Learning evangelism from the Apostle Paul

(This is an edited version of a presentation given at the conference “Influencing Muslims for Jesus Christ” in Benoni, South Africa, on 27 April 2012)

The one who said “follow me as I follow Messiah” leads us in a particular approach to evangelism which is evident from his missionary activities in the Book of Acts. The record of Paul’s visit to Athens provides the best opportunity to learn his method, being more detailed than the others. While waiting there for Silas and Timothy, Paul observed the religious practices of the Athenians, and

“… was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at 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.

“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. 25 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. 26 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. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28`For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, `We are his offspring.’

“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 and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.””

The apostle did not wait passively in Athens for Silas and Timothy to arrive. He knew to “make the best of every opportunity, for the days are evil.” (Eph. 5:6). Our unexpected circumstances are often by God’s design!

Paul is distressed by the idolatry he observes in Athens and this moves him to action. Let us know this for sure: a genuine burden is necessary for fruitful evangelism. Much of the ‘distress’ we see among Christians lately is not of the same kind. We see a burden over Islam, for example, on account of terrorism, or hear that we should preach more “so that the crime rate can come down.”

Paul is grieved because the Greeks had exchanged the glory of the immortal God for vanity, and their worship of Him had become futile. Paul, having grown up in the knowledge of the one true God, and having then seen the light of the knowledge of the glory of that God revealed in the face of Christ (2 Cor.4:6), is distressed at the Greeks’ ignorance – the extent to which their understanding had become darkened. The love of Christ compels Paul to engage the men of Athens, with the hope of bringing them to repentance and reconciliation with God (2 Cor. 5:14 and following).

Paul reasoned with them

That the Gospel is the only way to achieve this reconciliation is Paul’s unqualified and unwavering belief until the time of his death. Paul’s goal is thus to proclaim, “the good news about the Lord Jesus and his resurrection from the dead” (verse 18). Yet, we see in verses twenty-two to thirty that this proclamation is preceded by a lengthy discourse – which develops on strictly rational lines.

I once believed that rational discussion is an alternative to preaching the Gospel, and therefore devoid of its power. This leads to the conclusion that the Gospel must be received, somehow, without rational grounds. Yet, Man is intrinsically a rational being, with a need for reasons before accepting or rejecting beliefs. John Stott said quite simply that “the heart cannot accept what the mind has rejected”.

Paul perceived that man cannot genuinely believe except on rational grounds, and where ‘new ideas’ are presented contrary to earlier beliefs, without first dismissing those earlier beliefs, also on a rational basis. Before Paul can bring the Gospel to the Athenians he must therefore do two things:

  • he must challenge their current beliefs on rational grounds;
  • he must present a rational basis for his own beliefs.

Paul’s ‘reasoning’ of verses twenty-two to thirty is thus a prerequisite to his eventual proclamation of the Gospel, i.e. necessary to establish a basis on which his audience can receive it. This is critical to the apostle’s approach, and the most critical, also, of all that we must learn from his method.

Establishing goodwill

How does Paul proceed?

Paul commences his speech with an affirmation: “I can see that in all things you are very religious”. While the King James Version states ‘superstitious’ instead of ‘religious’ – with an apparently negative connotation – the Lexicon of Biblical Greek[1] confirms that the Greek word ‘δεισιδαιμονέστερος’ has both positive and negative meanings. I propose that Paul intended the positive meaning, namely to be “careful and precise in the discharge of religious services”. His intention is seemingly to warm his audience to his message, and not to insult or antagonise his hearers at the outset.

Many of us have learnt from experience that it is easier to persuade a receptive than a defensive audience. If my opening statement is perceived as an attack, my hearer becomes an opponent, who is then inclined to resist and contest all that follows. Paul affirms his audience and we should follow his example.

“I can see … ” shows moreover that Paul affirms on the basis of observation, not flattery. Paul takes care to find a quality of these idolaters that can be genuinely commended for the sake of establishing rapport.

Do we, evangelists of today, bother to ask: ‘what can I discover about this person that is good, or potentially good if directed in the right way? That can provide an impetus for his entry into the truth?’

When I have on certain occasions carefully observed and then affirmed someone in a genuine way, it has usually opened up the opportunity for meaningful engagement. Once, on a visit to the Galilee, a young Israeli officer boasted in her style of leadership, that she “did not merely shout out orders”, but joined her troops in their tasks to show them “how it is done”. I heartily praised this quality and told her that Christians worship such a God , i.e. a God that does not merely give orders but comes down to us in the person of Jesus to show us how to go. She became immediately interested in the gospel and took as much literature as I could give her.

On another occasion, I was in the study of a Muslim teacher and his son was sitting on the floor at his feet listening to his every word, keenly interested in his father’s discussion. I could say with sincerity to this man, “I can see that your son really loves you”.  After that I could say, “And don’t you think that this is the relationship that God desires from us?”

Relevance and validity

Our discourse is relevant if it deals with a topic that our audience perceives as important, and valid if it proceeds from a premise that our audience accepts as true.

After setting the right tone through genuine affirmation, Paul’s next step is to find something that is accepted, understood and believed in by the audience he is addressing. He does this again by observation: “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.”

This provides Paul with a basis on which to build, i.e. “in your own belief system you make room for a god you do not yet know. Permit me now to tell you about Him!”

There is much in the Qu’ran, the Talmud, and the books of other religions that can be used for this purpose. Any serious evangelist must explore the basic beliefs of the people he is sent to, to find such opportunities.

In the Islamic context, I have used, for example, the fundamental belief that there had to be a final and ultimate revelation of God – which is the Quran, according to Muslim belief, and Jesus, according to Christians. I mention to Muslims their belief that the Quran is pre-existent, that it came down from heaven, that it is incorruptible and essentially part of the Divine Being.[2] I then point out that Christians hold almost identical beliefs concerning Jesus. I then proceed to challenge the idea that God, as a ‘relational’ Being, can be finally and ultimately revealed through a dictation or monologue. I then demonstrate how Jesus reveals the essential qualities of God – love, mercy, righteousness, justice, etc. – more profoundly, through his life and work, and thereby becomes “the image of the invisible God” and “the exact representation of His being”, etc.

A good starting point for discussion with Buddhists is the fact that their religion shares the fundamentally pessimistic worldview of Christianity, namely that the basis of life is tragic,[3] that the current world is a place of pain, suffering and disappointment. Christianity, however, reveals the true reason for this condition and offers the means by which it is reversed. Buddhism offers no solution, and is consequently aimed at achieving man’s disengagement and withdrawal, with the cessation of desire and ultimate annihilation of conscious life as the promise for those who achieve its highest state.

A reasonable challenge

Those in Paul’s audience were mostly satisfied, we suspect, that the form of religion they practised in Athens was correct and appropriate. To dent their confidence, Paul identifies the logical inconsistencies in their beliefs and then challenges them on these grounds:

1.      “If you believe that you are the creatures of the Divine, i.e. that human life has its origin in the work of divine beings, it is then irrational to believe at the same time that you can create these beings out of gold, silver or stone.”

2.      “If the Divine Being is also the Creator of all other things, then he also does not need the shrines that you have built for him to live in, nor does he need the food that you so often leave there for him to eat.”

It is worth emphasising that Paul challenges the Athenians current belief system on a rational basis, not a theological basis. This is where we often fail. In the Islamic context it is irrational, for example, to challenge the Quran on the basis that it denies the crucifixion, or that it contains no equivalent to the Christian salvation plan. The Muslim adheres to Islam as a religious system and from within his system none of these essential Christian beliefs are perceived as defects.

Instead we need to identify the logical inconsistencies, the non-sequiturs, the lapses within their own belief system, and direct our challenge at these.[4]  For example, Muslims believe that “there is none that can change the words of Allah” (Surah 6.34), and also that the books that came before the Quran contained Allah’s words (Surah 4:136). How then can they claim that the earlier books have been changed or corrupted? It also casts an aspersion on God’s omnipotence and intelligence – that he should allow his earlier books to be so thoroughly corrupted before learning – eventually – to speak in a form that cannot be changed.

A rational basis for the Christian faith

While the term ‘apologetics’ most often describes the answers we give in response to challenges, it is also necessary to set forth a rational foundation for our faith.  Having established that the Athenians’ manner of worship is illogical and inappropriate, it follows that the Creator should hold the Athenians accountable for such an aberration. Paul proposes their moral accountability toward God as a rational consequence to the belief that “we are God’s creatures,” i.e. which He requires to worship Him “in spirit and in truth”. Even if they once acted in ignorance, the truth now obliges them to repent of their ways and seek God’s acceptance.

This final point concludes Paul’s reasoning, and brings his audience to the very threshold of accepting God’s preordained offer of forgiveness, salvation, and correction, namely the Gospel.

We need to do the same for the Muslim, i.e. to use reason to bring him within reach of the Gospel. If we can show from the creation narrative, for example, that God is the source and sustainer of all life, and then deduce from this premise that separation from God amounts to death, it opens the way for the Muslim to accept the proposition that man needs more than a confession of monotheism and a moral code, and requires, in fact, reconciliation with God and new life! “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins … But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ …” (Ephesians 2:1-5).

We could also start with God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis chapter twelve, “I will bless you …  and through you all nations on earth will be blessed” – and proceed to the observation that all three religions that stem from Abraham, being Judaism, Islam and Christianity, attribute the dismal state of the world to man’s deviation from God. The agreed solution to this problem – using the Islamic term – is ‘submission’ to God, which Judaism proposes through the Torah, Islam through the Quran and Christianity through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This provides a basis for showing up the limitations of a religion based on rules in comparison with an inner transformation followed by a life in obedience to ‘the law of the Spirit … written on the heart’.

That ‘Jesus died for our sins’ may be a valid conclusion, but rarely a valid starting point when dealing with those of other religions. For those who do not accept the authority of scripture, it is equally irrational to build an argument on the basis that ‘the Bible says’. Paul dealt with people with a perverse and distorted view of God, on rational grounds, then followed through with the Gospel as an acceptable conclusion.

The good news about Jesus and the resurrection

Acts seventeen presents the Gospel that is “God’s power unto the salvation of all who believe,” (Rom. 1:15) as “the good news concerning Jesus and the resurrection”. By “the good news concerning Jesus”, we understand an explanation of what Jesus came to do and subsequently achieved. “The resurrection” is then the historical fact on which the success and efficacy of Jesus’ work is based. These two are inextricable parts of the same Gospel.

Jesus came to establish the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven”.[5] Man is reconciled to God through forgiveness and is then brought under His reign by the gift and leading of the Holy Spirit. In fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham this promise is first for the Jew, and then through the Jew, also for all other nations of the earth (“I will bless you … and through you all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.”  (Genesis 12:2-3, Cf. Galatians 3:8, 14.)

In the Jewish context, “what God promised our fathers, he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus” (Acts 13:32-33). The resurrection also achieves God’s promise to give to Abraham the Land as an eternal possession, i.e., since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor. 15:50).

In the universal context, the resurrection proves Jesus as the remedy for sin and death – in which anyone may gain a share through faith.

While the historical facts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are thus a constant, different outcomes and consequences (as being achieved by those facts) may be emphasised, depending on our audience. Paul concludes his speech to the Athenians with the warning “For [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead”.  If we have followed the preceding steps of Paul’s discourse, the rationale for this emphasis is clear: while men put Jesus to death, motivated by their false religion, God brings man and his false religion under judgement instead, by raising Jesus from the dead.

 On using the hearer’s authorities

As for the question whether it is legitimate for Christians to use the Quran or the Talmud for persuasive purposes when reasoning with Muslims or Jews, I think we have permission in the precedent Paul sets here.

Paul quotes a fundamental truth from Greek philosophy – without suggesting that it is the source that makes it true.  In the same way we do not imply when speaking of the virgin birth of Jesus, etc. from the Quran, that the fact derives its truth from the Quran. It is true because it forms part of God’s authentic revelation. But because the source has authority in the mind of the hearer, in the belief system of our audience, we can use it strategically, to build the argument.


Paul’s presentation divides the audience. Certain people were convinced and their hearts opened to the Gospel. Others mocked. A few became followers. We do not know why certain souls respond and others are hardened. It is one of those things which is not given for us to understand. What we do know is that the gospel inevitably divides. As it did in Athens it will also do in our own experience.

It is not our purpose, therefore, to try to convince every last person. I have often continued too long and wasted my energies. We employ reason to create an opportunity for our hearer to receive the Gospel. Whether he then receives or not, is not within our control. Once the division has taken place, our responsibility is then only toward those who have received it. As for the rest, perhaps God’s timing is different. We leave it for another person, or another time.

[1] See Thayer, among others.

[2] Not every Muslims articulates his beliefs in the same way, and some will resist the idea that the Quran is essentially part of the Divine Being. The fact remains that there are significant (and useful) parallels between what Islam believes concerning the Quran, and what Christians believe concerning Jesus. 

[3] A phrase often used by Oswald Chambers.

[4] We have largely neglected this and should invest much more effort into this area.

[5] As both Matthew and Luke render the Gospel in its earliest proclamation: “Jesus went throughoutGalilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom … ”.