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