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It is very encouraging that apologetics is becoming so interesting to the church again. Apologetics means to give a defense or provide a vindication or explanation. We are giving a reason for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). Therefore, we are defending the faith, but we are doing so for a redemptive purpose. Barnabas does this in this passage. 

 

In preparation for a funeral I was to preach yesterday, I was studying Psalm 23 and, in particular, Phillip Keller's book on Psalm 23 called A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. It's a beautiful little book. Keller grew up as a shepherd in East Africa with his family and then became a shepherd himself in the United States. Eventually, he became a pastor and wrote this book about what he learned as a herder of sheep. In his chapter on the verse "he prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies" Keller says that he imagines that David was thinking of himself as a shepherd and the task shepherds have of preparing fields for the sheep to graze in. Keller says that there were times when he would have to spend whole summers preparing a pasture for the sheep, removing all of the poisonous plants because there were certain plants that had a toxin that would paralyze young lambs. 

 

I want to suggest that the work of apologetics is like that. Our tendency may be to think that apologetics is only the contention of the faith, or the defending of the faith against our enemies. Therefore, we tend to think of it as winning arguments. But the focus of apologetics is not so much winning arguments as it is winning souls. In order to do so, we must, like the shepherd, remove all of the perversions that would lead people astray. And this is not just for unbelievers but also for young believers. 

 

So where do we see apologetics in this text? It is through the work that Barnabas did with these young believers in Antioch. Barnabas was sent to Antioch not because they were afraid they were getting away with something there, but because they did not want them to live according to a false doctrine that would lead them astray. It is out of love that Barnabas goes ahead of them to "clear the pasture" for these new believers. Barnabas is so zealous for this work that he brings Saul with him and they spend a whole year as apologetes among these young believers. 

In his book The Battle is the Lord’s, Scot Oliphint shows that a biblical apologist does the following things, things any one of you may do:

 

1. The Battle is the Lord's

This idea comes from 2 Chronicles 20:15 where Jehoshaphat is called to defend the children of Israel against Moab and Ammon. The Lord tells Jehoshaphat that he is going to fight the battle for him. Here is the strategy the Lord gives him. First, he tells Jehoshaphat to gather his choir and send them. Stand on the hillside and sing to your enemies and watch me fight the battle, the Lord said. The Israelites sang their confidence in the Lord and the Lord turned their enemies on one another. 

 

The first thing you need to be convinced of when you are in a conversation about the gospel with an unbeliever is that the battle has already been won by the Lord. You may fumble; you may not have all of the arguments; they may technically "beat you" if you were in an organized debate; but the battle is the Lord's. The truth of the faith is on your side. He has already won, so you enter with the confidence of the Lord. More is going to be done than meets the eye. Your responsibility is to show up and to give an account of your faith, however simply or faltering it may be. You can do it in the confidence that the propagation of the faith does not rest on your shoulders, the battle belongs to the Lord. 

 

On the other hand, you could have the best arguments possible and still not change their mind. It will take the sovereign Holy Spirit changing their heart to bring them to faith. You are simply the incarnation of Christ in their presence and the Lord speaks through you.  

 

2. Learn Your Bible

It is good to read Christian books, commentaries, and blogs but there is no substitute for reading the Bible yourself. God also has a way of causing you to read that which you need for that day or in days to come. You can also get someone to help you learn as you read the Bible. You can go through a Bible study or a devotional program that will take you through the sweep of the Bible. That is, helping to put the Bible before you in a way that enables you to understand how it all fits together. 

 

In Romans 12:1-2 Paul says, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

 

So how is our mind renewed? Our mind is renewed by the scriptures. The scriptures contain the mind of God, so as we read them, our minds are changed and caused to think thoughts after him. We are retrained to love what he loves and as our minds are renewed, then we are able to "discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." As your mind is more and more renewed, you will more and more conclude that the will of God in all things is "good and acceptable and perfect." We must be anchored in scripture, which teaches us the will of God. The predominant sentiment in our culture is that the will of God is not good and acceptable and perfect, so if we are not grounded in an understanding of scripture, we will easily be swept along by any train of through presented to us. 

 

3. Be Nice

By niceness or kindness I mean that we are not only kind to the people we are dealing with but also that we present our God reverentially. It's very possible to win an argument and give a very poor impression of who God is. You can say true things with a mean tone. I once received a letter from a mother who was a member of the church where I was pastoring and was helping her daughter in another city. She wrote back and said "Pastor 'so-and-so' preached this morning and said that God loves us, but he was so angry I was prone not to believe him. He was in a bad mood." Moses was disciplined severely. The people challenged him and the Lord said strike the rock and I will bring water from it. Moses went in front of the people and struck the rock angrily. 

We are also to treat those with whom we contend for the faith with kindness. In 2 Timothy 4:2 Paul tells Timothy the work he is to do as an apologist. He is to "rebuke, exhort, and correct...with great patience and diligent instruction."   

 

4. Basic Understanding 

That is, we need a basic understanding of what God has done in the people with whom we speak. 

 

Romans 1:18-21, 2:15-16 are critically important for us in our work of clearing the field of what is poisonous for would-be believers. Here is what you may know before you enter into any conversation with any human being. 

 

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened...They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

 

Here is what you may know about any person you have a conversation with: they already know there is a God. They already know that God is holy. They already know that God is all-powerful. They already know that he is not happy with the way things are going on earth. And they know that there is right and wrong - they have a basic law written on their consciences. And they know that they are living out of accordance with it, therefore, they are out of accord with God. They don't know much more than this. This is general revelation that we get from the creation as well as the internal witness that is written on the conscience as those created by God. Someone can tell you that they are an atheist or an agnostic and don't believe there is a God at all, but you may know that they are fighting very strenuously against the witness that is implanted in them by God. You go into every conversation with that advantage. 

 

5. Begin to Discover Where They are Suppressing the Truth

 We read this in Romans 1:18. If you engage in relationship long enough with an unbeliever and get to know them well enough, eventually, that which they are trying to suppress will be revealed. Sometimes it is a deep wound such as a profound disappointment from the past, and they don't want to acknowledge the truth that will take away from them something that has become very comfortable. It could be a practice or a mindset or way of life that they don't want to give up. Consequently, they suppress the truth as it applies to that particular area of their life. Inevitably, it reveals itself. 

 

It's very important that when you are relating to someone who does not know Christ, the first priority you have is to love them. They are not a project or someone to lead to Christ to massage your ego. They represent an eternal soul that will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell, and because you love them, you want them to be with you in Heaven. Therefore, no matter how heated the argument gets, no matter how disrespectful they are, no matter how irreverent they are towards your faith, you love them despite it all. Hang on to them. 

 

One of my professors described the way Francis Schaffer and John Montgomery - both famous apologists -  debated a particular atheist. Montgomery was highly trained in debate. He could disassemble any argument and make his opponent look like an absolute fool, and he did. Schaffer was never trained formally in philosophy or debate. The advantage Schaffer had, however, was that with whoever he was talking to knew that he loved them. Many people said about Schaffer that it didn't matter if there were a thousand people all standing around, you felt like you were the only one in whole universe that he was aware of. Though this atheist never professed Christ, he loved Francis Schaffer because he knew Schaffer loved him. 

 

6. Build a Case

 As you expose that suppression of the truth, build a case against their logical inconsistencies. Look back to Romans 2:14: "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law." In other words, people who deny that they have a conscience, deny there is such a thing as right or wrong, deny there is a God with whom they have to do business, or who insist that there is no truth and everyone can determine that everyone is to live their own way, never live consistently by that worldview. 

 

One particular man with whom I was meeting was arguing that absolute truth is a lie. So I presented him with this dilemma: "If your daughter were to walk into this room, and my conviction was that little girls didn't belong in this room, so I threw her out the window to her death, would you then be able to affirm that there is no absolute truth or concept of right or wrong? He had no answer. 

 

People need to see the failures, inconsistencies, and toxicity of their own worldview so they can embrace the gospel. 

 

7. Believe

We are to call those with whom we are sharing to believe. This is distinguished from calling them to understand everything or even to agree with every point we make. Here is how simply Paul puts it in Romans 10:9: "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." 

 

He doesn't say anything about how many sins you must confess, the virgin birth, the infallibility of scripture, creation or evolution. Those things all matter and are a part of discipleship. But what we are calling people to initially is to run into the arms of Jesus and to take him, because in him is everything. 

 

There were a lot of post-doctoral Chinese students who would come to Augusta every year to study or do further research. Our church had the privilege of leading a number of them to Christ. What was interesting about those Chinese students is that they all insisted on reading the entire Bible before they would ever consider Christianity seriously. Often, they would read the whole Bible, and they would still not want to embrace Christ because they had more questions. 

The wife of one of these students who was herself a philosopher came up to speak with me. She had been in a church in New York pastored by a student of mine. He had pastored her for a while and she had asked questions of him while admitting that she was not a believer. She came up to me and said "Pastor, I have it! I have been trying to fit Jesus into philosophy and now I understand that all philosophy fits into Jesus. Jesus is the one who I have to embrace. I must let go of my philosophy and embrace Jesus, who keeps all his promises, and he will explain the rest to me in due time." 

 

I was with a friend of mine recently and we were talking about a mutual friend of ours who for many years has rejected the gospel. He is a very intelligent man. My friend told me about a time years ago when he was with this man and one of his friends. They were formidable foes of the faith. They were intelligent and well-schooled. They got into argument with him because he professed Christ, and they were tearing his arguments to pieces. All he could do, he said, was tell them what I knew about Jesus and his word. All I could do was share my testimony he said. Later, he wrote them each a letter and sent them a book that had been helpful to him in making the case for Christ and he prayed. He lamented that he had not done or said more to convince them. What I knew that he didn't was that our friend had given his life to Christ. When I told him, he burst into tears in disbelief. He did what he was supposed to do and the Spirit took what he had done and conquered that man with it. Each of us can do this. The Holy Spirit is able to conquer the most resistant of hearts, even with our, at times, weak arguments.