IMG_4622(Richard spoke at a men’s breakfast in Port Moody this morning.  I too think that we, like Paul, need to point our world to the God of Creation.  We have become so timid about standing up for the powerful truth of His word from Genesis to Revelation, that it is a miracle anyone on the face of the earth is ever attracted to Christianity any more.  –  Gerda)

Creation Evangelism: The Biblical Basis   –  Richard Peachey

I’ve been asked to talk about missions this morning. So I’m going to take you on a whirlwind tour through the New Testament book of Acts, which is God’s inspired account of the history of the early church.

I’ll focus on just those sections where ground-breaking missionary work is happening, where the gospel is being announced to a somewhat friendly audience. There’s a lot of other important material in the book of Acts, of course, but this morning we’ll zoom in on just three talks from Peter, and three from Paul, in which these leading apostles are announcing the gospel, the good news, to people who have not heard it. I’ll be asking the question, “What sorts of items do they include in their messages, and how can we apply their evangelistic practice in our own day?”

Our first case study is in Acts chapter 2 [verses 14 to 41].

Here Peter is speaking on the day of Pentecost, just a few short weeks after the historical crucifixion of Jesus. Peter is addressing Jewish people, people who knew their Bibles. These were also people who were fully aware of the recent events because they were involved in them. And Peter is speaking right in Jerusalem, where it all happened.

He begins by quoting from the prophet Joel, and later in his message he brings in quotes from two psalms written by David. Why does he do that? Well, he’s speaking to a crowd who are Biblically informed. They believe the Hebrew Scriptures; it makes good sense for Peter to argue for the truth of the gospel based on the Bible because his Jewish audience accept the Bible as God’s holy Word.

What else does Peter do? In between those two sections of Scripture quotations, he says:

“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” [verses 22,23; Bible quotes, with one exception, are from the New International Version]

So Peter is able to point to common knowledge as he brings the gospel to this particular audience — things they already know about — and Peter puts those known facts into meaningful context for them as he brings the gospel to them.

In addition to that, Peter also presents a claim of authoritative personal knowledge: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we [that is, we apostles] are all witnesses of the fact.” [verse 32]

So the evidence Peter presents is based on three things: what they already know (which he reminds them about, and clarifies for them), what he personally knows, and what God has previously made known in the Scriptures

Peter also does two other things: One is that he corrects his audience’s mistaken understanding when he says “These men are not drunk, as you suppose.” [verse 15]

And second, he concludes his message with a strong challenge to his audience: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” And then, seeing them under conviction, he tells them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.” [verses 36,38]

As we proceed to Peter’s other two speeches, and then Paul’s speeches, let’s keep these five factors in mind: the use of common knowledge, personal experience, Scripture, correction of misunderstanding, and direct challenge to do something. We’ll see these five specific elements appearing repeatedly in the other speeches that we examine — although the overall approach can vary quite a bit depending on who exactly is in the audience.

Let’s go now to Peter’s second evangelistic speech, which is in Acts chapter 3 [verses 12 to 26].

We find Peter in the Jerusalem Temple speaking to an astonished crowd of Jewish people who have just seen the healing of a man lame from birth. Peter points to his audience’s common knowledge about Jesus: “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life. . . .” [verses 13-15]

Then Peter proceeds immediately with his own personal knowledge, his apostolic claim: “. . . but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” [verse 15]

Also, once again, Peter brings in references to Scripture as he speaks to this Biblically informed Jewish audience. He quotes Moses from the book of Deuteronomy, and he gives a general statement that “all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days.” [verse 24]

So just as in his Pentecost speech in chapter 2, Peter here in chapter 3 again uses these three lines of evidence: his audience’s prior knowledge, his own personal experience,  and the Scriptures.

Also following the pattern from chapter 2, Peter issues a direct challenge to do something: “Repent, then, and turn to God. . . .” [verse 19].

And again, just as he did in chapter 2, Peter corrects a misunderstanding when he says at the beginning of his chapter 3 speech, “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?” [verse 12]

To sum up, we find again the same five factors here as we did in Peter’s first speech: the use of common knowledge, personal experience, Scripture, correction of misunderstanding, and a direct challenge to do something.

So perhaps you can see where I’m going with this? My suggestion will be that these five elements may be the same sorts of things that we can incorporate into our own evangelistic work — whether we’re preparing a full-blown evangelistic sermon, or we’re engaging in a personal conversation with one or two people.

Peter’s third gospel talk is in Acts chapter 10 [verses 34 to 43].

Here things are somewhat different: Peter is speaking to Gentiles, not Jews, and he’s announcing the gospel in Caesarea, rather than Jerusalem. But still, these are God-fearing Gentiles — the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family — and Caesarea is not that far from Jerusalem: you can drive there in under an hour and a half today, over a stretch of road that’s about 120 kilometers. In New Testament times, the trip would have taken longer, a couple of days — but in relative terms, the distance is small.

So Peter is still able to draw on the same three lines of evidence as he did in his Jerusalem speeches. He tells this Gentile audience: “You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached — how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” [verses 37,38]

So Peter is able to point to their common knowledge: “You know” these things, he says. Next, Peter brings in his authoritative personal knowledge as an apostle:  “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen — by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.” [verses 39-42]

In the next sentence Peter makes a general reference to Scripture, and at the same time issues a challenge as to what his audience needs to do: “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Peter can speak like this, referencing Scripture, because these Gentiles are “God-fearing” — they are proselytes, they’re partial converts to Judaism. They worship God and they respect his Word, even though they haven’t gone the full distance of becoming circumcised Jews. They are Biblically informed people.

Peter also had to correct a misunderstanding in this situation: “As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. ‘Stand up,’ he said, ‘I am only a man myself.‘ ” [verses 25,26]

Interestingly, Peter here also admits a misunderstanding of his own! He says to the assembled group: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” [verse 28]

So this leading Jewish apostle shows some personal humility before these Gentiles who are not yet Christians — a nice touch, and possibly instructive for us.

Let’s move on now to the apostle Paul’s three main gospel presentations. There will be some significant differences in the approach Paul used, compared to what we’ve seen with Peter, although those five factors will still come into play.

When we come to Paul’s first recorded evangelistic speech, in Acts chapter 13 [verses 16-41] we’re still dealing with a Biblically informed audience. Paul is in Pisidian Antioch, which is far removed from Jerusalem — way up in the Galatian region of Asia Minor, in what we would now call western Turkey. But Paul is speaking in a synagogue on the Sabbath day, to a group of Jews and Gentile God-fearers. So again, it’s a Biblically informed audience.

“Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me,” [verse 16] — that’s how Paul begins his talk here. Then he goes into the history of Israel, and his speech includes several direct Scripture quotations — from Isaiah, Habakkuk, and two of the Psalms.

But there are some interesting differences in Paul’s approach, compared to how Peter addressed his audiences. While Paul takes for granted his audience’s common knowledge about Israel’s history, he appears not to assume any common knowledge about Jesus. He doesn’t use the pronoun “you” when he talks about Jesus’ ministry and death. Instead, Paul puts it like this:

The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” [verses 27-29]

A second difference between the approaches of Peter and Paul is that Paul does not claim authoritative personal knowledge of the events of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. Paul was indeed an apostle; the risen Lord had appeared to him on the Damascus road and had personally appointed him to preach the gospel. Paul could rightly ask the Corinthians his rhetorical questions, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” [1 Corinthians 9:1]

But Paul was an apostle “born out of due time.” His conversion took place after those central events of history — the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul couldn’t claim to be a “witness” of those events in the same way that Peter and the others could.

So what does Paul do? He brings in the testimony of those who were there — first of all, John the Baptizer. Paul says, “Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you think I am? I am not that one. No, but he is coming after me, whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’ ” [verses 24,25]

Secondly, Paul refers, in the third person, to those who were witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. He says, “But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.” [verses 30,31]

So Paul is proclaiming the same gospel message that Peter did, but the distance is showing: both the geographical distance between Judea and Asia Minor, and also Paul’s distance from Peter in terms of experience of those central events of the Christian faith.

Now when we get to Paul’s other two major evangelistic speeches, yet another kind of distance shows up: Paul’s audiences are far removed from the sort of conceptual background the previous audiences have shared. The Gentiles in these two situations are ignorant about the God of the Jews; they have no familiarity at all with the Hebrew Scriptures, as far as we can tell. They are Biblically illiterate, unlike the Biblically informed audiences we’ve seen previously. So, not only would the gospel of Jesus Christ be strange to them, but they’d have no understanding of the historical preparation for the gospel either. These people are rank, idolatrous, heathen, pagans!

So how does Paul evangelize such people? And what might we learn from him?

Acts chapter 14 tells us, “In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, ‘Stand up on your feet!’ At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.” [verses 8-10]

That’s quite similar to what happened in Acts 3, as Peter healed a man who was lame from birth in the Jerusalem Temple. When Peter spoke afterward, God used that to achieve notable results: the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.

But Paul doesn’t fare so well; his audience reacts very differently: “When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.” [verses 11-13]

This idolatrous crowd of Gentiles — rather than giving glory to the true God, the God of the Jews and the God of Paul — this crowd moved to give credit to their false deities for the miraculous event that had just occurred.

So with this audience, Paul has to begin his evangelistic message with a dramatic protest, a gesture of horror and outrage against what he sees as blasphemous idolatry!

“. . . when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed into the crowd, shouting: ‘Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things. . . .’ ” [verses 14,15]

I’m stopping Paul in mid-sentence to consider for a moment what he’s done here: out of deep emotion and visceral revulsion against idolatry, Paul has reacted against this characteristic sin of the Gentiles. Along with tearing his clothes and rushing into the crowd, Paul challenges them verbally, asking them to think about what they’re doing, to observe who Paul and Barnabas are — just human — and slamming their idolatrous exercises as worthless things. An interesting beginning to an evangelistic message, is it not?! A direct challenge to the habitual religious practices of his audience! A strong denial of the value of their customs, their way of life, their culture!

We’ve seen that Peter often had occasion to correct misunderstandings of his audiences, but for Paul in this situation the correcting of misunderstanding has become the dominant factor in his missionary enterprise. May I suggest that there’s a parallel here to our day. Our own culture is becoming increasingly Biblically illiterate. Many of our neighbours and friends have been influenced by philosophical materialism, atheism, Darwinism. They greatly need to be disabused of their evolutionary thinking, and their acceptance of the millions of years required by evolution. That’s where creation evangelism comes in, such as the ministry of the Creation Science Association of British Columbia, represented here today by George Pearce.

Paul sets the example for us here in Acts 14. He talks to these Biblically illiterate people about creation: ” ‘We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” [verses 15-17]

“We are bringing you good news,” Paul tells them — literally, we are evangelizing you! But he doesn’t begin by telling them about Jesus. Nor does he refer to the Scriptures. His point of connection with these Biblically illiterate people is to declare to them the God who is Creator, Ruler of nations, and benevolent Provider.

Paul’s gospel, his evangel to these Gentiles is: leave your worthless, dead, false idols and turn to the real God, the living God, the One who created all things, the One who is in charge of all things, the One from whom you receive all good things. In the past, Paul says, this God let the nations in general go their own way — into sin, into idolatry — but now, leave all of that and turn to him!

But wait just a minute, someone might say: does this part of Acts really represent a normal paradigm of how to evangelize Gentiles? Isn’t this a rather extreme situation? Paul doesn’t speak about Jesus’ ministry, or the cross, or the resurrection, or about anything we would typically call “gospel.” Paul is desperately trying to stop these people from sacrificing to him and his colleague as if they were pagan deities! And he just barely succeeds at that! Furthermore, the people quickly turn against him, stone him, and drag him outside the city. Paul survives, but he leaves town the next day. So how can this be an example for us of how to reach the Biblically illiterate?

Well, if it wasn’t for the fact that Paul’s Acts 17 [verses 22-31] speech closely parallels Acts 14 in several ways, I would indeed be tempted to pay very little attention to how Paul conducted himself in Lystra. But the thing is that in Athens, albeit in a much lower-key situation (not so extreme), Paul says things very similar to what we’ve just seen.

Athens! that great historical centre of Greek philosophy — the native city of Socrates and Plato, and the adopted home of Aristotle, and of Epicurus, the founder of Epicureanism, and of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism.

While Paul is in Athens waiting for some co-workers to join him, he conducts an inspection tour of the city, and he observes that it’s full of idols. This observation distresses him greatly. In fact the word that’s used to describe his reaction is the one from which we get our word “paroxysm.” Spiritually, Paul is having a “fit” over all the idolatry he finds.

But he keeps himself under control, and he launches his Athens campaign        using a two-pronged strategy. First of all, he reasons in the synagogue with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles — the Biblically informed — and I’m assuming he would have reasoned with them from the Scriptures. That’s certainly what he did earlier in chapter 17, when he was in Thessalonica, about 300 kilometers to the north of Athens. We read that he “went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” [verses 2,3]

As the second prong of his strategy, Paul went to the Agora — the marketplace — where he reasoned “day by day with those who happened to be there.” [verse 17]

Now the people “who happened to be there” included adherents of particular schools of Greek philosophy: some were Epicureans; others were Stoics.

The Stoics were pantheists, believing in an impersonal Force that pervaded the whole of reality — the “world-soul” they called it. It was something like “the Force” from Star Wars, having both a good side and a dark side. Stoics believed that God and nature were indistinguishable, and that true knowledge of God could be gained by simply evaluating nature. Thus whenever they used the word “God,” they were actually just referring to the world — rather like some of today’s physicists and cosmologists.

The Epicureans, on the other hand, stayed away from “God talk” altogether. They rejected all of the old myths about “gods.” They were philosophical materialists, evolutionists.

If any gods did exist at all, they certainly weren’t relevant to human life as far as the Epicureans were concerned. They believed that everything was the result, not of intelligent design, but of unguided motions of atoms.

The Epicureans held that all life-forms had been produced by purely natural processes, and that many defective organisms had arisen but had failed to survive because they weren’t suited to their environment. (Sound familiar?)

And they used so-called dysteleological arguments of the kind evolutionists have used ever since. For example, the Epicurean Lucretius wrote, in the century before Christ, “. . . the world was never made for us by divine power, so great are the faults wherewith it stands endowed.” [De Rerum Natura, V.198f. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text;jsessionid=1069531FEC16589CB5F2B37563F57860?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0131%3Abook%3D5%3Acard%3D195>%5D

Anyway, after spending some time disputing with these various philosophers, Paul was either invited, or perhaps compelled, to appear before an assembly known as the Areopagus. This was a group of men given the responsibility of overseeing the political and moral life of the city of Athens. So Paul is given the opportunity to present his teaching before this council of civic leaders.

He begins his address by commenting on their spiritual consciousness, a characteristic of the Athenians noted by others as well, such as Sophocles and Josephus. “Men of Athens!” Paul says, “I see that in every way you are very religious.” [verse 22] Or as the King James Version says, “ye are too superstitious.” The term Paul used is actually a somewhat ambiguous word, literally “deity-fearing,” which we might suppose was intended to be complimentary, except for three factors:

First, it’s clear that Paul was greatly distressed to see the city of Athens “full of idols” — he appears to be in no mood to pay these civic leaders compliments on their spirituality! Second, whenever anyone appeared before the Areopagus council to state his case, there was a rule that you were not allowed to begin by making complimentary remarks. Third, it won’t be too long before we see Paul chewing them out, quite explicitly, for being so idolatrous: “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by man’s design or skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

Having called them “very religious,” Paul goes on to explain that statement: “For as I walked around and observed your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” [verse 23]

The Athenians were indeed a deity-fearing population. Afraid of offending some deity in their pantheon by leaving him out, they had erected more than one altar dedicated “TO UNKNOWN GODS.” Such altars are mentioned by various ancient writers, and there is some archaeological evidence for this as well. And so, using their acknowledged ignorance as a stepping stone, Paul proclaims the true God:

“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. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” [verses 24-26]

Much like what he did in Acts 14, Paul transitions from the topic of idolatry to speak about God as Creator, Ruler of nations, and Provider. Then he urges his audience to seek God, to move beyond idolatry by repenting of their current ignorant worship, especially in light of the coming judgment. And finally, at the very end of his speech, Paul makes reference to the Man whom God has raised from the dead.

We should note that Paul never quotes Scripture directly to these Gentiles, although his message is thoroughly Biblical, of course. He clearly alludes to the history found in Genesis — when he speaks about the creation, and the making of every nation out of one man — and he also incorporates the apostolic witness regarding the resurrection. But he does all this without naming either Genesis or the apostles or Jesus.

Note also that Paul doesn’t give any personal testimony here either, apart from mentioning his observations of their city.

But he certainly spends a lot of time in correcting their misunderstandings, and in directly challenging them to do something — that is, to seek God, and to think properly about God, and to repent. So the five elements that I mentioned repeatedly while discussing Peter’s gospel presentations — those factors do appear here in Acts 17, but in remarkably different form.

And then, there’s something additional that we haven’t seen before at all: although Paul doesn’t quote any Scripture, he does quote from some of their own respected authorities. For example, the line “We are his offspring” [verse 28] is from Aratus, a famous Stoic poet who was a friend of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism.

This is something creation evangelists spend a lot of time on: we quote the evolutionists’ own authorities, we work to correct people’s misunderstandings, and we directly challenge them to conform their thinking to true observational science as well as to the true history of the world as given in Genesis. Depending on the nature of our audience, we may also quote from Scripture, and we might inject some personal testimony. And we regularly invoke common knowledge as well as common sense, asking people to think about what they’re being told to believe, and to make better use of their brains and their lives.

In conclusion: I’m hoping that this morning’s discussion will prove helpful for each of us as we seek to honour God with our minds and our voices in whatever situation we may find ourselves.

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