Perhaps Paul’s most famous, and misunderstood sermons, is found in Acts 17, where Paul preaches to the intellectuals in Athens atop the Areopagus (“Hill of Ares” = Mars Hill). The reason for this misunderstanding comes largely from our own ideas about what it means to contextualize the Gospel.
All it means to contextualize the Gospel is to put it into terms that a particular culture can easily understand. Preaching the Gospel in New Guinea is different than preaching it in London or Malawi or San Francisco. We all contextualize the Gospel. It is good and right to do. And Paul gives us a wonderful example in his sermon on Mars Hill. Acts 17 provides a summary of his words. He says:
“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… 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. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but know 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.”
Paul speaks to these people on their own terms. He acknowledges their religious lifestyle, noting the gods they serve, and then he finds in their own religious practices a whole that only Jesus can fill. In an attempt to cover their bases, the Athenians had erected an altar to “an unknown god”, just in case they missed someone. And Paul seizes this opportunity, launching into a sermon in which He covers God as the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all things through Jesus.
So, what is there to misunderstand? Well, there is a line between making the Gospel understandable and making it palatable. A palatable Gospel is one that avoids hard sayings and difficult doctrines, one that concedes so much ground that it becomes the servant of our own ideals. There are some who think that this passage is an example of making the Gospel palatable and that we have the liberty, and even the obligation, to do the same.
But Paul speaks of judgement for sinners and repentance as the means of acceptance by God. These are not palatable concepts, nor is the resurrection from the dead of the Man to whom we must repent. Paul may not say, “Jesus died so we can live” but he does make it clear that this “unknown god” is not unknown at all, in fact, He is THE God who matters and His plan from mankind is the only one that we are to follow.
This is not palatable, it is understandable. Paul shows us how to help people understand the Gospel on their terms without compromising God’s terms. So we must seek to do the same. Everyone living has a particular way of processing and understanding the world and one of the beauties of the Gospel is the fact that it speaks into everyone’s life and meets them where they are. Let us seek to follow Paul’s lead on this and truly bring the Gospel to those who need it.