But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness (1 Cor. 1:23).
In this section, we are going to look in detail at the meaning of the phrase, ‘
But we preach Christ crucified … unto the Greeks foolishness.’
At the beginning of Acts 17, we read a short account of Paul preaching to the Jews and Gentiles who were Jewish proselytes. Paul’s approach is similar to that of Peter in Acts 2.
Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ. And some of them believed, and consorted with Paul and Silas; and of the devout Greeks a great multitude, and of the chief women not a few (Acts 17:1–4).
We note here that the focal point of his message was also that Jesus is Christ—in other words, the Messiah. Paul also reasoned with them out of the Scriptures. As in Acts 2, Paul, like Peter, could assume common ground in communicating the truth. The Jews and the Gentiles he was addressing had an understanding of the Old Testament Scriptures. To put it in more modern terms, it was enough for Paul to say ‘The Bible says.…’
In Acts 17:18–34, however, we are given an account of Paul preaching to a totally different culture, under completely different circumstances:
Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.
Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter.
So Paul departed from among them. 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 17:18–34).
Many people today have the wrong idea about evolution. They think Charles Darwin invented this theory. But this is simply not true.
This is a most fascinating passage of Scripture! There is much we can learn from Paul’s approach here and apply it in our evangelistic efforts to reach the lost. Let’s analyze this sermon carefully.
Who was Paul communicating with here? He was speaking to the Greek philosophers—the Epicureans and the Stoics. What did they believe about life? Did they have a different understanding of life compared to the Jews? It is well documented that these Greek philosophers were evolutionary-based in their thinking. Let me explain.
Many people today have the wrong idea about evolution. They think Charles Darwin invented this theory. But this is simply not true. Darwin did popularize a particular view of evolution, but evolutionary ideas go way back in history.
The Epicureans taught that everything on the earth had evolved directly from the material of the earth itself. They didn’t see any purpose in nature. For them, sensuous pleasure was the chief good of existence. The Stoics were pantheistic in their beliefs. Pantheism is just another form of evolutionism. Thus, the general thinking of the Greek culture was evolutionary. At the same time, however, they practiced idolatry. They believed in gods, but even the gods themselves evolved from some primordial substance.
The important thing to note here is that the Greek culture had no concept of the God the Jews believed in: a personal, infinite God who was responsible for, transcendent to, and an upholder of His creation. This thinking was totally missing from this culture.
One could say that when Paul was communicating to this culture, he was speaking to an evolution-based society. A knowledge of the real Creator was absent.
The Greeks did not have the Jewish Scriptures. Paul couldn’t reason with them out of the Scriptures, as he (and Peter) did when speaking to those who were a part of the Jewish culture. The Greek culture was very complex with many different competing philosophies. While they saw ‘sin’ and ‘evil’ in their culture and recognized the importance of structure and laws, they had no concept of an absolute authority, absolute truth or the inherent sin nature of man.
The Greeks had no understanding concerning their first ancestor, Adam, and the concept of original sin—nor had they received the law of Moses. Therefore, these people could not understand or accept the absolute authority of the Creator God, the lawgiver.
Consider again the three major elements of the gospel in this illustration. The Greeks listening to Paul on Mars Hill in Athens did not have the foundational knowledge to understand the gospel. To use our analogy from the last chapter, trying to get the Greeks to understand the gospel would be like attempting to build a skyscraper on the foundation of a small family home. The Greek culture had the wrong foundation. If a builder wanted to construct a skyscraper, he would have to first of all remove the wrong foundation. Then he would need to build the right foundation before the rest of the structure could be started.
This ‘wrong foundation’ concept is clearly illustrated in the Greeks’ response to the message of the Resurrection:
And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears (Acts 17:18–20).
Their response went something like this: What foolishness is this? What strange tales are you telling us? What nonsense is this all about? Remember the statement in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the preaching of the Cross was foolishness to the Greeks. It is very important to note at this stage that the reaction of the Greeks was very different to that of the Jews. Not all Jews accepted that Jesus was the Messiah, of course, but large numbers did. And the rest understood what Paul and the others were telling them. The Greeks, however, had no concept of what this message of the Resurrection was all about. Paul couldn’t appeal to the Scriptures to explain this message to them. So how was he going to get them to understand the message of the Cross—the power of the gospel?
In Romans Paul tells us the following:
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse (Rom. 1:20).
Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness (Rom. 2:15).
Even though pagan Greek philosophers had, by and large, obliterated the knowledge of the true God from their culture, Paul knew that he could appeal to nature and their consciences to begin to explain the concept of the true Creator God.
And so Paul began a great sermon as an apologetic (defense) to explain the Christian message from the foundation and upwards. Consider carefully the following four major elements in Paul’s sermon.
Paul pointed to one (or more) of their own altars, reminding the Greeks that they had inscribed this (or these) to the unknown god. He began with some common ground from their own culture. He then set out to explain to them that this ‘unknown god’ was in reality the true God. He carefully defined the nature of the true God. He emphasized that this was the Creator God—the One who made all things and upholds all things by His power.
This was in obvious contrast to their evolutionary and polytheistic views. Paul preached concerning the power of God in creation. (This passage reminds me of what my Japanese translator told me about how he had to define the word ‘God’ when I used it in the Japanese culture that was devoid of a Christian basis.) Although this would have been a foreign concept to the Greeks, God’s Word tells us that their own consciences and the creation itself are witnesses to this fact. And they were very interested in logic and logical arguments. God could use this powerful witness to open their hearts to the truth.
For people to understand that they are sinners, they also need to grasp the fact that we are all descendants of (and thus related to) the first man, Adam. Because he sinned, therefore we all sin: ‘
Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned’ (Rom. 5:12). Thus Paul explained to the Greeks that we are all related (of one blood) and that we all are traced back to one man. Paul explained to them that God was in charge of the actions of the descendants of this one man—He was in charge of the nations. Nothing in any kingdom was beyond the control of God. The Greek culture was actually in the hand of God.
Paul also counteracted the Greeks’ wrong religion. He spoke against their idols and explained to them that this Creator God was ruler and judge. And there was a day of Judgment coming. He urged them to repent from their erroneous ways and believe in the true God.
Finally, Paul returned to the message of the Resurrection, the central part of the gospel. Paul didn’t just stop with the message of creation, for this is not sufficient to bring salvation. However, he started with the preaching of God as the sovereign Creator, so that the Greeks would understand the message of salvation.
The truth of the matter is that Paul was extremely successful, especially given the circumstances.
So after removing the wrong foundation from their thinking, and setting in the correct foundation, Paul then built the structure of the gospel, so that souls could be saved for eternity.
But was Paul really that successful using this approach? Acts 17:34 informs us that only a few believed. Surely one wouldn’t describe this as a successful crusade! The truth of the matter is that Paul was extremely successful, especially given the circumstances. And this is the same sort of success that is needed today. The results of his preaching to the Greeks were actually astounding.
How could this be so?
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