This time, like all times, is a very good one if only we know what to do with it.
Our world is ready to hear the gospel. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Wiccans, Atheists, Agnostics, Satanists, Moonies, Scientologists, etc. are all ready to hear the gospel. You don’t believe it? I understand. It is the nature of Christians to believe we are not living in the best of times, that ‘the olden days’ were better. We pray and hunker down to wait for days of revival to be ushered in, complain we are born out of time, and regret our unseasonal entry into the world. A strange attitude for a people who often express the belief that God’s timing is perfect.
Of all times and people we look back on with longing and envy the first century church tops the list. Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica:
‘The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in Christ has become known everywhere.’ (1 Thes.1:8)
‘Oh, for such times to return,’ we sigh as we look out on a world that mirrors that world in more ways than we might imagine. This time, like that time, is a very good time if only we know what to do with it.
When the church advanced from provincial Palestine, ‘Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,’ (Acts 1:8) it found itself in a world much like our own.
Language and Culture
From the time of Alexander the Great, Greek language and culture had spread across the Middle East. By the first century, Greek had become the lingua franca of the civilised world. We only need to watch the evening news today to hear people across the world using the modern equivalent, English. As did Greek language and culture then, so English now links the world as we chase down and correct the errors of cults and sects and share the good news of Jesus.
Government and Movement
By the first century, the Mediterranean world had fallen under the military and political power of Rome and experienced the Pax Romana, (Roman Peace). From the British Isles, across France, Spain, Germany, and through the Middle East Roman law and government had brought stability. This made travel relatively easy for missionaries, with no passport controls, no detours to avoid conflicts. Similarly, today, international travel is much easier than it was just fifty years ago, notwithstanding the troubled world in which we live. But it is the Internet that has truly facilitated the sharing of the gospel. It is the case that, wherever the Internet has gone, cult activity has tended to drop as we share the good news of freedom in Christ across the world.
Multi-faith and Multiple gods
In that world gods multiplied as Rome assimilated and accommodated the different cultures it conquered. That is what Paul discovered when in Athens:
‘Men of Athens. I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ (Acts 17:22-23)
From Emperor worship in Rome, through the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, to the Stoics and Epicureans of Greece, and the cults and mystery religions of the day, that world was a market place for gods. In our own day we face a remarkably similar challenge, and the work of defending the faith, of challenging false religion, of declaring our faith in Christ, could not be more urgent.
Without Hope and Without God
The ancient world was characterised by the impersonal: an impersonal universe, an impersonal fate, a purposeless existence, and no personal relationship with God. It was pluralistic, with competing ideas and philosophies; relativistic, with each individual choosing their own thing (that is true for you, this is true for me); superstitious, with people placating the gods and depending on charms, grasping at straws; marked by syncretism, with people combining ideas from different religions and philosophies to find their own personal meaning in life. The fundamental philosophy was you either exist or endure. Paul sums up this world:
‘…separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.’ (Eph.2:12)
Does any of this sound familiar?
In that world we meet people much like those in our own. Timothy (Acts 16:1-5), Paul’s son in the faith, was born of a Jewish mother and Greek father. Lydia, the seller of purple (Acts 16: 11-15) was a Gentile proselyte to Judaism and a businesswoman. Later in Acts 16 we meet a fortune-teller (vv 16-21) and fascination with the occult, sorcery, and witchcraft. In Philippi we come up against an established government that kept order, protected rights, and punished wrongdoing. In Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-4) we meet a large population of Jews among a predominantly Gentile society. In Athens we meet the high-minded philosophers, discussing the latest ideas, among the many idols and altars of that place. Later, in Corinth (Acts 18:1-5) we meet a very carnal world, licentious and morally corrupt.
Do you recognise our world in this picture?
G K Chesterton is reported as saying, ‘When man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.’
Our world today believes everything, and nothing. People will grasp at anything that will explain the world to them, that will give some sense of purpose, some focus and direction. When Jehovah’s Witnesses knock at your neighbour’s door and that neighbour invites them in; when Mormons bring their message and people take the time to listen; when you see someone stop for a moment in the street and take a flyer from a local church, or buy a book from the Krishna devotee, when a friend changes their appearance and habits to fit in with the new group with which they now identify, you are witnessing the first century in the 21st.
Your Faith in Christ…
Like Paul, in the midst of this confusion of cults, this marketplace of messages, we can say, ‘what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.’ We can look at the world’s altars and tell them about, ‘The God who made the world and everything in it [who] is the Lord of heaven and earth…’
The message of your faith has not changed one jot, it is that ‘Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…’ (1 Cor.15:3-4) It is that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.’ (John 3:16)
Has Become Known Everywhere
Our world is the first century world writ large in our 21st century age. Like Paul, we face different circumstances, faiths and doubts, beliefs and philosophies, and need to adapt our delivery to those circumstances while keeping our message the same, as we speak to:
People who Want to Know
‘So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days.
And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.
And after she was baptised, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:11-15)
We must preach a plain and simple gospel to people seeking God, a testimony of personal conversion and conviction. John MacArthur wrote, ‘To convince a man that God can give hope, I need to show him a man with hope. To convince a man that God can give peace, joy and love, I need to show him a man with peace, joy and love.’
People who Think They Know
‘Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews.
And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”
And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.’ (Acts 17:1-4)
We must reason from Scripture with those who feel they already know. A testimony of God’s fulfilled promises is an unrivalled challenge to gospels of works. In his book Always being Ready Doug Harris quotes E H Bancroft, saying theology is necessary for four reasons:
Theology is necessary as a means of expressing the meaning of Christianity because man is reasonable as well as emotional.
It is necessary in order to define Christianity.
It is necessary in order to defend Christianity against attack.
It is necessary in order to propagate it.
(Bancroft, Introduction to Christian Theology, p.14)
People who Don’t Know a Thing
‘Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.
Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.’ (Acts 17:16-21)
We must reason from life with those who have no concept of life-giving faith, of a God we can know, a personal Saviour. A testimony of the power of God in raising Jesus from the grave. ‘I know he lives, because he lives in me!’ Paul himself climaxed his message in Athens:
‘For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:31)
Our world will not usually walk through the door and start asking questions. We must go to the world, whether it is by the river, in the synagogue, or in the wider market place of ideas.
Ours is a resurrection message and an empty tomb stands testimony to the truth. Do we believe it enough to declare it? Every Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Wiccan, Atheist, Agnostic, Satanist, Moonie, Scientologist, etc. needs to hear it, however we communicate it. That is our commission, as fresh today as when Jesus spoke in Mt.28:18-20, to bring people from this 1st/21st century world to the foot of the cross.
‘Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”