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
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 ElElyon
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
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
worshipped 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.