This session explores how we can share the good news by bridging from common references such as books and films. With Paul’s sermon at Athens providing the principal example, this session aims to equip you to share the good news in this way, outlining key practices and questions to consider as you do so. The session also features an interview between Hannah Steele and Justin Welby.
This session is based around Chapter 6 of Hannah Steele’s book Living His Story. A featured passage is below, but you are encouraged to read the whole chapter as the questions often reference the book.
From Chapter 6 of Living His Story
One of the best examples of this thoughtful gift-giving approach is seen in Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17. He shows us an example of intelligent and imaginative evangelism. Athens was a famous location in the first-century world. Boasting a strong intellectual heritage from the Greek philosophers of the fourth and fifth centuries BC (the likes of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates), its incorporation into the Roman Empire had not dampened its reputation as a city of immense intellectual and educational importance. Paul had grown up in the city of Tarsus, which was also well known as a centre of philosophy and a plethora of Hellenistic religious cults. While Paul was steeped in the Scriptures as a Pharisee, his background in philosophy meant he was well prepared for his missionary trip to Athens.
As was his usual custom, Paul goes to the central meeting places of this historic and busy city. He speaks the good news of Jesus in the synagogue but also in the marketplace. It is not long before Paul is creating a stir and arousing the interest of the philosophers of the day. In particular Luke mentions the Epicureans and the Stoics, who gathered around to hear him speak and to debate his ideas. The Epicureans were agnostic secularists; they were not concerned about the possibility of gods, as they considered them too far removed to be relevant to human life even if they were real. The Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists who believed in a strong sense of unity between humanity and the divine. To the Stoics, God is everything and everything is God. While these two types of philosophers were very different from one another, Paul’s preaching about the good news, and in particular the idea of resurrection, clearly aroused a response. Whether they wanted to argue against him and disprove his new and unfamiliar teaching or whether they were intrigued by the possibility of Paul’s new teaching, they all wanted to hear more and so brought him to the Areopagus, a place where the latest ideas were discussed and debated. Despite the apparent pluralism of Athens, Paul’s teaching about Jesus and the resurrection caused a stir and people were intrigued. Paul had a captive audience of philosophers and the latest thinkers of the day when he addressed the crowd.
However, before looking at Paul’s approach in Athens, it is worth noting how Paul initially felt when he arrived in this strange and unfamiliar place that had not yet heard the good news of Jesus. Luke tells us early on that Paul ‘was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols’ (Acts 17.16). A more literal translation of Paul’s deep distress might be that ‘Paul’s spirit was pained within him’. Just the sight of this huge city bursting to the brim with idols to various different gods caused a visceral response for Paul the evangelist. His belief in the uniqueness of Jesus as the way to the Father stood in stark contrast to the religious world view in front of him. Gone is the hot-headed Saul who would have his way through coercion and control, as we see at the beginning of Acts. Instead we see a different Paul, still as passionate and zealous but now resolute to show that the deepest desires of the Athenians can only be adequately met by the risen Jesus. Paul is determined to show this with wisdom, grace and clarity. In so doing, he provides us with an effective model for how we can present the gift of the gospel in such a way that it relates to people’s deepest longings and connects with the culture around us. The gospel cannot be delivered in a vacuum but is always spoken in a particular language, clothed in particular phrases and concepts. Paul’s model shows us how to do that in the different situations in which we find ourselves, especially those where the message of the gospel seems peculiar or even alien to the surrounding culture. What we see in Acts 17 is imaginative evangelism at its very best.