I recently said in an interview that, as a Christian preacher, “My goal is to offend everyone.” That’s not an argument for boorish behavior in the pulpit. The gospel isn’t adorned by anti-social evangelists or cantankerous Christians. God’s people should strive to be polite, winsome, and well-mannered in dealing with the world.
Rather, my point was that I want to bring the offense of the gospel to bear on everyone I encounter. Faithfully confronting sinners with the depth of their depravity, the cost of their wickedness, and their desperate need to repent is rightly offensive. I want my speech and my behavior to adorn the gospel, and to let its offensive truths do the offending.
The apostle Paul understood that, and made every effort to be courteous to sinners on the mission field as the gospel did its work. His preaching on Mars’ Hill exemplified that approach.
“Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, ‘Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects’” (Acts 17:22). His audience was a collection of thinking men, of cultured minds, and he aimed at winning them by courteously declaring to them the gospel.
There is a legitimate sense in which the apostle matched his style to the people he was trying to win. To the Jews he became Jewish. In Athens he became Greek. He spoke to these men with great respect for their position. He addressed them as deferentially as if he were a citizen of the city they presided over.
“While I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). Note the tact with which Paul confronts them. Having noticed the altar to an unknown god, Paul used that to make the very powerful point that their religion was unable to give them certain knowledge of any god, much less the true God. He gently implied that the existence of such an altar was a plain admission that they did not know the truth about God at all. He clearly regarded the inscription on the altar as their own testimony of spiritual ignorance.
Paul framed his message in terminology that was diplomatic, courteous, and friendly (“I observe that you are very religious in all respects”)—yet he got right to the point (“Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you”). Boldly, he immediately established that he was going to declare the truth about the God they did not know. No careful posturing, no guarded rhetoric—he just came out with it. That dogmatic approach was no more typical in the Areopagus court than it is today. In fact, it may have been something of a shock to these men who represented the most elite minds of Athens. But Paul did not ease off, lose confidence, or try to soften the authority of the gospel. He spoke with as much boldness as he would have anywhere.
What was this altar to an unknown god? Actually, there were many of these in Athens. Six hundred years before Paul’s time, Athens had been stricken with a terrible plague. Hundreds were ill and dying, and the city grew desperate. A famous poet from Crete named Epimenides devised a plan to pacify whatever gods were causing the plague. He went to the Areopagus and turned loose a flock of sheep. The plan was to let the sheep roam the city freely. When the sheep lay down, they were to be sacrificed to the god of the nearest temple. The assumption was that the angry gods would draw the sheep to themselves. When the sheep were turned loose, however, many of them lay down in places with no temples nearby. Epimenides decided to sacrifice the sheep anyway and erect altars wherever they lay down, just to make sure no unfamiliar deities were overlooked. Since these were nameless gods, the people simply erected altars and shrines “to an unknown god.” It was undoubtedly one of these altars Paul spotted.
Paul boldly said, “I know this unknown God. Let me tell you who He is.” He then began with great authority to tell them very clearly and very thoroughly who God is.
The offense of the gospel was about to do its work.
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