10 THINGS I LEARNED IN SEMINARY - #3: CULTURE MATTERS


It was the discovery that rocked my world.

Flashback to my Biblical Theology of Missions class in 2012. I was poring over Acts 17:16-34 (which describes Paul’s ministry in Athens), with an aim to determine whether the apostle modified his theology to reach non-Jews or plowed ahead with the same ministry methods he used in earlier settings. I came to his speech in the Areopagus council which includes two quotations in 17:28: “’For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” And while doing some research on these lines, it hit me.

Paul didn’t quote the Old Testament or even “secular” poets in his Acts 17 sermon.

However, he did quote two poems fashioned to extol the glories of the Greek god Zeus. And as we will find, the implications here for our ministries are staggering.

Don't let the bearded, huggable Zeus from Disney's Hercules fool you. The actual Zeus in Greek mythology was one bad dude.

Don’t believe that Paul would use Zeus-honoring material in his sermons? His first quote comes from Cretan poet Epimenides (c. 300 BC) and his work Cretica. In the poem, Minos (king of Crete) addresses Zeus as follows:

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

The second quote hails from Aratus (c. 315-233 BC) and his Greek poem Phaenomena. Here are the first five verses of this Zeussiful work (and note that the apostle Paul quotes the fifth):

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring ...

Wow, right? Here’s the apostle Paul, that firebrand of Christianity and master of the Holy Scriptures, getting up to speak in the “City of Philosophy” and… quoting Greek poets instead of the Bible? Is this blasphemy, a mistake, or at least a tad out-of-place? (Like Billy Graham quoting Harry Potter at a youth crusade?) Or is Paul doing something that we might not readily understand?

I don’t know about you, but I’d put my money on that last choice. Let’s read 1 Corinthians 9 carefully.

Never underestimate the apostle Paul. He may not have been an imposing figure physically, but he was one smart cookie.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV)
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Do you see Paul’s strategy? Paul was not equating Zeus with Christ, nor was he embracing the pantheon of the gods. And his goal in quoting Greek poets was not to be controversial; neither was it to be “cool.” His goal was simply to be effective in communicating the Gospel to non-Jews—“those not having the law”—without watering down the Gospel. In missiological terms, we might say that Paul’s ministry motto was “contextualization without compromise.”

Some may ask: Why didn’t Paul just quote the OT to the Athenians as he did in his previous sermon to those at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13)? Isn’t the word of God enough? Well, you have to remember that he previously was preaching to Jews (“those under the law”) who already recognized the Bible as the word of God. The Athenians were different. For them, the celebrated poet Homer (who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey) was as close to holy writ as you could get, while the OT would have meant nothing to them. And so Paul recognized what Ben Witherington III reminds us of today: “Arguments are only persuasive if they work within the plausibility structure existing in the minds of the hearers” (Acts of the Apostles, 530). If Paul was going to reach Athens, he had to change his approach without changing his message. And we must come to this same realization today.

Carlo with his Expository Preaching class at APTS, Spring 2015. I want to follow in the footsteps of apostle Paul, embodying "contextualization without compromise" every time I preach.

Question: How do we relate to non-Christian culture? (Particularly within the world of TV, movies, literature, music, and even the belief systems of others.) Do we lambast it and those “sinners” who live apart from us? Or do we use media, the arts, and other cultural artifacts and practices to build bridges of communication to those who need Christ? After all, if Paul used pagan poetry to point people to Christ without embracing the philosophies of their authors, why can’t we?

Of course, one caution here is to avoid sin as we live in the world without being cast in its likeness. We must take care to avoid idolatry in particular, which can ensnare those who embrace non-Christian culture without biblical discernment. Another caveat is to remember that the word of God is valuable, even to those who have never heard it before! (Read Paul's sermon in Acts 17 and you will find it daringly biblical, even if he doesn't quote chapter and verse.) But all the same, if we seek to obey Christ and to win the lost with compassion, I believe the Spirit of God will inspire creativity in us as we bring the Gospel to those who need it most.

Remember friends: Culture matters because people matter. Let us leverage all we can in our lives and ministries so “that by all possible means [we] might save some." (1 Cor 9:22)  -C.

[If you missed the first two installments of "Ten Things I Learned in Seminary, catch them here: Biblical Languages (#1) and Preaching Points (#2)!]

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