Presented to the 2017 Calvary University Pastors’ Conference on Apologetics, Calvary University, Kansas City, April 20, 2017.
Biblical Models for Communicating Truth to the Unversed
Peter provides the only direct apologetic mandate in Scripture,1 reminding his readers in 1 Peter 3:15 to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” The word translated defense is the Greek apologia, and it references a justification of a position or an argument upon which basis a position is to be preferred. Peter was talking to regular believers, challenging them to (1) have the proper perspective of and response to Christ, (2) to be always prepared to give an apologia, (3) in response to those who ask, (4) specifically providing an account for the hope within them, (5) with gentleness and reverence.
In the context of Peter’s exhortation, it is evident that the apologia was to be offered to unbelievers, and should revolve around the basis for the believer’s hope. This was evangelistic in the sense that it was a method (and preparedness) for communicating good news to those who weren’t aware of it, hadn’t understood it, or hadn’t yet acquiesced to it. This biblical model for apologetics was grounded in an acknowledgment of who God was, not logical argument in proving He existed. Certainly, such philosophical devices were not prohibited by Peter, after all, it would not be surprising if different defenses of the faith would contain different emphases based on the diverse contexts in which they were formulated and given. Still, the model was hope-centered.
Peter and Paul, for example, demonstrate in their recorded defenses of the gospel, a diversity of emphases, with a univocality in theme. In Acts 2, Peter connected with God-fearing Jews by connecting their present experience (of hearing the gospel in their own languages) with biblical prophecy about the identity and work of the Messiah. Peter’s proclamation culminated with the crucifixion of Christ, and a call to believe in Him. Here Peter sought to help his listeners properly interpret their experience in light of Scripture.
In Acts 3, Peter started his message with a somewhat gentle appeal that the Jews had crucified their Messiah in ignorance (3:17). He acknowledged that God intended to use their action to fulfill prophecy – further confirming Jesus’ Messianic identity – and ultimately Peter called the Jews to return to the Messiah. While this message included very difficult and offensive aspects of content, including guilt for murder and substitutionary atonement, Peter presented these truths as gently and reverently as possible (remember 1 Pet 3:15?).
Peter concluded his proclamation with a statement of Jesus’ identity as the Prophet, who would come to refresh the nation. He helped his listeners contextualize their actions in light of God’s mercy. In Acts 4, after being arrested, Peter encapsulated the basis of his arrest and trial, pointing to the undeniable fact that a man had been healed (4:9). Peter asserted that the healing was done in the name of Jesus. He utilized that opportunity to focus on the identity and work of Jesus the crucified, the rejected cornerstone, and the only name under heaven whereby people could be saved (4:10-12). In each of these instances Peter was able to show the relevance of Jesus and His work in relation to the context and actions of Peter’s listeners. He did so with slight changes in how he communicated, but the essential content remained the same.
While not specifically described as defense passages, several of Paul’s evangelistic episodes were recorded in detail, and give us understanding of his method, his emphasis, and even how he was received by his listeners. At Thessalonica, Paul went to the synagogues (as was his custom) and reasoned from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2). Paul explained and gave Scriptural evidence of the Person and work of the Christ in His death and burial (17:3). His source material was the Scriptures and his focus was on who Christ was and what He did – primarily in His death and resurrection. It is worth noting that many of his listeners found Paul persuasive (17:4). At Athens, Paul was proclaiming Jesus and the resurrection (17:18). When given opportunity to elaborate, he entered into the Athenian worldview and presented from within that vantage point that Jesus was Judge and Sovereign as evidenced by His resurrection (17:22-31). Some who listened mocked, others considered, and some believed (17:32-34). Clearly, Paul’s intent was to persuade.
In contexts specifically referenced as defense encounters, Paul narrated through his personal testimony at his defense in Jerusalem (Acts 22). Before the Sanhedrin and a mixed audience of Pharisees and Sadducees, Paul focused on the “hope and resurrection from the dead” (Acts 23:6). When addressing Felix, Paul appealed to “a hope in God … that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and of the wicked” (Acts 24:15). Before Festus, he argued that he had done no wrong to any group – that his message was not harmful (Acts 25:1-10). In this context, Paul certainly modeled Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 3:16 that believers, “keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.”
Before Agrippa, Paul recounted how he had arrived at that moment, and proclaimed that he was “standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers” (Acts 26:6). That hope was the resurrection (26:8), and was rooted in God’s plan for salvation of those who had in faith in Christ (26:18), and that Christ had been raised from the dead (26:22-23). Notably, we are given some insight into how Agrippa took Paul’s testimony – Agrippa found them convincing or persuasive (26:28). This is indicative perhaps of Paul’s purpose and passion in communicating. In every context his focus was on the Person, death, and resurrection of Christ, and Paul was intending to persuade his listeners (e.g., Acts 26:29), appealing to them from within their worldview or situational context, relying on what God had revealed and on what had happened in fulfillment of those revealed truths.
Peter and Paul proclaimed truth in diverse contexts, appealing to people with diverse worldviews. Both showed understanding of those with whom they were speaking. Both showed reliance on the Scriptures as their primary source material. Both worked from the existence of God rather than arguing to it, and both were centrally focused on the Person and work of Jesus the Christ – specifically His identity, death, burial and resurrection. The apologetic and evangelistic vocations of Peter and Paul provide a helpful model for believers to fulfill Peter’s apologetic mandate: (1) meet people where they are, within their contexts, (2) employ the Bible as the content and source material, (3) acknowledge God and begin with Him as the first order of truth, and (4) recognize that the critical content for an unbeliever is the Person and work of Christ – His identity, death, burial, and resurrection.
The goal of Peter and Paul seemed to be to draw people from within the audience’s own context to look to Christ and believe in Him. Neither apostle was focused at that point on repudiating the entire worldview structures of their listeners. Both recognized that transformation through the renewing of the mind (Rom 12:2) and avoiding conformity to former things (1 Pet 1:13-15) are issues for believers to deal with – not unbelievers. There was a clear order of priority for both of those men: promoting a holy standing before God in (positional) justification, first, then a holy mindset and walk with God in (practical) sanctification, second. They were able to tailor the message to connect with the audience, but the essential content of the gospel and the clarity with which they communicated it did not change with audience.
Believers today possess the privilege and responsibility to share God’s truth and love in much the same way. Peter’s apologetic mandate is broadly applicable for the church, as is the discipleship mandate that started with Jesus (e.g., Mt 28:18-20) and was echoed by Paul (e.g. 2 Tim 2:2, Tt 2:3-4). There is no question about the essential content of the message (as modeled by Peter and Paul), but there is discernment needed in ascertaining how best to connect with diverse people groups and generations. It is vital, for example, that we understand the context of present generation(s) if we would reach them with God’s truth and love.
1 While Luke 12:11 and 21:14 both contain mandates, both of these were to disciples who were not to prepare a defense for themselves. Peter’s mandate is more broadly applicable to believers, and does not reference a defense of themselves, but rather focuses on defending the gospel – much like what Paul references in Philippians 1:7 and 1:16, in describing his own activity.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.