Through the years I’ve heard a great deal of conversation about the state of affairs in the first century world which impacted the initial spread of the Gospel. One line of reasoning that has been suggested by historians and theologians that I have read goes something like this: The reason the Gospel spread like wildfire amongst the first-century pagans is the people were ready for something different, something new.
This idea is often brought into discussions about efforts to share the Good News with people today. I’ve heard it suggested that one of the reasons the American mission field is not as fertile as other places in the world has to do with the fact that cultural conditions are not “right”. Conversely, I have heard others suggest the reason a certain segment of the American population is currently open to the Gospel is due to cultural conditions making this group “ready” to hear the Gospel.
Maybe you’re sitting there looking at your screen saying, “Huh? What’s the point of this?”
Well, I read something recently that really made me think about this. In his signature, penetrating fashion N.T. “Tom” Wright speaks with precise scholarship to a long-held, but misguided, view. In “What Saint Paul Really Said” he writes the following:
People have often attempted to explain the rapid growth of Christianity by arguing that the first-century pagan world was, so to speak, ‘ready for Christianity’. I am not so sure. The Athenians were not ready to hear about ‘Jesus and resurrection’ (Acts 17:18, 32). I don’t think the Corinthians were particularly ready to be told about a new way of being human which involved chastity and the renunciation of party spirit. The Philippians….will have been radically challenged by hearing that Jesus was the one true kyrios, the lord of all the world. It may be true that people were tired of Stoicism, though Epictetus, Paul’s near-contemporary, gives no sign of it. It may be true that people were tired of Epicureanism, though Paul addresses it as a live option in Athens. It may be true that people were fed up with the ordinary pagan cult, and indeed Pliny, writing in the early second century, suggests that it was hounoured as much in the breach as in the observance in his day. But the basic features of paganism were deeply engrained in the lives and habits of mystery-cults, and a good deal else besides were part of the daily world of Paul’s audience. My sense is that the pagan world was no more ‘ready for the gospel’, in that sense, than the Jewish world was ready to hear the news of a crucified Messiah.
This seems to be one of those debates about the quantifiable difference between six of one thing and one half dozen of another. This is a distinction without a difference. So, how do we know who is ‘ready’ for Christianity? How could we know?
I believe that Jesus said the secret is in the soil! At least, that seems to be the message of the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-15). Here Jesus described four types of soil which signified four conditions of the heart. One type of soil, the good soil, “stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”
Here’s the key: In Jesus’ parable the sower didn’t debate, deliberate or discriminate. He just sowed the seed. When you think about it, our task isn’t to somehow determine whether or not our world is ready for Christianity any more than it is to determine whether or not another person has a noble and good heart. Perhaps we’ve spent too much time fancy-footin’ it around this topic when we just need to sling our seed bags over our shoulders and go to work. What do you think?
© Bill Williams, September 21, 2006