The Apostle Paul spent years proclaiming Christ to a culture surprisingly similar to ours. Whether in the synagogue or the marketplace, he held firmly to his conviction that Jesus was the risen Lord, and he often drew on the culture of his audience to turn their attention to the truth of the Gospel.
Near the seaport, groups of Italians, Greeks and Jews hustle about. Waves lap the seashore as bales of goods are bartered. Students rush off to the local university with enthusiasm. Houses of prostitution are open.
This is not Los Angeles, New York or Seattle. This is first-century Corinth, the Roman colony where the Apostle Paul proclaimed Christ during his second missionary journey in the New Testament. This Greek capital, with its reputation for wickedness and immorality, presented many of the same challenges to Paul that today’s major cities present to modern-day Christians proclaiming the Gospel. A temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and war, had been built on the large hill behind the city. Corinth had a diverse community of Greek philosophers and business people–it was a community greedy for power, dedicated to pleasure, fascinated by rhetoric and knowledge.
The Corinthians thought that they were learners of wisdom, but Paul was a purveyor of wisdom. The Corinthians failed to appreciate the three major limitations of the intellect: Our intellect does not connect us with God
(1 Corinthians 1:21); it cannot understand the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-19); and it cannot grasp the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Paul presented at least four powerful strategies for proclaiming Christ to the people of his day, whether he was in Corinth, Thessalonica, Athens or any of the other cities he visited during his missionary journeys.
He Showed the Attractiveness of Jesus
In Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13), Paul painted a picture of the attractiveness of Jesus, mainly that through Him we can have forgiveness and acquittal, which the Law of Moses did not provide (Acts 13:39). Judaism provided no forgiveness for deliberate sin. People had great hunger in their hearts, and Paul came pointing to the amazing and attractive things that Jesus Christ offers: His death for sin, His salvation, His gift of wholeness in mind and body, and an eternal destiny with Him (Acts 13:26-29). Just as in Paul’s day, such things scratch where modern people itch. People who are impervious to intellectual arguments about God are often open to considering the sheer winsomeness of Jesus.
He Used Natural Theology
In Acts 14, we find Paul in Lystra. His aim is to draw the people from the worship of worthless things to worship of the living God, who made heaven and earth (Acts 14:15). He does the same thing in 1 Thessalonians 1. His argument there, which he expands when he talks to the Athenians, is that they recognize the existence of God, through whom they have life, and therefore human beings ought not to worship dumb idols made of stone and silver and gold. The living God calls for our allegiance. This approach is effective in confronting contemporary idols, such as money, sex and power. Paul encourages people to move from the innate awareness that there is a Supreme Being to doing something about Him–a strategy that we would do well to employ today.
He Entered the Secular Mindset
In Acts 17, Paul enters the mindset of the opposition in Athens–largely Epicureans, who were materialists; and Stoics, who believed that universal reason governed everything. The Stoics were also pantheists; they believed the universe and God were one, like New Agers today.
Paul engaged the Athenians in public debate, confident that his message could withstand critical examination. Athenians gave credence to many gods in their polytheistic culture, and because they didn’t want to make a god angry by leaving him out, they made an “all purpose” altar. Paul saw the altar and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ Now … I am going to proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needs anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts 17:22-25, NIV).
Paul was taking something of the contemporary culture, like we might take something out of a pop song today, and he was showing the people how it points to a hunger in the human heart, for which the Gospel is the only answer. If we don’t understand today’s culture, we will not be heard. If we don’t confront today’s culture, we’ll never see any conversions. Only after Paul understood the culture he was in, and showed the people he understood it, did he confront it and tell them that they had to repent and that God has set a day when He will judge the world.
Paul concentrated on two things–namely the Person of Jesus and His resurrection. We need to do the same. We should focus on the historical evidence for Jesus, His fulfillment of prophecy, His miracles, His death and resurrection.
We, too, can point out the evidence of the empty tomb, of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, of the fact that the disciples could proclaim Jesus in Jerusalem a few weeks after His death and nobody could deny the resurrection. We can allude to the transformation of the disciples and to the change of the day of rest from Saturday to Sunday. All of this would have been unthinkable if He hadn’t really risen. We can also talk about the birth of the Christian Church–it was just a rabble beforehand but became a highly organized, passionate community. All of these things give us strong evidence about Jesus and the resurrection. And they are powerful ways to engage our culture with the truth of Christ.
He Told His Story
The story has never been more important than in this postmodern era, and we all have a powerful instrument at our disposal–sharing the account of God’s work in our lives. It takes Christianity out of the church building and into the daily lives of ordinary people like you and me. Time and again, we find Paul giving testimony to what Jesus had done in his life, and this continues to be an effective way to tell people about the Lord. People who may not be ready to listen to a sermon or a theological argument are intrigued when a humble Christian tells of the difference Jesus has made. We need more Christians who will bear testimony to the living Jesus and to the difference He can make in the lives of those around them.