Monday, May 24, 2010

Paul Goes to Mars: What We Learn from the Original Mars Rover and the “Got Jesus?” Tee Shirt Guy

Our team was downtown late one Friday night. Outside one bar, I saw a man crossed the street toward us with another fellow and two young ladies tagging along. I noticed he was wearing a “Got Jesus?” tee-shirt. Curious, I asked him if he had a Christian background. I ’ll tell you what happened in a moment—keep reading.

Mention the “love chapter” of the Bible and one thinks of 1 Corinthians 13. Mention “The Hall of Faith,” and one turns to Hebrews 11. Ask someone on the street their favorite psalm and most will say “the 23rd.” When we think of Acts 17, our minds flip up the title, “Paul Goes to Mars” (or something like that) and we recall this is the record of Paul preaching to the pagans in their temple regarding “an unknown god.” Our eyes zero in on verse 16, noting that Paul when he arrives in Athens, does what any good Mars rover does: he observed. Next, he went to their temple and preached, they heard and some believed. Actually, that’s not quite what happened.

When Paul first arrived in Athens, and with provoked spirit (because of the idolatry of the city), Paul begins reasoning in the synagogue with Jews and God-fearing non-Jews. This is not the first time he encountered idolatry, for with Barnabas he had already preached to pagans in Lystra (14:15). Paul’s Athenian synagogue conversation then spills over into marketplace. Daily. The Epicureans and Stoics bring practically usher him from the marketplace to the Areopagus, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean." (Acts 17:19-20) Don’t miss this: when Paul finally reaches the Areopagus, the sermon he preaches there is part of an ongoing conversation that was started days previous.

As worldview thinkers moving in the world as representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ, we may learn a few principles that apply to our ministry:

First, survey your surroundings: where are you and what is going on around you? Is there a festival going on? What is being celebrated? Halloween, July 4, Cinco de Mayo? Garage Sale? Paul let the city speak to him before he spoke to the citizens. Paul observed the spirituality of the city—what clues do you about what people believe from what is going on around you? Just because a person is wearing Christian swag does not mean they are a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ll say more on this in a moment.

Do you see someone sitting by the fountain, but talking on a cell phone? She is probably not approachable. Is someone reading a book on spirituality of some kind? They are probably willing to talk. People sitting outside Starbucks playing board games might be approachable. A conversation in the crowd standing at the stage of a live band is not sensible. Open-air preaching on aisle 12 is not appropriate either.

Second, conversation: what are people talking about in your setting? Paul did what the pagans were doing, talking in the public square, the designated place for philosophical conversation. This is the time to be a listener for verbal cues. Probe and see what people think—get their opinion on a topic or a headline. “Hey, did you hear on the news about the guy who was arrested for crimes committed 30 years ago? Should he be tried for his crimes?”

One might say our purpose is not to contradict, but build on what others say. The daily marketplace conversation was for Paul this kind of excercise which culminates in his quoting a well known philosopher, then building on that quote from the biblical worldview.

Also, and contrary to popular belief, spiritual matters are not intended to be kept behind church walls. Athens was bustling with spiritual activity and Paul’s conversants were in the marketplace. State citizens are spiritual beings, unless they have split personalities being one person in one place and another person in another place. Today’s society would have its’ people living as mad men! Keep the conversation going!

Third, know your audience: with whom are you speaking? Have you met this person before—it can happen if you become a “regular.” The Epicureans and Stoics listened to Paul. Who were the Epicureans and the Stoics? Most people will reflect one of these two ways of thinking:

The Epicureans thought that whatever brought the highest pleasure was “good.” Happiness is the goal of life. Do whatever you like, just don’t hurt anyone. The Epicureans thought that after the gods created the world, they got bored and left. Since there is no controlling deity, everything happens by chance, or luck. Life is to be lived to the full NOW because there is nothing after death, nothing to fear and nothing to hope for.

The Stoics felt that blind, impersonal force rules the Universe, that Nature takes its course. If there is a God, then He is everything; that is God = The Universe. Life is full when one is at peace, content. Accept circumstances as they are and don’t struggle against what you cannot change. Just “go with the flow.”

The final principle we learn from Paul is to identify springboards--advance the biblical worldview using what people give you. Remember the guy with the “Got Jesus?” tee shirt? I stopped him and asked if he had a Christian background. “Nah,” he said, “I’m just out to get some Christian babes.” I can’t tell you the rest of what he said, but that I told him to turn from his sin of blasphemy and lust and to ask God to cleanse him from his sin by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He refused, but his friends looked stunned. One girl started cursing at me and blaspheming. I told her to watch her mouth because ladies might be present—and that she needed to repent of her blasphemy as well. Her mouth clamped shut.

Luke, the recorder of this event, notes three responses Paul received (Acts 17:32-34). The first response is that after hearing of the resurrection from the dead, people began to sneer. Sneering is a facial expression, usually identified with a slight raising of a corner of the lip, to signify disgust Just because a person responds negatively does not mean that they have not heard, nor does it mean they will not stand before God on judgment day. The second response was “We will hear of you again concerning this.” We find it difficult to find if they were waving their fists and shouting in a threatening way; or, if this was a more introspective sort of response. Regardless, their meaning was they were still open to the message of the gospel. The final response was that “some men joined him and believed.” This means they repented, they changed their mind and responded by faith.

What did they believe?

They believed God made the world and everything in it, and He is Lord of heaven and earth. This means that everything they were worshipping as gods were not worthy of worship at all. Now they knew there was a Creator deserving all love and devotion.

They believed that the Creator cannot be contained in a hand-made temple and has need of nothing that comes through man’s hands. They believed that He is the source of life, breath and everything. He does not need a house or to be fed. He has no need of man.

They believed that God made from one man all nations and all their temporal, geographic, social, cultural, and philosophical limitations. They believed that God could be found, apprehended. He is a relational God. He is the father of all men by virtue of creation and the spiritual Father of all men who partake of the Divine Nature by repentance and faith in the finished work of the once dead and now risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s attitude toward the lost is noteworthy, his burden was huge. His spirit was provoked about the way they viewed the world and their subsequent theology (v. 16) so he reasoned with them, took time with them, invested in them, thought through the issues with them (v. 17). He stood up among them and proclaimed not a cold and sudden, unexpected message, but one they were ready to hear (v. 22). For those who would not address their own worldview thinking, he went out from them (v. 33) and joined those who believed (v. 34). He was done with one group and went on with another.

When the guy with the tee shirt heard that He had broken God’s law, he was not ready to hear of God’s grace until he understood how he had offended God. He had no intention of changing. His friends were just as tenacious about their sin, so we moved on.

We should not expect to be well received in the world; however, we should be ready to get out, explore a little, survey, engage, then move along. Boldly going . . .

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