Around six centuries before Christ, four Hebrew slaves – Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah – did not shy away from declaring the truth of God before the polytheistic despot Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 1:7; 2:20, 28, 37, 44, 45; 3:17). The Babylonian king acknowledged Jehovah as the God of Daniel and his fellow captives (2:47; 3:26, 28, 29), but did the king himself ever embrace their monotheistic faith? His last recorded words are as follows: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down” (4:37, NKJV). Even though Nebuchadnezzar regarded the God of the Hebrews as “the Most High God” (3:26; 4:2, 17, 34, 37), this may have been nothing more than recognizing Jehovah as the Chief among the gods (cf. 2:47) without necessarily abandoning the Babylonian pantheon (cf. 3:12, 14).1 Whether or not the monarch ever fully accepted the truth about his Creator, the point is, he was given ample opportunity to believe and obey, thanks to four Hebrew slaves unashamed of their God whom they boldly proclaimed.
EVANGELISM: THE ACTS OF WHOM?
The English word “evangelism” is derived from the Greek noun euaggelion (“good news”) and the corresponding verb euaggelizō (“proclaim good news”). The Lord’s disciples were commissioned to announce the good news (“preach the gospel”) to the entire world (Mark 13:10; 16:15), and the book of Acts records the first thirty-two years of the great commission being carried out. Traditionally this history of missions document has been labeled “Acts of the Apostles,” so what were the “acts” of these apostles?
The noun euaggelion occurs only twice in Acts (15:7; 20:24), while the verb euaggelizō is employed fifteen times (5:42; 8:4, 12, 25, 35, 40; 10:36; 11:20; 13:32; 14:7, 15, 21; 15:35; 16:10; 17:18).2 What did these evangelistic acts entail? Here is a good summary statement from the apostles themselves: “but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6:4). Note that “the ministry of the word,” while absolutely essential, is not the sum total of the necessary acts. Do not overlook the fact that our evangelism textbook is also replete with allusions to prayer (1:14, 24; 2:42; 3:1; 4:24, 31; 6:4, 6; 8:15, 22, 24; 9:11, 40; 10:2, 4, 9, 30, 31, 46; 11:5, 18; 12:5, 12; 13:3; 14:23; 16:13, 16, 25; 20:36; 21:5; 22:17; 27:29, 35; 28:8, 15). Apparently our first-century brethren understood the evangelistic enterprise as God’s work, persistently inviting him to participate in it and soliciting his help.
While the apostles initiated the diffusion of the gospel, the book we call “Acts of the Apostles” does not recount all the acts of all the apostles, and a number of the documented acts were not performed by any of the apostles (e.g. Acts 6:8–8:40; 11:19-24). Seeing that the Holy Spirit is mentioned an impressive fifty-seven times, it has been suggested that maybe “Acts of the Holy Spirit” is a more fitting title. However, Jesus Christ is referenced seventy-six times, and when people were genuinely guided by the Spirit, they didn’t talk about the Spirit as much as they talked about Jesus Christ! And what did Jesus Christ talk about? Throughout the recorded history of his ministry, he spent most of his time talking about God the Father. The book of Acts takes up where he left off, mentioning God over 150 times! Perhaps a more accurate description of this book is “the Acts of God.”
THE MESSAGE OF EVANGELISM
Sometimes we can be a little too quick to rattle off the steps of the gospel plan of salvation: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. But let’s be careful not to oversimplify something as important and eternally consequential as what the Lord requires of those estranged from him. It is not, nor has it ever been, a one-size-fits-all approach. What exactly is to be heard and believed before further steps of obedience can be taken? It is a mistake to presume that if one learns what people were taught in any given conversion story in the book of Acts, then he/she necessarily knows enough to fully obey the gospel. The fallacy of this reasoning is twofold.
First, the Acts narrative is not an intricately detailed report of all that was said and done in each recorded event. In fact, thirty-two years of history have been compacted into only twenty-eight chapters. Note, for example, that the Pentecost-day sermon, which led to the conversions of about 3,000 souls, is boiled down to merely twenty-six verses (which can be read or quoted in less than two-and-a-half minutes!). These verses do not contain the sum total of the inspired message, as Luke informs his readers that there were “many other words” left unrecorded (Acts 2:40).
Second, not every convert was at the same place in his/her spiritual journey when the gospel message was first encountered. As the Jews in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost and the pagan jailer in Philippi respectively asked what they needed to do (Acts 2:37; 16:30), they were given different answers because they were at different places on their way to God. In the end they all learned and obeyed the same set of divine instructions, but the starting point was different in each case.
By limiting our focus to the individual conversion accounts, we might wonder why baptism is mentioned in chapter 2 but not in chapter 3, or why repentance is emphasized in chapter 3 but not in chapter 8. But if we can appreciate that Luke, with the limited space of a single papyrus scroll, has given selective highlights rather than comprehensive details, we will want to view his record as a whole and consider the collectivity of information in order to get the full picture.
THE FOUNDATON OF EVANGELISM
In every conversion story in the book of Acts, the starting point is God. As the gospel was communicated in Acts 2–9, the respective audiences were comprised of devout Jews and proselytes who already had a strong monotheistic faith. When the gospel was introduced to the first Gentile converts, they were already God-fearers (Acts 10-11). On all of these occasions, the foundation had been laid long before the Lord’s disciples arrived on the scene. As outreach efforts were then focused on pagan Gentiles, the customary recounting of Jewish history or quoting the Hebrew Bible or assuming an established faith in God was not implemented. These evangelistic endeavors instead sought to lay the fundamental foundation of “the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them” (see Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-31; cf. 24:14-16; 27:22-25, 35).
By examining all the conversion accounts in the book of Acts and harmonizing the teachings, the overall message is clear. It begins with the same basic message that Daniel and his friends proclaimed in Babylon: the one true and living God, the creator and sustainer of all things, who has worked through history to bring about his redemptive plan. God’s ultimate purpose has been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit and divinely attested by miracles, wonders, and signs. He is the Christ, the Son of God, who died by crucifixion, rose from the dead after burial, and is now exalted to the Father’s right hand where he reigns with all authority over God’s spiritual kingdom, the church.
To Jesus Christ complete loyalty is to be given: calling on his name (reliance) by trusting in him (faith), acknowledging him as Lord (confession), turning away from sinful living (repentance), and being immersed in water (baptism) to have past sins forgiven by his blood. This enables salvation within God’s kingdom – the church, the community of the saved – where righteousness is practiced and eternal life promised in view of the coming judgment. Discipleship also involves continuing in the faith and proclaiming God’s saving message to the rest of the world.
Most 21st-century North Americans still believe in God, with varying degrees of certainty. However, the number of unbelievers continues to rise, especially among Millennials.3 The second largest religious group in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and most of Europe is “no religion,” soon to become the majority in several countries.4 Whether atheistic, agnostic, or apathetic, we are increasingly faced with opportunities to share our faith with those who do not already have a foundational belief in God. Where do we begin?
Paul began with the origin of life (Acts 14:15; 17:24-25). Within the natural world as we know it, something does not come from nothing. The cosmos had a beginning, seeing that it is running out of usable energy and moving toward disorder. Everything that comes to be (an effect) must have an adequate cause outside itself and superior to itself. Lifeless matter does not generate life, unconscious matter does not produce consciousness, nonintelligent matter does not yield intelligence, and amoral matter does not create morality. Moreover, the consistent, complex, functional design (characteristic of our universe) does not happen by accident; where there is design, according to all that is known about how the world operates, there must be a designer. The evidence points beyond the natural world – to the supernatural (outside of and superior to nature). The Source of the universe has to be outside of time, space, matter, and finite energy, and therefore beyond the reach of scientific investigation.
Seeing that humans are intelligent, purposeful beings, it is reasonable to suspect that the Ultimate Cause of this universe has intelligence and purpose. Since no human is omniscient, there are things we cannot know unless we are told. Faith is not only the step taken toward accepting there is a God, which is the logical step, but also the step taken toward actively seeking to know God. Perhaps the greatest obstacles humans face in finding him are honesty about our limitations, humility, and the willingness and determination to seek him on his terms rather than our own.
“The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, To see if there are any who understand, who seek God” (Psalm 14:2). Apparently the Grand Designer of the universe is seeking those who seek him. For anyone who sincerely desires to know him, he will provide a way, and this more often than not involves a connection with the people of God. May we be diligent, not only in seeking him ourselves, but in proclaiming his message to a world that is lost and dying without him. May we stand with Daniel, courageously announcing the foundational truth, “But there is a God in heaven …. the Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (Dan. 2:28; 4:32).
-- Kevin L. Moore
1 When Nebuchadnezzar said “the appearance” [wə-rê-wêh] of the fourth person in the furnace “is like” [dā-mêh] “a son” [lə-ḇar-] “of gods” [’ĕ-lā-hîn] (Dan. 3:25), it is highly unlikely that the pagan king had any concept of “the Son of God” (N/KJV) in the NT sense. The pre-incarnate Christ would not be manifested as the Son of God for another six centuries. Nebuchadnezzar was simply trying to explain what he saw as “a divine being” (ISV), perhaps an “angel” (3:28). Elsewhere in the book of Daniel the same terminology is used with reference to pagan “gods” (2:11, 47; 5:11b; cf. most translations of 4:8, 9, 18; 5:11a, 14).
2 Comparable expressions are also used, like kataggélō (“declare,” “preach”) in Acts 4:2b; 13:5, 38; 15:36; 16:17; 17:3, 13; 26:23, and didáskō (“teach”) in 4:2a, 18; 5:21, 25, 28, 42; 11:26; 15:35; 18:11, 25; 20:20; 28:31.
3 Michael Lipka, “Americas faith in God may be eroding,” Pew Research Center (4 Nov. 2015), <Link>. Around 70% of those 65 and older profess absolute certainty in God’s existence, while only 51% of adults under 30 do.
4 Gabe Bullard, “The World’s Newest Major Religion: No Religion,” National Geographic (22 April 2016), <Link>.
*Prepared for the 2017 FHU Lectureship.
Image credit: http://www.thesixthempire.com/daniel-2-nebuchadnezzars-dream/