When Peter begins his message to the people gathered on Pentecost, he gives them a history lesson (Acts 2:1-41). These people were Jewish and knew their history, or at least they should have. The only reason they were in Jerusalem at that time is because of a feast. But Peter reviews it with them so that they can understand how the prophets foretold of the coming Messiah and how that Man was Jesus. They knew their Scripture. In fact, some may have known where some of those passages Peter quotes came from. They were the “insiders”. Though Peter gives them history, he also gives them the Law. He reminds them that this is the Christ “whom you crucified”. Ouch. He is shouting at them their sin and the penalty for it. Though he does bring it back to the Gospel at the end, he basically begins with a lot of Law.
Now take Paul (Acts 17:16-34). Years after the Day of Pentecost, Paul is in Athens among the Greeks. He is not in a synagogue but rather among pagan temples, shrines, and idols. Here the background is in mythology, philosophy, and dialogue. Paul, of course, is a Jew, trained by the high priests. But Paul is also a Roman citizen and knowledgeable in many languages and histories. In this instance, he approaches the men of the Areopagus t in a different manner than Peter did with the Jews.
Instead of telling them the words of the prophets or the history of the Jews, Paul addresses what they know: idol worship and Greek philosophy. He begins by saying, “I have come here and before I spoke, learned about who you are. I saw there was something you did not know. Let me tell you what it is!” The Greeks were very fond of new ideas and adding to their knowledge, perhaps to a fault. But Paul comes from a place of empathy. He continues with the truth: that God made the world. This is something that the Greeks would understand, as they also saw a god as making the world. Paul gives them world history, mankind’s origins, knowledge. In fact he goes so far as to quote one of their own poets! He is basically saying, “Look, I know you, I understand you.”
Paul then appeals to their logic and says that if we are made in the image of God, if we are actually His offspring, as you yourselves claim, then why worship stone, metal, and wood? People are none of these things! And neither is God. Though Paul loses some of the people listening when he speaks of the Resurrection, there were some whose interest was piqued and the message reached their hearts and souls.
What is the difference between these two messages? Both spoke about Christ. Both ended with Christ. Both had the goal of reaching the listener. Both came from Christians. But here is the difference: One message was to outsiders, one to insiders. Where Peter was addressing those who should have known, Paul was reaching those who could not have known. This is the difference between the world and the church. In a church building, the preacher is teaching and correcting Christians. These are people who have the gospel. Not that they, we, do not need the Gospel still – we are still saved by grace! – but we also need correction.
The Law tells us how awful we are. Yet we are not left in despair. For as we first were given the Gospel, so too are we left with the Good News of Christ’s salvation of our souls! This is why we have this joy. The Gospel allows us to serve God. It frees us from sin and death. The Holy Spirit moves us and does good works through us. Christ and the Gospel tears down the insurmountable wall of the Law.
But what about those outside of the Church? They already have the Law, whether they know it or not. They are already mired in sin and without hope. They were as we were before Christ. They have not come to the knowledge of the truth.
If this is so, then why is it that we, as Christians in God’s love, come at them with the Law? Why do we not bring them the Gospel? Is that not what Christ commanded us? (Matt. 28:19-20) Those who are not Christians need the Gospel. If the Law is the only message others hear from Christians, there is little wonder why so many run from the message of God. They have never really heard it! They only hear fear and separation. They do not hear joy, new life, forgiveness, love, peace, hope. These are the message we need to share!
We already have this hope. Though our works are like filthy rags, the Potter is shaping us into something new. This is why we have hope. This is why when someone asks us for this hope, we can speak the truth in love, and with meekness and fear (1 Pet. 3:15-16).
There is a difference in how we should speak the message of God to those around us. Though our words should always been full of grace, we do often use the Word to teach, correct, rebuke, and train in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). But this is for believers in the Church. How does Paul address the Athenians? He learns about them, he loves them, he tries to understand them. Paul comes to them from their perspective, from a place of empathy. He wants them to know he is not attacking them.
It is not like there was nothing Paul could have criticized them about. But Paul chose to show them the love that Christ had first shown to him. I mean, were talking about Paul here. Even Paul calls himself the chief of sinners. How could we show any less mercy and grace to those who are near to us? God shows the same grace to us as to the person we hate the most. And thanks be to God for that! How terrible it would be if I were put on a scale with other’s sins. Thanks be to God for His gift of salvation and His bountiful grace!
Therefore, dear friends, let us look on others with that same love that Christ first showed to us (1Jhn. 4:19). Remember: We were dead in our sins when Christ died for us (Rom. 5:6-11). He died for others, too (Jhn. 3:16). Let us not approach the lost with the Law that condemns. Let us instead approach them those in the world – our neighbors, friends, co-workers, baggers, family, clerks, etc. – with the Gospel that frees. Let us love them, empathize with them, learn about them. Then maybe, after leading a life of love, they will see our actions and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16).
Blessings to you and yours,