In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.John 1:1–5 ESV
When I write a Gospel track, I usually begin by speaking about a truth that the reader already knows and believes, often in a peculiar way that he won’t expect. This functions as a bridge to grab his attention and make him keep reading, a least for a little bit.
It’s a good way of presenting the Gospel that shows people that you know something about what they believe, letting them know that you either come from a similar background or have taken the time to research their beliefs. In either case, you will have some common ground for dialogue. You don’t come off as someone who is from an entirely different world, like a deranged cultist who believes that the apocalypse is coming every other day after lunch. If they try to accuse you of that, it will be because of their worldly bias and not because of your Gospel presentation.
However, this strategy isn’t about being culturally relevant or anything like that; it’s about showing the unbeliever that you are a human just like them and that they themselves have recognized a truth about God. Afterward, you show them how this truth points them towards the God of Scripture. Now you will have the opportunity to tell them who God is and what he demands of them: perfect obedience to his Holy Law. Unfortunately, as they cannot fulfill this righteous demand, they are in a desperate situation. Fortunately, the Lord Jesus Christ has come down from heaven to die for their sins and give them eternal life. This is when the other party might abandon ship, possibly while accusing you of being a deranged cultist from an entirely different world.
This way of evangelizing, the one where you begin by identifying a shared belief, isn’t new; it is used in a couple of places in Scripture itself, like in John 1 and Acts 17.
John begins his gospel by grabbing the readers’ attention with a notable and familiar word that had a rich background in both Jewish and Greek culture, a word which is still known today: Logos, which means word in the Greek language.
To the Jews who had been immersed in Scripture since birth, it represented the efficacious power of God’s Word, his holy instrument in creation, as the Psalmist wrote:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.Psalm 33:6 ESV
Furthermore, in the very beginning of Genesis, God spoke the Word, “Let there be light,” and then there was light, just like he had commanded. There had to be light because God’s Word is absolute and ultimate, imbued with the divine authority of the most high God, perfectly true in each and every letter, holy from everlasting to everlasting. When God speaks his Word, it goes out swiftly and never returns in vain, always accomplishes all of his purposes and prospers everywhere he sends it (Ps. 147:15; Is. 55:11).
To the Greeks, meanwhile, the Logos represented “reason” or “logic,” an impersonal, abstract force that was the source of order and harmony to the universe. Thus, John used this term strategically as a bridge to draw in both his Jewish and Greek readers, greeting them with the astonishing announcement that the Word, the effectual Power of God and the force of order in the universe, was personal and had come down from heaven to dwell among us (John 1:14).
Yet, even though John introduced Jesus with words that his readers could understand, this first impression wouldn’t be enough to keep fallen men from abandoning the text. Identifying Jesus with reason might open the door to the Greek philosopher, but it doesn’t keep the door open when he encounters something he disagrees with.
To The Greek
Since the Greek philosopher thought that he could figure out how the universe works using intellect alone, naturally, he spent a lot of his time on philosophical ideas, either by being stuck inside of his own head or by trying to get inside other people’s heads by listening to them, always trying to piece together the ultimate theory of everything, which would finally bring meaning and order to his life.
You read about this in several places in Scripture. To name just a few, first, when Paul writes to the Corinthians, he says that the Greeks are seeking wisdom (1 Cor. 1:11). Second, when Paul arrived at the Areopagus in Athens, he reasoned with the various people in the marketplace, including some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, and these people would, as Luke wrote, “spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). Initially, some of the Athenians were quite intrigued by this peculiar fellow and his “new teaching” (Acts 17:19), so they invited him up to speak. Sadly, when they had heard Paul’s gospel message, they weren’t impressed, at all; instead, the people mocked and turned their back on him.
During the first part of Paul’s presentation, they were probably quite engaged as he spoke about their religiosity (Acts 17:22), referenced their unknown God (Acts 17:23), and quoted two of their authors by saying:
for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’Acts 17:28 ESV
However, during the last part, Paul spoke about the resurrection of the dead (Acts 17:32). This idea was in direct opposition to their perceived wisdom. Because several Greek philosophical schools taught that the mind and spiritual life were superior to the body and physical life, the thought of a bodily resurrection of the dead was tantamount to heresy. Therefore, some people mocked Paul while others said, “We will hear you again about this.”
The Fallen Wisdom
Thus, even though Paul explained God and the Gospel using words that they would understand, the Athenians lost all of their interest when he began to preach the sharp truth that struck at their worldly wisdom. Similarly, even when we do our best to explain the Gospel to someone else by speaking in his native language while using familiar words and concepts, like both Paul and John did, that in itself will not be enough to convert him. When he hears a “hard sayings” of Jesus (John 6:60), he will recoil and turn away, because the heart of fallen man is in rebellion to God and his holy Law, relentlessly suppressing the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18, 30–32; Col. 1:21). Because he hates God, when the truth of God comes forth in your speech, he hates your speech, and maybe you. No amount of truth or clever arguments can overcome that enmity; only a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit can save a man from his flesh (John 6:44; Rom. 8:8–9).
Although unbelieving philosophers usually claim that they seek wisdom, the wisdom they seek is not from above, but below, even if they won’t acknowledge that. As James wrote, they are seeking a wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:15), the kind of wisdom that opposes God. Likewise, when Eve reached out her hand to eat the forbidden fruit, one of her reasons was that the fruit was “to be desired to make one wise,” (Gen. 3:6).
And so, Paul went out from the Athenians’ midsts. There were a few converts who left together with Paul, but not many. Most of the brilliant fools returned to their intellectual pursuits, generating new ideas and philosophies, going at it for decades without getting anywhere closer to their goal. Regardless of how much progress they made, there was always another piece of knowledge that was just outside of their reach, that next precious apple of wisdom that was hanging from the great tree in their philosophical Garden of Eden.
“Certainly,” the Greek told himself, “when I get to eat this wisdom apple, it will solve everything!”
For a while, the ancient serpent just dangles the apple right in front of the Greek, swinging it back and forth like some sort of abusive father toying with his kid. Finally, after he has begged and prostrated himself enough before the serpent, the serpent throws him the apple, and then off he goes to chew into that ripe, juicy core of sin, while he drools all over each bite. Oh, and how the sinner savors his new treat! “Finally,” he proclaims, “I have found the truth!”
Unfortunately, his pleasure lasts only for a season. Soon enough, he is back to his old life, where he is always stretching his hand out to the serpent, begging him for another new treat. Yet, he never stops to think that this is vanity and striving after wind (Eccl. 1:12–13). No, he keeps telling himself that, “The next one will bring me truth and fulfillment!”
The Greek Reads John
Naturally, just like the worldly Greek rejected Paul, he would have rejected the gospel of John. At first, he would have been intrigued by the familiar topic, the Word, the logic and reason of the universe. However, as the Greek continued to read, he discovered that the Word was personal and in communion with God, a truth that was a bit more challenging to accept. Yet, he was still curious. It might still be good. So he kept reading to learn more about what this strange Jew had to share. Everything went relatively well until he came to verse 14, where John says, “the Word became flesh.”
Remember that the Greeks thought that the spiritual life was superior to the physical life, so this message was essentially heretical, just like “the resurrection of the dead.”
Thus, immediately upon seeing those words, the Greek’s lips stiffened. “Ah, no,” he said, “I shall read this some other day.” Obviously, that other day never comes. So off he goes to pursue the next philosophical idea. Perhaps the serpent has another wisdom apple to give him.
Either that or the Greek would begin his wild philosophizing to find some way around the text, no matter how theologically bizarre and grammatically inconsistent it was. And thus, Gnosticism was born. But that is a story for another time.
The Same Today
Even though the infinite Word of God himself has come down from heaven and become incarnate, although God himself has spoken to us through his Son, the Christ, who is the power and wisdom of God, that isn’t enough for the intellectual fool (Heb. 1:2; 1 Cor. 1:24). No, he yearns for something more that is more to his taste, something more special and unique. It might be something new and novel, or it might also be something old and mystical, with a modern twist, like the ancient teachings of an old religion that had been lost for ages but now has been recovered and revitalized! Finally, with the insights of modern man and science, he will breathe life into that old faith!
Thus, even though the Lord has prepared manna from heaven for him, rather than partake of the heavenly bread that gives eternal life, the fool pushes it aside and digs into the ground like a rabid dog, desperately searching for the gnarly old bone of wisdom from some eastern spiritual guru who died and was buried thousands of years ago, never to rise again. Despite the fact that this particular bone has been chewed at hundreds of times already by previous generations, without saving anyone, nevertheless, he manages to convince himself that it is the thing that will solve all of his problems and give him new life. Once he finally unearths his precious bone, he gives it a fresh coat of paint to make it fit for the modern age, and then he chews at it for a while, together with his hipster friends at the local cafe — until they grow tired of it and throw it out the window to the other dogs. Then they go out together to dig around for the subsequent bone, and so it continues until they die.
Now, what do they have at the end? Vanity. As the preacher said:
And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.Ecclesiastes 1:13–14 ESV
There is only one word that we need to pay attention to, which is the Word of God. Do not seek new revelations or secret knowledge; seek him who became incarnate, carried your sins upon the cross at Calvary, and died to save you. Unlike that guru whose bones have been repainted a hundred times, Jesus rose again on the third day. If you travel to Israel to seek his bones, you will not find them, for the Lord is sitting up in heaven today, reigning over the entire world with absolute sovereignty.
Therefore, listen to what he has to say. Listen to his words. His Word is a divine Word.