In Defense of Evangelism
As we near the end of Acts, a lot of false accusations have been brought against Paul, but there is one charge he’s never denied: He does preach the gospel with the aim to persuade, what we call “evangelism”. Evangelism is often viewed negatively today, but in this passage we will see Paul’s defense for his practice of evangelism.
Acts: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Darrell Bock
Evangelism is a word that gets thrown around a lot in Christian circles. Mack Stiles, in his book on Evangelism, defines evangelism as teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade. Many today see such an activity as inappropriate: Everyone should be free to believe whatever they want, so we should never try to persuade others to believe what we believe. In the passage at which we’re looking in the book of Acts, there is a group of people who don’t like Paul’s practice of evangelism. They’ve brought all kinds of false accusations against Paul, and Paul has defended himself against them, to the point where now, this Roman governor Festus, can’t find anything wrong with him. Nonetheless, there is a king, Agrippa, who is more familiar with the Jewish law, before whom Paul makes the defense speech at which we’re looking today, and though Paul is pretty well clear of the charges his opponents have brought against him, there is one charge remaining, which Paul never denies: He does in fact teach the gospel with the aim to persuade. So here in this defense speech, Paul essentially defends his practice of evangelism. Why does he keep doing it in the face of all the accusations and all the pain it’s brought into his life? And why should we keep teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade, even though it is uncomfortable, even though we have failed, even though it’s not bringing the results we’d like? From Paul’s speech we learn three reasons to keep teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade: Jesus has sent us, it is our part in the story, and we want everyone to become like us. I’ve intentionally put that last point in the most offensive terms possible, but bear with me and I’ll explain further when we get there.
Jesus has sent us
Paul begins his defense in chapter 26 by again recounting his story of conversion. He was a bona fide Jew, on his way to persecute Christians, when Jesus appeared to him, confronted him, and revealed to him who He was. This is the fourth time now in Acts that we’ve read this story, but it’s never repeated verbatim. There are different details highlighted each time. This time there is nothing about Paul’s blindness after seeing Jesus, nothing about his meeting with Ananias, nothing about his baptism or even calling upon the name of the Lord for the forgiveness of sins. Instead in verse 16 he gets right into how Jesus sent him, because remember, his purpose here is to defend his practice of evangelism. He does so in ways similar to past speeches, by putting the responsibility on Jesus. He basically says, “Hey look, I didn’t choose this life for myself. I was trying to persecute Christians. But Jesus appeared to me and sent me; how could I not go?” or as he puts it in verse 19: “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.”
While there are elements of Paul’s call that are unique to him, Jesus’ sending of Paul here is kind of a microcosm of the mission Jesus has sent us, His church, on. Let’s look at it in a bit more detail then. What has Jesus sent us to do? Verse 18: “To open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” When Jesus sent us to teach the gospel with the aim to persuade, this was the goal: That eyes would be opened, that people would go from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, that they might receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. He didn’t send us just to have a comparative religion discussion; he sent us that people would be persuaded and changed. In sending us in this way, Jesus is saying something profound about the condition of all who have not yet put their faith in Him. He’s saying their eyes are closed, they are in darkness, and they are under the power of Satan. Do you realize that’s who you were before Jesus sent someone to teach you the gospel? Do you realize that’s who you still are today if you don’t yet believe? Do you realize that’s the condition of your neighbors, co-workers, family members, and friends who don’t yet believe? That doesn’t mean they aren’t kind, morally upright, and enjoyable to be around; none of what Jesus is saying here contradicts that. But it does mean they don’t know God, and to not know Him is to be blind, to walk around in darkness, and to live under the power of Satan.
Now of course, when you realize that was your condition and is now the condition of all who don’t believe, you should quickly realize how powerless you are to do this. Only God can make blind eyes see. We teach the gospel with the aim to persuade, but only God can do the persuading. And yet, we still do teach the gospel, because look at what is offered in this gospel, second half of verse 18: That they might receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. He’s just said all who don’t know Him are blind, in darkness, and under the power of Satan, but He’s sent us to them because He wants to forgive them! We’re all guilty of sin, and unless we receive the forgiveness of sins, God will execute judgment on our sins and we will be cast into the dark and remain under the power of Satan in eternal conscious torment. And then on top of that, Paul says it’s so that they might receive a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus. To be sanctified means to be set apart. Paul’s saying not only do you get a new legal status before God of forgiven, but those who turn and believe the gospel, who place their faith in Jesus, are given a place among God’s people who are set apart for Him. You become part of a new family, a new community; you belong, and with that community you will enjoy the inheritance of a new heavens and new earth. The thing your neighbor and every tribe, tongue, and nation needs more than anything else is to receive the forgiveness of sins and a place among God’s people. However things appear, however different people may seem, that’s true of every neighbor and every people group. When you see the ways it could go poorly, when you’re discouraged by how many times you’ve tried and not seen people turn, don’t lose sight of the glory of what we’ve been sent to do. That’s the first reason to keep teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade: Jesus has sent us. The next reason is because it is our part in the story.
It is our part in the story
One of the things Paul makes clear throughout his speech is that he’s not just some innovator. What he is doing in evangelizing the Gentiles is actually part of a much bigger story. In verse 6 he points out that he is on trial because of his hope in the promise made by God to their fathers, the promise of the resurrection. When telling his conversion story, in verse 14 he includes these words from Jesus that haven’t yet been shared in the other accounts of his conversion: “It is hard for you to kick agains the goads.” A goad is a device used to drive cattle in a certain direction; to kick against the goads is to resist the direction you’re being led in. Jesus was saying to Paul: The direction in which God is taking this story is through me, not against me. By persecuting Jesus’ people, Paul was resisting the direction in which the story was going.
So instead Paul went where Jesus sent him, and then in verse 22 he says the reason he has had God’s help and is standing today before even a Roman governor Festus and a King Agrippa, testifying to both small and great, is because he is saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass. His saying what he is saying today is actually a consistent outcome of the story that began thousands of years before with Moses and the prophets. They’re the ones who said the Christ must suffer, rise from the dead, and proclaim light both to the Jews and the Gentiles, that God’s salvation might reach to the end of the earth. That has in fact now happened, so Paul can’t keep kicking against the goads. Rather, he is now the instrument through which Christ proclaims light to Jews and Gentiles. The risen Lord Jesus sends His church to teach the gospel with the aim to persuade. That part of the story Paul saw himself in is the part we are in. The Christ has suffered, the Christ has risen again, and the Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead and establish His kingdom on earth. Between now and then, He has sent His church into the world to shine the light of the gospel to a world in darkness by teaching it with the aim to persuade.
Our lives are always guided by some story, some mythology that explains our origins, purpose, problem, and destiny. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were Oxford professors who studied mythology, and one of the ways Tolkien led Lewis from agnosticism to faith in Christ was by showing him that the Christian story is the “True myth” of the world. Paul is saying here, “I’m not just here teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade because I like it. I’m here because I’ve found the true myth, the story of our world, and this is my part in it.” Do you see that you are too? Do you see that we still have a part in the story of the gospel going to the end of the nations? Your life may feel purposeless at times, but that’s not true. America used to tell the story that we are here to establish a great nation on earth for “God and country.” That’s not true. Today America tells you that you are here to work hard, have a family, and retire well enough to enjoy the fruits of your labor, to basically create a mini heaven for yourself and your family on earth. That’s not true. Or America tells you you are here to discover your truest self and assert it on everyone else. And that’s not true. The true myth, the true story in which we have a part is the story of the salvation of God reaching the end of the earth, that His glory would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. That’s why we keep teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade when the world thinks we’re crazy. That’s why people leave their hometown to live in the Middle East or some other end of the earth where whole people groups have not yet been taught the gospel. That’s why some of you have chosen to forego the life you’d envisioned to live in a city where most of your neighbors are still in darkness, so that there would be someone there to teach them the gospel with the aim to persuade. Teaching this gospel with the aim to persuade all the nations of the earth is central to the part we have in the story of God’s glory covering the earth. And the final reason we keep doing it is because we do want everyone to become like us.
We want everyone to become like us
As I mentioned before, I’m putting this in the most alarming way possible, but let me show you where I’m getting it. When Paul finishes his speech and defends himself against another accusation from Festus, he turns to King Agrippa and straight up asks him if he believes the prophets in verse 27. And Agrippa realizes what’s up. He realizes Paul isn’t just trying to defend his practice of evangelism; Paul is actually evangelizing Agrippa in the process! He’s trying to persuade this king, Agrippa, to believe! So Agrippa asks him in verse 28, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” and there’s that idea of persuasion, and Paul totally owns it in verse 29: “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” Paul says straight up: Yes, Agrippa, and not only you, but everyone who hears me…I want you all to become like me.
Why does that sound so offensive to us? It sounds arrogant, right? What’s so special about you Paul, that everyone should be like you? It sounds intolerant. We wonder, “What about who I want to be? Why can’t we just be different?” Especially on religious matters, people all the time say something like this, “I don’t really identify with a particular faith, but I’m totally fine with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and any other religion practicing their faith, as long as they don’t try to make others do it too,” and thus, the practice of evangelism is seen as a bad thing. A couple comments in response: First, Paul isn’t saying he wants people to become like him in every way, and neither should we. When Gentiles believe the gospel, he doesn’t make them act like Jews, even though Paul himself is Jewish. He wants Agrippa to become like him specifically in believing the gospel, and that’s the only way in which we have a right to say to others, “Become like me”. It’s more like saying, “Become like me by believing in Jesus, and He will make you into who you were made to be, with all your culture and uniqueness.” Second, evangelism is not about making others become like us. Paul isn’t coercing Agrippa into anything here. He’s not threatening him if he doesn’t convert, bullying him, deceiving him, or anything of the sort. He is, however, trying to persuade him, but look: everyone is already doing that, including the person who raises such an objection. If you say, “I’m all good with Christianity as long as they don’t try to tell others they’re wrong,” do you see what you’re saying? You’re really saying, “I’m all good with Christianity as long as Christians act like me, holding their beliefs privately without trying to persuade others of them.” In fact, you aren’t only saying that to Christians, but to all the religions of the world you’re looking out and saying, “Become like me.” Become a pluralist, become someone who would never try to persuade someone else to believe like they do. But why should we? What gives you that right?
Here’s the difference and beauty of what Paul is doing: He’s not saying become like me because I’m moral and you aren’t or become like me because I’m tolerant and you aren’t. He’s not saying much about himself at all really. He’s saying become like me because the message I believe is true! I believe in Jesus, and He really is the Christ, He really did suffer, He really did rise from the dead, there really is forgiveness of sins in His name and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Him. He will open your eyes, He will turn you from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, yes I want that for you; how could I not? That’s not arrogant; that’s loving.
I’ve sometimes had a conversation with friends of mine who don’t yet believe where they’ve said, “You know Mike I like talking to you about these things because you really listen to me and you don’t try to get me to believe what you believe,” and I’ve learned in response to say something like, “I’m glad you appreciate these conversations; I do too. I don’t believe I can make you believe something you don’t believe, nor do I have any interest in trying. And if you never end up believing what I believe, I’m still going to love you like I do today. That said, I have to be honest with you: I do want you to believe what I believe, not because I believe it, but because it’s true, it’s such good news, and it is exactly what every human being, including you and me, needs most. What’s stopping you from believing?” And if you’re a Christian listening today, what’s stopping you from wanting that for the people around you who don’t yet believe? Don’t let a fear of seeming arrogant or intolerant stop you from saying what’s true and good and actually calling others to believe it. Don’t let your assessment of your successes stop you from speaking the gospel to anyone, small and great, Jew or Gentile, black or white, skeptical or open. The results are in God’s hands. Pray for God to do what only He can do, speak the actual words of the gospel, and ask people to believe it.