Acts 17 is not the first place that the “gospel to the Greeks” was used in the history of the Bible. There are several places in the Old Testament where the Israelites had adopted a pagan culture, and God had to call them out of that culture through prophets and godly kings. In some cases the situation was so dire that God had to remind the Israelites who he was—the Creator of heaven and earth.
While the gospel is an unchanging and everlasting message, our methodologies must adapt to different cultures so that we can lay the groundwork for the necessity of the gospel before we discuss the glories of the gospel. That’s the main difference between the preaching of Peter in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 2 and the preaching of Paul in Athens recorded in Acts 17. The Jews in Acts 2 did not need the foundational doctrines of creation, the fall, sin, and atonement explained to them; but to the Greeks, these were all foreign concepts.
In his new book, Gospel Reset, Ken Ham explains that our society is now more like a pagan “Greek” culture than a “Jewish” culture, which has a biblical foundation. This situation mandates a change in the delivery of the gospel message. In fact, it is possible to see a glimmer of this type of Acts 17 gospel message all the way back in Deuteronomy before the Israelites had ever even entered the Promised Land.
Moses Foresees and Forewarns a Future “Acts 17” Generation
In Deuteronomy 4 Moses knows his life is coming to an end. Since he is forbidden to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land, Moses gives the people of Israel his final instructions, encouragements, and warnings. He admonishes the people not to forget the Lord and to obey his commandments. Moses then warns of the dangers of apostasy and, in this section, prophetically looks forward to a time when Israel will serve idols and thus anger the Lord. Although this is a prophetic passage, and Moses is addressing both the present and a future generation to come, twice Moses reminds them to remember that God is the Creator of man, earth, and heaven. And even though several passages appeal to things that the present generation had seen the Lord perform, Moses foresees that a future pagan generation will need to know that there is only one God, that he is their Creator, and that they owe him their allegiance.
For ask now concerning the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether any great thing like this has happened, or anything like it has been heard. (Deuteronomy 4:321)
Therefore know this day, and consider it in your heart, that the Lord Himself is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. You shall therefore keep His statutes and His commandments which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which the Lord your God is giving you for all time. (Deuteronomy 4:39–40).
David Writes a Psalm Promoting an Acts 17 Evangelism
Likewise, the psalmist David reminds the people of Israel in Psalm 96 that the gods of the surrounding nations are nothing, but the Lord is the God of creation. In context, this section is exhorting the people of Israel to declare God’s glory to the surrounding pagan nations and inviting those people to come worship the Lord with offerings and praise. And the message might be the first Acts 17-type “Gospel to the Greek” message proclaimed.2 Most likely this psalm was written by David toward the end of his reign,3 meaning that the Acts 17 “Gospel to the Greeks” methodology was taught over 1,000 years before Paul delivered it at Mars Hill.
Sing to the Lord, bless His name;
Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.
Declare His glory among the nations,
His wonders among all peoples.
For the Lord is great and greatly to be praised;
He is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before Him;
Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.
Give to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
Give to the Lord glory and strength.
Give to the Lord the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come into His courts.
Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Tremble before Him, all the earth. (Psalm 96:2–10)
When you compare this portion of Psalm 96 to Acts 17:24–30, you will notice several striking parallels:
- Declaring the glory of God to the polytheistic and pagan nations
- Praising and reverencing this unknown God who created the heavens, not a worthless idol fashioned by men’s hands
- Revealing the good news of his salvation
- Acknowledging that the nations and families of peoples were ordered by him
- Encouraging people to repent (using here the Hebrew concept of bringing a trespass offering)
- Worshipping the Lord in truth
Is this not basically the same message which Paul preached at Athens?4
Isaiah Preaches to Jews Who Have Become “Greekized”
But by far the most prominent number and depth of passages relating to an Acts 17-type gospel message occur in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah (Azariah), Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Then traditionally he is believed to have been martyred by Hezekiah’s son, King Manasseh, in 698 BC. During his lifetime, Isaiah served under three godly kings (Uzziah,5 Jotham, and Hezekiah), but the majority of the people of Judah were very idolatrous (2 Chronicles 27:2). Isaiah also prophesied during the time of one of the most wicked kings of Judah—Ahaz, who was so engrossed in idol worship that he even sacrificed some of his children to foreign gods (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chronicles 28:3). He built sacred groves and altars for idol worship throughout Judah and even defaced and closed down the Temple (2 Chronicles 28:24).
It should be no surprise then that Isaiah prophesied to a very pagan—or, at best, pagan-influenced—culture. Time and time again Isaiah reminded the people that the gods they served were worthless idols and that they should return to the one true God—their Creator and the one who made the heavens and the earth. Isaiah used the Acts 17 approach over and over because the people he was preaching to had no (or almost no) foundational concept of the one true God. Like the pagan Greeks of Acts 17, they needed to be told about the “unknown God.”
To whom then will you liken God?
Or what likeness will you compare to Him?
The workman molds an image,
The goldsmith overspreads it with gold,
And the silversmith casts silver chains.
Whoever is too impoverished for such a contribution
Chooses a tree that will not rot;
He seeks for himself a skillful workman
To prepare a carved image that will not totter.
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in (Isaiah 40:18–22).
“To whom then will you liken Me,
Or to whom shall I be equal?” says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high,
And see who has created these things,
Who brings out their host by number;
He calls them all by name,
By the greatness of His might
And the strength of His power;
Not one is missing (Isaiah 40:25–26).
Thus says God the Lord,
Who created the heavens and stretched them out,
Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it,
Who gives breath to the people on it,
And spirit to those who walk on it (Isaiah 42:5).
I have made the earth,
And created man on it.
I—My hands—stretched out the heavens,
And all their host I have commanded (Isaiah 45:12).
Look to Me, and be saved,
All you ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22)
To whom will you liken Me, and make Me equal
And compare Me, that we should be alike?
They lavish gold out of the bag,
And weigh silver on the scales;
They hire a goldsmith, and he makes it a god;
They prostrate themselves, yes, they worship.
They bear it on the shoulder, they carry it
And set it in its place, and it stands;
From its place it shall not move.
Though one cries out to it, yet it cannot answer
Nor save him out of his trouble.
“Remember this, and show yourselves men;
Recall to mind, O you transgressors.
Remember the former things of old,
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like Me. (Isaiah 46:5–9)
Examples of Both Acts 2 and Acts 17 Evangelism Throughout the Old Testament
As Ken Ham has pointed out numerous times, the gospel begins in Genesis. Mankind was created perfect, fell in Adam, willfully sins against God continually, and is in desperate need of a savior. The seed of a woman, Christ Jesus, was promised all the way back in Genesis 3:15. Jesus himself stated that the entire Old Testament testified of him (Luke 24:44–47), so we should not be surprised to see the gospel presented even before the advent of our Savior. And just like in the book of Acts, the prophets (or priests, kings, and even governors) at times preached a message of repentance to those with hearts foundationally prepared for the message like in Acts 2 (e.g. 2 Chronicles 34; Nehemiah 8), but at other times the prophets were speaking to people who had no knowledge of God (Jeremiah 4:22; Hosea 4:6), were completely pagan in their thinking (Jeremiah 44:7–10), and were even hostile to the prophetic words of God (e.g. 1 Kings 19:1–2; Jeremiah 36:21–28, 44:15–17).
Just as the people of Israel sometimes needed a reminder to show them that their thinking needed to be “de-paganized,” so also do our present generations. Our culture has been transformed into a “Greek” one by polytheism, which says there are many paths to heaven, or by relative morality, which claims that man decides truth. But just as insidiously, the culture has been transformed by an evolutionary dehumanization of man and a strictly enforced naturalism that denies the very power of God. We definitely need a gospel reset in this present age. We are no longer in an Acts 2 culture but an Acts 17 culture. We no longer are speaking with people who have a foundational knowledge of the true and living God, but people who are engrossed in idolatry, either the god of self or a god of their own making. As God told the people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah,
For My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters,
And hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13)
Using biblical principles, Ken Ham addresses the heart of this issue in his book Gospel Reset. If we are to preach the gospel to people who have no biblical foundation, we must change our methodology. Ken’s book not only addresses the problem but also offers the biblical solution and practical tips to help you where the rubber meets the road. I urge you to pick up a copy for yourself and perhaps some for your church library.
The Gospel Reset Objective: Turning a “Greek” Culture into a “Jewish” Culture
In conclusion, we’ll use the Jeremiah 2:13 passage cited above as a practical example. When witnessing to people of this present-day Greek culture, before we tell them of Christ the Giver of Living Water (John 4:10, 7:38–39), we need to tell them that their cistern is broken and that it must be repaired—and that the only one who can heal them is their Creator (Psalm 41:4; Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18; John 1:1–3).
Once the Acts 17 gospel message is proclaimed and the “Greeks” have a biblical foundation laid for them (in essence becoming more like the Jews in Acts 2), we can proclaim the glorious gospel of Christ and hope for a work of the Holy Spirit, who can repair those broken cisterns and create wells of salvation. Then they (and we also) can rejoice as Isaiah did:
Therefore with joy you will draw water
From the wells of salvation.
And in that day you will say:
“Praise the Lord, call upon His name;
Declare His deeds among the peoples,
Make mention that His name is exalted.
Sing to the Lord,
For He has done excellent things;
This is known in all the earth.” (Isaiah 12:3–5)