The church has not yet fully succeeded in its mission to make disciples of all nations. We do see people receive the Gospel from time to time, yet the majority of the world continues in its futile rebellion against God. Why? Is it possible that the church has not been as effective as it could be because we have ignored an important biblical truth? Is there a secret formula to reaching the lost? I suggest there is. And it’s been right there in the text of Scripture all along.
The Great Commission
When Jesus completed His earthly ministry, He commanded His disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). This command is preceded with an explanation in verse 18 where Jesus says, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on Earth.” Many Christians overlook the last part of that verse. They seem to think that Christ will have authority on Earth some day in the future, but that He is powerless to do anything about our present world. Yet, Matthew 28:18 indicates that Christ is King now. He presently has all authority in all the universe!
We need to read verses 19 and 20 in light of this information. Verse 19 includes the word “therefore” which is an indication that this statement is the conclusion of an argument – that it follows logically from what came before it. Since Christ is King now, we have an obligation to tell the world to obey Him. And since Christ has all power over everything, not only in heaven but also on Earth, there can be nothing to prevent us from making disciples of all nations. So, the question remains, “why haven’t we?”
Have we missed an important clue? Does the Bible give some instructions on how to reach the lost – instructions that we have ignored? Have we adequately reflected on how a person’s worldview will affect his or her understanding of the Gospel? The Bible recognizes that people of different cultures have different worldviews. They have different beliefs about the nature of the universe, the nature of truth, history, purpose, and so on. Our culturally-derived worldview will have a profound impact on our understanding of the Gospel, and the Bible addresses this problem in 1 Corinthians 1.
Greeks vs. Jews
The New Testament was written in the early to mid part of the first century. During this time, people naturally fell into one of two cultural groups: Greeks or Jews. The Jews are descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their historical background is recorded in the Old Testament. Conversely, the Bible uses the term “Greeks” or “Gentiles” to refer to people who were not of Jewish descent. Not all these “Greeks” were actually from Greece. Nonetheless, Greek culture permeated the civilized world in the first century due to the influence of the Greek Empire. Alexander the Great had conquered most of the known world before his death in 323 B.C. Consequently, Greek culture spread throughout Europe and was prominent throughout the Roman Empire that existed in the first century A.D. The Greeks were, in general, not familiar with the Old Testament.
Jews and Greeks perceive the Gospel differently. 1 Corinthians 1:23 states, “but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.” To the Jews, the message that Christ is the Messiah was a stumbling block: a difficulty for them to overcome. But to Greeks, the same message was perceived to be utter foolishness. Why such a different reaction? The Jews and Greeks of the first century had very different worldviews.
The Jews knew the Old Testament Scriptures. They were creationists and understood that God is the Creator of heaven and Earth. They knew that the first man sinned against God. They knew that the penalty for sin is death. They knew that all people sin and rightly deserve God’s wrath. They were continually reminded of these truths by the Old Testament laws requiring animal sacrifice. The Jews understood the concept of substitutionary atonement. Animal sacrifice does not actually pay for sin, but it reminded the Jews that they needed a Savior – someone who would pay their penalty (Hebrews 10:3-4). This Messiah would finally deal with the problem of sin and save all of God’s people. Consequently, the Jews were looking for signs of the Messiah. The stumbling block – the difficulty that the first century Jews needed to overcome – was that Jesus is the promised Messiah.
The Greeks were quite different. They were generally unfamiliar with the Old Testament Scriptures. They did not profess to know the living God. Instead, they believed in multiple gods. They did not accept biblical creation. The Greeks believed that death was always part of the world and not the penalty for sin. They did not understand that sin is rebellion against the Living God. The Greeks realized that the world had problems. But they did not recognize the need for a Savior because they did not understand the concept of sin, death as the penalty for sin, or substitutionary atonement. Consequently, the Greeks believed that the solution to man’s problem was education. They believed that (worldly) wisdom would eventually solve the problems of mankind. Consequently, the Gospel message made absolutely no sense to them.
The Bible describes the differing worldview of the Jews and Greeks in 1 Corinthians 1:22, “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom.” The Jews had a worldview that was generally correct. They understood the need for a Savior and that God had promised to send one. They were looking for signs of this Messiah. Jesus did fulfill these signs, but not in the way many Jews were expecting. That the crucified Jesus is the Messiah was hard for them to accept. But the Greeks sought wisdom, not a Savior. To them, the message of Christ crucified was nonsense.
The Jews had the foundational knowledge necessary to understand the Gospel. The Greeks did not. Therefore, when preaching the Gospel to Jews, we do not (generally) need to teach them all the background information they already know – that death is the penalty for sin, that we need a Savior, and so on. They already know that. We merely need to help them over the stumbling block that Jesus is the Messiah that they have been expecting.
However, when preaching the Gospel to Greeks, we must provide them with the background information necessary to understand it. We must take them back to Genesis, and explain that God is the Creator, that man has rebelled against God, that the penalty for such sin is death, that we need a substitute to pay our penalty, that our substitute must be a blood relative so that His blood represents ours, that our substitute must also be God so as to pay an infinite penalty. We might also have to refute their incorrect beliefs about the world in order for them to be receptive to the truth. Only after providing this background information will they have the ability by God’s grace to understand the Gospel.
The Bible gives examples of how to best share the Gospel in light of the worldview of the hearers. Unsurprisingly, these examples show that reaching devout Jews is easier and does not require beginning with Genesis/creation because the Jews already knew that. To reach Greeks, however, requires us to start at the beginning and explain that Gospel in light of creation and the fall of man.
An example of preaching the Gospel to Jews is found in Acts 2. Here, the Apostle Peter preaches in Jerusalem to devout Jews (Acts 2:5). Even Peter’s opening statement makes clear that he is speaking primarily to Jews: Acts 2:14b, “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words.” He explains that what they had witnessed was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel (Acts 2:16-20). Peter reminds the Jews of the miracles and signs that Jesus performed (Acts 2:22), that Jesus died and rose again by the power of God (23-24), and that this was predicted in Scripture (25-33).
Peter then explains an Old Testament passage that had long perplexed the Jewish leaders (Acts 2:34-35). In Psalm 110:1, David states, “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.’” If the Messiah is a descendant of David, then why does David call Him “Lord?” Earlier, when Jesus posed this question to the Pharisees, they were unable to answer (Matthew 22:41-46). Peter gives the answer in Acts 2:36; Jesus is both a descendant of David, and the Lord. Jesus is the very Messiah that the Jews were seeking.
And what is the response to Peter’s sermon? Acts 2:36-41 indicates that the Jews were moved and repented of sin. They received Peter’s message, and over 3000 people were added to the kingdom! Peter was able to help these Jews over the “stumbling block.”
And to the Greeks…
The Bible also gives an example of how to reach Greeks who had no knowledge of creation, sin, death as the penalty for sin, substitutionary atonement, or the Messiah. In Acts 17, Paul was evangelizing in Athens. Athens is the capital city of Greece and is at the heart of Greek history and culture. This was quite a different setting from Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem! Nonetheless, some Jews were present, and Paul was reasoning with these Jews and anyone else who happened to be present (Acts 17:17). Paul here was doing apologetics – giving a reasoned defense of the faith.
But some of the Greeks were also present and were conversing with Paul. The Bible mentions Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in particular (Acts 17:18). Epicureanism and Stoicism were two of (about) six major schools of Greek philosophy that existed at that time. These two philosophical systems were different from each other, but neither entertained any concept of creation, sin, or any necessity for a Savior. The Epicureans believed that what happens in the universe is just chance. The Stoics believed that Reason is supreme, and that education is the key to eliminate destructive emotions. These schools of thought have influenced even our own culture. Indeed, many secular scientists today profess to believe that our universe was started by a chance big bang, that Reason is supreme, and that education is the solution to man’s problems.
So, when Paul was brought before the Areopagus – an aristocratic council in Athens – he knew that he was speaking to people who had no concept of biblical creation principles. Therefore, when he presented the Gospel to them, he started with creation. Paul explained that God had created everything and is Lord of heaven and Earth (Acts 17:24). He then proceeded to explain the Christian worldview, but He also refuted their pagan worldview. Paul was doing apologetics.
Paul pointed out the inconsistency and absurdity of their secular worldview. The gods that the Greeks worshiped were made by their own hands out of stone, silver, and gold, are confined to temples made by human hands, and require people to serve them (Acts 17:24-29). The biblical God, on the other hand, needs nothing from us, but we could not exist without Him. People made the Greek gods, but the Living God made people and has divinely overseen all history (26). God has revealed Himself inescapably to everyone so that they might seek Him (26-27). Paul provided the proof that the Greeks already knew this in their heart of hearts by quoting the Greek poets (28). Yet, what these poets correctly stated about God is incompatible with the Greek conception of gods made of stone, silver, or gold. How could we be God’s children, or how could we live, move, and exist in Him if God were stone? Clearly, the Creator of man cannot be a creation of man! (28-29). Paul showed that the Greeks’ worldview was utterly self-refuting, while simultaneously replacing it with the truth of biblical creation.
Having provided the foundational knowledge of God, creation, and the failure of the Greeks to acknowledge God properly (sin), Paul went on to explain that God commands everyone to repent of their sins (Acts 17:30). And God will one day judge everyone according to God’s standard (31), and whether they are clothed with Christ’s righteousness or their own insufficient deeds. God has appointed Jesus from all eternity to accomplish this and proved that this is so by resurrecting Jesus from the dead (31). Only after laying down the historical foundational principles necessary to understand the Gospel does Paul finally present the resurrection of Christ as the culmination of God’s plan to save His people.
The response is threefold. Some people sneered when Paul mentioned the resurrection (Acts 17:32). But then again, they were doing that before he even began his sermon (18), so there was no change for them. But others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this” (18). It seems that these people were not yet persuaded but were interested in hearing more. And finally, some people believed (34). They were persuaded to trust in Christ.
A Good Example or a Bad One?
Some Christians seem to have misunderstood the point of Acts 17. They say, “Paul wasn’t very successful in his approach because only a handful of people were saved. Whereas Peter was very successful because 3000 were saved. So obviously the Bible is implying that we should always preach like Peter, and not like Paul. We shouldn’t explain creation or refute secular worldviews as Paul did; we should just quote Scripture like Peter.” Is that really what God intended? Is Acts 17 an example of how not to preach?
This reasoning misses the mark in several ways. The most obvious is the failure to consider the different audience of Peter and Paul. Peter was preaching to Jews, devout men (Act 2:5) – people who were seeking God. To them, the message of Christ crucified was merely a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Paul was preaching to pagans who were in rebellion against God and completely ignorant of His Word. To the Greeks, the Gospel message is perceived as “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It should be painfully obvious that Paul had a much more difficult audience! When you preach the same Gospel message to Christians as to atheists, it would be ridiculous to expect the same response.
Was Paul really unsuccessful? Paul was speaking to secular scholars who had been trained to think in anti-biblical philosophy. They considered the Gospel to be foolishness. Yet, some of them believed after just this one sermon (Acts 17:34)! In fact, one of the men who believed Paul, Dionysius, was a member of the Areopagus. Another woman was mentioned by name, Damaris, suggesting that she was a person of some cultural importance. Furthermore, others who did not believe yet still wanted to hear more (22). So it seems that Paul was extremely successful, particularly given the antagonistic nature of his audience.
Furthermore, God ultimately is the one who opens a person’s eyes to the truth of the Gospel. Paul was successful because he was obedient to God, regardless of any response. The Bible does say that we are to contend for the faith (Jude 3) and be ready to give an answer – a reasoned defense – to anyone who asks us to give an account of the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15). Paul did this masterfully, and God blessed his efforts.
Both Acts 2 and Acts 17 are God-honoring examples of how we should present the Gospel to Jews and Greeks respectively. Peter and Paul shared the same Gospel. But the details they provided to make sense of the Gospel differed because their audience differed. When sharing the Gospel with someone who already knows the Old Testament (God, creation, sin and death, the promise of a Savior), we have the meager task of showing him how Jesus fulfills all the prophetic requirements of the Messiah. When we share the Gospel with someone who has no knowledge of these foundational principles, our task is more difficult. In order for that person to understand the Gospel, we must educate him. Like Paul, we present the Christian worldview from its beginning in Genesis, while also refuting the faulty secular worldview.
How might we apply these biblical principles to our modern society? Is our modern world more like the Jews or the Greeks? Do most people today understand God, creation, the fall of man, that death is the penalty for sin, substitutionary atonement, the need for a Savior to die our death? Do most people have this creation/biblical worldview as the Jews did and have simply failed to realize that Jesus is the promised Messiah?
Or is our culture more like the Greeks? The Greeks believed in a very old Earth, and that death has always been in the world and is therefore not the penalty for sin and that the world was not created by God. They believed that man’s problem is lack of education – not sin. They did not see any need for a Savior, but they believed that Reason would solve the world’s problems. These are exactly the principles that are taught at most public schools, colleges, and universities. This is what most students at public schools will end up believing. These are exactly the principles that follow from a Darwinian worldview. Clearly, our culture is much more like the Greeks than the Jews.
But how do most Christians share the Gospel? Do they use an Acts 2 approach, or an Acts 17 approach? Do they begin, as Paul did, by explaining the Gospel from its beginning in Genesis? Do they start with God as the Creator of a perfect world, the fall of man into sin, the entrance of death into the world as the right punishment for sin, and the promise of a Messiah? Do they point out the problems and internal inconsistency of secular worldviews, and how these worldviews must secretly rely upon biblical principles? Or do most Christians tacitly assume that “everyone already knows that” and jump straight to “have you received Christ as Savior?”
Is it possible that Christians are less effective than we could be because we are preaching an Acts 2 sermon to an Acts 17 world?
It was once the case in the United States of American that Christians could organize a “revival”, in which they would invite unbelievers, proceed to preach an Acts 2 style message, and many people would come forward and ask to receive Christ as Lord. An Acts 2 sermon worked then. Why? Our nation was founded primarily by Christians and on Christian principles. Students learned to read the Bible in public schools, and so most people in our nation had a biblical worldview like the Jews of Acts 2. They understand God, creation, the fall, sin and death, and the need for a Savior.
However, with the influence of Darwinian evolution and deep time, the majority of people in our nation no longer believe in biblical creation. As such, they do not accept that death is the penalty for sin; they think it is a normal part of creation. And if death is not the penalty for sin, then why did Jesus die on the cross? With a worldview like the Greeks, our culture perceives the Gospel as “foolishness.”
If we are to be effective in our efforts to make disciples of all nations, we need to be mindful of the worldview of our culture. That is the secret. We must recognize that most people have an evolutionary worldview. Like the first century Greeks, most people today have a faulty view of history and lack the foundational knowledge necessary to understand the Gospel. If we are to communicate effectively, we must do as Paul did. We must explain the Gospel from its beginning in Genesis and not presume that people already have a proper understanding of things like sin, death, substitutionary atonement, and so on. We need to show the internal inconsistency in the unbeliever’s fallacious worldview and how he or she has tacitly relied upon the Christian worldview. By explaining the Gospel from its foundation in Genesis, we show the “Greeks” of our time that the Gospel is not foolishness at all, but rationally necessary and the only way to be saved.
We should expect the same threefold response that Paul received. First, some people will continue to mock and sneer. That shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we live in a world that is in rebellion against God and does not want to hear what we have to say. We cannot force a person to be rational and to understand and accept the truth. It is God’s prerogative to open the eyes of the spiritually blind as He sees fit. Our job is merely to deliver the message and defend the faith.
Second, some people will be interested but not yet willing to repent and believe the Gospel. That they are open to hearing more should be encouraging to us. For these people, we want to follow up with more discussion. As long as there is evidence that the person is sincerely listening, let’s continue the dialog.
Third, some people will believe. The Lord will open their eyes to the truth. When this happens, we rejoice along with the angels of heaven. God regenerates a person’s heart as He pleases. But He has given us the honor of defending the faith and sharing the Gospel with our neighbors. That God uses our words and our meager apologetics as part of the means by which He draws people to Himself is remarkable. What greater joy can a person experience than leading someone to Christ and seeing God save a sinner?
God does honor our efforts. The more we study His Word and learn to defend it and the more we share the Gospel with our neighbors, the more people God will save. That should encourage us to study. But don’t think that you need to have a perfect understanding of all issues in apologetics to get started. God can use a bent stick to draw a straight line. We learn as we go. We improve as we study. And we have confidence – not in our meager abilities – but in Christ who has all authority in heaven and on Earth.
 The others were Platonism, Aristotelianism, Skepticism, and Eclecticism
 The term Areopagus means “Mars Hill.” The term may refer to the council or the location where the council originally met: a rocky outcropping in Athens. The hill is named after the god of war (Mars in the Roman mythos, Ares in Greek).