Great Sermon, But…

Note from Jesus

Dear Friend,

The text in the Verses to Live section comes from two different places. I want you to read them together to help you understand two very important principles as explained toward the end of this section.

The first set of verses details Paul’s message before the philosophers of Athens at Mars Hill and the Areopagus, where the Areopagite Council met. Paul’s message is powerful and well known to many people. In fact, this sermon is used as an example of good cross-cultural communication. This message takes statements and ideas people know from their own culture and connects them to the truth of My story. Paul quotes some of the Athenians’ own poets to get his points across. His line of reasoning is great. In fact, he was well received until he talked about the resurrection. However, then “some shook their heads and scoffed.”

The second set of verses describes Paul’s emotional state after leaving Athens and how it impacted his sharing the gospel. He came to Corinth from Athens “in weakness — timid and trembling”!

As you put these two readings together, you will notice something very important that was missing in Paul’s words of wisdom that he presented in Athens. He did not have his usual emphasis on my crucifixion and what the cross means. Paul knew that preaching about My crucifixion was a problem in proper society. To use the word “crucify” or to refer to a “crucifixion” was considered base and inappropriate discussion.

In Athens, Paul used the Athenians’ approach to wisdom and didn’t include the teaching of the cross and what My death actually meant. When Paul later wrote to the Corinthian Christians, notice how he reflected upon this approach as he came to Corinth “in weakness”:

So now, where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the skilled debater, the best of your time? Step up, if you dare. Hasn’t God made fools out of those who count on the wisdom of this rebellious, broken world? For in God’s deep wisdom, He made it so that the world could not even begin to comprehend Him through its own style of wisdom; in fact, God took immense pleasure in rescuing people of faith through the foolishness of the message we preach. It seems the Jews are always asking for signs and the Greeks are always on the prowl for wisdom. But we tell a different story. We proclaim a crucified Jesus, God’s Anointed. For Jews this is scandalous, for outsiders this is moronic, but for those of us living out God’s call — regardless of our Jewish or Greek heritage — we know the Anointed embodies God’s dynamic power and God’s deep wisdom. You can count on this: God’s foolishness will always be wiser than mere human wisdom, and God’s weakness will always be stronger than mere human strength.

(1 Corinthians 1:20-25)

As brilliant and beautiful as Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill in Athens may have been, Paul was not well received and came to Corinth determined to preach the message of My cross and God’s love revealed in My crucifixion. As he said later to the Corinthians:

I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

(1 Corinthians 2:2 NIV)

There is special power in this message because it does NOT depend on human wisdom, but is used by the Holy Spirit to reach people’s hearts.

Please understand two things I want you to see in these verses:

First, I do want you to understand the best way to communicate truth with the cultures you are trying to reach. When I came to earth, I came as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, David, and the prophets. So I came as a true Israelite. I lived as a Jew, worshiped as a Jew, and focused My message on speaking to Jewish people of that time. I demonstrated that true ministry is incarnational — it comes and lives in a culture as part of that culture to redeem that culture while being appreciative of that culture. However, truth will always run into places of conflict in every culture. This happened to Me, and John put it well:

He [Jesus] entered our world, a world He made; yet the world did not recognize Him. Even though He came to His own people, they refused to listen and receive Him. But for all who did receive and trust in Him, He gave them the right to be reborn as children of God; He bestowed this birthright not by human power or initiative but by God’s will.

(John 1:10-13)

Second, don’t leave out any key part of the core gospel message.* Yes, the cross is scandalous. It always has been. To proclaim a crucified Messiah and Lord seems crazy at a certain human level of wisdom. But there is great power in the message of My crucifixion. The power of that message does not derive its strength from human wisdom, but from the Spirit’s appeal to the human heart.

So yes, you are right to think of Paul’s sermon in Athens as a great sermon. Yes, it is even a good example of cross-cultural communication. But remember, no matter how great the speech, how wise the wisdom, or how eloquent the speaker, when she or he leaves out the message of My cross and resurrection, something vital is lacking in the message!

* Paul defines this core gospel well in 1 Corinthians 15. Here are a few verses from that chapter:

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him.

(1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NLT)

Verses to Live

Please read through these two sections of verses several times. Compare what Paul did in Athens and what he determined to do when he came to Corinth from Athens. Both are important messages!

So Paul found himself alone for some time in Athens. He would walk through the city, feeling deeply frustrated about the abundance of idols there. As in the previous cities, he went to the synagogue. Once again, he engaged in debate about Jesus with both ethnic Jews and devout Greek-born converts to Judaism. He would even wander around in the marketplace, speaking with anyone he happened to meet. Eventually he got into a debate with some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Some were dismissive from the start.


What’s this fast-talker trying to pitch?


He seems to be advocating the gods of distant lands.

They said this because of what Paul had been preaching about Jesus and the resurrection.

This stirred their curiosity, because the favorite pastime of Athenians (including foreigners who had settled there) was conversation about new and unusual ideas. So they brought him to the rock outcropping known as the Areopagus, where Athens’ intellectuals regularly gathered for debate, and they invited him to speak.


May we understand this new teaching of yours? It is intriguingly unusual. We would love to know its meaning.


Athenians, as I have walked your streets, I have observed your strong and diverse religious ethos. You truly are a religious people. I have stopped again and again to examine carefully the religious statues and inscriptions that fill your city. On one such altar, I read this inscription: “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” I am not here to tell you about a strange foreign deity, but about this One Whom you already worship, though without full knowledge. This is the God Who made the universe and all it contains, the God Who is the King of all heaven and all earth. It would be illogical to assume that a God of this magnitude could possibly be contained in any man-made structure, no matter how majestic. Nor would it be logical to think that this God would need human beings to provide Him with food and shelter — after all, He Himself would have given to humans everything they need — life, breath, food, shelter, and so on.

This God made us in all our diversity from one original person, allowing each culture to have its own time to develop, giving each its own place to live and thrive in its distinct ways. His purpose in all this was that people of every culture and religion would search for this ultimate God, grope for Him in the darkness, as it were, hoping to find Him. Yet, in truth, God is not far from any of us. For you know the saying, “We live in God; we move in God; we exist in God.” And still another said, “We are indeed God’s children.” Since this is true, since we are indeed offspring of God’s creative act, we shouldn’t think of the Deity as our own artifact, something made by our own hands — as if this great, universal, ultimate Creator were simply a combination of elements like gold, silver, and stone. No, God has patiently tolerated this kind of ignorance in the past, but now God says it is time to rethink our lives and reject these unenlightened assumptions. He has fixed a day of accountability, when the whole world will be justly evaluated by a new, higher standard: not by a statue, but by a living man. God selected this man and made Him credible to all by raising Him from the dead.

When they heard that last phrase about resurrection from the dead, some shook their heads and scoffed, but others were even more curious.


We would like you to come and speak to us again.

Paul left at that point, but some people followed him and came to faith, including one from Areopagus named Dionysius, a prominent woman named Damaris, and others.

(Acts 17:16-34)

When I [Paul] first came to you [in Corinth from Athens], dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the One Who was crucified. I came to you in weakness — timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God.

(1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NLT)

Response in Prayer

O Father God, please give me the courage to proclaim all of Your truth. I want to be sensitive to the people with whom I am seeking to share the message of Jesus. I want them to understand Your truth in language that is familiar to them. I want to share ideas that connect to what they know to help them understand Your truth. At the same time, dear Father, I don’t want the power of the message I share to be dependent upon me. Bless and empower all who are seeking to share Jesus with the lost world. Bless those who hear Your message so that their minds and hearts are open to accepting Your saving grace offered through Jesus. I ask this in Jesus’ precious name. Amen.

‘A Year with Jesus’ is written by Phil Ware.

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Voice™. © 2008 by Ecclesia Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved.