Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way.” — Acts 17:22
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. — John 3:17
Paul was in the middle of his second missionary journey when he landed in Athens.
This city of philosophers was taken up with all the latest theories, and they had altars and temples to every god they could think of. Paul, you will remember, was raised on the Ten Commandments, which begin: “You shall have no other gods before me,” and “You shall not make an idol in the form of any creature” (see Exodus 20:3-5). Seeing the images that filled Athens, Paul would have been more than a little uncomfortable with those flagrant acts of false worship. Consider how it would have made his skin crawl, with every fiber of his being yearning to condemn the people as pagans and idolaters.
The first thing he said to them, however, was, “Athenians, I see how religious you are” (Acts 17:22). Rather than condemn them for their religious practices, he found common ground. He even pointed to one of their altars—a shrine to an unknown god — and used that as a basis for evangelizing his hearers. Paul knew that unknown god as the creator of the universe, the sustainer of all life. He told the Athenians about the most important aspect of God’s saving work: that God has appointed a judge to the world, and this judge has been proven righteous because God raised him from the dead (Acts 17:31).
Paul’s sermon to the Athenians has served as a model for Christian missionaries for 2,000 years. When a missionary goes to a different culture, they spend a lot of time learning the language and the ways of life. Of course, like Paul, they often notice acts of unrighteousness. But their initial words are ones of building common ground, ones that build bridges with people they do not yet understand. By sticking around, by loving the people they are learning from, missionaries earn the right to be heard, which they can use to later challenge the actions that need reform.
It is easy to condemn someone you don’t understand. It’s also nearly always ineffective at changing their minds. We can shout louder, protest more vigorously, and post more frequently to social media. But those actions rarely lead to a change of heart.
I am grateful that God did not condemn humanity when we continually got things wrong. We ignored God’s laws and killed God’s prophets, but God instead offered us the greatest act of love imaginable. Jesus, the very Son of God, came to save us by putting on human flesh and loving us, the very people who would deny, betray, and kill him.
Words of condemnation cut deep, and churchgoers have wielded them against one another, not to mention the wider society, quite effectively. Consider instead the power of loving those with whom you disagree. Such love might even change their minds. It will certainly change you.
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