I’ve always loved this article. It’s clear and a great truth in warning. I don’t want to lose it, so I just want to archive it:
Contexts, Pretexts, and the Potency of Truth
One of my Old Testament professors in seminary was blessed not only with fine expository and oratorical skills, but also with a sharp wit. He was renowned throughout the seminary community for his biting one-liners that generally evoked much laughter, as long as the class was not on the receiving end of the barb.
Among his witticisms that stand out in my memory is one he repeated a dozen times each semester, as he waxed eloquent on the need to return to genuine expository preaching: “Keep your finger on the verse.” By this he warned the would-be preacher not to stray from the passage under study. While that reminder was well received in theory, the dark clouds of despondency would descend upon the student preacher who finished his or her sermon and sat down to await the professor’s verdict. The moment of truth would arrive as the professor would mount the platform, level his gaze at his meekly seated victim and say, “Gre
at sermon; poor text.” The indictment brought anguish, for it meant that the ideas which had been expounded, though wonderful, had not emerged from the text.
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All interpreters of the gospel must heed this educator’s caution. Often audiences are subjected to a barrage of ideas that betray more the pet peeve or preoccupation of the interpreter than they do the intention of the text. But any text wrenched from its context is in danger of becoming a pretext. Which of us is not familiar with the discomforting ploy often used in prayer meetings where the object of a prayer is to stab the conscience of someone within earshot, rather than to touch the heart of God? As certain as we are that the intention of such a prayer is woefully wrong, so equally certain we may be of the fallacy of an exposition that has nothing to do with the text.
It is good counsel to the communicator of the gospel, however great the audience. But as an apologist I dare say there is another equally important side to this whole issue. It is also vitally important to know this audience. “Keep your finger on the text–and your ear to the audience.” To ignore the latter could well elicit the indictment: “Great sermon; wrong crowd.”
This ever-present challenge of contextual pertinence was brought home to me with extraordinary force during a visit to Greece. I remember the emotions that swarmed within me as I stood on Mars Hill. In the background was the imposing Acropolis–that rugged protrusion of rock upon which Pericles built the structures that he hoped would bespeak the glory of Greece. Still standing in its battered but timeless splendor are the pillars of the Parthenon, the temple of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. The whole pursuit of philosophy has since, in theory, represented the love of wisdom. In the foreground was the Agora, the market place that in Paul’s time throbbed with the sounds of the footsteps and the noise of buyers and sellers. To Greek culture, this was all sacred terrain. And here, the book of Acts tells us that Paul engaged the best of them in debate. At the base of Mars Hill is a huge bronze plaque with the words of Paul’s famed Mars Hill address, recorded for us in Acts 17.
His sermon remains a stirring oration once delivered to Stoics and Epicureans, among others. He began by saying, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To An Unknown God. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23). Six hundred years earlier this city had been smitten by a dreadful plague, and the people had sought desperately for ways to arrest its spread. The poet Epimenedes devised a detailed plan to appease the gods, and hundreds of sheep were set free from the Areopagus. Whenever any sheep lay down, it was immediately consigned to the nearest altar and sacrificed to the god for whom that altar stood. If perchance there was no altar nearby, one was erected to “An Unknown God,” and the sheep was sacrificed there.
Such was the backdrop to these expressions of ignorance and fear. Yet, there was possibly a philosophical underpinning to such confessed agnosticism. One of Plato’s oft repeated reminders to his students was that the true mark of learning was to recognize where one was ignorant. Thus, Paul deftly harnessed both the weakness of their religion and the strength of their philosophy to point to the one who is omniscient, God as revealed in Christ. He alone was the answer for both the weak and the strong. Paul was keenly aware of his context, and with compelling relevance he won their hearing. Had he come to Corinth as he had to Athens, armed with logic and argument, he would have made a horrendous mistake. Instead, some influential men and women made their commitment to Christ that day, and the Church was established in Athens on firm footing.
As we left Greece I reflected much on the potency of truth when conveyed through the framework of one’s thought and life. From Athens to modern times, the challenge remains the same: keep your finger on the verse and give ear to the cries of the mind and heart, ever being aware of the dislocation of the will. For this condition only the Spirit is strong enough, and gentle enough, to effect change. The altars to unknown gods are still with us today, but in God’s power we can proclaim the truth of Christ among us, and merit the exultant one-liner: “Great sermon; right audience. What a God!”
Ravi Zacharias is founder and president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.