The Preacher Who Didn't Use His Bible

Out of curiosity, I once watched a video of a sermon presented during a worship service at a well-attended denominational church. In the fifteen minutes or so that I listened, though the speaker referenced in great detail the plot of the Lord of the Rings movies, there was only one veiled reference to a Bible passage. It was so indirect and so likely to be missed that the passage he alluded to was added in editing to a bar at the bottom of the screen.

As a preacher, I try to avoid what I call the “Scripture machine gun,” a tendency I see in some preaching to quote/read/rattle off Scripture and particularly Scripture references faster than even the best note taker could record for future study and reflection. At the same time, I try my best to ensure that the thoughts I present in sermons arise from Scripture and continually point people back to Scripture. I would never stand before God’s people on a Sunday morning and preach about hobbits instead of “Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). As Isaiah said, “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20).

Would it surprise you to learn though that there was once a preacher in the Bible who stood before an audience and referenced material from their culture without once referencing the Bible of his day? It happened, and the preacher’s name was Paul. As you look over the words he spoke to the crowd gathered at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22-31), though you find references to statues (Acts 17:23) and Grecian poets (Acts 17:28), you don’t find a single reference to the Old Testament, the Bible available to Paul and His audience. Further, though there is a veiled reference to Jesus as “the Man… [raised] from the dead” who will judge the world (Acts 17:31), His name is not mentioned, not even once.

Now, before you go attacking Paul or praising the LOTR preacher I mentioned earlier, consider a few things. One, this was clearly not Paul’s typical modus operandi. In Pisidian Antioch, Paul filled his sermon with Old Testament allusions and quotations, and of his time in Corinth, Paul said, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Two, this was not a worship service designed to edify the assembled church (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26), but an impromptu speech given in a public forum. Three, though Paul had already done some teaching there in Athens among the Jews and Gentile worshippers (Acts 17:17), this lesson seems to have been tailormade for some “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” who had only overheard him and were confused by what he said (Acts 17:18-20). Four, it was evidently not Paul’s only teaching even to them, as further efforts resulted in a few Athenians becoming disciples (Acts 17:34).

Paul’s behavior in the Areopagus actually teaches a very important lesson, not for preachers planning next Sunday’s sermon but for people trying to spread the good news about Jesus Christ. Sometimes, the gap between the lost and the Bible is so great that any direct reference to Jesus or the Bible will result at best in confusion and at worst in total rejection. Paul teaches us to be aware of the understanding and values of our audience and to adapt ourselves as needed in order to close that gap and reach them (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-22).

The fact is that even in places where Biblical literacy once was common, it is now becoming more and more uncommon and rare. It’s natural for us to want to get people right to the Gospel; after all, it’s God’s only power for their salvation (Romans 1:16). However, sometimes the best thing we can do is keep the Bible closed until they are ready to hear it and, like Paul or even Jesus Himself, use what people already know and understand to point them to what they don’t (Mark 4:33).
-Patrick Swayne