One Gospel – Three Worldviews
The gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed within pluralistic societies—it’s not a new phenomenon. But for many churches in North America, it’s a new challenge. The apostles Peter and Paul faced this challenge and there are lessons we can learn from their experiences.
For many of us, God has brought the “mission field” into our neighborhoods and all around our churches. The choice of how we respond is up to us, ranging from Christian xenophobia (fear or dislike of people whose worldviews and cultures are not like ours) to Great Commission vision.
“Sharing God’s story of hope in a world of competing faiths and cultures” is one of the defining taglines of Good Soil Evangelism and Discipleship. And it is rooted in precedent-setting examples found in the book of Acts.
Acts 2 – Peter and the Worldview of Jerusalem
Acts 2:5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.
What do we know about the general worldview of these devout Jews?
They knew that there was one, and only one, true God. They knew that this God was the Creator of the heavens and the earth and all creatures that dwell upon the earth. They knew that, as the Creator, God was the Sovereign Ruler of the universe. And they knew that God is holy and His acts are righteous.
They also understood the Bible’s teachings about Mankind, human beings. They were well acquainted with the creation account in the first book of Moses and believed it without reservation. They knew that God made Adam and Eve in His image and were accountable to their Creator.
These devout Jews were aware of the reality of Sin, its origin as well as its presence in their human natures. Every sacrifice they had offered in the temple was a reminder of sin and guilt. And they knew the penalty for sin is Death, separation from God. Not only had they personally experienced sin and separation from God, they also had been instructed in the Mosaic Law from the earliest stages of their childhood and were thoroughly grounded in the theological meanings of these concepts.
But these devout Jews had hope! They knew and believed the many Old Testament promises of a coming Satan-conqueror, their Messiah.
Knowing the worldview of his audience, Peter saw no need of reviewing what was already clear to them. So, as Peter started to proclaim the gospel to them he began with and focused on Jesus, as you can see in these Bible verses that are foundational for a truly Christian worldview.:
Acts 2:22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus,delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
There was a time, just a few decades ago, when the worldview of most North Americans was much like that of the pious Jews at Pentecost. And our evangelistic efforts could begin with Jesus. But some of our neighbors in today’s North America are more like the Lystrans of Acts 14 or the Athenians of Acts 17.
Acts 14 – Paul and the Worldview of Lystra
When Paul and Barnabas visited Lystra, they were first-term missionaries. Lystra was the at the end of the loop in their first missionary journey. Paul’s modus operandus, thus far on the journey, was to visit the local synagogues and build his evangelistic efforts based on the Jews’ knowledge of the Old Testament.
But, when they came to Lystra there was no synagogue, probably meaning their audience was totally pagan, with no knowledge of the Old Testament—no knowledge of the one true God or the Old Testament’s teachings about mankind, sin, spiritual death, or a coming Savior.
To complicate this worldview noise barrier (gospel static) even more:
Ovid the Roman poet relates a legend of a previous visitation by Zeus and Hermes to the Phrygian region. They came in human form and inquired at one thousand homes, but none showed them hospitality. Only a poor elderly couple, Baucis and Philemon, took them in. The pair were rewarded by being spared when the gods flooded the valley and destroyed its inhabitants. The couple's shack was transformed into a marble-pillared, gold-roofed temple, and they became its priests.
So, when the Lystrans heard Paul speak and witnessed the healing of a lame man in response to Paul’s command, they decoded what they saw and heard through the grid of the legend they had been taught all their lives—Zeus and Hermes have returned, we must honor them as gods!
Paul and Barnabas learned a crucial cross-cultural ministry lesson quickly and in the hardest way—a stone-hard way. As they frantically attempted to clarify that they were not gods, Paul refocused his gospel presentation on the most basic truths of the Bible:
1. There is a living God who is the Creator “the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.”
2. He has blessed you with many good things.
3. For ages, God has allowed people to walk in their own ways.
4. But, you need to turn to Him and away from the vain things you worship.
But, the crowd did not stop offering sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas long enough to let Paul finish the “good news” message they were there to deliver. And while the crowd was still assembled, some angry Jews from nearby cities arrived on the scene and persuaded the Lystrans to stone Paul, to the extent they thought he was dead.
Moral of the story for evangelism with people of non-Biblical faith backgrounds:
First, know your audiences, especially their worldviews, before you launch into the gospel presentation. Second, begin where the Bible begins – “In the beginning God…” – and present the most basic elements of the Bible’s BIG story of redemption if their worldviews differ from the foundational truths of Scripture.
 Acts by William J. Larkin, Jr. from The IVP NT Commentary Series
Acts 17 – Paul and the Worldview of Athens
In Lystra, Paul encountered a folk religion kind of paganism. In Athens, he would encounter a philosophical kind of paganism. In superficial ways, they were very different but foundationally, they were similar.
When Paul arrived in Athens, he went first to the Jewish synagogue but also mingled daily in the crowds of the marketplace, where he came into contact with some Athenian philosophers—Epicureans and Stoics. Paul’s message of Jesus and the resurrection made no sense to them. The “worldview noise” (gospel static) was dense; they thought he was just babbling a bunch of nonsense.
But when they invited Paul to present his “new teaching” to the Areopagus, what we know as Mars Hill, Paul knew right where to start:
Acts 17:23 “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....”
Then, in what is compacted into just eight Bible verses (verses 24-31), Paul declared 20 truths about the God of the Bible:
1. God made the world and everything in it.
2. He is Lord of heaven and earth.
3. He does not dwell in temples made with hands.
4. He is not worshiped with men’s hands.
5. He does not need anything.
6. He gives life, breath, and all things.
7. He made from one blood every nation of men.
8. He has determined their preappointed times.
9. He as determined their boundaries of their dwellings.
10. He has done these things so that people will seek him.
11. He can be found by those who seek him.
12. He is not far from each one of us.
13. In Him we live and move and have our being.
14. We are His offspring.
15. His divine nature is not like gold or silver or stone, something to be shaped by man’s devising.
16. He has overlooked these times of mankind’s ignorance.
17. He now commands all men everywhere to repent.
18. He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness.
19. He has ordained “the Man” of His choosing to be the Judge.
20. He has given assurance of this to all by raising this Man from the dead.
Paul knew that it is essential to begin evangelism where our audience is in their understanding of the Bible’s redemptive story.
On the Good Soil Evangelism and Discipleship Scale we call that “Tilling Evangelism.”
See if you can identify where the Acts 2 Pentecost Jews were on the scale, as well as the Acts 14 folk religion pagans of Lystra and the Acts 17 philosophical pagans of Athens.
Previous articles in this series:
- Three Greek Verbs Define Good Soil
- Assessing Unbeliever’s Gospel Understanding
- Assessing Gospel Receptivity
- Initial Contact or Relational Evangelism—or Both?
- The Problem of Gospel Static
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