BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 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. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 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, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 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.’ 29 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. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 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.” 32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.
— Acts 17:16-34, ESV
Of all the books I’ve read on preaching, none are better than Between Two Worlds by the late, great John Stott. It tackles the task of interpreting the world of the Bible and preaching it to today’s world. The book builds a bridge, between two worlds, to bring the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ to all people.
This kind of bridge building is not merely the task of a preacher. It is every Christian’s duty to take the word of God and bring it to bear on the hearts and minds of the people in their world. The bridge we seek to build is not merely one that travels from the first century to the twenty-first century. It is a lifeline that spans the chasm between Heaven and Hell.
No one was a better bridge builder than the Apostle Paul. He remains the exemplary first century witness for twenty-first century Christians. The world in which he ministered in this passage, ancient Athens, was prosperous, pagan, and filled with people who had never really heard the gospel. It sounds a lot like modern day America.
Let’s look at how Paul carried the cross and built bridges. They were built almost singularly with one tool. It is a key attribute of God and God’s greatest commandment, love.
Paul loved God, enough to be jealous for Him.
Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him” by what he witnessed in Athens. “Provoked” perhaps could best be translated “jealous." Jealousy is often thought of negatively, but like love it is also an attribute of God, as well as a key component of the second of God’s ten commandments. Jealousy should also rise up from time to time inside of God’s people.
Why was Paul so jealous? He entered Athens for the first time and saw “the city was full of idols.” People were worshiping, but the person they were worshiping was not our loving, holy, triune God. The Father was not worshipped because the Son was not proclaimed so the Spirit had nowhere to work. However, Paul was about to change that by building a bridge between the two worlds of idolatry and Christianity.
If you are a Christian, every unfilled seat in the worship service, every unread Bible in the world, every unrepentant and unbelieving sinner ought to make you jealous. They are worshiping idols, or themselves, and not our great God and Savior Jesus Christ! Get jealous, people, and let a little godly jealousy prompt you to proper action, like Paul.
Paul believed in the true and living God, One who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, One who is Creator and Sustainer of life, One who is Judge and Savior, who raises the dead and grants everlasting life to those who repent and believe. Paul believed He is worthy of a following, worthy of worship and praise, worthy of faith and obedience. Paul loved God, with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. And, in jealous love he wanted the Athenians to know and love God, too.
But for this to happen, Paul not only had to love God, he had to love lost people, too.
Paul loved lost people, enough to go to them.
Paul would not have even been in Athens if he did not love God and love lost people. Upon arrival, he did not build a church building and wait for folks to walk in. He built bridges to where they worshiped, where they learned, where they enjoyed life. Then, he tried to bring them over to Jesus Christ.
Paul built a bridge to the synagogue, where the lost Jewish religious people were. After all, Paul was Jewish, too. He found common ground in the Old Testament. He paved new ground by telling them about Jesus. He hoped to bring them to the ground at the foot of the cross, where they might repent and believe the gospel.
Paul built a bridge to the marketplace, where the common man lived. After all, Paul was just a man himself. He struck up friendly conversations with them, eventually turning into talk about what a friend we have in Jesus.
Paul built a bridge to the educated, for he was a highly educated man himself. He was versed in their philosophies, knowing Epicureans loved pleasure and Stoics loved pain, and Christianity is a little of both. He quoted their writers and poets, proving he engaged in culture at least enough to understand it. And in the face of their insults he complimented them as “he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.”
When it comes to lost and unchurched people, you can either build a wall of separation from them or build a bridge to them. Christians should be tearing down walls and building bridges. You don’t have to compromise your faith, but you do have to show some compassion for lost people.
If you love someone who is trapped in a false religion or dead church, invite them to yours then discuss the difference between the two. If you love someone who goes to bars instead of churches, even if you don't drink, going to a bar and grill with a lost friend just might encourage them to come to worship with you. Read the newspaper, watch the Academy Award films, google the lyrics of Grammy winning songs (and be prepared for a little shock). Learn to engage culture without heaping condemnation on it.
Build bridges, not walls, like Paul, with love for God and love for lost people. Loving God is easy. Loving other Christians ought not to be hard. Loving lost and unchurched people takes effort, bridge building effort. And once a bridge is built, pave it with the gospel.
Paul loved the gospel, enough to share it with other people.
At this point Paul could have compromised and blended in. Or, he could have condemned them and offered no hope. Instead he walked over a freshly built bridge and paved it with the gospel of Jesus Christ. From creation to the cross and the empty tomb, Paul never tired of telling the story of Jesus. With courage and compassion, Paul sought their conversion. He preached to them the loving, life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ. In language they could understand, he spoke to them about the Lord and the necessity of faith and repentance.
As always, he was ignored and mocked by the mainstream. But on this very day, “some … joined him and believed.” It was not all, not most, not many, but “some,” and remember, it is the “some” we are after!
In reality, Paul’s world and our world are about the same. He was preaching to an affluent, corrupt, faithless society infiltrated by apostate religion. Twenty-first century American culture is more like first century Athenian culture than we realize.
Many people in the world have never really heard the real gospel of Jesus Christ, and some of them have sat in churches or other religious institutions for years. Many people in the world have been wounded by religion, leaving a bad taste in their mouths we only make worse when we bad mouth them. Many people in the world are confused by the self-help pseudo-Christian wolves masquerading in sheep’s clothing.
We can blend in and compromise with culture, like so many professing Christians and churches are doing today. Or, we can condemn culture and offer no alternatives, and just call ourselves the frozen chosen. Better still, we can seek to understand where our lost friends are coming from and build a bridge between two worlds, with love, grace, faith, and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Remember to use the right tool. Paul and John wrote “All you need is love” when they were with The Beatles. The Apostles Paul and John have written the same thing more profoundly in God's word. We need a great love for God that drives us to godly jealousy. We need a great love for the lost and unchurched that seeks to reach out and not keep separate. We need love for the gospel that builds a bridge to help people cross over to the cross.
Christ is coming. People are perishing. Who will build a bridge between two worlds?