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Probe Ministries: Making a Defense
Wednesday, July 31, 2013 8:31 AM
Written by Rick Wade
Introduction
Apologetics has grown into a very involved discipline over the last two millennia. From the beginning, Christians have sought to answer challenges to their claims about Jesus and complaints and questions about how they lived. Those challenges have changed over the years, and apologetics has become a much more sophisticated endeavor than it was in the first century.
The Scripture passage most often used to justify apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15: "In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect." This verse is probably used so often because it sounds like marching orders. Other Scriptures show us defense in action; this one tells us to do it.
The word translated "defense" here is apologia which is a term taken from the legal world to refer to the defense a person gave in court. It is one of several words used in Scripture that carry legal connotations. Some others are witness, testify and testimony, evidence, persuade, and accuse.
Something that scholars have noticed about Scripture is the presence of a kind of trial motif in both Old and New Testaments, what one New Testament scholar calls the "cosmic trial motif."{1} There is a trial of sorts with God on one side and the fallen world on the other. The use of legal terminology isn't merely coincidental.
Think about the arguments you've heard presented by apologists that are philosophical or scientific or historical. The core issue of apologetics is generally thought as being truth.{2} While all this fits with what Peter had in mind, I believe there was something deeper and wider behind his exhortation.
In short, I think Peter was concerned with two things: faithfulness and speaking up for Christ. He wanted Christians to acknowledge and not deny Christ. And, as we'll see later, Jesus said demands for a defense were to be seen as opportunities to bear witness. Defense in the New Testament doesn't function separately from proclaiming the gospel.
The Old Testament Background
As I noted earlier, there is a kind of cosmic trial motif running through Scripture, or what we might call a "forensic theme," which provides a background for understanding Peter's exhortation. One thing that will help us think about defense and witness in the New Testament is to look at the trial motif in the Old Testament.
Bible scholar A. A. Trites notes the frequency with which one encounters lawsuits or controversy addressed in a legal manner in the Old Testament such as in the book of Job and in the prophets. On occasions of legal controversy, witnesses were the primary way of proving one's case. They were not expected to be "merely objective informants," as we might expect today.{3} The parties involved "serve both as witnesses and as advocates," Trites says. "It is the task of the witnesses not only to attest the facts but also to convince the opposite side of the truth of them (Isaiah 41:21-4, 26; 43:9; 51:22; cf. Gen. 38:24-6)."{4}
Especially notable in the Old Testament is the controversy between Yahweh and the pagan gods, represented by the other nations, recorded in Isaiah chapters 40-55. "The debate is over the claims of Yahweh as Creator, the only true God and the Lord of history (40:25-31; 44:6-8; 45:8-11, 21)," says Trites.{5} Yahweh brings charges and calls the nations to present their witnesses, and then calls Israel to be His witness. A representative passage, which I'll leave you to look up for yourself, is Isa. 43:9-12.
Since the other nations have nothing to support their case on behalf of their gods, they lose by default. By contrast, Israel has witnessed the work and character of Yahweh.
The New Testament: John and Luke
As I continue to set the context for understanding 1 Peter 3:15, I turn now to look at defense in the New Testament.
The apostles had a special role to fulfill in the proclamation of the gospel because they were eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus' life. Trites says that they "were to be Christ's advocates, serving in much the same way that the witnesses for the defendant served in the Old Testament legal assembly."{6} Beyond giving the facts, they announced that Jesus is Lord of all and God's appointed judge, and they called people to believe (see Acts 10:36; cf. 2:36-40; 20:21).{7}
I spoke above about the controversy recorded in Isaiah 40-55 between Yahweh and the nations and their gods. This "lawsuit" continues in the Gospels in the conflict between Jesus and the Jews. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes, "It is this lawsuit that the Gospel of John sees taking place in the history of Jesus, as the one true God demonstrates His deity in controversy with the claims of the world."{8} Multiple witnesses are brought forth in John's Gospel. In chapter 5 alone Jesus names His own works, John the Baptist, God the Father, and the Old Testament. And there are others, for example the Samaritan woman in chapter 4, and the crowd who witnessed the raising of Lazarus in chapter 12.
This witness extends beyond simply stating the facts. As in the Old Testament, testimony is intended to convince listeners to believe. The purpose of John's Gospel was to lead people to belief in Christ (20:30-31).
The concept of witness is important for Luke as well; obviously so in the book of Acts, but also in his Gospel. In Luke 24 we read where Jesus told His disciples, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high" (24:45-49). Here we have a set of events, a group of witnesses, and the empowerment of the Spirit.
The New Testament: Luke and Paul
It was a dangerous thing to be a Christian in the first century, just as it is in some parts of the world today. Jesus warned His disciples, "they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons." Listen to what He says next: "This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer" (Lk. 21:12-14). "How to answer" is the word apologia, the one Peter uses for "make a defense" in 1 Peter 3:15.
It's important to keep the central point of this passage in Luke in view. What Jesus desired first of all were faithful witnesses. The apostles would face hostility as He did, and when challenged to explain themselves they were not to fear men but God, to confess Christ and not deny Him. This warning is echoed in 1 Peter 3:14-15. Jesus' disciples would be called upon to defend their actions or their teachings, but their main purpose was to speak on behalf of Christ. Furthermore, they shouldn't be anxious about what they would say, for the Spirit would give them the words (Lk. 12:12; 21:15). This isn't to say they shouldn't learn anything; Jesus spent a lot of time teaching His followers. It simply means that the Spirit would take such opportunities to deliver the message He wanted to deliver.
Witness and defense were the theme of Paul's ministry. He said that Jesus appointed him to be a witness for Christ (Acts 22:15; 26:16; see also 23:11). As he traveled about, preaching the gospel, he was called upon to defend himself before the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 22 and 23), before the governor, Felix, in Caesarea (chap. 24), and before King Agrippa (chap. 26).
Toward the end of his life when he was imprisoned in Rome, Paul told the church in Philippi, "I am put here for the defense of the gospel (1:16; cf. v.7). That claim is in the middle of a paragraph about preaching Christ (Phil. 1:15-18).
In obedience to Jesus, Paul was faithful to confess and not deny. Although he was called upon to defend himself or his actions, he almost always turned the opportunity into a defense and proclamation of the gospel.
1 Peter
Finally I come to 1 Peter 3:15. What is the significance of what I've said about the trial motif in Scripture for this verse?
A key theme in 1 Peter is a proper response to persecution. Christians were starting to suffer for their faith (3:8-4:2). Peter encouraged them to stand firm as our Savior did who himself "suffered in the flesh," as Peter wrote (4:1).
After exhorting his readers to "turn away from evil and do good" (1 Pet. 3:11), Peter says,
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (3:13-16).
The main point of this passage is faithfulness: faithfulness in righteous living, and faithfulness in honoring Christ and speaking up when challenged.
So how does the idea of witness fit in here? I submit that Peter would have remembered Jesus' instructions to turn demands for a defense into opportunities to bear witness. Remember Luke 21:13? Peter did this himself. When he and John were called before Caiaphas, as we read in Acts 4 and 5, rather than deny Jesus as he did when Jesus was on trial (Mk. 14:66-72), Peter faithfully proclaimed Christ not once but twice. The second time he said, "We must obey God rather than men," and then he laid out the gospel message (Acts 5:27-32; see also 4:5-22).
Sometimes I hear apologists talking about how to put apologetics and evangelism together. While there may be a conceptual distinction between the two, they are both aspects of the one big task of bearing witness for Jesus. The trajectory of our engagement with unbelief ought always to be the proclamation of the gospel even if we can't always get there. As Paul said in 1 Cor. 2:5, our faith rests properly in Christ and the message of the cross, not in the strength of an argument.
Defense and witness are the responsibility of all of us. If that seems rather scary, remember that we're promised, in Luke 12:12, the enabling of the Spirit to give us the words we need.
Notes
1. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 389.
2. See for example James K. Beilby, Thinking About Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 20.
3. Allison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977), 21.
4. Ibid., 46.
5. Ibid., 45.
6. Ibid., 139.
7. Ibid., 133.
8. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 387.
© 2013 Probe Ministries
About the Author
Rick WadeRick Wade holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries in February 1997, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at rwade@probe.org.
What is Probe?
Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.
Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:
Probe Ministries
2001 W. Plano Parkway, Suite 2000
Plano TX 75075
(972) 941-4565
info@probe.org
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