While they were at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas came upon a man with crippled feet. He had been that way from birth, so he had never walked. He was sitting and listening as Paul preached. Looking straight at him, Paul realized he had faith to be healed. So Paul called to him in a loud voice, “Stand up!” And the man jumped to his feet and started walking.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in their local dialect, “These men are gods in human form!” They decided that Barnabas was the Greek god Zeus and that Paul was Hermes, since he was the chief speaker. Now the temple of Zeus was located just outside the town. So the priest of the temple and the crowd brought bulls and wreaths of flowers to the town gates, and they prepared to offer sacrifices to the apostles.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard what was happening, they tore their clothing in dismay and ran out among the people, shouting, “Friends,b why are you doing this? We are merely human beings—just like you! We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them. In the past he permitted all the nations to go their own ways, but he never left them without evidence of himself and his goodness. For instance, he sends you rain and good crops and gives you food and joyful hearts.” But even with these words, Paul and Barnabas could scarcely restrain the people from sacrificing to them.
Acts 14: 8 – 18, NLT
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you
– Paul, Acts 17:23, to the Athenians
I have been making my way through the book of Acts, and this story, with its attendant picture of Paul and Barnabas waving away people determined to sacrifice to them has never failed to tickle me. Paul’s brief speech upon being mistaken for Hermes, messenger of the Greek gods, reveals a mixture of exasperation and dismay. And apparently, Barnabas must have been an older bearded fellow, because he got to be Zeus. Of course, the incident is at the same time deadly serious – just read on to the next paragraph and you’ll find out the consequences of miscommunication. But what I find most fascinating about Paul’s little speech is this statement: “In the past he permitted all the nations to go their own ways, but he never left them without evidence of himself and his goodness. For instance, he sends you rain and good crops and gives you food and joyful hearts.”
I grew up with stories about European missionaries, recounted in church during sermons, mentioned in the same breath as Paul and Barnabas and with the same kind of reverence and awe. They were incredible stories of bravery and adventure, and the prevalent image of missionaries being boiled in a pot by cannibals in pop culture helped perpetrate the idea of the white man bringing light to dark continents. The more we learn about these cultures, however, the more nuanced a picture we get about the motivations of those who killed Christian missionaries – local politics, the actions of their fellow Europeans which were blatantly exploitative, cultural taboos that were unwittingly broken. But the fact remains that these were brave men and women who ventured into the unknown to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and some paid the ultimate price for it.
However, these stories were also always laced with the sense of Western cultural superiority – they are imperial tales, of the same world as Kipling’s white man’s burden. In these narratives, the white man is always right, and the native is always wrong; the white man comes bearing the Promethean torch of religion, civilization, sanitation, and stiflingly stuffy European clothes which turn you into buckets of sweat in the tropics; the natives live in hopelessly benighted conditions, half-demon and half-child. It is hardly surprising that many missionaries in the age of colonialism were sweeping in their condemnation of local culture, determined to brand anything that offended their own sensibilities – wearing less clothing, for example – as inherently sinful. So you get old films about missionaries bringing the gospel to small pacific islands, and leaving all the natives in crinolines by the end of the film, thoroughly Christianized. So what’s remarkable about Paul’s statement is that while he is firm that the revelation from Jesus is true in a way that the Greek religions are not, he insists that, on some level, these people already know God – “he never left them without evidence of himself and his goodness”.
In fact, I would go so far as to say the people of Lystra were right that the gods had descended to walk among them. After all, Paul and Barnabas were indwelt with the divinity of Christ. And it was Christ’s power through them that enabled them to perform the miracles that caused the people to declare them gods. It is incredibly moving that the Greek religion provided a point of cultural contact, a means for understanding the gospel: it opened them to draw a conclusion (divine revelation) from empirical evidence (Paul’s miracle): “These men are gods in human form”.
From the sound of it, Paul and Barnabas did not capitalize upon this point of cultural contact; it sounds rather as though they were caught off-guard, and didn’t know the best way to react. Although Paul’s speech is sincere, he was not particularly successful in getting these people to understand the gospel, and, before we know it, the window of opportunity shuts and a faction of jealous Jews turns the adoring crowd into a mob that almost kills him. This is purely speculative, but perhaps if Paul had, instead of rebuking their beliefs as “these worthless things”, said they were partially right – that God did walk among them, but only through human beings, he might have stood a better chance of getting them to understand.
A rather more successful attempt at proselytizing occurs at Athens. Perhaps a little better at this now, Paul ascends to the Areopagus, the centre of debate where the Athenians famously debated new schools of thought and religions, and this time he finds an inroad into their worldview. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with the inscription, ‘To the unknown god’. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” This gets their attention. Notice he dwells on the positive – he acknowledges that these are open-minded people, spiritual people, who are “very religious”. Even if he thinks their gods “worthless things”, he doesn’t say so. This is not mere sophistry – if you want to be heard, you need to speak the language of the people you are talking to, not close all channels of communication by belittling what they hold dear. Paul even goes on to quote Athenian poetry – “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us for “‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ [from Epimendies of Crete] even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ [from Aratus’ poem “Phainomena”]”.
Now I don’t know about you, but I would have found this second speech a lot more palatable, and in fact, far more intriguing, than the first, if I were a first century non-Christian. It is respectful, knowledgeable about the local culture, presented in an appropriate context, and most importantly of all, it doesn’t start out with an insult. What worries me most about cookie-cutter evangelism, in which you prepare a one-size-fits-all speech to rattle off at opportune moments, is that I can only imagine a very few social contexts in which it would be convincing. The gospel message is simple, yes. But it also needs to be truly communicated in love – which means listening as well as talking. Where is the other person coming from? What do they already believe? What does their culture say about God that is similar to what you believe about God?
The gospel, after all, is not something you as a Christian need to get off your chest, as quickly as possible in a formulaic paragraph. It is something with its own life, its own magnetism, and God has already prepared all the inroads in all peoples and all cultures to receive it – in fact he’s guaranteed that all the nations will be present at his throne. But it takes a willingness to learn and listen on the part of Christians to understand where non-Christians are coming from. This means a genuine attempt to understand their worldview, not just their religion but their particular relationship (or lack thereof) with God. And I don’t think that a conversation about Jesus should necessarily always be steered towards say, saying the sinner’s prayer with someone. While that would be a wonderful moment to share, it isn’t always our place or time to do it, and forcing it isn’t respectful of the person you have the conversation with. After all, we are in the business of helping and loving people on behalf of Christ, not trying to string up a headcount, like so many shrunken heads on a necklace to be accredited to us on the last day!