Why Are You a Believer? A Review of J. Warner Wallace’s Forensic Faith

J. Warner Wallace is a  cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author.  Wallace has written two books defending the truth claims of Christianity: Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene.

Cold-Case Christianity provides readers with ten principles of cold case investigations and utilizes these principles to examine the reliability of the New Testament gospels. In God’s Crime Scene, Wallace investigates eight pieces of evidence in the universe to make the case for God’s existence.

But having written these two helpful books, Wallace came to realize, as he spoke in churches across America,  that many of the Christians attending his presentations doubted the need for Christian evidences in the first place.

When Wallace asks audiences why they are Christians, he typically gets these answers:

“I was raised in the church” / “My parents were Christians” / “I’ve been a Christian as long as I can remember”

“I’ve had an experience that convinced me” / “The Holy Spirit confirmed it for me” / “God demonstrated His existence to me”

“I was changed by Jesus” / “I used to be [fill in your choice of immoral lifestyle], and God changed my life”

“Because I just know the Bible is true” / “Because God called me to believe”

But why, he wondered, does nobody ever answer the question with “I am a Christian because it is true“? After all, isn’t that the primary reason we should believe anything?

But many of the Christians Wallace encountered seemed to set aside their Christian beliefs as somehow privileged, as exempt from evidential considerations. This approach to Christian belief, however, is just not acceptable.

Wallace writes:

Now, more than ever, Christians must shift from accidental belief to evidential trust. It’s time to know why you believe what you believe. Christians must embrace a forensic faith. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Christians living in America and Europe are facing a growingly skeptical culture. Polls and surveys continue to confirm the decline of Christianity.  When believers explain why they think Christianity is true, unbelievers are understandably wary of the reasons they’ve been given so far.

As Christians, we’d better embrace a more thoughtful version of Christianity, one that understands the value of evidence, the importance of philosophy, and the virtue of good reasoning.

The famed writer C. S. Lewis, all the way back in 1939, wrote the following words about Christianity:

If all the world were Christian it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against the cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Is the church anti-intellectual today when it comes to defending her core truth claims? This has certainly been my experience while teaching Christian apologetics for the last 14 years. Wallace concurs:

I’m not the only one to notice how anti-intellectual the church is today. Atheist activist and philosophy professor Peter Boghossian wrote a book in 2013 entitled A Manual for Creating AtheistsIt was published around the same time my first book, Cold-Case Christianity, hit the bookshelves. Boghossian describes his book as “the first-ever guide not for talking people into faith—but for talking them out of it.” He hopes to teach atheists “to engage the faithful in conversations that will help them value reason and rationality, cast doubt on their religious beliefs, mistrust their faith, abandon superstition and irrationality, and ultimately embrace reason.” In a YouTube video promoting the approach, Boghossian made an interesting observation: Christians fail to process truth claims rationally; instead of assessing the evidence and drawing the most reasonable inference, they typically rely on personal experience, emotional response, and “blind faith.” For this reason, he encourages atheists to engage Christians not on the evidence but on the way Christians evaluate truth claims in the first place.

Is Boghossian wrong in his assessment of Christians? Wallace thinks not.

Sadly, my own experience in the church confirms what Boghossian has described. Boghossian, and others like him, believe they need only show Christians how to examine evidence and the rest will take care of itself. Confident of the evidence supporting their view, they can’t imagine Christianity will survive a forensic investigation in the “age of reason.” But as someone who has examined the evidence of God’s existence and the reliability of the New Testament documents as a detective, I hold a similar, although opposite, view. If Christians will simply learn how to approach their beliefs evidentially and take the same forensic approach detectives take when examining an event from the past, the rest will take care of itself. I’m confident the claims of Christianity are supported by the evidence, and I believe a forensic faith will comfortably survive in the age of reason. Boghossian and I are engaged in a race of sorts. Both of us understand the importance of the evidence, and we are trying to reach the same group of accidental Christians. The only question is who will reach them first.

Mature Christians who have walked with the Lord for many decades may dismiss all this talk of evidence and apologetics. They just don’t need it. Their experiences of Christianity are unshakable and no skeptic is going to change their mind. To that Christian, though, I ask: What about the young? What about the students? What about the teenagers and twenty-somethings? Do we just abandon them?

Wallace cites disturbing survey results about young people in our churches:

Most teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their religious beliefs and practices. They typically cannot defend what they believe. Young, uninformed believers also reject important Christian claims.

63 percent of teenage Christians don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God;

51 percent don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead;

68 percent don’t believe the Holy Spirit is a real Being.

Between 60 percent and 80 percent of people aged 15 to 30 will leave the church for at least a season, and most will never return.

Only 33 percent of young, churched Christians said the church will play a part in their lives when they leave home.

If current trends related to the belief systems and practices of young people continue, church attendance will decline by 50 percent in the next decade.

College professors are nearly five times more likely to be professing atheists or agnostics than people in the general population. The vast majority of university professors reject the Bible as “the actual word of God.”

When surveyed, the largest segment of young, ex-Christian respondents said they left Christianity because they had intellectual doubt, skepticism, and unanswered questions.

So what do we do about this? Wallace answers:

If properly equipped, [young people] could actually grow in their faith and confidence, even in the midst of strong opposition. You and I have the opportunity to reach the young people we love. . . if we are willing to embrace the mission. Our children, and our brothers and sisters in Christ, are in the right place; they believe something true. If they’ve come to understand their own need for a Savior and have repented and placed their trust in Jesus alone for their salvation, they are saved for eternity. But if they haven’t taken the time to study why Christianity is true, . . . they will be ill-equipped to answer objections and less than persuasive with a group that requires far more evidence than ever before. We have to change the course of the church in order to meet this challenge, and the church is much more like an ocean liner than a jet ski. We cannot turn it on a dime. Instead, we must make small course corrections—one degree here and one degree there. Forensic Faith is my effort to come alongside the church as a tugboat and shift the direction of our ocean liner one degree at a time.

Wallace is right and I hope you will read his book so that we can all get this ocean liner turned together.

What Are the Four Different Ways the Book of Revelation Is Interpreted? Part 2

Continuing from part 1,

Idealist. This popular approach argues that the symbols do not relate to historical events but rather to timeless spiritual truths (so Hendriksen, Hoekema, P. Hughes). As such it relates primarily to the church between the advents, that is, between Christ’s first and second comings. Thus it concerns the battle between God and evil and between the church and the world at all times in church history. The seals, trumpets, and bowls depict God’s judgments on sinners at all times, and the beast refers to all the anti-Christian empires and rulers in history. Thus the book describes the victory of Christ and his people down through history. The millennium in this approach is not a future event but the final cycle of the book (so Hendriksen) describing the church age. There are certain strengths in this view: the centrality of theology for the book, the relevance for the church at all times, the symbolic nature of the book. But it has certain weaknesses as well: the absence of historical connections, the failure to see the future nature of many of the prophecies or to connect them in any way with history (as it seems the text does in several instances).

Futurist. This was the method employed by some of the earliest fathers (e.g., Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus), but with the triumph of the allegorical method (taking a spiritual approach to the book) after Origen and of the amillennial view after Augustine and Ticonius, the futurist method (and chiliasm) was not seen again for over a thousand years. The first to develop once more a literal view of the book was Franciscus Ribeira, a Spanish Jesuit who wrote in the late sixteenth century to counter the Reformation antipapal interpretation. While he was not truly a futurist, he turned the attention back to the early fathers, and after him that view returned to prominence and stands alongside the others as equally viable.

Futurism believes that chapters 4–22 refer primarily to events that will take place at the end of history and usher in the eschaton. There are two forms of this approach, dispensationalism and what has been called ‘classical premillennialism.’ Dispensationalists believe that God has brought about his plan of salvation in a series of dispensations or stages centering on his election of Israel to be his covenant people. Therefore, the church age is a parenthesis in this plan, as God turned to the Gentiles until the Jewish people find national revival (Rom. 11:25–32). At the end of that period, the church will be raptured, inaugurating a seven-year tribulation period in the middle of which the Antichrist will make himself known (Rev. 13) and instigate the ‘great tribulation’ or great persecution of the 144,000 and others among Israel who have become Christians. At the end of that period will come the parousia as Christ returns in judgment, followed by a literal millennium (20:1–10), great white throne judgment (20:11–15), and the beginning of eternity in heavenly bliss (21:1–22:5). Classical premillennialism is similar but does not hold to dispensations. Thus there is only one return of Christ, after the tribulation period (Matt. 24:29–31; cf. Rev. 19:11–21), and it is the whole church, not just the nation of Israel, that passes through the tribulation period. Also, dispensationalists view themselves as literalists on the symbols, while the second school would take many of them to be symbolic (see above). There are some weaknesses of this school as well: it can develop a perspective that would remove its applicability to first-century Christians (see above on the ‘prophecy’ movement), and it can often deteriorate to mere speculation cut off from first-century backgrounds. If all we have are events without symbolic/theological significance, much of the power of the book can be lost.

How does Osborne synthesize these views in his commentary on Revelation?

The solution is to allow the preterist, idealist, and futurist methods to interact in such a way that the strengths are maximized and the weaknesses minimized. Beale, for instance, calls his method ‘a redemptive-historical form of modified idealism’ (1999: 48). He takes the symbols in an inaugurated sense as describing the church age from the present to the future. For instance, the beast of 13:1–8 refers both to the ‘many antichrists’ throughout church history and to the final Antichrist at the end of history (1999: 680–81). The approach of this commentary is similar, but the futurist rather than the idealist position is primary. My study of ancient apocalyptic and of the Book of Revelation has led me to believe that John’s visions (esp. chaps. 4–22) were primarily intended to describe the events that will end world history.

The saints in these chapters are believers alive in that final period, and the beast is the Antichrist who will lead the ‘earth-dwellers’/unbelievers in a final pogrom against all the people of God. The seals, trumpets, and bowls symbolize a final series of judgments by which God will turn the evil deeds of the nations back upon their heads (the Roman legal principle of lex talionis, the law of retribution) to prove his sovereignty once and for all and to give them a final chance to repent (9:20–21; 11:13; 14:6–7; 16:9, 11).

But the preterist school is also correct, because the visions use the events of the future to address John and his readers in the present. Most of the imagery used to describe the beast and Babylon the Great comes from actual first-century parallels. The beast is a final Nerolike figure, and Babylon is the final unholy Roman Empire. One of my definitions for apocalyptic is ‘the present addressed through parallels with the future.’ John’s readers were being asked to identify with the people at the end of history and gain perspective for their present suffering through the future trials of God’s people. This leads us to the idealist position, also intended in the text, for these final events are also timeless symbols meant to challenge the church in every era. The three-and-a-half-year great tribulation provides models for the similar tribulations of the saints down through history. Therefore, this commentary is quite similar to Beale’s except for the centrality of the futurist approach (also similar to Ladd, Beasley-Murray, Michaels, and Mounce).

What Are the Four Different Ways the Book of Revelation Is Interpreted? Part 1

Because of the literary genre and dense symbolism in the Book of Revelation, there has been much disagreement in the church about how to interpret it. The events described in chapters 4-19 especially invite a diversity of opinions. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, describes the situation:

There are several major categories of interpretation of this book: (1) Revelation predicts in detail the course of human history till the Second Coming, (2) Revelation reflects the general principles of history, (3) Revelation addresses only what was happening in John’s day, (4) Revelation addresses only the end time, and (5) combinations of the above approaches (e.g., John addresses the principles of history in view of the ever-impending end time until it arrives, and originally articulated these principles to speak to the situation of his late-first-century readers).

Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, gives a detailed accounting of the historicist, preterist, idealist, and futurist schools of interpretation which correspond to Keener’s categories above.

Historicist. This approach began with Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. He claimed that a vision had told him the 1,260 days of the Apocalypse prophesied the events of Western history from the time of the apostles until the present. The Franciscans followed Joachim and like him interpreted the book as relating to pagan Rome and the papacy (due to corruption in the church). Later the Reformers (e.g., Luther and Calvin) also favored this method, with the pope as the Antichrist (see Beckwith 1919: 327–29; Johnson 1981: 409). Classical dispensational thinking took this approach with regard to the letters to the seven churches, believing that the letters prophesied the seven periods of the church age. Also, the so-called prophecy movement, those preachers who see every detail in OT as well as NT apocalyptic symbolism as fulfilled in current events (the ‘newspaper approach’ to prophecy), would be aligned with this school. Proponents of this method have tended to take Rev. 2–19, including the seals, trumpets, and bowls as well as the interludes, as prophetic of salvation history, that is, the development of church history within world history. Thus the beast/Antichrist has been variously identified with the pope, Napoleon, Mussolini, or Hitler. Because of its inherent weaknesses (its identification only with Western church history, the inherent speculation involved in the parallels with world history, the fact that it must be reworked with each new period in world history, the total absence of any relevance for John or his original readers; see also Beale 1999: 46), few scholars today take this approach.

Preterist. This approach argues that the details of the book relate to the present situation in which John lived rather than to a future period. Thus the symbols refer to events in the first-century world as experienced by the original readers, and John is telling them how God would deliver them from their oppressors. There are three basic approaches to the book from within this school of thought. The two most popular relate the book to the situation of the church in the Roman Empire. The first (taken by critical scholars like R. H. Charles, Sweet, and Roloff) views the book as written about Roman oppression and the fall of the Roman Empire. Due to the development of the imperial cult, pressure to conform and the resultant persecution have become serious threats to the church. The beast thus would be the Roman Empire or the Roman emperor, and the seals, trumpets, and bowls are contemporary judgments God is pouring (or soon will pour) upon Rome itself. Thus the book describes the conflict between church and state, between faithfulness to God and compromise with the pagan world.

The second is taken by many modern critics (Yarbro Collins, L. Thompson, Krodel, Barr) who argue that there was little persecution and a perceived crisis rather than a real one. The church is still called out from the ‘world’ to follow God, but it is an internal spiritual crisis rather than external persecution. Osiek (1996: 343–44) says the eschatology of the book is not a timetable for the future but a reinterpretation of the present. It provides a spatial interaction between the earthly and the heavenly so as to give new meaning to the present situation. In this case the symbols provide alternative worlds that the readers have to choose between, the transcendent realm of God and the church or the alternative secular world of Rome. The problem of the book then is compromise, as seen in the Nicolaitan cult, and the solution is true worship of Christ (see esp. Krodel).

A third option is to take the book as written before a.d. 70 and prophesying the fall of Jerusalem as God’s judgment upon apostate Israel for rejecting the Messiah and persecuting the church (so Gentry, Chilton). The beast is Rome, the kings from the east are the Roman generals who brought the Roman army from the eastern boundary of the empire to destroy Jerusalem, and Armageddon is the siege of Jerusalem itself. For Kraybill (1999: 32–35) the white horse of 6:1–2 is Rome and the red horse of 6:3–4 is the Jewish War of a.d. 66–70.

This third approach is least viable, not only because it necessitates an early date of writing but because it limits the universal language of the book (all ‘peoples, languages, tribes, and nations’) to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the first two are also problematic because they would involve an error of prophecy (which many critical scholars state openly) since final judgment and the end of the world did not come with the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.

To be continued in part 2.

Commentary on Revelation 1 (John’s First Vision)

The traditional view of the book of Revelation is that it was written by John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, the son of Zebedee, brother of James, and writer of the fourth Gospel and three letters in the New Testament. The book is most commonly dated around AD 95, although a significant minority of scholars date the book to AD 69.

The immediate context for the author and initial hearers of the book, according to A. Boyd Luter Jr. in The Apologetics Study Bible, was “a group of churches (1: 11; chaps. 2– 3) experiencing selective persecution (2: 9-10,13) in the midst of doctrinal and practical problems (2: 6,13-15,20-23), set against the backdrop of unseen but powerful spiritual warfare (2: 10; 9: 1,11; 12: 3-4,9-10; 20: 2).”

Regarding literary genre, Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes:

Revelation mixes elements of Old Testament prophecy with a heavy dose of the apocalyptic genre, a style of writing that grew out of elements of Old Testament prophecy. Although nearly all its images have parallels in the biblical prophets, the images most relevant to late-first-century readers, which were prominent in popular Jewish revelations about the end time, are stressed most heavily. Chapters 2–3 are ‘oracular letters,’ a kind of letter occurring especially in the Old Testament (e.g., Jer 29:1–23, 29–32) but also attested on some Greek pottery fragments.

Steve Gregg, in Revelation: Four Views, adds:

Unlike most other books of the New Testament, Revelation does not contain even one direct quotation from the Old Testament. However, there are hundreds of allusions to familiar images and phrases from the Old Testament, and from the New Testament as well (especially the other writings of John). It has been calculated that concepts and imagery are drawn from Isaiah (79 times), Daniel (53 times), Ezekiel (48 times), Psalms (43 times), Exodus (27 times), Jeremiah (22 times), Zechariah (15 times), Amos (9 times), and Joel (8 times). The principal historical matrices from which the images frequently are taken are: a) the Exodus, b) the Babylonian exile, and c) the life of Jesus.

The last few chapters of Revelation describe the end of the world and the return of Jesus Christ to reign over a new heaven and new earth. Thus, John starts with the hardships and sins predominating the first-century churches and extends these topics all the way out to the ultimate end of the age alluded to so often in the rest of the Bible. Keener writes:

Revelation provides an eternal perspective, by emphasizing such themes as the antagonism of the world in rebellion against God toward a church obedient to God’s will; the unity of the church’s worship with heaven’s worship; that victory depends on Christ’s finished work, not on human circumstances; that Christians must be ready to face death for Christ’s honor; that representatives of every people will ultimately stand before his throne; that the imminent hope of his return is worth more than all this world’s goods; and so forth. From the beginning, the Old Testament covenant and promise had implied a hope for the future of God’s people. When Israel was confronted with the question of individuals’ future, the Old Testament doctrines of justice and hope led them to views like the resurrection (Is 26:19; Dan 12:2). The future hope is further developed and embroidered with the imagery of Revelation.

The first three verses in Revelation form a prologue which some scholars believe was written by John’s followers after he died since it is in the third person. However, it also possible John wrote the prologue himself.

In verses 1-2, the author tells us that the words captured in the book were given by God the Father to Jesus, who gave the words to an angel, who gave the words to John, who finally gave the words to the people of God. The words of this book come in an unbroken chain from the sovereign Creator of the universe.

Also, the things recorded herein “must soon take place” (verse 1) and the “time is near” (verse 3). Those who argue that Revelation should be dated in AD 69 claim that many, if not all, of the prophecies in the book were fulfilled when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Titus in AD 70. Thus, the events predicted in Revelation did indeed happen very soon after the book was written and delivered to the churches.

Those who date the book around AD 95 interpret “must soon take place” and the “time is near” differently. George Eldon Ladd, in A Commentary on the Revelation of John, is representative of this view:

We pointed out in the introduction that the Old Testament prophets blended the near and the distant perspectives so as to form a single canvas. Biblical prophecy is not primarily three-dimensional but two; it has height and breadth but is little concerned about depth, i.e., the chronology of future events. There is in biblical prophecy a tension between the immediate and the distant future; the distant is viewed through the transparency of the immediate. It is true that the early church lived in expectancy of the return of the Lord, and it is the nature of biblical prophecy to make it possible for every generation to live in expectancy of the end. To relax and say ‘where is the promise of his coming?’ is to become a scoffer of divine truth. The ‘biblical’ attitude is ‘take heed, watch, for you do not know when the time will come’ (Mark 13:33).

Finally, in verse 3 the author blesses the person who will stand in front of the seven churches and read aloud the book. Less than 50% of people could read in the first century, so it was customary practice to read aloud to a congregation the entire contents of a letter or book. The author also blesses the person who listens to the words in Revelation and obeys them.

In verses 4-8 we have the greeting from John. He is addressing seven specific churches in Asia (although the contents were meant to be shared by all churches) and he extends grace and peace from the Father, Holy Spirit, and Son. The Father is “him who is and who was and who is to come,” the Holy Spirit is referenced as “the seven spirits who are before his throne,” and the Son is “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”

Ladd expands on the reference to the Holy Spirit:

From the seven spirits means from the Holy Spirit in his sevenfold fullness (cf. 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). Some have seen here a reference to angelic beings; but since the preceding phrase refers to God the Father and the following phrase to God the Son, it is certain that John included a reference to God the Holy Spirit, thus including all persons of the Godhead. In other places the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit in his plurality of functions (cf. Heb. 2:4; 1 Cor. 12:11; 14:32; Rev. 22:6). The source of the idea appears to be Zech. 4, where the prophet described a candlestick with seven lamps which are the eyes of the Lord ranging over the whole earth. The meaning of the vision was, ‘Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts’ (Zech. 4:8).

Verses 5-7 then give a prolonged word of praise and worship to Jesus Christ specifically. John lists the following attributes of Jesus: 1) He loves us, 2) He freed us from sin by dying on the cross, 3) He is one day coming in judgment over the entire world.

Verse 8 reiterates the divine source and authority of John’s words. Ladd explains:

Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and therefore include all that is contained between them. God is the absolute beginning and the end, and therefore Lord of all that happens in human history. He is at the same time the eternal one, the transcendent one, who is unaffected by the conflicts of history, the one who is and who was and who is to come. As the one who is to come, he will yet visit men to bring history to its divinely decreed consummation. The Almighty can be better translated ‘the All-Ruler.’

Verses 9-20 contain the first vision John receives. John tells his readers that he was on the island of Patmos because of his teaching about Jesus. John was most likely banished to Patmos for about a year. Grant Osborne, in Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, provides background:

Most likely John was temporarily banished there for proclaiming the gospel (see below). Ancient writers (e.g., Tacitus, Pliny) tell us that Patmos, a volcanic and rocky island, was one of three among the Sporades chain in the Aegean Sea. It was about ten miles long and six wide and was located thirty-seven miles southwest of Miletus, a harbor city near Ephesus. Therefore it is likely that Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.18–20) was correct when he said John was banished there (according to him, in the fourteenth year [a.d. 95] of Domitian’s reign). Life there was not too harsh, as indicated by its decent-size population and two gymnasia as well as a temple of Artemis. Thus John would have lived a fairly normal life as an exile on that island. He was likely there only a short time and was allowed to go to Ephesus in a general amnesty for exiles by the emperor Nerva in a.d. 96 after Domitian died (see Aune 1997: 77; Carroll, ABD 5:178–79).

One Sunday, as John is worshiping, he hears a loud voice behind him: “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

There were more than seven churches in Asia, so why these seven? Osborne explains:

The order of the cities is significant, for they form the circular route of a letter carrier beginning at Ephesus and moving first north to Smyrna and to Pergamum, then turning southeast to Thyatira, south to Sardis, east to Philadelphia, and finally southeast to Laodicea. Also, we must ask why these particular cities are chosen. Troas and Colosse were critical NT centers, and Magnesia and Tralles were more important cities than Philadelphia or Thyatira. The best solution is still probably that of William Ramsay, as argued further by Hemer (1986: 14–15). These seven cities formed a natural center of communication for the rest of the province, since they were in order of sequence on an inner circular route through the territory. There is good reason to suppose that since Pauline times they had become ‘organizational and distributive centers’ from which messages would disseminate to the other churches of the province. DeSilva (1990: 193) also points out that these particular cities were chosen partly for their relationship to the imperial cult. All but Thyatira had temples dedicated to the emperors, and all but Philadelphia and Laodicea had imperial priests and altars. I would add one other point. They also represented the problems of the other churches in the area (note how each letter includes ‘Hear what the Spirit says to the churches’). As we will see, each town had its own particular set of problems but also served as examples for the other churches.

John turns around to see who is speaking and he sees seven lampstands which he later learns represent the seven churches. Note the connection between the seven lampstands and the seven candles of the lampstand (the menorah) in the tabernacle constructed in Exodus 25. These seven lampstands depict the churches as shining lights for God in the midst of the world.

Verses 13-16 then describe a “son of man” who is standing amid the lampstands (churches). This son of man, of course, refers to Jesus. John now uses several images to communicate important characteristics of Jesus, as he sees him in the vision. These images closely resemble the divine messenger sent to Daniel in Daniel 10:5-6, but they also reflect other biblical passage (noted below):

  1. The long robe and golden sash around his chest likely point to his high rank (only nobility would wear a sash around their chests instead of waist) and possibly priesthood. (Ex 28:4; Dan 10:5)
  2. His white hair is emblematic of age, honor, and wisdom. (Dan 7:9; Mark 9:3)
  3. His eyes of fire convey his piercing and all-knowing vision. (Dan 10:6)
  4. His burnished bronze feet emphasize his glory and strength, and his ability to render divine judgment. (Ezek 1:7; Dan 10:6)
  5. His voice of roaring waters signifies power and strength. (Ezek 1:24)
  6. The seven stars in his right hand indicate his complete control over the seven angels of the seven churches. (Ps 110:1; Matt 26:64)
  7. The sword coming out of his mouth symbolizes his words and then acts of judgment. (Is 11:4; Luke 2:35)
  8. His radiant face sums up the other images and reminds us of Jesus’ divine glory. (Matt 17:2; Ps 84:11; Is 60:19)

John’s reaction to seeing the glorified Jesus is natural: He falls at “his feet as though dead.” In verses 17-18, Jesus lays his hand on John and tells him not to fear. Jesus is the “first and the last,” just as the Father is the “Alpha and Omega.” Jesus reminds John that he died, but was resurrected, and will continue living forever. Jesus now holds the keys to the land of the dead. He can open the gate and allow the dead to return to life, and this is exactly what he will one day do.

Jesus then instructs John to write down everything he has seen and will see in the visions he is receiving. Everything must be recorded. Finally, in verse 20 Jesus explains that the seven lampstands are the seven churches and the seven stars are the seven angels of the seven churches.

There is much disagreement over what the seven angels represent. George Ladd weighs the different views:

The expression, the angels of the seven churches, represented by the seven stars in the hand of Christ, is difficult, especially since each of the seven letters was addressed to the angel of each respective church. This fact has led many commentators to conclude that the angel stood for the bishop of the church. This would be a good solution for the problem except for the fact that it violates the New Testament usage. Aggelos was not used of Christian leaders, and in the seven letters, neither angels nor bishops were rebuked. Another meaning of aggelos is ‘messenger,’ and the ‘angels’ are taken to be the seven messengers who carried the letters to the seven churches of Asia. If this is so, it is difficult to see why the letters were addressed to the messengers rather than to the churches themselves. The proper meaning of the word is angel, and the natural idea is that churches on earth have angels in heaven who represent them. However, the feature of angels symbolizing or representing men is lacking in all apocalyptic literature. Some have felt that the angels are guardian angels of the churches. It is best to understand this as a rather unusual symbol to represent the heavenly or supernatural character of the church.

What Happened in Paul’s Final Years of Life?

The end of the book of Acts leaves us in suspense about what happens to Paul. Scholarship is divided, as usual, about Paul’s subsequent years, but here are some ideas.

Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), offers the following:

At the conclusion of his writing, Paul still has not faced his trial. Had Paul already been released, it is difficult to explain why Luke would not have recorded the outcome of the trial (unless he was planning to do so in a third volume—a work never completed). Paul has been in custody four years, and his readers await the anticipated acquittal by the emperor. It would have made a better ending to the Gospel and Acts to portray Paul as free from chains and proclaiming the gospel to Gentiles in regions beyond Rome.

One of the activities Paul engages in during this time is letter writing. From his Roman apartment chained to a soldier, he writes Philippians (if it was not written while he was in prison in Caesarea, or even earlier during his Ephesian ministry), Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians. Philippians may plausibly be explained as having been written just before Paul’s trial at the end of the two years since it reflects an approaching crisis that could end in life or death for the apostle (Phil. 1:19-26).

Stanley Toussaint, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, writes,

Perhaps no charges were filed in Rome and Paul was released. The Jews would know they had no case against Paul outside of Judea and so would be reluctant to argue their cause in Rome.

Probably Paul returned to the provinces of Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia and then turned west to Spain according to his original plans (Rom. 15:22–28). Then he ministered once more in the Aegean area where he was taken prisoner, removed to Rome, and executed.

An article on gotquestions.org called “How did the apostle Paul die?” answers this way:

The Bible does not say how the apostle Paul died. Writing in 2 Timothy 4:6–8, Paul seems to be anticipating his soon demise: ‘For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.’

Second Timothy was written during Paul’s second Roman imprisonment in AD 64—67. There are a few different Christian traditions in regards to how Paul died, but the most commonly accepted one comes from the writings of Eusebius, an early church historian. Eusebius claimed that Paul was beheaded at the order of the Roman emperor Nero or one of his subordinates. Paul’s martyrdom occurred shortly after much of Rome burned in a fire—an event that Nero blamed on the Christians.

Adding more details is a 2009 article titled “New Discoveries Relating to the Apostle Paul” at biblearchaeology.org. Speaking of Christian monuments in Rome, Brian Janeway writes:

But lesser known are those relating to the Apostle Paul, who was martyred in Rome at the conclusion of what most believe was a second imprisonment postdating the book of Acts, between which he traveled to Spain and Crete (Titus 1:5). Of this period, the 3rd century church historian Eusebius wrote:

‘After defending himself the Apostle was again set on the ministry of preaching…coming a second time to the same city [Paul] suffered martyrdom under Nero. During this imprisonment he wrote the second Epistle to Timothy’ (Eccl Hist. 2.22.2).

Paul’s poignant and triumphant words are preserved in chapter 4: ‘For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time for my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith’ (2 Tim. 4: 6-7).

Eusebius goes on to report ‘that in his [Nero’s] time Paul was beheaded in Rome itself and that Peter was likewise crucified. (Eccl Hist. 2.25.5) Paul’s execution took place at the end of Nero’s reign, c. A.D. 65-68. His legal status as a Roman citizen protected him from the ignominious sentence of crucifixion suffered by Peter.

The traditional spot for the beheading is known as the Abbey of the Three Fountains (the head reputedly bounced three times before coming to rest), which is south of the modern center of Rome. Early reports stated he was laid in the family tomb of a devout Roman noblewoman named Matrona Lucilla. His remains may have subsequently been hidden in catacombs for safekeeping during Vespasian’s reign (see below). Nearby the abbey is the monumental Church of San Paolo Fuori Le Mura (St. Paul Outside the Walls) where the remains of Paul are entombed.

Commentary on Acts 28 (Paul in Rome)

After the 276 people aboard the boat swim safely to shore, they are greeted by island natives, and they discover that they have landed on the isle of Malta. The storm they endured for two weeks carried them exactly where they needed to go to get to Rome (see map below).

Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains that

Malta, or Melitē as it is called in Greek, is a Mediterranean island lying fifty-eight miles south of the island of Sicily and 180 miles north of Libya. It measures about seventeen miles at its longest distance from southeast to northwest and about nine miles at its widest distance from east to west. The island became part of the Roman empire in 218 B.C. and was part of the Roman province of Sicily.

The natives light fires on the beach to warm the cold and wet visitors. Paul picks up a pile of sticks and within the bundle of wood is a poisonous snake in a cold-blooded stupor. The heat of the fire revives the snake, and it bites Paul. The natives expect Paul to swell up and then die, but instead, nothing happens.

When the viper first bites Paul, the Maltese assume Paul is suffering divine judgment for a crime, but when he survives, they change their minds and decide he is a god (similar reaction to the Lystrans). God will allow nothing to stop Paul from getting to Rome!

Paul then heals the father of the “chief man of the island” of dysentery. Seeing this miracle, many other Maltese bring their sick to Paul to be healed. Even though there is no mention of Paul evangelizing the people of Malta, we can assume that he did so. Today, the people of Malta proudly proclaim their Christian heritage and have preserved historical sites where Paul allegedly stayed during his three months on the island. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, writes:

The emphasis on the Maltese hospitality is striking. It is recurrent throughout the account of Paul’s stay on Malta: the Maltese welcomed the shipwrecked party with ‘unusual kindness’ (v. 2); Publius received Paul’s group and entertained them ‘hospitably’ (v. 7); on their departure, the travelers were ‘honored’ and amply fitted for their journey (v. 10). It is the same sort of hospitality (philanthrōpōs) shown by the Christians of Sidon (27:3). Perhaps in this manner Luke was drawing attention to the fact that simple pagan ‘barbarians’ like the Maltese have a genuine potential for becoming Christians. Their hospitality would in any event be in stark contrast with the reception Paul found from the Jews of Rome.

In February of AD 60, when it is safe to sail again, Paul’s party departs for Rome. The route is marked on the map above. They first travel to a port on Sicily, then to a port at the southern tip of Italy, and finally to the major shipping port of Puteoli. Here everyone debarks from the ship, as they will travel the rest of the way by foot.

Christians in Puteoli warmly greet Paul and his companions, and the Roman centurion Julius allows Paul to stay with these brothers and sisters for one week before they begin the five to six-day journey to Rome. Along the way to Rome, two distinct groups of Christians come southeast to intercept and encourage Paul. One group meets them in a town called Forum of Appius, which is about forty miles south of Rome. Another group meets them in The Three Taverns, a place about thirty miles south of Rome. Once Paul reaches Rome, he can rent an apartment if a Roman soldier stays with him at all times. The soldier is frequently, if not always, chained to Paul so that Paul cannot escape.

Clinton Arnold describes the city of Rome (population of 1 million) in AD 60:

Rome was the political, economic, and military center of the enormous Roman empire. It was the wealthiest and most powerful city in the world in the first century.

The city was fifteen miles inland from the Tyrrhenian Sea and situated along the banks of the Tiber river. It was divided into fourteen different regions, the most well-known being the Circus Maximus and the Forum Romanum. The perimeter of the city measured just over thirteen miles.

The forum was the hub of the political, religious, and economic life of Rome. Here the Senate building was located as well as the Mamertime prison, where prisoners were kept prior to their executions. The Colosseum had not yet been built (it was completed in A.D. 80). Throughout the city were numerous temples dedicated to many deities and to the deified Caesars. The palaces of the Caesars were in the Circus Maximus and crowned the Palatine Hill.

Only a small percentage of people in Rome enjoyed its great wealth. Many slaves and poor people lived in Rome, dwelling in large blocks of apartment buildings that ranged from three to five stories in size. Some scholars have estimated that as many as two hundred thousand people relied on a government welfare system that provided free grain to the unemployed masses of the city.

Three days after Paul arrives, he summons the leaders of the local Jewish synagogues to his apartment. Paul addresses the leaders and makes the following points: 1) Paul has done nothing against the Jews or their customs, 2) The Romans wanted to free him, 3) The Jewish opposition in Jerusalem led to his appeal to Caesar, and 4) He is a prisoner for believing in the hope of Israel (Jesus).

The Jewish leaders tell Paul that they know nothing about him, but they do have a negative opinion of the Christian sect (they still see Christianity as a Jewish sect). However, they agree to come back with even more fellow Jews to hear him out.

On the appointed day, the Jews come in substantial numbers, and Paul speaks to them about Jesus, his resurrection, and his appointment by God as Messiah and Lord (the consistent message of the apostles). Jesus is the one who was prophesied in the Scriptures. Paul undoubtedly provides ample biblical evidence to the crowd in his home, but only some accept what he is saying. The majority reject his message, and Paul quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 to show them that God Himself predicted that they would not receive the message Paul is giving them about Jesus. Paul ends his plea by noting that instead of Jews, Gentiles are receiving the message in considerable numbers. John Polhill elaborates on the use of Isaiah 6:9-10:

Isaiah 6:9f. was a key Old Testament text for the early Christians as they sought to come to terms with the Jewish rejection of the gospel. It occurs in the Synoptic tradition among the sayings of Jesus with reference to the failure of the Jews to understand and appropriate the message of his parables (Matt 13:14f.; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10). When in Rom 9–11 Paul wrestled with the riddle of the Jewish rejection of the gospel, he cited this same passage of Isaiah (Rom 11:8). Isaiah’s words were seen as a real prophecy of the Jewish obduracy. They did not, however, explain it. It remained something of a riddle. In Rom 11 Paul suggested that perhaps the hardening was temporary, a time allowing for the message to be taken to the Gentiles, that finally in the mystery of God’s plan of salvation there would be a great turning of his people to Christ. Here in Acts he provided no such solutions. The Jewish rejection was a reality and a riddle. To a great extent it remains so—how the gospel of God’s salvation which was foreshadowed in the Jewish Scriptures, fulfilled in a Jewish Messiah, and first proclaimed by Jewish heralds like Paul would ultimately be embraced not by the Jews but primarily by Gentiles.

The book ends with Luke telling his readers that Paul remains two years in Rome, under house arrest, speaking and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel finally reached the “ends of the earth”! Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, reminds us what we’ve learned from the book of Acts:

In sum, the book of Acts, a book of witnesses to the risen Jesus, ends with one of the key witnesses living out his calling despite having suffered unjustly. We see the continued tragic nature of Jewish unbelief, yet Paul continues to keep an open door to anyone who will listen to him and consider his message. Paul loves his enemies, whom he views as brothers who have lost their way. We see what makes for good evangelism: (1) a confidence and readiness to share because God is sovereign, (2) a focus on God and God’s kingdom program through Jesus, (3) an open door to any who will hear, and (4) a recognition that evangelism and mission are a priority, even the most fundamental calling of the church in the world (Fernando 1998: 628–32). Nothing, including prison, persecution, or possible death, has hindered Paul’s ability to minister and preach the message. We are to marvel at how God has protected Paul and accomplished his word (Stott 1990: 402). We also can see in this book that Paul suffered well. He kept the faith and continued to serve, living out his call.

Is Luke’s Account of the Journey to Malta in Acts 27 Historically Accurate?

One way we can have confidence that the documents of the New Testament are historically accurate is to check any factual claims against the historical and archaeological evidence we have from the same period of time. This is exactly what classical scholar and historian Colin Hemer did in his The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Hemer was able to confirm 84 facts in the last sixteen chapters of the Book of Acts.

Below I will only document the sixteen facts he confirmed from Acts 27. Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, in , remind us that “Luke did not have access to modern-day maps or nautical charts,” which makes his accuracy all the more impressive. The sixteen facts below are taken from Geisler and Turek’s book, where they cite Colin Hemer. Luke knew about and accurately recorded:

Fact 1: the best shipping lanes at the time (27:5).

Fact 2: the common bonding of Cilicia and Pamphylia (27:5).

Fact 3: the principal port to find a ship sailing to Italy (27:5-6).

Fact 4: the slow passage to Cnidus, in the face of the typical northwest wind (27:7).

Fact 5:  the right route to sail, in view of the winds (27:7)

Fact 6: the locations of Fair Havens and the neighboring site of Lasea (27:8).

Fact 7: Fair Havens as a poorly sheltered roadstead (27:12).

Fact 8: a noted tendency of a south wind in these climes to back suddenly to a violent northeaster, the well-known gregale (27:13-14).

Fact 9: the nature of a square-rigged ancient ship, having no option but to be driven before a gale (27:15).

Fact 10: the precise place and name of this island (27:16).

Fact 11: the appropriate maneuvers for the safety of the ship in its particular plight (27:16-18).

Fact 12: the fourteenth night—a remarkable calculation, based inevitably on a compounding of estimates and probabilities, confirmed in the judgment of experienced Mediterranean navigators (27:27).

Fact 13: the proper term of the time for the Adriatic (27:27).

Fact 14: the precise term (Bolisantes) for taking soundings, and the correct depth of the water near Malta (27:28).

Fact 15: a position that suits the probable line of approach of a ship released to run before an easterly wind (27:39).

Fact 16: the severe liability on guards who permitted a prisoner to escape (27:42).

These facts seem to strongly indicate that the author of Acts is an eyewitness to the events of chapter 27. If we have an eyewitness, we have much greater confidence in the reliability of the events recorded in chapter 27 and also the rest of the book.

Commentary on Acts 27 (Paul Sails to Rome)

During the years of AD 52-57, Paul travels extensively through Asia Minor and modern-day Greece. After five years of evangelism, his third missionary journey ends with him returning to Jerusalem (see the map just below). Paul’s Christian brothers warn him not to go back to Jerusalem, as they fear he will be imprisoned, but Paul insists on returning.

Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem, Paul is arrested in AD 57. Not satisfied with his incarceration, some forty Jews, with the approval of the Sanhedrin, plot to kill Paul. The Roman authorities, however, are tipped off by Paul’s nephew and Paul is removed to the city of Caesarea. Here he appears before Governor Felix. Felix interrogates Paul and finds him to be innocent. Zondervan’s NIV, The Story, describes the following two years in Caesarea:

Paul’s arrest resulted from anything but criminal behavior, and the years he spent waiting for Roman justice would have broken most people. None of the officials he faced could find legal fault with him (the charge was sedition), yet no one would release him for fear of political repercussions. The Roman governor Felix held Paul in custody at Caesarea for two years, sending for him frequently in hope that Paul would offer him a bribe. Finally, Felix was recalled to Rome for failing, among other things, to control local insurrection.

The Jewish leaders immediately asked the new governor, Festus, to transfer Paul from Caesarea to Jerusalem. Paul, a Roman citizen, was forced to exercise his right of appeal to Caesar in order to avoid the grave danger of going to Jerusalem. Next, Paul appeared before King Herod Agrippa II. Agrippa and Festus agreed that Paul wasn’t guilty of any crime. But Paul had made an appeal to Caesar, so the Roman Imperial Court would finally get the privilege of disposing of his case.

Acts 27 picks up the narrative in AD 59 with Paul finally leaving for Rome. Accompanying Paul to Rome are Luke and a Christian brother named Aristarchus. Chapter 27 will give a detailed account of Paul’s harrowing sea adventure which eventually leads to a shipwreck. Luke’s lively and suspenseful account of the journey is meant to demonstrate the reality of God’s control over all circumstances.

In Acts 23:11, Jesus had spoken to Paul, saying, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” Luke wants to show that despite numerous obstacles, God will keep His promise to Paul. Paul would someday testify about Jesus in Rome.

Paul’s journey to Rome is mapped below. Verses 1-5 describe Paul’s travel from Caesarea to Sidon to Seleucia to Myra. This first leg of the trip likely lasts about two weeks. Once in Myra, Julius, the Roman centurion in charge of Paul and the other prisoners, transfers everyone to a different vessel. The new ship is a grain transport that travels between Egypt and Rome. Egypt was an important supplier of grain to Rome.

The ship heads west toward Cnidus and the island of Crete. On the south side of Crete, at a place called Fair Havens, the boat anchors. The owner of the vessel, the captain, and Julius must now make a difficult decision. Should they stay at Fair Havens during the next several months, or should they seek shelter in a safer port that will better protect them from the winds and sea during the winter months?

Paul argues that they should stay in Fair Havens because it is too dangerous to continue westward. Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), writes,

According to ancient sources, sea travel was particularly risky in the fall from September 14 to November 11 and considered extremely dangerous from November 11 to March 10. Visibility (mists and fogs) as well as the constant threat of severe winter storms rendered this period an inadvisable time to travel by sea.

Since Luke mentions the Fast (Day of Atonement) having already occurred, but not the Feast of Tabernacles, it is likely that they arrived in Fair Havens between October 10-15, AD 59. Thus, they were well into the time of year where sea voyages across the Mediterranean were quite dangerous.

Julius heeds the advice of the majority, who decide to coast along the southern coastline of Crete for fifty miles to find a better port (Phoenix) to spend the winter. This voyage should have typically only taken about a day.

Verses 13-44 vividly describe the disaster that befalls the ship of 276 passengers. Within hours of leaving Fair Havens, a violent storm with close to hurricane force winds takes control of the boat, leaving the captain and crew powerless to control its direction. The storm would last approximately two weeks, blowing the ship west across the Mediterranean (see map above).

With no knowledge of where they are, for they cannot see the sun, moon, or stars, and no way to control their direction, the crew takes steps to keep the ship afloat. First, they pull up the lifeboat to keep it from flooding. Second, they fasten ropes around the bow to provide additional support for the frame of the ship. Third, they lower all the sails but one. Fourth, they throw some of the cargo and equipment overboard. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, provides some background:

There was really little that an ancient ship could do to fight a violent storm. They surely had the mainsail down and allowed the vessel to be borne along at the whim of the storm. By this time the ship may have developed leaks, and it seemed wise to lighten its load. The excess cargo was jettisoned. Luke did not specify what was thrown from the ship. It may well have been some of the load of grain, though it later became clear that not all of that was jettisoned at this time (cf. v. 38). Still the ship was so threatened that it was necessary on the next day, the third day of the storm, to throw even more overboard. Again it is not clear what was ejected. Luke referred to it as the ship’s ‘equipment’ (skeuēn, v. 19). Smith suggested that it was the ship’s mainyard, the long spar used to support the mainsail. This would explain his reference to the sailors doing this ‘with their own hands.’ There would be no equipment sufficient for jettisoning such a huge beam. It would have taken the combined manual effort of the crew.

After several days, when all hope of survival is lost, Paul receives a message from an angel of God which he relays to everyone on the boat. The angel assures Paul that every person on the ship will be saved, but that the ship itself will be lost.

After two weeks, the ship’s crew suspects they are nearing land, probably because they can hear the surf breaking on rocks. They decide to measure how deep the water is to see how close they are to land. Arnold describes the process:

It must be remembered that there were no sonar or acoustical instruments available to ancient sailors. The ‘sounding’ referred to here was a depth measurement taken by a hand line. A series of lead weights were attached to the end of the line separated by measured intervals. Archaeologists have discovered some of these weights. The bottom of the weight was hollowed out so that it could be filled with tallow or grease. When lowered and drug on the floor of the sea, the grease would pick up rocks and debris.”

They measure 120 feet and then 90 feet before deciding to drop four anchors into the water at the stern of the ship to stop the boat’s forward movement and to keep the bow pointed in the direction of land. That same evening, some of the sailors try to escape the ship in the lifeboat, but Paul makes sure that the Roman soldiers stop them.

Just before dawn, Paul encourages everyone on the vessel to eat so that they will have the strength to swim ashore. Paul reminds them that everyone on the boat will be saved and he gives thanks to God. Once the ship’s passengers and crew eat, the rest of the grain is thrown overboard to lighten the load.

As morning dawns, they cast off the anchors and set sail toward a beach within eyesight. Unfortunately, as they sail toward the beach, the ship strikes an unseen shoal and comes to rest. Everyone on board must evacuate because the waves are crashing against the stern of the ship and breaking it apart. The Roman soldiers plan to kill all the prisoners, lest they escape, but Julius, the centurion, stops them because he does not wish to see Paul die.

Those who can swim jump overboard and swim to shore. Those who cannot are instructed to use wooden planks from the ship as flotation. The plan works, and every single person on the ship makes it safely to shore. God’s promise that nobody on the ship would be harmed in the shipwreck has been fulfilled!

How Did Paul Find Common Ground with Greek Intellectuals in Acts 17?

Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, provides an excellent analysis of Paul’s speech to the Athenian Areopagus in Acts 17. Bock demonstrates how the beginning of Paul’s oration found common ground with his Greek audience. By studying Paul’s technique, we can learn how to find common ground with members of our culture who are biblically illiterate.

In Acts 17:24-25, Paul says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

Bock writes:

Thus God is defined in a twofold way. The first is as Creator of all. Larkin (1995: 257) notes that the Epicureans had similar views. The second idea is that God is not contained in a temple and, by implication, is not reflected by an idol. This second remark recalls Stephen’s view and the basic view of Judaism (1 Kings 8:27; Isa. 66:1–2; Acts 7:47–50; on this use of ‘world’ in relation to creation, see Wis. 9:9; 11:17; 2 Macc. 7:23; Josephus, Ant. preface 4 §21). The idea that a temple cannot contain the gods is something some other Greeks also recognized, as Euripides, frg. 968, expresses the idea that a house built by craftsmen could not enclose the divine form (Bruce 1988a: 336n65).

Paul’s emphasis is on God as Sustainer and Creator, along with the idea that God does not need humans for anything. The Greeks shared this idea of deity as independent (Aristobulus, Hist. Alex. frg. 4; Euripides, Heracles 1345–46, ‘God … is in need of nothing’; Fitzmyer 1998: 608).

In Acts 17:26-27, Paul says,

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us.

Bock writes:

The reference to Adam is intended to show that all people have their roots in the Creator God. Indeed, humanity is to seek God. Johnson (1992: 315–16) notes a similar argument in Philo, Spec. Laws 1.6–7 §§32–40, especially 1.7 §36: ‘Nothing is better than to seek the true God.’ This affirmation would be hard for the Athenians, who prided themselves in being a superior people, calling others barbarians. . . .

Paul describes the Greeks as humans seeking God in their own imperfect way in the hope that they may ‘get a hold’ of God—and this goal is attainable because God is close (Deut. 30:11; Josephus, Ant. 8.4.2 §108 [God is close to his own]; among the Greeks, Seneca, Moral Ep. 41.1, ‘God is near you, with you, within you’). Although the Greeks had similar expressions, this is not a mere intellectual attainment, which the Greeks tended to emphasize. Rather, there is a personal dimension that leads to serving and honoring God in truth, as verses 30–31 will show (Marshall 1980: 288; Larkin 1995: 257, ‘a gracious, personal Creator, Ruler and Sustainer of all’). In effect, Paul is saying that the Greeks’ effort proceeds with uncertainty until they understand what God has revealed. . . .

Witherington (1998: 529) is right to contrast what is happening here with a famous speech of Dio Chrysostom, Man’s First Conception of God (Olympic Discourse 12.28), to which Paul’s remarks are often compared. There Stoic ideas are used positively to declare how people have innate conceptions of God and all are kin to God. Paul says that there is a kinship at creation but that this is not enough. Fellowship requires that one respond to God as God’s creature, as one accountable to the Creator and his divine revelation.

In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes popular Greek writings.  “In him we live and move and have our being”; “For we are indeed his offspring.”

Bock writes:

This text about living, moving, and having our being in the Deity appears to allude to pagan ideas (BAGD 432 §3; BDAG 545 §3). Polhill (1992: 375–76) discusses the debate over whether this statement is rooted in a specific passage in Epimenides of Crete (ca. 600 BC), a point that is unlikely given the frequency of the thought in ancient thinking. An association with Epimenides goes back to Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1.14.59; among the Greeks, a citation from Isho’dad of Merv is also known; Bruce 1990: 384; Williams 1990: 308; Barrett 1998: 847). These citations suggest a widespread belief that people exist by God’s creation and sustenance, so that God is not far off.

In addition, ‘we are his offspring’ (γένος ἐσμέν, genos esmen). The expression that we are God’s offspring comes from another pagan poet, Aratus (ca. 315–240 BC), Phaenomena 5 (some scholars also note Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus; Marshall 1980: 289; but Fitzmyer 1998: 611 rejects a connection to Cleanthes). Paul explicitly notes this connection in introducing the citation as coming from ‘some of your poets.’ Paul is working with ideas in the Greek world that are familiar to the Athenians and only alludes to Scripture in his speech instead of quoting it directly. The text from Aratus, as Paul uses it, recognizes the shared relationship all people have to God. It also makes a more subtle point when the remark about being God’s children is repeated in verse 29: we are God’s creation; we do not create him by making images of the gods (Witherington 1998: 530). Thus the remark does express Paul’s view in this limited sense. . . . Paul contextualizes the citation and presents it in a fresh light, setting up his critique. He takes a Greek idea of the ‘spark of the divine being’ in us as tied to Zeus and speaks of being made as God’s children by the Creator, alluding to our being made in God’s image.

Given the common ground Paul has found with the Greek intellectuals of the Areopagus in verses 24-28, he then introduces new arguments in verses 29-31, ultimately leading to the resurrection of Jesus. Hopefully, you can see that this methodology is far more productive than Paul jumping straight to the resurrection of Jesus. It requires a shorter leap for the members of the Athenian council, and some of them do respond positively to Paul’s message.

In like manner, when we engage anyone with the truths of Christianity, we must find common ground first. Does our friend believe in a Creator God? Do they believe in the supernatural? What do they think of the Bible? Can it be trusted? Is it historically accurate? Do they think Jesus really existed or that he was a legendary figure? These are the kinds of questions that need to be answered to find common ground in our day. This often requires effort and patience that many of us don’t have. But if we skip this step, our evangelism will fail more often than not.

Commentary on Acts 17 (Paul in Athens)

After the Jerusalem Council in AD 49 (Acts 15), Paul sets off on his second major missionary journey. The map below plots his course. In this lesson, we are picking up the story at location 10 on the map. Location 10 is the famous city of Athens, and Paul’s time there is described in Acts 17:16-34.

Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes,

Athens’ fame rested mainly on the glories of its past; even as a philosophical center, its primacy was challenged by other centers in the East like Alexandria and Tarsus. But Athens remained the symbol of the great philosophers in popular opinion, so much so that later rabbis liked to tell stories of earlier rabbis besting Athenian philosophers in debate.

When Paul arrives in Athens, he becomes greatly distressed at the incredible number of statues, idols, and altars dedicated to Greek gods. Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) describes a subset of the gods worshiped in Athens:

Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, was probably the most popular with temples and edifices dedicated to her. Certainly every deity of the Greek pantheon was worshiped here. These included Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Aphrodite, Asclepius, Athena Nike, Athena Polias, Castor and Pollux, Demeter, Dionysus, the Erinyes, Eros, Ge, the Graces, Hades (Pluto), Hephaestus (Vulcan), Hekate, Heracles, Hermes, Hestia, Pan, Persephone, and Poseidon. A vast number of images of Hermes could be found all over the city and particularly in the agora. Numerous images of lesser deities and heroes are also found throughout the city.

Paul responds to the rampant idolatry by preaching the gospel first in the local Jewish synagogue. There, Paul encounters both religious Jews and devout Gentile God-fearers. Both groups would be biblically literate. Paul also preaches in the busy Athens marketplace (called the agora) to the biblically illiterate Gentiles of Athens.

While Paul is speaking in the agora, Epicurean and Stoic philosophers overhear and engage him in conversation. Evidently, they do not understand much of what Paul is saying because they insult him by calling him a “babbler.” They seem to think that he is talking about two new foreign gods: Jesus and Resurrection. The Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, and they misunderstood Paul to be talking about a goddess named Anastasis.

Epicureanism and Stoicism are two of the more popular philosophical schools of the first-century Roman world. The Stoics were more popular with the common people. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, describes the beliefs of these two schools:

Epicureans were thoroughgoing materialists, believing that everything came from atoms or particles of matter. There was no life beyond this; all that was human returned to matter at death. Though the Epicureans did not deny the existence of gods, they saw them as totally indifferent to humanity. They did not believe in providence of any sort; and if one truly learned from the gods, that person would try to live the same sort of detached and tranquil life as they, as free from pain and passion and superstitious fears as they.

The Stoics had a more lively view of the gods than the Epicureans, believing very much in the divine providence. They were pantheists, believing that the ultimate divine principle was to be found in all of nature, including human beings. This spark of divinity, which they referred to as the logos, was the cohesive rational principle that bound the entire cosmic order together. Humans thus realized their fullest potential when they lived by reason. By reason, i.e., the divine principle within them which linked them with the gods and nature, they could discover ultimate truth for themselves. The Stoics generally had a rather high ethic and put great stock on self-sufficiency. Since they viewed all humans as bound together by common possession of the divine logos, they also had a strong sense of universal brotherhood.

Largely confused by what Paul is saying, the philosophers invite Paul to explain his beliefs to a council of wealthy, educated Athenians, known as the Areopagus. It is important to mention that there is also a hill in Athens named the Areopagus, but the council of that name did not always meet there. Paul may meet with them in a place called the Stoa Basilicos in the agora. The function of the council in the mid-first-century is unknown. Were they acting like a speech and debate club who were always curious to hear the latest news, or were they serving in some official capacity for the city? We don’t know.

In verses 22-31, Paul delivers a lengthy address to the assembled intellectuals of the Areopagus. These Greek philosophers are biblically illiterate, so Paul cannot possibly quote from the Hebrew Scriptures to make his case. He must use a different approach.

What Paul decides to do is find common ground with the Stoics and Epicureans, and build his case from that common ground. Paul first compliments the religiosity of the people of Athens by noting the numerous objects of worship scattered throughout the city. One altar stood out for Paul. The altar read, “To the unknown god.”

Why would the Athenians build an altar to an unknown god? Craig Keener reports, “During a plague long before Paul’s time, no altars had successfully propitiated the gods; Athens had finally offered sacrifices to an unknown god, immediately staying the plague. These altars were still standing, and Paul uses them as the basis for his speech.”

Assuming that the Athenians would want to know the identity of this unknown god which stayed the plague all those years ago, Paul introduces the Judeo-Christian God. This God is the creator of the world and everything in it. He is not confined to temples made by humans, meaning He transcends the physical world. Human beings cannot give this God anything, for He is completely self-sufficient and self-existent. This Creator-God gives to people their very lives. These concepts are at least somewhat familiar to the Greek intellectuals of the Areopagus. Thus, Paul has started on a common foundation that he can now build upon.

Paul next explains that all of mankind is descended from one man whom God created. He is, of course, talking about Adam, but he doesn’t mention his name here. From this one man, God determined the nations’ time periods and geographical boundaries. In other words, God has been completely sovereign over human history. What was God’s purpose in directing the timing and boundaries of the nations? To enable humanity to seek Him and find Him.

Theologian William Lane Craig believes that Acts 17:26-27 provides evidence for the idea that God has planned all human history to maximize the number of people that would come to know Him. On the Reasonable Faith website, in the article “Where was God?”, Craig writes:

I think that as Christians we want to say that God is providentially directing a world of free creatures in such a way as to maximize the number of persons to come to know him freely and to bring them into his Kingdom. And from the very creation of man, God was known by man at first. Adam and Eve and their children knew God. The Scripture says that God’s existence and nature is evident in the creation around us and that his moral law is written on our hearts. So from time immemorial people have known of the existence of God and of his moral demands on us. . . .

According to Paul [in Acts 17], the whole development of the human race is under the providence of God with a goal toward achieving the maximal knowledge of God. I think we see the marvelous plan of God unfolded in human history.

Paul then argues that God is not far from any person, and he quotes Greek poets (Epimenides and Aratus), with which the Areopagus would be familiar, to bolster his contention. The poet Aratus wrote that “we are all truly [Zeus’] offspring,” but Paul co-opts this quote to teach a lesson about the Judeo-Christian God. If we are the offspring of the Creator God, then we ought not to think that our Creator could be in the form of an idol made of gold, silver, or stone. Whoever created us must be greater than us, not lesser. The cause must be greater than the effect.

In verse 30-31, Paul reaches the climax of his speech. Up until now, God has overlooked the ignorance of mankind, the failure of men and women to find Him. This would hit the Athenians between the eyes because they considered themselves to be highly educated and knowledgeable, yet here was Paul telling them that they were ignorant of the true God.

God is now commanding everyone to repent of their ignorance. Why? Because God has appointed a day of judgment in the future for all humankind. God has appointed a man to do the judging on that day, and God confirmed this appointment by raising this man from the dead.

At this point in his speech, Paul seems to be interrupted by the reaction of the Areopagus. The mention of a bodily resurrection splits the crowd three ways. The first group mocks him. The second group asks to hear more from Paul. The third group eventually becomes believers, and two of these believers are named: Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. Damaris would likely not have been part of the Areopagus, but she must have overheard Paul or she must have been associated with someone on the Areopagus.

Notice that Paul sticks to the fundamentals when he evangelizes the Athenian audience. Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, summarizes Paul’s presentation about God:

He is creator, sustainer of life, and thus sovereign over the nations and the Father of us all. For all the disputation over creation and how it took place, the most fundamental truth is that God is the creator of life and we are God’s creatures, responsible to him. This means that God is, and has the right to be, our judge, something our world seeks to avoid acknowledging.

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