A Look at Acts 17: Can Apologists Follow Paul’s Example in Today’s Culture?

When it comes to apologetics, Acts 17 has always been one of my favorite parts of the Bible. I have used it in the attempt to motivate others to learn about apologetics which is the rational defense of the Christian faith. The question at hand is whether the culture is the same today as it was in Paul’s day. Also, does Paul’s approach work for Christians today?

First, a little background about Paul:

The undisputed letters of Paul that can be used to give us an understanding about who he was and what his mission was are in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The rest of the letters yield very little about the life of Paul. From Paul’s Letters, we can gather that:

1. The man’s name was Paul: A Greek name.

2. He had a Jewish name, Saul. Remember, having two names was not uncommon for Jews who lived outside Palestine in the first century.

3. Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in Southwestern Asia Minor.

4. He came from a family of Pharisees of the tribe of Benjamin and was named for the tribe’s most illustrious member, King Saul.

5. Paul studied under the famous teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the grandson of Hillel. Hillel is known as the Academy of Hillel, founded by a Jewish sage called Hillel the Elder. The House of Hillel was a school of Jewish law and thought that was very well known in the 1st century B.C.E. Jerusalem.

6. Since Paul’s letters show familiarity with rabbinic methods for interpretation of Scripture and popular Hellenistic philosophy to a degree, this makes it likely that he received a formal education in both areas. Hence, Paul’s exegesis of the Old Testament shows evidence of his rabbinic training.

7. Paul was probably, as an adult, a resident of Damascus.[1]

8. In many places, Paul discusses his Jewish identity. He says “ I am a Jew” (Acts 22;3) “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23;6), and “I am a prisoner for the sake of the hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20).

Paul’s First Audience: Jewish Theists in Thessalonica

As someone who has done a fair amount of outreach to Jewish people, I think I have some practical experience here. Let’s look at Acts 17:1-3:

“ Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures,explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.”

First of all, we see that Paul was following what he writes about in Romans 1:16:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”-NASB

Many Bible scholars agree that understanding Romans 1:16, 17 as the key to understanding the rest of the book of Romans. But does Paul mean the gospel was formerly, or once brought to the Jews, but now it is for the Gentiles? Is this view possible? In Romans 1:16 the Greek word for first is proton. As Dr. Michael Rydelnik, Professor of Jewish Studies at Moody Bible Institute writes,

“If Paul had meant ‘formerly’ or ‘earlier’ he would have used the Greek word “proteron.” The same word for first (proton) is used non-historically three times in Romans: …tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek… (Rom. 2:9,10), and First of all (chiefly, NKJ ), that they were entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2).[2]

Grammatically, the entire verse is in the present tense. There are three verbs: unashamed, is and believes. All are in the present tense. The gospel is, not was, but is the power of God, it is to all who believe, and it is to the Jew first. The idea that the Good News was “first for the Jew and then for the Gentile” implies that the Good News is no longer for the Jew (i.e. “they had their chance”). Obviously, this cannot be true, for to this very day Jewish people are still coming to faith in Jesus. Remember, Paul was writing to the Jew first, not regarding a past activity, but as his present and active ministry (compare Acts 13:46 with 14:1). He was not looking back on the first century advance of the Good News, but stating it as an ongoing principle for the future flow of history. Even as the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul’s ministry was always to the Jew first. [3]

After all, we see Paul going to the Jew first in The Book of Acts. Paul goes to the synagogue first in Salamis (13:5), Pisidian Antioch (13:14), Iconium (14:1), Thessalonica (17:2), Berea (17:10), Corinth (18:4) and Ephesus (18:19 and 19:8).

We also should note that we observe here that  Paul and the apostles approach to spreading the message of the Gospel is characterized by such terms as “apologeomai/apologia” which means “to give reasons, make a legal defense” (Acts 26:2; 2 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet 3:15); “dialegomai” which means “to reason, speak boldly” (Acts 17:2; 17; 18:4; 19:8), “peíthō” which means to persuade, argue persuasively” (Acts 18:4; 19:8), and “bebaioō ” which means “to confirm, establish,” (Phil 1:7; Heb. 2:3). [4]

Paul’s Second Audience: Jewish Theists in Berea

 “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”- Acts 17:10-12

So once again, we see Paul and Silas evangelizing another Jewish audience.

So what is the challenge of the first two examples here?

First, Paul’s audience were Jewish people who were already theists. In other words, they were already believed in the God of Israel. Hence, Paul had no need to establish whether there was a God with them. That is why his apologetic methodology was to go right into the Jewish Scriptures.

What about today? First, the challenge is that there are a fair amount of Christians that don’t know the Gospel is still “to the Jew first.” I am not trying to be overly critical. But I think it is imperative that the Church understands the pattern of mission in the Bible. While the culture has changed, the pattern for mission has not changed.

Second, can we use Paul’s approach with Jewish people? The answer is yes and no. It depends on the Jewish person. And in many cases, in today’s world, we are dealing with many Jewish people that are not Jewish theists. They are agnostics or in many cases atheists. I would say of the majority of Jewish people that I have spoken to on a major college campus don’t have any strong convictions about whether God exists or not.

Paul on Mars Hill

Paul now shifts gears a bit with his next audience:

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for In him we live and move and have our being as even some of your own poets have said,“ For we are indeed his offspring.’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.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: 22-31

What stands out here:
(1) Paul is urgent in his appeal for repentance
(2) According to Acts 14: 26, Paul states there was “a time in which God allowed the nations to walk in their own ways,” but now Paul states in Acts 17: 30, “The times of ignorance is over” – God has given man more revelation in the person of Jesus the Messiah
(3) Paul uses the same language as is used in the Jewish Scriptures about judgment (Psalm 9:9)
(4) The judgment will be conducted by an agent, a man who God has appointed
(5) Paul treats the resurrection as an historical fact and he uses it as a proof of God’s appointment as Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead! [5]

In this case, since Paul knows he is not dealing with Jewish theists  he uses a different approach. He starts with natural theology and explains to his audience how they can know the one true God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Apologists who love natural theology arguments generally love this part of the chapter. Furthermore, we have to use this approach with many skeptics.  I admit that I am fond of it as well. But here is where a change has taken place from Paul’s world to our world. When I do outreach on a major college campus or elsewhere, I generally find myself using Paul’s approach to the Greeks with Jewish people. You might say really? Yes, really! As I said, I can’t really open the Bible with many Jewish people who are agnostics and atheists. I generally have to establish whether there is a God and whether it is the God of the Bible.

Conclusion:

So can we follow Paul’s example in Acts 17? The answer  is yes. The best thing we can learn here is knowing our audience. But I think the real question is whether we as apologists will follow Paul’s example in the entire chapter, not just the Mars Hill section. We are still called to bring the message of Messiah to the Jew first and Gentile as well. Is it easy? No! But remember, God will honor our obedience.

  Sources: 


[1] Most of points 1-8 are laid out in Marion Soard’s The Apostle Paul: An Introduction to his Writings and Teaching (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1987), 10-11

[2] This section was taken from JEWISH EVANGELISM AND DISCIPLESHIP, Article 3 of 13: GOD’S UNCHANGEABLE PLAN by Sam Nadler at http://messianicassociation.org/ezine14-sam.God%27sUnchangeable%20Plan.htm?vm=r&s=1

[3] Ibid.

[4] Garrett J. Deweese, Doing Philosophy as a Christian (Downers Grove, ILL: IVP Publishers, 2012), 78-79.

[5] Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: MI: Intervarsity Press. 1980), 288-290.

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