Paul’s approach to outreach and ministry is a great model for our times. His normal pattern was to bring the gospel message first to the Jews by using synagogues as his base of communication.
“As was Paul’s custom, he went to the synagogue service, and for three Sabbaths in a row he used the Scriptures to reason with the people. He explained the prophecies and proved that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead. He said, “This Jesus I’m telling you about is the Messiah” (Acts 17:2-3, NLT).
But the apostle also expanded his outreach to the market place or the public square.
“While Paul was waiting … in Athens, he … went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and he spoke daily in the public square to all who happened to be there” (Acts 17:16-17).
Consider Paul’s method of communication revealed through the terms used to describe it. He “reasoned with them .. explaining, proving and proclaiming ….” These are not words that describe passive engagement. Paul was clearly intense and passionate in communicating the gospel.
But take special not of how he “reasoned with them” (see: 17:2,17). This is a translation of the Greek word behind our English word “dialogue.”
“Dialogue implies a free and open exchange of ideas, perceptions, problems and options with a desire to arrive at an understanding of truth. Since it allows for people to really communicate where they are spiritually, socially, intellectually, emotionally, and behaviorally, we believe it encourages a more relevant kind of instruction” (John Stott, Romans). (See also: I Peter 3:15).
This was Paul’s method. He didn’t shout bible verses or form a team to march around Athens. He didn’t target territorial demons of Athens and cast them out. He simply found people who were open to discuss the truths of the gospel and presented Jesus to them.
Paul no doubt presented these truths passionately and persuasively. He was a master at dialogue and a strong apologetic evangelism in tune with his audience. He was a clearly man of action who was ready to enter the arena of conflict between truth and error.
The synagogue and market place today
Paul spoke to Jews on the Sabbath and went to the agora (the market place) where people did business and gathered for casual conversation and exchanging ideas (“All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” – Acts 17:21).
The apostle seized the opportunity to intelligently and persuasively present Jesus and the resurrection to all who would listen.
“Today the nearest equivalent to the synagogue is the church, the place where religious people gather. There is still an important place for sharing the gospel with church-goers, God-fearing people on the fringe of the church, who may attend services only occasionally. The equivalent of the agora will vary in different parts of the world. It may be a park, city square or street corner, a shopping mall or market-place, a ‘pub’, neighborhood bar, café, or student cafeteria, wherever people meet when they are at leisure. There is a need for gifted evangelists who can make friends and gossip the gospel in such informal settings as these” (John Stott).
It is significant to note how Paul “used the Scriptures to reason with the people” in the synagogue (Acts 17:2), but he did not quote a single Scripture in his message to the philosophers of Athens (see: Acts 17:22-34).
Paul’s opening text for the philosophers was actually “an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god” (Acts 17:23). He also quoted Greek poets, (“‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” Acts 17:28).
What should we take from this?
Paul’s message in Athens was clearly based in truth that could only be known by revelation from God. Look closely at his opening words,
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:24-27).
How could Paul speak so definitively about such great truths? Only based on revelation from God. All that Paul proclaimed to these philosophers was true and based on revelation from Scripture. But Paul did not use the Scripture explicitly as he did among the Jewish people in the synagogue (“he used the Scriptures” Acts 17:2).
This is important to recognize for our method today. When people are unfamiliar with the Bible, sometimes explicit use of it with phrases like, “The Bible says…” or “Scripture says…” or “In John 3:16, we read….” can become an obstacle to their willingness to hear the truth revealed in Scripture.
We must be careful about “canned methods” of outreach that take a one-size-fits-all approach. We might also want to ask if we hold some kind of mystical belief in the use of quotation as a necessary means for God’s power and truth to be heard.
There was nothing “watered down” in Paul’s message to the philosophers. He didn’t avoid things that might offend their belief system. “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject’” (Acts 17:32).
Paul did not compromise God’s truth in bearing witness but he communicated it differently based on the context and worldview of the audience.
Did the truth he spoke to the philosophers bring the power of conviction in the same way as a quotation of Scripture? Evidently it did since we learn that, “Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (Acts 17:34).
My title for this post might be a bit misleading: “Should we always use the Bible in witnessing for Christ?” The answer is obvious. But, based on Paul’s method in Athens, we should also ask, “How we should use the Bible?”
Is it possible that it requires an even greater knowledge of Scripture to effectively use the truth it reveals as Paul did in Athens?
I think the diversity of models for outreach (as in Acts 17) deserves more thoughtful conversation in the Church today.