While reading the book What Is the Gospel?, I was surprised when my eyes fell upon a reference that the author, Greg Gilbert, gives to a sermon that the Apostle Paul preached where he did not reference the gospel of Jesus Christ. Could this be true? How could Paul, of all people, leave out the gospel? Not only that, the sermon even made it into the pages of the Bible!
As I read it I posted the observation to Twitter, where the conversation ran around like a disturbed warren of frighten rabbits. Some people did not seem disturbed in the least, others tried to say that Paul’s mention of Christ was his mention of the gospel, but not only does Paul not mention Christ by name, he only presents him as a righteous judge. Not good news by any stretch of the imagination.
Where’s the Gospel?
The passage in question is arguably one of the most famous Christian sermons of not only the Bible, but perhaps of all time. Beginning in Acts 17:22, Paul is preaching to a group of Greeks where he references their own culture and their idol “to the unknown god.” It has been a passage that has been misused by “seeker-sensitive” and “relevant” churches to justify their use of secular elements in sacred services. Indeed Paul does reference elements from Greek culture, though in a very different way. What is startling, therefore, it the fact that he does not proclaim the gospel as we would expect.
“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. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Being then God’s offspring, 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 now 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.”
(Acts 17:22-31 ESV)
Did you hear it? Try reading it again. Still not there?
Why would Paul leave out the only true good news that has ever been known? Perhaps this demonstrates that Paul was simply a coward in the face of his opponents. Perhaps this really is support for the seeker-sensitive moment, even though that movement has been proven not to adequately equip God’s people.
Collecting the Clues
Fortunately we know much more about Paul than we have in the book of Acts. Yet in a quick inspection it may lead us to be even more puzzled. Passages like the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians sound quite contradictory to his sermon in Acts 17.
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
(1 Corinthians 2:1-2 ESV)
This does not sound like someone who would have stepped past Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. Again, he does mention Christ, but only that he is the righteous judge that God has appointed, and that the proof is in his resurrection. What makes this even more curious is the situation in which Paul was preaching. This was no church service and it was not to Christians, which makes the inclusion of the gospel even more pertinent. “How will they know what they have not heard?” (Romans 10:14)
In what are often called the “pastoral epistles,” 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus, Paul describes proper action as a pastor and as church leadership. In regard to preaching we can easily focus on 2 Timothy chapter 4 for a stark commission of the Christian preacher:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
(2 Timothy 4:1-4 ESV)
Obviously this passages makes the issue no more clear, however. How could someone who later wrote these words have given a sermon that left out the good news of Jesus Christ? Could Paul have had a change of heart? Did he later regret his lack of confidence at Mars Hill (Acts 17)? If this is true how can we really trust his contribution to the Bible and not think that he may have changed his mind at different points after writing the letters to the various churches?
The Smoking Gun
It appears that Paul, in spite of later exhortation to the contrary, deliberately left out the gospel of Jesus Christ from his sermon recorded in Acts 17. I specifically say “deliberate” because I think that the rest of the passage and the whole of Paul’s teachings bear out the reason. Take a look at what happened after his sermon. Paul has just mentioned that there is a man who has been appointed as judge over all humanity, and that the proof of this is that this man was raised from the dead.
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst.
(Acts 17:32-33 ESV)
The Greeks that Paul was speaking to had a problem with this concept of the resurrection. They did not believe in an afterlife as we do, but rather that we either simply ceased to exist or that we fade into nothing after death. The reaction of Paul’s audience was scoffing and jest. Essentially they thought that the idea was ridiculous and likely wanted to talk about it again to further make fun and use him as a sort of comic relief. As intelligent as Paul obviously was he would not have been too amusing as he took this on in debate.
Yet how could those who would have stopped him at just the concept of resurrection have been able to hear the good news of Christ? How could a debate about the possibility of a resurrection with these people have meant any more than a frustrating argument about something that neither side could provide physical proof?
Paul, however, did not back down. He did not change his message, he did not understate or back pedal, he simply and assertively walked away. Indeed, the gospel must be preached when it is not popular and when all it has is opposition. Earlier we looked at 2 Timothy 4, but let’s take a look at the context for that very important passage by stepping back a few chapters to the last part of chapter 2:
Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.
(2 Timothy 2:14 ESV)
But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.
(2 Timothy 2:16-17 ESV)
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth….
(2 Timothy 2:23-25 ESV)
See the connection? Paul stood firmly on the truth of Christ, proclaimed until he was cut short by a controversy that would have been unfruitful, distracting from the gospel, and would likely have led to “ungodliness.” Paul, a man of his word and under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, demonstrated what he would later write.
A Start of a Beautiful Friendship
Instead of inciting “irreverent babble” and causing such talk to “spread like gangrene,” the move to step away may have actually been more fruitful than the debate could ever have been. Look at how this encounter ended:
But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
(Acts 17:34 ESV)
In maintaining his integrity as a witness for Christ, some of those in the audience went with him and with further discussion expressed belief in Christ. What would have been the fruit of a long and “irreverent” debate? I do not know about you but hearing such banter does not help me to strengthen my belief, but further frustrates me and upsets my understanding of what the Bible says. Paul was both bold and uncompromising, but when faced with opposition that he knew would not be easily resolved and would distract from the message that he was called to preach, he simply stepped aside and the result was that he was able to nobly and gently able to share the good news with those who God had granted faith, repentance, and understanding.
May we strive to be so bold, all the while preaching the gospel, aptly relying on the Spirit as we discern the receptivity of our audience and avoid distracting disputes.