Bible teacher Ray Vander Laan inspires listeners to share the Gospel with boldness and conviction as he examines how the Apostle Paul did so in the culture of his day. This discussion offers a preview of the newest edition to the That the World May Know series, "Cultures in Conflict," now available in our online store.
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John Fuller: How do you live as a Christian? And how do you express that faith to others? Well, the Scripture gives us some clear guidelines. And Ray Vander Laan is passionate about helping you understand what those are. He’s here, as our guest today on Focus on the Family. And your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, may we never lose sight of two main things that Jesus taught us - to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Those are both demanding, if we’re honest about it. It’s hard to love your neighbor. But, I mean, that is the clarion call of Jesus. That’s the neon sign of the New Testament. Jesus himself said, “These are the two commandments. If you do these two things, you’ll fulfill the whole law.” And so, it’s important for us to come back to it, often, to remind ourselves of how do we do that? And what are the examples in Scripture that help us to better understand how we do that? Our mission in life is to share God’s love with others. And Paul, the Apostle Paul, set an incredible example for us.
Ray Vander Laan, the author of, a wonderful person, has been a partner of Focus on the Family for more than 25 years, with his series, , has done a fabulous job in the latest DVD release called, . And there is no better time to delve into the Scripture and to better understand the conflict that Christianity brings to a culture that doesn’t know God. We are living it today, and we’re gonna hear more from Ray on this topic. Ray’s been a Bible teacher for 42 years, helping us to better understand the historical and cultural context of the Scripture. Jean and I were privileged to go on a trip with him, uh, a little while back. It was riveting. I mean, it makes the Scripture come alive, John. You haven’t been on...
Jim: ...a trip, though, have you?
John: No. You came back just sharing so many stories. I really want to go sometime.
Jim: It’s fantastic. And the best next thing we can do, and I’m so grateful for Dr. Dobson and Ed and Elsa Prince, when they were on that trip and said, “Let’s help RVL do this.” And they captured it in a video format. And we have been talking about it ever since. He’s also the religion instructor at Holland Christian Schools in Holland, Michigan - a wonderful part of the country, by the way.
Jim: And, Ray, I want to say welcome back to Focus.
Ray Vander Laan: Thank you. It’s an honor to be here today.
Jim: When you talk about this new release of, set 16, you filmed it on location there in Greece. Paul had the incredible opportunity to engage with the philosophers of the day, there in Athens, I think was his goal. I’m assuming that was the reason he probably saw Athens as a main place to go and preach the gospel - because he could reach so many. What do we need to understand about that culture at that time?
Ray: It’s interesting, if you put the Athens part of Paul’s teaching journey, if you want to call it that, into context. He walked into the city, Luke writes in the book of Acts, and saw temples and idols everywhere. “And it troubled him greatly,” Luke says. Now, the question is, why would those idols trouble him? Well, obviously, the Bible says that worshipping an idol god is sinful. But, I think it’s deeper than that. Judaism resented and resisted idolatry, primarily because it took honor and credit and glory that belonged to God alone. Zeus doesn’t bring us the rain and the fertility and prosperity. Mars doesn’t defeat our enemies. They understood that there is only one God. So, if you worship idols, then in effect, you’re giving credit to someone other than the God, the Creator of the universe.
So, he did a Jewish thing. He’s so upset, he went to the synagogue and began to reason with them, it says. Paul saw an opportunity to bring God’s truth to bear on the most brilliant and best expression of philosophical truth that the Roman Empire had to offer. Athens was no longer the head of a great empire like it had been under Alexander the Great, but Athens was still known as the intellectual center of the Roman Empire. And so, in a sense, he went to the Harvard and Yale, to the Oxford of his world and took the opportunity to engage their understanding of truth with his understanding of the truth God had revealed in Scripture.
Jim: And, it’s so powerful to think in that context. And you’ve mentioned some of that experience Paul had. But, talk about going to Mars Hill, that delivery of what he was doing - recognizing the unknown God. I love the craft in which Paul looked at the culture around him - and this is what you talk about in set 16 - how he seized on this idol that they had, this God that they worshipped, to the unknown god. What did he do with that?
Ray: As he reasoned with the philosophers and would share - reason in Hebrew is a very specific practice. It means to present a point of view and then to show the scriptural basis of that point of view. He happened to talk about the resurrection. Now, that raised their eyebrows big-time, because in the Greek world, it was clear to them, to every philosophical school, there is no bodily resurrection. So, they said to Paul, “We think you’re presenting new beliefs, new ideas. We have a council called the Areopagus.” Now, the history of the Areopagus was, it was more or less the Supreme Court of the Greek empire. It had been founded 700 years before this time. Its mission was to rule on significant cultural and legal issues, but mainly to determine which gods and which beliefs about the gods were permissible. But imagine if you or I, if any one of us proclaimed our faith so intensely and so clearly that we got a phone call that said, “Will you come to the Supreme Court? The nine justices on the Supreme Court would like to listen to your point of view.” This was a big deal. So Paul went.
He does two absolutely brilliant, and I would add, I think, Jewish things. One, he first found a half a dozen touch points in the culture. So, he starts with an altar he claims to have seen, which was an altar to an unknown god. Some think the unknown god was a way to describe the Jewish God, because, to gentiles, the Jewish God is unknown. You can’t say his name, and you don’t make statues of him, so he’s unknown. I’m not so sure. Others think unknown meant maybe there’s a god we haven’t even discovered yet.
Jim: Kind of a catch-all.
Ray: Yeah, sort of a catch-all.
John: We’re gonna cover it.
Ray: Others said no - have said no. The idea was when something happens, and we’re not sure which god is doing it, either bad or good, let’s worship at this altar, because the god who caused the plague, or the god who defeated our enemy isn’t known, so we don’t know which god to sacrifice to. Let’s sacrifice to the unknown god. But Paul picks up on that altar and says to them very brilliantly, “I’m gonna tell you about the God you’re ignorant of.” So, he had a point - a touch point in the culture.
One of the things that troubles me sometimes in my own place in the Christian community is we’re a bit hesitant to really get to know the culture well around us. I run into people every once in a while who will say, “I don’t read anything I don’t agree with,” or “I don’t watch anything I don’t agree with.”
Jim: Some listening may say that’s...
Jim: ...What I do.
Ray: And I realize there’s a time and place to be avoiding what’s sinful and what’s temptation. But, I think we need to know our culture really well. We need to know our culture so well that we know how to speak God’s truth in their language.
Jim: It has to have that purpose, though.
Ray: It has to have that purpose. We have to engage them, not simply to criticize, not simply to put them down or to judge them, though we stand strongly on what we believe, but to know our culture so well that we know how to address them, what concepts they need to understand that we believe, or we hold dear. And, if we don’t know our culture, we end up just shouting at the wind in my opinion.
Ray: He does some other things. He mentions a quotation from one of their philosophers. He talks about how we are God’s offspring. And he says, “One of your poets even says this.” So he’s quoting, not from biblical sources, but from their own philosophical heroes in their ancient past. So, Paul directed his message in a culturally relevant way and addressed the issues that they were dealing with. But there’s another side to it. What we found fascinating, as we took a look at that speech, is there are at least nine examples, where Paul addresses their cultural ideas, but uses words and phrases from Scripture.
And Paul says - using words that are found in the Bible twice - Paul says, “I’m gonna tell you about this unknown god, who doesn’t live in temples made with hands.” That, I think, is the biggest lesson that God has taught me from the whole story in Athens - is this idea that I need to address my culture by my words and my life. But, I need to address the culture, first of all, in their ideas and categories. I need to speak a language that they understand. But, what I need to do that Paul did so brilliantly is to take biblical phrases, biblical text, biblical ideas and speak those in the metaphors of the culture I’m addressing.
Jim: Well, and that’s what’s so brilliant about set 16 of. And, Ray, you have done a fabulous job in every set. And this spans how many years?
Ray: It’ll be 25 years in June.
Jim: 25 years Focus on the Family and RVL Ministries have partnered together to bring, I mean, I think - um, and I think it’s unbiased - the most relevant scriptural understanding that people can receive today. And that’s why we’re behind it. That’s why we’re so excited about it.
John: Yeah, we - you can get a copy of set 16,at focusonthefamily.com/radio. Or, give us a call - 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And, we encourage you to get this so you can get the same kind of inspiration and passion that Ray is sharing right here.
Jim: Ray, I’m sitting - I’m just bubbling up, because I can remember being with you and how you help people see Scripture, feel Scripture, live Scripture. And so often, when we hear the stories, even now - okay, these are things that happened to a man who believed in Jesus 2,000 years ago. How do we apply it today? I mean, when we see Paul working in Athens, picking parts of the culture to elaborate on how God is speaking through that, how do we apply that today? I mean, the believers today, when we see our Supreme Court and decisions they’re making, and we see our state governments and federal governments doing things that are so contrary to the Word of God, how do we take the Scripture and make it apply to today’s world?
Ray: Great question. If RVL - me - if I give my opinion, God may bless that. But if I give God’s Word, He says, “it will always do exactly what I want it to, and no one can stop it.” So, I always say to my students, be sure, when you’re speaking, that your language is salted with biblical phrases, ideas and even quotations, because once you turn that loose. It is unstoppable, if God wants it to be.
But there’s another side. There’s no more brilliant presentation of the Gospel than Paul’s to the Areopagus, in my opinion, recorded in the Scripture - absolutely stunning, both culturally and texturally. But, if you come to the end of the story, note two things. There is not, in my New Testament, a First and Second Athens. It does not appear a church formed. It does mention one of the members of the Areopagus became a believer. A woman named Damaris became a believer, and a few others. But there’s no church. Church tradition holds the same thing, that the church in Athens doesn’t come till later.
And the second thing, if you move on, and it’s in set 16 as well, Paul goes next to Corinth, alone. And he came to Corinth, he says, in the first chapter of his email to the Corinthians - we call it First Corinthians - Paul says, “I came in weakness and fear and trembling and not with human wisdom.” I have a theory. I think, for all the brilliance of his speech, Paul realized that that is not the first and foremost tactic God gives his people. God chose his people, first of all, not to tell the world who He was, but to show the world who He was.
Jesus came to say, “Let me show you what it looks like, if you live out your faith. Be my disciple.” And then, He sent out His community to be light, to be living witnesses, to hallow His name, and to be priests to put Him on display. From Athens, where no church forms, Paul goes to Corinth, picks the weak in Corinth, the nobodies. He says, “Not many of you were wise, not many of you were rich, not many of you were well-known. I picked the nobodies.” And as a house church formed, Corinth became a Christian center. And it wasn’t simply because they were telling others about Jesus, but they were showing what Jesus looked like. And I think that’s the touch point that you’ve asked about.
I think what God has called us to do is not simply to tell our culture about God and about Jesus and about faith. I think that’s important, don’t get me wrong. I think God wants us to be a living witness. And that’s where I wonder sometimes if our shouting at people, or being judgmental, or maybe worse, in not being successful in living out our own faith. If our marriages aren’t living examples of what marriage looks like, how can we possibly have a message to give to our culture about what marriage is? If our businesses aren’t run with integrity and with compassion and charity, how could we possibly bear witness to a broken world of what business ought to look like? And I think Paul learned a lesson and came to Corinth and said, “There’s a place for brilliant speeches, for philosophical presentation of our faith. I’m gonna go to Corinth and start a church.” And it changed Corinth.
Jim: And I love what you’re saying, Ray, because I think this is the crux of the matter. I think this is where, in modernity, we may have lost that willingness. Because it takes effort to live like Christ. I mean, it takes incredible effort. You have to suppress your flesh, when you want to react in a mean-spirited way, which comes so naturally. I mean, it does to me. I mean, somebody cuts me off - I say this when I speak all the time - I mean, that’s where the Lord has really had to work on me.
Jim: Somebody cutting me off on the highway and not going by the rules. And I think we, as believers, we tend to want an environment where everybody follows the rules, we can all get along. And when people don’t, it really irritates us, whether it’s political, or driving down the highway, or the neighbor that won’t get off your back for some reason. And if we really press ourselves, we’ve got to respond differently, because we’re children of God.
Ray: And that takes us immediately, then, to the Corinth study. There are three studies in the piece about - of Corinth. The first looks at how Paul chose, or God chose, if you will, who would listen. Paul chose the weak. He chose the unimportant. So, they didn’t have any power. And I find sometimes it’s tempting to think, if we could just have the political power, if we could have the economic power, as God’s people, we could transform our world. Well, we certainly want to influence politics. We certainly want to be involved in economics and politics, as well. But how often in the Bible did God use weakness to accomplish His purpose? In fact, if you look at church history, I think it’s more common that the church did well when it was weak by human standards, than when it was powerful.
So, Paul went to Corinth, chose these unimportant people, and God used that weakness to accomplish an amazing thing in Corinth. Paul came to Corinth alone. He came after Athens, where apparently no church was started. He came - he said, “I came in fear and trembling. I didn’t come with wisdom. I came in weakness.” He was discouraged. But when he got there, God stepped up.
He showed up, and the first people he met were a couple named Aquila and Priscilla. They happened to be Jewish and tent-makers, the same trade he was. But to his amazement, I’ll bet, they were believers in Jesus already, before they got there. So, Paul thought, “I’m going alone to this” - I don’t even want to mention a modern equivalent. This was by far believed to be the most decadent city in the world.
Jim: Yeah, perhaps Las Vegas times one hundred.
Ray: Well, okay, you said it. I didn’t.
Jim: I said it.
John: Very pagan.
Ray: You’ll get the emails.
Jim: Yeah. Yeah
Ray: What happens in Corinth stays in Corinth kind of thing. It had been founded by - or re-founded as a colony by Julius Caesar. He populated it with slaves and freed slaves. It was a sailor’s center. It had the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of sex and fertility. At one point in history, one of the writers says there was a temple on the acropolis with 1,000 prostitutes attached to it. Corinthian was to be immoral. And, in fact, the word Corinthian shows up for sexually transmitted diseases and for sexual excesses. It also was to be intoxicated. It was a wine production. It was absolutely the most decadent place. How Paul possibly thought he could make a difference in Corinth, I will never know. And he came with nothing. And lo and behold, the first people he meets have the trade he knows, have a place to conduct his trade, so he could work with them, and better, have a small house where that first community of believers could meet.
And then, one night, God appeared to him, and He gave him an Elijah moment. And God said, “Paul, don’t be afraid. Give it everything you got. I have a lot of people in this city that are going to come to me” - same message Elijah got. You know, Elijah ran away, because Jezebel was trying to kill him. He sat down in the desert. And he said, “I’ve failed. I quit.”
Ray: “There’s nobody who loves you anymore. I’m done.” And God said, “No, there are 7,000 that haven’t...
Ray: ...bowed the knee to these idol gods” - and Paul got the same vision. So Paul went from being weak to becoming strong. One of my favorite Jewish writers talks about how God so often uses human weakness, and weakness becomes strength when we realize we’re weak. When Abraham and Sarah realized they were not gonna have children on their own, that’s when they became strong.
Ray: When Moses realized he couldn’t speak, because he had a speech impediment, that’s when he became strong, because he leaned on God. When Israel stood on the shore of the Red Sea and realized they couldn’t swim, but they just started walking toward the - at that moment, they realized their weakness, and they became strong. That’s what happened to Paul. When he realized he was weak - it was not gonna to be his brilliance, it was not gonna be his own human talents, it was gonna be the power of God in him. The book of Hebrews says this whole list of nobodies in that great “hero of faith” chapter, their weakness was turned to strength.
Ray: And I like to think, in our world, if we’re willing to be sacrificial people, who live in weakness, serving others, God turns our weakness into strength.
Jim: There is so much there, Ray, that you’re talking about - I mean, that idea of humility, that God draws you toward humility. He wants you to be humble, so He can use you.
Jim: But in this culture today, especially the Christian culture - and we’re at the end of our time, so I’m gonna put this softball up for you...
Jim: ...so you can whack it - but that’s the thing we have to fight, that - that we need to win, that we need to be on top, that it’s a zero-sum game. I don’t see that with Paul. I don’t see that in the New Testament at all. And it’s contrary to our nature, as humans, to go toward weakness. It’s not what our flesh wants to do. We want to conquer. We want to be on top. We want the power. And like you pointed out, the irony is, if you go all the way back to Constantine, and early influence of Christianity and power, we’re still flawed human beings, saved by grace. When we get power, we can misuse it.
Jim: It’s not necessarily the answer. But, the final point here is, how do we not be tempted in that power, and I mean it in this way, Ray - when you look at the culture today, we have court cases going against religious liberty, we have so much fighting against marriage. How do we settle our hearts and say, “Lord, you’ve put us here in this moment, in this culture” - Western culture - our Canadian listeners are part of it, too. How do we settle our hearts and say, “What is it You want us to do for You?”
Ray: That’s an amazing question, and a very biblical question. The answers, obviously, are varied and involved. But I think there are a couple of points I would make strongly from the life of Paul, or the New Testament, let’s say it that way. First, if we take Jesus as the example - this Son of God human, who could have called legions of angels...
Ray: ...who stilled storms and raised the dead, changed the world by offering His life in sacrifice and service to anyone who believes in Him - that’s how Paul changed Corinth. That’s how, rather, God changed Corinth through Paul - is people who were weak lived sacrificially.
The other thing - and that gets us into the last two units, if you will, in set 16, Paul has two major themes in the book of Corinthians, which he is addressing to the church. One is if we’re going to be this living witness, we absolutely have to be in unity. There cannot be any dissension or division among you. And I’d love to get into that.
Ray: The second, he addresses the issue of marriage and sexuality through the whole book, because he understands in that decadent city, if we aren’t a living testimony of an alternative to that pagan Greco-Roman culture, we have no message, we have no power. The power is we have a living example of what it looks like, if you live our way. And so any - anything that slightly compromises our testimony as godly, holy people destroys our power, which is the power to serve others by how we live. And right in the middle of it - I’ll just throw a little, I’ll throw you a softball - right in the middle of it, he’s got a two-chapter discussion of meat sacrificed to idols. Now, what does that have to do with sexuality and sexual immorality and marriage? Well, you have to stay tuned.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s - in fact, maybe we could take that discussion online. I have more questions for you RVL, but I want to do that - and if you want to hear this dialogue, come online. And, John, you’ll give the details. But this set 16 of, is an awesome application to today’s world and where we’re at as believers in Jesus Christ. And, I can’t say it any better than just get it. And we will get that in your hands somehow.
For a gift of any amount, our way of saying thank you for that gift is to send you a copy of set 16. If you can’t afford it, we believe in the content so much, contact us, we’ll find a way. Somebody will give a gift to help you get that into your hands.
In fact, if you help Focus with a gift today, your donation will be doubled for twice the impact, in helping others through Focus on the Family. And let me give our thanks to generous donors who’ve made that possible. And let me also thank you for supporting the work here at Focus.
Um, Ray, it is always inspirational to be with you. And you capture so much great content in your series,, so wonderfully and beautifully done. Thank you for serving the Lord in this way.
Ray: What an honor it’s been to be part of “Focus on the Family” family. It really has been - I look back as really - really, my life’s work, in spite of my teaching career, so much of what I’ve taught comes out of this study that I’ve done with Focus on the Family. And it’s really been amazing, hard to believe - again, God used weakness. I had never stood in front of a camera. I never had any idea of being a public speaker. And God simply asked me to be the best high school Bible teacher I could, and in that, anointed my inadequacy and my lack of capacity to do this and used my weakness in an amazing way.
Jim: Well, He’s used you, wonderfully.
Ray: Thank you.
Jim: And, let’s continue the discussion online. I’ve got a handful of questions I want to ask you, so let’s do that.
John: And stop by our website for the continuation of the conversation with Ray Vander Laan. And, of course, while you’re there, be sure to order your copy of. The DVD includes a discovery guide, so it really is a great tool for you to dig into the Scripture or the cultural context and understand how you can apply some of the lessons you’ve heard today, and more that are included in the DVD, to your daily life. Online, we’re at focusonthefamily.com/radio. And, you can always call us, if you have questions or you’d prefer to order over the phone and donate over the phone as well. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word family - 800-232-6459.
Well coming up next time on this broadcast, why it’s so important to reach young children with God’s Good News.
Jean Thomason: My favorite place to dig into this is 2 Timothy 3:15. This is where Paul is talking to Timothy, and he’s reminding Timothy who he is. And he said, “Timothy, don’t forget this: from infancy, you have known the Holy Scriptures.”End of Teaser
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