Becoming Bilingual

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We’ve heard the church bearing witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world: Peter and the apostles speaking boldly before the Sanhedrin. Peter preaching Law and Gospel on the Day of Pentecost. Stephen bearing witness to Christ and becoming the first martyr of the church in the process. The church giving verbal testimony to the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, calling people to repentance and faith in his name–this is what we see in these readings from Acts.

But all of those examples that I just cited involved the early Christians bearing witness to their fellow Jews. We have not yet seen how the church bore witness when speaking to Gentiles, that is, to non-Jews, pagans. Today, we do. It is the story of Paul preaching in Athens, moving from the Jewish synagogue to the Gentile, pluralistic marketplace of ideas. And so this has great relevance for us today, for this is the world we live in. Thus our theme this morning: “Making Known the Unknown God: Paul at the Areopagus.”

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So Paul is in Athens, the great intellectual center from Greece’s glorious past. This was the city of the philosophers–Socrates, Plato, Aristotle–great names from the golden age. Athens was Greece’s “University City.” And the Areopagus was the place where the professors and the intellectual avant-garde would gather, always eager to hear the latest thing.

But that’s not where Paul goes first. Our text says that “he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews.” Remember, the Jews had been scattered throughout the Mediterranean world for centuries. In every city of any size, there was a Jewish synagogue. And so the first stop in most any city Paul went to was the synagogue. “To the Jew first and also to the Greek,” that was Paul’s pattern. Why? Because at the synagogue Paul found a ready-made audience for the gospel. They were already familiar with the Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. What Paul then did was to show how Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of those Scriptures, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah promised from long ago.

For example, earlier in Acts 17, Paul was in Thessalonica, where, it says, “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.”

Acts 17:28

King James Version (KJV)
28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

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It is possible–in a society that seems increasingly indifferent to the gospel–to communicate the good news to people who don’t share our faith?

One way to connect with people who are unfamiliar with the things of Christ is to become “culturally bilingual.” We do this by communicating in ways people can easily relate to. Knowing about and discussing music, films, sports, and television, for example, can offer just such an opportunity. If people hear us “speak their language,” without endorsing or condoning the media or events we refer to, it could open the door to sharing the timeless message of Christ.

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Paul gave us an example of this in Acts 17. While visiting the Asparagus in Athens, he spoke to a thoroughly secular culture by quoting pagan Greek poets as a point of reference for the spiritual values he sought to communicate. He said, “In Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring’ “(Acts 17:28). Just as Paul addressed that culture by knowing what they were reading, we may have greater impact for the gospel by relating it to people in terms they can readily embrace.

Are you trying to reach a neighbor or a coworker with the gospel? Try becoming bilingual.

To earn your neighbor’s ear
And prove you really care,
Use terms he/she understands
To show you are aware.

The content of the Bible must be brought into contact with the world.

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