Remember the Simplicity of the Gospel
Acts 17:15-18:11; 1st Corinthians 2:1, 2; 1:17
Sometimes we seek to add grace to our words through dramatic wording and affected intonation. We philosophize and reason, persuading men of the logical necessity of God’s existence…when God makes no such plea himself. We think of slick presentations, sneaky ways to “slip the gospel in there, sideways”, and clever answers to give to common remarks.
We conjure up dramatic stories, or we recite real accounts from the news, re-cast into spiritual terms. We forward tear-jerker items from the internet. We pray for “opportunity” to come and knock down our door, while we are fearful to tap at the door of those in need.
I think it is important that we remember the simplicity of the gospel, and preach it that way—simply. The results may not be dramatic, but they will be honest—no one will be convinced by the cleverness of our words, but rather by the truth of God’s Word, and the conviction brought by the Holy Spirit.
Two examples in scripture—one negative and one positive:
Paul had arrived in Athens after a VERY rough time in Philippi, and thereafter, in Thessalonica and Berea. He was undoubtedly still in a good deal of pain from the beatings he had received a few weeks earlier, in Philippi, as well as perhaps distressed at being run out of several towns in a row, and now being separated from his traveling companions.
But Paul did not hesitate, or “take a sabbatical”—he went about his standard practice of meeting with those in the local synagogue and telling them about Jesus. (I am quite sure I would have “taken a break”.)
Preaching in Athens
He also would share with folks in the “Agora”—the marketplace, since that was a normal place to discuss things of interest and importance. Here in Athens, the local philosophers (specifically two groups: one group given to seeking pleasure, another in the other “ditch”, denying self, but claiming self-sufficiency) overheard the various conversations and asked him to make a public address. They hustled him up to Mars Hill, the Areopagus, and put him on the spot, so to speak.
Sermon on Mars’ Hill:
Paul responded as one perhaps ought to, in speaking to those given to philosophy—he gave them a message based on philosophic thought. It was true, but it “arrived” at the truth, rather than simply stating it. He approached them from the point of view that there were things in their world that they could not understand, and that he was the messenger of “the God of creation,” whose ways are past understanding.
That was well and good, and this short sermon has been long regarded by teachers of homiletics as a brilliant example of extemporaneous preaching. (Perhaps it really is.) But let’s look at Paul’s sermon, the results thereof, and Paul’s response to those results. That will be “example one.” Then let us look at the message he preached in the next town, (“example two”) and see what differences there were.
Notice that it was not Paul’s idea to “take the floor”, so to speak, at the Areopagus. He was taken there by those who said they wanted to hear…but their interest waned when it turned out he was speaking of spiritual reality. Both groups of philosophers avoided such reality…one group, called the “Epicureans” denied the possibility of “finding truth by reason” (they are partly right), and they devoted themselves to having fun; enjoying pleasure. The others; the “Stoics”, were very works-centered, self-centered, and proud of their self-repression, yet they claimed the self-sufficiency of Man. (Seems we still have a lot of both of these sort of folk today.)
When Paul began speaking he spoke in philosophic terms—they were probably quite pleased to hear his first few paragraphs. But then (as the saying goes,) he “quit preachin’ and went to meddlin’”. When he touched on the subject of the resurrection, they immediately lost interest. Some just got a good laugh, mocking him, while others, a little more polite, said they would “hear him again” sometime.
Notice that the next verse does not say, “but Paul departed…” as if he left despite their interest. It says “So Paul departed from among them”. Perhaps he only said, “Skip it!” and went back to the synagogue. We aren’t told. But we are told, in the next verse, “after these things Paul departed from Athens.”
Paul saw that the spiritual climate there was very cold…so he left. A few did believe, but not enough to begin a church, evidently—there is never a mention of his having founded a church in Athens. One way or another, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.
Starting Over In Corinth
In Corinth (“example two”), he gamely began again, teaching and preaching in the synagogues, to both Jews and believing Greeks. He did so every week, up until Silas and Timothy had caught up and joined him there. Then he really “pressed home” the central point of his message, that Jesus is the Messiah: the Christ.
At this confrontation, most of the Jews became stirred up, and they turned against him. Paul immediately stated that he had done his duty by them, and would waste no more time on them, but rather, would concentrate on reaching the Gentiles. He moved next door, literally, to the house of a man named Justus, and, amazingly, the head Rabbi from the synagogue followed him, as well as his whole household. They believed the message!
So…What was the message? Philosophy? “Good times coming?” The Resurrection?
I don’t know all the details, but the central message was the person of Christ, and Him Crucified. How do I know? Read 1st Corinthians 2:1, 2 … Paul underscores the difference—he says “I came not to you with excellency of speech or with wisdom, declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Christ and Him Crucified.”
What a change! Why would he drop all the philosophy of Athens, and center on the simplicity of the Gospel in Corinth? I believe he looked at the apathetic results in Athens, and he didn’t want it to ever happen again. He specifically states (Read 1st Corinthians 1:17) that he was sent to preach the Gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ be made of none effect.” Is that a possible result of preaching? Can I make the Cross of none effect? (Evidently so!)
We need to re-think our ideas about sharing the Gospel. Perhaps we need to think of the simplest ways we can tell someone about Jesus, instead of the “slickest.” (This is not “salesmanship.”)
What is the Gospel?
Paul states the Gospel in simplest form in 1st Corinthians 15:3, 4; “…how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” The death, the burial, and the resurrection of Christ as full payment for our sins, and the fact that all of it was the fulfillment of specific prophecies is as simple a message as we can make it.
But we tend to look for ways to “dress up” the message, draw pretty “word pictures,” and find slick sales techniques by which to “slip the Gospel to someone surreptitiously”…not to confront. Paul set a pretty clear example here; he confronted. So did Jesus, in John 3:3—he minced no words, speaking to Nicodemus: “You must be born again!” Again in John 14:6; “No man cometh unto the Father but by me…”
Can’t we take those examples to heart? Can’t we deliberately look for the simplest ways to lead people to the Savior? It would make our lives much easier, and purify our message as well. We are not to leave out any of the central points of the Gospel, but we are not to embroider it, either. We are to be direct, and kind, but firm in the truth.
Pat James, was stopped on the street, once, by the unbelieving son of an (apparently) unbelieving man who had recently died. He asked whether Pat believed his dad had “gone to a better place.”
Pat shocked him by replying very bluntly, “It doesn’t make a bit of difference what I think… what matters is the truth. And I only know one place to find that kind of truth—it’s God’s Word, the Bible! And the Word of God makes it very clear that there are only two possibilities once we leave this world. And the determining factor as to where we go is “What did we do with Jesus?” I can’t tell you for sure where your Dad is…but I can tell you for sure what God says about the issue.” The young man was taken aback, and said “Whoa!…That’s really heavy!” He stared off into the distance and finally said, “I’m going to want to talk with you some more about this sometime…”
Now—did he ever come back for more? I don’t know. But Pat did not give him false hopes—he very bluntly told him the truth, without condemnation. And he offered hope. That’s all we can do, too. Look for opportunities to tell people about Jesus, His sacrificial death for our sins, His burial, and His resurrection. If you want to include the second coming, that’s fine…but believing the message of the Cross is what saves—not having a “hope for heaven.”
Preach the Cross. Preach Christ and Him Crucified. Preach Salvation. Preach Truth.
Don’t worry about the results. Just make sure that what you preach is the real Gospel!
What else can we learn from Paul’s example?
- He knew that his primary reason for existence was being an ambassador for Christ. If I have something else that I consider to be more important than my service to Christ, then my priorities are wrong. It’s just that simple!
- He let nothing deter him from being that ambassador. Not personal rejection, political pressure, or physical discomfort. If I am willing to “fall down on the job” because it isn’t easy, then I am unfaithful and unreliable. Period. (And I have failed many times!)
- He was teachable—he learned from experience. Even though Paul was taught personally, by Revelation from Jesus, he was not blind to learning opportunities. I need to be alert to those learning opportunities as well.
- He knew when to quit preaching and move on. You can’t feed people who aren’t hungry. When you can see that a person is not interested, share with someone else. That sounds cold, but it follows the example of both Paul and Jesus.
If we can each learn at least these four lessons from Paul, it should transform our experience as Christians. Please consider what might occur if you truly saw your “assigned task” in life to be an ambassador for Christ twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. (You are, by the way: 2nd Corinthians 5:20 “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ…”)
What might change, if you made that your primary concern in life, and let nothing turn you from that single task?
If you aren’t receptive to those first two lessons, the other two simply don’t matter. Whether you are “teachable,” and whether you “know when to move on,” are irrelevant questions, if you are not first committed to the tasks of evangelism and discipleship.
I pray that God will use His Word to change each of our hearts.
Lord Jesus, teach our hearts to have the right priorities: strengthen our desire to serve You faithfully as Your Ambassadors.