I’m preaching Acts 17:16-34 this morning. This passage includes one of the great gospel presentations recorded in the New Testament text, as Paul presented the gospel to a group of philosophically-minded Athenians. I think the content and presentation of this gospel message can significantly inform our evangelistic ventures in our culture today.
This passage can be sifted down and dissected to a greater degree than I’m doing here, but on a basic level I see three movements to Paul’s presentation.
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
He started with:
1) God is God, and we are not God.
His message began by presenting God as sovereign creator. This creator God didn’t create you and me because he was lonely. He is complete in and of Himself, He is the source of life, He is the giver of life, and the humanity He created is not something He is dependent on.
We need to start our presentation of the gospel here. We often do not. We often start by attempting to stroke the ego of fallen and sinful humans. We often start with “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” This may be true on some level, but to begin here is often a subtle way of attempting to convince a sinful human about their intrinsic worth (as if we needed more convincing); instead of beginning by showing the value, worth, and reality of a sovereign God who is complete in and of Himself.
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘ For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.
2) God created us in His image to worship Him.
He is the reason we were created. He is the goal, the source, and the answer to that gaping hole inside my soul that longs for fulfillment.
This forms the second aspect of our message to our culture: God is the answer for us; we are not the answer for God. We are created in His image to worship Him, and He is the answer for us.
Paul brought this to them in a way they could understand. He worked to redeem their culture, even quoting pagan philosopher and poet Aratus, who wrote poems about Zeus, claiming that humanity was his offspring. Paul used the language they spoke, and even phrases they were familiar with, pointing it all toward the true God.
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
3) God is merciful and His love endures, but judgment is coming, and Jesus came to deliver us from it.
Paul emphasized the grace and longsuffering nature of God, but also called them to account as he put forward the risen savior, Jesus Christ, as the answer to human sin.
This can inform our message greatly. We hold a responsibility to reveal the truth that there is impending judgment coming; but we don’t end there, we end with the good news of Jesus, who took that judgment for us to reconcile us to God. This isn’t “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, so sign up for Christianity.” This is “God loves you but has a significant judgment for your sin that is going to sentence you to hell, but He gave Jesus so that you can live in the freedom to worship Him that you were created to experience.”