None of us preach in a vacuum.
We live “in this present world” and have been commissioned by God to declare His gospel in it.
It seems to me that, when it comes to the present-day culture, there are two extremes preachers tend toward: embracing the culture to the point that the truth is swallowed up in it, or becoming so discouraged about the culture that they don’t consistently try to communicate the truth.
Paul did neither—he engaged the culture with the gospel of Christ.
We can see this throughout Paul’s ministry, but I see it especially in Acts 17 as he preached in Athens.
We forget sometimes the godlessness of the first-century cities where Paul proclaimed the gospel, and so we lose the impact of what it was like for Paul to be fearlessly countercultural. When Paul preached the gospel in Athens, his goal was not to reclaim the culture of Athens; it was to reclaim souls through Christ.
Through his testimony, we see how a man of God engages a corrupt culture.
With a Stirred Heart
Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry.—Acts 17:16
The city not only aroused Paul’s interest; it stirred his heart.
And he wasn’t stirred by their art or philosophy or architecture; he was stirred by their need for Christ.
Perhaps we fail to engage our culture with the gospel because we aren’t truly stirred for the needs of souls. We so easily forget the eternal realities of Heaven and Hell and salvation through Christ.
Paul’s preaching wasn’t a put on. It wasn’t a weekly obligation. It came from a burning compassion within his soul.
With an Action-Orientated Strategy
Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. 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.—Acts 17:17–18
Paul didn’t just wait for people to come to him; he engaged people in gospel conversation.
He reasoned with them and preached Christ to them. And he did it everywhere he went and in every opportunity that opened—in the synagogue, the market place, and eventually the Aeropagus.
In all of these places, Paul went to the heart of their culture and confronted pagan beliefs with gospel truth.
With the Gospel Message
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.—Acts 17:22–23
Paul stood in the very center of this corrupt culture and preached—not acceptance or kindness or virtue or a better lifestyle—but Christ.
Paul preached that there is one true God, that He has power over creation and is the Sovereign giver of life and governor of the universe, and that He has made provision for us to be reconciled to Him through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
Interestingly, Paul did contextulize the gospel message from one of the Athenian poets—“as certain also of your own poets have said” (verse 28). He wasn’t afraid of their culture. And yet, his goal wasn’t to show he understood their culture; it was to help them understand his message.
I believe there is such a thing as over-contextualization, and I believe it develops a worldly church. But I also believe there is such a thing as under-contextualization, and I believe it develops a church no one understands.
Our goal in contextualization shouldn’t be to prove we are culturally-relevant; it should be to proclaim Christ in an understandable context. That is what Paul did on Mar’s Hill.
Many commentators speak of Paul’s gracious, even conciliatory, way in Acts 17. Indeed, he was gracious. But make no mistake, his message was clear. He wasn’t there to get a city to like him; he was there to introduce them to Christ.
Paul left Athens alone, but Scripture tells us there were some he left behind who had believed on Christ.
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
Engaging culture with the gospel does not always mean immediate and large results. But it does mean consistent faithfulness to speak directly to lost people with the only message that saves.
We can reach this culture for Christ—if we care to engage it. If we will allow God to stir our spirits with the need, if we will stop criticizing others and go into the marketplace, and if we will again and again and again preach Christ to those who don’t know Him.