Paul: A Street Preacher to the Pagans
Athens was the center of Greek culture and philosophy. Rhetoric was as much a business as a social art. During the apostle Paul’s second missionary journey, he circled the Aegean Sea from Troas to Corinth to Ephesus. One key stop was the city of Athens. It was a city full of idols (Acts 17:16).
Paul’s approach to ministry was customary. He would minister to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the local synagogue, and then he would venture into the marketplace (agora). Paul was a missionary church planter and field evangelist. A field evangelist is one who goes to where the people are and preaches the Gospel to those, “who happened to be present (Acts 17:17).”
Public discourse, debate, and street preaching were all in Paul’s practice set. The Athenians were ready to hear Paul because they spent their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new (Acts 17:21). To them, he was speaking of strange deities (Acts 17:18). They invited him to preach to them at a place called, “Mars Hill” or “Aeropagus.”
Where is a place like this, today? First, America is very much like Athens. It is a place of diverse ideas. Philosophies of living and practical life skills abound. This includes religion and religious cults in great variety. Second, Americans absorb an enormous amount of information. We are looking for what is “new” or “improved.” Third, we still gather in places for sporting events, concerts, political rallies, parades, etc. The marketplace has changed, but people are still buying and selling in farmers’ markets, flea markets, and street fairs. Fourth, America is a rampant idol factory. We produce cults and promote worship of iconic sex and sport figures. Simply stated, “We are Athens.”
In his sermon atop Mars Hill, Paul addressed the men of Athens. He identified them as, “very religious and every respect (17:22).” The preacher must identify people as spiritual creatures. Humans were made to worship. This means we find worth in something greater than ourselves. This is either ascribed to Yahweh, God Almighty, or ascribed to someone or something else.
Next, Paul connected with his audience by identifying a particular altar in the city with the inscription, “to the unknown god (17:23).” The preacher must find his point of connection with people. Spiritual ignorance is the very condition of fallen humanity. The spiritual void is filled with spiritual things. The claim of the preacher is to be the filler of the void with truth. In essence, the Christian preacher is saying to the people in the world, “Today, I am proclaiming to you what is lacking in your spiritual knowledge.”
Paul introduced his starting theological point (17:24). He preached God, the Creator. Whereas man carves a piece of stone or wood, and then constrains his idea of deity in a dumb icon, the preacher proclaims a magnanimous deity. God created everything, and He gives life to us, not vice-versa (17:25).
The preacher must determine the starting point of preaching. Stephen preached to the Sanhedrin, and his starting point, in his inductive history of Israel sermon, was Abraham (Acts 7). Peter preached into a crowd experiencing the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (Acts 2:15–17). The point is for the preacher to begin where the Spirit prompts him, with consideration given to his audience and circumstances.
America is a pluralistic society. Everyone does what is right in his own eyes. Post-modern America is the latest version of, “freedom.” What this entails is the right to perform deviant behaviors with the protection of the law. What is objectionable is someone telling another his behavior is wrong.
Because the law of God and the law in American society are on divergent trajectories, conflict is sure to occur when an arrest of one or the other is attempted. The preacher must preach the law of God, in the power of the Spirit, in order to bring conviction of sin. The preacher then presents the solution to sin, which is the Gospel of grace.
Men should seek for God, but in reality, they seek for gods, like the Athenians (17:27). People do not seek the God of the Bible (Rom 3:12) because of the notion of His being a just Judge. Avoidance of God is the practical theology policy for most people. This is why the preacher is sent from God out into the world (Acts 1:8). While people are eluding God, He is sending His messengers with a message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:20).
Adam was a son of God (Lk 3:38). For this reason, his entire progeny (all humanity) has claim to the title, “children of God (17:28–29).” Because of the fall, our disobedient allegiance was given to Satan (Rom 6:6). He is lord sin, and all who are enslaved to sin belong to his dominion (Jn 8:34; Col 1:13).
Man is of his father the devil (Jn 8:44; 1 Jn 3:10), and for restoration, he must be adopted into the re-established family of God (Eph 1:4–5; Rom 8:15, 23). The preacher must help his audience to understand the estrangement people have with God (Eph 2:12). Sin has separated us from Him, and only through Christ Jesus’ blood sacrifice on the Cross can anyone be brought back into legal right standing with a holy God.
“What must I do to be saved?” was the crucial question of the Philippian jailer convicted of sin (Acts 16:30). Paul announced that God was, “now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent (17:30).” Repentance means, “to change one’s mind.” It is turning from the way of sin to the way of Christ. It is agreeing with God’s poor assessment of me. It is based on the law and conviction by the Holy Spirit. When the preacher declares the law, sin is exposed, and the option is either just judgment, leading to eternal punishment, or repentance to faith in Christ.
Trusting Christ for salvation is a paradox. On the one hand it is simple. On the other hand, it is impossible. How can something so simple be impossible? The problem is inability. Religious people clearly feel the trouble they live in because of sin. They are concerned about their relationship with God or gods. They can make their idols and control their gods, who are actually controlling the people who worship them through idolatry. Paul wrote, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised (1 Cor 2:14).” Where is the hope for salvation then?
Trusting Christ requires the agency work of the Holy Spirit to bring about repentance and faith (Acts 5:31; 11:8; 2 Cor 7:10). Faith is a gift of God’s grace (Eph 2:8–9), and it is granted to God’s elect at His own appointed time (Phil 1:29), in God’s preferred allotment (Rom 12:3), by means of the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom 10:8, 17).
The preacher is sent to proclaim good news to the captives of sin (Is 61:1; Rom 6:6). The Word of God is proclaimed to many (Mt 24:14; Mk 16:15), who hear the simple message with its simple requirements. Faith is found in some who hear, and not in others (Jn 10:26), who hear the same message preached by the one sent to them. What is the difference?
Spiritually dead men do not inherently have faith. They do not have some internal device for generating faith in Christ, in some spontaneous manner. Rather, they must be recipients of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, who imparts faith by the grace He brings with Him, when He indwells the elect soul. What are the ramifications for Paul’s preaching and your preaching?
First, Paul was called and sent to preach. God continues to raise up men, calling them, equipping them, and sending them to preach the Gospel in the power of the indwelling Spirit. The anointing of the Spirit rests on the man of God ordained by God and appointed by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the excellencies of Christ Jesus. The preacher has an unction given to him, to herald the message given to him, as a member of the church.
The preacher was a preacher in the womb, like Jeremiah. The preacher has received a purification of his mouth, like Isaiah. The preacher is called, like Ezekiel. The preacher’s task, as many of the prophets experienced, is impossible. The preacher will preach, but the people will not obey. They are not willing, nor are they able to respond with obedience (Rom 3:10–12).
Every preacher knows the feeling of delivering a sermon to no effect. He is humbled by his own powerlessness. In his humility, and with the fire of God’s Word in his bones (Jer 20:9), he calls for God to demonstrate His saving power. The Spirit moves like the wind (Jn 3:1–8). People are saved by the Spirit of God regenerating and converting them. It is the preacher’s task to declare these things to all men everywhere.
Second, servants of Christ, as preachers of Christ, must be found faithful in the stewardship afforded them (1 Cor 4:2). We proclaim Him, declaring Him with our whole being, from the rooftops, and to all creation. The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart (1 Tim 1:5). In love, we tell men of God’s demonstration of covenant love (Rom 5:8; Ps 103:17–18).
Third, preachers must leave the confines of the church building and go to the people where they may be found gathered in public. Churches attempt to lure the world into the church through gimmicks, games, and a gamut of programs. In some cases, the Gospel is preached, but more often, it is the hope that Christ will somehow rub off on carnal men by simple association with the church on Christmas and Easter.
Paul preached in the synagogue, and then he went out into the street to preach to the pagans. If pulpit preachers are the most knowledgeable Christian theologians in our churches, and we withhold them, and the storehouse of knowledge they possess, then we are depriving the world of the Gospel. How do we say we have the love of God in us, if this is our story?
Fourth, preachers must go into the marketplace, unashamed of the Gospel, and without the fear of men. Paul never knew what was waiting for him in any place. It was different in Lystra, Derbe, Philippi, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Jerusalem, Rome, etc. What did not change was Paul’s unwavering faithfulness to preach to the people.
There must be a new movement in American Christianity. It must begin with the preachers. We need men of God in the pulpit to preach, and then they must leave the building. They must go to the people in the marketplace and preach Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). There must be no excuses in this matter. The preacher who will not leave his pulpit to go into the world to preach to the people should not have a pulpit in the local church.
Churches must forsake their community center games and activities mentality and support their preachers in this endeavor. They must support them in every way. There must be no questioning this activity for this is what is preached in the pulpit but not practiced on the streets of America. In this, American churches and pastors are hypocrites. We must repent, and then go out into the highways, byways, and marketplaces.
Paul’s final word to the Athenians pertained to the fixed day of judgment (Acts 17:31), and Christ, the appointed Judge of all (Acts 10:42; 2 Tim 4:1; 1 Pet 4:5). Do we believe our own report? Is Christ raised from the dead? Has He not been enthroned? Are we truly expecting His return? If we believe, we should speak. If we are to speak, we may as well preach. If we are going to preach, we may as well preach where the lost people are found. God’s timeless question remains, “Who will go for us?” Dear preacher, what sayest thou?
Spokane Valley, Washington
May 1, 2021