By Pastor Glenn Pease
Marcus Bach tells of vacationing in Arizona where his 7 year old son came in to the house with a snake in his pocket. "What kind of a snake is this daddy," he asked? "I don't know," he responded. "Some harmless snake suppose. You wouldn't be carrying it around if it was dangerous." The boy wanted to take it home for a pet, and so dad agreed. He was always playing the naturalist with frogs, beetles, and whatnot. So they took the snake home to Iowa. One day the father decided to get the lowdown on this pet, and so he took it to a biology professor at the college. He put the snake on his desk and asked what kind of a reptile it was. The professor was shocked and instinctively jumped up saying, "Why man, that is a deadly Arizona coral." The snake sensing the fear present struck out, but they were far enough away to escape injury.
Here is a true story that illustrates the saying that what you don't know won't hurt you is sometimes true. If you don't know a snake is dangerous you will not react in fear. Your ignorance is bliss because the snake has no stimulus to strike at one who shows no fear. But it would be foolish to conclude that because ignorance is bliss, and on occasion can even be beneficial, that ignorance is preferred to knowledge.
Paul even tells these Greek philosophers on Mars Hill in verse 30 that in the past God overlooked the ignorance of man making gods in His own image. In other words, God has taken ignorance into consideration, and there have been people who were never judged even though guilty of idolatry because of their ignorance. God has accepted ignorance as an excuse. Jesus said from the cross, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." They killed the Son of God in ignorance, and because of this they were not condemned. You can make a case for the benefit of ignorance in isolated situations. But over all ignorance is a curse, and the history of human progress is the history of knowledge pushing back the kingdom of ignorance, and the light of truth overcoming the darkness of ignorance.
Christians use to think that it was lack of faith to try and understand the diseases of a culture and how to fight them before you went with the Gospel. The result was that many a well trained missionary was sent to his or her death because of medical ignorance. In the first 40 years of missions in the Congo of Africa 61 missionaries died. This was common in other parts of Africa as well.Thomas Lewis, writing of his first experiences in Africa wrote, "I wonder how I am alive to tell the tale. We did such irrational things in those days. We were not taught to take precautions for our health, except perhaps not to expose ones self too much too the mid-day sun. There was not a mosquito net in the whole Mission...The only medicine we were told to bring with us was quinine, and that was to be used very sparingly neither Silvey nor I owned a clinical thermometer!...We all went out in faith in those days, certainly not with knowledge."
Ignorance is usually not bliss, but is a curse. It was ignorance that led to sin and folly and the reality of man's being lost. On the other hand, knowledge is the way back to God and eternal life. Jesus made this clear in John 17:3 where He said, "Now this is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Salvation is in who you know, and what you know about the Father and the Son. That is why we find the Apostle Paul practicing what we can call educational evangelism.
Paul knew that nobody could be saved without the knowledge of the Gospel, and so in preaching he imparts to Jews and Gentiles alike the knowledge which can, if they believe it, lead them to eternal life in Christ. This chapter provides us with a fascinating account of the contrast between the appeal to the emotions and the appeal to the mind. Paul had the evidence on his side as he proved that the Messiah was to suffer, die, and rise again. His opponents only had one option if they did not have the facts to defeat Paul in argument, and that was to stir up people's emotions. Look at the words that describe the emotions of those who attacked Paul.
In verse 5 we see the Jews were jealous, and with this strong negative emotion they were motivated to round up bad characters and form a mob to start a riot in the city. In verse 6 we see them shouting provocative accusations to arouse fear. What they were doing is called scapegoating. They were blaming Paul for all the troubles in the world. In verse 7 we see the rabble-rousing tactic. They said these men are anti-patriotic and are defined Caesar's decrees by saying there is another king. If you can get people to feel there is treason in the air, and that there is a threat to all you hold dear as the foundation for a stable life, you arouse fears that are very powerful. In verse 8 we read that the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. In verse 13 we read again that they agitated the crowds and stirred them up.
The strategy of Paul's opponents was to aim for the emotions and get people fearful and angry. This makes people feel that a horrible foe is threatening all they hold dear. When people have no evidence to support their position they turn to emotions. There is something very sub-Christian about the use of scare tactics and emotive language which creates a mob spirit to achieve a goal. It is dirty fighting, and when Christians try to use the same weapons to fight back they are equally sub-Christian. These are not acceptable weapons for those who are defending the God of all truth.
Jesus is the truth and in Him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. If an idea or conviction cannot be defended with facts and evidence there is good chance it is a sub-Christian conviction. Look at the weapons that Paul uses in the midst of all this emotional turmoil. He refuses to stoop to their level and fight with their weapons. Paul's arsenal consists of those weapons that aim to reach the mind. In verse 2 we read that Paul went into the synagogue and for 3 Sabbaths reasoned with them. The Greek word dialegomai is used 4 times in Acts, and all of them of Paul reasoning and trying to persuade people that Jesus is the Messiah.
This word was the word the Greeks used to describe the persuasive reasoning of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The Greeks said dialegomai is the only way the philosopher can reach the logos, which is the idea. Paul was saying that the Greeks were right, but that the logos was not merely an idea but was the person of Jesus Christ. He was the truth of God, and by reason, logic, and persuasion men can evaluate the evidence and come to know God. That is what Paul is doing on Mars Hill. He is taking these Greek philosophers through a mini-theology course which expands their concept of God and leads them to the ultimate truth in Jesus Christ.
Notice the other words used to describe Paul's approach. Verse 3 says he was explaining and proving that Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. Explaining is the Greek word for opening up thoroughly and exposing people to the full knowledge of the facts. It is the same word used to describe what Jesus did for the two on the road to Emmaus when He opened up the Scriptures to them. Proving is to expound so as to make clear. Paul was so good at teaching that the Greek philosophers had their interest stimulated, and he was brought to the meeting of the Areopagus, which was the body in charge of the religious education of the youth of Athens. These were the idea people, and they loved nothing better than to disgust new ideas. They were the think tank group of their culture.
From beginning to end this chapter makes Paul the Apostle of the mind. He does not rant and rave and try to move people by inflammatory speech. He is the great reasoner, and his weapon is the truth. Paul examines the evidence and expounds the facts. His goal is not to make people feel any particular way, but to help them make the wisest choice of their life, and that is the choice to believe in and become a disciple of Jesus Christ.
You will notice how Paul's success is described in verse 4. It says Jews and Greeks were persuaded. In verse 12 it says Jews and Greeks believed in Berea. In Athens it says in verse 34 that they believed and became followers. You will note that all the words that describe Paul's actions, and that of his converts, are words that refer to acts of the mind. But all the words that refer to his opponents are words of emotion.
Paul is doing just what Jesus commanded in the Great Commission when he said, "Go and make disciples teaching them to observe all I have commanded you." You cannot obey the Lord's purpose for the church unless you teach the truth. People become disciples of Jesus by means of education, and they grow by means of education. They become mature teachers themselves by means of education. Dr. Howard Hendricks says that the Great Commission makes it clear that there are two essentials for any body of people to be a New Testament church . they must be evangelizing, and they must be educating. And in a very real sense these are not two different things, for you cannot evangelize without educating, and while you are educating you are evangelizing.
What Paul is doing in Acts 17, and everywhere else we see him in action, is practicing educational evangelism. This is the very essence of why we exist as a church. This is our goal. It is to educate and evangelize people. If these two things are not happening, we live in disobedience to our Lord's purpose for the church. Paul is to be our example of how we are to reach the world of intelligent but lost people. Notice how Paul specializes in tact. This means the ability to discern what is appropriate to do and say in dealing with others, and in such a way as to not give offence.
This means that Paul had to choose to make his mind master of his emotions. He hated idolatry with a passion, and the word used for his great distress in verse 16 is the strongest word there is to describe intense anger. Paul emotions were on a rampage, and he could have chosen to pray like James and John once did and say, "Lord let fire come down from heaven and consume these idolatrous pagans." But Paul did not do that, nor did he get on a soap box and begin to denounce idolatry as the ultimate in folly and human blindness. All of this was true, and Paul felt its truth. But let's learn from Paul that only a fool blurts out the truth just because it is true.
The Christian who thinks that he is being honest and standing for his convictions when he goes about denouncing everybody for their folly maybe honest and standing for his convictions, but that is not what we are called to do. We are called to evangelize and educate. Jesus did not say go into all the world and tell everybody what fools they are. Paul knew he would not get far in this town by denouncing idolatry. He would probably be dead before he could get a chance to teach these people anything about the truth. So he held back his emotions and was very tactful in getting their attention so he could share it with them the truth about who God really is.
The non-tactful Christian is more concerned about judging people than about winning them to Christ. They become offensive with the truth rather than use it to gain an entry into the non-Christian mind. Paul could have started his message by saying, "Men of Athens! I see that in every way that you are very stupid. Only the blindest of anti-intellectual nincompoops would worship gods they have made themselves." Some Christians like to clobber people with the light, but Paul liked to enlighten people with the light, and so he chose the tactful approach.
Have you ever bought a product from a salesman who first of all offended you for being so stupid as to be using your present brand? If I said to you, "Only a jerk would be using the junk you are now using," you would probably not be open to what I have to offer. Nobody likes to be offended, and so the secular world seeks to develop tact in their sales people. The woman at the perfume counter does not say, "You could really use some of this new cologne we just got in. The stuff you are wearing now makes my want to vomit." Instead, you are treated with dignity, or you shop elsewhere.
Christians need to learn the same commonsense tact in dealing with people. You don't blast them for their sub-Christian living. Non-Christians are expected to be sub-Christian. It is Christians who are to be rebuked for their sub-Christian living, but not the non-Christian. Our job is to be tactful in relation to the non-Christian so we can get an opportunity to share the good news. The Christian who offends before he gets a chance to teach has put his own agenda ahead of the Lord's, and is guilty of a more serious idolatry than the people he is condemning. Jesus chose Paul to be the Apostle to the Gentiles because he knew Paul was a master teacher and communicator. Teaching was his method of reaching both Jews and Greeks.
Some might ask with a skeptical mind, "Can you be educated into the kingdom of God?" The answer is revealed in this chapter over and over, and that answer is yes! In fact, there is no other way, for nobody can receive Jesus as their Savior until they are taught who He is and what He has done to be their Savior. I have never heard of anyone ever being saved who was not first of all informed about the Gospel. There is no evangelism without education, and so all evangelism is educational evangelism. Friendship evangelism that never becomes educational evangelism is not evangelism at all. No amount of friendship will bring a person to Christ. They have to be informed and taught before they can come to Christ. Every Christian has to know how to share what the Gospel is to do evangelism.
Paul did not win all of these intelligent Greeks, but he won some, and he left this example of how to reach the lost for Christians through the rest of history. You teach them, and you teach them with tact. You respect their intelligence, even if they are in some ways very stupid as worshippers of idols. You don't get an ax and began to chop their idols off at the knees. Most non-Christians have plenty of idols, and you don't take pot shots at them. You build on their idolatry. It is foolish and evil, but it is there interest, and so you use it as a stepping stone into their lives. Paul did not say, "You are lame brains by worshipping unknown God." He said, "Let me educate you about this unknown God so He can be a God that is known."
Education is vital to the advance of the kingdom of God, because the success of anything, be it good or bad, depends on know how. This does not mean the Christian who is not educated cannot be useful for the kingdom. People are educated in many ways, and those who may have had no formal education can be far more effective in building the kingdom because they have know how you can't get in books. It is the same way in the kingdom of darkness. Satan has plenty of learned leaders, but not all have had breaking and entering 101. That is, they are not scholars, but they know how to do evil very effectively.
Vincent Teresa in My Life In The Mafia tells about one of his thugs who used the phony name of Parker because that was the only name he learned to spell. He was a dumb kid, but he was so shrewd with street savvy that he made millions of dollars in crime. He was clever, and could see opportunity everywhere. In 1964 when money was tight because of gang wars he went to a toy warehouse, and while he was talking with a man who worked there he read the numbers on a big padlock on the loading dock. He went to a key man and had a key made for that lock. He made close to half a million dollars by stealing toys.
The point is, the kingdom of darkness advances because of street knowledge. Clever crooks have to learn and be educated for long range effectiveness in doing evil. The only way to out wit evil is to be educated in the way of righteousness. That is why Jesus said to go make disciples by teaching them to observe all that He commanded. Without teaching and education the kingdom of God cannot grow. If Christians have less power in our culture today, the reason is easy to find. Our education has become so secular that kingdom teaching is almost eliminated. There is no eternal dimension. The result is that our culture is built on a very limited view of reality which leaves out God and the whole spiritual dimension.
If the Christian church does not do an excellent job of adding this dimension, then it will fail to offset the secular dimension. The facts reveal that Christian education is pathetic in its impact. Youth who go through the whole system of what the church has to offer end up in college with scarcely more knowledge of God's Word and will than their secular peers. It is because Christians do not take education seriously enough. Christians were once the leaders in education in our country. The Pilgrims and the Puritans considered it essential. Yale began with 10 pastors setting their books on the table and saying, "I give these books for the founding of a college in this colony." Most of the great colleges in our land had a similar start. Christians were committed to study and link all knowledge to the Word of God. Today Christians just think of education as a way to get a better job and not as a key to evangelism. They do not seek to learn all that they can so as to be able to enter into relationships with people who love these areas of knowledge, and thereby be able to share the good news of Jesus.
Jesus spent a good portion of his short ministry in teaching, and he sent his disciples into the world to teach. His church is designed to be a place of education. Not to be committed to education as a Christian is like a swimmer who does not want to get into the water, or a pilot who does not want to enter a plane. It is nonsense for a Christian to not be committed to education, for it is the only way to be all that God expects us to be as a church and as an individual. Every Christian is to be able to share the Gospel with others, and seek to know what knowledge will open the door for them to share it. This is to be a part of the whole Christian life-style is we are to be effective in educational evangelism.