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« Who Was Thomas Reid and Why Does His "Common Sense Philosophy" Still Matter (Part One) | Main | “For the Sake of the Gospel”—The Apologetic Speeches of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts (Part Two) »

“For the Sake of the Gospel”—The Apologetic Speeches of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Acts (Third and Final Part)

Part One

Part Two

Paul’s “Proclamation-Defense” in Acts

First, when we analyze these apologetic speeches in Acts, it is clear that Paul sought to be all things to all men for the sake of gospel, as evidenced in the fact that throughout these encounters with various forms of unbelief, the Apostle repeatedly was able to find common ground with his audience.  With those with whom he held the Old Testament in common (Jews and God-fearing Gentiles), Paul appeals to fulfilled prophecy by setting the Old Testament prophetic expectation side by side with the facts of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  With pagan Gentiles, on the other hand, Paul begins with general revelation, not by proving God’s existence, but simply by proclaiming the God of Israel in language which echoes the Old Testament throughout.  We also see the Apostle challenging whatever underlying pagan assumptions were present. 

But given Paul’s theological core convictions about the nature of human sinfulness, it is clear that in finding “common ground,” Paul does not in any sense expect to find so-called “neutral” common ground, as though the Apostle could somehow place both himself and his hearers in a “neutral” frame of mind, without any influence upon the discussion by prior intellectual commitments to faith or various forms of unbelief.  The common ground that Paul does successfully and repeatedly find is in every case necessarily based in God’s self-disclosure, either the “book of nature,” or in the redemptive acts of God associated with special revelation and ordinary history.  Throughout Paul’s encounters with unbelief,  it is the non-Christian (Jew, God-fearer, or pagan Gentile) who is confronted with the consequences of knowing God through this self-disclosure both in general and special revelation, but who instead inevitably suppress that knowledge in unrighteousness.  Paul not only demonstrates his desire to be all things to all men by finding non-neutral common ground with his hearers, but he is repeatedly able to skillfully adjust his own “proclamation-defense” to each specific audience.  The Apostle repeatedly exploits the internal tensions of suppressing truth in unrighteousness as he seeks to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

A second point that must be made when looking at these speeches is that Paul began with the proclamation of the gospel, and once challenged, he was deftly able to give an apologetic by “reasoning” and “proving” from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ, and by challenging the very presuppositions underlying pagan unbelief.  As we have seen in two instances (Lystra and Athens), Paul does this by using a form of the argument from contingency—the creation does indeed depend upon a creator.  Neither Greek mythology nor Stoic or Epicurean cosmologies can give a satisfactory explanation of the world in which we live.  Paul does not attempt to “prove” God’s existence typical of so-called “classical apologetics.”  Instead he proclaims Christ crucified, and then attempts to refute his opponents, showing the futility of unbelief.  Paul places no confidence in the flesh, rather he believes that the proclamation of Christ crucified is the power of God unto salvation.  He does not attempt to get his audience “to make a decision for Jesus,” he simply proclaims the truth, and then attacks the unbelieving assumptions of the opposition, trusting all the while in the power of God, the futility of unbelief, and the strength of the evidences God has given.  

Third, throughout these speeches, it is clear that the supreme apologetic argument for Paul is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No doubt, this is the case for it was Paul, the great persecutor of the church, who became Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, because while en route from Jerusalem to Damascus to hunt down and arrest Christians, the Risen Lord Jesus Christ himself confronted Paul, and Paul refers to this life-changing event in his apologetic speeches before the good citizens of Jerusalem (Acts 22:2 ff) and before king Agrippa (Acts 26:9-18). 

In Psidian Antioch, Paul concluded his sermon before the synagogue by declaring, “but God raised [Jesus] from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people” (Acts 13:30-31).  Just as Peter had done in the Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, here Paul also makes appeal to the prophetic significance of our Lord’s resurrection.  “God raised [Jesus] up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”  There was not only factual evidence for Christ’s resurrection, there was theological necessity.

In the synagogue in Athens, Paul followed a similar tact, explaining that Jesus had to first suffer and then rise from the dead (Acts 17:3).  While standing before the pagan philosophers of the Areopagus, Paul ends his apologia “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, `This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’”  In one amazing account, Paul spoke of his hope of the resurrection of the dead in the very presence of the assembled Sanhedrin, apparently to provoke an argument between his accusers, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who disagreed among themselves about the resurrection (Acts 23:6 ff.). 

Before Felix, Paul does much the same thing, proclaiming his hope in a resurrection, and acknowledging that it was this very hope that has brought him before Felix in the first place (Acts 24:15, 21)!  Even Felix’s successor, Festus, when conferring with King Agrippa, was forced to concede that Paul was incarcerated because of his proclamation “rather they had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive” (Acts 25:19). 

And last, when Paul makes his defense before Agrippa, his apologetic appeal is to the hope of the resurrection.  Paul tells Agrippa . . .

For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.  To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”  And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”  But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.  For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner.  King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”  And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”  And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains” ( Act 26:21 ff).

Paul’s “proclamation-defense” is clearly anchored in the death, burial and especially the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not in the formal proofs of “classical apologetics.”  But neither can we view Paul’s apologetic through the lens of semi-Pelagian Evangelical evidential apologetics which see Christian evidences are merely additional inducements for one to make a “decision” for Jesus.  Paul’s apologetic is grounded in his theological core and given human sinfulness and moral depravity typical of this present “evil age,” evidential “facts” by themselves cannot tip the scale from unbelief to faith.  Paul knows it is the gospel–the wisdom of the age to come–which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.  His use of Christian evidences is to be seen in the context of the content of his proclamation, namely the historical events associated with the dying and rising of Christ.  The same man who put no confidence in the flesh, is the same man who “reasoned,” “discoursed,” “persuaded” and “debated” with his audiences that the content of his preaching was true, because the Lord of Glory rose again from the dead.

This point, it seems to me, is critical in developing a biblical and effective apologetic for our times and must be a central theme in the contemporary debate over apologetic metholodogy and tactics.

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