By Rick Renner
…And some said, What will this babbler say? Others said, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus…. — Acts 17:18,19
When we bring new ideas to a foreign culture, it can create an unpleasant reaction among the local people. That’s why we must be both careful and anointed as we take the Gospel into cultures that have never heard the Good News of Jesus Christ the way we are accustomed to preaching it.
This is the lesson I learned when I moved to a foreign land where words and actions are perceived differently than they are in the nation where I was born and raised. Words and phrases that had always been familiar to me were new and unknown to those I was trying to reach, and I had to be careful in my presentation, lest I turn people off instead of reaching their hearts with my message. For this reason, I had to learn to be very careful and aware of cultural perceptions, customs, and language as I ministered to the people to whom God has called me to give my life.
This principle doesn’t just apply to missionaries living on foreign soil. There are many people in your own city who don’t know God and who didn’t grow up in church. You can’t assume that they understand the words and phrases that are familiar to you as part of the Church world where you have lived much of your life. The Christian community uses wonderful, meaningful terminology that the world doesn’t know or understand. For example, the words “amen” and “hallelujah” are dear and precious to us. But to a world that is lost in darkness, those words sound strange — and when you use them, it often makes people want to tuck their tails and run!
When unsaved people hear believers trying to reach them with “Christian-ese,” it scares them! This is why we must be careful in the way we present ourselves when we are speaking the Word and representing the name of Jesus. There is no doubt that our message is true and unchangeable. But we are the “packages” who carry the message — and how lost people perceive us is often what determines whether or not the package is ever opened and the message is ever heard or received.
Certainly we are not to compromise the message or to apologize for who we are and what we believe. We should never back away from the gifts of the Spirit, from the supernatural, or from expressions of worship and praise in church. But when we are reaching out to people outside the faith, God expects us to use our heads in the way we approach them. To reach into a lost culture, we must remember that we are leaving the world of “church” and reaching into spiritual darkness to people who are part of a particular “lost” culture. That’s why we must have the help and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit as we seek to reach those people with the message of Christ!
Paul’s preaching in Athens clearly demonstrates the reaction that can take place when we cross cultures to bring the message of Jesus Christ. Considering the countless numbers of gods, idols, and various deities that were present in Athens, you might assume that Athenians possessed a high rate of tolerance for new gods that someone may have wanted to bring into the mix. But the fact is that Athenians were extremely dedicated to their Greek gods and had almost no tolerance for foreign gods. They were very committed to their culture and their way of thinking and easily took offense at outsiders who tried to come in and change them.
To get the full picture, you must understand the central role the Greek gods played in Greek life and society. One historian wrote that these gods were such an integral part of the lives of ancient Athenians that they were like members of the people’s families!
When it came to foreign gods, the Athenians had an ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, there were many instances where they accepted foreign deities into their own pantheon. But at the same time, the Athenians had a fiercely protective side regarding their culture. This serious view about new gods and new ideas lets us know that the Athenians appreciated their culture. They didn’t want an invasion of any foreign gods coming in that would mess up their history, ideas, and beliefs. So the Athenian mindset was to evaluate a new religion with great skepticism — and when Paul stood in the market and presented the message of Jesus, the Cross, and the resurrection, this message was radical to his skeptical Greek listeners!
It was completely unacceptable for an ancient Greek to venture out of mainstream idolatry and embrace a new god that, by His very nature as the Son of God, eradicated the validity of all their other deities. In fact, such an action was on the same level as a person who renounced Greek citizenship to join an enemy force on its way to attack Athens! It has been written that if an Athenian rejected their gods in favor of a foreign god, it was the equivalent of treason.
From childhood, every Athenian was taught to obey the religion of Athena and to defend her, if needed, in battle. Athenians had worshiped the gods for generations and were very proud of them. They had been raised all their lives on the legends of their religion, and they fully believed that the gods were the reason for Athens’ prosperity. The people were so devoted to their gods that even if someone privately didn’t believe in them, he would still participate in worshiping them because it was a part of the city’s culture.
Despite all this, the religion of Athens was quite elastic. Every man was free to develop his own creed for living and to fashion his beliefs to fit his own lifestyle, very much the way people are doing today. The Athenians were also very superstitious. They prayed to Zeus for rain, to Hermes for luck in their businesses, and to Asklepios for healing. They believed that if the gods were angry at a person, that person could not escape their wrath. On the other hand, if the gods looked favorably upon someone, they would give that person wealth, health, honor, long life, and prosperity for his children.
Even with all their elasticity in what they believed, Athenians were rock solid in their commitment to their religion. All public meetings, court sessions, and public events opened with a sacrifice to the gods. In fact, it was unimaginable that any important public or private act would be attempted without inviting the attention of the gods. For Athenians, it was second nature to talk to the gods and talk about them with others. It was a natural part of life to sacrifice to the gods and to invite them to participate in their daily affairs.
So when Paul stood in the market and preached “Jesus, and the resurrection” (Acts 17:19), he created an almost scandalous event! The listeners were so upset by what Paul was preaching that they exclaimed, “…He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods…” (Acts 17:19).
The words “setter forth” is from katanggelos, the Greek word for a messenger. This word katanggelos was frequently used to denote a messenger sent from the gods or from God to bring a specific message to the people. This was a correct perception of Paul, for he had indeed been sent by God to Athens to bring the life-saving message of Jesus Christ into the people’s darkness and depravity! But when the Athenians in the market first heard the message, they were terrified by the name of Jesus and by the Gospel that Paul preached, accusing Paul of bringing them a message of “strange gods.”
The words “strange gods” are translated incorrectly in the King James Version. The Greek words used here are xenos and daimonian. The word xenos is the Greek word for a foreigner or a stranger. Today it is where we get the word xenophobia, a term that describes a fear of strangers. But the word “gods” is from the Greek word daimonian, which literally means demons, even though in the Greek world it could also denote gods. I remember when I first studied this word daimonian many years ago and saw that it could be translated either demons or gods. I realized the Greeks had so many demons in operation that when demons spoke, the Greeks thought it was one of their many gods talking to them! Nevertheless, because this word daimonian literally means demons, this part of verse 19 could be translated, “This messenger is introducing foreign demons into our midst!”
Paul’s never-give-up, never-back-up, never-retreat style of preaching created such an uproar in Athens that the day finally came when “they took him and brought him to the Areopagus…” (Acts 17:19). The Areopagus was a criminal court where people were often tried for murder or other serious crimes against society. However, it was also used, as in this verse, to determine whether or not new doctrines were considered legal. There was no higher court in Athens, and for Paul to be summoned to this court meant that he finally had gotten the attention of the city with his “daily” preaching in the market. The highest court in Athens, the most brilliant and respected minds in all of ancient Greece, wanted to hear Paul’s Gospel message for themselves.
When Paul finally stood before this high court, Acts 17:20 tells us that those in attendance said, “And thou bringest us certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean.”
Notice they said, “And thou bringest us certain strange things….” The words “strange things” is from the word znidzo, conveying the idea of something that is startling, shocking, surprising, strange, or scandalous. Paul’s message of Jesus, the Cross, and the resurrection was so far out of the range of normality for to them that they found it to be completely scandalous! To hear that God died on the Cross for mankind and shed His own blood for redemption — that was a startling message to their ears! They were shocked by Paul’s words — but they were also so intrigued that they implored him, “…We would know therefore what these things mean.” This sentence in the Greek conveys the listeners’ deeply passionate longing to hear what Paul had to tell them! A paraphrased translation could be, “Please, PLEASE, tell us!” They didn’t want Paul to hold back anything. Instead, they wanted him to make a full disclosure of the Gospel he had been preaching to the crowds in the market.
All around Paul were the brightest, most intellectual, and most sophisticated minds in Greece at that time. This was a huge open door for Paul. These judges of the land were pleading with him to fully explain his message. As the highest court of the land, these men were poised to listen. Then afterward they would be required to pass judgment on Paul’s ideas that were so strange to their Greek way of thinking and to render a legal decision regarding him and his message.
How Paul performed on this judicial stage could determine the outcome of his life. This could be a great open door, or it could lead to a death sentence. It was in a similar court in this same city, at an earlier time in history, that Socrates was judged and condemned to death for indoctrinating young Greek students with new, non-Greek ideas. Certainly Paul, who was an extremely educated man, must have recalled Socrates’ demise as he opened his mouth and began to expound to this high court about the redeeming and saving power of Jesus Christ. Yet Paul forged ahead boldly and preached one of the greatest and most anointed masterpieces that has ever been preached in the history of the Church (Acts 17:22-31)!
As Paul began to preach, every word had to be carefully chosen and spoken under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. There was no room for error in his words on that day.
The good news is that just as the Holy Spirit was with Paul, so will He be with you when you reach beyond your comfort zone to reach people who are different than you. Paul had no experience as a pagan. But because he depended on the Holy Spirit, he was able to effectively cross those cultural boundaries and reach into the Athenians’ world with the saving message of Jesus Christ!
In the same way, God has anointed you to reach the people He has placed on your heart. They may be different than you; they may have a different skin color than yours; they may live in a different part of the world than where you were born; or perhaps they are live on a different side of town. But I promise you that the Holy Spirit holds the key to every person’s heart. He knows how to reach people in every culture. And if you will lean on Him and carefully follow what He tells you to do, He will give you the method and the manner to reach a particular group of people, no matter how difficult it may seem to you. The Spirit of God knows the path to each person’s heart, so learn to lean on Him as you go forth into new territory to speak His name!
Paul never backed down, never apologized, and never violated what he believed in order to preach to the Athenians. But he recognized that he was speaking to Greeks, so he ministered to them in words and phrases that they could understand. (In the next Sparkling Gem, we will cover Paul’s message at the Areopagus in greater detail, and you will be greatly helped by seeing the smart, Spirit-inspired things Paul spoke of when he was beckoned to the highest court in Greece.) In the same way, you should never compromise what you believe when you are presenting the Gospel, but you must be smart in the way you package the message!
So pray diligently before you barge into new, unknown territory. Do your homework so you’ll know the kind of culture God is calling you to reach. Then ask the Holy Spirit to give you His insights on how to reach the people in that culture. One thing you can know for sure: If you follow the Holy Spirit’s leading and do precisely what He puts in your heart to do, your rate of success will be infinitely higher than it would be if you tried to do it all alone!
Rick Renner is a prolific author and a highly respected Bible teacher and leader in the international Christian community. He is the author of more than 30 books, including the bestsellers Dressed To Kill and Sparkling Gems From the Greek.
In 1992, Rick and his family moved to what is now the former Soviet Union. Two years later, he and his wife Denise founded the Riga Good News Church in Latvia before moving on to Moscow in 2000 to found the Moscow Good News Church. In 2007, the Renners also launched the Kiev Good News Church in the capital of Ukraine. Today, Rick serves as Bishop for this group of churches.
In addition, Rick and Denise pioneered a Bible school, and a ministerial association that serves thousands of Russian-speaking pastors throughout the former USSR as well as parts of the Middle East.
Rick also founded Media Mir, the first Christian television network established in the former USSR. Its broadcast capabilities via terrestrial stations in Russia, Ukraine, Mongolia, Estonia, Poland, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova, and as well by satellite means millions of people are reached with these messages. It has since expanded into book publishing and managing social media accounts in eight languages.