There is a popular thought today in evangelicalism that says that if we as Christians are going to reach unbelievers around us, we need to be more tuned into contemporary culture. If we want people to accept our gospel message, they say, then we need to present the gospel by packaging it in the language of contemporary culture.
The catch phrase for this philosophy is “contextualizing the gospel.” Now, contextualization in and of itself is absolutely necessary and biblical. To contextualize is simply to transfer a message from one cultural context into another. The very fact that I am writing about the Bible in English is an example of contextualization. Whenever I cite examples from current culture as illustrations or applications, I am contextualizing. Bible translators use contextualization all the time to transfer the message of the Bible into modern language.
So contextualization is a biblical concept. A problem arises, though, when one of two things happens in the process of contextualization. First, some believers contextualize the gospel by adopting sinful cultural practices. For instance, some would say that in order to reach this generation, Christians — and especially pastors — need to immerse themselves in MTV and familiarize themselves with all of the latest themes from the Simpsons or South Park and learn the lyrics to all the latest rap and hip hop music and be familiar with the content of all the hottest movies. And then when they present the gospel, they can do so in such a way that is right in step with contemporary culture. In other words, they see contextualization as packaging biblical truth in the pop cultural idioms of the day, and the problem is that they are not careful about what cultural idioms they use.
I’ll give you an example. One New Year’s Eve Mars Hill Church, a church in Seattle, hosted what they called their “New Year’s Eve Red Hot Bash” featuring Bobby Medina and his Red Hot Band. They say this on their website:
Come bust a move on the enormous dance floor when the Ballard Campus transforms into a posh club to celebrate the new year. A smoking band, tasty desserts, a champagne toast at midnight – Mars Hill has never seen a party like this.
Now this is not some liberal church with watered down theology. This is a church with which any theological conservative would agree almost completely in terms of the doctrine that they preach. But they very deliberately have chosen to adopt the pop culture around them in their presentation of that truth. And I say deliberately, because the pastor of this church, Mark Driscoll, is widely known for his philosophy of contextualization, and he is gaining influence particularly in this area.
Driscoll’s philosophy is this. He has what he calls a “two-hand” philosophy. In the one hand he puts important doctrines like the authority of Scripture, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, etc. That hand, he says, is closed-fisted. In other words, he will not compromise on those issues. I applaud him for that, because there are plenty of people in our day who are compromising on important doctrines. This is not like the typical church-growth philosophy that waters down the gospel message. Driscoll doesn’t water down the gospel; he’s got doctrine right. But then in his other hand he puts everything else including how we relate to culture, how we present the gospel, etc. And that hand, he says, is wide open — anything goes.
So Driscoll’s method is to carefully preach truth — good, doctrinal truth — but to do so by packaging it in whatever pop cultural idiom will make the truth “relevant.” And when I say “whatever pop cultural idiom,” I mean “whatever pop cultural idiom.” Driscoll’s off-color method of preaching has earned him the title of “Mark the Cussing Pastor,” because he is known for his crude, vulgar, offensive preaching style. In fact, I watched one sermon of his on the internet and before it started, a screen popped up that said: “Warning, MH-17, Under 17 requires adult permission.” Then an introductory video of Driscoll comes up where he says that they divide the content they provide on their website into the categories of “offensive” and “really offensive,” and he says that “this one is really offensive. The reason being it’s not typically the kind of thing that is said in a church.” He goes on to justify it by saying this:
To be fair, we’re in the least churched city in America, the services tend to include a lot of non-Christians and new Christians. Our evening services don’t even have child care or families at all. And so . . . sometimes I’ll teach things that are kind of intense and you wouldn’t normally hear in a homeschool co-op or a rural church with ladies who have head coverings and guys who churn their own butter. Nonetheless, the content is, I think, pretty fun.”
So that’s how he justifies having to put a rating on a church service. And it’s not just because the content has to do with issues that children shouldn’t hear — it’s how that content was presented. I watched part of the service and was embarrassed. I would have expected what I saw to be in a night club, not a church. I cannot even repeat in public most of the things that I have read and heard him say from the pulpit of his church. Again, the content is right on, but the presentation is vulgar and crude and “really offensive.”
And let me tell you, it works. He’s got thousands of people coming to his church, and he’s preaching right things. I’ve listened to many of his sermons, and he always has very good, insightful, biblical, doctrinally rich things to say. But he presents them in a such a crass, flippant, stand-up comedy kind of style flowing with references to pop culture and language that is downright banal, that the good message is all but lost.
And that’s the second danger of unbridled contextualization. The first danger is when the contextualizer actually adopts sinful cultural idioms. The second danger is when the presentation of the truth actually contradicts the truth, and that’s what I think happens when someone like Mark Driscoll presents good truth in vulgar, banal, sarcastic ways. The content of the truth might be correct, but the way that it is presented is not worthy of the truth; in fact, it contradicts the truth. Philippians 1.27 says, “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” There is a way of conducting yourself that is not worthy of the gospel. The whole second chapter of Titus contains instructions about how to live in such a away that “accords with sound doctrine,” that is, fitting with biblical truth. There is a way of acting that is not fitting with sound doctrine, and we should never adopt those cultural idioms to present doctrine because then we contradict the doctrine.
Where do people like Driscoll get this kind of philosophy? Here is a statement from the website of Mars Hill Church:
When the apostle Paul stood atop Mars Hill, he proclaimed good news to a diverse people steeped in philosophy, culture, and spirituality. Mars Hill Church seeks to continue that legacy in modern-day Seattle. Our city is a place much like first-century Athens: a marketplace of ideas, a vibrant arts community, and a metropolitan hub.
Our church is more than a building, an organization, a man, or a Sunday. Mars Hill Church is a group of missionaries united by a common relationship with Jesus Christ. We want to share him with Seattle by serving and loving the city and preaching the gospel like Paul: using the artifacts and language of our culture to point to Jesus.
The philosophy of this church, even the name of this church, comes directly from Acts 17. In verse 19, the Areopagus literally means in Greek, “Ares Hill.” Ares was a Greek god whose Latin name was “Mars.” So this was known as “Mars Hill.” That’s where this church gets it’s name, and this event of Paul preaching in Athens is where they get their philosophy of contextualization.
We must contextualize the gospel, but is there a line we must never cross? Is Mark Driscoll’s philosophy of contextualization really reflective of Paul on Mars Hill? A careful examination of Paul’s evangelism in Acts 17-19 will give us very helpful principles regarding how we should contextualize the gospel in the 21st century.
Defining Biblical Contextualization
In Acts 17 we have the account of three cities, each of which has very different kinds of people, and we read a record of Paul’s preaching of the gospel in each of these cities. So what I’d like to do is to compare these three cities and Paul’s methods in each city, and try to come to some conclusions about whether this “anything goes” philosophy of contextualization is biblical.
First, let’s look at the differences between the people in these three cities.
Paul’s audience in this city was predominantly Jewish. He spent time in the synagogue there speaking to Jews and Jewish proselytes. But it was not in any way a predominantly receptive audience. In fact, it seems like this was actually mostly a hostile audience. Some did come to Christ, but for the most part, Paul’s audience was hostile. In verse 5 we see that these Jews were jealous when a few began to convert to Christ, and so they stirred up the crowd against Paul. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians he says that they received the gospel amidst affliction (1.6). In his second letter he reminded them that they accepted his message amidst much conflict (2.2). So evidently the few who did come to Christ did so amidst much persecution. Paul’s audience in Thessalonica, for the most part, was comprised of hostile Jews.
He had a different audience in Berea, however. Again, his audience was mostly Jews, but these Jews were not hostile to his message. Verse 11 tells us that they were more noble than the Thessalonians because they received Paul’s message with eagerness. So this audience was similar to the one in Thessalonica except that they were much more receptive.
After Berea, Paul went to Athens. His audience here was much, much different than the other two cities. Athens was the head quarters of Greek mythology. These were rank pagans. Paul noticed this in verse 16 when he saw that the city was full of idols.
Furthermore, this city was full of high class, intellectual philosophers, and we see examples of this in who Paul meets in verse 18. He meets a group of Epicureans and Stoics.
Epicureans were pure materialists. They didn’t believe in the spiritual world. They didn’t believe in life after death. These are equivalent to secular humanists today. Stoics were pantheists. Not only did they believe in many gods, they also believed that all people have godness within them. This is very similar to modern New Age kind of thinking.
So this was a completely different kind of audience than the audiences that Paul had found in Thessalonica and Berea. These were mostly Gentile pagans who were upper class, intellectual philosophers.
So we have three very different audiences. And churches like Mars Hill will look to this as an example of contextualizing the gospel for different cultures. So is it? Let’s examine Paul’s method with these different audiences, and see how exactly he contextualizes the gospel.
The question is, did Paul contextualize the message depending on the culture he was in? That’s what churches like Mars Hill Church in Seattle would argue. They would come to Acts chapter 17 and argue that although the gospel message was the same, the way Paul presented it changed depending on the culture. He preached differently to the Jews in Thessalonica and Berea than he did to the intellectual pagans in Athens.
So did he? Let’s examine the text.
The religious Jews
First, what method did Paul use to present the gospel to the religious Jews in Thessalonica and Berea?
Verse 2 says that he reasoned with them from the Old Testament Scriptures. These Jews would have respected the Scriptures as inspired by God, and so it was natural for Paul to start there.
Verse 3 tells us that he explained those Scriptures to them and proved that the Messiah had to die and rise again. So he showed them in the prophesies about the Messiah that he would have to die and rise again.
Then he explained to them that the facts about Jesus of Nazareth fit with these prophesies about the Messiah. The proper response, then, would be to believe in Jesus Christ.
So Paul was able to assume a lot with these Jews, he could leave some things unsaid, and he did a lot of reasoning from Old Testament prophesies. His method was evidently very similar with the Berean Jews.
The pagan intellectuals
But what about the pagan intellectuals in Athens? In some ways he had to say more to them than he did to the Jews. He had to tell them that God created all things and ruled all things. He had to tell them that God expected them to serve Him. He had to tell them that judgment was coming for those who did not serve Him. The Jews already knew all that. Paul didn’t have to tell them that. But he had to explain these things to the Athenians because, as he said, they were ignorant.
In Athens, Paul didn’t reason with them out of the Old Testament prophesies, trying to prove to them that predictions about the Messiah and facts about Jesus’ life matched. That would have made no sense to them. Instead, he appealed to the needs he knew the Athenians had and showed them why they needed to turn to God.
So did Paul contextualize the gospel? Yes, he did. He presented the same gospel message in slightly different ways depending on the culture.
But the important question is, exactly how did Paul contextualize the gospel? Did he do so by immersing himself in the culture of the Athenians? Did he do so by presenting the gospel in a manner unworthy of it? Did Paul contextualize the gospel in the way that people like Mark Driscoll say that he did? Driscoll would say that when he uses pop culture references like quotes from South Park or lyrics from the latest grunge album or a crass stand-up comic style in his preaching, he is (according to his website) “preaching the gospel like Paul [in Athens]: using the artifacts and language of our culture to point to Jesus.” So is Mark Driscoll really the modern day Paul?
Paul contextualized the gospel in two primary ways that were different for these pagan intellectuals than he did for the Jews in Thessalonica and Berea, and I think looking closely at them will give us some principles to help us prevent sinful contextualization.
Paul understood their pagan religion
The first way Paul contextualized the gospel was with relation to their religion. With the Jews in Thessalonica and Berea, Paul was able to build upon the foundation of their current religion and explain new revelation concerning Jesus. He couldn’t do that with pagans. They had a completely different understanding of the nature of the world. And so Paul had to consider their current religious understanding and then explain what was necessary to correct their faulty thinking.
He does this in verse 22-23:
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
Paul had evidently spent some time studying the religion of Athens, and he used that knowledge to present the gospel in the best way possible.
Now the problem is that some look at this incident and say, “See, Paul immersed himself in the culture of Athens and even gained a hearing from them by speaking positively about their culture.” But is that really what he was doing?
Notice in the text what Paul thought about this religious culture. Verse 16 says that Paul was “provoked” by the culture he saw in Athens. He didn’t adopt their culture; he didn’t approve of their culture; he despised it.
Furthermore, Paul didn’t try to garner respect by speaking positively about their beliefs. Quite the opposite. In verse 22 when he says that they are religious, he is not complimenting them. The word there is literally “superstitious.” That’s a negative charge.
In verse 23, some translations are a little bit misleading. It looks like Paul is saying, “You worship an unknown god, and so I’m going to tell you who that unknown god is.” But Paul uses a different word where some translate the second as “unknown.” The NASB gets it best: “What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.” Paul was accusing them of being ignorant in their religious beliefs. That’s not very complimentary. In fact, he implies their ignorance again in verse 30, and says that God commands them to repent of it.
The point is this: Paul knew their religion. But he referenced their religion, not to give them credit for a good try, or to somehow say that his religion was close to theirs; he exploited their religion! He demonstrated the futility of their religion. And in fact, he insisted that their ignorant, superstitious religion was worthy of judgment from the true God unless they repent. So he revealed the futility of their religion and then explained to them the truth.
Paul exploited their philosophy
The second way in which Paul contextualized to these people was with reference to their philosophy. In verse 28, Paul quotes their own philosophers:
For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.”
Now again here some insist that this is an example of Paul immersing himself in the culture of Athens and quoting their own philosophers as a way to gain respect from his audience. But was that what he was really doing? Let’s look carefully at Paul’s argument here, beginning in verse 24.
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.
Paul’s argument is that God is the Creator and Ruler of all, and that he is not served by human hands. Then he quotes their own philosophers who admit that we come from God in order to reveal their inconsistency. Here they say that they came from a god and yet they still try to bring that god under their control by making idols. Paul is trying to discredit them by pointing out this glaring inconsistency in their thinking. He reveals that purpose in verse 29:
Being then God’s offspring [and your philosophers supposedly admit this], we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man [like the idols you have all around you].
He wasn’t using cultural references in a positive light; again he was showing how futile they were. He was discrediting the popular religious philosophy of the day. He was saying, “You say one thing, but then you do something else completely contradictory. You are ignorant of the truth. Repent of your ignorance or you will be judged!”
So did Paul contextualize the gospel message? Yes. He sought to understand the religion of Athens and the philosophy of Athens. But he did so not so that he could present the gospel in a manner they would be comfortable with. He did so so that he could discredit their way of thinking and living.
So now back to our original question: how does Paul’s methodology match with Driscoll’s philosophy of “using the artifacts and language of our culture to point to Jesus”? How exactly did Paul contextualize?
Paul didn’t approve of the culture, he was repulsed by it
First, Paul did not approve of the culture, he was repulsed by it. Since when is saying, “Your religion and your philosophy of are futile and ignorant and worthy of punishment” anything like devouring the movies and TV and music of pop culture?
When modern, hip contextualizers quote lyrics from the latest Indie Rock hit or sitcom or R-rated movie in a positive light in support of their preaching, they are approving of sinful culture. Paul pointed to the stupidity of sinful culture; it provoked him; he didn’t adopt it.
It is necessary for us to understanding the thinking and practice of the people in our culture. It’s important to understand what is going on so that we can discredit their thinking and their living. But we should never, never approve of sinful culture. Paul says in Ephesians that sinful practices should not even be named among us.
Paul did not immerse himself in the practices of the culture, he shunned it
And second, even though Paul did make himself aware of the culture of Athens so that he could discredit it, he did not immerse himself in the practices of the culture. Some argue that in order to understand exactly what people are thinking and experiencing, we have to experience them for ourselves. So we need to watch what they watch and listen to what they listen to and do what they do.
But we see none of that here. If Paul had wanted to personally experience the culture of Athens, he certainly would have had plenty of opportunities. Paul did not have to join in the cultural practices of Athens to understand what they were. And neither do we. It doesn’t take much for us to know how sinfully people think and live. We don’t have to immerse ourselves in it ourselves.
Instead, we must shun sinful culture. We should be provoked just like Paul. It’s all around us; we don’t have to go looking for it. We must flee its influences in our lives. The Devil is looking for any opportunity to capture us in sin. Who are we to think that we can immerse ourselves in sinful culture without it influencing us for evil?
We must contextualize the gospel. We have to present it in a way that is relevant and applicable to the culture in which we minister. If we are preaching to religious Jews, we appeal to Old Testament prophesy. If we are preaching to pagan intellectuals, we begin with an allusion to one of their altars. We must preach the gospel in the language of the people to whom we witness.
But — and this is the most important point to get — to say that we must contextualize does not imply that all contemporary culture is open game. It does not mean that we can or should immerse ourselves in all of contemporary culture so that we can be relevant. It does not mean that we can present truth in any way we want. It doesn’t mean that because all of culture carries meaning. Some of that meaning is good and wholesome, and some of that meaning is bad and sinful. In every culture there are elements that are good and there are elements that are evil. In every culture there are things that support biblical truth and things that contradict biblical truth.
And so it is our job to discern what parts of our contemporary culture do or do not contradict biblical truth. For instance, in presenting biblical truth, I can give an illustration about an airplane — a part of contemporary culture — to support what I’m saying. But I’m not going to — as I’ve heard some preachers do — use an illustration about Bevis and his depraved friend to support a biblical point. I can speak in modern English and wear American clothing when I present biblical truth. But I shouldn’t present biblical truth in the crude manner of a lounge comic. That is conduct unworthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Contextualization is necessary. Without it, we would have to speak Greek and limit ourselves to the exact words of Scripture. But in our contextualization we must be certain that we are not adopting culture that is inherently incompatible with the message of the Bible.
I am very concerned about this, and about Mark Driscoll in particular, for two reasons.
One, many good conservative men are approving of what Driscoll is doing. He is appearing in conferences with other men who would never themselves do what he is doing. They may not agree per se with what he is doing, but they nevertheless raise him up and praise him. I just read recently of a very good, conservative man who proclaimed support for Driscoll’s church planting organization despite some of these things I’ve pointed out. Their justification is this: Driscoll has the gospel right, and that’s all that really matters. That is a very common, popular sentiment today — the gospel is the only thing that really matters. Everything else is incidental.
But that’s like saying, as long as I affirm the reality of my marriage covenant, it doesn’t matter how I treat my wife. As long as I tell her I love her, it does not matter how I tell it to her.
But it does matter! How I present truth affects the very validity of the truth itself. The gospel is the most important thing, but how I present the gospel affects the gospel. And there are some ways of presenting the gospel that render it no gospel at all. There are some ways of contextualizing that destroy the gospel no matter how correct the content.
The fact of the matter is that this kind of unbridled contextualization actually reveals a distrust in the power of the gospel. We think we need to make the gospel hip and cool and “relevant” in order to reach this generation. We don’t trust that the gospel itself will draw people from all kinds of different cultures. But it will. The gospel is the power of God for salvation to anyone who believes. We don’t need to wrap up the gospel in the trappings of contemporary culture in order to make it relevant, because all people regardless of culture have certain things in common; things like the reality of death and suffering, the sinfulness of their soul, an innate knowledge of God. And the gospel in and of itself meets those needs; the gospel alone is relevant enough.
The second reason I’m concerned is that Driscoll and his philosophy are attracting the bright, young men of my generation. Intelligent, theologically sound men are looking at Driscoll and his success and his justification and his sound theology, and are beginning to agree that all culture is neutral and we must immerse ourselves in it to reach it. Driscoll has a large and influential church planting organization called the Acts 29 ministry that many good, thinking, theological men are joining. And if they adopt Driscoll’s methods, I am afraid that they will destroy the gospel they claim to defend.
I think he is attracting these men primarily for this reason: there are some well-meaning people who are so opposed to any contemporary culture that they seem completely disconnected and irrelevant. And these kind of people often preach their position in a legalistic, oppressive kind of way. And so young, thinking men are reacting strongly against that, and for good reason. I’m talking about people who think pants on women are wrong, and don’t allow facial hair on men, and only allow the King James Version of the Bible. Was there a time when pants would not have been appropriate for women? Yes. Was there a time when facial hair would have carried connotations of rebellion for men? Yes.
But culture changes. And since pants in and of themselves are not evil, and since facial hair in and of itself is not evil, we can change with culture. But that doesn’t mean that we just blindly accept all contemporary culture. We must be discerning. Some changes in culture are just changes, and some changes reflect the increasing sinfulness of our culture. We’ve got to work to determine which is which.
For example, in our church we still have suits and ties and dresses in our worship services. Why? Well, we view our worship services as serious, significant meetings with the King of Kings. And if you go to any significant, formal meeting in our culture like a banquet with the President of the United States, the men will be wearing suits and ties and the ladies will be wearing dresses. And so we express respect for our King by dressing in the way that our culture shows respect to someone important. How we dress on Sundays has more to do with how we view our worship services than anything else. But the way that our culture shows respect might change. And when it does, it will be OK for us to change with the culture. But there are some ways of dressing that inherently do not express respect, and so we would never adopt those styles.
We have to maintain a proper balance between changing with culture on the neutral things, and shunning culture when it is sinful. That was Paul’s model here. He spoke in the language of the people to whom he was witnessing. He referenced subjects that they were familiar with in their culture. But he also shunned the sinful elements of their culture, and he showed them how certain elements of their culture were futile and worthless. That’s biblical contextualization.
The gospel is important. It’s important that we don’t change the message, and it’s equally important that we don’t present the gospel in a way that contradicts the gospel.
The First Principles of the Gospel
Paul did, in fact, contextualize the gospel. He presented it differently with the Thessalonican Jews than he did with the pagan Athenians. But in so doing, we noticed two principles that characterized his relationship to their culture:
1. Paul didn’t approve of the culture, he was repulsed by it.
2. Paul did not immerse himself in the practices of the culture, he shunned it.
Paul’s method was not to immerse himself in the culture so that he could present the gospel using the popular idioms of the day. His purpose instead was to try to understand their ways of thinking, their presuppositions, and their worldview so that he could discredit them and preach the gospel to them.
Contextualization is necessary. Paul had to understand the differences in thinking between the Jews in Thessalonica and the pagan intellectuals in Athens. These people had no knowledge of the true God or the Bible. They had never heard of Moses, never read the Old Testament, and believed in multiple gods. They had a completely different worldview than the Jews.
We can learn some important principles about proper contextualization from Paul’s preaching on Mars Hill because today we are in a very similar situation in America as Paul was in Athens. Until fairly recently, most people in America had some form of what is known as a Judeo-Christian worldview. They had at least a cursory familiarity with the Bible. They at least believed in the existence of absolute truth and morality.
But that is largely no longer the case. More and more we come across people who are completely ignorant of the Bible, and they hold a modernist or postmodern worldview. Let me explain what I mean by those terms.
A modernist is someone who relies solely on empirical, scientific evidence for his beliefs. If you can’t prove something scientifically, then he won’t believe it. Therefore, a modernist doesn’t believe at all in the supernatural. The strength is that he still believes in absolute truth, but it is truth devoid of God and must be proven through the scientific method. This is very similar to the Epicureans of Athens. Many people in our day hold to this kind of worldview.
On the other hand, postmodernism completely rejects absolute truth or morality. For the postmodern, experience and feeling are key. They tolerate religion as long as every person is allowed to believe what he wants. They reject that anything can be proven with any certainty. This is very similar to the Stoics in Athens, and again, many people in our day hold to this kind of worldview.
I think we fail often today when presenting the gospel in assuming too much of our audience. We don’t do enough to really understanding the though patterns and presuppositions of our listeners. For instance, we might approach someone and tell them “Jesus loves you and died for your sins.” But we are assuming so much with that statement, and if we don’t qualify and explain it, we might cause a lot of confusion. People today have absolutely no concept of sin because they don’t believe in absolute morality. Most people see sin a relative. What is sin in one culture is not necessarily sin in another. Sin is a sickness or a psychological condition as a result of pressure from the community. And so someone like this would hear what you say and interpret it in merely psychological terms. They might think that Jesus died to fix a psychological problem rather than real guilt before God.
It is crucially important that we understand what people are thinking, where they are coming from, and what they hear when we use biblical terminology. Chances are, they don’t hear the same thing as you do when you hear terms such as sacrifice, guilt, or sin. We need to understand their thinking and then present the gospel in a way that will confront their thinking. That’s biblical contextualization.
Paul was confronted with people who had very opposite wordviews than he had and than a typical Jew had. So how did he present the gospel to them? He started with the basics.
God is the Ruler of All
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place (Acts 17.22-26).
What’s Paul’s basic point in this first part of his message? His point is this: There is one God who is the ruler of all things. He made all things in the world and in the heavens, He does not live in any earthly dwelling and He doesn’t need anything from us because He controls everything. In fact, he made all of us and he determined our life spans and where we would live. He is the ruler of all. That’s the first point of Paul’s gospel presentation.
Man is responsible to God
Paul then draws an implication from that point:
That they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.” Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man (vv. 27-29).
What implication does Paul draw from the fact that God created all things and is in complete control of all things? It’s this: we are all responsible to Him and must submit to His rulership. God has authority over us because He created us, and He wants us to seek Him out and serve Him. And there is such a thing as absolute truth and morality — it is based upon the Creator Himself.
But there’s a problem. People are ignorant of God — Paul has already illustrated that by the fact that these Athenians have an altar “To an Unknown God” — and they are ignorant of who he is, and therefore they don’t serve the God who created them. That leads Paul to the third point of his gospel presentation.
God Will Judge Men For Their Rebellion
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (Acts 17.30-31).
Paul’s third point is that God will no longer overlook ignorance of Him. He demands that people repent of their sin and turn to Him or he will judge them. The day has been set by God, Paul says. There is no way around it. If you do not submit to God, you will be judged.
So point one, God is the ruler of all. Point two, He demands that people serve Him. Point three, you must repent of your idolatry and turn to God or you will be judged. Notice that he has yet to say anything about Jesus, his love, his death for sin, or forgiveness from sin. Why? Because he had to deal with these people’s faulty worldview and presuppositions about God and about themselves before he could go anywhere near discussing Jesus.
The Jews in Thessalonica had generally correct presuppositions. They believed in Yahweh. They believed the prophesies of the coming Messiah. So all Paul had to do was to show them how the prophesies fit with the realities of Jesus. That doesn’t mean they all just accepted his message; most did not. Salvation still takes a supernatural work of the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, with Jews, Paul was able to go straight to Jesus.
But he couldn’t do that with these pagans. And we cannot do that with most people in our culture today. There was a time in the history of America where you could just walk up to someone and say, “Let me tell you how you can be forgiven of your sin,” and it would have made general sense. Again, salvation still took at supernatural work of the Spirit, but people at least had a general understanding of absolute truth, of God, and of Jesus. Most people had some sense of responsibility to the Creator and the sinfulness of mankind.
Not so today. Most people deny any inherent authority in anything and deny absolute standards of morality. With most people it would be unwise to start with Jesus because they have no conception of a need for Him. It would be unwise to start with forgiveness of sin, because people have a warped concept of what sin is. If we start with “Jesus loves you,” the immediate response in the mind of a typical modernist today would be, “Well, if God is love, then why is their suffering in the world?” You have to start with a right view of God and a right view of man first before you can talk about the love of God or Jesus’ sacrifice for sins.
When giving the gospel to postmodernists or modernists today, we need to contextualize the gospel like Paul did in Athens. We have to get two overarching truths straight in their minds before we can go anywhere near the good news about Jesus and forgiveness:
1. The absolute authority of God.
2. The absolute depravity of man.
And to get these two points straight, we need to do what Paul did: start at the beginning. Tell the whole story of the Bible. We need to establish that God is the Creator of all. We need to establish that mankind as the creature is responsible to God. And we need to establish the fact that all people everywhere do not serve Him and will be judged if they do not repent.
So how does this affect us practically, then? I want to suggest a few ways.
1. We need to make efforts to understand the thinking of people around us.
This means that we need to spend time with unbelievers. We need to get to know them. You need to have your neighbors over for dinner or for games. You need to have a neighborhood barbeque at your home. You need to go out to lunch with your co-workers. You need to get to know unbelievers around you so that you can begin to understand how they think.
But remember, like Paul, we do not have to immerse ourselves in their sinful culture. We don’t have to go to the sinful places they go or do the sinful things they do. We can get to know them and understand how they think without getting dirty ourselves. And one of the greatest ways to protect ourselves is accountability within your church. This is why the task of evangelism has been given to individual believers in the context of a local church. We need each other for accountability so that while we get to know unbelievers, we can protect ourselves from the temptation to join them in our sin. Be careful with a “Lone Ranger” mentality when trying to reach unbelievers. Satan would like nothing more than to catch you in a trap.
Christian fellowship is so crucial and important. But we need to be careful that we don’t limit our relationships or activities to Christians only. Really, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Invite your neighbors over and a family from church. Work together on this.
2. We need to know how to answer people’s presuppositions.
This means that we need to know the Bible. We need to know the gospel. Now this is where most people get caught up. You think, “Well it’s easy to get to know my neighbors,” but you’re afraid of actually engaging them in conversation about the gospel.
I really think that one of the biggest reasons we don’t give the gospel is that we’re afraid that we won’t do it right; that we’ll mess up; that we’ll confuse things. I understand that fear. But we need to remember that it is God who saves, not us. And God can use an imperfect presentation of the gospel to save someone.
Look at Paul’s presentation here in Acts 17. He didn’t get a chance to give the whole gospel before he was interrupted, and yet God evidently gave him opportunity with some individuals later because they believed in Christ.
Some plant, some water, but it is God who causes growth. You may mess up. You may not have time to present the whole truth. But God can still use that. It is still our responsibility to know the gospel the best we can and present the message so that people will understand.
The best tool I know of that can help us present the gospel just like Paul did here in Acts 17 is “Two Ways to Live.” What I like about this tool is that it presents the gospel just like Paul did. The first three points are these: (1) God is the ruler of the world, (2) We all reject the ruler, and (3) God will judge us. Again, we have to get those three points right first before we can go any further. Yet most presentations of the gospel start with things like, “God has been so good to me,” or “Jesus died for you.” Are those statements true? Yes. But they will not make proper sense unless people get right the concepts of God’s rulership and their sinfulness. We have to start there.
Really these principles are no different than for any kind of communication. You have to know your audience and you have to know your subject. Yet I’m afraid we often take one or both of these principles for granted.
Let’s be deliberate in our evangelistic endeavors. Let’s contextualize the message not by letting ourselves be stained by the world, but by understanding our audience and seeking to engage their thinking with the truth of the Bible.
Responsibility and Sovereignty in Evangelism
The danger with most discussions of contextualization today is that the imply that the work of evangelism is entirely up to us. In other words, if we can just figure out the best way to communicate the gospel to our culture, we can convince people to accept the gospel. This fails to correctly recognize that (1) men are totally depraved and (2) God is sovereign over salvation.
Now this does not for a moment imply that we do not have an important part in the task of evangelism — we do. But we must recognize the proper relationship between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility in evangelism. Acts 18 gives us a wonderful illustration of this relationship.
Acts 18 gives us a good opportunity to observe the work that Paul put into evangelism. He used common sense and logic, he developed a strategy, and he used his brain to decide what means would be best for the proclamation of the gospel. Sometimes he received direct revelation from the Lord; sometimes he performed miracles. But those occurrences are relatively few compared to the totality of his time evangelizing. Most of the time he just worked at it like you and I should. We’ve been talking about our responsibility to be active in evangelism, and so I’d like to focus on Paul’s active work of evangelism here in Acts 18.
Paul was active in evangelism
First I want us to notice Paul’s sense of responsibility in working hard to be the best evangelist that he could be. Let’s start right with verse 1:
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.
Now look at the first verse of chapter 19:
And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus.
Paul picked strategic cities
Here we have three cities that occupy the bulk of Paul’s time during his missionary journeys. He just left Athens. Now in chapter 18 we find that he spends a year and a half in Corinth (the longest time in any one city up to this point). And beginning in chapter 19, Paul begins a two-year stretch in Ephesus.
Not only did Paul spend a considerable amount of time in these cities, but he also spilled a considerable amount of ink writing letters to the believers in these cities. He directed two entire epistles to the believers in Corinth, and another lengthy one to those in Ephesus.
Now, the question is, of all the cities that he could have gone to, why did Paul chose these three cities to spend the most of his time? Did he receive direct revelation from the Lord to do so? Not in these cases. He had received some kind of message not to go into Asia originally. He had received a vision instructing him to go to Macedonia. He did receive instruction to stay in Corinth once he got there. But his choice of spending time in Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus was completely his decision. So why did he do it?
Well let’s consider some facts about these three cities. Athens was an important Greek city. It was relatively large and was a central hub of cultural and intellectual activity. Corinth was one of the most important cities in the Roman empire. It was a major commercial center since it sat at a very crucial crossroads of commerce both for land and sea. Ephesus also was a major commercial center being a port city, and had quite a large population.
Additionally, all three cities were relatively close to each other and surrounded the Aegean Sea right where Europe and Asia meet. From this area you could travel to Italy and Spain to the east, the rest of Europe to the north, and Asia and down to Africa in the west.
In other words, this was a very strategic location commercially, politically, religiously, and geographically. In fact, we could say that because Paul spent so much time in these three cities planting churches and strengthening the believers, this region became the launching pad for world evangelism.
So why did Paul spend so much of his energy evangelizing these cities? He used his God-given brain and common sense and chose strategic cities that he knew would be important for the advance of the gospel.
Paul worked so that the gospel would not be hindered
Now continue reading in verse 2:
And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.
Here we see that Paul found some believers who worked the same trade as he did so that he could support himself while he gave the gospel.
Now did he have to support himself like this? Could he have asked for support from other churches or from the believers who were evidently already in Corinth? We can answer that question by looking at Paul’s own words to the believers in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 9.13-19:
Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rihts, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
In this section, Paul is defending his right as a preacher of the gospel to receive his living from the gospel. In other words, he is saying that he would have had every right to expect financial support while he gave his full attention to preaching. But Paul chose to give up that right and work for his own living instead. Why? He explains why in verse 12:
If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.
Evidently with Paul’s knowledge of the Corinthians and their culture, he knew that if he had not worked to support himself, it would have been a hindrance to the gospel. And so he gave up that right for the sake of the gospel.
Again, was he commanded to do this? No. In fact, 1 Corinthians 9.14 says that the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living by the gospel. Paul chose to give up this right based on his own discernment and evaluation of the situation.
Paul used a logical method of evangelism
Now continue reading in Acts 18:4-8:
And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.
Here we see example of the method of evangelism that Paul used in almost every city he visited. He began by preaching Christ in the Jewish synagogue, and then when he encountered too much resistance, he left and began preaching primarily to Gentiles.
Now why did he do it this way? Had he ever received instruction to do this? No. In fact, Jesus had told him that he would be the apostle to the Gentiles. So why, in almost every city, did Paul try to evangelize the Jews first? Again, through common logic, Paul new that he would have a more equal point of contact with Jews, and so he began with them in order to establish a foundation of Christians before he focused on the Gentiles in the city.
So was there anything supernatural or unusual about the way Paul did evangelism? Nor normally. Usually he used common sense and logic to determine the most strategic locations and methods for his evangelism.
This should be no different for us. As we think through how to do evangelism better, we simply need to use common sense and just work hard at it. We need to think through the most strategic ways to reach people. For instance, going door to door used to be a good way to reach people in our country, but it really is no longer very effective. People today will most often listen to you only after you have established a relationship with them. And so we need to use common sense to determine the best ways to make that happen.
We need to work at evangelism, just like Paul did.
Trust in self alone will always produce fear
So Paul worked hard, he used logic, and he made wise decisions. But there is always a danger when we work hard and trust our own common sense when doing ministry, and this danger is illustrated beginning in verse 9:
And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”
These verses provides a crucial understanding that must support anyone who works hard and uses his own intellect when doing ministry. But in order to get at the heart of this, we need to look more closely at what the Lord really said in this vision. In verse 9, the phrase “Do not be afraid” is a present imperative verb. In other words, the Lord is commanding Paul not to be afraid like he is right now. Evidently Paul was experiencing fear, and the Lord was commanding him to not be afraid. The NASB gets the phrase a little more accurate: “Do not be afraid any longer.”
But then he continues, “keep on speaking, do not be silent.” Why would the Lord have to say that? Evidently, because Paul was afraid, he was tempted to stop speaking.
This fear is made even more clear by Paul’s own words in 1 Corinthians 2.1-3:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.
And again in 2 Corinthians 1.8-9:
For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
We must not underestimate the reality of the fear that Paul experienced here. He even despaired of his life.
You see, as we do ministry; as we seek to spread the gospel, there will be pleasures and there will be fear. We must work hard and we must use logic in our efforts, but if we trust only in that, we will be overcome by our fear.
Jesus Christ the Lord is active in evangelism
The only remedy is trust in the Sovereign Lord who promises that He is with us. Yes, we must be active in evangelism, but under it all we must recognize that it is really Christ Jesus the Lord who is the primary actor in evangelism and in all of life! And the Lord emphasizes this in his vision to Paul. Look again at verse 9-10:
And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”
The Lord’s Promise
The Lord starts with a promise: “I am with you.” Is that promise unique to the apostle Paul? No! In the Great Commission of Matthew 28 He promised that He would be with us always, even to the end of the age. He says in Hebrews 13.5: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” And so when the pressure comes and there is a temptation to give up and stop preaching the gospel, this knowledge will allow us to say with confidence just like the author of Hebrews: “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
It is a deeply rooted knowledge of the sovereign activity of God in all things that gives us the confidence to keep being active ourselves even in the face of intense pressure. The Lord promised Paul, “No one will attack you to harm you.” Do you realize that no one can touch a hair on your head without the Lord’s permission?
Well then how do we know if it is in the Lord’s plan or not that we be harmed? Even Paul was eventually killed, wasn’t he? The Lord’s final statement of purpose to Paul reveals a hope-filled foundation to it all: “I have many people in this city.”
God does all that he does for his own glory and pleasure, and one of the primary ways in which he does that is by saving people. And he has commanded us to be the means through which people are saved. And so we can be absolutely confident that nothing will harm us until God has reached every single soul that he has chosen to save through us. That is a powerful fact that should fuel our active evangelism in spite of fear!
The Lord’s Protection
And in verses 12-18 Luke records a magnificent example of this kind of sovereign protection. This arrest and trial before Gallio could have been very serious. It could have had devastating ramifications for both Paul individually and the cause of Christianity all over the Roman empire. Here he is arrested in one of the most important cities in the Roman empire. Gallio was one of the Roman elite whose brother was a tutor of Emperor Nero himself. Had Gallio ruled against Paul and Christianity, Christians throughout all of Rome would have felt the severity of it and the swift spread of the gospel would have been significantly hindered.
But “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, and he turns it wherever he pleases.” Gallio doesn’t just rule in Paul’s favor; he refuses to even hear the case. And this is no small town judge. This is like the Supreme Court refusing to hear a case. It sets a precedent, and this set an important precedent of tolerance for Christianity in this whole region and potentially the entire Roman empire.
You see, Paul was active, but God was active, too.
The Lord’s Providence
God is sovereign; God knows what is best; and so God is active in the spread of his gospel. And we can see evidence of this clearly in the rest of the chapter.
Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth. He evidently planted many good seeds, but as we’ve already seen here and with Paul’s own words in 1 and 2 Corinthians, he faced many hardships and persecution. And so after Paul had planted the necessary seeds, God set in motion a plan to put another key figure in Corinth who would be able to water those seeds and see some great fruit in this key city.
After Paul leaves Corinth, he visits Ephesus for a while. Two important facts here. First, verse 19 tells us that he took Priscilla and Aquilla with him and left them there. Second, verse 20 tells us that he decided not to stay because it was not the Lord’s will. Now we might wonder about that. Wouldn’t it have been more convenient for him to stay since he is just going to come back and spend two years here anyway?
But God had better plans. After Paul leaves and heads for Jerusalem and then Antioch, verse 24 says that a man named Apollos comes to Ephesus. Apollas had many unique strengths. He was a learned man; he had a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures; he was well-spoken. But he evidently did not know enough to be converted to Christiantiy.
But it “just so happened” that a Christian couple named Aquilla and Priscilla were in Ephesus for a while, and God used them to patiently teach Apollo the truth about Jesus Christ, and he was saved.
Now why God chose to use Aquilla and Priscilla to do this and not Paul we may never know. Many think Aquilla and Priscilla were better equipped to patiently teach this strong man. Maybe the similar personalities of Paul and Apollos would have clashed. We can only speculate. But we can be sure that God’s choice to send Paul away and keep Aquilla and Priscilla to teach Apollos was the best.
After Apollos’ conversion, he goes to Corinth, where, according to verse 27, “he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.”
And while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul traveled back to Ephesus. Paul had planted seeds in Corinth, but had faced much difficulty. So God moved his chess pieces around in just the right way to send Apollos to Corinth and move Paul eventually to Ephesus where he had greater success.
Paul himself recounts the results of this brilliant chess play in 1 Corinthians 3.6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
Yes, we must be active in evangelism. We must plant the seeds, we must water the seeds. But God is active in evangelism, too. And it is he who works out His ultimate plan in His providence.
And this fact should just lift the pressure right off of us. We must work hard! We must be active and use logic and common sense. But belief in the providential action of God in all of it will do two things for us:
1. We should have no fear, no pressure. We can have complete confidence in the promises of God.
2. We can leave the results to God. If someone rejects us, we need not fret; God is in control.
God has chosen a group of sinners to be His children. And God has chosen us to be the tools by which he brings those people to himself. And nothing will harm us until we are finished.
God not only has many people in the city of Corinth, but he also has many people left to save in this world. Consider with me John’s vision in Revelation 7:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Here we have a glimpse into the future where there are people from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne as His people. And today there are still 11 thousand people groups in this world who have never heard the gospel.
There is still work to be done. God is with us. No one will harm us while he still has plans to use us to reach his elect. So have no fear. We must work, and we must trust.
The Power of the Gospel
Ultimately a commitment to rightly contextualize the gospel must be rooted in a confidence in the power of the gospel. Luke teaches us about that power in Acts 19.
Ephesus was a city of great power. This city boasted a population of 500,000 people and was a major center of travel and commerce. It was situated on the Aegean Sea at the mouth of Cayster River, and was one of the greatest seaports of the ancient world.
The market and trade area in the city was 360 ft square with hundreds of shops and booths for people to sell their goods. The city had the largest theater in the world at the time, capable of holding up to 50,000 people.
The city was known for its knowledge and ingenuity. It boasted of a huge library and likely had the first instance of indoor plumbed toilets.
But nothing displayed the great power of Ephesus better than the massive Temple to its patron goddess, Artemis. The Temple of Artemis was 425 long, 220 ft wide, and 60 ft high. Imagine the size of a typical sports stadium; this Temple was just a little bit smaller than that. It was made almost entirely of marble and was surrounded by 127 massive pillars. Thousands of people came to the city each year to pay tribute to the goddess in this impressive structure. This temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, along with the Great Pyramid and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Antipater of Sidon, the man who compiled the list of the seven wonders, said this about the Temple of Artemis:
I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labor of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.
Ephesus was a city of great power, and its people were captivated by power. The city was filled with magicians and sorcerers and healers — people infatuated by power.
Ephesus was a center of magic power and political power and religious power, but the power that the people of Ephesus enjoyed and pursued was nothing compared to the power they would experience with the arrival of the apostle Paul.
Paul’s three years in Ephesus mark the climax of his public ministry, and in Acts 19 Luke highlights the powerful effects that resulted from this ministry.
Luke summarizes Paul’s ministry in Ephesus in verse 20. The verse literally reads this way:
So because of power the word of the Lord grew and was strong.
This statement is very similar to other summary statements made by Luke throughout the book of Acts. For instance, 6:7 says, “And the word of God continued to grow” — same word translated “grow” in 19.20. Or in 12.24, “But the word of God grew” — again, same word.
Luke’s summary statements often emphasize the growth of the influence of the gospel.
The difference here in chapter 19 is Luke’s emphasis is on the reason for the growth — power! In fact, in the Greek, the verse begins with the phrase, “Because of power.” There is no doubt that Luke is emphasizing the power of the gospel in this chapter. There were certainly hundreds of events that Luke could have recorded about Paul’s three year stay in Ephesus, but he chose certain specific events to make a central point. In recording the events that he does, Luke sets up this power of the gospel in contrast to the infamous “powers” of the city of Ephesus.
So I’d like to notice in this chapter evidences of the power of the gospel.
The Gospel has power to save
The gospel grants membership in Christ’s Body
The first account of Paul in Ephesus has to do with his encounter with these twelve disciples of John the Baptist in verses 1-7. These men had evidently been taught by John and had left the area without knowledge of Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. Paul’s reply to them is key in verses 4-5:
And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Paul essentially gave them the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it had a powerful effect — they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.
Now we need to remind ourselves of a few things regarding spirit baptism. 1 Corinthians 12.13 will remind us what exactly spirit baptism is and who participates in it:
For in [with] one Spirit we were all [who are the “all”? those who have trusted Christ] baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
So who is it that experiences spirit baptism according to this verse? Well, in context it is “brothers” — believers in Jesus Christ. Anyone who believes, regardless of race, may be spirit baptized. What is it? According to the verse, spirit baptism places believers into one body — whose body? Christ’s body. So those who are spirit baptized are immersed into Christ — united together in Christ’s Body, which is the Church. When does it happen? Well, the verse says, “were all baptized,” which indicates a point of time in the past. And because all believers are placed into the Body of Christ, it must occur at the moment of salvation.
So spirit baptism happens to all believers at the moment of their salvation, and it places them into the spiritual Body of Jesus Christ.
So what is clear then in Acts 19 is that these disciples of John the Baptist were not believers in Jesus Christ, but when Paul preached the gospel to them, they believed and were spirit baptized. And just like we see several times in the book of Acts, this baptism was accompanied by tongues and prophesy in order to authenticate their union in the Body of Christ.
So here we see the first example of the power of the gospel — the gospel has power to save, and particularly, the gospel grants membership in the Body of Christ.
Now just stop for a moment and consider the impact of what this means. The gospel has the power to take individuals who are not only of different races and backgrounds and personalities, but who are also rebels and God-haters, and fit them together into the spiritual Body of Jesus Christ. It has the power to take sinful, selfish rebels and make them the hands and the legs and the fingers of Jesus Christ’s spiritual body on this earth. Now that’s power!
And as a side note, this is why visible water baptism and visible local church membership are so important — they picture the wondrous realities of spirit baptism and membership in the spiritual Church. Being physically baptized and visible joining a local church are the most important first acts of obedience for a Christian because they put on display the power of the gospel!
The gospel grants citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom
But there is another aspect of the power of the gospel in salvation beyond membership in Christ’s Body, and it is illustrated in verses 8-17.
In verse 8 we find some of the content of Paul’s gospel message — he argued “persuasively about the kingdom of God.” The gospel not only has the power to grant us membership in the spiritual Body of Christ, but it also has the power to grant us citizenship in the Kingdom of Christ. That Kingdom is not yet here, but when someone repents and believes in Jesus Christ, he is made a citizen of that future Kingdom.
And this is illustrated by the “extraordinary miracles” that God did through Paul. What are the purpose of miracles? 2 Corinthians 12.12 tells us that miracles were the mark of an apostle, and Hebrews 2.3-4 tell us that miracles confirm the truthfulness of the gospel. So the purpose of these miracles performed by the apostle Paul were to confirm the gospel message.
But how do miracles confirm the gospel? It directly relates to the power of the gospel to grant citizenship in the Kingdom. Hebrews 6.5 calls miracles “powers of the coming age.” In other words, these kinds of blessings that the people in Ephesus were experiencing — healings, freedom from evil spirits — were foretastes of Kingdom blessings and therefore proof of the power of the gospel to grant citizenship in the Kingdom.
Again, stop for a moment and consider the significance of this. What does it mean to be a citizen of a kingdom or country that is not the one in which you are currently living? It means that you possess all the rights and privileges of that kingdom or country even though you don’t live there.
In the summer of 1999 I traveled with a choir in Europe. Once when we were in Russia, we were driving down the road (I was driving one of the three vans), and we noticed a road block up ahead. We were pulled over by the military — jeeps and machine guns and uniforms and all. They demanded that the drivers of the vans (I being one of them) get out of the vehicles and follow them. We didn’t have much choice since they had guns! Thankfully we also had a Russian translator with us, so he went along. We followed the soldiers into a large bus on the side of the road. All the seats had been removed, and in the very back of the bus was a large couch with a table in front of it and a greasy, “Godfather” looking man with an open white dress shirt and gold chains around his neck seated there surrounded by some guards. We walked to the back of the bus, and saw on the table in front of the man various syringes and needles. Our translator began talking with the man on the coach, and pretty soon he got a little bit agitated and then turned to us and said, “We’re leaving.” And we followed him out of the bus, got in our vans, and drove off.
We found out later that this was simply a routine drunk driving road block, and the authorities were pulling over all of the vehicles and making the drivers give blood for alcohol testing. So they wanted to stick us with one of those needles to test our blood and see if we had been drinking alcohol.
Well our translator wisely told them, “These men are citizens of the United States of America, they have their rights, and they will not submit to this test!”
You see, as citizens of another country, we enjoyed the rights and privileges and protection of that country even thought we were not actually in that country. There are some limits to that protection, and we still have to abide by the laws and regulations of that country. But we do still possess the rights of our citizenship.
The same is true for anyone who is a believer in Jesus Christ. We are citizens of a future Kingdom. We do not yet live in that Kingdom, but in many ways we enjoy the rights and privileges and protection of that Kingdom!
The gospel has power! It has power to save — it grants us membership into the Body of Christ and it grants us citizenship in the Kingdom of Christ.
This is great power. And this is not some kind of cheep magical power that can be sold like the magical power that fascinated the Ephesians. This is illustrated in the next event that Luke records. Here are some men — sons of a Jewish chief priest, no less — who see Paul casting out demons and are so fascinated by it that they decide to try it themselves, no doubt charging money along the way. But instead of being successful, they are left naked and bleeding.
The gospel provides power, but it is not magic. It is true power in the message of Jesus Christ to save sinners, and it is authenticated here with miracles. But the miracles are not ends in themselves — they simply testify to the truthfulness of the gospel.
The gospel has power to sanctify
The power of the gospel is not limited only to salvation, however. Here we have people coming to salvation through the power of the gospel — it grants them membership in Christ’s body and citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom. But the power of the gospel extends beyond merely these point-in-time moments of salvation. The power of the gospel has even further-reaching results.
And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
Because of power, the word of the Lord grew and was strong, “in this way.” In what way? By saving sinners, and by sanctifying them. The gospel not only has power to save, but it also has power to sanctify.
Believers will be transformed
These people did not just believe and then continue in their sinful lifestyles. These people were transformed! Notice all the ways that these people were transformed by the gospel:
Verse 18 says that they openly confessed their evil deeds. This power had moral impact. Verse 19 says that those who had practiced sorcery burned their scrolls publicly. This power had religious impact. The burning of these scrolls was very expensive, but these normally greedy Ephesians didn’t care. This power had economic impact.
“In this way, because of power, the word of the Lord grew and was strong!”
Many people think that we need the gospel only for our salvation. But the power of the gospel extends far beyond our salvation to every aspect of our lives! Ephesians 3.16 says that believers are strengthened with power [same Greek word] through he Spirit in the inner man. That’s sanctification. Titus 2.11-12 says that the same grace that brings salvation also teaches us to say no to ungodliness.
The power of the gospel that saves is also the power that sanctifies! It completely transforms the unbeliever. Someone does not have to reform his life in order to experience the power of the gospel, but where there is no transformation, there is no power, and where there is no power, there is no gospel. Someone who is living in sin cannot claim to have experienced the power of the gospel.
If the gospel were some unremarkable thing, then maybe someone could experience it without any lasting effects. But the gospel is not unremarkable. The gospel is like an atom bomb — When its power is released, you will see evidences of its impact.
When the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima near the end of World War II, that 130 pounds of uranium created a blast equivalent to about 13 kilotons of TNT. The radius of total destruction was about 1 mile, with resulting fires across 4.4 square miles. Infrastructure damage was estimated at 90 percent of Hiroshima’s buildings being either damaged or completely destroyed. No one doubted the power of that bomb. The power was evident in the results.
To deny that the gospel has the power to transform lives would be like if I insisted that I set off an atom bomb in your town, but you saw absolutely no evidence of its power.
Unbelievers will notice the transforming power of the gospel.
The gospel has power to sanctify — to transform believers, and unbelievers will notice. That is the reason behind the riot at the end of the chapter. If the gospel didn’t change anyone, then Demetrius and the sliver smiths would have had no reason to be upset. But the powerful effects of the gospel to change lives gave them good reason to worry. Look at the heart of his concern in verse 27:
And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.
Demetrius recognized that the gospel had a powerful impact upon the commercial and religious so-called “power” of the city of Ephesus. Even the term they used to describe Christianity — “The Way” — reveals that even unbelievers knew that believing in the gospel implied a change in lifestyle.
The power of the gospel so threatened the very fabric of the Ephesian society that it caused a violent riot that lasted for hours. This city that was so infatuated with power — commercial power and political power and religious power and magical power — was thrown into confusion by the power of the gospel. And Luke highlights the fact that it was not power in Paul himself — he didn’t even go to theater. Ephesus was literally turned upside down simply by the power of the gospel itself.
I want to conclude by narrowing in even closer on the exact nature of this power, and to do so, I would like to look at Paul’s own words to these very people who were saved in this chapter. I want to turn to the first chapter of Ephesians. Here Paul addresses the believers in this city that is so enamored by power, but he reveals to them a greater power in the gospel, and explains just how powerful it is. Begin reading in verse 15-19.
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might.
Now let’s stop here for a moment in verse 19. This verse literally reads, “And his incomparably great ability [same word in Acts 1.8 where Jesus said we would receive ability to witness] for us who believe.” So all believers are given an incomparably great ability. But then the verse continues by saying literally, “That ability is because of the working of his mighty power” — that’s the exact same phrase as we saw in Acts 19. So this ability given to all believers is because of God’s mighty power. This power is what we’ve been witnessing in Acts 19.
And now in verse 20 is where Paul describes the nature of this power that is at the heart of the gospel:
[That ability is because of the working of his mighty power] that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.
Do you realize the significance of that statement? The exact same power that God exerted in raising Christ from the dead is the same power that is at the heart of the gospel. It is a power that reverses all other powers.
This power reverses the power of death — not only the death of Christ (verse 20), but also the condition of death that characterizes all sinners (Ephesians 2). This power reverses the great power of Satan over the world and sets up Christ as the supreme King of all (verses 20-22). This power reverses Babel and unites people from all races in one Body (verse 23). And this power reverses the sinful habits of believers and conforms them to the image of Jesus Christ.
The power of the gospel is a power that reverses all other powers, and it is available to you if you believe in the gospel. If you do not believe, then the gospel is simply foolishness to you. 1 Corinthians 1.18 says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” And if you have experienced that power, then you should be able to affirm with Paul in Romans 1.16,
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
At the end of the day, it is not our cleverness or our efforts or our contextualization that leads a person to accept Christ. It is the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.