By Pastor Glenn Pease
In 1867 a bearded Norwegian named Lars Skrefsrud, and a Danish colleague found two and a half million people called the Santals living in a region north of Calcutta, India. He quickly learned their language and began to proclaim the Gospel. To his utter amazement the Santals were expecting just such a message, and they were excited and enthused about it. One of the leaders said, "This means Thakur Jiw has not forgotten us after all this time. Thakur means genuine and Jiw means god. The Genuine God has not forgotten us.
Lars was dumbfounded, for he expected to tell these pagans about a God they never heard of, and instead, he finds they have heard of the one supreme God. He asked them how they knew, and one of the elders told him of their oral tradition. "Long, long ago thakur Jiw, the Genuine God created the first man and woman. They were tempted and fall, and knew that they were naked and were ashamed. They had 7 sons and 7 daughters, and founded 7 clans. But the people became corrupted and so God hid a holy pair in a cave and destroyed the rest of mankind with a flood. The pair that was saved multiplied and God divided them into many different peoples.
"The Santal people once obeyed Thakur Jiw, but as they made their way through the Khyber Pass they became discouraged with the hardships of the mountains, and they began to pray to the spirits of the mountains, and then to the spirit of the sun. They just drifted away from Thakur Jiw. They still recognized him as the one supreme God, but they developed their religion around lesser gods."
The missionary could not believe his ears. Here was a people who had the same experience as the Jews. They had the truth of the supreme God in their tradition, but went after other gods, and their religion became corrupted. When the Gospel was proclaimed they recognized it was their supreme God showing mercy on them, even though they had forsaken Him. If this was only an isolated case we could put it into the category of the freak accidents and coincidences of history, but it is not isolated. Don Richardson, author of Peace Child, in his book Eternity In Their Hearts reveals how the belief in one true God is a part of the tradition in hundreds of cultures throughout the world.
This one true God has many names, but he is always the Creator and Sustainer of all, and supreme over all. The missionaries who confront these people have to make a decision as to whether the name of their God is the name of the God of the Bible, or not. In many cases they have concluded that it is, and the result is God has a great many names.
It all started with Abraham and Melchizedek in Gen. 14. Abraham had just come back from a victory over some kings and Melchizedek, the king of Salem, brought out bread and wine and blest him. He was the priest of the Most High God, and he said to Abraham, "Blessed be Abraham by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth." This God was El Elyon. This was a Canaanite name, and Abraham was being blest in his name. Abraham did not say, "Hold on there, my God is Jehovah, and not El Elyon." He not only did not say that, but he gave this high priest of El Elyon a tenth of all he had. Heb. 7 makes much of this and shows Jesus Christ to be a priest forever after the order of melchizedek. El Elyon became associated with the God of the Bible and God was named in the Bible as Elohim, and El Shaddai.
This same thing happened in the New Testament world. Zeus was the king of the gods, but he was so corrupt that he could not represent the one supreme God. But the Greek writers, like Plato and Aristotle, used another name for the supreme God which was not contaminated. They used Theos, and this became the name the translators of the Old Testament into Greek used for God, and this is the name Paul used in his New Testament letters for God. The pagan peoples of the Gentile world had names for the supreme God that were kept pure enough to become the names of the God of the Bible.
So getting back to Lars and the Santal people-he decided if Abraham and Paul could do it, so could he, and so he accepted Thakur Jiw as the name of Jehovah. He said it felt strange at first to be proclaiming Jesus Christ as the son of Thakur Jiw, but after a couple of weeks he felt comfortable. The response was overwhelming as thousands of Santals wanted to learn how they could be reconciled to Thakur Jiw through Jesus Christ. They were averaging 80 baptisms a day. Lars baptized 15,000 during his years in India, and 85,000 were baptized by others.
There are many amazing missionary stories like this, but now we want to look at the amazing experience of Paul as the missionary on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece. Nowhere do we see Paul more eloquent as he faces the greatest intellectual audience of his career. He stood on the very spot where men like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle stood, and he had to persuade the best minds of Greece. Gordon Lewis said, "Here is one of the most dramatic moments of history as Jew meets Gentile, Jerusalem confronts Athens, Christianity faces philosophy, faith meets reason." Athens was the capital of the intellectual world, as Rome was the political capital, and Jerusalem the religious capital. By his approach here Paul teaches us how the Christian is to approach this world in fulfilling the Great Commission. You begin by-
I. FINDING COMMON GROUND.
This calls for being observant, and doing some research. On the surface it would seem that Athenian polytheism and Christian monotheism would have nothing in common. Athens had so many gods that it became a proverb, "As well haul rocks to a quarry as bring another god to Athens." It was the god capital of the world, and you would need the yellow pages to keep track of them all. The streets could be deserted of men, but their was always a god around on every street.
It is the same story over and over again all through history. Once a people stray from the one true God in favor of lesser deities, they soon discover there is an inflation factor in idolatry. They need more and more gods to fill the shoes of one supreme God. You have to come with a god for every detail of life and nature, and this becomes an endless process. The result is that even the most intelligent people become utterly ridiculous in their multiplying of idols. The Greeks were scholars and philosophers of the world, but in their wisdom they became fools. Athens had an estimated 30,000 gods, which was more than all the rest of Greece put together.
Paul could have stood up and said, "You stupid superstitious screwballs." He could have lashed out at their folly, but he did not take that approach. He took the wiser approach and began his message by saying, "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious." He was saying this, not with a sarcastic voice, but with a note of appreciation. He was saying we are one in this, for I too am very religious, and I have a religious message to share with you. He then selects a specific object of their worship as a jumping off point to share the good news. Paul had walked around the city, and he had observed the idols and altars everywhere. He found one to an unknown God.
Paul was looking for some common ground from which to begin, and he found it in this altar. Don Richardson says there is some common ground in every religion and culture, for God in his mercy has given every people an insight into the truth that enables them to understand the Gospel when it comes. It is the missionaries task to find that common ground, just as Paul did here.
The unknown God was perfect, for his goal was to share with them the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. They did not know this, and so the God of the Bible was an unknown God to them. Paul says this God whom you worship as unknown I am proclaiming to you so you can know him. The unknown God whom Paul made known was not just another god, but he was the supreme God. He is not one of the gods of gold, silver, and stones, or a god who lives in temples made with hands. He is the God whom all peoples instinctively know as the God of all. He is the God who created all, and the God of all nations. He is the God in whom we live, move, and have our being. Paul quotes one of their own poets who said of this God that we are his offspring.
Paul is saying by his approach to the Athenians that there is common ground for all people who believe in God. In all the religions of the world where there is a belief in God, there are universal truths held in common by all. No matter how corrupt and perverted a religion becomes there is always the concept of a supreme God who is the Creator of all, and the Lord of all men.
Paul is saying that this is, in fact, the God of the Bible. He may be called many names, or even the unknown God, but logic demands that since there is only one God, all concepts and names of the supreme God in other religions are the names and concepts of the God of the Bible. All the religions of the world then have a concept or name for the one true God who is the God we proclaim as Christians. This becomes the common ground on which Christians stand with all the peoples of the world. It is the key to reaching them. Mission minded people are ever seeking to find that in the culture of other people which becomes a link to the God of the Bible. God has never left himself without a witness. Man has natural revelation that gives them a concept of an almighty and all wise God over all creation.
Even the religious writings of the world convey much of the truth that God wants all men to have, and which opens them up to receive the greater truth in Christ. Paul quotes the poet Cleanthes in verse 28. Paul read this pagan poet and said to himself, "This is good. Here is a pagan who says some things I can use, for he sees what in universally true." Let me share a part of the hymn to Zeus that Paul is quoting from.
"O God, most glorious, called by many a name,
Nature's great King, through endless years the same;
Omnipotence, who by thy just decree
Controllest all, hail, Zeus, for unto thee
Behooves thy creatures in all lands to call.
We are thy children, we alone, of all
On earth's road ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing thine image wheresoe'er we go,...
He goes on to speak of God as King of Kings and universal Word, and the one who makes the crooked straight, and chaos into order. The point is, even a pagan poet can know much about God, and it is a Christian obligation to find out where people are, and from that common ground open up the new light God has given in Jesus Christ.
The reason the Christian is to go into all the world and preach the Gospel is not because the pagan world has no light. There is much light in the world. There is so much good religion and morality in the world, and so much that is true and wise, but none of it will save without a Savior. God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance, and this can only happen as people hear the good news of what the supreme God has done for them in Jesus Christ.
It is the mercy of God that motivates missionaries. People know much of God all over this world, but they do not know that God provided a sacrifice for all sin, and that He conquered death in His Son, and that they can have assurance of eternal life by faith in Him. The full and final revelation of God is in Jesus Christ. Other revelations are marvelous and true, but they are not complete. Judaism is one of the most marvelous religions of the world. They have more truth about God by written revelation than any other religion of the world. They actually have more than Christians, for the Old Testament is much larger than the New Testament. Quantity, however cannot take the place of quality. The final and complete revelation of God is found only in Jesus Christ. The mercy of God compels us to have missions to the Jews, for in spite of all their truth, they do not have the final revelation of their God.
It is the same with all other peoples. They have much that is true, but they do not have the Truth. Christians are to go, not in pride as if we are better than others, for we are not. What we have we have received, and it is our obligation to pass it on. Dr. Richardson was a missionary for 13 years to the people in New Guinea. He makes it clear that the more you study the religions of the world, the more you realize that God has not left Himself without a witness. All people have general revelation, and many have traditions which link them to the biblical past when all men worshiped the true God. It is amazing how much biblical truth there is in the folk religions of the world. The Christian does not go into all the world because other religions have no value and truth. He goes because they need to hear of the ultimate and final Truth of God's revelation in Christ.
The second thing you come to realize is that all religions are under law. Paul writes in Rom. 2:14, "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves....they show the requirements of the law are written on their hearts." This means that every religious person on this planet is basically in the same place as the Jews were. They had the law as a foundation, but their religion was not complete until they had a Savior who satisfied the demands of the law, and saved them by His grace. This is what all of the religious people of the world need, and mercy is to motivate us to meet that need by getting the Gospel to them.
Mercy is the ready inclination to relieve misery. The world is in misery trying to save themselves by religion, by works, and by obedience to law. No one has ever been saved by that route yet, not even when it was the revealed religion and law of the Old Testament. The Christian mission is a mission of mercy. It is taking the good news to all the world that God has not forgotten or forsaken them, even though they deserve it, but He has made it possible for them to be saved, and released from the bondage to their religion of law.
Mercy is not only the motive for missions, but it is the motive for witnessing in our own land. We tend to think that because the American people know so much about Christianity and the truth of the Bible that they do not need witnessing. But we need to see that all around us the religious people in our land are just like those in the rest of the world. They have all kinds of wonderful truth, morality, and insights into life, but it is still a religion of law. They expect to be saved by their good works and obedience to the law. They do not know the freedom of being saved by trusting in the finish work of Christ. Jesus is not only the completion of Judaism; Jesus is not only the completion of the religions of the world; Jesus is not only the completion of the unknown God, Jesus is the completion of Christianity as well.
There are millions of religious Christians who have an amazing knowledge of the true God, but who have never gotten in on His mercy and been saved by personal trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Mercy must compel us to share this with people so that they can have God's best and be complete in Christ.
What is mercy? I see it as God's friendship in action. In mercy God gets involved in our lives and in our world. He blesses where we do not deserve it. He rescues us from our own folly, and forgives us when we are worthy of condemnation. Mercy is what we see the father of the Prodigal practicing. He didn't deserve a place in the barn, or a dish of leftovers, but the father restored him to full dignity as a son, and made him the honored guest at a banquet of celebration.
It was all mercy, and the father even pleaded with the elder son to come in and join the party. This too was mercy, for he deserved to be shut out for his bitter attitude. The father is the friend of both of his boys, for his dominant attitude toward both was mercy. His best was available to both because of his mercy. This is the message the whole world needs to hear, for the one prayer that is always heard and answered is, "God be merciful to me a sinner." The best proof of this is the dying thief upon the cross who mercy sought and mercy found. He was the first in paradise, even though he was hell-bound. The poet wrote,
When Christ, my Lord, hung dying,
Dying on the shameful tree,
Men in all their madness mocked Him,
Yet no word at all said He.
But when at His side a sinner,
Hanging there in shame to die,
Pleading, sought his loving favor,
Swiftly came love's glad reply.
When thou comest to thy kingdom,
Lord, he cried, remember me.
Yeah, to-day, with me in glory,
Jesus answered, thou shalt be.
Was not this most wondrous pity,
So to bless a dying thief
Even amid his own deep anguish
Thus to give a soul relief?
Tell it in the highest heaven,
Tell it in the depths below;
Tell it to the lost and outcast;
Tell it in the haunts of woe:
To the ver chief of sinners
Let the blessed tidings go.
He who asks the Savior's mercy
Shall the Savior's mercy know.
Not only are we saved by mercy, but we are sanctified, guided, delivered, and protected by mercy. It would take over an hour just to read all of the text in the Bible dealing with God's mercy toward us. Let me just share a few. Daniel asks his friends to plead for God's mercy in revealing the king's dream so that they are not executed. Whenever God gets involved in our lives to rescue and protect us, it is His mercy in action.
In Neh. 9 the history of Israel's departure from God, and God's compassion and deliverance is rehearsed. It happened times without number, yet he says in verse 31, "But in your great mercy you did not put an end to them or abandon them, for you are a gracious and merciful God." If God was not merciful there would be only one book of the Old Testament. It is long because God's mercy endures forever.
It is one of the most frequent prayers of the Psalms. "Remember, O Lord your great mercy and love. Do not withhold your mercy from me O Lord. In our great mercy turn to me." Over and over, and over again in trials and troubles of all kinds the cry for mercy goes up. It is a prominent aspect of prayer in this world where so much can go wrong. The fact that anything goes right, and that you escape many of the evils of life is due to God's grace and mercy. The greatest need of every human being is for God's mercy. There is no salvation without it, and there is no victory or happiness without it. Here is a major need of every person. Jesus said that to get it we must give it. He said, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." It is by being channels of mercy to others that we receive the flow of mercy into our own lives.
The Christian life is to be a life of mercy. We are to have compassion on people who are lost, and in mercy share the light that leads out of darkness into life. We are to have compassion concerning every human need. We are to put friendship into action, and let mercy abound in loving service. Mercy is the motive for missions, and every compassionate concern for a needy world. The incarnation was a mission of mercy. The life of Jesus was a ministry of mercy. His death and resurrection was the master plan for universal mercy. The great commission is every Christians command to take the mercy of God to all people. Mercy is to be our motivation to help everybody we can to find God's best in Christ. Everything we experience, and everything we share is because God is merciful.