Sometimes the hardest part of dialoguing with nonbelievers involves finding a place to start. "Should I begin the discussion with an argument for the existence of God? Or, should I defend the reliability of the Bible?" Well, it depends.
The book of Acts reveals two very different approaches employed by the apostles.1 They varied their gospel presentations depending on their audience. Understanding these approaches can provide insight into outreach efforts for today.
Peter's early sermons recount the history of God's dealings with His covenant people. He culminates each presentation with a declaration that Jesus was the promised Messiah and an explanation of the meaning of His death and resurrection (Acts 2:17-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12). Stephen follows a similar pattern in his defense before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:2-8:53), and as does Paul. Upon entering a city, Paul went to the synagogue, where he "reasoned with [the Jews] from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead" (Acts 17:2-3). Over and over again Luke describes Paul's work in the synagogue as a persuasive orator (Acts 13:14-41; 14:1; 17:10-11; 17:17; 18:4-5; 18:19; 19:8-10).
In all of these cases, the apostles' audience is comprised of one or all of the following groups: 1) Jews living in Jerusalem, 2) Greek-speaking Jews, or 3) God-fearing Gentiles who attended synagogue but who had not fully converted to Judaism.2 Yet, all of these groups had one important thing in common - they already possessed knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures and shared a belief in the covenant-making God of Israel. Their main stumbling block to faith was that they did not believe Jesus was God, the Christ (the Messiah). In short, they needed evidence that worshiping Jesus would not amount to idolatry. This concern is why Peter and Paul focus their efforts on demonstrating how Jesus fulfilled God's Old Testament promises (cf. Acts 2:25-28; Ps. 16:8-11) and on providing confirmation of God's approval through signs and wonders.
The need for articulate men and women to "reason" with certain groups of people from the Scriptures still manifests itself today. Modern Jews continue to reject Jesus as the Messiah, as do Muslims, and Mormons.3 Yet, all three of these groups affirm, at least in principle, that the Bible is sacred and that Jesus was a historical person. Thus the main task in outreach to these groups is not unlike the task before Peter and Paul: 1) demonstrate that Jesus as God incarnate, is the Savior of the world and, 2) that the New Testament provides an accurate, eyewitness account of His words and works. Very little, if any, time need be spent arguing for the existence of God or for the idea that God has revealed Himself through men because members of this audience by and large already generally accept these truths.
After the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10, however, a shift occurs. The church in Antioch is the first to send out missionaries. Paul and Barnabas take the gospel to other parts of the Mediterranean world. But it's not until after the Jewish leaders in Pisidian Antioch "talked abusively against what Paul was saying" that the missionaries focused their efforts toward Gentiles (Acts 13).
Paul and Barnabas saw results almost immediately: "When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed" (13:48). At this time, Paul and Barnabas began to apply a two-pronged evangelistic strategy. Upon entering a city, they first went to the synagogue and reasoned with the people there from the Scriptures. After that, they took the gospel to the Gentiles. But these weren't God-fearing Gentiles like Cornelius. These were idol-worshiping Gentiles who had no knowledge of Scripture. They didn't know anything about God's covenant with Abraham, the issuing of the Ten Commandments, or prohibitions against idolatry.
First century religious practice was a hodge-podge, not unlike our own day. Cities such as Ephesus and Athens were filled with innumerable religious sects, philosophies, and cults. However, unlike today, it was not taboo to challenge religious claims. Paul's sermons give a glimpse into his strategy for proclaiming the gospel to the biblically illiterate: begin with creation and then work toward Jesus Christ. "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands…In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man [God] has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising [Christ] from the dead" (see Acts 14:8-18; 17:16-31).
This pattern highlights the important role, today, of science-based evangelism. By providing non-believers with accurate and intriguing information about the created order, evangelism efforts gain credibility. They help the nonbeliever navigate to the next level in the search for truth, asking profound worldview questions about the Creator, the meaning of life, and the resurrection, just as Paul did.
Both of these strategies met mixed results - some believed while others did not. Even Peter's riveting call to repentance, which resulted in God's bringing thousands to salvation on Pentecost, was rejected by some. From a human perspective, such results may seem discouraging. However, the book of Acts makes clear that, ultimately, evangelistic success is based not on a particular formula, but rather it rests on the supernatural work of God.
- For a good discussion about how to interpret the book of Acts, I would recommend: Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2002), 107-25; Walt Russell, Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 2000), 213-30.
- In general, this involved observing the Sabbath, becoming circumcised, and adhering to dietary laws.
- Although some Mormon writings refer to Jesus as the Messiah, Mormon doctrine about Jesus and the meaning of his messianic role are incompatible with historic Christian doctrine.