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"Don't Evade, Persuade!"

MESSAGE FOR MAY 22, 2011 FROM ACTS 17:1-15

CLICK HERE FOR WMA - Audio file of the sermon

Apologetics video Timothy Keller---Who is this Jesus? 


          This week, we continue to follow the apostle Paul’s ministry as he plants churches in Macedonia which is today the countries of Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia.  A few moments ago, we heard Luke’s account of his ministry in Thessalonica and Berea but we also know other details about his visit to Thessalonica not found here in Acts that are found in his two letters to this church, First and Second Thessalonians.  The pattern of Paul’s ministry is by this time familiar to us.  He goes to the place where he is most likely to meet people familiar with the Old Testament—in this case to the Jews and God-fearing gentiles in the synagogue.  He teaches at the synagogue and God uses the gospel to make new converts.  This is quickly followed by strong opposition which leads to his eviction from the city.  He is basically thrown out of all three Macedonian cities he visits, Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea.  Paul tells the Corinthians that in Biblical historical accounts we should be looking for examples and warnings.  Both this text and the one that follows describing Paul’s ministry at Athens are powerful and helpful examples of apostolic evangelistic ministry. 

          Today, we want to analyze these accounts—especially Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica by asking the question—what kind of evangelism does God bless?  If we share our faith, we want God’s blessing on our efforts, so this is important if we are to be effective witnesses for Christ.  This morning, let’s look at three elements of a God-blessed evangelistic ministry as we begin with verses one through five.  Luke writes, “1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2 And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” 4 And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. 5 But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.” 

The first element of God-blessed evangelism is: the gospel must meet people at their level of spiritual understanding.  Paul’s method of communication is consistent with his audience.  His audience here is synagogue attendees.  They were either Jews or God-fearing gentiles who knew the Old Testament and who believed it as the Word of God.  That was good for Paul because he was a Bible scholar and he had been trained in making truth claims using the Biblical text to prove his point and he uses that capacity to reveal Jesus as the Messiah.  This is important to note because Paul was not able to address all unbelievers this way.  As we will see, when he was in Athens amidst the scholarly Greek philosophers and skeptics who were not steeped in the Word of God—he argued from a very different source and didn’t even mention Jesus.  He was working to prepare his audience to be able to understand the gospel.  He quotes Greek poets but not the Bible.  The point is—Paul was willing to meet people where they were and from that starting point, ultimately bring them to the gospel.  In Thessalonica and Berea, he was speaking to people who were already familiar with and revered the Old Testament, so he was able to very quickly move from their world to the truth of the gospel. 

By contrast, in our post-modern, pluralistic, Biblically illiterate culture, we’re often not able to move directly from the world of the sinner to the gospel because he/she doesn’t have a Biblical understanding of what truth is or if truth even exists--much less sin, holiness, atonement and repentance.  The Word of God is powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, but the gospel must be rightly understood before its saving power can be unleashed.  The words themselves are not magic as if the sound waves they produce  convert the sinner.  It’s only truth that is rightly understood that can set people free from sin and death.  Words without understanding, even words inspired by the Holy Spirit must be understood if they are to cause a sinner to believe.  Often, in our culture before we present the gospel, we must lay a foundation for the truth that for Paul here, was already in place.

A second element of God-blessed evangelism is:  the gospel should be presented rationally with the goal of persuasion.  Verses two and three are very condensed so let’s unpack them.  “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, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”  First, notice that Luke uses a very important word to describe the manner in which Paul spoke with them.  Verse two says he “reasoned with them from the Scripture.”  That is—he was making his appeal through the use of a shared set of facts and information—the Scripture.  The word may also imply that this was a dialogue between Paul and his hearer with Paul proclaiming and his hearers asking questions.  This reasoning involved “explaining” and “proving” that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.”  The word translated “explaining” literally means “to open.”  Luke uses the same word in his gospel to describe Jesus’ teaching of Scripture on the road to Emmaus.  The two men Jesus taught “32…said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”

For instance, Paul might have been “opening” Isaiah 53:5, “5 But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.  Opening this verse would have involved pointing out that the prophet is teaching the idea of substitution—someone—a person other than the sinner must be wounded—someone else must be crushed and chastised by God in order for people to have peace or a right relationship with God.  That’s explaining what the text means—making clear what Isaiah meant.   After he explains the text, he works to “prove” it.  The word in the original literally means “set beside.”  That probably means that—he places these texts pointing to the Messiah and his atoning work and resurrection beside the truth about the historical figure, Jesus Christ.  He was making a case—much like a lawyer would make a case in order to persuade a jury, that Jesus was the Messiah and it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and rise again.  Again, he’s explaining these texts and using them as evidence to support the claim that the suffering, death and resurrection were not simply historical events, they were in fact the fulfillment of what the Old Testament said must happen to the Messiah. As believers, we can make our appeal on a rational basis because unlike any other religion, Christianity is thoroughly rational.  Our truth claims are rooted in an historical person, Jesus Christ, for whom there is overwhelming evidence and strongly supported historical facts that can be objectively weighed and tested concerning his life, death and resurrection.  Jesus said we are to love God with all our mind, as well as our soul and strength.

This is a rational appeal Paul is using—he’s not using manipulation—“come to Jesus and you’ll be healthy and wealthy.”  And although I’m certain Paul expressed some emotion about these truths, his was not fundamentally an emotional appeal.  That is—it wasn’t presented with the goal of getting people worked up in order to make them more vulnerable to his influence.  Paul’s goal was a rational one as well—to persuade.  The primary target was the mind, not the emotions.  This word translated “persuade” is used seven times in Acts to describe Paul’s evangelism.  Paul wasn’t simply out to have a thoughtful dialogue—a sharing of ideas where you state your beliefs and I state mine with no intention of persuasion and where we both congratulate ourselves for our willingness to listen to a different perspective.  Paul would have seen that kind of discussion as at best, a dismal waste of time and at worst, compromise.  Paul was not about conducting an exchange of ideas as an end in itself—though opposing ideas were doubtless voiced by his hearers.  He was intent on making his case so that, led by the Spirit, his hearers would be persuaded of the truth and place their trust in Christ.

That means he wasn’t content with just sowing the seed without any concern for fruit.  Sometimes, we hear that our only job is to present the truth objectively and let God do the persuading.  That’s true in some sense, but we must remember that God uses people to persuade people.  It’s not about presenting information and then backing away, passively allowing them to do with it what they want.  That wasn’t Paul.  He didn’t do part of the job and then tell God—“you take it from here.”  No, he labored to persuade sinners--  understanding that it was God who had to provide the power to change their hearts and minds.  You wouldn’t say before skydiving, “I’m going to jump out of this plane with a parachute, but I’ll let pull the ripcord for me.”  Paul worked to persuade these people that it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and rise from the dead.

Again, with all this emphasis on the evangelist’s persuasive appeal, some might conclude that, “This proves that salvation is a joint effort between God and humanity—people must be persuaded in order to believe and that means they are indeed capable of believing on their own.”  The notion that people must be persuaded implies that they can make an independent decision to trust Christ isn’t true.  Paul doesn’t make that case at all in his own account of his work among the Thessalonians in First Thessalonians.  He writes in 1:4, “4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…”  Only chosen people are persuadable—those in whom God is actively working to cause them to believe.  Paul says, “One reason I know God chose you is because when I preached to you—he attended my preaching with his power to persuade.  One reason Paul preached with such Holy Spirit power and conviction here in Thessalonica is because God had some of his chosen, elect people there listening to him. 

We must also know that Paul’s method of persuasion wasn’t brow beating or condemning people.  Neither was it some sort of emotionally detached theology lecture.  Paul himself describes the tone of his ministry to the Thessalonians in First Thessalonians 2:7-8.  7 But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”  Notice Paul’s tone in his evangelism and his attitude toward his hearers.  As he ministered to these people, his heart was like that of a nursing mother ministering to her children.  He was “affectionately desirous of you.  After three Sabbaths in the synagogue with them, these people had become very dear to Paul and his team.  Paul loved these people and his love for them was doubtless conveyed in the way he ministered to them.  He wasn’t just dispassionately spitting out answers to their objections, as if the goal was to simply win the argument.  The goal is to win the sinner!  And God generally uses people to win people to Christ who genuinely, earnestly have care and compassion for sinners.  Perhaps the most important element of connecting with someone is communicating the truth in a way that people know you care about them.  Isn’t that part of why we share the gospel?  Because we care about people?!

We must see the Holy Spirit-induced balance here.  On the one hand, there’s the rational argument where evidence is provided, objections are answered with the goal of persuasion and conversion.  But on the other, this message that is so rational and truth-driven is also presented with great affection for the hearer, so that the sinner is not only compelled by the case for truth, but also because they sense you genuinely care about them.  You’re not looking for a scalp to hang on your belt or to intellectually beat the sinner into submission.  These people, to use Paul’s words, must know that you’re willing not only to share the gospel with them, but your very life.  This is radical—this balance of rational appeal combined with strong affection for your hearer cannot occur apart from the Holy Spirit, but this is the example Paul sets for us.  Some of us will be better at intellectually making the argument—proving our case.  Others will be better at expressing love and concern in ways that are appreciated.  But we all need to be praying that God would give grace to bolster our weak areas so that we might be used to bring people to himself.

A third element of evangelism that God blesses is—the gospel must be presented boldly and with the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  Luke doesn’t specifically use the word “boldness,” here but the very content of his message implies boldness. Remember, Paul is speaking to Jews and God-fearing gentiles who have a pre-set understanding of the Messiah.  He will be a conquering, militant King who will liberate his people from the oppression of Roman rule and establish his earthly kingdom as he judges the wicked and exalts the righteous.  Paul goes into Thessalonica preaching a Messiah who must suffer and die on a cross and rise from the dead.  That means that the Jewish Messiah was a man specifically cursed by God and would have been perceived as among the worst of criminals.  He was crucified with criminals!  Further, there is no record in Jewish history of any person being resurrected to eternal life anywhere in the Old Testament.  Certain people were brought back from the dead by Elijah and Elisha, but not resurrected to immortality as Jesus was.  No precedent and where there is no precedent, there is skepticism!  So, Paul has to persuade these people of two claims they would have adamantly opposed.  This would be harder than trying to sell a Ford pick-up truck to a died-in-the-wool Chevy fan.  It would harder than trying to convince a conservative Republican that Barak Obama is this nations’ only hope for a bright future.  In both cases, the message runs counter to their very strong presuppositions.

It takes real boldness to make a truth claim that you know will illicit at best, great doubt and at worst, great offense.  The Jewish Messiah—their long awaited King—a cursed, convicted criminal?  Those two identities simply did not belong together--the message of the cross was an offense to the Jews.  It takes boldness to give out a message with conviction that you know the people who are listening are pre-disposed to strongly oppose.  Paul says this specifically in First Thessalonians 2:2.  2 But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict.”  This notion of boldness must not be understood as a personality trait--as if it belonged only to people who were naturally outspoken or brash.  In Ephesians 3:12 Paul speaks of God’s plan for the church and says, ” 11 This [plan] was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord,  12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him  Our boldness is “in Him.”  Tom Schreiner says that means, “by means of Christ.”[1]  Our boldness comes from Christ—it’s not a function of our personality.  If it were simply an expression of Paul’s personality, why would he plead with the church at Ephesus to pray “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

Paul asks for prayer to be bold. If God chose Paul because he was a loud, brash and opinionated person for whom outspokenness for unpopular causes came naturally—(such people do exist)—then no prayer would have been required—Paul would have been doing that which came naturally for him.  Paul asks for prayer because he probably wasn’t a bold person by nature.  This way, God’s strength is made perfect in his weakness.  Some believers are deceived into thinking, “I could never share my faith with someone who I know will disagree with me because I hate conflict and disagreements—I just don’t have that kind of personality.” That’s a lame, unbiblical excuse that will never fly with God.  God will give you the boldness to speak as you in faith take that first step.  Your boldness is by means of Christ, not your personality.  This is often part of his anointing on you or--his supernatural enabling that accompanies your message.  Anointing is also crucial in evangelism.  Though Paul was doubtless a learned Bible scholar who could make his case with great skill, no one was converted under his ministry solely because of his scholarly abilities. 

We already heard Paul’s testimony of his Thessalonian ministry in his first letter to them in 1:4-5, “4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…   Paul knew that he was dependent upon God’s Spirit being actively at work in hearts through his message.  In the final analysis, only God can compel a person to reject this world they have loved, deny themselves and follow Jesus Christ.  Only God can do that kind of heart change and that means--we must pray that God will visit our sharing of the gospel with his power if the person is to be converted.  Paul describes part of the impact of the Spirit on the sinner a bit later in chapter two.  He says in verse 13 to the Thessalonian church, “13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  The Holy Spirit impresses upon your hearer that your words aren’t just a sales pitch—they aren’t just one person’s opinion and Christianity is not just one of many religious options open to them.  No.  The Holy Spirit, when he is actively anointing a messenger, convinces the sinner who hears this message that these words are not that of the messenger’s alone.  They are in fact the very message of God himself to them as he calls them to himself through the gospel. 

As you pray for your own evangelism or others, pray the anointing of the Spirit would be present, causing the sinner to hear the gospel as a direct word to them from the Lord of the Universe.  Pray that they will know that if they refuse to repent, they are not simply rejecting you or even your message—they are personally, arrogantly rejecting their Creator and Judge.  When the anointing of the Spirit is present, the sinner knows that.  We know the Spirit was at work changing hearts here because 1:9 tells us that these Thessalonians converted under Paul’s ministry “…turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.  They didn’t simply opt for a different religion or agree with the logic of the gospel presentation, they willfully turned away from their old way of life represented by idols--turning from the religion of their friends and family.  They renounced that as false and embraced service to the living and true God.  Conversion for these people didn’t mean saying a prayer and sitting in church.  It meant serving God who, unlike their idols was living and true.

It’s no wonder the enemy came against Paul through these men who attacked the house of Jason in Thessalonica and in Berea, the same men came “agitating and stirring up the crowds.”  The enemy hates it when we bring the light of the gospel into his kingdom of darkness and he will bring opposition.  However, if we are anointed, bold, gentle--loving the sinner and rationally presenting the truth to persuade them to come to Christ, God will eventually use us to bring people to himself.  That’s the example set for us in this text.

As I was working on this message this week, I wondered, both for myself and for you, if it wouldn’t end up sounding pretty irrelevant or theoretical.  It may be interesting to know, but I will never apply it to my life.  The truth is that only about two to three percent of believers share their faith.  That means for about 97% of us, the entire content of this message may have been completely superfluous—like explaining how to dance the fox trot to a man with no legs.  Why would we want to know the specific elements of connecting sinners to the gospel if we don’t ever share the gospel?  Is that where we are?  First Peter 3:15-16 says, “15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”  Notice two things about this text.  First, God expects to be able to rationally defend what we believe—the reason for the hope that is in you.  Do you meet God’s expectation there?  That means that we should be able to know enough about apologetics to give a defense of why we believe the gospel and follow Jesus.  Second, there is the assumption that you will be slandered.  It says, “WHEN you are slandered,” not IF you are slandered.  If you aren’t an apologist, I have on the sermon manuscript a web address where you will find a brilliant apologetic message by Tim Keller.  If you were to only commit those facts to memory, you would be reasonably equipped to answer most of the major objections to Christianity and to make a strong case for it. 

Is it an unreasonable expectation that we become familiar enough about the faith we say is the most important part of our life—that we are banking our eternal destiny on—is it unreasonable to expect us to learn enough about it to speak persuasively to others?  And, is it unreasonable to assume that if you love Christ, you will want sinners to repent because he does?  If we are united with Christ and have his heart, doesn’t it make sense that we would want to share him with others.  If you were engaged to be married to the most wonderful person on the planet, would you keep that a secret?  Would you be ashamed of that?  Our unwillingness to share Jesus—to take the risk of slander is one of the most profound evidences of our lukewarmness.  The good news is that the same gospel that saves sinners can strengthen saints to share the message of the cross.  We must confess our unwillingness to share Christ with others. Find forgiveness in the gospel and ask God to give you opportunities to show the fruit of your repentance.  This summer on a few Wednesday nights we will be going out to places where there are people to share the gospel with.  Start praying for opportunities to share with your lost neighbor or relative or coworker and when you get it, trust Christ and make your appeal, using Paul here as your example.  May God give us the grace to be faithful to share the good news that saved us.

[1] Schreiner, Tom, New Testament Theology, p. 315.


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