Over the years, both in Australia and in America, I’ve had a number of Bible college and seminary students relate to me what some of their professors had declared concerning Paul’s sermon in Acts 17. These professors said that Paul really failed in his approach at Athens because there were so few converts. He had tried to be too intellectual. What Paul should have done, they argued, was just boldly preach the message of sin and repentance as Peter did in Acts 2. The professors instructed the students not to adopt Paul’s approach at Athens, but instead always pattern their evangelistic efforts after Peter’s, outlined in Acts 2.
In actual fact, Paul was very successful in his Acts 17 sermon. Many people have missed the point that Paul was preaching to a culture that had the wrong foundation to understand the gospel. To communicate with such a culture, Paul had to change a whole way of thinking from the ground up. As we discussed in the previous chapter, it wasn’t just a matter of presenting the message of the Cross and Resurrection; these people had to be given a whole new way to think before they could understand such a message.
What has helped me understand this point over the years is the fact that I have traveled widely and spoken in many different cultures. It has certainly been enlightening for me to realize how differently people from different cultures think. If a person has grown up in a country like Australia or the United States, but has not traveled outside those countries, they are more likely not to fully appreciate how different people’s thought processes can be.
Can you imagine what it must be like when someone from India or Russia migrates to America? My own experience as an Australian living in America tells me that both Americans and the immigrants would have all sorts of miscommunications and misunderstandings because of the different ways of thinking each had.
I remember watching the movie comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, which centered around an isolated tribe of bushmen in Africa. Someone in an airplane dropped a Coke bottle, which landed near this tribe. Because they hadn’t seen such an object before, they didn’t know what to do with it. Eventually, because of all the strife it caused, it was decided it was an evil thing that had to be disposed of. It was a humorous movie, yet it made the point that when something happens outside of our cultural experience, it can be very difficult to deal with.
I once spoke with a missionary who told me that one day after reading Revelation 3:20 (‘
behold I stand at the door and knock’), the natives wanted to know why Jesus was a thief. He found out that in this culture, if someone stands at the door and knocks, they are a thief trying to come in and steal. However, if someone stands outside and calls out, then he is actually a friend coming to visit.
I can’t emphasize enough the enormity of the task Paul had in communicating the truth of the gospel to the Greek culture. To understand more of what Paul had to do, we could liken Paul’s work to that of a pioneer.
When the pioneers moved westward across America, they couldn’t just set up camp, plant some seeds, and then reap a harvest. They first of all had to clear the land, then prepare the soil, plant the seed, and then they could obtain a harvest.
Consider the parable of the sower and the seed in Matthew 13:3–8:
And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow; And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold (Matt. 13:3–8).
There are, of course, many lessons that we can learn from this parable. However, notice that it was only when the seed fell in good ground that it could then bring forth fruit. When Paul went to the Greeks to sow the seed of the gospel, it was like sowing seeds by the wayside or on stony ground. Before the Greeks could understand the gospel, Paul had to prepare the ground—he had to construct the right foundation so the seed of the gospel could take root. Before he could successfully sow the seed, he first had to plow the ground!
What Paul was involved in was pre-evangelism (or what I call ‘creation evangelism’). Mostly, we think of evangelism as sowing and reaping. Perhaps a pastor in a church sows the seed week after week, and then an evangelist is brought in and a harvest of souls is reaped. This, of course, works when the ground is already prepared to receive the seed as it was with the Jews. Christians, however, need to become familiar with the fact that it is becoming increasingly necessary to be involved in plowing first, then sowing, and finally reaping.
It should also be noted that this type of approach is slow and arduous. It takes much patience and hard work. But once the virgin soil is prepared, and the foundation is ready, then results will come much more quickly.
Christians need to become familiar with the fact that it is becoming increasingly necessary to be involved in plowing first, then sowing, and finally reaping.
Jeremiah 4:3 states, ‘
For thus saith the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.’
One application we can make regarding this verse concerns the fact that the fallow ground cannot yield a crop until it is broken up (plowed) so that it can receive the seed. Even though it is a work of the Lord to ‘plow’ people’s hearts so they will be receptive to the gospel, nonetheless it is our responsibility to use our spiritual weapons in this spiritual battle:
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:4–5).
Paul certainly excelled and thrived in pioneer evangelism. Although the results were rather small at first, churches were built and the Christian message reached the Gentiles. At the end of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, we are told, ‘
Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them’ (Acts 17:34).
There were some converts—people who changed their whole way of thinking. One cannot be critical of Paul because of the small number of converts. Instead, we should applaud this man who understood the need to work diligently at laying the foundation so the gospel could spread among the Gentiles, as it did so wonderfully. Churches were established, and God’s Word began to spread throughout the world.
Many Christians have not thought about the concept of pioneer evangelism (or pre-evangelism). Or if they have, they usually think of this method as reserved for overseas missionaries ministering to some tribe of native people in a remote jungle.
As we shall see, however, pioneer evangelism must be adopted by the church today, or there will be little plowed ground left for sowing the seed of the gospel. This is a necessary consequence of a foundational cultural change that has occurred in our Western nations. Did the church miss this change? By and large, yes—because the church, sadly, has actually helped bring this about! More about that in a moment.…