Here we see a glimpse into the method that the great Apostle Paul used to preach the gospel to the multitudes. To begin, it’s important to note that he never allows his discourse to become argumentative. Rather than approaching them confrontationally, he begins at a point familiar to them. In vs. 1-3, we find him speaking to Jews, and, as such, he begins his discourse with the Old Testament Scriptures. He reveals through the Scriptures the prophecies concerning the glorious coming of Christ. This is imperative, as he allows the Prophets themselves to bear witness to the Jews of Jesus as the Messiah. And we see, as we would today, groups who are more open to listen, and groups who are less inclined. The Jews in Thessalonica are thoroughly convinced that he is incorrect in his teaching, meanwhile the Jews in Berea are much more open to it, so much so that daily they search the Scriptures to see if what he was teaching was accurate. And even today, we find this same separation, those who are open minded and willing to research teachings which are new to them (the Bereans) and those who are very closed to receiving different teaching, those who say, “that’s not what I was taught,” in much the same manner as the Thessalonian Jews.
Similarly, we see him go to Athens to proclaim the same teaching. Athens however was not a Jewish city full of those who were familiar with the Prophets and the Law; rather these were Gentiles who had never heard neither believed such teachings. Therefore, rather than hammering those same teachings into them, he begins with a statue that he passed, dedicated to the “unknown god,” and to their own poets. Again, he approaches them from a position where they are comfortable and moves from there. And, yes, again to a mixed reception. Even amongst those few who believed, there was contention concerning the bodily resurrection, as they had been taught from the Platonic view that the spirit was inherently good, while the flesh was wicked and merely a prison for the soul; a view that continued on in Gnosticism for centuries, and is still held by some even today.
These lessons are so important for us, because so often, our “evangelism” is nothing more than pummeling someone with Scripture after Scripture, law after law; arguing every aspect of their existence from theology to mortality to history itself. We begin with what we believe, where we’re comfortable, and then try to lead them to be like us. We put them immediately on the defensive and then prove them right to be so as we continue to aggressively assault every thought and conviction that they have. What we fail to understand, or perhaps even fail to care about, is that for someone who doesn’t believe in the Scriptures, the Scriptures alone become a poor foundation for us to use to guide them to the Truth. Had St Paul arrived in Athens and immediately begun condemning the Gentiles based on the words of Amos, or Habakkuk; citing prophecies spoken by Isaiah, or the Wisdom of Solomon; they would have immediately turned away from him. Rather, he began with what was familiar to them, quoting from one of their poets, and referencing the statue of the “unknown god,” and said, “now, let me explain this God to you.”
We, dear brethern, must heed this warning strongly. To blatantly attack their convictions will not guide them on the right path, and offering as evidence the Scriptures that they don’t believe in will neither profit them nor you. Rather, our lives themselves should be interesting enough to evoke interest, our lives shouldn’t make sense outside of our faith. When we give alms to others even when our mortgage is due, when we fast even in the face of our favorite food, when we offer love, mercy, and compassion to those who curse us, it arouses the interest of those around us. And when the questions do come, allow us to put aside our own comforts and begin where they are comfortable; never callously assaulting their character or lives, but rather, speaking the truth in love. I, for one, constantly have people comment that “he wakes up in a great mood,” when I am at work, and that makes people question how I can remain so content in the face of the constant stress and insults that I encounter on a daily basis. And that fact alone leads them to question what it is that is different about me, that I am able to do that rather than taking out that animosity on those around me. Imagine the effect that you can have on those that you encounter if you were to truly live the life that we are called to live. St Paul, in writing to the Philipians, writes, “Do all things without complaining and disputing,” a point which is reiterated by St Seraphim of Sarov when he teaches us “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” When we are able to face adversity with contentment, it makes the rest of the world question how and why we are able to do so. Further, we must remember that the very term witness is a call to do exactly that, to bear witness, which means to speak to that which we have seen or experienced. I could never bear witness to the flood, I could never give a testimony about Sodom and Gomorrah; but I can be a witness to those things which I have experienced in my own life, and I can share those very experiences with any and all. And those experiences, spoken with sincerity, in love, will be the greatest witness we could ever offer to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let us never allow “evangelism” be an excuse for argument or pride, confrontation or division. Rather, let us meet with those to whom we bear witness with love, sharing the grace of the Lord that we have been granted, and displaying that same grace to others, forsaking our own comfort for theirs; truly denying ourselves and bearing witness to that which we have intimately seen and experienced, not merely learned during a study or read about. Lastly, let us see ourselves as the greatest of sinners, focusing on our own flaws, so that rather than approaching another in judgment, we approach them solely in the love of the Lord.
Christ is in our midst.