Posted by: Billy Marsh | February 2, 2008

Where’s The Gospel In Acts 17?

SocratesWhere’s the gospel in Acts 17? Everywhere! However, it seems that the frequency to focus upon Paul’s ministry in Athens as a proof-text for contextualization and the necessity of apologetics or cultural familiarity, causes us to bypass the fact that the Apostle didn’t stop his witness on the issue of Theism. Looking closely at Acts 17, as a whole, will reveal several neglected issues, and will show that although Paul used apologetics at the Aeropagus, the story ends on Jesus’ resurrection, not simply on an agrument for the existence of God.

My concern in analyzing this issue is two-fold. First, my desire for today’s Christians is for them to learn how to read the biblical text closely, glossing over nothing. If every jot and tittle is inspired in the canon, then broad generalizations and quick paraphrases of a passage’s meaning and application should not be performed hastily. Second, my desire is also for today’s Christians to learn how to utilize the culture and apologetics in proclaiming the gospel. The world around us is becoming more and more educated and skeptical, not only of Christianity, but also of any form of organized religion. Yet, our culture continues to seek many different ways to be “spiritual”. This pursuit has even made its way into the contemporary church; that is why I recommend for you to read Francis Schaeffer’s True Spirituality so strongly. It is a good, orthodox response to the proposed spiritualties in the present that clothe themselves in biblical garb.

If you’re in enough theological discussions, Bible classes, or read Christian literature, somewhere along the way you’ll hear Acts 17 and Paul’s ministry in Athens presented as an example of how we should know the culture and use apologetics methods as Christians. You’ll also see Acts 17:2 & 17 cited as support for trying to get Christians to “reason” with the lost. But, I want to look at the context in which these two topics are set in the whole of Acts 17 in order to see in what way we ought to view apologetics and “reasoning” with the world as believers.

Thessalonica ~ Acts 17:1-9

In each geographical location leading up to Paul’s entrance into Athens, there are some shared similarities as to what occurs as Paul shares his faith with the lost. First, we see in 17:2 that Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures“. Here we immediately notice that this approach, which is described as “reasoning,” was based upon the content of the Scriptures, not simple philosophy. However, let me add that this does not negate the role of philosophy in explaining scriptural truths. Still, it is clear that Paul’s reasoning was not purely philosophical, but rather was dictated by the Scriptures. So, the next question to ask is, “What was he reasoning about?”. Well, Luke gives it to us plainly in Acts 17:3, “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’” Paul was discussing the gospel as it is revealed in the Scritpures. Thus, he wasn’t just standing around in a philosophical fog, but rather was engaging in an intelligent discussion that served as a vessel for communicating explicitly the content of the gospel in Christ.

The second common characteristic in each of these accounts in Acts 17 can be seen in 17:4, where Luke writes, “And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, . . .” This is language for regeneration or salvation. These people were not just converted to Theism; they were persuaded to place their faith in Christ as a result of the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. What was proclaimed was the gospel, and therefore, what they were persuaded to believe was the reality of Jesus as the Messiah and his resurrection, and no doubt, the salvific implications and mandate that this truth had on their lives.

Berea ~ Acts 17:10-15

Now when Paul and Silas are sent away under the cover of darkness from Thessalonica, they travel to Berea and find the people very receptive, yet discerning. In 17:11, Luke records, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, . . .” Once again we find Paul preaching the gospel which is nothing more than the continuation of the ministry that got him kicked out of Thessalonica in the first place. In addition, we see again the correlation of Paul’s teaching with what the Scriptures were meant to portray, namely, that Jesus is the Christ and the resurrection of the dead. The Bereans tested Paul’s “word” in this way: “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (17:11b).” So in both Thessalonica and Berea, the message which Paul declared was one whose source and confirmation rested in the Scriptures. Furthermore, Luke follows the preaching of the Word of God up with a similar scene like the one earlier in Acts 17:4, showing the result and purpose of Paul’s witness, “Many of them therefore believed . . .  (17:12a).”

Therefore, we see in both Thessalonica and Berea these three common characteristics to Paul’s ministry in Acts 17:

  1. Reasoning from the Scriptures or preaching the word consisted of sharing the gospel of truth that the messiah was supposed to suffer, die, and be resurrected, and Jesus himself was in fact the Christ who had accomplished these things.
  2. In both cases, the authority and origin of this message came from the Scriptures (Here, “Scriptures” refer to the Old Testament. So, do you mean to say that we can use the OT to do evangelism and apologetics?).
  3. After hearing Paul’s message, it is obivious that the content of his teaching was gospel-centered insofar as subesquent to its proclamation, people received it and believed it, and began following Christ. 

I’m getting longwinded now, which is normally the case. I will wrap this discussion up in a Part II as soon as possible. Be thinking about the goal of apologetics and also the usage of the OT in demonstrating that Jesus is the Christ in evangelism.

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Responses

  1. Billy,

    Thanks for this post. I think you are right by pointing out that Paul’s reasoning was from Scripture. It is good for some to hear this. On the flip side, some do not reason at all. There should be reasoning from Scripture. We must remember, however, that bare apologetics do not save people. The preached gospel is the means by which Jesus personally saves mankind. I think you make this clear. Good post.

    js

  2. Jason,
    I didn’t include this in either of the posts because they got too long, but a careful word study in the Greek on the word translated “reasoned” will shed more light on the nature of Paul’s “dialogue” with the people in Acts 17. I think we often read too much of our definitions of “reason” into the text just because of how the English renders the Greek. However, like you stated and observed, I’m the last person in the world who would be against the necessity of apologetics or the role of reason in evangelism. The motivation in these posts were from a desire to see people read Acts 17 better and stop using it as a proof-text for issues that it doesn’t really address as explicitly as everyone thinks. All in all, the gospel is the central concern of Paul in this chapter, and he uses these conversations to acheive that goal. However, I’d also like to state that I don’t believe that one ought to be dogmatic on the other end of this issue by stating that these posts confer that apologetics should only be used if one plans to follow it up with a gospel presentation. There is nothing “unreasonable” with simply defending the faith when the situation calls for it against outside attacks. Thanks for your encouragement.


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