Bridging the Gap
David Jackman is the former President of the Proclamation Trust, London, England.
Luke tells us that when Paul arrived in Athens, “he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17 ESV). As contemporary pastors, we want to stand firm in the only apostolic succession which has validity, that of proclaiming the same gospel of Christ, crucified and risen. We know that the whole counsel of God needs to be taught within our equivalent of the synagogue, the local churches planted around the world, but that it also needs to be argued in the forum, or the specialist context of the Areopagus, in all the public debates of our culture. However, most of us recognise that we are more skilled, experienced, and comfortable at addressing the congregation and that the forum continues to be passed by and even ignored—but with disastrous results. More than one observer has pointed out that we pastors are more comfortable with the role of the scribe than that of the prophet.
What we often fail to observe, in our sometimes frenetic quest for “relevance” in preaching, is that the “good deposit” of the apostolic teaching not only dictated the content of their public proclamation, but the methodology as well. Luke’s comment, quoted above, indicates that there was no substantial change in Paul’s method, whether he was in the synagogue or the marketplace. He did not conduct a research project among his pagan hearers in order to decide which of their pressing issues or felt needs he could use as a springboard for a gospel presentation, for then their agenda would have been in the driving seat. He was an acute observer of their culture (“I perceive that in every way you are very religious” [Acts 17:22ff.]), but he was never governed by that culture. His presentation to the Areopagus was entirely devoted to declaring the character and activity of God. “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” (Acts 17:23b). But this proclamation, as ever, “reasoned, explained, and proved” the person and work of Jesus, the Christ (see Acts 17:2-3, 18:4, 19:8-10) as Paul dialogued with and refuted their cultural presuppositions.
The mark of an enfeebled church is that it constantly seeks to meet the culture’s agenda, to answer all its questions, to dance to its music. By contrast, the mark of apostolic authority is that it confronts and challenges the culture, by posing God’s questions and proclaiming His agenda, yet always in a context of reasoned argument and persuasive explanation. As Dick Lucas has frequently observed, the issue for apostolic ministry is not whether there might be some way in which we 21st-century human beings could perhaps be persuaded to accept God, though that seems to be the predominant concern of so much contemporary evangelism. The real issue is whether there is any way in which God could be persuaded to accept us, and that provides a wholly different preaching agenda.
It means that the preacher must have confidence that with the Bible in the driving seat, God’s power will be at work, confronting and exposing our human ignorance, convicting and humbling our sin, as guilt and wrath are explained, energising and motivating repentance and faith as the character of God is revealed in the grace and mercy of the gospel. This content must always be directed straight into the contemporary culture, with its false presuppositions and arrogant rebellion, just as Paul exposed the spiritual ignorance of the Areopagites. That is one area where we so often need help. Also, we need to work hard at understanding and explaining the biblical text in accessible, contemporary language, and thought-forms, so that the divine power inherent in God’s living and enduring Word is unhindered and on target, every time we seek to proclaim its penetrating analysis and life-giving imperatives.
I think this is the sort of consideration Paul had in mind when he informed the Corinthian church, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). It is a striking alternative, isn’t it? It is as though the apostle is saying you can choose between “eloquent wisdom” or the power of the Cross, but you cannot have confidence in both. The former term is a summary of the skills of the contemporary rhetoricians, the star-performers of Paul’s day, equivalent to the multimedia personalities and methods of our own culture. The Corinthians seem to have become increasingly unhappy about their apostle’s lack of glitz and cutting edge trendiness in his presentations. After all, what else would impress sophisticated media-savvy Corinth?
Paul’s answer is the power of the Cross of Christ. That is the only reason why a church exists in Corinth at all. “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach [Christ crucified] to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Nothing else can save men and women, in time and for eternity. That is why the word of the Cross is the power of God (v. 18). And that is why Paul will not sacrifice one iota of its power for popular cultural methodologies, however beguiling and outwardly appealing they may seem to be. He knows that the power lies elsewhere, and he will not be diverted. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).