginning of his honest, yet seemingly harsh speech in Acts 14 (Acts 14:15). With that one small word, he revealed the workings of his heart. Speaking the truth in love has everything to do with knowing if the person or audience you are speaking to understands that you are calling them out for their benefit—because you love them. To question if you are speaking the truth in love, do not ask yourself “did what I say offend them or cause them to huff and puff all the way home?” Truth, as powerful as it is, should do that. The audience that Paul was speaking to—were wrong in their beliefs. Rather, ask yourself “does this person I am speaking to know that I want a relationship with them?”

    Do we show enough love in our actions [apart from speaking the truth] so that the person we are speaking to feels comfortable enough to come back and hear why our truth is the real deal? I would argue that people do not always remember what you say, but rather how you make them feel.

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  5. It has been said that when you have children, you cannot raise each one the same. Each is going to respond to different styles of discipline and affection and it is important to discover them to parent and raise them in the best way possible. Evangelizing is just like this, especially in our modern culture. If you have a speech prepared, and you present it the same way every time, you are not going to be as effective as if you were to tweak it to fit your audience. Paul knew this and it was one of the main reasons he was so successful. He speaks boldly about the signs and wonders of God in one city and in the next he performs a miracle based on what the people knew. (14:3, 10) These examples give us a model of how we should be bold in our own efforts to evangelize. In our modern culture today, I don’t see how attacking another worldview could be effective. Today, people are offended by everything especially in regards to culture and beliefs. The second you attack someone else’s belief and belittle their thoughts is the second you lose any chance of being effective. Listening and trying to understand someone’s worldview will gain you respect, and eventually you can use that to start integrating your faith into conversations. Obviously it would be easier to have a “one and done” type of conversation, but in our modern culture, there is little chance that that will have a lasting effect.

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