We live in a pluralistic society.
This is a good thing.
The alternative would be for one group to impose its view of the world on everyone else. That leads to tyranny, even if the ones doing the imposing are Christians.
At the core, the idea of a pluralistic society is the acknowledgment that the kingdom of God cannot be established by force.
The only way to expand God’s kingdom is through love and persuasion, love plus truth. It is through the proclamation of the Gospel that we seek to do the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.
America has gone beyond pluralism.
Today, there are strong currents in America that not satisfied with E Pluribus Unium, unity in the midst of diversity. They want everyone to think the same thoughts and speak the same ideas.
They try to coerce people into their way of thinking through intimidation, boycotting, shaming, character assassination, and smear campaigns.
Ultimately, they want government to impose proper speech and proper thinking.
Notice, for example, the following paragaph taken from an online social forum.
Children are not a parent’s property, it would only make sense that there should be some degree of child protection. Ideally, guaranteeing that a child gets a proper education is a parent’s duty, but ‘proper’ in this case, while incredibly subjective, still carries a meaning that is tied to reality, i.e. not religion. If a parent can’t provide a child with an education that has ties to the world we currently live in, or if they actively try to provide teachings that at their core, are not backed by reality [i.e., religious teaching], I think that it becomes the government’s (state, or federal, whichever) responsibility to protect a child.”[*]
In this environment we feel pressured …
* To remain silent about the Gospel.
* To modify the Gospel in such a way that it is less confrontational, more inclusive, more moderate.
We all just want to get along.
But can we do that and remain true our mission? True to the message that our Lord Jesus Christ entrusted to the church?
The fundamental issue with which we must come to grips is the exclusiveness of the Christian message.
By “exclusiveness” I mean the insistence that acceptance of Jesus is the only path to God. Are there alternative paths to salvation?
Many people today find the Christian claim to exclusivity both repugnant and evil. It directly conflicts with their notion that all beliefs are of equal value.
It is the exclusivity of Christianity that our pluralistic society finds so irritating.
For the sake of peace, should we abandon our claim that there is only one path to salvation?
Two speeches in the book of Acts are relevant to this question: one that was preached by Peter and another by Paul.
Peter’s Message to the Jewish Leaders in Jerusalem
One of the things that is happening in the book of Acts is a dispute over who are the legitimate leaders of Israel.
In Acts 1, there is this strange passage about how the 11 apostles (absent Judas), chose a twelfth man so as to bring their number back up to 12. Why was this important?
Luke is presenting these twelve men as the new leaders of Israel. The number 12 reminds us of the 12 patriarchs of the OT. The 12 apostles are the new patriarchs of Israel, the only legitimate leaders of Israel.
A Message for Israel
In chapter 2 of Acts, we have the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which empowers the 12 to speak boldly a message directed to Israel. The message is this:
1. The resurrected Jesus has been enthroned in heaven. He now occupies the eternal throne of David as predicted in the law and the prophets.
2. Peter is saying, “This Jesus who you brazenly rejected and murdered is in fact your king.”
3. Now, God is offering Israel a second chance to respond appropriately through repentance and acknowledgment of their Messiah Jesus.
A Demonstration of the Power of Jesus’ Name
So, then in chapter 3, we have this amazing act of the healing of a lame begger. The man was known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem because he was placed daily at the temple gate to “ask alms of those entering the temple” (3:2).
The miracle is irrefutable. It became the buzz of the entire city. Luke records that “all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to [Peter and John]” (Acts 3:11).
Peter addresses the people, explaining that this miracle was not done through any power that the apostles possessed in themselves. It was accomplished by the name of Jesus, the one they had denied and turned over to be crucified.
He is the holy and righteous one (the Messiah) that the Scriptures predicted would come. They had murdered the “Author of Life” (3:15).
It is by faith in his name that this man was healed.
Therefore, they must now “repent … and turn back, that [their] sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19–20).
Now we come to our passage (chapter 4).
The official Jewish leaders–the “rulers and elders and scribes” together with the high priest and others–arrest Peter and John, bring them before the council, and demand: “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
In other words, “Who authorized you to do these things? It wasn’t us.”
Then Peter proclaims that this miracle–which nobody can deny–was done in the name of Jesus, the one whom they had crucified, but who God raised from the dead.
Peter says that Jesus is the stone that was rejected by the builders, but that has become the cornerstone of God’s new temple.
It is at this point where we come to the statement that is relevant to our topic. Peter says:
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
This is Peter’s way of saying to Israel: “This is the man we have been expecting.” This is our Messiah. There is no other. Don’t repeat the mistake of rejecting the savior of Israel.
Implications for us
So, this was a message primarily directed to the Jews.
Someone might argue, “But we are not Jews. So, this doesn’t apply to us.”
Maybe there is another name for Gentiles: like Buddha, or Mohammad, or Confucius, or Joseph Smith, or Krishna, or the Dalai Lama.
Are these also viable names by which a Gentile could be saved?
Fortunately, Luke does not leave us in the dark about that question. To answer that question, we must turn to chapter 17 of Acts, to Paul’s address to the Greeks in the Areopagus.
Paul’s Message to the Pagan Athenians (Acts 17)
This event occurs during Paul’s second missionary journey.
By the direction of the Holy Spirit, Paul and his companions leave Asia Minor and go into Macedonia.
The movement, which began in Jerusalem, has spread into Judea and Samaria, then into Asia Minor, and is now expanding into Greece. The Gospel is moving into Western Europe.
Paul visits several cities in Macedonia including Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea arriving then to Athens, the great center of Greek philosophy.
As he enters the city, he is greatly troubled by the rampant idolatry. Shrines everywhere to various gods.
As was his custom, Paul first goes to the synagogue to “reason with the Jews.”
He also has an opportunity to debate with some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.
When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they misunderstood. They thought he was talking about two gods: Jesus and Anastasis (the Greekword for “resurrection”).
Luke tells us they took Paul to the Areopagus. The words used convey the idea that he was forceably taken or arrested.
The Areopagus was a huge rock outcrop–still visible today–that the Greeks used as a place of tribunal. It is there that they would try murderers, arsonists, and such, but it was also a place where they would debate religion.
Paul was saying some strange things and they wanted to know what this was all about.
This gives Paul a great opportunity to preach the Gospel, this time to pure pagans.
He starts by describing his entry to the city. He says that he noticed they are “very religious.”
The term he used is interesting because it has a double meaning.
* It can mean “devout” in a positive sense, or
* It was also used to mean “superstitious” in a negative sense.
So, the Athenians were probably wondering: “Is he complimenting us or disrespecting us?”
Paul then mentions that, among all their shrines to various gods, there is a shrine to “the unknown god.” The Athenians wanted to make sure they had covered all their bases.
Paul boldly declares: “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” I know who this unknown god!
Points of Agreement
He then proceeds to tell them about the one true God who created the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, who does not live in buildings made by men, and who cannot be served by human hands because he has no need of anything. He is the one who gives all mankind life and breath and everything that is good.
This God who is over all created all people who inhabit the earth from one common beginning. He is also the Lord of history and geography, “having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26).
Quoting Epimenides of Crete, Paul says, “In him we live and move and have our being.”
He then quotes the Greek poet Arastus saying: “For we are indeed his offspring.”
Paul is saying, “Hey, my message should not seem so strange to you. On these points your own philosophers agree.”
Even Paul’s next statement was in harmony with what many Greek philosophers were already saying.
“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29).
Many of the Greek philosophers denounced the crass idolatry embraced by the people as superstitious and ignorant. They saw such superstition as a blight on Greek society.
Conflict with Pagan Thought
But then Paul diverts from the philosophers.
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).
Resurrection from the dead was a concept not only foreign to Greek thought but completely contrary to it.
For the Greeks, humans were souls trapped in a physical body. They believed that when they died, their bodies would simply be discarded just as we discard fingernail clippings. To them, the idea of returning to a physical body was repugnant.
So it was at this point, Luke tells us, they mocked Paul. Even though some wanted to hear more.
What Paul said to the Athenians was essentially the same message that Peter gave to the Jews.
God has appointed Jesus to judge the world. There is no other name under heaven among men by which we must be saved.
So what does this mean for us today?
We saw how the official leadership in Jerusalem were more interested in maintaining their power than in the truth that was staring them in the face.
Our political leaders today often do the same. They seem more entrenched in defending their career and power than in pursuing the truth.
We also see in Acts how the pagans had a tendency to view powerful leaders as demi-gods.
When Herod Agrippa went to Tyre and Sidon to talk with the people there about some issues they were having, they shouted, “The voice of god, not man!
In this, America is every bit as pagan as the ancient world.
We look to our politicians to solve every conceivable problem and fill every conceivable need.
I saw how people adored Barack Obama in an almost cult-like manner. He could do no wrong in their eyes. There was a certain messianic aura some people had toward him.
And now some are doing the same with Donald Trump. I came across a recent tweet where someone called him “My Leader.” Do you know how that translates in German? Mein Fuhrer.
Whether on the left or on the right, whether we’re talking about Barack Obama or Donald Trump, we are witnessing more and more people who look at the president as some kind of divine, all-powerful, being.
He is not. He is simply an administrative functionary hired to do a job. He is not the “Lord of heaven and earth.”
Christianity was a direct assault on this idea. When the early Christians proclaimed: “Jesus is the one true Lord of heaven and earth,” they were by definition denying the absolute authority of Ceasar or any other earthly figure.
There is only one Lord of heaven and earth and his name is Jesus.
Back to the Issue at Hand
Let’s go back to my original question: Should Christians soften the claims of exclusivity in their message?
The answer is a an emphatic NO.
There is only one Name under heaven by which we must be saved.
And that is the name of Jesus.
He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He demands the acknowledgment and allegiance of all people.
It is no surprise that the atheists and the postmodernists want to destroy the church. Christianity poses a real threat to all forms of statism and modern paganism, just as it did in the first century.
The early church understood this.
They understood that proclaiming the message of Jesus could and did bring difficult consequences upon them.
But they also understood that the Name they served was more powerful than anything the world could throw at them.
They were faithful in their proclamation.
Will we be as faithful?
[*] Doriphor. “Just Ban ALL Religions.” Discussion Forum. Reddit. Last modified January 28, 2017. Accessed July 14, 2018.
Lead Photo: Paul Preaching at Athens by John Fleetwood and John W. Barber, 1830. No known copyright restrictions.
Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.