Have you noticed that there is no letter from Paul to the church in Athens? Even though he spent time there and spoke to a gathering of the city’s leading citizens and most prominent philosophers (Acts 17:19), Athens is never mentioned again by Paul or any other New Testament writer.
His preaching obviously had very little impact on the city of Athens. Understanding the reason, I believe, could help save many contemporary Christians from self-destruction and enable us to impact our generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s Mistake in Athens
Some New Testament scholars believe that Paul preached a watered-down version of the gospel in Athens, which resulted in there being no power in his message. Luke recounts Paul’s sermon to the philosophers on the Areopagus in Acts 22:31. Interestingly, he quoted two pagan poets, but never mentioned Jesus, the cross, or His sufferings. The closest he gets to the gospel message is when he tells them of a “man” whom God had raised from the dead and by whom He would judge the world.
Paul was obviously disappointed in the results of his preaching in Athens, and he made a "determination" that he would never repeat that mistake. This is made clear in his first letter to the Corinthians where he reminded them that when he came to them the first time, I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (I Cor. 2:2).
Remember that Corinth is 50 miles from Athens and Paul visited Corinth for the first time after leaving Athens. This first letter indicates that Paul was not happy with his evangelistic approach in Athens and that he had done some deep soul searching during the 2 to 3-day journey from Athens to Corinth. He "determined" that he would not make the same mistake in Corinth.
The Power is in the Message
In this first letter to the Corinthians, Paul emphasizes the power of the message of the Cross of Christ and stresses the importance of guarding the essence and content of that message. For example, in 1:17 he says that Christ did not send him to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (NIV).
Do we hear what Paul is saying? He is saying that if we go too far in trying to make the gospel more cool, hip, and attractive to contemporary culture, we run the risk of preaching a message that has been emptied of its power. It seems that this is precisely what happened in Athens. Paul went too far in his effort to make the gospel acceptable to his Athenian audience and it resulted in him presenting a powerless gospel. That is why there is no “Epistle to the Church in Athens.”
Paul Decides to Stay on Message
Now, notice the change in Paul’s approach the next time he preaches, which is in Corinth. Although they too are Greeks and value wisdom and philosophy, we do not hear him quoting any of their philosophers. Instead, we hear him reminding them.
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
The phrase when I came to you refers to his first visit to Corinth after being in Athens. In Athens he had not mentioned Jesus in his message at the Areopagus. But now, arriving in Corinth, he is determined to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified no matter how weak and foolish the message may sound to his audience.
God’s power was manifest through Paul’s preaching in Corinth and a powerful, if somewhat rowdy, Christian community was established. Interestingly, we have not one, but two letters to the church in Corinth and evidence that there was a third one. During his journey from Athens to Corinth, Paul obviously “purged” the message he had preached in Athens.
Let’s Allow God to Purge the Message
Some years ago, Sue and I attended an intensive, week-long seminar on world missions at Regent University. The discussions were very much centered on strategies and methodologies for completing and bringing closure to the Great Commission.
After four days of lectures and discussions, someone suggested that we pray. Sue, being weary, rested her head on the table at which we were sitting, relieved that she could close her eyes and rest and no one would know the difference.
Suddenly and unexpectedly the Spirit of the Lord hit her like a bolt of lightning. She suddenly sat upright and began to weep and intercede in other tongues. It was so intense that she went into a hallway and walked back and forth weeping and praying in the Spirit.
I joined her along with one or two others and we continued to pray until the burden of prayer lifted. During the time of intercession Sue said she heard God saying, “You have been talking all week about strategies and methodologies for taking the gospel message to the world, but I am concerned about the message you are taking. I want to purge the message. I want it to be My message that you take to the world."
We Must Not Substitute Style For Substance
In the modern evangelical and charismatic churches, we tend to put more emphasis on style than substance. A flamboyant, entertaining style may become a substitute for a clear and pure gospel message. This can happen in both preaching and in what we call "worship."
When I first read of the effect of Jonathan Edwards’ preaching on his audiences, I pictured him walking the aisles, shouting, and waving his arms like an old-time Pentecostal or modern charismatic preacher. After all, through his preaching, entire communities were transformed as the masses turned to God with weeping and deep, heart-felt repentance.
I was shocked when I discovered that he wrote out all his sermons and then read them in a monotone voice without any physical movements or gestures, and never moving from behind the pulpit. Being nearsighted, he held his manuscript a few inches in front of his face as he read. It was not his style that produced such change; it was the substance of the message he preached.
I Corinthians 1:21b in the KJV reads, It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. This sounds as though Paul is referring to the act of preaching, but the Greek clearly bears out that it is not the act of preaching, but the message that is preached, that saves those who believe. The NIV has it correct by saying, It pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
Martin Luther Discovered the Power of the Message
In Romans 1:16 Paul clearly states that the power to change lives is inherent in the gospel message itself. He wrote, For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation . . ..
Martin Luther discovered this truth and it characterized his ministry. In his latter years, he was asked how he, a simple preacher and professor of theology, was able to have such success against such overwhelming odds, for both the Roman emperor and the pope had tried to silence him, without success. Luther’s answer affirms the fact that he had discovered the power that is inherent in the gospel message itself. He replied,
I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise, I did nothing. The Word so weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all (Hyatt, The Charismatic Luther, 29).
Let’s Preach His Message
There is no “Letter to the Church in Athens” for a reason. Paul preached a message there that was empty of power. Let us learn from his example and not make the same mistake in our day and time. If we will allow God to purge the message we preach, we could yet see another Great Awakening and this generation impacted by the real and powerful gospel of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Eddie Hyatt is an author, Bible teacher, and revivalist. He is the founder of the 1726 Project, which is dedicated to educating the American populace about the nation’s birth out of the First Great Awakening. He has written several books on this topic including, 1726: The Year that Defined America, available from Amazon and is website at www.eddiehyatt.com
According to the Pew Research Center, Christianity in America is declining at an alarming rate. In the 1990s 86% of Americans identified themselves as Christian. By 2007 that number had dropped to 78.4% and only 7 years later, in 2014, it had dropped another 6% to 70.6%. By 2021 it had dropped another 7 percentage points to 63%.
During the same period, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” has increased dramatically. From 2007 to 2021 their number jumped from 16% to 29%. Also, the number of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths has grown, especially among Muslims and Hindus.
These facts should provoke us to ask, “Why?” Why is this happening despite all our mega churches and conferences, our new apostolic order, our prayers and intercessions, our prophetic declarations, and our revivals?
Charles G. Finney (1792-1875, known as the “prince of revivalists,” has something to say to us in this regard. Finney saw entire communities transformed by the revivals he spearheaded, and he wrote extensively on the subject.
Whereas today we tend to look for a better method or different strategy for producing a revival, Finney would say we need to examine the attitude of our hearts and consider our motives. Here are three attitudes that Finney says will hinder and destroy revival.
When Christians Seek Revival from Selfish Motives
The Pharisees did a lot of good things—praying, fasting, tithing—but were on the receiving end of the most severe rebukes from Jesus. He rebuked them, not for “what” they did, but for “why” they did it. Their self-righteous, prideful motives were abhorrent to the Lord.
This is true when it comes to revival. Are we seeking revival from pure motives-- to see God’s kingdom advanced and souls come to Christ--or do we want revival for our own personal advancement and success?
During the revivals of the 1990s, a pastor told how God revealed to him his selfish motive in praying for revival. He was going to his church each morning at 6 am and praying for revival. One morning the Holy Spirit brought another church in his city to mind and asked, “What if I choose to begin the revival for which you are praying in this congregation.” He replied, “Lord, you wouldn’t!”
Finney told of how he encountered so many pastors and churches wanting revival for very personal and selfish reasons. Some wanted revival to increase their numbers so they could build a new and larger building. Others wanted revival because they felt competitive with another church in the community and wanted to raise their status and visibility. Finney said,
I have had a multitude of letters and requests that I would visit such and such places, and endeavor to promote a revival, and many reasons have been urged why I should go. But when I came to weigh their reasons, I have sometimes found every one of them to be selfish. And God would look upon every one with abhorrence.
When Christians Get Proud of Their Revival
One danger that must be guarded against in times of revival is the temptation to become proud and puffed up about “our” revival. Throughout history, revivals have come to an end because ministers and churches got an inflated idea of their own importance because of God’s blessing on their lives.
Instead of nurturing a humility and thanking God for His mercy and grace in sending them a revival, they have begun to think that there must be something special about themselves. They think, “We must be a notch above other Christians and churches, for look how God is blessing us.”
This is dangerous for as I Peter 5:5b says, God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Finney warned his generation to be on guard against this revival-killing attitude, saying,
Perhaps it has been published in the papers what a revival there has been in that church, so they think how high they will stand in the estimation of other churches all over the land because they have had such a great revival. And so they get puffed up and vain, and they can no longer enjoy the presence of God. The Spirit withdraws from them and the revival ceases.
When Christians Do Not Feel Their Dependence on the Holy Spirit
When we begin to think that by our own gifts and talents we can produce a revival, true revival will evade us. We may produce hyped religious events and emotional highs, but we will not see a genuine, heaven-sent revival.
During a prayer drive along the east coast in which we passed through many of the cities transformed in the Great Awakening, I heard the Holy Spirit say, “You can fake it, but you can’t make it.”
Finney addressed this issue head on, describing what happens when ministers and churches begin depending on their own talents and strengths to produce a revival. He said,
Whenever they get strong in their own strength, God curses their blessings. In many instances they sin against their own mercies because they get lifted up with their success, and take credit to themselves, and do not give the glory to God. There is doubtless a great temptation to this and requires the utmost watchfulness on the part of ministers and churches, to guard against it, and not to grieve the Spirit away by vain glorying in men.
The Way Forward from Here
No, we do not need a new method, means, or strategy to see another Great Awakening. We need a new attitude of heart. It is a time to cast our crowns, titles, and proud achievements before His throne and acknowledge that we are nothing apart from His mercy and grace. It is a time to remember Isaiah 66:2 where God reminded His people,
These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite [broken] in spirit, and who tremble at my word (NIV).
It is not too late for America. If we will take seriously His call to humility and prayer, we could yet see a turn-around that will astound us all—a turn-around initiated, not from Washington D.C., but from the throne of God.
If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
Dr. Eddie Hyatt is a recognized expert on revivals in history and his book, 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity, is used as a textbook in colleges and seminaries around he world. He has written several books on America's birth out of the Great Awakening, including 1726: The Year that Defined America, available from Amazon and his website at www.eddiehyatt.com.