Some time back a book came out with the title Explaining your faith without losing your friends. It struck a chord with lots of people, because you don’t have to be a Christian for long to get negative reactions to your faith. I came to Christ at boarding school and once that became known, I had insulting messages stuck on my study door; and when I went to the Christian Union there’d be chants of ‘God Squad’ after me. None of us wants to be on the receiving end of that, and we’d love it if there was a way of sharing our faith without any negative reactions. But there isn’t. The only way to stop negative reactions is to stop sharing the gospel – which is a constant temptation. One reason God inspired the book of Acts was to encourage us to keep sharing the gospel in the face of that temptation.
So we’re returning to a series in Acts from this time a year ago, so would you turn in the Bible to Acts 17. Now Acts is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel. The Gospel covers everything from Jesus’ birth to his death, his resurrection and his return to heaven. Then Acts shows how the risen Lord Jesus began to call more and more people into relationship with him – not by direct voice from heaven, but through believers sharing the gospel. So Acts is about the worldwide spread of the gospel – and of faith in Jesus –and about how nothing can stop that, since God is ultimately behind it. But that doesn’t mean nothing can oppose it. Acts is also about the opposition and threats to the gospel: it covers the negative reactions to Jesus as well as the positive – so as to prepare us for everything we may face as we share the gospel.
As we rejoin at chapter 17, we find that the people who react most negatively are those with a Bible background who think they’re already on God’s side. We’re going to look at verses 1 to 9, which teach three main lessons:
Firstly, JESUS’ DEATH AND RESURRECTION SHOULD BE THE CENTRE OF OUR MESSAGE
Look at chapter 17, verse 1:
1 When they [that is the apostle Paul and Silas] had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue.2 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue… (vv1-2)
So in a new place, Paul always took the gospel first to his fellow-Jews. That’s because God had already been dealing with them – he’d given them the Old Testament which pointed forward to Jesus, which made them the obvious people to start with. Our sharing of the gospel will start with people like that, e.g. in the leaflet about our Christianity Explored course, there are quotes from people who’ve been on it. One of them says:
I’d fallen out of Christian things for many years, but Christianity Explored helped me see what it really means to be a Christian.
We also want to be reaching people who’ve heard nothing about Jesus – and, praise God, we are, especially through our international ministry. But we equally want to be a help to people with a Christian background, but who are still thinking through whether they really believe it.
So, back to v2 again:
Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures [which at that point was just the Old Testament], 3 explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said. (vv2-3)
Now Paul was talking to Jews who accepted the Old Testament, whereas you and I don’t have that kind of common ground with the people we’re trying to share the gospel with. But let’s follow through what Paul does, and then ask what we can learn from it.
So step one for Paul was to argue that the OT said: the Christ must suffer and then rise from the dead. And before Jesus, no Jew had ever thought that. What the Jews were expecting was a Christ who’d be a victorious military leader – who’d come in power, defeat their enemies (who in Jesus’ day were the Romans) and restore the kingdom of Israel as in the good old days. I.e., the Jews thought, ‘We’re OK. The problem is out there in the form of those godless Gentiles –and the Christ needs to come and deal with them.’ That’s basically what Paul would have thought before coming to faith in Jesus. Certainly, not in a million years would he have thought that the Christ would end up dying on a cross in apparent weakness and defeat. When the first Christians started preaching that he had done just that, Paul started persecuting them to death. But, as we saw in Acts 9, while Paul was on one of his persecuting trips, the resurrected Lord Jesus appeared to him. So that pretty much instantly Paul realised that the Jesus who’d died on the cross was in fact the divine Christ. So he had to admit that his expectations about the Christ had been wrong. He then went back to the Old Testament, guided by his new faith in Jesus, to discover that he’d been misreading it completely. He discovered that the Christ wasn’t going to bring in the earthly kingdom of Israel all over again – but a new kingdom beyond the end of time. Most important of all, he discovered that, to secure us a place in that kingdom, the Christ had to suffer and die.
Just turn back in the Bibles to the prophecy of Isaiah, who lived 700 years before Jesus. And in Isaiah 52 and 53 you get this prophecy about a figure called God’s ‘Servant’. And no-one before Jesus had ever read this as talking about the Christ. But Jesus taught that it was. So look down to Isaiah 52, v13. God speaking through Isaiah says:
13 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. (Isaiah 52.13)
I.e., this Servant will ultimately end his career raised to the same position as God himself. That’s what that’s saying. But then look on to chapter 53, v3:
3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering… (Isaiah 53.3)
So Isaiah now begins to describe this Servant’s future career as if it’s already happened – and here he’s become a man who suffers. Why? Skip down to v5:
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53.5)
So this Servant suffers death to take the punishment for our sins, so that we can be forgiven back into peace with God. And then look on to v11:
11 After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many… (Isaiah 53.11)
So every other person’s career is ended by death. But this Servant’s career goes on after his death, when he lives again and puts many people right with God.
That passage – Isaiah 52.13-53.12 – is one of several that totally changed Paul’s idea of what the Christ had to do. It made him realise that he and his fellow-Jews were not OK – that the problem wasn’t just ‘out there’, in those godless Gentiles. It made him realise that underneath all their knowledge of the Bible and efforts to be different, he and his fellow Jews were as sinful as anyone else – so sinful that the Christ had to die for their forgiveness as much as for anyone else’s.
So now turn back to Acts 17. In talking to these Jews,
• Step one was to argue that the OT said: the Christ must suffer and then rise from the dead;
• Step two was to argue that Jesus had done just that; and
• Step three was to say, ‘So, Jesus is the Christ.’
Now if you are sharing the gospel with a Jewish background friend, that’s a pattern to follow. But as I said, we’re generally not sharing the gospel with Jews. So what can we learn from this?
Well, one thing is that: with Christian background people, we especially need to talk about Jesus and the cross. That’s because, like these Jews, Christian background people often know a lot about the Bible but haven’t seen that it’s all pointing to Jesus and the cross. So the classic thing that Christian background people think is that the Bible is just a how-to-live book –the ten commandments and ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and so on – i.e., just morality. Preachers sometimes talk about it like that – you know, they wave the Bible and say, ‘These are ‘the Maker’s instructions’.’ But that’s a totally misleading description of the Bible. First and foremost, it’s not a book about how we should live. It’s a book about how God, on the cross, has done what had to be done to forgive us back into relationship with him. Seeing that makes all the difference in the world.
So back at that boarding school where I came to faith, my first brush with Christianity was through the school chapel. Much of what I heard there was watered down Christianity – just morality. So for two years or more I thought the Bible was just a how-to-live book, and I tried to live it, and failed, and ended up feeling more distant from God (if he was there at all) than I had before. Maybe that’s where a Christian background has left you, because you’ve never really seen that the Bible is first and foremost not about what you’re to do for God, but about what God has done for you, to forgive and accept you just as you are – and then to keep forgiving and accepting you for the rest of your life, until he takes you to be with him in his kingdom. And when I finally heard that, it changed everything.
So don’t assume that a Christian background person has understood and trusted in Jesus and the cross. Often, that’s the missing piece of the puzzle.
Another thing to learn is that we can only understand Jesus – and explain him to others – against the background of the Old Testament. Which is what Paul did here. Now he was talking to Jews who knew the Old Testament inside out. Whereas most of us come to faith in Jesus through the New Testament, with little or no knowledge of the Old. A really important part of the Christian life is then to get to know the Old Testament better, because that’s how you get to know Jesus better.
Take the simple statement of faith, ‘Jesus died for my sins.’ Well what is ‘sin’? To know that, you have to go back to the Old Testament – e.g. to Genesis 3 where the original human pair rebelled against God; to Exodus where God begins to reveal how holy he is and how far short we fall of what he wants us to be. And so on. And then what does it mean that Jesus ‘died for’ my sins? Well again, you have to go back to the Old Testament – to the sacrifices that God provided to teach people the idea of a substitute taking the judgement we deserve. So even if it seems harder going, don’t avoid the Old Testament. Don’t groan inwardly when your Bible reading notes or a sermon series take you back there. Because we can only understand Jesus against the background of the Old Testament.
Equally, when you’re explaining the gospel, you often have to go back to the Old Testament. The classic example in my experience is leading Christianity Explored, which is based on Mark’s Gospel. So there you are thinking, ‘We want people to look at Jesus. So we’re just going to keep it simple and just look at the New Testament –and just one bit of it.’ And the group reads Mark chapter 1, verse 1:
1 The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1.1)
And someone says, ‘What does ‘Christ’ mean?’ And eight words into Mark’s Gospel, you need some knowledge of the Old Testament to be able to explain the New Testament.
The other thing from this first bit of the passage is that the ‘tie-up’ between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament events is really faith-strengthening. So if you’re a believer, I hope you found that quick look at Isaiah 53 faith-strengthening and compelling – because it is remarkable to see Jesus’ life, death and resurrection foretold there. And that’s part of the evidence that God – who knows the end right from the beginning – really does stand behind this book, the Bible.
The next main lesson from Acts 17.1-9 is that:
Second, OUR EVANGELISM SHOULD USE REASON AND PERSUASION
‘Evangelism’ is just Christian jargon for communicating the gospel, the good news about Jesus. So just look back to v2 to see how Paul went about it:
2 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ, he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded… (vv2-4)
So, ‘he reasoned with them’ – literally, ‘discussed with them’ – which is one of the great things about Christianity Explored, where people can question and challenge and ask anything. And then he ‘explained’ and ‘proved’ and ‘persuaded’.
Now Richard Dawkins has caricatured Christian faith as like believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden – he says it’s something there’s no evidence for and that you just believe it because your parents do or because of psychological need. He says:
Faith is… the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.
But that’s not true – at least not of Christian faith. Christian belief isn’t faith in spite of lack of evidence, it’s faith based on evidence. So I don’t believe in God just because my parents do – they don’t, sadly. Nor do I believe in God just because of some psychological need. I believe in God because I’m persuaded that he’s been here in the person of Jesus 2,000 years ago. I believe that because of the evidence in the four Gospels and then in the rest of the Bible. So if you’re not yet convinced about the Christian faith, I think I can give you good arguments, e.g., about why the four Gospels are reliable – about who wrote them and when and whether they’re trustworthy even though the writers clearly had a bias. (In fact I’ve written that up in the booklet Why Trust Them? – which you can get from the Welcome Desk.) I think I can give you good arguments, e.g., that Jesus really did rise from the dead that first Easter, that that’s the most plausible explanation for the birth and growth of the church – giving good ground for believing that Jesus wasn’t just one of us, but was God become one of us.
So we can argue for the truthfulness of the gospel. But we can’t argue people into trusting in Jesus. It’s a bit like when I was making heavy weather of going out with Tess, who’s now my wife. I should have asked her to marry me long before I actually did, but like many men I was incompetent (I can hear Tess saying, ‘Was?’). During that time a lot of friends gave a lot of help. I still have an e-mail from one which says, ‘I’ve decided the best thing I can do is to write down for you all the reasons why I think marriage would be good for you, and why Tess would be a great wife.’ Which was massively helpful. But it didn’t argue me into proposing. I agreed with all the reasons. But getting married isn’t just the end of a line of reasoning. It goes beyond reason – it’s an act of commitment of yourself and trust of another, and no-one can argue you into that.
It’s the same with relationship with God. You can give someone all the reasons. But at the end of the day it goes beyond reason and comes down to an act of committing yourself to Jesus as your Lord and trusting him for forgiveness and then for everything else in life. You can’t argue anyone into that. Which is why in this church we want to give people space to look into the Christian message and question and doubt and think and make up their own minds, and to avoid anything that’s pressurising in the process.
Third, WE SHOULD EXPECT A MIXED RESPONSE – INCLUDING UNREASON AND ATTACK
Look on to v5:
5 But the Jews [not all of them, but certainly the influential leaders] were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the market-place, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. [And back in chapter 14 a similar whipped-up crowd tried to kill Paul, which is probably what the Jews hoped for here.] (v5)
Now you’d hardly call that a rational response, a response of reason, would you? It isn’t counter-argument, it’s counter-attack. They’re not trying to answer the gospel, but silence it. And we’re seeing more and more of that kind of irrational response in our culture.
So what’s going on under the surface here? The answer lies in that word in v5, ‘jealous’ – which is literally the word ‘zealous’. It means being zealous for your particular position and group – which includes being jealous in the sense of protective of your position and group and hostile to rival positions and criticisms of your position. And harsh as it sounds, the difference between Paul and these Jews is that Paul was committed to truth; whereas these Jews were committed to their position and their group, committed to their belief that being Jewish and living differently from the Gentiles meant they were already OK with God. And anything that challenged that was to be suppressed rather than given a fair hearing.
That’s so up to date, isn’t it? A few years back some of us were giving out literature on Newcastle campus with the university’s permission. Suddenly we were surrounded by people from the Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Society – who physically stopped us giving anything out and reported us to the university. So I had to go to a meeting with some of them and one of the university registrars. At one point one of the LGB guys said, ‘We don’t want you on campus any more than you want us there.’ He was totally taken aback when I said, ‘But I do want you there.’ He said, ‘But if you disagree with us, surely you’d rather we didn’t have a voice.’ To which I said, ‘No – because the difference between you and me is that I believe in truth and therefore I believe in freedom of speech so that the truth can make its own way in the public market place of ideas.’ Whereas he just had a position and a group to defend – and was prepared to silence anything that questioned or criticised it.
What’s going on under the surface whenever the gospel is spoken is that the risen Jesus is challenging people’s most dearly held positions. So as with these Jews in Acts 17, Jesus challenges what people are trusting in. He says, ‘All your efforts to be good and religious don’t make you acceptable to God. Only my death for you can do that.’ We don’t like to hear that – because it strikes at our pride. He also challenges the way people are living. He says, ‘I’m calling you to let me be Lord of your life and to show you everything that’s wrong with it and that needs changing.’ We don’t like to hear that either – because it strikes at our independence. That’s why, back then and today, we see this response of unreason and attack (which can just involve being laughed off or mocked or labelled as ‘intolerant’ or something – it needn’t get as nasty as it does here in Acts 17). So read on, v6:
6 But when they did not find them [that is, Paul and Silas – i.e., when ‘Plan A’, the lynch mob killing, failed], they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’ 8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. 9 Then they put Jason and the others on bail and let them go. (vv6-9)
So ‘Plan B’ was to use the law against them – by misrepresenting their message as treasonable and them as a threat to peace and order. And again that’s so up to date. There have been recent attempts in this country to use public order laws against evangelism, misrepresenting Christians as insulting and hateful and intolerant and therefore a threat to peace and order. But they’re not – as those words of Jesus remind us:
‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…’ (Mark 12.17)
That includes living peacefully under his laws. But having said that, Christians do have a higher ultimate allegiance, so that if people try to silence the gospel, the right response is the one we saw back in Acts 4:
‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ (Acts 4.19-20)
I never read that book I mentioned at the start – Explaining your faith without losing your friends. I’m sure it said some helpful things. But the most helpful thing is the realism of the Bible – which says I might lose some friends; I might even gain some enemies. But if so, reading what Paul had to go through for the gospel – and above all, what Jesus had to go through so there could be a gospel – puts that all into perspective.