There’s a saying about EDUCATION. Those who CAN, DO. Those who CAN’T / TEACH. And those who can’t TEACH / write curriculum for teachers.
I remember when I was doing my teacher training, it seemed like our lecturers were the WORST CLASSROOM teachers we’d ever seen! They’d mumble incoherently, they’d be boring. They’d have no plan, no structure, no visual aids, no interaction. But they were supposed to be teaching us how to teach.
Sometimes they’d almost be saying, “Do as I SAY. Don’t do as I DO”
When it comes to the Apostle Paul, he’s often held up as the greatest missionary and evangelist EVER. And THAT’S TRUE.
He’s someone who could DO it. AND can teach US how to do it as well. We need to be doing as he SAYS, and as he DOES. Because he’s someone who not only TALKS THE TALK about telling other people about Jesus, but who WALKS THE WALK. Word AND deed.
It’s one of the interesting things you study when you’re looking at the New Testament. That you’ve got the book of Acts that tells the story of what Paul DOES. And then you’ve got HIS LETTERS that tell us what he SAYS. Written at roughly the same time as he was DOING all this missionary work.
And comparing the two sources gives us a fascinating portrait of how he went about proclaiming the message of Jesus to the known world.
Today we’re going to look at two of those sections. One from Acts 17 where we see Paul DOING. And then from his letter to the Colossians where he TALKS ABOUT HOW to do it. Not just HIS method, but how HIS READERS should be approaching the people they meet.
We’ll begin with what he SAYS, and then see how that fits with what he DOES. Colossians ch 4. Where we’ll see SIX descriptions of his approach.
He’s getting to the end of his letter where there’s normally some specific instructions about practical matters. And it’s the same here. Look from v2 of ch 4
2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. 3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains.
One. When we look at Paul, we see PRAYERFUL DEPENDENCE. Pray for yourselves he says. But don’t forget to pray for ME TOO. Pray that God would open a door for our message. Because it’s all about what GOD does.
You see, when you’re telling people about Jesus, it’s not a sales pitch you have to get across. It’s not all about getting the words right, and leading someone down the path, until they can’t back out of the deal. Pray, ask for GOD’S help because it’s all about HIM opening doors. He’s the one providing opportunities, guiding paths, arranging circumstances, providing courage, softening hearts, opening eyes, granting faith.
Some people think if it’s all about GOD, then we can just sit back and do nothing. But that’s not it at all. It’s BECAUSE God’s in charge of it all, that we tell others, and that we KEEP GOING. Because if it was just up to US, we’d stop whenever things looked hard, or we were tired, or people rejected us.
But it’s BECAUSE it’s God doing the work, using US as his tools. That we keep speaking. Back at the end of ch 1 Paul puts it this way. Ch 1.29
28 We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. 29 To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.
He keeps working hard, because God’s working powerfully in him.
Second description of Paul’s approach is there in the next verse. He’s CLEAR
So that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. 4 Pray that I may PROCLAIM IT CLEARLY, as I should.
When you’ve got a message that saves lives. It’s wasted if no one hears you. If they don’t understand. I sometimes watch those Beach Rescue shows – at Bondi, or on the Gold Coast. And you see the frustration of the lifeguards as they try to communicate the dangers of the beach to tourists who don’t speak English. They do everything they can to make their message AS CLEAR AS THEY CAN because it SAVES LIVES.
We need to make sure we work hard at KNOWING OUR CULTURE. So we can communicate Jesus in a way they understand, that they can relate to. With language and concepts they understand, and in settings they can relate to.
Will blokes listen to a talk around a BBQ, and with a beer in their hand? Then let’s do THAT.
Are parents looking for holiday activities for their kids? Then let’s run a holiday kids club. And if they’re watching and reading Harry Potter, let’s use THAT to get across OUR message.
It’s that approach we see Paul using in Athens. Switch on to the culture you’re immersed in. And speak YOUR message in THEIR language, in THEIR categories.
We’ll look at that passage in a moment, but let’s just run through the other descriptions Paul uses about his ministry.
Third, be WISE. V5
5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders;
Be THOUGHTFUL. Don’t speak first and think later. How will they respond if I say THIS? What will happen if I do THAT? Wisdom is about knowing when to speak and when to LISTEN. It’s about knowing when to make an issue about something, and when to let it slide. It’s knowing what battles to fight, and which ones to give in on.
And wisdom is knowing what to say when you do speak.
Do you remember **** visiting a few months ago? A missionary hoping to work among ****? He’d been praying about how to get into the *** culture around Auburn. His first conversation with a group of *** *** men sitting at a coffee shop. He asked if he could join them. They asked why.
What would WISDOM’S answer be? He said he had a gun under his jacket, and he’d shoot them if they didn’t. Not the response I would have chosen, but it WORKED. They all laughed. And he got his introduction.
Be WISE in the way you act towards outsiders.
Four. Be OPPORTUNISTIC. Second half of v5. “Make the most of every opportunity”. That’s part of wisdom TOO. Knowing WHAT to say when someone says, “Those floods in Taiwan are terrible, aren’t they? What’s God DOING?”
Or as someone said to Grant the other day. They’d just watched a movie where Christians were painted in a GOOD light for a change. And he said, “You Christians are alright, aren’t you?” How do you answer THAT? Make the most of THAT opportunity?
Sometimes it takes COURAGE to make the most of opportunities. Like when it’s with a close friend or family member – you don’t want to risk the relationship. Or perhaps the comment comes when you’re in a big group. And it will seem easier to say nothing, and perhaps follow it up later.
But do it anyway. Be opportunistic. Fifth, be GRACIOUS. V6
6 Let your conversation be always full of grace,
That’s wisdom too. Better to lose the argument and keep the friend. Than win the argument and lose the friend. I find listening more and talking less is a good way of being gracious. Ask lots of questions, and listen to the answers well. People like to talk about themselves. It’s not only gracious, but it’s SMART. Because it helps you know better where the other person is coming from.
Six. Be SEASONED in your conversation.
6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, SEASONED WITH SALT, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
Salt gives things FLAVOUR. Makes them INTERESTING. Make sure you VALUE-ADD to conversations. That you move them from plain, uninspiring stuff to something bursting with life and flavour.
And do it in a way that’s attractive. That people catch a glimpse of something THEY want to have, or be, or experience.
And I think the LAST phrase of Paul’s description is THE END RESULT of all that. When you’re doing the previous six. Then you’ll know how to answer everyone. Whatever comes up, whoever says it, in whatever situation. You’ll have something to say that will move the person along the road towards knowing Jesus.
Like the electrician up the power pole. Got a tool belt full of tools. Things hanging off hooks and filling up pockets. There’s screwdrivers, drills, tape, pliers, connectors. Whatever comes up, he’s got the tools to deal with it.
That’s the Christian who’s ready to take the opportunities God brings across his path. Knowing how to answer everyone.
Paul in practice
So, let’s see how Paul puts all that into practice. We’ve seen the theory. Now, let’s see the PRACTICE.
When I was at Theological College, we’d have weekly chapel services. And the preacher we’d all look forward to hearing was the guy who lectured us in preaching. ONE, because he was a great preacher. But SECONDLY because we got to see him PUT INTO PRACTICE what he’d been teaching US to do.
So, let’s look over Paul’s shoulder as he goes to work. Acts 17 v16. He’s in Athens. He’s got some time to kill while he waits for his traveling companions to join him.
Athens. It’s an amazing place, even today. One of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, where you can still see the evidence of the incredible architecture; and the artworks.
Except that, what these days we call works of art, back then were IDOLS. That they WORSHIPPED. Beautifully carved stonework. Breathtakingly attractive.
And while tourists today might Ooh and Aah as they walk around, Paul did something DIFFERENT. See it there in v16. He was GREATLY DISTRESSED. Idols EVERYWHERE. Gods for every conceivable area of life. For rain and sun. For luck and war. For fertility and love. For protection. For wealth.
Someone once said about Athens, it was easier to find a GOD THERE than a man.
Regular, , ordinary
And so, Paul, moved by compassion, has to speak. So, v17, he goes to the synagogue FIRST. Reasons with the Jews and Gentiles who are there.
Not a bad starting place. But that’s not all. They’re not really the ones who are serving all the idols. So where ELSE does he go? The marketplace. Right in the middle of town. Where all the hustle and bustle and noise is.
Finds a soapbox, stands up. And begins to speak. Or maybe he just wanders around chatting with people.
But WHATEVER he does, he DOES it. Day after day. To ANYONE who’d listen. Whoever happened to be doing their shopping that day. Conversation that was REGULAR, and ORDINARY.
What’s the equivalent of the marketplace for US in Blacktown? Perhaps it’s the Woodcroft Festival. That’s not a bad place to start.
But let’s not pat ourselves on the back too quickly. One day a year hardly compares with day after day, does it?
Helping at the weekly breakfast club here at school is a good place to be talking with people. And we’ve had some good opportunities to do that.
Perhaps if you’re an Aussie bloke, it’s the Pub, or the Sports Club. If you’re a woman, perhaps it’s Mum’s playgroup, or tennis, or the hairdresser.
Or maybe it’s on the sidelines of the kids’ soccer. Or pushing the kids on the swings at the park. Or sitting in the doctor’s waiting room. Or working out together at the gym. If we want to be like Paul, that’s where we’ve got to be.
And we need to fill those places with , consistent, God-soaked conversation. Talking that’s a LIFESTYLE thing. Something we do without even planning for it. We do hanging over the back fence. Or waiting for the bus. Or while the groceries are bagged.
It doesn’t JUST go on the calendar, it happens ly – SPONTANEOUSLY – as we get to know those people around us. It needs to happens with INDIVIDUALS as well as what we do as church. Regular, , ordinary.
As Paul wrote it in Colossians 4. Make the most of every opprtunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so you may know how to answer everyone.
That’s what Paul’s doing. And it doesn’t take long before people start to notice. V18. He starts getting HECKLED from the crowd. Some Epicureans and some Stoic philosophers.
Which is the OTHER thing Athens was famous for. Idols/ and PHILOSOPHERS. Great thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. And in THIS case. Epicureans and Stoics. And verse 21 sums it up. Here’s the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Athens.
21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there SPENT THEIR TIME DOING NOTHING BUT TALKING ABOUT AND LISTENING TO THE LATEST IDEAS.)
Like one long episode of Seinfeld, or Friends. Hang loose, and talk about nothing at all. Sit around and drink coffee, and chew over the latest trends in philosophy.
And here, they’ve found ANOTHER new idea – in PAUL. And they both join forces in RIDICULING him. “What’s this BABBLER saying?”
2. Proclaiming the unknown God
But Paul seemed to have an effect on at least SOME of them. Look at v19. He gets an invitation to the meeting of the Areopagus.
It was the ultimate compliment. Like being invited to address the National Press Club. Or the National Geographic Society. “Give us your best shot. Make it as clear and well-thought-out as you can” And we’ll let you know what we think.”
This is Paul’s big chance. It’s a much better gig than the marketplace. Like being upgraded from busking on the street corner, to singing on the main stage at Big Day Out.
So how’s he going to do it? Like he said in his THEORY. He’s got to be CLEAR. And to be CLEAR, he’s got to be RELEVANT. Building bridges. Finding common ground.
And if you watch Paul in action at the Areopagus, that’s EXACTLY WHAT HE DOES. Will you notice, first of all, as he talks to a bunch of TOTAL OUTSIDERS, that the message Paul delivers in verse 22 to 31, is VERY, VERY DIFFERENT to the sort of thing he says when he’s talking to the JEWS.
To the Jews, it’s a whole bunch of quotations from the Old Testament scriptures. Matching up THE PROMISES with the MESSIAH. You can see that in Ch 13.
But this is different. Plenty of Old Testament IDEAS. But the only two things he directly quotes are a line from THEIR VERSION OF John Williamson, or Banjo Patterson. Their favourite poet. Verse 28. WE ARE HIS OFFSPRING. And the only other thing Paul quotes to them is an inscription off one of their IDOLS.
Now think about that for a minute. The first thing he says.
Because when he first sees their city full of idols, you know already Paul’s DISTRESSED BY IT. But when he starts TALKING to them, you wouldn’t guess that, would you? He’s actually gone around READING THE INSCRIPTIONS. Thinking it through.
Because in verse 22 and 23, he’s looking for COMMON GROUND. “Men of Athens. I see that in EVERY WAY YOU ARE VERY RELIGIOUS.” Too right they are. Gods EVERYWHERE.
3. Who made who?
And so Paul goes on. And he quotes from something he’s seen/ that makes the PERFECT BRIDGE for what he wants to talk about. As he’s walked around Athens, he’s spotted AN ALTAR. With an inscription on it.
These Athenians, they’re so worried they might have missed making an idol to some god or other, they’ve made ONE EXTRA. To the GOD THEY DON’T KNOW. Just in case.
It’s a bit like at the American War memorial in Washington DC. Where they have a TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER. The remains of an unknown soldier killed in battle who represents the loss of ALL UNKNOWN SOLDIERS.
Except in America there was a huge stir a few years ago, because it turned out that the US Army knew EXACTLY who the unknown soldier killed in Vietnam was. And they hadn’t bothered telling his family. The Unknown Soldier was KNOWN AFTER ALL.
Well, Paul’s going to do the same thing here. The Unknown God was KNOWN AFTER ALL. Verse 23. Read what he says
“For as I walked around and observed your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something UNKNOWN, I’m going to proclaim to you.
And in verse 24 to 31, the next 7 verses, that’s exactly what he does. A talk with one key point. That he presses home. He says, DON’T WORSHIP IDOLS THAT YOU’VE MADE. Worship THE REAL GOD. Who MADE YOU! WHO MADE WHO?
They’ve built their beautiful temples. They’ve carved their incredible idols. But the point is, it’s all MAN MADE. They’ve created their own gods in their own image. To suit THEM.
Paul says the REAL God isn’t like that at all. The God they don’t know. Is the EXACT REVERSE. Look at verse 24;
“The God who made the world and everything in it IS THE LORD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, and doesn’t live in temples built by hands.”
You can’t CONTAIN GOD. Just the opposite. GOD CONTAINS YOU. Verse 28; and he quotes THEIR OWN FAVOURITE POET. He says, you know this already. Your own poet says it. IN HIM WE LIVE AND MOVE AND HAVE OUR BEING. We are HIS offspring. He determines US. We are defined because of him. Not the other way around.
See, that’s what it’s like when you make an idol, isn’t it? You INVENT A GOD FOR YOURSELF. You figure out the sort of god YOU’D LIKE. A comfortable god. A god in your own image, who doesn’t make too many demands. And you carve it the way you reckon it should look.
Trouble is, the REAL GOD; the God they DON’T KNOW – is the God who made THEM. To do what HE WANTS. Keep reading from verse 25;
he’s not served by human hands as if he NEEDED ANYTHING – because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. And he says in verse 26, he MADE US. And he put us where he wanted us. And he determines the times and the places FOR US; exactly how he wants it.
A very different picture from the sort of tinny little gods in Athens. Even if the tinny little gods looked big and golden.
Verse 29 sums it up. Read what he says. He says THEREFORE, since WE ARE GOD’S OFFSPRING – he MADE US, he designed us in incredible detail – we shouldn’t think that the divine being is like gold… or silver… or stone – an image made by man’s design or skill.
(Here’s the sting) In the past God OVERLOOKED such ignorance. But NOW HE COMMANDS ALL PEOPLE… everywhere… TO REPENT.
Exactly the same message Paul and the other apostles have been preaching all along. Whether to Jews or Gentiles. Turn back to the God who made you. The essence of the Christian message.
(slowly) And I need to ask, have YOU done that? Or are you serving the god of yourself? Are you the centre of your world? Or is GOD?
Because God’s set a day when everything you’ve ever said or done is going to be judged – with absolute justice. And Paul says, we’re going to be judged by JESUS HIMSELF. And God’s given proof of that. By raising him from the .
God’s already got the day picked out. When you’ll face the prospect of being treated by HIM/ in the same way you’ve treated HIM NOW. Whether you’ve spent your life worshipping THE CREATION. Or the CREATOR.
Which is where you’ll see Paul ends his speech.
And the usual thing happens. Some just laugh. Others say, WE WANT TO HEAR YOU AGAIN. And keep their options open. Some believe. A few men and women in the midst of all the thousand who heard Paul speak. Which is not to say Paul’s method was WRONG. Because when you’re declaring the message about forgiveness through Jesus, people WILL reject you. But there’ll also be people who DO BELIEVE. Because it’s God doing his work.
And our job is simply to do OUR job. And leave the saving up to God.
5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.