In this section of the paper, I want to examine six passages in the New Testament that will help us to develop a proper methodology for defending the Christian faith.
(1) Acts 13:4–52. Saul, “who is also called Paul” (v. 9) and Barnabas were sent out both by the Holy Spirit (v. 4) and by the leaders of the church at Antioch (v. 3) to win the lost to Christ and to establish local churches.
In Salamis, they preached God’s Word in the synagogues (v. 5). On the island of Paphos they encountered the proconsul named Sergius Paulus. He called for them “and sought to hear the word of God” (v. 7), but a Jew who was with the proconsul, described as a sorcerer and a false prophet opposed them. Paul rebuked him and he was struck with blindness (vv. 6–11). The result was, “then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (v. 12). Notice it was not merely the judgmental miracle of blindness but the “teaching of the Lord” (v. 12) also described as “the word of God” (v. 7) that brought the proconsul to faith.
At Antioch of Pisidia, Paul preached to the Jews in the synagogue (v. 14). Paul’s message included a survey of God’s dealings with Israel throughout its history, (vv. 16–25) culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (vv. 26–37). The benefits from Christ’s death and resurrection include forgiveness of sins (v. 38) and being justified from everything the law of Moses was unable to justify (v. 39), and these benefits come to a person by believing in Christ (vv. 38, 39). Some believed, while others opposed the gospel (vv. 42–45), so Paul turned to the Gentiles: “Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (v. 48).
Notice that Paul did not appeal to natural or general revelation when he preached to the Jews. Since they possessed God’s Word (“the oracles of God”—Romans 3:1, 2), Paul used this word in an authoritative way in his preaching, adding to it with the same authority the message about the person and work of Jesus Christ. F. F. Bruce comments, “The argument from prophecy and the argument from miracle were regarded by first century Christians . . . as the strongest evidences for the truth of the gospel. . . . In the proclamation of the apostles the argument from prophecy and the argument from miracle coincided and culminated in the resurrection of Jesus.” [1. F. F. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, revised edition, 1977), pp. 16, 17.]
(2) Acts 14:1–28. At lconium Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel and God bore witness to their message with signs and wonders (vv. 1–3). While some believed, others opposed this ministry (v. 4) to the point where Paul and Barnabas fled for their lives (vv. 5, 6).
At Lystra Paul had an opportunity to preach the gospel and to heal a crippled man (vv. 6–10). The audience were not Jews but pagans who declared that the gods had come down to them (vv. 11–13). Paul’s message to these people is what interests us: while he did not directly quote Scripture to them (as he did to the Jews), neither did he appeal to logic or philosophy. Instead, declaring that he and Barnabas were human beings like his audience, he preached to (literally, “evangelized”) them, admonishing them to turn (a) from their paganism (b) to the living God (v. 15). Paul’s authority was general revelation, particularly creation (v. 15b) and God’s providential care (vv. 16, 17). The result was mixed: some believed, while others opposed the gospel (vv. 18–20).
Finally in this chapter, Paul and Barnabas returned to the cities they had evangelized and helped the converts establish local churches (vv. 21–23), ending their journey with a report to the church that had sent them out (vv. 24–28).
(3) Acts 17:1–34. In Thessalonica Paul reasoned (literally, dialogued) with the Jews from the Scriptures, showing that the Messiah had to die and rise from the dead and that Jesus was the Messiah. The result was that many became believers (vv. 1–4). At the same time there was great opposition—so much opposition, in fact, that Paul and Silas were sent away (vv. 5–10).
At Berea, the Jews not only listened to Paul’s preaching but they received (literally, welcomed) God’s Word with readiness (or eagerness) and searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul told them was true (v. 11). The result was that many believed but also many opposed Paul’s message so that Paul was sent away (vv. 12–15).
When Paul came to Athens, he reasoned (same verb as in verse 2) with the Jews in their synagogue (v. 17). At the same time Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him and took him to Mars Hill (or the Areopagus), asking him to explain his new doctrine (1821). Paul began by noting their serious interest in religion as represented by the altar inscribed “to the unknown god,” no doubt intended to pacify any deity they may have overlooked! Paul states that this is the God he is proclaiming to them (vv. 22, 23).
F. F. Bruce comments, “As at Lystra, so before the court of the Areopagus, Paul does not expressly quote the Old Testament prophecies which would be quite unknown to his audience; such direct quotations as his speech contains are from Greek poets. But he does not argue from the sort of ‘first principles’ which formed the basis of the various schools of Greek philosophy; his exposition and defence of his message are founded on the biblical revelation of God, and they echo the thought, and occasionally the very language, of the Old Testament. Like the biblical revelation itself, his speech begins with God the creator of all, continues with God the sustainer of all, and ends with God the judge of all.” [2. Bruce, The Defense of the Gospel in the New Testament, pp. 40, 41.]
More specifically, we can summarize Paul’s presentation in the following way: (a) God as creator of heaven and earth demonstrates that He is not limited to specific locations and thus does not dwell in humanly made temples (v. 24); (b) God as sustainer of life to all demonstrates that He does not need anything from us (v. 25); (c) God as creator of all humanity from one blood (or person, i.e., Adam) and as sustainer of how long and where everyone lives demonstrates that all humanity is responsible to seek Him (vv. 26, 27a); (d) God’s nearness and likeness to humanity demonstrates that the divine nature is personal and immaterial rather than something formed from tangible material (vv. 27b–29); and (e) God’s sovereignty demonstrates His right to overlook human ignorance of Him in times past and at the same time to require us who are living at the present time to repent because there is a future time, also demonstrated by God’s sovereignty, in which He will judge humanity in righteousness by Jesus Christ, the “Man whom He has ordained” (vv. 30, 31).
Two important truths should be noted. First, Paul did not quote the Greek poets (v. 28) to prove God’s nearness but to illustrate the clarity of general revelation on this point. This truth was so obviously evident that the Greek poets had written about it. Second, Paul did not depend on general revelation alone but summarized the Old Testament Scriptural teaching about God, adding the distinctively Christian teaching about Jesus Christ and His resurrection (v. 31 ).